The Quilt Festival, Part 3: The Quilts, or rather, some of them
Quick reminder: Significant Seams is closed until Thursday, September 5, when we'll be back with jam-packed schedule that you can check out here. Until then, the blog will still be updated, although less frequently than normal. See you soon!
When people learn of my interest in patchwork, I am often asked if I saw the exhibit at the V&A a few years ago. I did–and I have the exquisite book that goes with it, the official postcard set, and a few of the reproduction fabrics. I am hugely grateful to the V&A for that exhibit, because in addition to the diligence in the storytelling of quilts and needlecraft in Britain it offered, it enabled me to believe in the seed of an idea. It also pointed out the major forces in patchwork in the UK today, including the Quilters' Guild, and by extension, The Festival of Quilts.
To write a review of the quilts at the Festival seems practically impossible–at least based on just two days in which to try to absorb it. There were over 3,000 quilts in the competition, not including the curated special exhibitions. I have The Catalogue–no pictures, listings plus index–it's 59 pages. Like the V&A exhibition on steroids! There are 16 categories of friendly competition, plus the curated shows.
In the competition I never miss The “fine art quilt masters” or the “miniature quilts”. I love the “quilt creations” category–in part because of my general love of the sculptural. But, in the sensory saturation of the exhibitions, they stand out. They demand your attention in another dimension.
I also love the “young quilters” categories. Some are created by individuals, some by schools or groups of children, but they invariably have a freshness, raw creativity, and expressiveness that moves me. This year the young quilters categories (there are age groupings and individual versus collectives) shared the theme “transport”.
This year, I particularly loved–or perhaps just had more time to engage with–the curated exhibitions. Some of these are by country or region, some by artistic theme or special project, like the First International Block Swap.
For this project, over the course of the year hundreds of people made quilt blocks, exchanged them via the organising charity in Germany, then received blocks made by others to assemble into quilts. The second International Block Swap is collecting blocks sharing the theme 'water' until the end of the year, then sending them to different contributors in January for assembly.
Some of the curated exhibitions have been shown elsewhere, or featured in magazines. One of the art quilts in the V&A exhibit was there. I was entranced and thrilled to see Alicia Merrett's collection of map quilts in person.
Others are the subject of whole books, notably the exhibition curated by Geeta Khendelwal and the subject of the new book Rural Godharis of Western India, Maharahtra. (Another addition to my personal wish list.) This exhibit was absolutely one of the highlights for me.
These quilts demonstrate dedication, love, and a glimpse into another economic way of life, radically different from the consumerism that is undeniably part of the Festival. These quilts are all made entirely by hand, salvaged from remnants of fabrics and worn-out clothing in ways evocative of the famous Gee's Bend quilts. The wadding is also made of remnants, making these quilts exceptionally heavy.
The desire to touch these is profound. The hand-stitching and layering make these appear incredibly silky and soft. They are exquisite, not at all 'pristine' or, in some cases, rectangles, yet they are fabulous. It is also an interesting case of a Western tradition seeping into an Eastern culture.
Other quilts that stood out to me professed ideas, life experiences, and views that have led me to reflect a great deal more on craftivism, a type of activism dear to me. Craftivism is particularly associated with embroidery and knitting, not quilting. And yet, I was inspired to learn to quilt by a socially driven project nearly two decades ago, long before Betsy Greer aptly coined the phrase that embodies the broader movement.
This quilt, 'Hello Dear, What did you do today?' held me, and many others, captivated for a prolonged period. I overheard several discussions about it at my hotel, getting lunch, and standing reading it again. The nudity horrified some, inspired others, and led to shared giggles of familiarity among more still. The writing (see below–the words, in a continuous narrative, are quilted onto the body) evoked strong feelings amongst those who bothered to read it, and further conversation.
A small exhibition by Dawn Cameron Dick of quilts she has made for herself and her family over the years was very intimate and moving in other ways. It was less political, but nonetheless about priorities, meaning, and personal significance. I found it another very insightful contribution to the story of quilts in modern life.
The exhibition 'Beneath the Southern Sky' was eclectic and absolutely beautiful, featuring a wide range of quilts which attempt to represent the southern hemisphere as an idea rather than as a region.
Some of the pieces in it were stunning–in a literal sense for me–but the curation did not do full justice to the works. I wanted a bit more help linking some of the more aesthetically driven and/or pictorial pieces with ones representing very powerful ideas. The show firmly and convincingly presents quilts as art, but the ideas in some of these quilts deserve more airing than simply this… bringing me back to my reflections on craftivism and quilting. Does art make for more powerful craftivism? Or does raising it to the status of 'artwork' undermine the punch of message the creator intentionally imbued in a piece? This line of thought makes me think again of Grayson Perry's “Walthamstow Tapestry”, which I saw at the William Morris Gallery last autumn, an undeniably political and evocative and lauded work of art. But what do we as consumers of art do with his message about consumerism?
Here's me getting philosphical again (I have a reputation), but I suppose that is my prevailing observation about the quilts from the Festival. The quilts are art, from artists with varying degrees of experience and a huge array of techniques and approaches. It's fabulous their work is getting airing and exhibition as such. It's an enormous achievement from a few decades ago when the Gee's Bends hit the art world via their exhibition by William Arnett. The collective power of quilters using patchwork–to connect people around the world (The Int'l Block Swap); to change our perception of land, space, and area (Alicia Merret's quilts); to represent the underrepresented (Beneath the Southern Sky)–is growing, and affecting thinking, affecting other people, and grabbing ideas, often political, and literally hanging them for others to see, as any craftivist might string up an embroidered message.
The Festival inspired me to want to participate in a number of explicitly 'significant' projects, embedded more in art movement than craftivist ones, but craftivist nonetheless, so for what it's worth, I share my inspiration from the Festival with you and suggest you check out these projects:
- The Monument Quilt Project – Upsetting Rape Culture with a monumental installation in Washington DC
- The 2015 Quilt – No more babies could be born with AIDS by 2015
- The 2nd Worldwide Block Swap: Water
- Sunshine for All Leukemia Quilt Project
For knitters and embroiderers, we have two community projects you might be interested to get involved in: we are embroidering the collected wishes of our community for our community on the water drops for our wishing well project and we are knitting food for a Wool Week “PicKnit” in October, and would love your contributions.
Catherine founded Significant Seams and has a bit of reputation for big ideas and philosophising, especially about patchwork. She thinks it's a metaphor for everything. She has already made a dress for her daughter with the hot air balloon fabric she bought at this year's Festival of Quilts.