Why fabric? (by Margaret Cooter)

Why quilts – rather than paintings … do you sometimes wonder? Whenever SAQA’s Art Quilt News pops into my inbox (you can subscribe here, it’s free) I ponder this question – the quilts shown in it are each part of an exhibition somewhere. Of course, seeing the work on screen is nothing like seeing it for real, whether its a quilt or painting or other medium … so the quality of the photography for what we see on screen is going to make a difference, especially for quilts, with the texture of the quilting often so very important in the design concept.

This week, thumbs up for fabric in this quilt, Yellow Pod, by Colleen Ansbaugh

The fabric is monoprinted, which at first made me think – “why not on paper” – but here the quilting adds that necessary something to complement and enhance the lines and colours of the print.

K Velis Turan’s “Please Stand By” is screenprinted, and the reverse applique will make some elements pop, which again seems to enhance the design … and wouldn’t work as well in paint or print on paper. The visible quilting is a graphic element in itself (closeup is here) –

Nancy Crow‘s “Double Mexican Wedding Rings IV” (1988-90) could be a zingy print on paper, but this piece is “so quilty” because it comes right out of the quilt tradition – the blocks need to be pieced, not painted … fabrics, not hues, need to be used.

Would you say much the same about this next quilt? Does it need fabric and stitch to bring the design to life, or would it work equally well in paint, print, or collage?

Alicia Merrett, Blue Harbour

Quilted sea … that makes sense to me – the sea itself has a visible texture … but when it comes to quilted skies, what do you think – does the quilting evoke the feel of the wind or enhance the look of the clouds? Or are skies best left “just” painted?

Photorealism on fabric is another stumbling block for me – it makes me ask “why?”  Perhaps “because I thought it would be interesting” is good enough an answer?

It seems to me that sometimes the use of fabric is either an indulgence, or else a power struggle: the materials need to be vanquished, they need to be bent to the will of the maker.

There’s a further consideration, and I rather hesitate to mention it, but here goes….  What do you think – could it be that some people using fabric because they haven’t developed skills in other media?

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7 Responses to “Why fabric? (by Margaret Cooter)”


  1. 1 kathleenloomis August 14, 2014 at 4:43 am

    I have been wrestling with this same question for years and have taken to searching out fabric used in “real art” (that is, in mainstream art museums). What I find intriguing is that when “real art” is made with fabric, the craftsmanship is usually crude. Often the signs point out that the artist had his or her mom do the actual sewing. Even Faith Ringgold, usually proudly adopted by the quilt community as a “quilt artist,” had her mom do the quilt parts.

    Those of us who came at it from the fabric side of the aisle tend to take pride in our craftsmanship, perhaps because we knew how to sew very well before we started to call it “art” (for example, me) or perhaps because we decided to master our chosen medium (for example, Nancy Crow).

    I think this attitude marks us as old people. Most of the younger artists profess to not care about craftsmanship (even in painting, if that’s their thing). This strikes me as a bad thing, but then, I’m old.

  2. 2 Yvonne August 11, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Why is it that textiles are not considered ¨arty¨ enough? There are some truly talented people out there using all types of textiles as a means of expression. Why are they less worthy? If you take a look at http://www.arttextilesmadeinbritain.co.uk you will find most of the artist there went through the art college route then ended up using textiles. I hope you are just trying to stir the pot a little & not really serious, after all I may be a bit of a dummy but I am still trying to come to terms with piles of bricks & unmade beds! Yvonne

    • 3 mcooter3 August 12, 2014 at 1:51 am

      Yes, I was trying to stir the pot … as well as being quite puzzled about this issue. Walking round Festival of Quilts last week, I was looking at many works with this question in mind, and seeing work that fell on both sides of the “why fabric” line. Also there have been and are “quilts” made in paper, painted or appliqued and held with stitch to another layer (of cloth or paper).

      Thinking about this, perhaps my concern is that so many “techniques” are being thrown at “quilts” that the wonderful qualities of fabric (and thread) are getting lost.

      The “Art Textiles – Made in Britain” display at FOQ was wonderful, and many of us will know and admire the work of some or all of these artists. Maybe it’s because of their art background, or just through long experience, these artists have found their own aesthetic and ways of working that use the qualities of their materials.

      It’s not just textiles that are still on the wrong side of the artisan-vs-art dichotomy – consider ceramics, mosaics, even photography – some artists slip over the divide, but most work in these media is relegated to “craft”, for various historical reasons and entrenched attitudes.

  3. 4 olganorris August 11, 2014 at 1:45 am

    One could expand your question to ask why marble, why oil, why metal, why paper, why music, why words …? They who feel the overwhelming urge to express themselves choose the medium which they use most comfortably as the language in which to voice what they have to say.

    A lot of what I have to say on this subject is in my RCC post here: https://raggedclothcafe.com/2011/07/21/questions-questions-by-olga-norris-2/

    and I still think that the concern should be about the quality, not the medium.

    • 5 mcooter3 August 12, 2014 at 1:33 am

      Why (and how) artists choose their medium is interesting – sometimes it’s down to simply opportunity or chance, sometimes it’s instant affinity, and it could also be a slow process of learning until that comfort zone is reached.

      The current trend is for (young?) artists to work in many mediums – not necessarily all at once, though of course there are lots of “multimedia” artists too. Can this cross-media type of working enhance the quality of the work, or is something going to suffer?

  4. 6 Suzanne August 10, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    I absolutely have not developed skills in other media. I’ve been working with fabric for decades and plan to continue. Although I might think about switching to, say, watercolor, I don’t because I’d rather explore ways to bring that sensibility into the medium I know best than have to spend years playing catch-up with something that may not feed my soul in the end and at which I currently stink. But isn’t that a two-way street? How many painters or sculptors are sufficiently adept with fabric to use it? I can’t tell you how many painters I know who tell me I’m a REAL artist, but why oh why don’t I learn to paint? When I suggest they learn to sew, they seem truly puzzled. Why izzat? Aren’t the questions the same?

    • 7 mcooter3 August 12, 2014 at 1:27 am

      Working in the medium you know best is a great way forward, and I agree that switching to another medium isn’t necessary if the maker is using the current medium in a thoughtful way.

      Love the idea of all those painters and sculptors buckling down to learning to sew!! Even if they got to grips with the technicalities, they’d have a long road ahead in order to use fabric as fabric can be used…


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