Quilt shows and the fall of traditional quilting

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During my travels on the Internet this morning, I thought I’d stop in at IQA and see if the entry form for the 2008 show was available yet, thinking I might be able to finish up The Misery Quilt in time to enter, and wondering in the back of my mind what category I’d enter it in. It’s beyond “traditional,” what with the embroidery already there, the original layout, the mixed techniques, and the embellishments that I plan to add later.

…there were only two lonely categories for traditional quilts, one for appliquéd quilts and one for pieced quilts…

The entry form wasn’t there yet, but I looked at the page with the winning quilts from the 2007 show, and I was quite surprised when the categories for art quilts just went on and on and on, in multiple (but seemingly) minuscule variations for different sizes, types, and styles, and then way down at the bottom, there were only two lonely categories for traditional quilts, one for appliquéd quilts and one for pieced quilts which were not even further divided into “small” and “large.”

I didn’t enter the IQA show last year, but seeing the winners page reminded me that I’d been meaning to go on about this very issue for quite some time, ever since I read Paula’s post that referred to Jeanna Kimball’s post about judging the Houston Show in late September, 2007. Jeanna Kimball is a traditional quilter, obviously a good one since she’s out there judging, and she made some interesting observations about the number of traditional quilts that were entered in the Houston show:

One element of the contest, however, surprised me a great deal—I still can’t get over it. The last time I paid attention to quilt contests, the categories with the most quilts seemed to be traditional quilts.

It is not so any longer. The entries have dropped so low in traditional pieced and traditional appliqué that there is only one category for each—no longer are there two categories with one being large quilts and the other being small. What happened!? Where are all of the traditional quilts?

I have to second that question, but I’m afraid I know what happened to the traditional quilts. The quilters who enter the larger shows have discovered that traditional doesn’t win big. Oh sure, if you have the best traditional quilt in the show, you get the first place award in the traditional category, but when was the last time a quilt from the traditional category was awarded “Best of Show” with the big money attached? Truthfully, I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ve watched (and entered) the major shows since 2001, and my overall feeling about it just from what I’ve seen and experienced is that it’s been many years.

Diane Gaudynski said something that struck a chord with me during our tour of the Museum when I was in Paducah for her workshop last March and it relates to this issue as well. We were looking at the quilts in the Founders Collection, which are all the big purchase award winners at the AQS show (that’s how quilts are added to that collection), and she said, “Look at all the Best of Show winners in the past 10 years. Every one of those quilts has been controversial.” She went on to say that the quilts that win big are the quilts that have something new, something different, something…more. It’s very elusive and never easily defined, but the “something more” might be a new technique, a new style, a different arrangement, a different use of a standard material, or something that just stands out to the judges.

Jeanna said something very similar in a follow up to the above post on her site:

To clarify this point about a quilt being unique and a new idea, and at risk of being offensive I will be even more blunt, any quilt entered that is easily recognized […] (with familiar patterns from published sources) or a reproduction of any well publicized and published pattern (or group of patterns) will not get past the first cut (no matter how much time was spent or how perfect the workmanship) simply because it has been done before and we have all seen it. That sounds harsh, but a quilt contest is about rewarding new ideas (or new interpretations of traditional ideas) and recognizing excellence in executing those ideas.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of “innovative?” Just for the sake of clarity, “innovative” does not equal “traditional.” There are separate categories for innovative quilts. To my mind and from what I’ve seen, innovative walks the line on the outside edge of the traditional, without crossing over into art quilts. At the Houston show, there were only four categories for innovative quilts, two for traditional, but nine for art quilts.

And the big winners? Not one of them was a traditional quilt, not even the quilt that won the Robert S. Cohan Master Award for Traditional Artistry; it’s a lovely quilt by Ted Storm which is appliquéd, and whilst I’m not an expert at appliqué designs, I’m not sure it could be considered an example of “traditional appliqué.” Of the seven top “named” awards, in my opinion only three could be considered innovative even, and the rest were art quilts. When did Houston become an art quilt show? I thought that was Quilt National’s job.

The Best of Show award went to Hope For Our World by Hollis Chatelain; like much of her work, it’s one piece of fabric painted with paints first and then “painted” and detailed with massive amounts of threadwork. In 2004, when Precious Water, another of her quilts, won the Best of Show award at Houston, the headline in the local paper the next day was something like “Is it really a quilt?” questioning it’s suitability as a Best of Show winner when it wasn’t pieced, appliquéd, or made with any other technique that’s traditionally associated with quilting. Don’t get me wrong, Hollis’ quilts and all of the big winners at these major shows are undoubtedly well deserving of their honors, but what I’m talking about here is traditional quilts and why they’ve become so sparse at the shows.

At bottom, I consider myself a traditional quilter, though I do veer off in innovative directions for many of my works; none of my work would be considered “art quilts,” as I’m aware of the definitions. Though my first entry into a show was a non-traditional quilt, it was still close to the realm of traditional, being an innovative interpretation of a traditional block. I was naive enough to think that I might win something big with that quilt. It was good, but it wasn’t that good. Since then, I’ve entered quilts the traditional categories at quite a few different shows, and won ribbons and awards for some of them, but never the “Best” awards.

Stars in my Hand

When Stars in my Hand won 2nd place in the Bed Quilt, Pieced category at the NQA show in 2006, I wondered “what the heck to I have to do to be the “Best?” I think Diane G. understood that part of the reason I was in her workshop was to hopefully take my quilting skills to that next “Best” winning level, but what she said to me confused me for a bit: “It’s not your quilting that’s holding you back,” she said. Then when she took us on the tour and talked about the Best of Show winners being controversial, I understood: many of my quilts are traditional–without a twist.

I’ve entered two Broken Star quilts in shows, both of which were pieced and quilted to the best of my ability. It’s a difficult pattern, where precision piecing is critical, and there is lots of room for creative quilting in the background areas. Those quilts are technically masterful, but that “something extra, something more” isn’t there, because they’re traditional quilts. Adding that “something more” bumps the quilt into the “innovative” world, and then it might have a small chance to win big, but even as an expertly executed, masterful example of tradition in quiltmaking, it’s not going to win.

In her post, Jeanne goes on to ask:

Are we traditional quiltmakers intimidated by the non-traditional quilts? Are we not competitive? Are we not finishing our quilts? Or, heaven forbid, are there less of us!!!??? Whatever the reason, there is now lots of room at the top for anyone who will enter in traditional categories. Lets get going!!

No, Jeanne, we’re not intimidated by the non-traditionalists, we are competitive, and we are finishing our quilts. I’m not sure there are fewer of us either, but what I am sure of is that this is a downward spiral: Traditional quilters who enter the shows want to win, and they probably dream of winning big. Who wouldn’t (even secretly in their heart of hearts) dream of having their quilt receive one of the highest honors in the quilt world, and collecting that award in front of an auditorium full of their peers during an Academy Awards-like presentation on a night to remember for the rest of your life?

But when traditional quilts don’t win big anymore, traditional quilters quit entering. The shows, seeing entry numbers for traditional quilts going down, cut down on the number of categories for traditional quilts, and the focus shifts to innovative quilts and even more to art quilts. More categories for art quilts means more first, second and third place art quilt winners, which means less competition for those awards among the art quilts entered. By the same theory, fewer categories for traditional quilts means stiffer competition for those category awards, so actually, there’s less room at the top for traditional quilters. And really, the “top” in this case isn’t really the top, since that would be the “Best” awards that traditional quilts don’t get.

Again, don’t misunderstand me. Having a quilt juried into a major show like the IQA show in Houston is a high honor and not to be missed, but if you’re always a contestant and never a winner do you keep entering, or does the excitement fade? I think it’s natural to be less excited by having your third or fourth (or tenth) quilt accepted to the show than you were the first time. After a while, you want the big prize and if you know you’re never going to get the big one by making traditional quilts, maybe you start innovating a bit here and there, and maybe your quilts even start taking turns in the art categories. There you have it: traditional quilting loses another participant, and is one step closer to extinction on the show circuit.

I encourage you to follow the links to the posts that I’ve included here; Jeanne shares some wonderful information about traditional quilts and what judges and shows are looking for beyond the passages I’ve quoted here. Paula included a “call to arms” in her post about this issue, encouraging the traditional quilters out there to make a quilt and enter a show. I second that encouragement, but I do wonder how successful we’ll truly be in the shows if our traditional quilts aren’t sporting new and different blocks or layouts, or covered in paint, beads, and baubles, and generally looking “non-traditional.”

For myself, I will continue to enter the shows, but it’s highly probable that many of my future quilts will not fall into the traditional categories, since I’m adding the “extra” and the “more” that I hope will stick out to the judges, because (I’m not ashamed to say) I want to win big. I’ll probably enter The Misery Quilt in the mixed category, because it won’t fit strictly into any of the others, especially traditional. I don’t think I’m a complete “sell out,” since my creative muse just won’t be denied and I can see that adding the extras like beads and embroidery and other things will make this quilt truly sing, but it’s probably also worth noting that I might not even be thinking in the “extras” direction if quilts in the traditional categories were given the same attention as those in other categories at the shows.

Your Voice: What’s your view? Are you a traditional, innovative, or art quilter? Have you entered shows, and if you have, what was your experience? If you haven’t entered, do you plan to enter, and if not, why not? Leave comments, discuss, and share links to your quilts, traditional or otherwise!

Nadine Quilting smiley from myemoticons.com

10 thoughts on “Quilt shows and the fall of traditional quilting

  1. The art quilts and innovative quilts are fun to look at, but I find myself really drawn to the traditional designs, and find myself brimming over with exultation at well-executed piecing and hand quilting. My skills will never be competition worthy (this is my hobby, not my passion), but I love being a cheerleader. Thank you for your words of encouragement.

  2. Hello Elizabeth, and welcome! I can appreciate quilts of all different styles, and I’ve had my breath stolen by art quilts and innovative quilts, as well as traditional. If it’s beautifully made, I can appreciate the work and time and love that’s gone into it.

    This issue can definitely use some cheerleaders, but as they say, never say never. :) Thanks for commenting!

  3. “a quilt contest is about rewarding new ideas (or new interpretations of traditional ideas)”

    If indeed this is what the current quilt contests are all about, then it seems to me that there is a need for some additional quilt contests that are more about rewarding fine workmanship and less about rewarding innovation.

    I personally LOVE the traditional quilts. I love the historical aspect of them, the many different block patterns, the vast variety of ways to combine blocks, the use of color, the quilting. I do like new interpretations of old patterns, often with machine quilting, but not so much when they lean towards the art quilt style. I frankly get tired of seeing so many art quilts. I do think many of them are lovely and beautifully executed, but they just aren’t my thing, and they certainly don’t represent the entire world of quilts.

    How about all you traditional quilters that are frustrated with the big show’s neglect of your style band together to start a new show for traditional quilts only?

  4. Lately, I find myself making quilts in the innovative category. I am currently cogitating a quilting design for a smallish wallhanging of my own design. I even went so far as to write and get permission to use what I thought was copyrighted material and found out it is actually ‘fair use’ material. But it is not traditional. What is traditional really? Because I don’t feel that I have ever really been a ‘traditional’ quilter and especially recently since I use more machine tools than handwork.

  5. Hi Victoria, and welcome aboard!

    If indeed this is what the current quilt contests are all about, then it seems to me that there is a need for some additional quilt contests that are more about rewarding fine workmanship and less about rewarding innovation.

    I was thinking the very same thing actually. Shows like Quilt National are just for art quilts, but there is no show that I know of that is just for traditional quilts. It’s almost sad really, because it seems like our “roots” are disappearing a little at a time.

    I know what you mean about art quilts, even though there are many I quite like and can appreciate. Within the last few days, I’ve stopped in at over 100 quilter’s websites around the Web, and while I haven’t kept a tally of the actual numbers, the overwhelming majority of the quilts I’ve seen have been art quilts. Where are the traditional quilters? So far, not as prevalent on the Web as the art quilters. I didn’t even see very many innovative quilts, just lots and lots of art quilts.

    Thanks for your comments, Victoria!

  6. Hi Paula!

    What is traditional really? Because I don’t feel that I have ever really been a “traditional” quilter and especially recently since I use more machine tools than handwork.

    If you make quilts in a traditional style, I think you’re still a traditional quilter, no matter the tools you use. Of course, there are probably relatively few quilters who are “traditional” all the time, since so many of us veer in other directions occasionally.

  7. I think there is an underlying prejudice against traditional quilts and quiltmakers. There seems to be a feeling that making art quilts is much more contemporary and “with it”; that the traditional quiltmaker can’t “think outside the box”. Well, if you are sitting on the fence about where your quilts should go–who wants to be accused (even subtley) of not being able to “think outside the box”?

    And, what about crazy quilts? There are wonderful contemporary crazy quilters who cannot enter any kind of competition because of the 3 layer-quilted rule. I think that needs to be reevaluated along with the traditional categories.

  8. Hi Debra and Welcome!

    I agree with you completely, especially when I consider the huge disparity in pricing on traditional and art quilts (but that’s an entire rant all by itself). It’s interesting because people who are not quilters and don’t know much about quilting look at some art quilts and wonder if they should really be called “quilts,” while inside the quilting world there is this push to “do more” and go beyond the borders of traditional quilts.

    To be honest, I haven’t ever thought about crazy quilts in this light, probably because I don’t make them. Are the majority of crazy quilts not actually quilted through all three layers, is that the part that excludes them from some of these shows? I do know that the $100,000 Quilting Challenge has a “Crazy Quilts” category, so kudos to them for that.

    Thanks for your comments!

  9. Rian commented elsewhere on the site and I will answer below. She said:

    The “cosmic forces” were at work last night and I was dreaming up my next project and couldn’t sleep. I read your article Quilt shows and the fall of traditional quilting . It is a very interesting and thought-provoking article. I am making a “traditional” quilt with two other quilters–each of us lending our area of exprtise–the thought of doing a whole big intricate work on my own simply is overwhelming. Okay, let’s be honest, it’s not as interesting. Life is too busy as it is, and those big quilts can take the better part of a year to complete. Have we gotten too modern for the long slow process?

    I’d love to be in that elite arena, but I’m doing it for the sake of doing it (the muse) rather than to compete on the national level. I say that, but I also keep saying maybe next year!

    Gotta love those “cosmic forces!” I have that problem often when I should be sleeping. I agree that something as large and detailed as some of these projects tend to be can be overwhelming. I’ve actually been actively working on The Misery Quilt for close to a year now, and obviously it’s going to be another few months until completion. The part that keeps me going is seeing the littlest details take shape and the ideas that come to me on the fly that turn out better than I hoped. Granted, this comes in between long stretches of repetitiveness, but it’s still exciting. I know what I want to do in my head, but seeing it come together on the quilt keeps the interest level up most days.

    On the days when it’s “lots more of the same” the thought of sending it around to the shows is the motivator. My show quilts didn’t used to take this long, and in fact when I began showing in 2001, I thought to myself that I’d never spend this much time on just one quilt. Part of the difference now is that I spend less time quilting on a daily basis so the whole process takes longer, but the other part is that I’m just adding more and more detail and originality to the process, which takes longer as well. I think I was “too modern” for the slow process at one time, but the pendulum is swinging the other way now.

    Honestly, there are still times when I just have to “finish” something, and I have a strong desire to just pick up a commercial pattern and use it and be done with it. As soon as I start to do that though, my own muse takes over and starts changing this or that about the pattern, and pretty soon it turns challenging.

    It’s great that you have found two other people that you can work with together to create something wonderful! Looking forward to seeing it!

  10. Crazy quilts are not quilted at all. They are “tied” with stitches, or buttons, or an embellishment object. They usually do not have batting but some have an inner lining (much like a good quality drapery would) to keep the piece stable. A false back is applied to cover the original back that is a working back with stitch knots.

    Yes, the $100K contest is a good spot and IQF has a spot for crazy quilts but some of the other big shows, like AQS, does not have a spot for crazy quilts. AQS has a needlework category and I think CQers are going to be using it much more than in the past. We just really need a spot for our work.

    I am trying some “hybrid” CQ work–a little quilting and a little CQ together. Most of mine ends up in the Mixed Techniques categories.

    But, yes, the crazy quilt has been and still is, to some extent, the neglected sister of the quilt world.

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