Friday, May 13, 2011


Part 3 in a series on quilting
© Russ Barnes, 2011 All rights reserved. Text & photos. Reproduction permissions:

WASHINGTON. May 14, 2011,  My Austin quilt maven, Karen Alexander, guides me around the floor of the vast Houston Convention Center during our one day, November 6, 2010, at the International Quilt Festival. 

Karen is my walking encyclopedia of quilting culture: from techniques, fabrics, fashions, periods, regions, guilds, tools, sociology, machines, quilting luminaries, intersecting influences, shows, utility, and artistic presentation.  The convention floor we stroll is divided roughly into two parts.  On one side -- the finished art, the quilts.  On the other -- the paraphernalia required to manufacture a quilting cornucopia of artistic and utilitarian work.

Karen Shops for Needed Quilt Paraphrenalia

We pass a collection of quilts featuring “reverse applique” --a type of divergent, creative, decorative technique.  Children are the subjects of many of the displayed quilts.  This prompts a curious observation from Karen.  She reports that, in earlier days of quilting, care of children was not considered work(!). There was the old “puritanical” maxim that “Idle hands make for the work of the devil.”

As if raising children requires no more than “idle hands.”  To make the story short, women began quilting to keep their hands occupied and the devil away.  Quilting, unlike child-rearing, was work.  It was, in those days, utilitarian.  It kept you warm at night, provided a protective cover for a side-board, and other creative uses for old rags industriously employed for manufacture.

Karen pointed out over-and-over how hands serve as representational themes in many quilts of different quilting periods and styles, and how hands represent work.  That handiwork also often took women out of the isolation of family and child-care and into social units called guilds.

In those earlier days, Karen pointed out, quilts were not “valued” for their resourcefulness and creativity.  After all, quilts were made out of rags.  They were used for utilitarian purposes.  The work in making them was considered a “hobby,” a harmless diversion for “idle hands.”  Value has a slippery meaning.  “Value” is, almost always, synonymous in the collective mind with “money,” cash.  This fallacious equation has ruled establishments at least since the industrial revolution.  A vein of coal is inert if left un-mined and unimproved -- as are the rags and scraps of old dilapidated fabric.  It takes work to make coal productive for social purposes.

Quilt Detail - Patriotic Theme

So “productivity” is one factor that separated men from women in the yesteryear of quilting, the mines, and the farming fields.  Men did productive work that made “money.”  Women performed a pastime that was “idle,” or at best, “harmless.”  A privileged hierarchy of productivity existed.  This social system had to do with the relative worth and value of using one’s hands -- depending on whose hands did the work and the resulting product. 

As we tromped the quilt festival floor, some of the newer quilting traditions graphically portrayed newer, emerging traditions representing a kind of blueprint for a coming era of work and compensation.  One of these works had the title, ”From Trash to Treasure,” by Gyleen X. Fitzgerald, clearly alluding to “value-addition” by means of labor.


A quilt story.  It says something about the past, about value, and about worth. The narrative is from Nori Muster of Los Angeles:

“A quilt made nearly a century ago was passed along through generations of my family.  It came into my care several years ago. This historic quilt weighs over thirty pounds.  It was my great grandma Marie Christiansen -- born in Crawford County, Iowa -- who quilted it.

“She was so frugal she stitched the enormous quilt out of scraps from her husband’s worn-out suits.  When this hefty quilt came into my possession, its felt fabric had faded over nearly a century’s time to a dull-color.

“My great grandparents lived in a Denison, Iowa house during the days when the quilt was being handcrafted.  I visited the Iowa house in 2002 and was invited inside by the current owners to observe and imagine the past. I know that five children lived, at intervals, in the old house. I found out that, in those days, the house had a large cook stove fueled by corncobs and the like.  All the plumbing for the house was located outdoors.

“Through the generations there has been a kind of tacit family duty to preserve and archive that quilt.  It has a ”numinous” quality to it despite its age and appearance.  A kind of inexplicable energy surrounds it, aura-like, maybe because every stitch, every layer of it had been touched by a human hand.  The quilt went to my aunt at first, then on to my mom, and then to me.  I kept it for five years and in 2005 donated it to the Golden, Colorado Quilt Museum -- who welcomed its presence among the museum’s other valuable quilts.”

There is much to be said, and felt, about Nori’s brief story: utility, generational transmission, family care, resourcefulness, workmanship, artistry, social collaboration, human magic.

These are all worthwhile topics.  For now, I wish only to consider the story as it illustrates the labor and the creative resourcefulness of the maker of the quilt, Mrs. Christiansen.  Walking the floor of the Houston Quit Festival, one is astonished by the labor, value, ingenuity, and skill required to accomplish the kaleidoscope of stunning works displayed on the walls. 

Many workers in our society are paid handsomely in cash for similar labor.  It is doubtful whether Mrs. Christiansen, one-hundred years ago, received any cash for her efforts.  She may have received rewards, but no cash to use at her own free discretion.  And not receiving discretionary cash for value itself can be debilitating and subjugating.

Karen and others assure me that times have changed and many quilters receive compensation in several ways: outright sales, festival awards, pattern sales, and exhibition fees.

In addition to all of what quilting involves and represents, it is creative.  Creative work of many kinds has, more-or-less, from at least a hundred years ago up until today been stigmatized as “no real industry,” but rather as a frill practiced by women, children, and certain marginal men.

David Harris Speaks to Austin Performer Creativity

Until today. . . . Maybe.  Our faltering economy is either an extraordinary abyss in the ordinary economic cycle.  Or it is a sign that there is a change in the world’s economic and labor fundamentals.  Old industry after industry appears falling like dominos: publishing, manufacturing, bricks-and-mortar retailing to name only three examples.  Commentators such as Adriono Pianesi claim that we have to “unlearn” our old economic ways to reclaim a wealthy economy.

Such “unlearning” may require more of what is already on-going: a reassessment of the value of creativity for a new, post-patriarchal, wealth-building economy.  It may not be far-fetched to equate both the integration of feminine labor and all creative labor as not only valuable in emerging economies, but also much worth paying for and cultivating -- as are many quilts valued today.

Old learnings die hard.  Back in Austin from the Quilt Festival, I talk with David Harris, a production manager within Austin’s thriving entertainment industry.  Harris drew for me a picture of talented, creative people (both women and men) on the streets of Austin -- he went so far to call some of them “geniuses.  They are given a pittance and a pitcher of beer,” for their labors, Harris says.  Just as in quilting, many creative arenas must be re-assessed for their value and worth if our economy is once again to gain wealth.

* Other Travel with a Twist posts on quilting.  “Threads on a Bed;”  “Quilting Takes More than Stitches.” 
* Coming up, the 2011 International Quilt Festival is in Houston November 3-6, 2011 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.  More information at:
* Like to see more photos of Karen Alexander’s sewing and quilting work or learn more about her, visit: Karen's Blog.
* Genealogy of one quilt? Information provided by Nori Muster. “The quilter is my mother's mother's mother.  Marie Lochmiller, born Nov. 19, 1882; died July 7, 1966 in Denison, Iowa.  Grandma Christiansen (as we call her) lived in Denison, Iowa when she made the quilt, probably in the 1930s.  Married Marcus Bonnichsen Christiansen August 14, 1901 in Dow City, Iowa.Five children: Marie Louise Oct. 14, 1901; Dorthea, March 18, 1903; Ella Anna (my grandmother) May 25, 1905; Martha Maria Augusta, March 7, 1907; Neva Pauline Oct. 4, 1912, and Jr. Marcus Bonnichsen, April 16, 1918."
* Adriono Pianesi, (about ”unlearning”) ParticipAction Consulting Inc
* Gyleen X. Fitzgerald, at Colorful Stitches. Interview with Gyleen coming up in a future quilt post.
* If you have a relevant link you would like to be posted here, contact: