Nereids - by Mary Pal

Why Quilts Matter –
Question and Answer with Mary Pal

“The marketplace for quilts has always been a bit of a mystery.
It’s hard to understand why some quilts are so much pricier than others,
and why some old quilts aren’t worth anything at all.
And how can an artist ask $10,000 for a brand new quilt…and get it?”
Why Quilts Matter: History, Art and Politics,
Episode 3: The Quilt Marketplace

Mary Pal

Mary Pal

Just back from teaching at the Birmingham Festival of Quilts is Canadian studio art quilter, Mary Pal. Even without knowing her name you are probably familiar with Mary’s distinctive cheesecloth portraiture, a technique she lectures on and shares with fortunate art quilters across Ontario, Canada.

A long-time Studio Art Quilts Associates member who also serves on the SAQA Board of Directors, Mary is familiar with the ongoing struggle of defining what makes an “art quilt” and how they are (or are not!) monetarily valued.

What is a studio art quilt and what elements must be present for a quilt to be defined as one?

Great question! And a potential minefield, so I’ll tread carefully.

Looking Back - by Mary Pal

Looking Back – by Mary Pal

I think the “studio” part of the term stems from the fact that early quilt artists recognized that quilts are made in a sewing room, but art is created in a studio.

A traditional quilt may be artfully or artistically designed, but is it art? (And I’m not about to venture into the whole art vs. craft debate here!) I would say an art quilt is based on the images, ideas and designs of the creator, not from a traditional pattern, and usually displayed on the wall or a pedestal rather than a bed.

Art quilts are evolving rapidly. There was a time not so long ago when the answer to your question would have been “three layers (top, batting, and backing) connected with stitching, of an original design.” But Studio Art Quilt Associates has taken a leap into the future with their new definition: “a creative visual work that is layered and stitched or that references this form of stitched layered structure.” So the traditional elements of fabric and thread are no longer an essential part of the definition. It will be exciting to see what quilt artists will do with this freedom.

How does our familiarity with (the different types of) quilts affect our view of their monetary value as works of art?

Obviously, the more we know about the artistry and labor and cost of the materials, the more we appreciate the value of any quilt. Sometimes I am approached at an exhibition by a viewer who asks of my work, “How long did it take you to make it?” My tongue-in-cheek response is “60 years” because every life experience I’ve had, every art course I’ve taken, every one of my Malcolm Gladwell “10,000 hours” of practice – are all reflected in the work I create. Sometimes the question is asked because they simply wonder how arduous or time-consuming a technique is and sometimes they want to divide the selling price by the number of hours I might have taken to complete it to calculate my hourly wage.

I think those of us who are practitioners of this art form are quite familiar with all the variables involved and value these works highly. Now it’s up to us to educate the rest of the world!

Sour Grapes - by Mary Pal

Sour Grapes – by Mary Pal

What is next for you?

I am excited by some opportunities that have come my way, though they all have deadlines within the next couple of months, so a little pressure is involved!

A few months ago, I was invited to submit a piece for an exhibition entitled ‘Radical Elements,’ which involves selecting an element from the Periodic Table of Elements and presenting it in a “radical” way – something quilt-like but not using traditional materials like fabric or thread. I have to decide between einsteinium and nickel. Either way, you can be sure some portraiture will be involved! It’ll be a fun challenge, and I can’t wait to see what the other exhibitors do with it.

I was also selected for the ‘Earth Stories’ exhibition and my plan is to tell the story of George Archibald and the International Crane Foundation. But the ‘Earth Stories’ piece must be 72″ long and wide, making it the largest art quilt I’ve ever attempted, so therein lies the second challenge. The third challenge will be meeting all those deadlines!

More About Mary Pal

Learn more about Mary’s techniques on her website, Mary Pal Designs. For more of her colorful work, visit her online gallery. Mary has a wonderful selection of workshop offerings and, to our delight, has started blogging again at Mary Pal Designs – Textile Constructions.


Photos in this post are courtesy of Mary Pal.  Photography by Ray Pilon.


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