I recently watched Mary Fons’ webinar, You Call That a Quilt? Quilt Styles in America: Traditional, Contemporary, Studio/Art, and Modern, on the Modern Quilt Guild website. This tour de force overview of American quilts did not disappoint, though I felt a little breathless by the end—Mary covered a lot of territory in a short period of time in her entertaining, high energy style.
I have to admit, though, that I was surprised when she mentioned the PBS series Why Quilts Matter: History, Art and Politics and said something along the lines of “You have to watch this!” We’re talking about a show that over nine episodes worth of quilt talk didn’t once mention her mother, Marianne Fons, arguably one of the most important people in American quilting for the last thirty years.
Not to mention that the series isn’t all that good.
In fact, Why Quilts Matter is problematic on a number of levels. The narration is poorly written, sentimental and clichéd. “The quilt may seem as American as apple pie, but it did not originate in America,” the first episode begins, giving you your first clue that Aaron Sorkin didn’t write the script.
Even if the writing were up to snuff, the emphasis on money in Why Quilts Matter would still be offensive. “Learn what makes one antique quilt more valuable and important than another,” one episode description reads; another entire episode is devoted to the quilt marketplace, ignoring the fact that most quilters operate in a gift economy, giving away their quilts for free.
Even more insulting is not only the absence of Fons and Porter but also the average American quilter. Only a few of the 16 million quilters that make up Quilt Nation appear in the series’ 250 minutes, and unless they’re famous, they’re seen only briefly and mostly shown from unflattering angles. The average quilter has been displaced by far more important people—primarily antiques dealers. In fact, one of the prevailing messages over the course of six-plus hours is that quilts largely matter because there is a market for antique and art quilts. If people will pay lots of money for something, why then of course it matters.
But the biggest problem with Why Quilts Matter is that the claims it makes for the importance of quilts—that they’re historic documents, that some are worthy of hanging in museums, and others have been channels for women’s political expression—have very little to do with why quilts matter.
So why do quilts matter? Here are just a few of the reasons I can think of:
1. For centuries, women have poured their creative energy into making quilts. Whether these quilts were works of art or just nice bedcovers, they were imbued with their makers’ intelligence and ingenuity. For many women throughout history, making quilts was one of their few means of creative self-expression. A woman couldn’t necessarily justify pulling out her paints and easel to do a study of a prairie sunset, but she could get out her needle and thread without anyone questioning how she was using her time. Quilts matter because they are expressions of women’s creativity, resourcefulness and skill.
2. Once cotton fabric became widely available, quilting was anybody’s—and everybody’s—game. The means of production were simple and at hand: needle, thread, fabric, fingers. A piano might not be in the budget, but anybody could take a couple of old shirts and a pair of scissors and go to town. The great secret of quiltmaking is that anyone can make a quilt. Anyone. When it comes to arts and crafts, you don’t get any more democratic than quilting. Throughout history, women of all ages, ethnicities and social strata have made quilts. Quilts matter because whoever you are, wherever you are, you can make a quilt. And that’s cool and kind of profound.
3. Quilts matter because here in the 21st century U.S. quilting is the last traditional American craft still being widely practiced. Go to any periodical rack in any grocery store and you’ll find at least one quilting magazine, maybe two or three. Magazines about blacksmithing, glass blowing, basketweaving and decoy carving? Not so many. In fact, zero. Millions of people make quilts every year, for themselves and for family and friends. Moreover, these quilts are very often functional—which is to say, they’re made to be used. Traditional crafting of all kinds is still practiced in this country, but the products tend to lean toward the artistic or esoteric object—the ceramic bowl that you can’t actually eat out of, the beautiful basket that’s made for decoration, not for carrying your groceries home from the market.
4. Quilts matter because making things matter. Humans are born makers, and we are less than we could be when we don’t make stuff. This is something I’ll write more about in another post, but what I’ll say now is that quilts are some of the last, great homemade objects, and quilters are passionate about making quilts because the making is so deeply satisfying.
One day someone will make a series that does justice to quilts and quilters in a comprehensive, in-depth and truthful way. In the meantime, go watch Mary Fons over at the Modern Quilt Guild (you have to be a member to access the video—worth it) or check out The Great American Quilt Revival. If you think quilts matter, I’d recommend giving Why Quilts Matter a pass.