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Art Quilts — A primer

By Kathleen Loomis

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Little Fish in a Big City by Kathy York, QN2011

Every exhibit of contemporary art quilts has its quintessential moment of confusion as somebody walks in the door, looks around in bewilderment, and announces, “But these aren’t quilts!” No doubt this person was expecting fabric constructions big enough to fit on a bed, perhaps with traditional block designs, maybe even quilted by hand. This newfangled stuff, which you would never put on your bed, just doesn’t fit the definition.

Looking at the wide variety of works that have been accepted in past Quilt National exhibits, you may share some of that confusion. The rules are pretty vague: “the work submitted must possess the basic structural characteristics of a quilt.” That generally means multiple layers of fabric, held together with stitching, with some kind of visual design on the layer facing the viewer.

There are as many ways to accomplish that objective as there are stirrings of the quilter’s imagination. Let’s take a whirlwind tour of some of the possibilities.

First, a visual design.

Traditional quilters generally relied on two methods to make their design. They might sew pieces of different fabric together in patterns (called piecing) or they might sew a piece of fabric, cut into a shape, on top of a base fabric (called applique).

Our Dads at War by Mary Ann Tipple, 2007

Our Dads at War by Mary Ann Tipple, QN2007

Contemporary quiltmakers still use those methods, but they also have a wide range of other ways to get a design onto the top layer of the quilt. They might draw onto a background or use printmaking techniques, with paint or dye. They might print photos or other images or text from a computer. They might allow bits of metal to rust onto their fabric or bury it in the garden for six months to become stained.

Where the traditional quiltmaker would sew her appliques by hand or machine, today’s quiltmakers might use glue, staples, snaps or Velcro. And the bits of stuff applied might be paper, wood, buttons, beads or metal in addition to fabric.

Earth and Soul by Pat Owoc

Earth and Soul “To Go” by Pat Owoc, QN1999

 Second, multiple layers.

The traditional quilt is made of a top, a back and a middle layer of batting (usually cotton or wool for warmth). Today’s quilt might use kinds of fabric never seen in traditional practice: netting, chiffon, felt, canvas, knits, nonwoven interfacings, landscape fabric, plastic. One or more of the layers might be paper, plastic, hardware cloth, screening, wood, even metal.

Third, stitching to hold the layers together.

Traditionally, quilts were held together with a dense network of hand-stitching, although many makers were thrilled to use the sewing machine as soon as that invention became available. Today’s quiltmakers might stitch by hand or machine, or they might use fasteners such as staples or rivets. Reprising the traditional whole cloth quilts, in many cases the stitching itself provides part or all of the visual design.

No longer intended for the bed, today’s contemporary quilt art has no prescribed size or shape (although Quilt National sets a maximum of 100 inches to a side). Most quilts are still two-dimensional and hang flat against the wall, but many have 3-D elements sewed into the fabric or applied to the surface, or are hung on armatures that extend from the wall.

With this vast range of possibilities, it may be either surprising or comforting that so many of the Quilt National works are still so traditional in form, if not in their visual imagery. Most contemporary quiltmakers choose to make their art in the quilt form because of their love of and respect for its long and rich heritage, and the very choice of this process is an integral part of the art.

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