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Quilting Outside the Lines

December 23, 2002

One of my Christmas presents to myself this year was Signs & Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts. I’ve wanted this book since I first saw it in a bookstore years ago; I didn’t buy it then because it was an expensive hardcover and my budget was pretty tight. After a few raises, I had more discretionary income to spend on books, but I never saw this title in a store again. The quilt stores didn’t have it because it isn’t from one of the publishers they typically deal with, and it was no longer new enough to be carried in the regular bookstores. Earlier this year, I decided to get with the times and move my paper “to buy” list in my planner into an Amazon wish list and found that Signs & Symbols was available in a new paperback edition. That was excellent news, and served nicely to distract me from finding out that a lot of the other titles I wanted were now out of print. You’d think seeing all those other books no longer available would have spurred me to order this one right away, but I put it off, thinking I’d wait until I got a special offer or at least until I was ready to do a bigger order. The last day for free shipping for Christmas is what finally spurred me into action.

My copy arrived last week, and it was as good as I’d remembered. The quilts pictured have such energy they almost come right off the page. They’re full of bright colors and bold designs, but what attracts me most is the way they flout the conventional wisdom about how a quilt should be constructed. These women (and a few men) are not afraid of the quilt police. Many of the quilts use traditional designs, but only as a starting point for wonderful improvisations. There are partial blocks, and several patterns combined into one quilt, and points of triangles cut off all over the place, and corners that do not match each other, and even corners that are not square and edges that are not straight. The rules I’ve learned from books and magazines and talking to other quilters don’t apply, and the results are often wonderful pieces I wish I’d made.

Except if I made them, they wouldn’t look the same. I expect they’d look like the pictures I’ve seen of quilts made in the African American style by other Anglo quilters, where the work comes off as very self-conscious. “Look at me, I put that triangle in backwards; ooh, I’m so wild,” I can almost hear the maker saying. That’s not a knock on those quilters; at least they’re trying, but it’s clear that it’s hard to get out of the traditional way of working, where we cut our pieces to standard sizes and take care to make everything fit together “properly”. It’s tempting to try to make a quilt in the African American style by trying to define a set of rules to follow—big blocks, strip construction, uneven sashing, and so on– but that misses the point. It’s not about different rules; it’s about a different aesthetic tradition, a tradition that I, as a white girl, am not steeped in.

I did try my hand at loosening up when I took a class from Nancy Crow on Improvisational Quilts (the book that was a companion to the class is out of print, but you can see similar work in Nancy Crow: Work in Transition). Here was a white woman doing pieces that owed a lot to free spirited African American quilts. Maybe she could help me break out. For two days under her tutelage, I did things that I wouldn’t otherwise do when quilting, like cut up already sewn pieces and put them back together in odd (to my eyes) orientations. It was interesting and challenging, but not transformative. After class was over, I did finish two of the small pieces I started (including this one from my gallery) but haven’t played with improvisational techniques since. Maybe when my coworkers slow down with the baby making and I can complete a few of my personal projects, I’ll take some time to experiment again.

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