Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Oh joy

Isn't this just the most wonderful, powerful, exciting, heady feeling in the world? The fabrics are piled up in abandoned ecstasy, the idea is intact in the imagination, waiting for release. The joy of creating a particular quilt will never be this acute again. Ahead lies all the compromise, the hours of tedious stitching, the gradual erosion of the pure, shining mirage.

And if you don't have even a slight idea of what I'm talking about, why are you reading this blog?

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Unpick of the week: how to deconstruct a quilt in four hours

Among every quilter's top ten movies must surely be Witness, starring Harrison Ford, a detective who goes undercover in an Amish community where he takes part in a neighbours' barn-raising, while the womenfolk cook and serve a meal and engage in a quilting bee, gathering around a large wooden frame for the communal stitching of a quilt.

The Quilting Bee, Grandma  Moses, 1940                                           Wikiart

But wait: pause the DVD, then rewind it. In a few minutes the barn roof beams are lowered, the nails unhammered, the walls horizontal, the windows unframed, the piles of wood re-stacked on the ground. The lunch is unserved and the quilt unstitched.

Barn-raising in Lansing, c1900                                       City of Toronto Archives

Thus it was this week when I helped to unmake a friend's quilt.

A beautiful quilt top, meticulously pieced, but with a fatal flaw...

This particular king-size bed quilt had been many months in the making, and involved the sewing together of strips. Quilting wisdom dictates that you should sew each alternative strip in the opposite direction to avoid distortion - an instruction so very easily forgotten or overlooked in practice, so disastrous as a result. And it could have happened to any one of us. Advice had been sought, but the answer was inevitable: unpick it, or consign the unfinished skew-whiff quilt to twenty years in limbo at the back of a cupboard.

Unpickers at the ready, girls!

Enter the Quilting B Team, brandishing scissors and unpickers and roaringly ready to rip those seams.

Coffee. Gossip. Bitching and unstitching.
 "What would be  your Desert Island Discs?"
Cats shooed off the table. Getting into the rhythm of those plucked-apart threads, those fabric furrows.
 "Surely you can't like Rod Stewart?"
"It's so wonderfully BBC4, but probably only 300 people watch it."
"It was like kissing an over-ripe pear."

Soup and salad. More unstitching, The warp and weft, the snip and snag, the indigo fabric and navy thread, the slicing through knots and tangles.
"You did WHAT with Roy Hattersley?"
"They've sold out - they were playing at the O2 Arena."
"I know the book's a best-seller but I really didn't enjoy it."
Unpickers meeting in the middle of the final seam, a pile of loose threads on the floor...

After four hours the room felt like a pathology lab (I've never been in one, but I've seen the TV shows), a magnificent quilt dissected and lying eviscerated at our feet.

Time to catch the Tube or bus home, to reflect on the value of friendship and to congratulate ourselves on a job well undone.


Saturday, 7 November 2015

Quilts in the White Cube! Can this be for real?

I had a very surreal dream this week. I imagined I went into a contemporary art gallery in the heart of Central London's gallery-land, to discover a huge white-walled room devoted entirely to quilts. Amish, Mennonite, Gees Bend, hexagons and log cabins were strewn across the display stands and draped on the walls, while aesthetic young men engaged in earnest art-speak with their smartly dressed Mayfair clientele.

Leola Pettway, Gee's Bend quilt, 1970

But wait... No, surely not, could this have been REAL

Indeed yes. Having shaken my head in a  previous blog about the tokenism that underlies even those fine art galleries that admit textiles through their hallowed portals, here is the White Cube, no less, giving itself over to a serious examination of "the rich symbolism of textiles and their political, social and aesthetic significance through both art and craft practice".

Alighiero e Boetti, La Forza del Centro, embroidery, 1990.
William Morris Pimpernel wallpaper, 1876

And there's more. Downstairs, filling the lower ground floor, the exhibition continues with textile works - embroidery, knitting, applique, rugs and carpet - as well as textile-related paintings, by modern and contemporary artists including Mona Hatoum (I studied her evocative use of embroidery with human hair for my degree, and there is an example here) and Alighiero e Boetti, whose embroidered letter-blocks are colourful and jolly, even though described as "metaphorically charged conceptual work".

Stirling Ruby, BC, fabric, glue and bleached canvas, 2015

The gallery write-up ticks many of the boxes used when referring to textiles: anonymous; domestic; quotidian; useful; decorative; pattern - words so often used in the Modernist past and even into the Postmodern anything-goes present as terms of belittlement and dismissal.

Yet here I feel they are terms to be discussed and explored, celebrated and enjoyed.

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, oil and enamel on canvas, 2007

Boetti, the gallery claims, is "contesting traditional notions of authorship" by employing Afghan women embroiderers to execute his designs, while Hatoum's Rugs were made by Egyptian rug-makers, and an installation by Danh Vo is a "collaboration" with weavers in Mexico.

Sergej Jensen - and his mum - Untitled, handknitted wool on canvas, 2003

Sergej Jensen "commissions" his mum to do hand-knitting to his specification, but does not think to give us her name. (Mrs Jensen?) If one had the energy to embark on the well-worn debate of what distinguishes art from craft, that would be a fruitful place to start. 

Is it the case, then, in this exhibition of "This way for the craft, downstairs for the art"? Even here it's not so simple. The Gees Bend quilts makers are named, while others are labelled as "Unknown artist".  Artist! 

The quilts are amazing. They're in an art gallery. Losing the Compass is on until January 9, 2016. Go and enjoy them.

 Amish and Mennonite quilts, 19th and 20th century