Thursday, 22 February 2007

Reading List 2006

I kept a running list of the books I read in 2006 and arranged them in approximate categories, beginning with Arts and Crafts. Some of these books are old friends I had occasion to visit during the year, either for reference or just because I find them so valuable and/or useful that they are worth re-reading.

M.C.Richards: Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person (Out of print and apparently unavailable.) Published in 1962. Re-reading this is pure 1960s nostalgia and yet, and yet... how much of what she says is still true, particularly about the true meaning of education.)

Jonathan Holstein: The Pieced Quilt. An American Design Tradition First published in 1973. Absolutely seminal work for anyone onterested in the history of the patchwork quilt in America.

Bets Ramsey,Merikay Waldvogel: Southern Quilts. Quilts of the Civil War

Faun Valentine: West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers

Carla Needleman: The Work of Craft

Suzi Gablik: The Re-Enchantment of Art

Anne Truitt: Daybook. The Journey of an Artist

Henry Glassie: The Spirit of Folk Art

Garard Degeorge and Yves Porter: The Art of the Islamic Tile

Lucy Boston's Patchwork of the Crosses

Lucy Boston's Patchwork of the Crosses, illustrated in The Patchworks of Lucy Boston, is one of the masterpieces of English patchwork. Fifty-six blocks were made using only one template, a long hexagon ( known as a 'church window'), the edges being in-filled with squares and triangles. Her skilful and imaginative use of patterned fabrics create the illusion of infinitely varied blocks. A detail only is shown here - the full coverlet is about 88" square. This patchwork has been an inspiration to many patchworkers, some of whom have emulated Lucy's painstaking English hand-piecing method. I myself have made some blocks using her templates (sides of hexagon are 1") and her tiny stitching. I only managed about 6 blocks before I succumbed to serious repetitive strain injury!
Copies of The Patchworks of Lucy Boston, and other books by and about Lucy, can be purchased from this website:

The Work of Craft

The Work of Craft An inquiry into the nature of crafts and craftsmanship, by Carla Needleman, is an extended meditation on the relationship between Craft and craftsmen. She herself is a potter, and although she doesn't directly focus on textiles as such she shows that the basic material every craftsmen works with is him or her self. Whatever is between one's hands, the clay, the wood, the wool, the fabric, responds to the quality of one's inner state. The product of one's work is not just an object but a way of being.

In reviewing this book, Frederick Franck, author of The Zen of Seeing, said that it is a book "...for anyone whose hands itch to make something - pot, piece of weaving, wooden clog, painting or book - with seriousness, so that it is undivorced from the maker's inner life."

Here are some random quotes taken from Needleman's book:

"The realisation that when I work at my craft in a way that allows each moment to fall of its own weight, without hurrying it or retaining it, such a way of working will produce in me a state of greater sensitivity, can lead me to use this method as an inner technique having as its goal the state itself, solely for the pleasure of it. (P.9)"

"What does it mean that I undertake to study myself? Perhaps it can mean that I extend myself into the Craft, willing to sacrifice any of my own opinions that experience proves false. I undertake to begin a conversation with the craft, to listen to it, to be taught by the effort of trying to understand it. (Pages 12/13)"

Carla Needleman. The Work of Craft. An inquiry into the nature of crafts and craftsmanship. Alfred Knopf. NY. 1979. isbn 0 394 49718 X

Illustration shows 'Railroad Crossing', an 1930s American block pattern attributed to Nancy Cabot.

Patchwork and the Spirit of Geometry. Part Two

Jonathan Holstein considered pieced quilts superior to appliqué quilts in variety, invention and ingenuity. "For the quilt maker, the pieced block dictated the use of basic geometric forms, the possibilities of which were later sensed and exploited by abstract painters. The beauty of appliqué quilts is more of a decorative nature than that seen in the best of the pieced quilt, which when successful are the results of legitimate questions having been posed and most convincingly resolved. The license to draw freely, if it is encumbered with considerations of what is "elegant" or in "good taste", maybe more confining than finding creative solutions within a given format."Despite the fact that the period when many of these quilts were made, i.e. the mid-19th to the early 20th century, saw the emergence of geometric form as a consciously employed primary source in design, painting and sculpture, Jonathan Holstein reminds us that when such quilts were made they were accepted as common, utilitarian objects, not "art"; indeed, if presented as such they would certainly have been reviled. Nonetheless,,comparison between the visual effects of some of the best 19th and early 20th century quilts and paintings of that period are irresistible. Holstein points out the similarities between the "total visual effects " of some pieced quilts and examples of modern painting, for instance the retinal stimulation achieved through colour and formal relationships, and optical illusion, in the works of artists such as Vasaraly, while the use of repeated images drawn from the environment reminds us of the sequential use of images exemplified in the work of Andy Warhol. Colour variation on a single format, as seen in some Amish quilts, is compared with, for example, Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series.There are other points of comparison between quilts and paintings: quilts have the same format as most paintings, that is to say they are rectangular or square. (Painters fitted their frescoes largely to squared interiors and exteriors, worked on squared panels, used rectangular structures, whereas the square or rectangular format of the quilt was the fitted by the size and shape of beds.) Finally, quilts like paintings are two dimensional.Holstein goes on to say: "intriguing and startling as the resemblances me be, any direct linking of the two media [i.e. quilting and painting] would be demeaning to the history and presence of both quilts and paintings. Implicit in the art of creating painting is the intellectual process which ties the work of an artist to his disaffected ancestors and his peers, and places sit in the history of objects specifically made to be art. This is precisely the quality which was absent in the making of pieced quilts. The women who made pieced quilts were not "artists", that is, they did not intend to make art, had no sense of the place of their work in a continuous stream of art history, did not, in short, intellectualise the production of handcraft any more than did the makers of objects in the vernacular tradition the world over." Jonathan Holstein: The Pieced Quilt. An American Design Tradition.

Illustration shows 'Alhambra I', the first in a series of quilts inspired by Moorish decorative motifs.

Patchwork and the Spirit of Geometry. Part 1

An article I found 10 years ago on The Virtual Quilt, by Catherine Jones, seems to me as interesting and relevant today as it was then. The question she asked was this: what is the status of straightforward geometric patchwork in a time of ever more adventurous experimentation with the medium of the quilt? 10 years on, this trend shows no sign of losing its impetus, to the point where many people describe themselves as "textile artists" rather than quilters and use a huge variety of techniques to achieve their aims.

Interestingly, many textile artists who started out in the quilt world tend to at least keep a toe in those waters, to exhibit at quilt shows and to teach and give talks on patchwork and quilting. Several reasons for this could be advanced; a significant feature of the quilting world at large is the sense of community and bonding it engenders. Even people who have deviated from the mainstream retain affectionate friendships and liaison within the quilting world, while the less adventurous enjoy talks and classes with well-known makers who may challenge their assumptions and inspire them to experiment and explore. (The result is the eclecticism in styles and techniques of quilts seen at exhibitions today - everyone seems to be dyeing, painting, manipulating …….the list goes on.) There is also the fact that growth in the number of people becoming involved in patchwork and quilting, especially through the proliferation of groups and dedicated quilting shops, provides a useful and easily accessed client base for many textile artists.

But back to Catherine Jones's question. Where does this leave today’s patchwork quilt maker, someone who doesn’t wish to paint or dye fabric or turn their quilt into a collage, someone who enjoys straightforward piecing of geometric shapes? Can this be art? Jones broadens her discussion by placing patchwork in the context of geometric art forms found throughout the ages in many cultures and traditions. First, she argues that geometric art, with its straight lines and orderly arrangement which make it look so deceptively simple, challenges common expectations of what qualifies as "art". Furthermore, it conceals the mark of the maker's hand and Furthermore, it conceals the mark of the maker's hand and discourages last-minute creative revision. "In an era that prizes individuality and the frenzy of artistic inspiration, geometric work can come across as too impersonal, too well-crafted and too deliberate."

Jones also points out that except in certain instances, most notably the world of Islamic geometrical art forms, crafts based on these forms have been traditionally associated with relatively underprivileged social groups, that is to say with people who don't usually function as mainstream arbiters of artistic taste. Both patchwork and basketry, for example, have at times been associated with poverty and a make-two-and-mend ethos. The art historian, Oleg Grabar, in a lecture he gave at the National Gallery of Art, after making a survey of non-Islamic ornament, concluded as follows "….. the areas and claims that most consistently exhibit geometric ornamentation are at the periphery of major cultural centres or at the edges of dominating social classes". He went on to speculate that "….. geometry was the privilege of the illiterate, the remote, the popularly pious, the women using (and/or making) textiles and ceramics". Grabar described the graphic artist M.C.Escher, famous for his geometric works, despite falling in to none of these underprivileged categories, as "an orphan within the pantheon of contemporary painters and draughtsman".

All these attitudes conspire, in subtle ways, to relegate patchwork to an inferior status. Jones is dismissive of attempts to upgrade the work of some contemporary quilt-makers by comparing it to that of celebrated artists, such as Mondrian, or by linking it with jazz. She says "linking quilt-making with jazz - with free-form, urban music performed mostly by men - is a tempting way to upgrade the status of a geometrical and traditionally rural, feminine, textile-based art form. But I question whether the analogy holds and whether the constrained, geometric nature of patchwork may not, in fact, be a positive feature, a source of artistic power.”I hereby declare an interest: I love mosaic patchwork more than any other style, and will argue in further postings that its possibilities as a channel of artistic expression are inexhaustible.

Illustration shows geometric patchwork: 'Cross Patch', a variation on a Nine-patch block.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Sampler Quilts

2006 began as usual - with deadlines! However things looked up considerably when the proofs of The Quilter's and Patchworker's Colour Mixing Bible were checked and dispatched. But then that felt a bit odd as I'd been on deadlines more or less continuously for four years.Freedom is elating - then you have to consider what to do with it. A cold, hard look at the workroom provided some clues: there were boxes containing over 300 patchwork blocks, returned from the publishers when various books were finished. Too good to waste and I was too mean to give them away, even if anyone had wanted them. Trying not to dwell on the investment of time and money they represented, I decided on a practical solution: Sampler Quilts.This turned out to be a much more interesting exercise than I could possibly have imagined. This one is an assortment of blocks made for the Saturated colours section of The Quilter's and Patchworker's Colour Mixing Bible. The sashing fabric, mixed bright colours on a black background, echoes the colours but is dark enough to add a litle drama to the effect.

Patchwork Picture - Victorian style

A quintessentially American patchwork pattern - Rolling Star - gets a convincingly Victorian look because it's English hand-pieced in an eclectic mix of cotton, velvet, silk and satin (an old nightie). Piecing this block in these fabrics would have been difficult by any other method. One of a pair framed under glass as mock Victoriana. Viewers tend to assume it really is Victorian and I've given up explaining!

English Patchwork

In the customary New Year work-room clear-out I always find large numbers of UFOs, the motivation for some of which entirely escapes me. I’d like to report that I ruthlessly ditch anything I can’t see a use for, but it’s hard …you never know when something may come in for some yet-to-be devised project! This year, I found a large cache of English patchwork pieces, by which I mean mostly patches tacked over papers ready to be sewn together. It reminded me of how passionate I ‘d been about English patchwork when I first started, nearly 30 years ago. I did use a sewing- machine as well, but it was the fitting together of all those little mosaic pieces by hand that really fascinated me.
My first inspiration was, of course, Avril Colby, shortly to be followed by Lucy Boston. The blue cushion shown was made using the long hexagon template (also known as church window) which Lucy used for her Patchwork of the Crosses. (There is an article about her on my web site which includes a detail from that patchwork.) Using just this one template she created a huge number of different block designs simply by selecting out various pattern elements from the fabrics -what the Americans nowadays call "fussy cutting".I used a border fabric to try to emulate her. Quite a lot of my early patchwork was done in this way, - I was particularly keen on making fabric pictures.
It so happens that my class of ten enthusiastic patchworkers, all keen hand-stitchers, asked particularly to learn English patchwork this month. I'm looking forward to seeing what they make of it, have been working up to now by the American method of piecing. To illustrate the advantages of English patchwork, I've chosen a fairly complex block which has some awkward inset seams, a block which it would be quite possible to make either by machine or by the American hand-sewn method but which, in my opinion, is so much easier to make accurately by English piecing.


I can't bear to think how long this patchwork quilt has been hanging on the stairs at The Brown House! The simple, traditional Kaleidoscope blocks are all pieced in hard-wearing upholstery fabrics, for the very simple reason that it was intended as a sofa throw for a very large Yellow Labrador with deplorable habits. It's tied rather than quilted. However, my partner thought it was wasted on Bruno, so next time I looked it was hanging on the wall. He now claims it's too high to be removed - says he can't reach it any longer. :) So there it remains, year after year, gathering dust, which I occasionally try to hoover off. It's on a North-facing wall so hasn't faded as much as I'd expect.

Gentleman's Dressing Gown

Detail of dressing gown showing lining and velvet collar. As some of the fabrics are 'exotics' - brocade, silk and satin, for instance, the collar, cuffs and hem are finished in cotton velvet, which is strong enough to take wear and tear in the most vulnerable places.

Japanese 16th Century Patchwork

Patchwork in Japan has historically had religious significance. In Shinto, the predominant religion, all things animate and inanimate are believed to be imbued with a spirit, and this of course includes textiles. In ancient times fabric was so highly valued as to sometimes be used as a form of currency and fabrics were given as tribute to emperors and warlords. Even today old textiles have symbolic meaning: the giving of a patchwork garment, for example, conveys a wish for long life for the recipient, while the care and preservation of textiles is seen as a spiritual exercise. My padded and quilted patchwork dressing gowns are inspired by the 16th Century Japanese patchwork style known as ‘yosegire’. The word means ‘the sewing together of different fragments’ and is a form of what we in the West would describe as ‘crazy patchwork.’