Quilts are an excellent example of material culture that is internationally transmitted as well as being examples of coping with shortages, the need to re-cycle materials which can become an art form. In addition and unseen is the value of the community bonding when groups quilt together.
Fabric quilts are only one example. Shirlee Crowshoe showed us how the Blackfeet re-used one artifact over and over, often a strip of leather, possibly worn-out horse harness, repurposing it by cutting it down, attaching something else, maybe just beading it or adding brass tacks on a scabbard. Notoriously, people realized that they could perpetuate artifacts originally based on a fur-acquiring culture by making a shortcut that left the risk of trapping behind — simply buying discarded fur coats in Salvation Army shops. I’m not sure everyone understands that this is a long standing practice of indigenous people going back to pre-white times. They tend to think it’s cheating. If you know what you’re looking for, sometimes three or four uses can be detected.
A friend sent me this photo of a sashiko-inspired quilt or throw. In this Japanese form seams are not hidden and raveled edges become a feature of the design. Plaid patterns come about when fabrics are created on a loom with different threads woven together on two dimensions. When Paul Seesequasis began his project of photos from the “middle period” of far northern peoples, “Blanket Toss Under the Midnight Sun”, it was striking how much cloth was plaid, maybe because it was traded through Hudson’s Bay, and combined with the traditional skin clothing.
Waking to consciousness both as a child and in thought, family quilts were one of my earliest sense perceptions. One was pastel cotton in one of the folk-named patterns, like “Wedding Ring”. It was worn and lightweight, a summer quilt. A warmer one was made with something shiny and heavier and was padded with wool that had not been washed and carded enough, so that slivers sometimes worked their way out. Technically, it was not really quilted, but merely tied or tacked every few inches. It was pale green, not patchwork.
Locally, Blackfeet patchwork quilts were made for warmth from Salvation Army wool men’s suits, cut into squares to make the cloth lie flat and tied with red wool, fast and simple without quilting frames, equipment that a generation of white women might have as household equipment.
I have a few older quilts of heavy clothing material in duller colors from women’s clothing of a former century. “Log Cabin” is the pattern. They are too worn and shabby to be put on a bed, so I hang them. One was embroidered after being assembled — nothing elaborate but following the seams between bits in complex stitches.
At one point I discovered that an aunt had made three baby quilts for we three sibs, stained from use but not much worn because we quickly outgrew them. They were not discarded. They joined other sentimental emblems in the linen closet.
The quilt above was begun when my mother, who did a lot of needlework in her single days, was expecting me. Here’s a photo. For years it existed as blocks, waiting to be joined. When my niece was expected, my mother invited her mother to help in finishing the work. They signed it and felt endorsed by it. Unfortunately, the material had rotted over the years and can’t be used, only displayed.
At another stage when my friend’s daughter was newly married to a man whose wife was a master-quilter, my friend’s wife followed the same practice, endowing various family friends with customized quilts. For mine she spend years accumulating materials about “Indians.” It’s not hard to find those prints with moccasins or feathers. It’s a beautiful example, done very well. These women were rich, exploratory, and skillful, but absorbed in a shared needlework that symbolized need in the thrifty past.
In old age my mother’s hands were too arthritic to do real quilting, but as a charity she sewed the bindings on quilts of simple squares made on a sewing machine by an old man who bought remnants. He gave them away to those who needed them. Of course, this gives up the pleasure of looking at a quilt made from remnants of familiar family clothes and remembering incidents when they were worn.
Such resourcefulness becomes art forms and they travel between cultures as well as up and down class hierarchies. Before the Blackfeet could afford Pendleton blankets to award as signs of regard and inclusion, they made Star Quilts with local materials. Some still do that in the near-genetic shared work of people with more time than money, reinforcing social ties as they stitch.
When I write on this sort of subject, some readers will picture me as a sweet old lady, a warm creative granny. Forget it. What I’m interested in is NOT beautiful quilts, though I admire them (particularly the spectacular and amazing modern ones) but the process, the invisible cultures they inhabit.
Google “abtract art quilts”, hit “images” and prepare to be amazed. It’s not just pattern or color, but the inclusion of other needle arts like trapunto, overlays, appliqué — even paint. Inclusions may be bits of old jewelry, buttons, stamped thin metal fragments, shells, or even photos. This is partly what makes quilting — fabric mozaics and bricolage — such terrific sources of metaphor for describing landscape seen from an airplane to mixed philosophical systems. But it works much better if people know actual quilts, sleep under them, eat in front of them. This is how culture arises, how generations reach across to the future, how nations enrich each other, how we educate our eyes and hands.
Inevitably, machines get into it so that one can acquire a long-arm sewing machine that will sew together the layers in electronically determined pattern in an hour or so. But at the same time world patterns change so that the cheap quilt I sometimes use in summer was quickly basted together by Third World women, possibly girls, for very little money.
There is a quilt on the wall behind me as I type.