From Kristin: In my previous life, I was an eighth grade US History teacher. During several of our units, we studied quilts and quilting history and examined how the lives of the makers were reflected in their quilts. For example, all it takes is a quick look at the names of some of the blocks from the late 1800s–Rocky Mountain Puzzle, Chisholm Trail, Missouri Star, Road to California–to understand that the pioneer migration had a profound and lasting impact on the craft. The popularity of the quilts wasn’t just an aesthetic trend, but an expression of a shared experience and the significance of place.

In  the introduction to his new book, Modern Quilt Perspectives: 12 Patterns for Meaningful Quilts, Thomas Knauer says, “To Me, quilts are, first of all, cultural experession–small statements about a time, a place, an idea. They speak about oneself and one’s place in the world.”  Through the patterns in the book, Thomas proposes 12 new symbolic quilts that reflect current values and ideas. We asked him to write a little about the symbolic quilts of the past, and how modern quilt designs can represent today’s world. See below for a chance to win a copy of this wonderful book!

From Thomas:
I am not a formalist; never have been. I feel lucky that throughout my training as an artist I have had professors who emphasized the formal aspects of art as the means to speak about ideas and issues, and who taught me that shapes, in and of themselves, are essentially arbitrary. Without an underlying reason, no organization of shapes is inherently better than any other; it is all just taste.

In fact that is one of the main things that draws me to quilting. It isn’t the formal vocabulary or even the material process; it is the tradition of using quilts to speak to issues, both large and small. When I look at most of the old, traditional quilts I see them as translations of shared experiences, of nature, of communities, of lives. While each individual incarnation tells a very personal story, the shared forms, the recurring blocks and patterns, speak to common experiences. It is that interconnection of the individual with the communal that I find so compelling about this practice, and that draws me to design and write about quilts.

In fact, that is the whole point of this first book; it is about looking for a symbolic vocabulary that speaks to our day. The most obvious example in the book is my Cinderblocks quilt. While I enjoy log cabin blocks as much as the next quilter, they simply don’t speak to me as anything more than a formal device: I do not and likely will never live in a log cabin. I wanted to design a quilt that spoke to the material reality of our lives, a quilt that would speak of home now as the log cabin did in the 19th century. While log cabin quilts take the basic building process of log cabins and transforms it into a space for color and play, so too does Cinderblocks, allowing endless possible color variations.

Cinderblocks from Modern Quilt Perspectives

That essentially sums up what “meaningful” means in the title. I cannot imagine a quilt not being meaningful, at the very least to the maker. This book is all about making quilts that also function symbolically, on many levels: the aesthetic, the personal, the historical, the societal, and in some cases the political. While much of the quilting world has narrowed in on producing formal patterns, I think we are seeing a profound re-emergence of interest in making quilts that resonate with symbolic meaning.

To be honest though, I do not like the word “meaningful” in my title. I didn’t put it there. I think it runs the risk of implying that other quilts are not, in fact, meaningful. The word is too broad and applies to too much. The intent is obviously to say that these quilts, and the thousands of words of discussion that surround them, are rich with meanings on multiple levels, but I fear that just doesn’t come across in the title. Or maybe I am over-thinking things. The point of this book is to add to what I see as a growing lexicon of contemporary metaphors in practical quilting.

In this I owe Denyse Schmidt an enormous debt of gratitude. I will forever think of her Single Girl Quilt as the exemplar of the modern, symbolic quilt. As a response to the Double Wedding Ring, it is an amazing statement about how gender dynamics are changing within a society that still so often assumes the primary purpose of a woman is to find a spouse (see Marry Smart). In fact, my Palimpsest quilt– a patchwork pride flag brilliantly quilted as though it were a DWR by Lisa Sipes– is as much in dialogue with the Single Girl as it is the Double Wedding Ring.

In many ways the ultimate examples of symbolic quilts are old Amish quilts. Though many regard them as formal exercises and often attribute some resonance with Modernism to them, I cannot see them as anything but deeply symbolic works, ones that speak to religious piety and beliefs lived out profoundly through an austere life. The simplicity was born not of design innovation, but of a commitment to a simple, inconspicuous life. The colors of these quilts were often determined by the community, something that further distanced the works from being about individual expression (this is one of the ways we can pinpoint just where anonymous quilts were made). As formal objects, they are lovely, but as cultural expressions they are extraordinary.

Palimpsest (Pride Flag)

And that is really the point of my book. It is an exploration of the role of quilts today, not just as a hobby or a personal practice, but as a profoundly relevant response to the world we live in. For much of the last few decades the social and political responses in quilting have been the purview of art quilting, but at this moment I see the questions of what we make, and why we choose to live with the things we do, becoming increasingly significant. More and more people are looking for something beyond beautiful, for things with meaning. And I hope that this book, its discussions and examples, can help provide a little of that and perhaps inspire endless new quilts.

What about you? How is your quilting imbued with meaning? Is there symbolism in what you create? Do your quilts reflect your world and an experience you share with others? Tell us what you think in the comments for a chance to win a copy of the book! 


Learn more about Modern Quilt Perspectives: 12 Patterns for Meaningful Quilts through the many stops on the blog tour!:

March 14: Thomas Knauer
March 15: Lisa Sipes
March 16: Robert Kaufman
March 17: Victoria Findlay Wolfe
March 18: Katy Jones
March 19: Bill Volkening
March 20: Kelly Biscopink
March 21: Audrie Bidwell
March 22: Mary Rachel Kolb
March 23: Rachael Gander
March 25: Cloth Paper Scissors
March 26: Cheryl Arkinson
March 27: Quilting Daily
March 28: Fat Quarterly
March 29: Pellon/Erin Sampson
March 30: Sew Modern
March 31: Rachel May
April 1: Quilty
April 2: Amy Smart
April 3: Quilter’s Connection
April 4: Teresa Coates
April 5: Generation Q
April 6: Cloth Paper Scissors
April 7: Sara Lawson
April 8: Kim Niedzwiecki
April 9: Rashida Coleman Hale
April 10: Thomas Knauer