Nov 14, 2013

what's an art quilt... and why do you need all that fabric?

Here goes a long (and possibly highfalutin) post. Apologies in advance.

I timidly tell a few people now that I'm an art quilter... that's a fancy way of saying I no longer make traditional pieced quilts, or bedspreads (actually, I never did make bedspreads- they're just too damn big).

But a wise quilter friend recently asked me, what exactly is an art quilt? That question got me to thinking... if she doesn't know, maybe lots of people don't know. So, should I dare try to be so presumptuous as to answer this? Will all the "real" art quilters and artists scorn my attempts to explain? Who knows. Who cares. So, here it goes...

To me, the question of whether a quilt is a traditional quilt or an art quilt boils down to one very loose definition: originality.

If your quilt is original, then it is an art quilt. If you think you are making art, then you're an artist.

Pretty simple, actually.

Doesn't take a rocket scientist... nor does it take any validation from anyone other than yourself. That's whats so great about life. You get to decide who you are.

But I think we can apply a bit more analysis here... so just hang on.

Other than originality, there are a couple of academic factors that separate traditional quilts from art quilts. The obvious one being that art quilts are intended to hang on the wall as art.

The second (also kinda obvious) factor is whether the quilter is using a commercial pattern or if she is relying on a traditional patterned block - one that has been passed down through the generations - versus something she created yesterday. Art quilts typically do not incorporate pieced blocks, and their patterns are original.

The third factor can often be the fabric. Since an art quilter typically creates her own design, to do that you need fabric that is neutral in value, but has color. (I know that may not make sense... stick with me here). Think of the fabric as paint. If you want to make a flower of your own design, not cut out a flower from a pre-printed flower fabric, you need material you can manipulate into your own form, shape and color. You need fabrics created specially for art quilts!

What's an art quilt fabric, you might ask?  These two types of fabric are the same in a lot of ways, high quality cottons, silks, wool and other fibers, but the art quilt fabrics do not have pre-printed designs. There are certainly no hard and fast rules here, but typically if an art quilter is making her own flower, a fabric with flowers printed on it would distract from her design, so she needs fabrics that she can blend and manipulate to make her own awesome flower. Unless of course she doesn't. See, that's what makes art so great.

Art quilt fabrics tend to be hand dyed or have a marbled effect, (or have a commercial print that mimics a marbled or hand dyed look), or they have a simple gradient color scale spread over the fabric, or are they are batiks, etc. The reason these are necessary is because fabrics with pre-printed designs are typically comprised of positive and negative color values. Art quilt fabrics, however, deal in a variation of texture and colors... one blending into another (no positive / negative value).

Art quilts can also be painted with actual paint or thread, and can also incorporate unconventional materials and fibers.

For my journey to keep moving forward, this of course this means I need to buy more art fabric! First problem is finding these little jewels, and affording them (hey, hand dyed fabrics are not cheap). By the way, as far as problems go, this is a really good one to have, because there are so many solutions.  I found a lot of options are the recent International Quilt Festival, Houston a couple weeks ago. This year was my 16th consecutive year of attending. And each year I happily traipse around (and through the crowds) with my best quilt buddy Amy G. The silk, cheesecloth and dyed burlap pictured below are from a booth/store called Fiber on a Whim - these ladies were knowledgeable, pleasant and awesome.

For the other 11 1/2 months of the year... there's always the online option. And just when you think you've been everywhere on the internet... you make a new discovery (with the help of friends pointing you there, of course).

The treasure trove I just found has the odd, but descriptive name of "thousands of bolts... and only one nut"

Their concept is simple, but good.  Carry thousands of bolts, sell only by the yard, ship those orders fast! --- think Zappos fast! --- and best of all, organize the fabric by color.

I've never been paid to give any endorsement, by the way. When I find something new, something incredibly useful, and something that totally fits my needs, AND has amazing customer service... well, it just doesn't get any better that that. So I wanted to share. Ordered these on Sunday. They arrived on my doorstep Wednesday!

Now to wrap up here... I can't sign off without one last picture from the beautiful sunset at Lake Tahoe.  As I said my goodbyes after five days at Art Quilt Tahoe last Friday... I started to believe that I too can be... will be... an art quilter. That, and oh, I need more fabric.


  1. Thanks for your good description of art quilts. The education process has begun! Appreciate your tip on Fiber on a Whim, too!

    1. Sally: glad this was helpful. this is just my opinion... but i hope some of it makes sense. Thanks for taking time to comment! Check out Thousand Bolts too.

  2. As a frequent (and recent) afficionado of Thousand Bolts, I loved your plug for them and also your justification for MORE fabric. I look forward to visiting Fiber On a Whim as well.

    Art quilts tug at me and frequently just have to pop out, but I'm also driven by the need to cover every bed in every house (well, not e-v-e-r-y one!) and be very practical in my varied works of art.

    I look forward to visiting you again.

    1. Hi Karaquilts. Thanks for your kind words. Your response is great - keep doing what is fun for you. I think variety is best and I sew all kinds of things, practical and artsy. But those art quilts keep calling me back, mainly because they are such a creative challenge.

  3. Teresa, I loved this ! We're having a BIG discussion in our quilting group on what is 'original' and what is not with everyone up in arms arguing. This sums it up perfectly : qte " Doesn't take a rocket scientist... nor does it take any validation from anyone other than yourself. That's whats so great about life. You get to decide who you are."

    1. Vee: Awesome. I am so glad this is helpful! These are just my opinions, but I am glad you found some of this relevant. The best validation comes from within... not an easy thing to accept. I really appreciate your nice comment and for taking time to share. Thanks.

  4. Hi, Teresa. Nice article. You bit off a big subject and thought it through well. I would add my two cents worth concerning fabric: I don't do "surface design", dyeing, printing, etc. I use commercial fabrics, prints and solids from flea market clothing that usually has gained in patina from multiple washings and the wear and tear of life. That being said, I see the color rather than the print and my fabrics are arranged like a palette. Ultimately, I think the discussion comes down to "what is art?". Why do we say "art quilts" instead of "artwork"? Anyway, there are entire books written on that subject!
    best, nadia