Thursday, September 8, 2016

Outsourcing the quilting 2 -- is it collaboration?

In the long discussion on the SAQA list about having somebody else quilt for you, there was a wide range of opinion about whether the quilter should be treated as an equal partner.  A few of the commenters believe that anybody who touches a quilt becomes a collaborator, an artist whose vision is just as important as that of the person who made the top.

One comment was:  "Even adding binding is an art and a major component of any successful work, therefore since part of a quilt is the binding, in my opinion if another person has contributed this, then this piece should be considered a 2-person collaboration."

This argument strikes me as kind of silly.  First off, binding is not a major component of any work, successful or not.  (Not to mention that binding is kind of passe in the art/quilt world, where the more common finish is to face the edges.)  More important, no matter how beautifully the binding is sewed on, it rarely involves artistry -- in other words, decisions to be made, choices, alternatives weighed to achieve just the right effect.  OK, if the binder chooses the color and width, and whether to miter the corners or not, that might make a tiny difference in the way the quilt looks, but no more.

And where does it end?  Do you give credit if your cleaning lady did the wash after you hand-dyed your fabric?  Do you credit your granddaughter who wound the bobbins?  Do you credit the clerk in the fabric store who rooted around in the back room to find a bolt of the perfect orange?  Do you credit your husband for cutting the hanging stick and affixing the eye hooks?  Do you credit your critique group for helping you decide whether you needed more of that perfect orange?  I say none of the above.

Sometimes when other people help you they have indeed contributed to the art.  Sometimes they haven't.  I think the former should be credited; the latter shouldn't.

When it comes to quilting, there are definitely times when your helper does contribute to the artistic vision.  But there's a difference between skill and artistry; skill is when somebody does a technically beautiful job of what they're told to do, artistry is when somebody's own ideas are part of the mix.

I'll give two examples from my own experience.

Several years ago Nancy Crow, who does none of her own quilting, asked me to machine quilt some smaller pieces.  She had been working exclusively with hand-quilters but wanted to explore whether machine quilting would allow her to finish more work, and more quickly.  She gave me detailed instructions, complete with a diagram of each quilt showing the direction of the quilting lines and the thread colors for each sector.  She sent me the thread, the batting and the backing.  I was told to stitch parallel lines somewhere between 1/4 and 3/8 inches apart, and since her shapes were of course not perfect rectangles, I had to use my considerable mathematical skills to make sure the lines were the right distance apart all the way from top to bottom, closer together in the narrow places and farther apart in the wide places.  That was the limit of my "artistic input."

Nancy Crow, Constructions 90, 2007; machine quilted by Kathleen Loomis

She was gracious to put my name in small type someplace in the credits when the quilts were shown and published, but certainly not as a collaborator, nor did I expect that.

A couple of times I have had people quilt my tops.  On my large piece Entropy, I had no clear idea of how it should be quilted, even after working on it for several months.  I discussed it at length with M J Kinman, my friend and quilter, and after we came to no conclusions, she took some leftover piecing and experimented with several different designs.  The one I chose was her invention, and I went with it because its seismographic zigzags complemented the concept, and because she thought she could get into a rhythm and make it work.  Had I done my own quilting I would probably have come up with something quite different, but I was willing to turn it over and be happy with whatever she did.

Kathleen Loomis, Entropy, 2014; machine quilted by M J Kinman (detail below)

Partly this decision showed my confidence in M J's abilities and artistic sense, but partly it simply reflected the fact that on a very large and complicated quilt, I didn't think the quilting was going to be all that visible.  As long as it was neat and consistent I really didn't care that much.  My emotional investment was in the design, not the quilting. I wanted the quilt to be done.

When the piece was accepted into Quilt National '15 I wrote in "Machine quilted by M J Kinman" in the box for techniques, and that's how it appeared in the catalog and signage for the exhibit.  That's exactly the way Nancy Crow credited me, and yet M J had more artistic input on my piece than I did on Nancy's.

But I would say neither of these encounters was a collaboration.  To me, collaboration means that both partners are in on the thinking and the decision-making from the very beginning.

What do you think?


  1. I wouldn't worry so much about how much credit to give to someone - after all someone could throw out a quick idea and make a big difference in the finished project while another can spend hours discussing something with you and it doesn't change what you would have done anyway. I think that as long as you mention the person by name as someone who had a part in the making, that is what is important. I wouldn't try to quantify the amount of help too much.

    I'd rather be inclusive instead of exclusive so I would credit the person who found the perfect orange and the person who did the binding. It is hard to know where to draw the line, since a bunch of people probably gave advice on the blog. I suppose if I asked do you like A or B better? I wouldn't credit anyone since they were both my ideas, but if someone gave me a C option that I ran with, maybe I would credit that person too. Maybe a "with some input from my blog readers" instead of a complete listing.

  2. I don't exhibit quilts on any level, but do go to local shows. IMHO, the person who did the quilting should be named, and it would be nice to know if they picked the quilting that was done. I've noticed quite a few quilts that to my eye, were done no favors by the quilter - I can't see the quilt top for the quilting - it just clashes somehow. And I've seen quite a few that were elevated by the quilting. If I start to notice a pattern of who did good and who did not, I'd like to know, as someday I *will* get quilt tops far enough to send off (no space or desire to quilt big ones myself either). And I'd rather not get them back and see the quilting override seeing the quilt top design. But I'm not making art quilts, I'm making quilts to use. Does makes a difference?

  3. Perhaps a distinction in nomenclature?
    Quilt top and quilting pattern designed by LW, quilting executed by ABC.
    Quilt top designed by LW, quilting designs created and executed by ABC.

    From a consumer perspective, it is nice to know who ABC is and do I want to use them for my quilts.

    Unless the binding is unique and intrinsic to the design then no on the binding credit. That just seems silly to me. But I'm a bed/throw quilt maker for the most part.

    And a HUGE "no" on crediting every last person on input. At the end of the day it is all my choices, so no on some minimum wage person at the fabric store who just wanted to go home and said the yellow was good, or that painting I saw last year, or the encouragement I got at my last quilt meeting. Or, or, or. What about every person, book and visual media item that I've looked at in the last 45 years that has informed my artistic sensibilities, style, and technique? That would be a long entry.

  4. Dale Chihuly and Damien Hirst have assistants and do not credit them. Chihuly practically has a factory of artisans who physically create his work in Seattle. I personally think it is one more thing that would keep art quilters more linked to the quilt world and further from the Fine Art world.

    1. And for the record, there's much controversy about Chihuly's staff and how little credit they get - some of it among the assistants themselves. Plus this has been an issue for a long time in the Fine Art World and continues to be so. So if anything, having this discussion should link art quilters closer to the Fine Arts world, not further from it.

  5. It really is all a matter of personal definition. If individuals are going to be considered collaborators, I agree that they should be involved from the beginning of the project to the end. In this case, I was honored to be asked to contribute a portion of the design element and use my own artistic expression to complete it. Perhaps it's the difference between Contributor vs. Collaborator.

    A wonderful memory: hanging the three panels in my studio, sitting and looking at them together, when I asked you, "So, Kathy, how would you quilt this if you were going to attempt it?" Your answer? "I don't have the slightest idea."

  6. Who knew this topic would lead to such a lengthy discussion on the SAQA chat group and now in your blog and I suspect others. My thought is that nomenclature isn't as important as an agreement reached between parties if more than one person is involved creating the artwork. Are both parties expecting credit if the work is exhibited, wins prize money, is sold, is published, etc.? Does one party get top billing?

  7. Oh the fun topics I miss by rarely reading the saqa list.

    I find this topic to be completely irrelevant to art.

    It's a question for the quilt police. A group I don't spend much time worrying about. And interestingly I find the art quilt police to be much more rigid than the traditional quilt police.

  8. As a brand-new member of SAQA I have missed this debate and am getting a late start. My opinion should probably be marginally considered; however, I do have an opinion.

    Having just been to a quilt exhibit and seeing the Best of Show, I was uneasy with the award. The quilt was (IMO) ordinary. The quilt was exquisitely quilted and made the quilt what it is. I know both parties involved and the quilt won because of the quilting. The quilter's name was an *. This is a single incident, but this does happen. Good quilters have artistic talent like anyone else and it is sometimes hard for them to quilt by instruction.

    There is certainly no easy answer for this one. And, for the record, I piece, design and do the quilting myself. My quilting is mostly geometric and dense, but would not win any awards! But, I am OK with that. It is all mine. That does not mean that I make any judgments toward anyone else. It is just a personal decision of mine. Everyone's art is personal and so is the process whatever they choose.

    (I have also had opinions about Chihuly, but his art is so distinctive.)