Why Quilts Matter – Question and Answer with Thomas Knauer, Part 2
Part two of our Q&A series with fabric designer and quilt activist Thomas Knauer continues with an exploration of handwork vs. machine work and just how a quilt arrives at the place where it is considered “museum worthy.” Part 1 of our dialog with Thomas was published on August 26, 2013, read it here.
How important is handwork vs. machine work in antique and/or contemporary quilts?
This question is a lot easier for me. As an artist who spent the first half of his career as a sculptor, the techniques and technologies are just the tools. What matters is the idea. Very early on in my practice I hired out particular fabrication processes because what mattered to me was the piece not my hands. The goal was to make the best work I could. From there, the process entailed doing whatever was required to make that work.
Techniques ought to be chosen to best match the ideas and forms of a quilt, but in they end they are just the means to make. If a quilt is fundamentally about hand-labor, or is a historicist piece, then hand-skills are likely required. Technique does indeed carry meaning but that is just one part of the equation, and for me a minor one. I regard making as more important than how we make. I am more interested in the “what and why” than the how. Generation after generation of quilters has used the best technologies and materials available to make; that is simply the nature of how we live. What I find really interesting is the ways in which new technologies can expand what we can make and how the use of technology can respond to the specific issues and concerns of any given period.
I fear there is a tendency to reduce quilts to technique, to glorify expertise in terms of craft rather than truly engage in the conceptual depth and power of quilts. Perhaps this is a by-product of quilting becoming primarily a hobby, a practice where makers strive to get better and better, but have no compelling reason in terms of why. The skills become the point in and of themselves; the techniques supplant the context. In this way quilts become accomplishments rather than living objects, parts of our lives and our worlds.
To be honest, I have long considered skills to be highly overrated. Heck, I can’t draw to save my life but that doesn’t keep me from designing fabric, nor did it keep me from an academic career in art. To me, making is about bringing form to ideas. I hope we all strive to make that form as perfect as possible but what really matters is still the idea, the reasons for making, and the fundamental impulse that spurs us to be makers. Everything else is just window dressing.
What is meant when someone calls a quilt “museum quality”?
I find “museum quality” to be one of the most pernicious phrases in all of quilting. As I touched on in response to the previous question, that phrase is more often than not a not-so-subtle code for technically skilled. It assumes that what makes a quilt valuable is a quilter’s facility at making rather then the ideas behind that making. The notion of museum quality values the amount of labor over what inspires that labor; it reduces out the cultural and social context and value of quilts.
This approach, in that it emphasizes the amount of labor involved in making a quilt, then favors the works of the middle-class, those people who have the time and resources that go into making such pieces. It tends to value a cyclical remaking of the same quilts, or variations thereof, that showcase skill mastery. Not only does this tend to sideline more conceptually oriented making, it also tends to dismiss the daily practice of quilting, its relationship to everyday life and the spaces in which we use quilts. What makes a bed quilt museum quality? What comes of a quilt that is stained with spills and potty accidents from years of use? To me those are the markers of a quilt that has had a profound existence. A quilt that spends a lifetime on a wall, a record of technical wizardry, seems to be more about ego and opportunity than a sincere reflection of the quilting tradition.
Of course I respect those technical skills, the practice and experience that went into developing those skills, but I simply regard them as a means to an end, not an end in themselves. I think the problem arises when the notions of “museum” and “quality” are conflated. Museum quilts—pieces made primarily for that type of space and display—are different beasts from practical quilts. They require different criteria and speak of different values. One is not necessarily better than the other; they are just of a different order. In regarding those show quilts as “museum quality” there is an unstated understanding that quilts that do not partake of that vocabulary are somehow of a lesser quality. I find that fundamentally insulting to the profound reality of the quilting tradition.
This all largely applies to quilts made now. Museum quality historical pieces are largely those that have simply survived; they serve as a record of making, though even within that set we tend to overemphasize the technical aspects of those quilts. Even within the context of historical quilts I find the extraordinary breadth of the tradition—flaws, wobbles, and all—far more interesting than the reification of its technical perfection.
What is next for you?
Now that is the really hard question. I assume there will be more and more fabric. I have a new collection called Thesaurus that came out in spring. It was designed for a joint project with Quilts for Kids. I have a running column on issues surrounding modern quilting starting with Quilter’s Newsletter this summer. And, of course, my first book will be coming out with F&W early in 2014. Other than that, who knows? I am just trying to figure all of this out and find a way to actually make something resembling a living doing this. Fingers crossed!
Also: Part 1 of Why Quilts Matter – Q&A with Thomas Knauer: Thomas shares his insights on reproductions and original quilt work. Join us on Facebook to share your opinion and hear others, and sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to receive updates about the Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics Q&A Series, and more.
More about Thomas Knauer
Thomas Knauer earned a BA in Studio Art from Kenyon College and Masters of Fine Art from Ohio University and from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He went on to teach design at Drake University from 2002-2007 before moving to upstate New York to start a family. Thesaurus, Knauer’s latest fabric line for Andover Fabrics, debuted in spring of 2013. More on his website Thomas Knauer Sews.
Images in this post are courtesy of Thomas Knauer.