Wednesday, October 7, 2015

AHIQ #1 Wrap up

What a week! Kaja and I both feel Ad Hoc Improv Quilters started off with some wonderful links. So many different ways to improv a quilt. People shared their ideas so generously. Looking at all the comments and posts, two common themes thread through the posts.

  • 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.
Kaja posted about emotions. I'm going to attempt to work through the anxieties.

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,

18 comments:

  1. Hi Ann
    You post and Kaja's are very thoughtful. LeeAnna

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    1. Thanks, LeeAnna. It's been fun to think and write about this topic. More comes up as we write. But you know that from your posts, too.

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  2. Thanks for this post. I constantly run into people who look at my work and say, oh, I could never do that.........I am so traditional. My work needs to be exactly perfect.

    I always feel sorry for them. To me, the joy in quilting is putting together what I have, what has been used, what is shunned by others. Oh, I still do traditional quilts, and worry about how my stuff looks to myself and others, I just don't let it hold me back!

    I LOVE Modern Utility! You need to start a whole new movement!

    glen

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    1. That's something Audrey says, too. The longer I quilt the more I want them to express me, not someone else. I like looking at show-stopping quilts but they rarely speak to me like these more personal ones. I love the joy of quilts that are used everyday.
      Wasn't Kala clever to come up with this name: Modern Utility!

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  3. I agree, thanks, keep on doing what you're doing. I love 'Modern Utility' too.

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    1. Go Modern Utility! Thanks for writing and participating, Janie.

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  4. You are making some great points here: I absolutely agree that we should look at what others do and draw inspiration but not compare ourselves to others, it can so easily lead to a loss of confidence and courage. I love the point about making quilts for "the joy of the process" - it seems to me this is exactly why I choose this way of working.

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    1. It's a mix, isn't it. I get such a charge from seeing what other people are doing. I work better in groups although I like to do my own thing. We are so fortunate to live in these times. So many more choices - both fabrics, styles. Even when we are strapped for cash we still have more options than our forebears. All we need is joy. Thanks for the great name: Modern Utility is now a movement!

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  5. Very interesting and thought provoking post. Yes, I like the idea of "Modern Utility" quilts too! My quilt making is definitely about the joy of the process, whether it's through improv machine piecing or traditional English paper piecing, which I also enjoy. It's never about being exact and perfect and like someone else's quilt. And I want my quilts to be held and loved and to keep people warm too :-)

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    1. I'm so glad you brought that up. There's room for many styles. We don't need to limit ourselves. Hooray! We can work on all the styles that take our fancy. You can see it in older quilts, too. It's part of what keeps me interested in quilting - the many choices. But being used and loved are the most important reasons to make one. Thanks for writing such a deep comment., Viv.

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  6. I have enjoyed the comments and the post about "Modern Utility." I just do what I like and what speaks to me. I design in my head and then translate improvisationally to fabric. It is very freeing. I also like the problem solving aspect that can happen. Sometimes I need to think about an in-process piece a bit and mull on it awhile. It is somewhat hard for me to make a typical traditional block anymore. Improv has much more soul and more of a story than a traditionally pieced "perfect" quilt made from someone else's design. Then throw in some recycled fabric in the mix and I am a happy camper!

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    1. These are exceptionally insightful comments; I'm simply the curator. You speak for many about your process and materials. Thanks!

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  7. My FIL Lou sure loved Tony Bennett and that song makes me think of how he'd bust out in song with his beautiful singing voice.
    Ann you had so many wonderful links to share in this post. Thank you for doing that. You have to be one of the most knowledgeable people I've ever met.
    Up until my mother's generation, all quilting done in our family was utility quilting, very much like you described with the life cycle of the fabrics. I am the first one who ever went out and purchased fabric. The improv quilt I'm working on is anything but utility too.
    There are so many definitions of improvisational quilting that I think it would even change from quilt to quilt as we learn. It is such an individual and personal journey. I love reading what everyone in the group has been sharing about their own journey.

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    1. We all liked to sing but no one would say we had beautiful voices. What great memories for you.
      My family had lots of scrap quilts but somehow most had common backgrounds. Reading these stories makes me realize they had some regular cash income for that to happen. The real utility quilts may have been "used up". We have almost too many choices today, don't we?
      Yes, improvisation quilting covers so many styles. Like you, I love learning from each quilt I make as well as all the ones I see. It's really rewarding to know other people are following their own paths, that we intersect at places, and we all are so willing to share. Modern Utility or Improv Modern Utility seems a better descriptor.

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  8. I grew up thinking quilts were what were made out of leftovers because that is what my grandma did. They were farmers. They didn't waste anything during the depression era. In fact they had no gasoline during those times for the tractor and had to go back to using horses in the field, paper was in short supply so they saved paper and often wrote letters on the backs of paper that had been used for something else. Grandma told me many stories about things she did/made to get by that have proved useful to me growing up poor like I made the kid's blue jeans from the cut off part of our blue jeans. I used to make my own envelopes from other envelopes turned inside out. I've learned to love gardening, canning and that cloth napkins are more useful than paper. I hang my clothes out to dry when the weather is nice. I think "improv" is a way of life.

    When I saw this post was about anxiety that song from Mel Brook's "High Anxiety" movie came flooding into my brain. Sheesh...

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    1. After reading The Little House series as a child, I knew they were made of leftovers and outgrown clothing. So that's how I made my first quilt. Ha. Isn't it wonderful to have a family history of quiltmaking and saving/making do? My grandmother always saved zippers and buttons. During the war, my mother said she was the only girl with zippers in her skirts. I remember them canning when I was very young. Grand and I made cloth napkins one summer. You're right. We are so lucky to have this knowledge and these memories.
      Thanks for reminding me of Mel Brooks. Sheesh is right.

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  9. I feel you are putting into words/making sense of all of my feelings. Ive been left feeling empty reading so many blogs that have become pawns for fabric companies, that think the faster the better, that make quilts frim only one fabric line, that think they are inventing new techniques etc. my grandma taught me to quilt using flannel scraps she got for free from the pajama factory, we cut templates from the plastic lids of coffee cans and glued sandpaper to the back to keep them from sliding. She didnt have a fancy sewing room or machine. Quilting is actually a simple art of expression. Notice I didnt say perfection. Thank you for giving words to my roots, for encouraging us to let go and make do: the best tools for peaceful, gentle sewing.

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    1. I didn't realize how many people would be touched by this post. Aren't you fortunate to have learned quilting from your grandmother. And to learn to use what's a hand! My mother gave me her Featherweight when I was nine and I sewed in my closet. We had many family quilts (mostly scrap quilts) but no one living quilted so I taught myself. Ah, the confidence of youth!
      I recall making templates from cardboard; the edges softened as you drew around them. Then I discovered plastic milk cartons.
      Thanks so much for sharing your memories. Like you, many of us sew them into our best quilts.

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