Monday, November 14, 2011

More about the Q word

Perhaps you have seen episodes on PBS, or read promotions urging you to buy the DVD of a new documentary series, "Why Quilts Matter."   It was produced by Shelly Zegart, who was interviewed last week by our local alternative weekly newspaper.  I read it with interest, partly because I am one of the quilters who was shown in the documentary, and wondered how the subject would be presented to the younger, hip readers of this publication.

Sure enough, the interviewer announces early on, "I have to admit I thought quilt making was a dying art..."  (Don't you love it when the reporter is so proud of her preconceived wrong ideas that it gets into the story?)

The rest of the interview is relatively innocuous, because of course you can't go into enough detail in one of these feature stories to treat anything substantively.  But I perked up at this Q&A:

Reporter:  "What do you consider to be the most important quilt in history?"

Shelly:  "The AIDS quilt -- it put focus on a movement like no other.  It changed the face of the understanding of AIDS and its human toll.  Quilts have always been made for causes, like temperance or to raise money; the AIDS quilt just brought this to the public."

I happen to agree with everything Shelly said except one thing.  She's right about how this project made many people realize that AIDS patients were people, not remote and nameless victims who weren't like us and probably deserved what they got.  (Young people may not remember that in the early days of the disease, that was exactly the prevailing view.)  And it certainly made people realize the size of the epidemic, when it took a huge swath of the Mall in Washington to display the piece.

But wait -- the AIDS quilt is not a quilt.  Call it a fiber construction, call it cloth banners, call it a set of panels (actually that's how the official project website refers to the individual pieces) but not a quilt, because it's not quilted.  It wouldn't even qualify as a quilt under the expansive definitions of most art quilt shows, let alone the strict definitions of your favorite traditional guild or state fair. 

So am I being a terrible party-pooper and pedant and killjoy?  Maybe so, but I find it ironic that to promote the concept that "Quilts Matter," we have to cite something that isn't a quilt as the most important quilt in history.  Just because its promoters call it a quilt -- and wasn't that a stroke of marketing genius? -- doesn't make it one, technically.

I tend to be a little picky about nomenclature in other contexts as well.  Although I often try to avoid the Q word in describing my own work, I do value the technical definitions of the myriad variations of textile arts.  I'm willing to substitute a less-specific umbrella term for "quilt," but I'm not willing to use an equally specific word that happens to be wrong.  So yes, I'm OK calling a quilt a "fiber construction" or a "mixed media piece" or a "fabric collage" but I'm not OK calling it a "needlepoint" or a "tapestry" or a "painting" or a "weaving" or an "embroidery."

I happen to believe that those of us who make art in the fiber kingdom should and usually do understand the world in which we have chosen to play.  Even if we choose to play against the tradition, we should respect it and be cognizant of its history and forms.

Even if the ordinary man-on-the-street or alternative-newspaper-reporter doesn't know the difference between a quilt and a woven coverlet or a crocheted afghan, we should.  Even if the clever advertising people at Northern Tissue think that ladies quilt at a frame with both hands on top, holding knitting needles, we should know better -- and yes, we should do our best to educate the ad guys and get the commercial changed.  Even if other people misspell our name, we shouldn't.

Heck, if we don't understand and respect the picky little details of our own chosen art form, how can we possibly expect anybody else to? 


  1. I tend to assume that if there is a 'news' reporter involved, any and all details are suspect to begin with. I've never found that they care to get it right, insistence or no. I'll have to see if my library has that DVD - sounds interesting. I am annoyed that there is a whole episode on Gees Bend, but that's another topic.

  2. Leigh -- My academic training and my first career was as a newspaper journalist, and I'm sorry to say that I have to agree with you. The field has changed a lot since I was there.

    I wouldn't recommend that you buy the DVD but you might find it interesting to watch if you can do so for free.

  3. Oh, I should read this blog with more dedication. But, time is my enemy! Needless to say, wonderful words and well said.

    I think this struggle to define our work will continue, and it may take generations before we are no longer linked to the tradition of quilt making...but define our work with a footnote to quiting stitch as one technique that is used.

    Bravo to you for the piece you wrote.