“Why?” is such an underappreciated question. While “what?” and “how?” get all the attention, it seems to me that “why” has long been the bedrock of the quilting tradition, and is now the question that is truly bringing modern quilting to prominence.
Every aesthetic choice can be related to a historical precedent; all of our techniques are based on and extend the quilting tradition. The thing is that when we reduce quilting to the what and how, we miss the essence of quilting itself.
For me the question of why is about revelation, a means to understanding the depths of things and uncovering their stories. This is true of both the general and the specific, with regard both to quilting and to any particular quilt. One of the questions I find most compelling is why is there a modern quilt movement at all? Why are thousands of people, like myself, coming to quilting now? These are not people who learned from parents or grandparents; they were not drawn in by a local shop. There is a new generation of people making quilts, and while the emergence of more modern fabrics has had some effect, attributing the growth of this new audience to fabric design seems to be putting the cart in front of the horse. There would be no modern fabric if there weren’t a market for it.
So, why? Quilts have always been made for a variety of reasons: for practical needs, to mark occasions, as a hobby and many more. It seems to me that the driving force behind this new wave of quilters is the desire to have a meaningful relationship to the things that are a part of our lives.
If one just wanted modern bedcovers, Ikea makes it easy to obtain one; the idea that modern quilting simply fulfills an aesthetic need does not stand up. There is a cultural impulse at work, one that is mirrored in the knitting and broader sewing communities, the slow-food movement and elsewhere. The underlying current behind modern quilting is the proposition that making matters, that what we choose to possess can make a difference; it is an explicit step away from the disposable and replaceable in favor of resonant relationships.
If the what and how no longer take priority in discussion of modern quilting, we can bypass territorial disputes and false dichotomies between past and present, tradition and exploration. Modern quilting easily takes its place as another iteration of the quilting tradition even as we recognize another set of concerns and questions. In seeing modern quilting as a reflection of and reaction to this time’s unique set of cultural realities, we find the importance inherent to this new generation of quilters without in any way opposing it to quilting tradition. Examining the depths of the practice of quilting, our similarities and differences may coexist without contradiction; in the conversations surrounding why, genuine communities are formed.
But the question of why is not solely a means to understanding the big picture; it is the first question I ask when I approach a quilt. The what and the how are the means for deciphering the why, to understand it as well as appreciate it. This is why I think Quilt Alliance’s Quilters’ Save Our Stories project is so important, as it records not just what was made, but the reasons behind any quilter’s practice.
I was lucky enough to attend the first QuiltCon in Austin, where I saw Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s extraordinary Double Edged Love in person. This is the epitome of a quilt that reveals itself when we keep asking the questions, when we view the material and aesthetic decisions not just as formal choices, but as the manifestation of genuine consideration. Why make a double wedding ring quilt? Why piece a quilt top and then cut it up to make another? Why break up the rings only to have them rejoin in new, unexpected ways? Why have the quilting (by Lisa Sipes) move over and through the piecing rather than follow it? Why add bits of hand quilting? Why those stray bits of red and lavender, especially that segment of red in the binding?
Double Edged Love by Victoria Findlay Wolfe, 2012. 66˝ x 76˝. Quilted by Lisa Sipes.
These are just a sampling of the questions I asked myself as I looked at this quilt, and as I did so I found myself not simply enjoying it as an aesthetic and technical object, but as a story, a reflection of meaningful issues and ideas, and an entryway into the mind and process of the maker. It speaks of a wedding of past and present, both personal and cultural. It is an admixture of the urban and the pastoral, the frenetic and the simple, though the quilt itself belies the idea of simplicity, revealing complex depths beneath the surface of seemingly simple choices. This quilt reads not as a fracturing of the double wedding ring, but a reorientation; it provides endless layers and paths for reforming the relationships between all of the elements. Awkward moments become essential parts of larger truths; the ebbing and flowing of rhythms both emphasize and subsume the individual moments.
While Victoria’s quilt may be an extraordinary example of where the question of why can lead us, I believe that this is true of every quilt that gets made. Even the simplest decisions we make have their causes: we start each quilt for some reason, and even just passing the time reflects a particular relationship to one’s life and practice. In asking why, we learn about our relationships to what we make, to our fabric choices and techniques. It is in the inquiry that the material intersects with the meaningful. As such, modern quilting is as much an investment in the depth of the quilting tradition as it is a transformation of the aesthetic landscape. In exploring why, we tap into the essential nature of quilts, and into our own resonant selves.
Thomas Knauer holds Masters of Fine Art from both Ohio University and the Cranbrook Academy of art. Before he started designing fabric and quilts he was a professor of art and design at Drake University and the State University of New York. He began quilting in 2011 after leaving academia due to health concerns. He has designed fabric collections for Andover and Kokka. His most recent book, The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook, was published by Storey in 2016, and he is currently working with EverSewn and HandiQuilter to expand the quilting tradition. This essay was originally published in Quilters Newsletter in 2013.