- Although improvisational quilting is more demanding than originally thought, most find the process freeing and fun. Hooray for a positive!
- Many worry whether their work is "real" improv, whether it resembles other improv quilts. Boo for a negative anxiety.
Her dictionary definition "to create or perform spontaneously and without preparation" and "to produce or make something from whatever is available." Neither of these says anything about style, commercial success, or approval by anyone including the worst critic of all - our inner negative voice. Improvisational quilting is a way to practice, and hopefully master, our own artistic visions. It's also a way to use fabric we already have on hand. Both are admirable and sufficient to the definitions.
There are no references specifying use of rulers or not, use of rotary tools or scissors, use of new, recycled, printed, or dyed fabric. Gwen Marston and Sujata Shah seem to prefer to cut freely at first before they straighten their units with rulers. Rayna Gilman and Sherri Lynn Wood usually avoid rulers. Rayna also over-dyes and prints her fabrics. All are improvisational quilters. While we certainly admire their work and find ideas there, it's a mistake to constantly compare our work with others. Amy at Amy's Free Motion Quilting Adventures said it best: "Comparison is the thief of joy."
By 1998 Nancy Crow was so tired of her rigid, template-driven style she almost quit quilting. The quilts of Anna Williams revitalized her, encouraging her to move in a completely new direction - improvisational, without drafted designs, rulers or templates. Anna was the first guest artist at the1990 Quilt/Surface Design Symposium. Nancy is an internationally known quilter. Who influenced her? A vernacular artist - Anna Williams.
Anna hailed from Louisiana, not Alabama. Most of her quilts were made of many small pieces rather than the large pieces more common to early Gee's Bend work. Why? Katherine Watts gave fabric to Anna when she closed her shop. Anna had a rich resource of quilting fabric unavailable to the others.
The women of Gee's Bend originally quilted "britches quilts", the name they gave to utility quilts made from worn out clothing. Later some got factory scraps, the leftovers from mills. At one time, they used Sears corduroy. As their economic situations improved, they eventually purchased fabric off the bolt. This progression is visible in their quilts. My first point is that they chose what to use from what was available to them. My second point is that they were internally compelled to create artful quilts to the best of their abilities. Just like Anna; just like us.
This reminded me of Kathleen McCrady of Austin, Texas - an accomplished, award-winning quilter. Here's what I recall from a lecture she gave in Dallas years ago. Her parents were Oklahoma farmers; they had land instead of cash. With a small grant from the Quilter's Guild of Dallas, Kathleen documented her family quilts before they were completely lost to history. She related the sequence of fabric use: sew a dress; when worn out, make an apron; when that wore out, make a quilt. It was very apparent from the photos that these were utility quilts whose primary purpose was keeping the family warm. Large rectangles of dress fabric, faded and slightly dingy from years of wiping hands on those aprons combined with occasional work pants. Many were stuffed with corn husks. Finally she showed a 1950 bright pink and green quilt, the first her family made with fabric purchased expressly for a quilt.
Britches quilts, work clothes quilts, utility quilts. These women never called their quilts improvisational, although we classify them such. Perhaps we should call our work Modern Utility.
Many of these women knew each other or they knew other quilters working in this style. They borrowed designs from each other. And they had fun making something needful. When the press of needfulness abated, they made quilts for the sheer joy of the process. How about you? Are You Havin' Any Fun?
Enjoy the day,