Monday, March 3, 2008

Quilt Appreciation 101

They say everyone is their own worst critic, and that's probably true of me. In particular, when I look at my quilts I am very much aware of how my work stacks up against all of the very fine quilts I have seen. But in some ways, I'm comfortable with that. Somewhere in the crafting world I think we've gone from being supportive to being, in some cases, sycophantic. Every creative effort is celebrated, however unattractive or technically deficient the result. Which is not to say I think we should go around nit-picking and critiquing people's work (especially if they haven't asked for it) but rather that it's okay to give constructive feedback and to keep one's praise in perspective.

Now, there are a lot of different ways to judge a quilt, fairly complex judging rubrics are used in juried shows. There are different categories for kids, new quilters, teachers or professionals. Then of course there are sub-categories of theme and technique. Once within a particular category, there are a number of qualities a quilt can be judged on, overall appearance, piecing, stitching, borders, etc. etc. I have no desire to get that involved in evaluating quilts... but I did want to share with you examples of what I consider really great quilts... and not so great quilts.

For my quick and dirty comparison, I'm using the oh so familiar A-F grading scale. Now, I want to make it clear that I love all my quilts, and a quilt (mine or someone else's) doesn't have to be of superior quality for me to really enjoy it. Quilt appreciation is largely a subjective matter.

Starting out with the poorer quality quilts. I have actually seen quilts I would grade an "F" but as they were not my quilts, I don't feel right posting pictures here. They were, of course, first quilts- but still quite bad. To get an F there need to be some fundamental problems; blocks of substantially different sizes, and of poor construction, batting coming through in spots, and quilting lines that are very far apart, barely holding the three layers of the quilt together. Those are quilts only by the strictest definition of three layers of fabric sewn together. As I said, I have seen quilts like this. Even though I would grade them an F... this is a valid starting place. If the quilter is willing to accept some constructive feedback, much can be learned from a quilt like this. The most important thing to learn is often "I really can make a quilt." Overcoming that hurdle is the first step on the road to quilting success (oh man, that sounds like a self-help book doesn't it?) But maybe we could say the "F" stands for "First try."

Next up is the D quality quilt. At this level, the basics of quilting are understood if not especially well executed. Here is my very first quilt, for example, one that I am extremely proud of, and quite happy to grade as a D for... "Doin' ok"

The pattern is a traditional nine patch, and I think the color choice was nice, if very safe. However, there's a noticable difference in the size of the blocks, and the sashes in the middle are of totally inconsistant widths. It's also lacking a border, or binding... being constructed pillow-style and turned inside out for the quilting. The quilting successfully attaches the three layers of the quilt, but there is no overall pattern. The nine-patch blocks have an X quilted through them, and the sashes are quilted 'in the ditch'. It's really hit or miss. So this quilt gets a D... which I think is a pretty good grade for a first attempt.

Although you'd never know it the way most things are graded these days, but a C is supposed to be the average. And I think it's fair to say I'm currently quilting at a C level.

This one for example, is good but not great. I think the colors and design go together well. The pattern is simple but the fabrics are bright... a good balance. The inner and outer borders complement the quilt well in size and color.
But the actual sewing & quilting is fairly weak. You can't spot it from a prancing pony (another method of judging a quilt), but the corners don't match up, the lines are uneven and the binding is machine sewn. So let's call it a C for "Charming", it's got some pros, it's got some cons. One of my better quilts so far.

Here are a couple of quilts I saw in shows... I'd give them all B for "Beautiful"

The designs and fabrics work well together. The technical aspects are well executed. The quilting is generally more involved than 'stitch in the ditch' . And although there's a standard quilt pattern used - there's a lot of individual expression.

This is the level to which I aspire... and feel like I could acheive if I didn't try to rush through my quilt projects.

Now these are the grade A "Absolutely Amazing" quilts. When I see a quilt of this level, I usually stop and stare for quite a while.

In addition to the above qualities of good fabric & design & quilting, there's an added level of technical difficulty and artistic expression. (wait... that's ice skating isn't it. ;) )

Above and beyond the Grade A quilts there are quilts that are just breathtaking. Quilts that I can't believe a real person actually made. If I were to create a grade for them it would be O, for "OMG!" although "Off the charts." or "Outstanding" would be appropriate too.

Take, for example, this open-work masterpiece:

I litterally gasped when I saw this one, and spent several minutes examining each block, and standing back to get the overall picture. Open-work, as it was explained to me, means the red fabric is under the white, the white gets snipped away, and sewn down to create the patterns. I'm pretty sure this was all hand quilted. Each of these blocks was probably about 5 inches square (I'm totally guessing) so that gives an idea of the intricacy involved.

I was in awe.

And then there's this quilt... I never had the pleasure of seeing it in person, but admired it on a couple different websites.

It's called "Little Cities", created by Kathy York, and won an International Quilt Show award. This is among the best of the best quilts around.

Which brings me back around to evaluating my own humble attempts at quilting. I know that I will never put in the time & effort required to acheive an Off the charts, Outstanding quilt like one of these. And I will probably need several years more experience, and perhaps the benefit of a class or two, before I create an Amazing quilt. But if I put a little more care & attention into my quilts I could realistically make some Beautiful quilts that I would be proud to display in a show. For now though, dividing my time, effort, and attention between several activities... I'm quite happy to be producing Charming quilts that will keep me (or a few lucky children) warm & cozy.


T said...

OMG!!! the "Little Cities" quilt is AMAZING i love love love it. Something like that would be so fun to make but over a long period of time will scrappy stuff, It would be the ultimate patchwork!

Rebel said...

I know... that's one of the coolest quilts I've ever seen. And I did see someone on Craftster make a similar scrappy one that was pretty awesome too.

Olga said...

I love quilts and *ahem* 'tried' to sew one but my MIL and SIL are queens of quilting and my SIL sells her professionally-soooo- I let them have a go at that and I admire and lust after their quilts.And wish they would make me one!My SIL makes more of wall art quilts than for a bed.

Rebel said...

Olga, I know what you mean. What I really want is for someone with tons of quilting experience to make me one for free.... uh... not gonna happen!

Michael5000 said...

This is a nice essay, Reb. I like your celebration of the Great Middle Level of crafting ability! I'm glad you put your first quilt out there, too -- it had never occured to me that you could make a quilt like that.

Thought provokin'.

Rebel said...

It never occured to you that I could make a quilt like that what? That bad?

Michael5000 said...

It never occured to me that ONE could make a quilt IN THAT FASHION.

Sorry 'bout the ambiguity.