On Quilts, and the Respect They Deserve

Why it isn’t enough to call them art.

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IMG_1367Entering the annual quilt show at the Headwaters, I used to pick up my ballot and dutifully try to choose my favorite. But I’ve given up on that.

Decide which I find to be most lovely or finely crafted? It’s impossible. Besides, who am I to judge?

The show crowds the large room at the Headwaters with masterworks of stitchery —  an overwhelming display of artistry and skill.

IMG_1362 (1)The sponsors of the show, and creators of many of the quilts, are the good women of the Never Sweat Quilt Guild. Making one probably doesn’t entail sweat, but it is certainly labor.

It requires a special space, a large collection of fabric, many special threads, and a special kind of creativity and discernment. Not to mention lots and lots of time.

I’ve spoken to some quilters who were actually afraid to start.

I file my digital pictures of quilts in the folder on my laptop named “Art.” From my first visit to the show, when I saw the magnificent display of quilts by artist Mackie d’Arge and her mother, I considered these creations to be works of art, and thus well deserving of the price tags (on those available for purchase).

But I’ve recently decided that art isn’t really what we’re buying in a quilt — nor is it all of their value. Like many quilters, Mackie and her mother created them largely for the pleasure of working together, not in order to make a few extra bucks.

BlueTorontoQuiltMy husband bought this simple blue patchwork as a gift for me during our first year of marriage, knowing I wanted a quilt. It’s faded and rumpled, and the edges are frayed. I believe he paid $10 for it.

For years I used it casually, until I noticed the meticulous, even parallelograms hand-stitched across the machine-joined patchwork. Someone actually put a lot of effort into it. Now I treat it with more respect.

Quilt_BlanketsThe quilt on the guest bed came from a tag sale at our former church in Brooklyn, where I was working as a setup volunteer and therefore entitled to purchase items ahead of the sale. I had wanted a larger, finer quilt for our guest bed in Dubois.

“What do you think this is worth?” I asked the woman in charge.

She shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Ten dollars?”

Umbrella Girls QuiltSome years later, a friend of mine who is a quilter pointed out what I and my fellow parishioner never noticed in our ignorance: It is entirely hand-stitched. (I sent a substantial additional donation to the Brooklyn church.)

I used to think that the simple blue patchwork quilt was the first one I ever owned. I had completely forgotten about these little girls, who sat folded and zipped inside a plastic bag in my linen closet in Brooklyn all the years we lived there. I found the quilt again when we packed to move to Wyoming.

My grandmother, and heaven knows how many friends in her small Mennonite village, pieced it together, and she gave it to my parents when I was born. Of course it later came down to me, being mine in the first place.

After hanging this charming quilt in our Dubois house, I began to view the two blue quilts in my guest room differently. They aren’t just bed coverings. They are stories to me now. And I wonder about the other stories behind them that I will never know.

IMG_1361At the quilt show, I’ve begun to inquire about some of the quilts that are marked “NFS” (not for sale). Are they being reserved for someone in particular?

There is value in the skill and the artistry of a quilt, indeed. But what the buyer also gains is a piece of history, often unknown, and a semblance of family devotion. That was what I wanted as a young bride — not realizing I already had it.

What’s in the beauty of a quilt? I think of Carol, working out her grief by making quilts from her late husband’s shirts. Or of Helen, who makes a different one for each of her grandchildren, piecing together her joy. And of my own grandmother, patiently stitching away as she hoped for me.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Author: LivingDubois

I am a retired science journalist, devoted to enjoying and recording the many pleasures of life in the Wyoming's Upper Wind River Valley.

4 thoughts on “On Quilts, and the Respect They Deserve”

  1. Lois – you have done it again – a sweet refection on an age old art and an amazing display in our “fair city”!

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  2. The quilt show always reminds me of the quilt my grandmother made that I call her “security quilt”. She made it during the great depression from scraps of colorful feed sacks and remnants of worn out clothing, and she used her Singer treadle sewing machine to sew the scraps together. Because times were hard and money was scarce, she needed a way to keep the rent money safe from my grandfather who had a drinking problem. She cleverly sewed a secret pocket in her quilt and hid the rent money in it, and every night he fell asleep under the very thing he was searching for! I still have her quilt and the many fond memories of a strong willed resourceful woman who made a better life for herself.

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