Quilting Part 3: Process & Play

Quilt making is a process-based activity, and it is this feature that draws most modern quilters to the craft. Even when quilting is done out of necessity, as in Amish communities, it is used as a form of creative expression for the makers, as well as a satisfying form of labor. The two aspects of the process are the process as physicality in making and process as imbuing value into an object.

This is how to make a quilt. First, choose a patchwork pattern: log cabin, pinwheel, honeycomb, cathedral, star of Bethlehem, farmer’s wife, jelly roll, modern geometric, and the list goes on.  There are even variations on the idea of not conforming to a particular patchwork design:  crazy quilts and kaleidoscope quilts fit into this category. Next, pick your fabric: consider pattern, color, composition, scale, texture. Next, cut your fabric: this is usually done with a rotary cutter and ruler to enhance precision and uniformity. Cut your hundreds of precisely measured shapes, making sure to measure your angles. The degree of planning, math, and precision can be deceptive, and this step is critical to the success of the finished quilt. Next, sew the patchwork: this involves sewing your hundreds of fabric shapes into the precise pattern you chose.  It may be done by hand or by machine, and tends to be a very time consuming activity.  At this stage, the backing fabric of the quilt may also be pieced together with a secondary or secret design, even though it will not be visible when the quilt is in use. Next, quilt your quilt top, batting, and backing together: by machine or hand, stitching all three layers in a pleasing manner (make sure to consider how the quilting will look with your pattern). Lastly, bind the edges: finish the edges of the quilt with a strip of matching or coordinating fabric.

 Completely Cauchy, 2014, “In Wedowee…” finished and in progress.

Completely Cauchy, 2014, “In Wedowee…” finished and in progress.

The many steps of the process allow for exploration, learning, and creative problem solving, while the repetitive actions of cutting and sewing allow complete immersion in the activity. Some describe this immersion as “flow.” Naturalist Diane Ackerman describes it as “deep play,” where you become so involved in an activity that the outside world ceases to exist and you enter a new world with new rules. This immersion is evident in quilts such as In Wedowee by the quilter who goes by her blog handle, Completely Cauchy. In a blog post about the process , the quilter says, “I built out a log cabin using no rulers, no rotary cutters…just scissors and stitching by hand. Things wobbled and I embraced the wiggle. It was primal. And it shut the world out for a little while.” This complete focus on motion and material creates a connection between the making and the maker’s body, creating physicality in process.

The second aspect to process is the emotional value imbued in the finished quilt through the process of making it. Many quilters today have no interest in keeping the quilts they create; the draw is in the making, so they give away their quilts to friends and family. Because of the quilt’s connection to the maker, and now to the receiver, the quilt is an embodiment of their relationship. It is no longer just an object, but a connection between people achieved through the process of making. In The Saturated World, Beverly Gordon explores this concept in relation to women’s domestic amusements of the 19th and 20thcenturies. She writes, “Objects are in a sense brought into the body boundary and used as an extension of self. Everyday, useful things are embraced and valued … Process, in effect, is more important than product: even when something concrete is constructed it is the creative experience that matters more than what has been created.”

In this blog series, we have explored three important aspects of quilt making that serve as the foundation for the principles and process of a domestic aesthetic:  quilting as a safe space for women to express themselves, quilting as a way to explore and develop a point of view within the domestic aesthetic, and quilting as an artistic process.  All of this takes place nearly completely outside the patriarchal foreground culture of modern society.  I believe that quilts are not trying to cater to foreground values and that the creative benefits to makers and collectors of quilts outweigh any negative criticism that quilting is the province of Midwestern grandmothers. Quilting reflects diverse experiences, styles, and expressions of a within a domestic aesthetic, and the process through which quilts are created brings together like-minded crafters through the design, fabrication, and use of quilts. But these aspects do not belong to only quilting. Many crafts value process, functional objects, and community. Any of these activities, no matter how trivial, can empower people to exert control over their lives and to express themselves creatively.

Resources for this post:

Images from Completely Cauchy.

Deep Play, Diane Ackerman, 1999.

“In Wedowee…” Completely Cauchy, July 21, 2014.

The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women’s Lives, 1890-1940, Beverly Gordon, 2006.

For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange, Genevieve Vaughan, 1997.