I love quilts. The whole tradition has always intrigued me. Actually, I have recently taken up quilt-making myself (which has proved to be MUCH harder than one might expect, but that’s another story!). Attempting to actually make a quilt rather than just use one or look at one got me thinking about how practical traditions like these fit within our view of the arts, and furthermore, how these traditions fit within our theology of the arts. It is general knowledge that the Arts have not always been so exclusive; in the past, trades and crafts such as masonry or ceramics were often placed alongside things like painting. Recently, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in the practical arts, and we have explored some of these issues on the blog already.
In my thinking about quilt-making in particular, four main things come to mind that I think speak to the significance of practical arts:
1. Their emphasis on tradition and community: Quilt-making itself has been in existence since around the 13th century, and as it was practiced in mainland Europe, Britain, and, America, it was most often done in some sort of community. Families and neighbors would meet together to quilt and share stories. Patterns and processes would be passed down generations so that sometimes the pattern of a quilt would be indicative of its being made in a certain region or group of people. These traditions would become part of the identity of people and region, such as the case is with many Amish and African-American communities in the United States. As is often the case with the Amish, the tradition is often tied to the people’s sense of spiritual tradition, as well.
2. Their relationship to the body. The process of making a quilt is physically intensive. To lift and move such a large amount of fabric, to intently sit and stitch together cloth, to spend such a large amount of time performing what is often the same tedious motion, is all part of what it takes to make a quilt a quilt. And at their core, these bodily movements speak to the material nature of what it is to be human. Related to this, quilts are, to put it simply, blankets; and, as such, are meant to give the body warmth. A quilt covers and envelops the body, and in doing so reminds us not only of the importance and nature of our embodied existence, but also our relationship (both physical and non-physical) to a community, often most clearly to the person who made the quilt (I always think of my great-grandmother and my relationship to her when I sleep with the quilt she made for me). Beyond this, quilts are often a symbol of hospitality to other people. In earlier times, several quilts were often kept in the house not only for personal use, but also to make a bed for guests. And better, more valuable, quilts were often kept for guests rather than for everyday use.
3. Their usefulness. The usefulness and uselessness of art has been a major topic of discussion on the blog the past few weeks. I will always readily admit that quilts are with no question, art. But, I also have to admit, something in me cringes a little when I see a quilt hanging on a wall. This is because a quilt is not only a piece of art for contemplation (though the patterns can often serve well for contemplation); it also an inherently practical object. It has an intended use, and this is part of what makes it as an art so wonderful. The way that quiltmakers use materials speaks to this sense of usefulness as well. Scraps of discarded or seemingly unusable fabric (as is often the case in patchwork quilts) are up-cycled into something that is beautiful and useful. The fabric is given another chance to serve a purpose.
4. Their beauty. There is nothing like a beautiful quilt. When all is said and done, quilts are made with aesthetic choices in mind, and beauty is just as high on the list as warmth when it comes to priorities for a good quilt. This is why so much time goes into making the fabric and stitch patterns. It is beauty that draws people to the quilt, makes them want to use it, and encourages them to carry on its traditions of making.
All in all, quilt-making as a practical art is ripe for spiritual reflection, as we can identify principles of ordinary and everyday Christian living with the processes of making and use that occur in quilting. Quilt-making speaks to the importance of tradition and community, embodiment, hospitality, the value and purpose of material objects, and the place of beauty in both active and contemplative life. I wonder if my grandmother knew she was doing such a significant thing.