Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Not my grandmother's quilts?

Not my grandmother's quilts!!!  I beg to disagree. Recently there was a debate on the Studio Art Quilt forum about the traditions of quilt making. Some felt that the continued reference to tradition keeps contemporary art quilts from being considered art. Some even suggested that we drop the word "quilts" and call the pieces "fiber art". Can you believe that?

This is a bit of a long story about one quilt and why I personally will never forget the quilts of my grandmother and especially one particular quilt--here is part of it.

Now before I continue I must tell you a bit about MY granny as I remember her. She was a spry woman--tiny--I don't think she ever weighed more than 100 pounds. Her hair always neatly in a bun. Outside she waged a constant battle with the dandelions. Inside she read and re-read her books--Reader's Digest, books she had sent away for. Little notes in tiny handwriting--always in pencil--"read in 1952-took 3 days-not worth it", "re-read in 1956-still took 3 days--still not worth it". She even annotated her Bible.

But the story started long before that. When she was 7 her father died leaving her mother to support two daughters--there were boarders, laundry for the boarders, ironing for boarders. A hard life. But she was always making sure she had enough money to send Granny to the Teacher's College and her sister to Nursing School. Aunt Jo liked being a nurse. Granny did not like being a teacher. When she met Grandpops, she thought that he was her way out-- he was so silent he must be very smart. Alas he just had nothing to say.

Grandpops had a farm west of town so that's where she went. Life there must have been tough for her. Money was tight.  She took a job at the local high school to keep the farm during the Great  Depression--driving the old black Ford six miles into town every day.  In the winter, the road wasn't plowed--you just followed the ruts left by the other cars--all cars were the same size back then anyway. But I digress.  At home there were more hired hands to feed. Sausage to can. Soap to be made. Dill pickles to be preserved.

But there were also her quilts. The log cabin quilts made of my dad's old wool pants--they added warmth to the beds. These were made upstairs on the treadle sewing machine looking across the fields to the river. Even the hired help got a couple of these quilts.  Then there were the quilts to cover the beds. To be carefully folded each night before going to bed. Made from feed sack cloth in wonderful flowery designs. She had the double wedding ring, Grandpops had one with sunflowers.

Now back then the newspaper published a different quilt pattern each week. She carefully clipped out these patterns and stuck them into a large manilla envelope. Not that she would waste her good money and time making someone else's design.  No, this was just for inspiration.  

So when she decided to make a quilt for the CLOSET of the guest bedroom--the quilt that would be one of her crowning achievements-- of course she had to make her own design. On the eastern half of the farm, the pasture was a virgin oak forest--I remember seeing the path that was cut when they used to drive herds of cattle through into Chicago. Large wonderful friendly Burr Oaks.

Of course the design would be an oak leaf. She must have traced and retraced the design for the leafs and the acorns until it was just right.

Look at all the curves she had to cut. So many intricate designs. For this quilt she bought fabric--just the right shades of browns and tans--this quilt deserved better than feed sack cloth. And she painstakingly appliqued the leaves and acorns in her tiny stitches. Even the border had an intricate matching design.

I'm sure she took the quilt to the local quilting bee--she had to--they were her in-laws. But then she would come home and pick out stitches that were too big. Look at the detail. Even the quilting design had circles of acorns. When needed she added not one but two rows of stitches for emphasis.

 She made other quilts after that but this is the one I remember most. Occasionally she would take me up to the guest bedroom--walk into the big closet there--and carefully unwrap the quilt so that I could admire it again and again.

Now the farm has long ago been sold. Her house has been torn down. The furniture in the guest bedroom is in my guest bedroom. I  have the oak leaf quilt--still folded. Still too good to be used.
We can debate if the quilt is art or fine craft--but it remains in many ways the ultimate statement of her quest for beauty and order. In my opinion my quilts and even my life are influenced by the traditions of my grandmother. I know I can't forget my grandmother and the traditions she taught me. Every time I make the back of one of my quilts, I am honoring her. What about you? What traditions do you have? What do you think? 



  1. I would agree that there are times when the "art quilt" title works, but for so many of us, this no longer works to describe the work we do. Especially, if you want to get into fine art shows.

  2. I believe that all quilts are art. I know, some may say, what about those horrid things made of double knit polyester? Well, if someone's heart and sole has been put into it, it is art.
    I am saddened by the need to separate quilters into 'crafters' and artists. Perhaps it is art if you design the quilt and create it and craft if you follow someone else's design.
    I am interested in making, well everything, but comfy practical beautiful quilts for every day use and art quilts that hang on a wall and inspire. Perhaps when I am a little more experienced in the ''art'' world, it will matter more to me or I will take a different stance. For now, I believe quilts in any form are art.

  3. I enjoyed your story about your grandmother's beautiful quilt. I have a beautiful quilt, never used, made by my great-grandmother. It is a thing of great beauty and I love having it, but I do not consider it art. That is not saying it is something "less" than art, or something more. It is just something different from art. I agree with Gerrie that the word "quilt" limits the perception of our work and equates it with bed coverings, which it just simply is not. Kunnerup's comment is so like what I hear and read so often and seems to me to misunderstand that "art" does not necessarily mean better, it just means that the piece was made with the intention of communicating as art, not as a decorative or useful covering for a bed.

  4. I am not a quilter, or even a sewer...if I or anyone were to make a quilt by cutting up squares of cloth, sewing them together and sewing a back on it and called it a quilt, then I would not call that art. But, if one thinks about the "quilt", plans it, studies the landscape or nature or something else, studies the colors, has inspirations coming from ones surroundings and incorporates it into the "quilt" and creates a thing of beauty, then I think it is "art".

  5. What a great story! How wonderful that you have the details, even down to what she saw as she worked on her quilts. The question of what is art is always such a huge can of worms and ultimately, boils down to subjective ideas of what has been crafted. Like how I used the two words in one sentence? I think we have these problems because the word "craft" has come to mean something different than it did even 50 years ago. Craft should continue to refer to the knowledge of how to do something: the craft of writing, well-crafted cakes, the craftsmanship of doctoring....

    Then, art happens when there is a process with the muse. It has to be created by the spirit. So, something made from a kit or that follows a pattern is not art, although a pattern might have creative choices of color or have deviations that personalize it for the maker.

    The term "art quilts" is important because it states upfront that this piece has a front and back and batting. It also means that it probably won't fit on a bed and will probably look its best on a wall. The rest is up for grabs, right? I don't know why people get so worked up about these things because both offer wonderful stories, insights, reflections and aesthetics chosen by the maker. We do need separate categories for things because if there are going to be prizes, then there has to be criteria and it would be too hard to have the same rules for traditional and contemporary quilts.

    Above all, the hope is that there is passion for the process and that each of us can make that time in the day to cut, fold, sew and be a story for some future generation...

  6. I love this story and your way of thinking of your grandmother when you work. I'm the same way in the kitchen. And I LOVE the word "quilt" for what you do.......

  7. I just wrote a long comment about this lovely piece and it disappeared when I tried to 'Post It' so sad.

    Dorset England

  8. What--what a wonderful range of comments--I love it--and do hope that Justine can find--somewhere in computer-land--the long comment that she wrote.

    What do I think? I think that not all quilts are art--but that some are and that if we do not acknowledge the traditions handed down to us, then why are we quiltmakers?

    That being said--I could care less what one calls one's work if it gets into shows. My quilts are not eligible for certain shows because I don't quilt on top of the pieces.

    Do continue the wonderful comments!!

  9. Ann,
    I am a sewer , a knitter and a quilter. But nothing I have done compares to your grandmother's quilt.It is a masterpiece of design and stitching. Quilting is art in its self. The artist who decries quilting as being a craft has never slept under a handmade quilt I bet.

  10. Thanks for your comment. I agree that quilting--just like gardening is an art. I hope you treasure the quilts that you make.