The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Figures In Cloth: Pictorial Quilts (Sort Of)
It’s an experiment! (And it’s supposed to be a taxicab.) Photo: Mary Fons.Last spring, I made a quilt that made me happier than any quilt had in a long time: I made my friend Sophie a quilt for her birthday…and I tied it.
In this age of high-powered, intricate, digitized longarming, in a world where high-definition images can be zoomed in on with the swipe of a finger, the idea that a gal could finish her quilt in such a rudimentary way felt downright scandalous.
I thought about keeping it a secret — or at least not admitting it among my quilt-minded friends — but then I realized that doing so would go against my entire belief system when it comes to making quilts. My belief system is simple: A quilter should make what she likes, and everyone else can make what they like, and that’s that. Case closed, binding turned, finito.
Well, it’s time for another unsolicited admission: I’m making a pictorial quilt, because I realized that pictorial quilts are possibly my favorite quilts of all time.
This pretty scene, rendered as a quilt, was made in 1930 — and it’s pretty as a picture. Image: Wikipedia.“Well, it’s unconventional,” you say, hand quilting your latest queen-sized feathered masterpiece with 16 stitches to the inch. “But a pictorial quilt could be fun. What’s the
But when I show you my first attempts, you understand.
My cut-out shapes look like those Colorforms stick-um toys kids play with when they’re six years old. Actually, Colorforms look better than my shapes, and a six-year-old would probably look at my little taxicab and go, “Why is that banana round?”
Pipe down, kid.
Yes, I have a long way to go, I realize that. But the thing is, I’m happy as a six-year-old as I try all this out. So I figure it’s worth a few dirty looks from the playground.
My love of pictorial quilts goes back a long time. One of the first quilts I remember being fascinated by (outside of those made by my mother, in her home studio, which was often our dining room table), was Harriet Powers’ “Bible Quilt.” (I spoke about this magnificent quilter in a previous column.
That’s my attempt at a plane. And a…handbag? And a cloud. The handbag will not go in the sky in the final version. Probably. Photo: Mary Fons.I recall looking through Mom’s copy of the classic Quilts In America and being fascinated by the figures and the animals. (Some of the animals weren’t totally recognizable, but who’s counting? There isn’t much difference between a donkey and a cat, anyhow.)
And when Mom told me that the quilt told a story, that it was depicting scenes from the Bible, I was blown away. A narrative, told in stitched figures? A story on a quilt? The subject matter was kind of irrelevant, to be honest; I loved that in Harriet’s quilts, there was a lot more going on than squares and triangles. There were people, and trees; yellow suns and gray moons.
Other pictorial quilts I have loved include pretty much all Baltimore Album quilts, which I think count, though a quilt expert more learned than I can correct me on that one. But with the birds, the baskets, the scenes of country life, the wagons…an Album quilt looks pretty picture-like to me; thus, I like it.
Maybe my fondness for pictorial quilts is because they feel like they can function like words in a book. I’ve long said that I’m a writer first, a quilter second, because chronologically, that’s just how things happened in my life. For me, words and quilts go together like a bobbin in a case. One informs the other. I use words to write about quilts—and “text” is the root word of “textile,” I might point out!—so the idea that cloth could be used to make words, literally or pictorially, well, that’s what the kids might call “my jam.”
One of Harriet Powers’ many genius pictorial quilts c. 1895. I’ll get there, Harriet! Image: Wikipedia.
I’ve got a long way to go on these shapes. But I love working on them. What story would you tell in a pictorial quilt? Maybe better to ask: What story would you tell in a pictorial quilt if you didn’t care how “good” it looked, at least in the beginning of the process?
Not every quilt we make is pretty as a picture, but a quilt that is a picture feels like it might get a pass.
Ah, the mighty Baltimore Album, this one c. 1847. Pictorial bliss! Photo: Wikipedia.