Forty years ago, Cortez resident Tammy Wilson, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, was given a quilt made by her auntie. The traditional piecework design radiates out from the center in a mix of brightly colored, carefully placed two-inch squares of cotton cloth.
Synthetic fabrics were not common when her aunt hand-stitched the squares together. Instead, the quilt was made from worn clothing washed, ironed and cut carefully into squares of the same size of many different weaves and a mix of printed patterns that eventually became a king-size bedcover. The entire back layer of the quilt is a white-and-green calico cotton that, when stitched with the top and the middle batting layer, produced a heavy, warm blanket for the cold Colorado winters.
The process took months to complete. She was a little girl when her aunt finished and gave it to her as a gift of respect, identity and, “mostly love,” she says.
Wilson hasn’t slept without it since.
“It reminds me of home. It feels good, yes it does, to sleep under it. But now the quilt is wearing out,” explains Wilson, pointing out the fraying seams. “It’s hard to find help with repairs because I don’t sew.”
Traditional quilts, typically women’s handiwork, are considered textile treasures. According to Elizabeth Wayland Barber, a textile archeologist, women began spinning fiber, making clothing and other household applications 20,000 years ago. In her book Women’s Work, she explains that ancient history and economic records omit half of the influential role women played in the social development of culture. In fact, she writes, right up to the Industrial Revolution the fiber arts were an enormous economic force, belonging primarily to women.
The extremely perishable nature of the work adds to its invisibility in the historical contribution. Cloth ravels. It wears out. It must be replaced, rewoven, re-stitched, repaired. Much of it is recycled, especially in rural communities like Montezuma County where until the last 20 years a minimal variety of new fabric – on the bolt – was available. Like women everywhere, resourceful rural housewives salvaged scraps of cloth to use in the painstaking, fastidious quilting tradition that kept the family warm under a beautiful textile art.
According to textile historians, piecework quilts flourished from 1870 to1910. During that time they introduced a fresh textile-design element that eventually led to the development of unique American patterns such as the “Log Cabin,” still one of the most basic, revered historic designs. Many distinct cultural and regional leitmotifs developed organically as women worked alone at home incorporating their personalities or messages into the patterns. Rituals grew from the work as well, like “quilting bees,” a gathering of close friends helping each other with an often unwieldy, heavy quilt.
The message is in the medium, according to author Robert Shaw, independent curator and scholar of American arts and crafts, who has written that during the first 40 years of the 20th century, quilts were often used to express political statements as well as some form of domestic beauty, especially during the Great Depression.
His recent book, American Quilts: The accounts of gender bias in the textile arts. As an example, the groundbreaking Amish use of color, form and movement in quilts influenced the development of abstract expressionism in American studio painting. “The distinctly American idioms and artistry employed by American quilt makers created works that, had they been produced by men working in studios, would unquestionably have been declared works of art worthy of museum walls,” writes Shaw.
Like most local Montezuma County quilters, Janice Hoffman learned the history and techniques of the craft as she sewed and fell in love with quilting. She has made piecework and patterned quilts for many decades, always enjoying the process and the result. But while her husband, an artist and educator, was still alive he asked her why she was using patterns made by other people. “Why don’t you use your own ideas, your designs? he asked.
She began investigating “art quilts,” a movement that grew out of the 1970 resurgence in handmade quilting that frees the seamstress from the traditional piece-work pattern approach in order to use the materials freely as needed to “paint” an image. “At some point after the ’70s, quilters wanted to take the textile medium one step further,” she says, “take an approach to the medium much like a watercolorist or oil painter, abstract or realistic.”
While living in Florida, Hoffman found a branch of the Studio Art Quilt Association, a nonprofit organization promoting quilting as a creative visual work. The final fabric handiwork must still adhere to the traditional structural requirement that any quilting be worked and stitched together in three layers – a top and backing and a layer of batting, for warmth, in the middle.
The SAQA group promotes the “art” in art quilting through programs that educate and develop design skills as well as sewing techniques. Today its membership has reached nearly 4,000 and it is a highly respected visual-arts resource for museum and academic collaboration.
The George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum recently hosted a juried exhibition with SAQA, titled, Stories of Migration: Contemporary Artists Interpret Diaspora.
The six-month show opened in April 2016, displaying art quilts and textile / fiber arts submissions that responded to the theme of a sudden human displacement and dispersion of large populations from an established ancestral homeland. Resettlement issues, grief, loss and hope were rendered in fabrics, thread and fibers such as wool and silk, cotton balls and cocoons. One artist even plaited Bandaids into a mandala weaving.
Hoffman signed up for classes that helped her focus on surface techniques, including hand-stitching and embroidery. The education also opened the door to an array of material options more suitable for quilts intended for display rather than bedcovers. New synthetic fibers and even fabric painting and dyeing techniques, like traditional Japanese indigo dyeing and Indian batik and tie-dye, filled her quilter’s kit with a variety of possible approaches.
By the time Hoffman returned to Montezuma County, she was using her own photography portfolio of high desert landscapes as a base for quilting scenes, building up overlapping fabric shapes to create the form of a mesa, waterfalls, distant mountain ranges, local plant materials, earth and sky.
It is a time-consuming approach to visual art, because the fabric medium has a strong material memory and definition. Learning the limitations is an ongoing process, like trying to make a flat-finish, shiny chintz look like a fuzzy, forested mountaintop. It probably won’t work.
Each quilt, whether an art piece or a traditional pattern, can take most of a year to complete. The cost associated with just the labor component puts most quilts out of consumers’ reach, especially in rural markets. Yet Hoffman and most quilters work at it happily and continuously because they love the craft, the lasting friendships that come with the sewing circles, the memories implicit in the quilt-making and the beauty it contributes to family and community.
Quilters, an energetic and positive group, share their camaraderie in the Cortez Quilt Company every day the shop is open among the vibrant selection of materials, sewing machines, yarns, books and patterns.
Classes are offered, too, and exhibitions of local quilt work rotate on the display walls. Groups gather around the wide expansive tables working together solving technical issues, clipping snippets of cloth, top-stitching, folding hems and tracing patterns while others learn sewing-machine basics on demonstration machines around the room.
The patrons at the Quilt Company and the more than 100 members of the Dolores Mountain Quilters Guild often contribute to local fundraisers because their work can bring top dollars during a benefit auction. Made in Montezuma, a fundraiser held in October to benefit the Southwest Memorial Hospital Foundation, received a bedcover donation from a group of local quilters last year. At the annual fall event, the quilt brought $1,100 to the foundation coffers.
It is estimated that 1,500 quilters practice their craft in Montezuma County. Of that number, Hoffman believes there are 10 to 15 who are aware of the expressive opportunities in art quilting.
“I hope to generate interest in opening a local SAQA chapter here. We certainly have the talent, too, but for now, the SAQA memberships may be a little steep. It will be enough, for now, to educate ourselves on the freedom found in the art approach to quilting, to get together, share ideas and find a direction.”
Quilting in all its forms is evolving and finally claiming space in mainstream museum shows and venues devoted to fiber arts. “The Studio Art Quilt Association gallery page is so inspiring. I would encourage people to take a look at the website,” Hoffman adds. The burgeoning collections of artist portfolios posted at the site are simply luscious.
The art quilt organization and information meeting will be held at noon, Thursday, Sept 8. It’s a brown bag lunch at the Cortez Quilt Company, 40 W. Main, Cortez. All are welcome, even beginners.