Reflections on the Practical Art of Quilt-making

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.



  • Jennifer Allen Craft is a regular contributor at Transpositions. Jenn is from southwest Georgia (think swamp, red clay, peanuts, and gnats) and holds a B. A. in Biblical Studies and Humanities from Atlanta Christian College and an M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination and the Arts from St. Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD on the theological significance of place with special attention to the role of the arts in the way we make and identify with places.

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  1. says: Steph

    Jenn, great post! I love all of these things that you have mentioned that go into quilting which contribute to the very multi-faceted nature of this art, especially the communal nature, hospitality, usefulness, all wedded to aesthetics, resourcefulness, and creativity! I’ve never quilted because I’m sure I would not have the patience or the small motor skills for it, but I should probably stop making excuses and give it a try!

    You said that you cringe when you see a quilt on the wall. My mom has one hanging on the wall which is very old, made by her great-grandmother (I think), and if it were used more, it would start to fall apart because of how well-used it was before. Do you think this is an ok use, in order to preserve it? It kind of brings up the question of what “using” something does – it wears it out, as it should. But would there come a time to preserve (and possibly display) rather than use?

  2. says: Anna

    I was so glad to read this post Jenn!

    I wonder about quilts which are specifically created as wall pieces? I wonder whether they are somehow undermined or limited by not being able to fulfill all of their purposes. Would this constitute an abuse of the form?

    I guess quilts, like the ones Steph mentioned, which have had good use and need now to be preserved (as a way of preserving family history and heritage) are in a different category, though i look forward to hearing your answer on her question.

    I really appreciate the way you laid out the different aspects of quilt making as an art and the artistic community that surrounds it. It got me thinking about the way that the 19th c distinguished Arts & Crafts from the Fine Arts. I wonder how we approach this distinction theologically, and how we should approach this distinction (if indeed we should preserve it) biblically and as christians.

  3. says: deidra

    There is a quilt museum in my town and it is lovely.
    I have made two quilts. The second for my son, intended as a high school graduation gift. I finished it in time for his college graduation last year. It is a journey…this art of making a quilt. I am not good at it, but even with that, my twenty-one-year-old son takes this quilt with him wherever he sleeps. Our relationship is at a difficult juncture – his and mine. We rarely speak more than a sentence each day. But I watch him move that quilt with him and remember sitting under its warmth as I stitched tiny stitches and prayed for us. Those threads connect us, I believe. The threads and the prayers.

  4. says: Jenn

    Well, as a general comment I suppose I should first clarify my statement about cringing at the quilt on the wall. I was overstating my point somewhat in order to talk about the usefulness of the art form. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to hang a quilt on a wall, and I think that the display of quilts in museums or otherwise has its place and purpose. For instance, the quilts of Gee’s Bend, which I provide a link to in the article have traveled all over the United States to various art museums. These exhibitions have made people aware not only of the quilting community in Gee’s Bend that produces such amazing pieces, but have also given people insight into quilt-making as art form more generally and questions the view that “practical arts” such as these are in some way less valuable than other arts such as painting or sculpture. (But a note should be added that these quilts weren’t originally made to be displayed rather than used, and that you can also purchase these quilts in order to use them!) Furthermore, the presence of quilt museums, such as the one Deidra speaks of or the International Quilt Study Center and Museum at University of Nebraska (which I’ve never been to but looks amazing!) provide a way for older quilt pieces to be preserved and studied (as well as those traditions, designs, patterns, stories, etc. that are attached to them). Their mission statement reads as follows: “The mission of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum is to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and promote discovery of quilts and quiltmaking traditions from many cultures, countries, and times.” Without places like these, the traditions of quiltmaking could in some way be lost.

    That being said, Steph, I think that the case of your mom’s quilt being hung on the wall is perfectly acceptable not only to the beauty of the quilt but also to its usefulness and the tradition (and love, time, etc.) that it represents. The story attached to that quilt is valuable and depends at least in part on the physical piece that you can touch and see and smell. When you can see places that have become worn or stitches that have come undone, you can see the story that unfolds within it. You can possibly see that same place where someone pulled up the covers to sleep at night (or for instance, you can see where I got paint on the edge of mine, which my great-grandmother also gave me to encourage my interest in art). These things give the quilt a value added over time; they accrue meaning and are made more special by their being used in everyday life. But I also think because of the fact that it is used, its display is made more meaningful. Deidra, I think your comment speaks to this—the nature of quilts to carry stories, thoughts, and prayers. Thanks so much for adding to the conversation!

    My husband Brandon also pointed out to me that displaying old quilts in this way doesn’t take away from their practical purpose— it may change it, though. The fact of the matter is, a hundred year old quilt probably does not serve well for warmth or cover anymore. It may have holes in it or be too worn to serve the same purpose. But because it accrues meaning over time, it main purpose could change from providing warmth to a reminder of family tradition or conveyor of beauty. These are still practical purposes, I think. They’re just different from what might have been originally intended…or maybe not.

    Finally, Anna, you asked whether I thought the making of quilts specifically and solely for display was an abuse of the art form—I must say, that is a very difficult question indeed! I’m not sure I have the best answer, but I’ll try my best. When I said I cringed at the quilt on the wall, I think this is actually what I had in mind. I would never make a quilt or buy an expensive quilt just to hang on the wall. Something in me does initially think that this is some way abuses the art form, but I’m not sure this is entirely true.

    First, we might question what the artist’s purpose and intention was in making the quilt. I wonder if their makers subscribe to the view that art is only for contemplation? Can we not just as easily be moved by the beauty of a quilt when it is spread over a bed (which displays just about as much of it!)? If the artist intended the piece to be hung on the wall, and thus didn’t make it in exactly the same way (they may not have used batting or finished it in the same way, they may have used an intricate appliqué technique that would fall apart with use, they may have used delicate fabric), then maybe it could be justified. It’s purpose then, is not for warmth, but for display. This doesn’t seem like abuse. It just seems like something entirely different to me.

    Second, you questioned whether as Christians we should maintain the distinction between Fine Arts and Arts and Crafts. I think a lot of times this distinction is damaging and has led to the view of the modern artist as an elite part of society (the painter makes Art; the homemaker makes “crafts”.) That seems silly to me and I think some of the best artists I know are those that engage in the more practical arts of textiles, etc. I don’t think we can biblically justify the distinction either. If we are given any explicit justification for the arts in scripture (and I don’t think that we have to have explicit justification, but hear me out), it is for the more practical arts, crafts, and trades. If we want to start with a biblical view of the arts and artist, I think we need to see them as much broader than our current society allows for most of the time. Artistic making spans many different activities and I think they are all important to how we view human work within Creation. I think, in part, that’s why I wanted to start making quilts. It gives me a way to practice patience and care with materials, to find value in materials that I might otherwise have found unusable, to be a part of a community and tradition, to provide a means of hospitality for other people. It’s these things (and of course many others that I haven’t mentioned) that I think need to be brought back into our view of art. And I think the “practical arts” such a quiltmaking provide just such an avenue.

    1. says: Anna

      Jenn, thanks so much for taking such care with your response. I think we agree but it wasn’t about finding disagreement so much as hoping you would, as you did, flesh out some of your ideas on these topics. I think it would be good to go one step further on the abuse of the form maybe and question whether art is somehow undermined by mass manufacture of those panel pieces for quilts, but in so far as pieces of textile art (which are not made to be quilts used for warmth etc) I agree that there is must be very careful thought as to form, function, and the relationship of materials and their use to the piece.

      I would love to see you develop the answer to my second question into a whole post of its own, thinking through whether we should maintain the distinction of fine arts and arts and crafts as christians and how this might influence how we serve artists of all kinds within our communities. I really appreciate you taking the time to flesh out an answer to this question – my gut tells me that you are right in your desire to challenge the way that society has distinguished these from each other. I think maybe that capitalism is largely responsible for this distinction and also that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish excellent quality examples of what is often known as arts and crafts from the pedestrian and that the rarefied form of fine arts is, by its elitest nature much more defined as to its own standards (which are often more about an internal validation). I guess this is in part where we would need to beging to discuss aesthetic judgment and how subjective/objective it is and can be/should be in so far as saying what is good or beautiful.

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