Why Quilts (Really) Matter

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.

11 Replies to “Why Quilts (Really) Matter”

  1. I enjoyed the webnar with Mary Fons that you recommended. It was a nice brief overview…. as you know you can study quilt history for years and still have more to learn. Every region / state/ country has their own history… that may be the same or similar or entirely different from other regions / state/ or countries.

    I pretty much agree with your assessment of WHY QUILTS MATTER. It is so much more true, real and accurate then the documentary was. I always thought that documentary did a disservice to quilts and quilting as it was more of a self grandizement for the producer of the documentary then a representation of quilts and quilting. Looking forward to more posts like this. ( Podcasts too)


  2. i haven’t heard this podcast yet, i’m still on the previous one where you mention your new book (very excited to read it!)–and for marketing ideas, another author might already have done this, but what about offering an original quilt pattern at the end of the book? or if you think your audience may be the Muggles (non-quilters), you could re-use your charity quilt hand-sewing pattern for the 4-patch blocks? another marketing thought–would you be able to get the “power” of Moda behind you? Carrie Nelson (Miss Rosie) blogs for them now and she’s a wonderful writer. good luck!

  3. Are you sure that “in the 21st century U.S. quilting is the last traditional American craft still being widely practiced”?? My BIL makes stained glass and there are two stores in SF. There are stores that sell quiltmaking fabric here, but no dedicated quilt shops. I see people crocheting and knitting on the bus and there seem to be many, many knitting podcasts. Are you sure?

  4. Ummm, Frances, regarding “Why Quilts Matter?”, did you see the series on TV or on disk? If you saw it on TV and they only showed one or two episodes, you may not be aware that there is more to the series than what you viewed.

    You are right, the first five episodes (on Disk 1 if you have the DVD set) does focus on the importance of quilts from the perspective of antique dealers (such as the series host Shelly Zegart) and collectors. However, the last four episodes (on Disk 2) DO talk about how the average woman historically and today experiences quilting: how it’s always been used as a form of creative and political expression (Ep 6: Empowering Women One Quilt at a Time”) and exploring just how many quilters (and their buying power) are operating today. In fact, in Ep 6: “Quilt Nation: 20,000,000 and Counting!”, a professor of American Studies asks the same question that you did in your latest post about “Invisible Quilters”: “how is it that so many Americans are engaged in an aspect of artistic production” that so few people are aware of? It even covers how technology in quilting has advanced from “just needle, fabric and thread” to longarms and the prevalence (and skill) of free-motion quilting.

    Now, I agree this series does not focus an episode about quilting from the perspective and emotions of the average quilter (like visiting the home of one, watching them quilt and talk about their projects and process) nor does it feature any of the “quilting greats” who powered what could be considered the current “contemporary” revival. But I figure the series business and global perspective is directed at “the muggles” who don’t even know that a large, multi-national, multi-generational quilting community EXISTS or that there is a billion dollar industry to support it. They’re more likely to pay attention to the second thing than the first! I do think it provides a pretty comprehensive overview of what our quilt world consists of right now and that alone would probably blow the average muggles mind!! This also prompts me to re-watch another disk I have called “America Quilts” to see if it takes the more ground level view you are championing. I doubt it (I think I would have remembered if it did) but we’ll see!

  5. Hi Frances I loved this episode. I totally agree with you that people are not always doing things to exclude anyone on purpose. It would be wonderful if everyone could stay calm and treat everyone respectfully.

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