On the American Quilt

The author describes how important the American quilt and quilting tradition have been to her development as an artist.

| December/January 1998

Although I came to quilting itself only five years ago, the American quilt has been a one of my life's formative influences. As a child, I grew up within a dynamic circle of women whose work with the needle and thread helped shape my creative vision. As an adult and painter, I saw scraps of cloth as another set of materials to cut, tear, compose, and create with. I always sewed. I always painted. If I didn't do one. I did the other.

Each season I would allow myself a week to sew to my heart's content, creating one-of-a-kind clothes with tucks that celebrated shadow, a bit of embroidery, and handmade buttons crafted from the local clay. My wedding dress was made with the spirit of a sculptress, the chosen silk bending, easing in under my fingers to create form in fabric. Well into my thirties, I knew very well that composing with fabric was no less a creative experience than the hours I spent painting the landscape.

One summer I picked up a $5 bag of cloth scraps at a yard sale along Route 3 in Maine. It was a bag of prints and domestic aesthetics that I would never have sought out, yet when spilled onto the floor, the scraps showed a maze of design possibilities. I enjoyed this moment visualizing the potential of these printed fabrics just as I have always valued a limited palette in painting. I started to cut and sew, creating a "collage" of cloth. In other words, a quilt. Those next few days, I would paint outside until the sun was too high, then rush back to the studio to cut and compose some more with the fabrics. These bits of cloth were one woman's life stash, and I remember bartering with her, her lip moving slightly as she gave up this bag of memories. Textiles do tell stories; they refresh our memories.

Two summers later, I enjoyed thinking of these moments as I was finishing one of my first quilt tops. I remember feeling that something visual was lacking, that some flick of color to pull the eye across the quilt was needed. My eye rested on a pale yellow satin that lay nearby in a bag, a gift from my mother's best woman friend, who had sent me her life's favorite remnants. It seemed to have been the hem of some party dress, perhaps a luxurious slip. It was such a quilter's moment (for me) to weave some of Mary's yellow fabric into my quilt! I felt I was honoring some part of the special women in my life, and it had happened so spontaneously. So it is with the quiet powers of quilt making. Such times remind me of a passage from Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen's book, The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art—An Oral History (Anchor Press, 1977):

"[T]he technique of stitchery was passed on by exacting instruction, so also was education in color and design. And the art was controlled and handed down by women, usually mother, grandmother, or aunt. The best elements of teaching were often combined over the construction of a quilt: early and often instruction, tradition, discipline, planning and completing a task, moral reinforcement. Quilting was a virtue."

A quilt by definition is the layering of fabrics that are then tied or sewn together. It is magnificent to see how cultures throughout the world have used this fabric art form to create visual masterpieces of color, pattern, design, and personal story. Quilts were sewn to honor births, deaths, weddings, and friendships. Others recorded historical moments and major community events.

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