Thursday, October 20, 2011

A step backwards?

OK, Modern Quilters, you win.

You take pictures of your quilts any way you want. Drape them over the furniture, hang them on trees, drag them behind the pickup truck, line the cat’s litter box with them. Put the photos on your blogs and I promise not to care.

Except that I feel sad, that perhaps we’re taking a step backwards.

For centuries, women functioned as nameless production units who might have spent years making beautiful quilts or lace or crocheted tablecloths, yet their gorgeous work was denigrated and disrespected. Towards the end of the last century, a timely combination of feminist awareness and broadened sensibilities in the art world changed that attitude.

Quilt projects in many states encouraged ordinary people to haul quilts out of the attic and being them in to be identified, documented and appreciated. Scholarship put names to many of the beautiful pieces that had been anonymous. And the rise of the quilting industry supported millions of people who fell in love with a dying craft and decided to embrace and revitalize it.  (Including you, Modern Quilters, who wouldn't be having half so much fun without your rotary cutters, designer fabric lines, fancy sewing machines, workshops, books, magazines, TV shows, blogs and podcasts about quilting.)

Many of us who loved quilts were delighted at these developments.  We saw our favorite things and, by extension, ourselves, given new respect, new value.  You could announce in mixed company that you made quilts and men might even be impressed!  You might even be able to make money at it! 
A small minority of those enthusiasts took quilting to a new plateau, aspiring to be seen as artists rather than or in addition to craftsmen. Although quilts are now seen in museums and galleries, and a considerable number of venues such as Quilt National are available for such work to be exhibited, it’s a continuing struggle for these artists to be taken seriously.

It’s not only the would-be artists who struggle to be respected; quilters who want only to make nice things for their families to use often find themselves misunderstood and undervalued. Every flea market in the land offers painstakingly handstitched tablecloths, handkerchiefs and tea towels that took some woman hundreds of hours to make – and now not one of her descendents can be bothered to even keep them in a drawer let alone use and treasure them. Every few months the Quiltart list has a new round of letters from people who made beautiful gifts for their alleged loved ones but got neither gratitude nor understanding in return, or from people who want to sell their work but can't net more than five cents an hour because buyers don't see it as valuable.

I think it’s sad that the somewhat higher ground, won by a lot of people through hard and lengthy struggle, is now being conceded without a qualm. If somebody wants to make work for her home rather than for the art quilt show, that’s fine, and I know that there are a lot more people out there like that than the reverse. But if that person publicly maintains that all quilts should be functional, that it’s boring and silly to hang a quilt on the wall, that it’s rude to suggest that a museum ought to treat work on display with respect, then she’s trying to drag the rest of us back down to the bad old days.

Perhaps some of this is generational.  Those who weren't there to see the important breakthroughs, such as the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, or on a lesser level, the elevation of women's traditional craft to higher degrees of importance, don't always appreciate those accomplishments.  Instead, they take them for granted.

What do you think?


  1. There's always been a divide between quilters who do it for the art and craft, and those who are making a lovely, functional item for their home. Each seems threatened by the other, for reasons I can't fathom. It seems to stir the same emotions as Joann's vs. quilt shop fabric.

    I like seeing the whole quilt, too, because I want to see how the quilter worked out the borders and corners, and I like to see details. But it's really not my call or yours how someone displays or photographs it. If I get too frustrated I look at something else.

    I don't think it denigrates the craft at all. Those who want to elevate quilting as an art form need to make their breakthrough outside of the quilting world, in galleries and museums.

    Janet A.

  2. I think this post is a better representation of what you think and feel. And I agree.

    When I first ventured into quilting it was to make something for my babies (1969) and quilting had been closed and shuttered for awhile. Everyone young had stopped being interested. Then we were. And like baby boomers everywhere, we wanted "stuff" for our new love, quilting.

    Now we have fabric, tools, shows, books, videos, blogs etc etc. We have so much stuff. And now we also have border disputes. Functional, traditional. art and now modern. I stopped going to my quilt chapter meetings because what I was doing disgusted over 50% of the members. And not always the older more tradition based of them who accepted change more gracefully. I couldn't actually show anything for show and tell.

    This discussion of modern quilting is making me remember those sad days. I felt terrible that people didn't even want to see my work. I felt terrible that I loved something so much and had to keep it all to myself. This isn't what art or quilting should be about.

    That would be harassment and discrimination.

    I always think back to the pioneer women on the prairies, stitching what few scraps of cotton or wool that they had, by the light from the home fire with the one needle they had. No design wall. And the quilts they made and the few that have survived are still extraordinary and even pass over into fine art. They were "modern" at the time they were made.

  3. Kathy - BRAVO again. This is EXACTLY the issue... that of the fight to have the art of the craft recognized. I got it in the original post, I get it still. And I very much appreciate your continuing battle and commitment to articulating the tricky line. This was never about bragging on the stats of who follows your blog - it was always about fighting the slippage back into the nameless craft abyss. Thanks for standing up for us Kathy.

  4. Dear Kathy,

    Well done!! I don't think there are any winners on this situation and we all lost something. In time, when some of the modern quilter grow in terms of their craft, they will understand your point. When they find that a museum wraps their quilts around some thing, or does not light it well enough. It will take time, but it will came.

    I still feel sad that in our time, when we have all this way to exchange ideas and images, that one cannot have an opinion; that one cannot show a bit of passion, a bit of being human and a lot of being annoyed. It is even more sad that people feel that they can be so rude just because they can hide behind anonymity. I cannot help but wonder if you said what you said in a conference if people would behave like that to your face.

    In my little on little way I will keep doing what I can to get quilters and quilts the respect they deserve.

    Thank you for the discussion and for your courage.

    Ana - UK

  5. Just to clarify - I may not agree 100%, but I'm glad you started the conversation and regret that there are many who felt the only way to deal with the issue was through personal attack.

    I read your blog because you have interesting things to say, and I look forward to not agreeing with you many more times in the future.

    Janet A.

  6. I think you really took it over the top....(rot in hell) really.....

    It seems that your friends have glossed over that comment....

  7. Kathy, you are my idol and your work and attitude a guiding light for me, ever since your visit to Iceland. Thank you for sharing these last couple of posts. If asked to take a side, I'd be on yours.

  8. Kathy, I agree that the recognition of quilting as an art has come a long way, and that those advances have been good and significant ones. What I don't understand is why you seem to want to find a battle where there isn't one, and doesn't need to be one. Art, and quilting as a medium, are not "win-lose" propositions. People enjoying the process of making and displaying traditional quilts doesn't say anything derogatory about art quilts, nor does art quilters having their work valued and hung in galleries and museums make traditional quilts any less beautiful or useful.

    Personally, what I think is the most harmful to the way people view the art quilt would is exactly this sort of condescension toward other quilters and a tone of uber-serious self importance. If the goal is to foster an understanding of the importance of the progress in having fiber art valued, In my view these sorts of posts are certainly not helpful.

    Of course, if your goal is to stir up controversy and drive traffic to your blog to boost your viewing statics, I guess you've done that.

  9. This all makes me very sad. Take sides?? Really?

    I don't know Jacquie, nor am I defending her. In fact I am not sure that there was a real issue with using her photo, in light of the fact that the work was credited to her. But apart from that, I was not comfortable with what felt like an attack on "modern" quilters, whoever that may be.

    I am a beginner quilter, and when I first started reading blogs, I learned so much! I was amazed at how people were willing to share their ideas, their creations and their techniques with all of us. At first I was very nervous that my work would be seen as amateurish and not worthy, but I found everyone to be so supportive, encouraging and accepting.

    I understand the concern about galleries hanging the quilts inappropriately, and I could accept negative comments if they were aimed at the galleries. But I also love seeing quilts hung over chairs and used in real life. We are not all "artists". Although I am in awe of the talent and artistic ability of many quilters and fabric artists, I am equally excited about seeing and sharing quilts that are meant to be worn out with use.

    You mentioned the women's lib movement. Well I lived through that, and am sometimes surprised at what young women now take for granted. But I find that sharing reasons, and stories about what I think, is more effective in making my point than attacking them for their actions.

    Everyone has a right to voice their opinion, but the abrasive tone has only served to further divide a group that should be inclusive and embracing all of us who try to express our creativity.

  10. I agree with you, too. But then I agreed with your first post. Looking at those quilts draped over who-knows-what, my first thought was a horrified 'thy're going to pop the quilting threads on those quilts!'

    I'm okay with making things for a purpose (quilt used as picnic blanket, baby quilt, lap throw, etc.). I make those, would display them on my personal blog in situ, and would have appropriate care expectations.

    However, if someone wants me to buy their quilt pattern, then I'd like to see the whole quilt, thank you. I am familiar with putting quilts on beds so I can do that amazing "imagining" thing in my head. Why would I consider buying what the designer clearly thinks is no more interesting than a wad? (That also goes for sewing and knitting patterns for that matter - show me half a sleeve and a peek of collar and I'm going to figure it's not worth looking further as it is poorly designed or the seams don't match).

    I thought it interesting that one of the fusspots on the original thread was a photographer complaining how *hard* it is to photograph a quilt. I wonder how that person thinks quilt shows are juried? How would that person feel if their photos were shown chucked in a big bin for the gallery-goers to dig through? No need to mount and frame them, it's 'too hard'.

    I was also saddened that so many people resorted to personal attacks. Not suprised though, which is also a downer in itself.

    Perhaps the 'Modern' quilters just haven't had enough experience yet with people saying "I'll give you $20 for that queen size quilt - it's really cute". They haven't yet had a chance to build enough skills yet to feel offended when someone uses their jillion hours of loving labor to wipe the dog off after a run in the lake and toss it on the grass thus "displaying it's softness". Once that happens a few times, then they will start to "get it". And perhaps then they will start respecting their own work and appreciating why it is important to respect the work of others by taking care of it.

  11. If you were trying to apologize for your earlier outburst (which I see you've edited in light of all the negative feedback you got), I think you missed the mark. Really REALLY missed it. I am personally still offended.

    I don't really think it's fair to compare one quilting style to another. This brings me back to my art history days in college. Art has evolved throughout the ages and was not always accepted by the people of that time. Art has also been heavily influenced by innovation and technology throughout the ages. Just think, artists used to painstakingly make their own pigments from plants. Now you can buy a tube of whatever you want at your local Art Supply store.

    I think this is what we're running in to in the quilt world. The art of quilting is evolving, and frankly becoming more accessible. That scares some people.

    It's ok if you don't like modern quilting. It's not ok to degrade the work of others, or be so negative about how the work is used in everyday life. If it's not what you would do, that's ok.

    It seems, based on what you've said in this post, that you're being a bit defensive and rather than focusing on what makes your quilts so special, or why your work is so valuable, you're trying to prove why other people's work is not.

    Please please please...Take a step back and look at what you're projecting to other quilters. A few tweaks in how you are wording things would go a long way in making your opinion known without alienating and criticizing others.

  12. Right on! Kathy you are amazing.
    I just left a comment on your previous post, and now I have to add.
    There are sure a lot of mean people out there, and I am not talking about you. You made your point and I thought it was a good one. I really enjoy your blog, it is so much more interesting than what a lot of others write about. Keep doing what you are doing! Don't let the mean girls get to you, some how I know they won't. Maybe there is some truth to the clique "with age comes wisdom", I know in this case it is true. Thanks again

  13. Diane and Flo's comment really resonate with me.

    First, before I comment further, is a little about who I am: I'm 51 years old so I lived through some of the battles that women fought for equal rights and I completely appreciate those battles and what we have earned re: respect for our work; I have only been quilting about 2 years and I guess, if you forced me to, I would say I probably relate more to the modern quilting movement than other aspects of quilting. That said - I don't pigeon hole myself into being a "modern quilter" anymore than I pigeon hole myself as "traditional" or making "art quilts" - really, I am just a woman who loves texture, fabrics, and enjoy the creative part of the whole quilting process. I do believe that there is a big difference between quilts made solely as "art" to hang in galleries, and those which are artful but made to USE functionally. I don't understand why using a quilt is disrespecting it. Naturally, wiping up a dirty floor with a beautiful quilt is not something I would condone, but comparing THAT to displaying a quilt draped over a chair is just silly.

    My whole take on this discussion which I have been following since your first blog post, is that these kinds of arguments serve only to divide the quilting community. There are an awful lot of generalizations being made that I find a little offensive (see Leigh's comment above where she lumps all modern quilters into a group which just "doesn't get it" and apparently has no respect for their work - come on, really? Really?). I don't see how any of this helps women or their art or anything.

    Another assumption seems to be that only WOMEN are quilting. Wrong. There are many, many men who have taken up this art/craft and so the women's movement really does not have all that much to do with the discussion.

    I have left comments on all your posts - I think they have been respectful. I don't like seeing the personal attacks against anyone (Jaquie included). To me so much of this smacks of the mean girls we all grew up with - taunting, calling names, puffing up their chests in an "I'm better than you stance."

    So that's what I think. And here is my question for you and everyone else: Why can't we acknowledge our difference without making judgements, generalizations, and taking sides? If the women's movement taught us anything, it was that women needed to COME TOGETHER toward mutual benefit.

  14. I hear what you're saying, but I'm not feeling your argument. I guess I make "modern" quilts (I love Weeks Ringle and Bill Kerr's work) and I guess I take amateur photos of friends struggling to hold large quilts high enough (or, gasp, sometimes they're on the ground!!!). I've never thought of my work as less valuable (which is what I'm hearing from you) than art quilters', and my friends sure recognize the time and effort that goes into quilts I make for them. Seems to me the generalizations and quilting caste system you're suggesting aren't helpful or always accurate. (Oh, and I may be young, but I bet I'm just as feminist as you, but gosh, quilting sure isn't high on my list of important gains for women. Sorry.)

  15. I think you may be seeing an enemy where none exists. Who exactly is this person who has publicly opined that all quilts must be functional; that it's boring and silly to hang a quilt on a wall; and that it's rude to suggest that a museum display art with respect? I don't recall reading any modern quilting blog espousing these beliefs. Frankly I think you may be exaggerating some of the already intemperate (and yes, extremely rude) comments on your post-- and not responding to what is actually going on with modern quilters. ( I wouldn't call myself one, by the way, but their openness got me into quilting to begin with.) To me it's a little ironic that you talk about respect but I don't hear any in the way you talk about modern quilters. I hope my own remarks to you don't seem disrespectful; I have gotten a lot of pleasure from seeing your extremely beautiful quilts on your blog and believe in your total commitment to your art.

  16. Wow, what a hornet's nest! Great work!
    Is it possible that some quilters/artists do not show a photograph of the whole quilt for copyright reasons? So they can then sell the pattern of what they've designed.

  17. This makes me so sad. I see a battle where none exists, need exist. Indeed, these two views take nothing from each other. We are only diminished when we fall to infighting instead of creating our art. Hard to believe we are artists instead of a bunch of crafters then. Certainly not acting like professionals... It reminds me very much of other unnecessary battles women take part in such as the working mother debate. When will we learn to agree to disagree...disagree without being disagreeable. Sigh.