Monday, March 2, 2015

Is it a quilt? 2

I wrote last week about the definition of quilt for purposes of acceptance into quilt shows, but the subject came up again in a very different context -- the so-called International Honor Quilt project, which I am working on as a volunteer.  (click here to read my past postings on the IHQ)  The University of Louisville has acquired the IHQ, organized 35 years ago by the famous feminist artist Judy Chicago, and is now trying to get all the panels catalogued and posted online for research.

Recently we spent the better part of an afternoon discussing what should be put on the website to tie the IHQ to the traditions of quilting.  Because I had the strongest opinions I got to write the first draft:

The project was originally called the International Quilting Bee, later changed to the International Honor Quilt, so it must have something to do with quilts, but the word "quilt" has different meanings to different people.

Traditional quilters, who make quilts to go on beds, and artists who use the quilt form, would probably define "quilt" by its functional attributes: two or three layers of fabric, held together with stitches that go through all the layers.  By this definition, most of the panels in the IHQ are not quilts.

But the general public probably thinks of a "quilt" as some kind of flat fabric that has been worked on by hand.  To this audience, the word has powerful emotional overtones, conjuring thoughts of their own grandmothers, of textiles that comfort and protect, and old-time rural women gathered around a quilting frame at a quilting bee to socialize and stitch.  These connotations of women working together using traditional craft techniques were a critical element in the art of Judy Chicago and other feminist artists as they sought to reclaim and elevate the historically devalued female skills of needlework and other domestic crafts.

Interestingly, the term "quilt" was also used in this context to describe the AIDS Quilt, a project on which Chicago was also involved.  The word is a metaphor for personal connections, the comfort and protection of textiles, and the use of fabric and handwork to make memorials to loved ones, although quiltmakers would think that few of the AIDS panels are technically quilts.

40,000 panels of the AIDS quilt on the Mall, Washington DC, 1996 

So does this description make sense?  What do you think?


  1. I would start with the definition of quilt--the fabric sandwich held together with stitches definition. Then I would note that the word has been used for many types of bedcovers, including knitted afghans, as well as for fabric artwork, that do not fit the technical definition. Perhaps some comments on the connotation of the word, its association with warmth and comfort, and the "bee" concept.

  2. It's difficult- I have made many "quilts", almost all have multiple layers and are stitched through, but I don't think that if they had separate backs or were only one layer they would necessarily be less valid as Art. I like the stability and strcture that the layering process enforces and reinforces, perhaps that's enough


  3. I think that your first draft is a very strong one. Succinct, yet it captures the breadth of uses of the word and the idea of quilt-ness. It seems an appropriate introduction to the cataloguing of the project.
    The only change that I wanted to make was to add the word 'construct' after the words 'flat fabric' in the third paragraph of your draft.