Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Field Notes: Kaffe Fassett

I came into quilting in awe of the splendid play of geometry that old quilts revealed. The dazzling array of patterned cloth in individual color palettes quite took my breath away. I saw these scrappy statements as tapestries or paintings, so the last thing that concerned me was how carefully or otherwise they were sewn together.

Imagine my shock when I would see professional quilt makers hold a quilt I admired—a glorious arrangement of colored cloth—close to their keen eyes to judge the evenness of the stitches. Once they ascertained whether those were neat enough to pass their exacting standards they would walk away satisfied, or more often than not disappointed at the low level of craftsmanship. Standing back to see the whole effect didn’t seem of importance to them.

Technique vs. Spontaneous Beauty

Coming from the world of art, technique is very low on my list of concerns in a work. The all-over color composition is highest. If that is life enhancing, I am very forgiving of the methods employed to produce that image.

I flipped out when I encountered my first Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Museum of Art in Houston. Here were quilts made by the humblest families in America, out of work clothes, curtains, and cheap scraps of home furnishing fabrics, and sewn together with apparent abandon. This spontaneous use of traditional patchwork blocks gave such a vital life to the form that it attracted the greatest artists of our day to become enthusiastic about the Gee’s Bend world.

Now, I don’t want to offend the preachers of high standards in quilt construction. The craft world needs those of us who make quilts to strive to be as good as we can in order to communicate to others our passions in life. Making a great quilt is just another way to tell the universe how ecstatic we are about the beauty of life.

Primitive running stitches add a sense of rigor

On my own hand-sewn quilts I often use primitive running stitches for quilting, adding what I see as vigor to the piece. The fact that my knit designs are beautifully knitted for me with all the ends tucked in neatly really thrills me. After all, if we pour our souls into a great complex work we want it to hold together for people to enjoy in the future.

Actually learning good techniques can also be a stimulus to creative ideas. There is great comfort in doing a neat row of stitches. I often find my most contented moments are stitching down bindings on finished quilts. I only get worried when this neatness becomes the most important aspect of a work, to the exclusion of all possible spontaneous beauty.

Kaffe Fassett