Quilts…beautiful objects but are they art?

Hand quilting is a quiet endeavor and it gives me a lot of time to think, so occasionally I need to do a post that is not about a current project but just about my thoughts.

When I was 5 years old and someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I said I want to be an artist.  Did that happen?  I will let others decide that but I have been thinking about art, and what is art, and since quilts have become my passion over the last 6 or 7 years are quilts art.

Let me begin by saying that I know there are as many opinions on this subject as there are artists, quilters, art critics and art historians.  I am not the authority but I do have some thoughts on the subject and a few years of art history classes  in college that might have had some influence.  To begin we need to define art.

From the Oxford English Dictionary

Definition of art
•     the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power: the art of the Renaissance great art is concerned with moral imperfections she studied art in Paris
•    works produced by human creative skill and imagination: his collection of modern art an exhibition of Mexican art [as modifier]:an art critic
•    creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture: she’s good at art

So do quilts express or apply human creative skill?  I guess that depends on how you look at it.  Is it an expression of human creative skill and imagination to buy a pattern or kit and put it together following the instructions?  Or is that like the paint by number painting?  Again it depends on how you look at it.  My mother is an excellent seamstress.  She does outstanding work and each garment she makes is an individual.  Does that make her a fashion designer?  She couldn’t begin to make a garment without a pattern…..but how she chooses the fabrics, and modifies the pattern makes the resulting product her own creation….an expression or application of human creative skill and imagination…the same goes for quilts, if the quilter chooses the fabrics and quilting designs to make the quilt an individual it IS an expression of human creative skill and imagination. The question of whether they are to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power is more difficult and I leave that the individual to decide.

Quilts have the problem in relation to this categorization because of their traditional functional use ….they really are (or at least were) made to keep us warm. But I believe that if simple warmth was the “primary” purpose other more simple options were available.

Lets go to the dictionary definition of a quilt

Definition of quilt
•    a warm bed covering made of padding enclosed between layers of fabric and kept in place by lines of stitching, typically applied in a decorative design.
•    a knitted or fabric bedspread with decorative stitching.

I’m not sure I like the knitted reference in the dictionary definition but setting that aside a quilt is a warm bed covering. So did quilt makers in the past ever intend that quilts be viewed as art? Or were they just making utility items?  I don’t think we can know what a quilter 100 years ago was thinking.  It might be inappropriate to put my thoughts into their heads but I will anyway.  I am going to relate it to my mothers sewing again.  My mother needed clothes for my sisters and her to wear.  She took what materials she had and could afford and made them as beautiful as she could using her creativity, skill and imagination.  Quilters did the same….they had a need for a warm bed covering and took the materials available to them and the skills they had and made them as beautiful as they could…that I say is an expression of human creative skill and imagination.  Were they intended to hang on walls in museums?  Of course not…they were intended to be used.  Some of them, the really special ones, might have been mostly for show (think of the good china that only comes out a few times a year)  but they were meant to be used on a bed.

So art is the expression of human creative skill and imagination and quilts are warm bed coverings can the two come together?

One of the functions of the artist is to make a statement of some kind. It may be a simple statement, the beauty of the landscape for example, but it is a statement. Somehow the artist is trying to communicate an idea, an emotion, or a purpose in their work.       What is that purpose in a quilt?  It depends on the quilt.  Historically in many quilts , at least to me,  the artist’s purpose/statement (in addition to creating a warm bed covering) was to create something beautiful…as in a landscape painting. To me that is art.

Today we have broadened the definition of quilt (and not everyone is on  board with that) to be 3 layers of fabric sewn together,top batting and backing, and have removed the implied utility function…they can now be intended to hang on the wall.  When I started quilting I just knew that I would never make a quilt that was anything but utilitarian…I thought that if it isn’t for a bed it isn’t a quilt.  One of  my quilts was made to be “artistic” but I made it large enough for a bed….and washable (that is a big thing for me….no raw edge applique….no glue….nothing to make it stiff….must be soft and usable as a functional bed covering)


I looked out my window on a winter day and saw the stark branches against the sky and thought that it was really interesting…and that even very simplified it would still represent that stark winter skyline and I could do that in a quilt….so this is the result

but recently I made a “quilt” that is not meant to be anything but art (you can decide if it is or not).  I drew a picture….transferred it to fabric….hand quilted it and it’s only function is to hang on a wall.


I say it is an expression or application of human creative skill and imagination so I am calling it an art quilt.  But who knows, if it is still around in 100 years some quilt historian might have a very different idea of what my intent was.  I can imagine the thought process….it is exactly the proportions of a computer desk so it must have been intended as a dust cover since those computers at the time were so prone to attracting dust….people tend to read intent into objects based on their own experience and perceptions of a given era. The Idea of someone thinking the quilt was really a dust cove might be stretching the thought a bit far but I think it is very tempting for us to look at a quilt from the past and read into it our own perception of what the maker was thinking.

I have looked at hundreds of quilts, and I have made a bunch, and have hundreds more to make…and I can say that for me quilts are art…I don’t like all quilts but I don’t like all paintings either, I love Andrew Wyeth and hate Roy Lichtenstein but would never say one is an artist and the other is not.

We make art because there is something inside the creative person that needs to get out. Artists all have a desire to express what they feel and to create something of value. It’s a type of therapy or a form of meditation.

So attention quilters I say you ARE artists

Happy Quilting


56 thoughts on “Quilts…beautiful objects but are they art?

  1. Trina says:

    You are a true artist, Tim. I also think the minds of the artistically-inclined person just see things differently. Quite recently I found a feather from a favorite hen of mine and photographed it up close on a white background because I saw a wholecloth quilt in the making. 🙂 Guess normal people don’t quite see things the way we do!

  2. Judy says:

    An interesting, enjoyable and thought provoking read Tim
    Thank you.

  3. Judy says:

    I don’t see myself as an artist, but I do believe that making and quilting quilts has taught me a lot, especially about colour and design, and has given me a lot of satisfaction and some pride in my achievements.

  4. Heidi Selig says:

    anywho, I love your dustcover!

  5. Tim – excellent. Post this on the Quilts Vintage and Antique facebook page, where the discussion began, so it will be seen by those who have seen the earlier discussion of the topic

  6. Thank you, Tim. I thought you were just staying away from Facebook until the storm cleared, but you were paying attention. Good! But please don’t hate on Roy Lichtenstein, it was just a pop art thing. Pop art is fun, just like polyester quilts are fun.

    • timquilts says:

      True it is fun….but for some reason it doesn’t speak to me…I think art is a personal thing and we need a connection…I can connect with polyester quilts because I remember clothing from the era and it causes a nostalgia …I dont get that from pop art…

  7. Mardee Dowdy says:

    I fell in live with your tree as soon as I saw it and I find myself mulling ideas for my own whole cloth design. And, thank you for today’s blog. I have many times lauded hand quilting as the best therapy ever and also expressed the affectionate prayers and meditation as I quilt for a loved one.

  8. LeeAnn says:

    Applause, applause!! Making quilts, like making art, is an expression of the inner self, as you said–a meditation, a therapy–absolutely! I hesitate to say this, but I FEEL like an artist when I make a quilt. I hope the quilt-makers of years past felt the same thing. Fabric and thread are my mediums for expression and discovery. I feel that color and line express emotional depth. Sometimes there’s a need to put pieces together in a very structured way, and to follow a pattern, because I need that internal organization in my life. Other times I need to express something more about chance and recklessness. I love to think of the quilt-makers of years ago. Their lives were so much more difficult than ours. Quilt-making was perhaps their only way to play, create, express themselves. Is the final product art? I don’t know. Certainly, the making is for me.

  9. LeeAnn says:

    P.S. Your tree quilts are stunning!

  10. antarabesque says:

    You are an artist, in a sculptural sense. You take into consideration the colour, pattern, texture, and compostion of your medium and work it into a fiished piece that evokes a response, whether emotional or not. The priority is form and function, if it were only that we would concern ourselves with patterns and contrasts. Quilts also tell stories, evoke nostalgia, document a particular time and place. All my projects are intended to be used. Yet, one has ended up on the wall at the top of the stairs, because I find it so visually pleasing.
    I think some of the ‘quilting’ applied to fabric is not, other than it is attaching three layers of fabric together, I would suggest, and have argued, that is embroidery, not quilting. Is buying a pre-complied kit and reproducing another’s pattern art or craft?
    When I compare it to my other love, needlework (cross-stitch/petite point), there is definitely more creativity and planning involved in my quilting. My needlework is a reproduction of someone else’s creative processes. When I quilt, I purchase fabrics because I can see them assemble in specific ways, the inspiration may come from certain blocks, landscapes, images, patterns in nature and life. I ‘compose’. I am an artist.
    Wyeth is one of my favourites too.

    • timquilts says:

      Well said …and So true….and glad you like Wyeth too! its the evocation of emotion in his works that gets me

      • antarabesque says:

        Absolutely. We have one of his prints hanging above our fire place. http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/QXwSCgbRbam9QD7c5CmOsA
        I love it, it reminds me of my home in April, frogs singing, water in the ditches almost snow cold. It is art because it evokes a connection and response. Thanks for your thoughts today, it has given rise to number of my own. Now I have to decide if it is a quilting day or a gardening day, since the three days of rain has finally ceased. Either way I am going to take my ponderings with me.

  11. Edith Beard Brady says:

    I enjoyed reading this having also experienced the recent FB communication. When my cousin gave me the quilts that my grandmother owned or even possible made, she asked me “what do these mean to you? ” she inherited them because her adoptive father was the oldest son of my grandmother and my dad was number two son. When I saw them, I felt a shiver down my back. It was like a time capsule from my grandmother. I am a quilter, and dont see myself as an artist But I do take great care in the selection of what I choose to make. When I am making a quilt for a special someone i imagine I am embedding manna into the threads. I just made a quilt for my nephew’s high school graduation. So when I look at thesequilts, I am looking for something different. Tim, your tree quilts are wonderful, and what I see in them is a love of nature and an attempt at capturing the form and beauty of the natural world. Thank you.

  12. Chris Wells says:

    Tim, Quilting like art has evolved over time. I use to think anything but has and piecing and quilting was not quilting. It is my preference, but times have changed. Creativity is Artistry. You are an artist as are many others. The fact that you have a “Passion” for quilting makes you a special artist.

  13. Chris Wells says:

    I use to think anything but hand, is what I meant to say. Silly me. Chris,

  14. Nancy says:

    Nicely said. It was interesting to hear your view. In 7th grade I said I was an artist and I was made fun of because I had not produced a real work of art yet. I later did a lot of drawing and wrote poetry and studied art books, plus I was a choral singer from 3rd grade, and a pianist. But when I made my first quilt I found my medium. I don’t think all of my quilts have been art, most were just learning the basic skills I needed. Quilting was the one medium I have been willing to really work at so that I could someday turn the ideas in my mind into reality. Hopefully will accomplish this in the next 20 years or so, lol.

  15. Eileen Mele says:

    I remember a college art teacher saying it’s only craft until there is some emotional aspect. Either from the maker or from the viewer. That’s why it’s so subjective. If you don’t see what I intend you will call it junk.

    • timquilts says:

      that is really a good point!! and it supports quilts as art…..at least for me EVERY quilt has some emotional aspect……people who dont quilt can only imagine all the emotion that is stitched into one

  16. Mary Britton says:

    Amen, Tim! I make mostly bed quilts also and consider them my art! I did make 5 quilted wall hangings from my brother’s neckties as a memorial to him after he passed away from cancer and gave them to his wife, our parents, his two nieces and I kept one. Your quilts are truly art, no matter the size or use! I have long wanted to do a series of tree quilts (maybe wall size). Your trees do inspire me, but there is also a long list of projects to be done ahead of those. (I could be related to you in that respect! Like you I work on multiple projects at a time.) Happy quilting/creating. Do what you love.

  17. audrey says:

    Wonderful post Tim. I have a hard time considering myself an artist, but I do see quilts conveying an incredible emotional response–mostly to fellow quilters of course! I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘making’ of quilts lately and what it means to me. That creative outlet definitely makes me feel better about myself and it makes me HAPPY. I really wish they taught more textile ‘art’ in high school, middle school etc. I think that fabric is a much more approachable medium to work with for some people than say painting and sculpting.

  18. Ann says:

    I saw your first quilt at the RMQM last year. It was even more striking in person.

  19. Carla says:

    When I had new carpet put in my sewing room the carpet man called it the art room cause I have a whole wall of minis up, so I say they are art!

  20. Byrd says:

    Thanks, Tim, for expressing your thoughts on this debate. All I can say is there are art quilts, just like there are art films. I would love to wrap myself in a Wyeth or a Lichtenstein, but they’re missing the comfort factor. If you are going to invest so much time and effort into a common household object, do it beautifully, do it creatively, do it well. With quilts, you can wrap yourself in art!

    Quilting, for me, is meditation and highly therapeutic. One of my favorite quotes about quilting is from “The Standard Book Of Quilt Making And Collecting” by Marguerite Ickis (1949). For the sake of brevity, let me say that this quote is from an elderly woman reminiscing about her family as she looks over a quilt which took her 25 years to make. She remembers her children and her marriage – all the good and the bad, the rocky parts and the less so – memories triggered by seeing her handwork: “My whole life is in that quilt. It scares me sometimes when I look at it. All my joys and sorrows are stitched in those little pieces . . . they are all in that quilt, my hopes and fears, . . . my loves and hates. I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me.” I tremble when I read that piece. I recommend this book to every quilter.

    For the record, I love Andrew Wyeth and Roy Lichtenstein, and I love your quilts too, but I just don’t get Jeff Koons.

    Take care, Byrd

  21. Great post, Tim. I wholeheartedly concur! Thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts, and doing it so well. For a long time I have thought of myself as an artist, making traditional quilts – I just use fabric instead of paint or clay.

  22. Kathi says:

    Tim, love your quilts… esp your one made or a wall… it will wear nicely there and not fade 🙂 Your work is art… mine is working to get there… but yours is a gift… and I am glad you are mayor in the town I play in! lol

  23. Lynn says:

    You said it very well Tim. And for me it is the emotion in me that makes quilts/quilting so important. I really don’t care what others say or do, let them decide art or craft. I only know I am happiest thinking, talking, looking, planning, searching, making and loving quilts.

  24. Michelle says:

    Well said, Tim! I took an art class last year and the teacher was very much a snob as to what he considered to be art. He even went so far to say that quilts are purely decorative and would not be considered art. I wanted to show him a Gee’s Bend quilt or Jane Stickle’s quilt and let him tell me those aren’t art. I think quilts are better than paintings or sculpture because you can snuggle up with them! Quilts are a warm hug from the person who made it. I’m so glad you wrote about this today!!! 🙂

    • timquilts says:

      Thanks Michelle! I think that art teachers really can be snobs…and I would defy most of them to make a decent quilt!! it takes a quilter to understand the connection…and love what you said about the warm hug!!

  25. Martha says:

    Quite simply, Tim, I agree!

  26. Megan F says:

    Hi Tim — Gerald Roy shared this beautiful quote at a gallery talk of his antique quilts, from an old-time (frontier?) quilter: “I make my quilts as fast as I can to keep my children warm, and as beautiful as I can to keep my heart from breaking.”


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