I just returned from the International Quilt Festival in Houston. Held every year at the George R. Brown Convention Center, it is the largest annual quilt show in the country, considered the second largest in the world after Tokyo. Even though this is Texas, let’s not quibble about size: according to my fitbit, I logged six miles of walking in six hours there on Thursday alone!
This year’s Festival featured 1,700 quilts, 41 special exhibitions, 1,100 vendor booths and some 500 classes. Over 60,000 people came to see and shop — I swear they were ALL there when I was — and the show generated more than $40 million in revenue. All in all, not bad for “women’s work.”
The history of quilting, especially in America, is in fact “herstory.” With the exception of a few well-known men among the estimated 20 million active quilters in America (Ricky Tims, Kaffe Fassett, etc.), quilters, and most attendees at quilt shows, are overwhelmingly female. And they are, regardless of their skills and accomplishments, the awards they have won, or the businesses they have established, a surprisingly modest and unassuming bunch. They tend to be older, not very fashion-forward, and not very “international” in terms of sophistication and experience, but they are nice — very nice. Of all the huge-crowd events I have ever attended — sports, conventions, concerts, cruise ship embarkations — only at quilt shows will people smile at you, say “Excuse me,” and let you go first or even cut in line. Nor are vendors distrusting as you as carry your little baskets around collecting purchases in their booths. Big shows or small, there are never any altercations. It’s amazing.
Looks are deceiving, as is the atmosphere. For example, a quilt show has none of the ambiance, or the snarkiness, of a gallery opening. You wander the crowds with these ordinary ladies probably unaware of the fact that you are among some of the most creative, artistic and, in many cases, gifted individuals you are likely to encounter anywhere. The difference, I think, is that their art — my art— is a “domestic art,” an art of “women’s work” in textiles: sewing, weaving, quilting, embroidery, crocheting, knitting, doll making. Only up until recently, in fact, has any of this sort of “women’s work” ever dared to be called art at all.
Historically a utilitarian occupation done by women for their families, or by slaves for their owner families, quilting was an important part of a girl’s education, a craft of skill and pride. The sewn fabric sandwich (two pieces of fabric with a batting in between) was a way to keep warm, a way to “make do” with leftover scraps, a way for women to socialize, to form a community, even to make a point. Quilts became valued family heirlooms recognized as repositories of history and the undocumented stories of women’s lives; gradually, they moved up in status from the bed to the wall. Antique collections from significant periods such as the Civil War and commemoratives made in honor of significant events such as 9-11 have traveled around the country and drawn admiring crowds.
In the Victorian era, ladies of leisure made elaborate pieces called “crazy quilts”out of ribbon and lace, fringes and found objects, bits of love letters and other sentimental attachments. While still sandwiched and stitched, these creations were not really quilts at all, but rather small, ornamental pieces made to decorate parlors and to be given as gifts. All those frilly, delicately-embellished picture frames and memory books you see in crafts stores today are derivatives of that style.
Believe it or not, what we now call “art quilts,” defined by the Studio Art Quilt Associates, Inc. (SAQA) as “a creative visual work that is layered and stitched or that references this form of stitched layered structure,” can also be traced back to those Victorian crazy quilts. The modern revival of interest in quilting by younger women began in the 1970s, in part as an outgrowth of the women’s movement and the quest to define a “female aesthetic” that elevated domestic crafts from kitsch to high art. The SAQA was founded in 1989 by a group of 50 fabric artists to promote the art quilt as an art form in its own right, one worthy of inclusion in museum exhibitions and private collections. Today, the SAQA has over 3,400 members; I am proud to be one of them.
Had Hillary won the 2016 election, I was going to end this post with the prediction that we were entering a new era of girl power and recognition, but now I’ll just continue quilting and offer my own interpretation of her concession speech instead: “A woman’s work is never done.”