Improvisational Quilt

241

We live in an increasingly industrialized and automated world. One result of the continual drive forward and farther from human hands is the romanticization of simpler times and a greater appreciation for personal craftsmanship. This pushback against modernity has reframed how we view quilting as a culture. Quilting, once considered domestic, leisurely, and unskilled,  has now become a hot commodity and even a fine art. 

Quilting has historically been undermined as an art form because it was seen as a simple craft done by women at home. African American women have been further discounted from the narrative despite being very much involved in America's quilting history. In her article "Representations of African American Quiltmaking: From Omission to High Art," Teri Klassen outlines the different frameworks that African American quiltmaking practices have functioned within throughout the 20th century. In the 80's, African American quiltmakers began receiving some recognition for their distinctive improvisational style that rebutted the more formal  and rigid euro-centric practice and embraces a uniquely African style. Elsa Barkley Brown describes the improvisational style of African American quilters, saying: "This represents a textile aesthetic which has been passed down for generations among Afro-American women who were descendants of Africans. . . Afro-American quilters do not seem interested in a uniform color scheme. They use several methods of playing with colors to create unpredictability and movement." She also ties this aesthetic sensibility back to other tenants of African culture that are similarly multi-rhythmic, like their music and conversation styles. This improvisational style can be seen in the unsymmetrical, flowing composition of Maggie Tyus's quilt. The squares don't align or have a consistent color scheme because it functions within its own aesthetic language that isn't bound by euro-centric conventions.

In looking back on why quilting was excluded from the fine art canon and then why African American quilters were excluded from the quilting canon, it hopefully becomes clear why it is so important for us as designer to evaluate what mediums, labor, aesthetic characteristics, and craftspeople we value  and why. Racism, misogyny, and classism have been so ingrained in our history as well as how that history is presented that many of these values may seem natural, but turning a critical eye upon them may reveal some surprising truths.

This housetop/log cabin quilt made by Maggie Tyus has traits said by some scholars to express an improvisational aesthetic rooted in African heritage.
This housetop/log cabin quilt made by Maggie Tyus has traits said by some scholars to express an improvisational aesthetic rooted in African heritage.