What Makes It Interesting? Part 4

I’m going to wrap up my thoughts on what makes a quilt interesting, with some comments on how a quilt’s story contributes. To remind you, I’m specifically talking about quilts that might be used as a bed or lap quilt, and not art quilts or wall-hangings. Also, if you’d like to read more on this, see the first three parts of this here, here, and here. Take a look at comments, too, as they offer more to the discussion.

Let me clarify that these posts are about how a quilt (or other object) appears visually, and what characteristics lead one to spend more time looking at it. But when a story helps us appreciate the look, the story is significant, too.

Remember this?

This is a pillow I made for my son. With the buttons pulling at the placket, it looks like a shirt too small for its wearer. Not really an attractive look. Once you’ve noticed that it is a shirt repurposed as a pillow cover, there isn’t anything else to see. Not interesting, and no reason to keep looking at it.

I could have posted a photo of it with no explanation. Instead, I told you a story about my son and about the shirt. Based on the reactions in comments, it seems the pillow is more interesting than it appears at first glance.

Stories can be told about the object itself and why it is important, or about the process of making, or about the owner. They can be embedded within the object or thoroughly outside of it. Because quilting is a visual craft, we can use symbolism of color or shape, and we can include words and ideas, to convey meaning or story. Take a look at Kerry’s beautiful quilt she has basted and ready for hand-quilting. It is a sampler with quotations embroidered onto several of the blocks. At least part of the story in her quilt is apparent. And it is that story that will help keep the viewer looking, until their curiosity about the quotations and variety of blocks is satisfied.

Another example is a quilt I made for a family friend, for her high school graduation in 2007. Ten years ago I was an early quilter, and the fabrics I chose were more important, symbolically, than the design.

Whitney’s graduation quilt. Lap quilt sized. 2007.

Without close-ups, you might not be able to see the various prints. There are musical notes, in honor of her experiences in high school band, and smiley faces, to signify her multiple dental surgeries and teeth-bracing episodes. The flip flop sandals note her favorite footwear, and the narrow border is a long line of coffee cups, to celebrate her work at a local coffee shop. In the lower right corner is a “W” for her first name. And in the upper left corner is a plaid I created from strips of colorful fabric. The plaid is to commemorate her friendship with my son. (Plaid!) Unlike with Kerry’s quilt, this quilt’s story is best read by someone who knows the owner.

Another quilt, made in 2010 for another of Son’s friends, has a very long back story. What you see in this picture is the punchline. Notice that besides the soccer ball, there is a trumpet behind the word “PLAY.” In addition to the words and pictures, the pieced bands use Dan’s high school and university colors.

Dan’s college graduation quilt. This is actually the back of the quilt. 2010.

I still use fabrics to convey meaning. My recent quilt, Black Sheep Manor, includes a variety of prints that the owners may notice over time and attach meaning to. Besides the fabrics, I’ve also used piecing to add significance. For instance, in a note to the owners, I explained the “piano keys” border as books, tremendously important in their lives. The middle border of half-square triangles also was intended to have meaning to them that others would not find.

If you’re familiar with Antiques Roadshow, you know that an object’s provenance can be an important aspect of its monetary value. What you might not know is that provenance or story can add value to a wide range of objects, not just antiques.

Recently I read Austin Kleon‘s book Show Your Work. In the book’s Chapter 5 “Tell Good Stories,” Kleon briefly describes an experiment done on the monetary value a story can add to an object. The experiment is more fully described at BrainPickings, in an article called “Significant Objects: How Stories Confer Value Upon the Vacant.” According to the article, the researchers

… would purchase cheap trinkets, ask some of today’s most exciting creative writers to invent stories about them, then post the stories and the objects on eBay to see whether the invented story enhanced the value of the object. Which it did: The tchotchkes, originally purchased for a total of $128.74, sold for a whopping total of $3,612.51 — a 2,700% markup.

Having a story made the objects more interesting, thus increased the value to buyers. The results were summarized as follows:

“It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.

I encourage you to read the whole article at BrainPickings.

Our quilts carry stories with them. Some stories are only obvious to the makers, as described in my post Transforming the Past| Transforming the Future. Some are obvious also to the intended owners. I believe we honor the tradition of quilting when we are aware of this, and let our quilts tell stories. I believe we can find the process of making more meaningful when we incorporate stories, as well.

Do your quilts tell stories? Are the stories mainly for your own benefit, or ones that anyone can see, or specific only to the owner? Do you have any other follow-up thoughts about making quilts that are interesting for the viewer? 

19 thoughts on “What Makes It Interesting? Part 4

  1. zippyquilts

    The Quilt Alliance (quiltalliance.org) has a long-standing project dedicated to preserving the stories of quilts. They will soon have a new program called Quilt Story Road Show, as well. I like the idea that knowing its story increases an object’s value.

  2. snarkyquilter

    Sometimes a quilt’s story is in its creation process. When my son went to college I made him a quilt. He chose the colors and, once I made the blocks, he then arranged them to his liking. I sewed them together that way. I know he still uses his quilt as just last week he asked me how to wash it.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, I agree. Sometimes that is the majority of the story. Someone else commented about a quilt having a story about how many times a seam had to be ripped and resewn. I have a few like that! Sweet that your son still uses his quilt.

  3. katechiconi

    This post resonates most strongly for me. I think most of my quilts tell a story, because they’re made for a particular person. Whether this is literal or symbolic depends on the quilt and the person. My Cloths of Heaven quilt was the best example, I suppose, but the current Bonnard quilt also tells the story of the person the quilt is for, what inspires her, where the quilt will live and how it will be used. I find this creation of the quilt’s profile and personality one of the most satisfying aspects of my work.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I do think when we make quilts for specific people, there are extra opportunities to include stories. Most of the quilts I make these days aren’t made for someone in particular. That makes it a bit harder to stitch stories into them. However, this is what I’d like to focus on in the future, figuring out how to do that. Thanks as always.

  4. Kerry

    My first – still unfinished hand pieced quilt (yes – it’s that one I mentioned ages back as you were so inspiring I feel the need to sort that out next) is from a trip to Florida and the discovery of beautiful fabric. I started it for my daughter and incorporated some scraps from a dress I made for her (badly – my mother in law finished it for me). Also matching fabric from a little craft shop in town that no longer exists. Last year at the Festival of Quilts some lovely ladies helped match the solid green that I was having difficulty to match No excuse for it lying around now. First finished quilt was my first tutorial for patchwork and is a trip around the world (could easily be trip to Florida with some of the fabrics purchased there) and now sits on our bed. Next quilt was a pineapple tutorial which I intended to give to my parents for their anniversary, but sadly my dad passed away suddenly before I quilted it. He did see the finished top though. I gave it to my mother for Christmas instead. Another tutorial and HSTs in yellow and blue with stars and planets – also Florida fabric – and I experimented with the walking foot. My favourite part was a Celtic interlocking triangle. My son has this one. I hand sewed and quilted a giant dahlia for a tablecloth – only our table was bigger than the finished pattern so I enlarged it with a bit of a struggle, but now it fits and hangs down the edge just fine. This year I made a quilt for my daughter (who was nagging me for a quilt) and I used fabrics that she chose from the shop I had the tutorials from when she was a little girl – there are tiny Saturns but she called them spacemen – flying saucers! It also contains a large amount of fabric that she chose for her curtains (I added blackout lining – they have lasted really well). When we painted her room we bought acrylic paint and I made large stencils to match the paint splatter stars and we decorated her walls with them. When I quilted it I made little doves in each corner which matches her first tattoo. Probably the most personal one I have ever done. The pattern was from a book and I tried improvising with different tools (dear me bad points – or non-existent ones). So it isn’t perfect but she loves it. I haven’t really done many quilts . . . yet! Thank goodness I hear you all say! LOL!

    Have to say Kerrycan – that quilt is gorgeous. Look forward to seeing it when it’s finished.

    Melanie – the stories are still interesting for us outsiders because as you recount your memories it is kind of you to share them with us. Yes – they are special in that respect. I guess most quilts we make are from the heart so all of them are special.

    Sad that stories have to be made up for a boosted sale price. Too many fibbers around nowadays just makes it all rather disappointing – which is why hearing your stories are that much more refreshing.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Kerry. I don’t think quilts need to be perfect to be special! Your daughter’s quilt sounds just right for her, points or no points! THanks for reading and commenting.

  5. allisonreidnem

    Yes! The stories behind quilts as well as other creations add a lot of interest. It makes me think of your recent post about what you like in a blog. I’d like to recommend another good read: folio and fibre on WordPress by Rachel Singleton. She describes with great precision her inspiration and artistic process and accompanies her words with beautifully clear (and often close up) photos.

  6. Chela's Colchas y Mas

    Lovely stories.
    The quilt I made from my dad’s plaid shirts was totally for me.
    I could see and feel him as I pieced the quilt out of his plaids.
    They made a cool pallet of color. I was surprised.
    The quilt I made for my mom was for me, at first. It helped me through grieving. But then, it became a way of telling her story to her great-grandchildren. People at the quilt show shared with me that they felt they got to know a bit about my mother.
    The quilts I have made for my sons, daughter-in-laws, and grandchildren also capture a time or something special in their lives.
    I am working on a life story quilt for my grandson. I have something representing each of his four years. I shared what I already have done, and he loved hearing the stories about his first years. He even told me what to add.
    People enjoy the visual story told by quilts. Color, design, pattern…all work together to enhance a story for a particular owner, or for viewers.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Your grandson will have a real treasure in the quilt you make for him — with him, too! Not all of the quilts I’ve made had stories, but I think most of my best do. Perhaps it is only because of the value I attach, and nothing else aesthetically special about them. That’s okay. 🙂

  7. Paula Hedges

    Stories do lend to interest in most anything. There is always a story behind each of my quilts – many that only I can appreciate, such as How Many Times Can One Rip out the Same Seam? Soon I will be making a lap quilt for a lovely young lady who lost her mother in November. That mom was a dear friend of mine and in tribute to her I will be making the memory quilt for her daughter from clothing that has meaning and memories, That will be a quilt with stories of great times and sadness! My only hope is it will bring the daughter comfort when wrapped in the quilt of her mother.


Thanks for your comments. I don't check them often. Please email me if you have questions.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.