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on care, preservation, and quilts

How and why do we want to care for and preserve quilts?

As someone who spends much of my time cleaning, repairing, documenting, and finding homes for antique quilts, I'm glad people are recognizing quilts as a valuable and finite resource, and I feel passionately about wanting them to be cared for. However, if this is the reasoning for disliking quilt clothing, I worry it's missing some valuable ways we can care for and continue quilt history. While I can easily say I don't want all quilts to be cut up, I don't want to be quick to assume that any time you cut a quilt you're not participating in historical preservation/respectful care.

I invite you to read @publiclibraryquilts post and consider:

  • Is ensuring that antique quilts change as little as possible the only, or best, way to honor quilt heritage?
  • Is the object itself the sole, truest preservation of the craft?
  • What has "historical preservation" left out?
  • Does transforming a quilt into a coat mean all its history is lost?
  • How does talking about history as something we are outside of limit our understanding of these objects?

Quilt coats do transform quilts -- and change involves loss, I do not deny it. But transformation is also generative and has the potential to engage and honor. While I am sure heirlooms are being cut up, most quilt garments are made from cutter or commercial quilts, which would likely not have been repaired otherwise. If people were not so interested in crafting projects, as a seller I would not be able to buy and re-home the many cutter quilts that cross my path -- and they would have no new life.

I believe that the "trend" can be, and has been, a way to get more people excited
about quilts in general. Most people I know who have bought or made a quilt coat have in turn become more curious and involved in quilt history, collecting, and preserving. We need new generations to be invested in these textiles in order to ensure that they don't end up in landfills -- my hope, and my lived experience, is that if we understand this moment as an opportunity to share resources, skills, information, and tools, and not a time to gatekeep, then it can strengthen the preservation of this culture and its heirlooms.

light blue and white quilt signed "Ruth Stegall March 3, 1934"

When I think about what aspects of quilt culture I most value and want to preserve, it's their histories as care work and folk art.

As care work, quilts hold valuable reflections and lessons on love, patience, community, gathering, resource sharing, survival, pleasure, craft, and more. As folk art, quilting represents the power of art to proliferate with massive range, purpose, style, and craft -- despite being overlooked, undervalued, and under-supported by the "high art" movements and institutions of the same time.

Because quilting is a folkart, many exist, and because they were made as care items, it means many are well loved! It's much easier for me to source cutter quilts than pristine quilts and heirlooms, and that's a good thing. It's okay to preserve some art, and it's also okay to have art that is well loved, touched, used, felt, held, shared.

In many ways, I feel that quilt jacket crafting can build on the values of this tradition, in different ways than historical preservation and collection could achieve alone. Quilts reflect an art form of reusing textiles (feed sacks, work blankets, old clothing), and are often themselves remade and reused (as batting for newer quilts, as bears and dolls, as jackets and tree skirts). When I source quilts, I love to look for the clues of these intergenerational transformations, repairs, and collaborations. The fact that many hands and histories have touched quilted items does not make them less valuable to me, but more.

Perhaps quilt garments are creating new quilt histories. I can imagine future generations who will want to collect, repair, learn from, and preserve the quilt coats being made today. They might reflect on why these items became such a popular art form, and how they were made in a unique moment where national and global conditions (from rising wealth gaps, to a global pandemic, to climate change, etc.) contributed to a need to find work from home, build new skills and hobbies, and a renewed interest in preexisting historical textiles.

If you're also a quilt seller, how can we support diverse preservations? Let's be explicit about which quilts we list are best for crafting, repost preservation/educational resources, and share content on how to repair and clean quilts, how to spot commercial quilts, and how to date and identify rare and historical quilts.

cream backing of heirloom quilt signed "Mary Harvey's quilt"

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