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.
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?