Contemporary Quilts: The Challenge to Make a Point

Bear with me, this is a long and indulgent blog.

At a recent meeting of the Contemporary Quilt Group ( of the Western Australian Quilters’ Association ( our speaker issued a challenge.

After a thoughtful presentation to us all about the defining characteristics of a contemporary art quilt, Virginia O’Keeffe urged us all to make a quilt that made a statement about something important to each of us. She also specified that it was to be a good sized quilt, “at least 48 inches square”.

Gosh, I thought, that’s a challenge but I can’t think of anything to comment on….

Then Virginia produced a large sack. In it were “lucky dip” bags each containing a t-shirt she’d bought at an ‘op shop’. I drew mine out and at first thought “that’s hideous and it isn’t speaking to me”.

Then I looked inside the neck at the top.

Voilà! I immediately saw what I could talk about in the quilt. I have previously blogged about the book “Fashionopolis”. See blog dated 11 July 2021.

My “point” or message was going to be about the terrible conditions (building disasters resulting in death; appalling OHS conditions; as well as less than living wages) under which people, mainly women, work in the clothing sweatshops of Bangladesh. The toll on the global environment of so-called fast fashion in terms of water use and the non-biodegradable synthetic fabrics often used need also to be called out. Not many of us are innocent in this appalling scenario. If we buy the products then we are complicit. It’s a hard thing to swallow.

So I designed a small quilt that would showcase the terrible statistics in “Fashionopolis“. I decided I’d make it in my own plant-dyed recycled fabric to ensure the medium reflected the message. Everyone knows I have enough!

I have several baskets of recycled plant-printed cotton and silk fabrics.

I decided to use a traditional patchwork block (log cabin) to contrast the slow-making patchwork tradition with the fast fashion process. In the former, waste is virtually eliminated because even small scraps can be used. In the latter “efficiency” mitigates against careful husbandry of inputs. This results in waste on a large scale.

I cut strips of cotton and silk and some wool, all plant -printed.

Then of course each strip had to be cut into pieces of varying lengths so that the colour variations of the strips could be distributed throughout the blocks.

Because my design involved highlighting the real effect on people and the environment of fast fashion, I chose the magnifying glass as a motif. That would have to be a larger scale log cabin block. so I used wider strips for this section of the quilt and I hand embroidered quotations from “Fashionopolis” onto some of the strips.

As many people know, making log cabin blocks is tedious and piecing them together is tricky as there are so many seams to match perfectly. So many times I thought that fast fashion/making was preferable to this slow and painstaking exercise!

My design wall in the earliest stages of assembly. The newspaper is the template for the “magnifier”. Many blocks to go!
Still a pile of work to go. At this point I nearly gave up but mentoring friends encouraged me to keep going…
The almost* finished work titled “Who Made Your Clothes?”, 44″x44″.

I quilted the paler log cabin blocks with free motion writing of environmentally and health positive messages such as “fair wages” and “safe working places”. The it got to the point where I wanted to stitch in the ditch of the dark blocks representing a T-shirt. My machine’s shank failed so I could no longer attach feet securely.

What is the problem?

Well, none, if time is of no relevance. I could have the shank exchanged for a new one. However, I’d made another commitment involving this piece.

A few weeks ago I’d been asked by colleagues to advertise the York [Western Australia] Arts and Crafts Show to makers The reason? It’s one of the few regional art shows that still has a separate category for textiles. Support it with entries or see it potentially disappear! Having encouraged friends who are textile artists to submit an entry, I felt obliged to do so myself. I’d identified the “Who Made Your Clothes?” piece as a possible (aka the only possible) piece I could enter.

So… was Sunday morning ..and, while unfinished to my satisfaction, I hastily inserted a wooden baton into the pocket, secured some D-rings and a wire hanging mechanism in accordance with the requirements of the York Arts and Crafts Society and drove it to York.

Fast forward to Friday night, late, very late. An SMS came in from the boss of the show. I’d won an award and would I be available tomorrow morning for the presentation? York is about 120km east of my home so it was possible, but was this a hoax? The reply indicated that it was no hoax and so, still not knowing what award I could possibly be eligible for, I drove to York next morning.

I’m glad I made the trip because I’d won the Textile and Fibre Art category. More importantly, I got to meet the two judges who were both very committed to the idea of art which engaged/informed and told a story. So “Who Made Your Clothes?” had resonated with them both and I’d won the blue ribbon for the textile category.

As I warned at the beginning, this is an indulgent and lengthy blog. The image of the “completed” work is one I took at the gallery at the opening (after removing an errant pin!). I have no other images.

I cannot help thinking, however, that there are lessons for me in this whole episode.

  1. When inspiration/ideas occur, go with them. Create art that means something to you.
  2. You can never predict what the judges will value; celebrate the wins but don’t grieve over the “non awards”
  3. Technique is important but in some settings it may be secondary to the story your work is telling.
  4. If you are into blogging , take photos BEFORE your deliver the work
  5. Note that this particular Award did not require, or permit, an artist’s statement so the clarity of the message needed to be VERY clear from the work itself.

Anyway, the York Arts and Crafts Show is on until next Sunday 16th October for those of you who fancy a day out in an historic town with great galleries, cafes, and numerous boutique stores….

This entry was posted in brown onion as dye, casuarina dyeing, cochineal dyeing, Design, dyeing with avocado pips, dyeing with red onion, Eucalyptus sp as dye, exhibiting, Geranium leaf printing, Machine quilting, Natural dyeing, patchwork. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Contemporary Quilts: The Challenge to Make a Point

  1. Emma says:

    Absolutely brilliant Margaret! The ‘magnified’ section makes me want to peer in and read, and then search for more in the rest of the quilt. Such a clever way to do it!

  2. meritaraji says:

    Fascinating and encouraging! Thank you Margaret. 😊

  3. Rae Poon says:

    Congratulations Margaret, a very thought provoking piece of work & so well executed.

  4. Margaret Ford says:

    Thanks a lot Rae!

  5. Stephanie Knudsen says:

    Oooh love it Margaret I have a particular passion for log cabins. Congratulations and good on Virginia for putting out the challenge.

  6. Margaret Ford says:

    You are very charitable Stephanie! And yes, Virginia keeps us thinking!

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