Saturday, April 3, 2010

"I swear never to make a baby quilt"

Elena wrote a comment to my last post and said, “You're not in the group of artists who'd swear never to make a baby quilt. Care to share your thoughts on that?”

I understand how some people might swear never to make a commission quilt that has to match the sofa, but what is so awful about a baby quilt??  It's small, it's fast, you can make it out of your stash, it's going to be USED and it's probably going to be kept.  It will probably be the first work of art in the child's life.  And I think every baby deserves to have something that's his own, that's special, that doesn't have to be shared with everybody else in the family.  Maybe that's why I love to put the baby's name on the quilt.

Some artists may think it's beneath their dignity to make a functional quilt, especially one that might well get peed or chewed or spit up on or put on the floor. But I think that those of us who choose to make our art in the form of quilts must have some visceral connection with traditional quilts (i.e. functional quilts), else why choose this under-respected niche of the art world in which to operate? If you don’t love something about the traditional quilt format, then why not make your art as paintings, or sculpture, or lithographs, or collage, or photos?

Maybe all artists who make non-functional, non-traditional quilts ought to be required to make one functional quilt every year or so, as a ritual obeisance to our roots. When you make a functional quilt, for instance, you are reminded why you quilt densely, why you put a strong binding on, all those conventions that you no longer have to do, but once upon a time all quiltmakers had to do. We can choose, in the name of art, to make a quilt with no binding at all, or make a quilt from tea bags or bread wrappers or Coke cans, or leave thread ends wafting in the breeze, but our foremothers had no such choices, and perhaps we should regularly be reminded of why and how they made their work, why and how they developed the traditions that we so blithely flout.

I don’t make bed quilts for big beds, because I don’t have enough time. On the rare occasions when I am confronted with a wedding, I make a wall quilt if anything.  I’ve actually made only two quilts in my life for grown-up beds (and one of them, my first quilt, is currently taken apart, awaiting reconstruction, because I did such a lousy job of making it in the first place).

But I have made many smaller quilts that, yes, people actually pull over their bodies to get warm.  And I make baby quilts whenever I have the opportunity. When I do, I’m moving temporarily into a different world, a thankfully bygone world, where women got to show their artistry only within very limited areas, where making quilts was esteemed only insofar as the quilts were useful. It reminds me of where we started, and how far we have come, and it’s good to be reminded every now and then.


  1. Loved your post. Personally, I can't get past the functional aspect - and therein lies personal challenge for me - to make what is beautiful and can still be spit up on and chewed, is warm, can be washed...My prairie/poverty roots can't be overcome yet -but perhaps that's where some aspect of artistic challenge lies - in the confines of practicality, and in sending a baby quilt, like a child, off into the world as well equiped to survive as possible.

  2. I hadn't realised that many artists object to making something functional. Personally I think art can (should?) be beautiful and functional. I make small art cloths - not quite quilts, but similar - which are meant to be art, and are meant to be handled. They might eventually get fingerprints and coffee stains on them, but that makes the cloth belong to the person - it becomes part of their life and bears their marks. I'd have no hesitation in making baby quilts if I knew any babies!

  3. You said, "It will probably be the first work of art in the child's life."
    I love that thought. It is inspring.