Why We Quilt: Contemporary Makers Speak Out about the Power of Art, Activism, Community, and Creativity

Why We Quilt: Contemporary Makers Speak Out about the Power of Art, Activism, Community, and Creativity

by Thomas Knauer


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In this tribute to today’s vibrant quilting community, prize-winning quilter and teacher Thomas Knauer showcases a stunning collection of quilts from a wide range of contemporary makers, accompanied by their testimonials about what inspires and imbues their craft with meaning. From temperance quilts to the AIDS quilt, there’s a rich history of individuals and communities using fabric and thread to connect with others and express themselves, both personally and politically. Why We Quilt blends bits of this history with the stories and work of today’s leading quilters, highlighting themes of tradition, community, consumerism, change, and creativity. With a unique die-cut cover and a richly layered design, this book will enthrall designers, quilters, and all types of handcraft enthusiasts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781635860337
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 161,282
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Thomas Knauer began his career teaching design at Drake University before turning to quilting. He has designed fabrics for several leading manufacturers, and his work has been exhibited in quilt shows and museums across the globe, including the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Des Moines Art Center, the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and the Cranbrook Art Museum. Knauer is the author of Why We Quilt, as well as two previous books, including The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook. Find him online at www.thomasknauersews.com.

Read an Excerpt



There is something magical about being part of a practice that traces back through the centuries.

The popular mythology of quilting suggests that frugality and necessity forced the practice, but the fuller picture of quilting history is both far richer and more complicated. It is a story of blending cultures and traditions, a narrative full of creative and technological leaps that transformed quilting from a practice accessible only to the wealthy into one of the most popular activities in the country. It is the story of innovation and the creativity of quilters across the country.

Therein lies some of the mystique of quilts: the labor of making a quilt has, at its core, changed very little over the centuries. Yes, we have sophisticated sewing machines now, but the ways in which we join fabric with thread have been essentially the same for hundreds of years. In taking up the practice, we join with the tradition and add our own voices to the story of quilting.

Some of us learned to quilt from a parent or a grandparent, so the connection we feel to the tradition is immediate and intimate: a familial attachment traced back through the medium of quilts. Each new quilt carries with it the history of those lessons, the time spent together, and the wisdom of those who taught us.

Others of us came to quilting on our own, motivated by one thing or another. Here the connection is more abstract: an imagined relationship to the quilters who came before us. Though I learned much of what I know from YouTube tutorials, I can nevertheless imagine myself sitting companionably with my great-grandmother working on our quilts, joined together through the common language of the quilting tradition.

But this connection to the past can only explain so much. I believe there are other connections that we are seeking. So many of us lead fractured, frenetic lives, racing from one obligation to another. While this lifestyle can fill us with a sense of accomplishment, it leaves little time for community, for simply being together with others. Within this context I find the emergence of new quilt guilds all over the country, and the world, to be incredible. Guilds run counter to the urgency that seems to permeate our lives; they ask us to pause and take time to be together, to share what we make, to be a community of quilters.

At its core, quilting is more often than not a solitary activity; we work away by ourselves in our often-makeshift studios. Though the quilts we create serve to make connections between people, the practice of quilting can leave us feeling isolated. Guilds remind us that we are not alone in our practice, that we are not mad to spend our time sewing together small bits of fabric.

Furthermore, the quilts we make when we are alone are never discrete, isolated objects; they are part of a living tradition, one that is perpetually evolving. But its evolution is not just a matter of the trends and tendencies of different eras; the evolution of the quilting tradition is born of all of the individual quilts that we make. By participating in the practice of quilting, we ensure that quilting remains vital, for there would be no tradition, no practice of quilting, without its countless individual practitioners. By preserving the tradition of quilting we perpetually make it new, adding to the meaning of quilts and the quilting community as we understand them.

Quilters take up the craft of quilting for myriad reasons, but so often it is the community of a guild that keeps us quilting. There we find a support system for our individual practices. There we receive encouragement and advice, empathy and understanding. There we are stitched into quilting's rich and enduring traditions.


In order to truly understand why we quilt today, why the practice still resonates so deeply in the American psyche, we need to look backward, to the roots and branches of the tradition. There, we discover why our forebears were drawn to quilting and why such a diverse repertoire of quilting emerged within the American tradition.

The practice of quilting started long before the concept of an American experience even existed. By the early eighteenth century, though, settlement along the east coast of North America nurtured and transformed the quilting tradition. The earliest quilts we see in the colonies were imports, brought in from India via England (see right). The highly decorative palampores and chintz cloth from India were prized in colonial America but remained accessible only to wealthy colonists, who sought them for a variety of purposes. These impressive fabrics also made their way to Europe and the colonies as ready-made quilts. In England, and eventually in the colonies, these Indian imports also blended with Western needle-work and quilting traditions, creating all new forms and practices.

These early quilts were primarily whole- cloth, made either of a single, beautiful cloth or white cloth adorned by intricately appliquéd pieces, particularly through a process known as broderie perse (see page 10). In broderie perse, French for "Persian embroidery," individual motifs were cut out of chintz and appliquéd onto the backing cloth to produce a larger design from the diverse parts. These quilts largely followed the model of Indian palampores, with a central focal element surrounded by various decorative motifs. Here we can see the start of a distinct quilting practice: though Indian imports inspired these wholecloth quilts, a blending of sensibilities emerged. The resulting quilts were not simple imitations. Rather, they incorporated aspects of the neoclassicism of the late eighteenth century, frequently borrowing common Greek or Roman motifs such as urns full of flowers or architectural details. In the process, a new quilting vocabulary evolved.

Over time the wholecloth approach gave way to a new vogue in quilting that retained some aspects of the earlier broderie perse quilts and expanded on them. These quilts kept the key feature of a central, primary design, but confined that motif to a single central square that was then surrounded by multiple, highly decorative borders.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, production of high-quality printed cotton cloth became increasingly mechanized, first in Europe and then in America. These industrial advances made it possible to produce a wider range of designs at a lower price. As a result, new expressive possibilities opened up.

Fabric manufacturers — already thinking about quilters and their needs — specifically printed large motifs for the center square element of a quilt design, to be used as is or with broderie perse. At the same time, quilters really began flexing their creativity in the borders. Some borders used wide strips of cloth just as they were, while others involved ever more sophisticated and compelling border designs.

In a sort of hybrid style carried over from the wholecloth tradition, broderie perse borders were made of one or more motifs taken from the printed cloth. At the same time, unique appliqué designs with shapes independent of the cloth they were cut from began appearing as well, with all manner of flora being cut from small-print cloth (see right). Finally, we began to see pieced borders made of four-patches, flying geese, and other simple blocks (see pages 45 and 12, respectively). All of these examples are still very much whole-quilt designs, which use a single cohesive design element rather than block-by-block construction, but they show how quilters were beginning to move beyond wholecloth. In this important creative shift, quilt designs were no longer merely applied to a background. Instead they were built up and pieced together to create something larger and greater than the individual parts (see page 12). This shift is extremely significant; as quilters began putting more and more of their creative energy into these borders, they were laying the groundwork for the emergence of fully pieced quilt tops.

These early years of American quilting prepared the way for the development of a truly American art form. As individual wquilters put their own spin on the conventions of the day, new forms and practices expanded the realm of possibility for quilting. These early creative leaps set out a founding visual vocabulary, the impact of which we still feel today.

While this quilt's center medallion still employs appliqué, its pieced elements are the dominant visual details. With half-square triangles, flying geese, diamonds, and pinwheels, it is almost a sampler of early American piecing. (Medallion, maker unknown, circa 1820–1840.)


Early Design Concepts

A whole-quilt design is one with a single, pieced design that occupies the entire space of the quilt rather than a series or group of distinct blocks. Common whole-quilt designs are large star quilts such as the star of Bethlehem (see page 39).

Wholecloth quilts are made using a single piece of cloth rather than piecing together smaller pieces of cloth. The design of a wholecloth quilt may be executed entirely through the quilting stitched through the layers or may include appliqué elements.

The flying geese block is a common and versatile block in which a triangle is set into a rectangle. Flying geese blocks arose early in the American quilting tradition (see left).

Alexis Deise

I quilt to honor a traditional art form and to bring it relevance in the modern era. The history of quilting as an art practiced primarily by women is important to me, and as such, I work within the confines of quilting traditions, utilizing traditional techniques such as hand-quilting and hand-appliqué, as well as incorporating traditional patterns and designs. By merging these elements with contemporary color palettes and alternative compositions, I hope to create a link between past and present.

Laura Hartrich

I love that quilts are a nearly universal symbol of comfort and warmth. I quilt because it means I get to spend time with the ladies, and a few men, in my local quilt guild. I love being tied through a shared craft to a group of people of all ages and backgrounds. I love feeling part of the tradition of quilting. For me the act of quilting is imbued with hope.

I quilt because I love to work with my hands and my eyes. I love playing with color and pattern. I love making a thing from start to finish. I love that when I'm done with that thing, it can be an object of comfort and utility, or it can be art. In some cases it can be both, and I love that too.

Stephanie Zacharer Ruyle

I see each quilt as a chance for a new beginning with a rich collective past; I have license to do whatever I like, by whatever method I choose, and I freely mix garment-sewing techniques and fabrics in my quilts. Thanks to my quilting communities, both in my area and those that I have joined at a distance, I am part of a unique fabric of collective creativity that keeps me engaged and always looking for new ways to both challenge myself and engage others.

Debbie Grifka

It feels good that, in quilting, I am doing something women have done for generations. I understand the long line of women who loved sewing and took the opportunity to make something essential into something beautiful that reflected their own personality and their thoughts and feelings about the world around them. I grew up without any extended family in my life, so working with fabric helps connect me to those I never knew. One of the most delightful things about making a quilt is that you put all your love into something that keeps people you care about warm.


In her quilting, Denyse Schmidt consistently plays back and forth between tradition and modernity with a remarkable subtlety. Her quilts blend improvisation and structure, producing work that offers a quiet yet commanding presence. I remember seeing her Free-Wheeling Single Girl quilt for the first time and marveling in the simple brilliance of that design. I have been a fan of Denyse's quilts ever since I started quilting.

* * *

The first quilt-like thing I remember is a cheater-cloth printed comforter. (See page 29.) It was machine-quilted and coordinated with a Sears chenille bedspread I had that created mountains of orange dust bunnies. I think the design was pseudo-colonial, but I mostly remember the colors: harvest gold and burnt orange, an earthy brown palette. I was young, so it was probably in the mid-1970s.

Years later, when taking some art classes at the Worcester Art Museum School, I played around with a crazy-quilt aesthetic with fabric on paper. At the time I was working for a small clothing designer in his atelier. It would be another several years before I made my first quilts. They were gifts and pretty traditional in form.

After I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, I moved to Connecticut to work in graphic design and be with my boyfriend at the time, who was a traditional boat builder and fiddler. I was feeling disconnected from friends and was increasingly dissatisfied with my graphic design career. I longed for a sense of community and felt a strong need to make tangible, lasting things with my hands, rather than ephemeral work produced on a computer.

Mainly because of the Appalachian fiddle music my boyfriend played, I turned to the nostalgia of barn raisings, old-fashioned quilting bees, and the colorful, eccentric quilts I discovered in books. I fell in love with quilts that were like the scratchy, amateur fiddle tunes I loved: quilts that were made with joy for utility, at whatever skill level the maker had, rather than quilts that were made to showcase fine skills.


Excerpted from "Why We Quilt"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Thomas Knauer.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface: Why I Quilt

We Quilt to Connect with a Rich Tradition
  A Piece of History: The Roots of American Quilting
  Making a Statement: Alexis Deise, Laura Hartrich, Stephanie Zacharer Ruyle, Debbie Grifka
  Voices of Quilting: Denyse Schmidt, Earamichia "Encyclopedia" Brown

We Quilt to Explore and Express Our Creativity
  A Piece of History: The Maturation of Quilting
  Making a Statement: Heidi Parkes, Allison Dutton, Nydia Kehnle, Jacey Gray, Amy Friend, Cheryl Brickey
  Voices of Quilting: Joe Cunningham, Lynette Anderson

We Quilt to Move beyond Consumer Culture
  A Piece of History: The Introduction of Standardization
  Making a Statement: Anne Sullivan, Malka Dubrawsky, Krista Hennebury
  Voices of Quilting: Mary Fons, Victoria Findlay Wolfe

We Quilt to Create a Connection with Loved Ones
  A Piece of History: Other Voices in American Quilting
  Making a Statement: Jill Fisher, Casey York, Stacey Lee O'Malley, Nicole Neblett
  Voices of Quilting: Jacquie Gering, Heather Jones

We Quilt to Change the World
  A Piece of History: The Role of Signature Quilts in Reform Movements
  Making a Statement: Hilary Goodwin, Kathy York, Heather Givans
  Voices of Quilting: Chawne Kimber, Linda Gass

We Quilt Because We Can - and Because We Cannot Help but Do So
  A Piece of History: The American Bicentennial and Quilting's Great Revival
  Making a Statement: Amy Garro, Latifah Saafir, Jolene Klassen, Brigitte Heitland, Jennifer Sampou, Jen Carlton Bailly, Molli Sparkles
  Voices of Quilting: Marianne Fons, Sherri Lynn Wood, Alissa Haight Carlton

Epilogue: We Quilt for All These Reasons and More

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Why We Quilt: Contemporary Makers Speak Out about the Power of Art, Activism, Community, and Creativity 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous 8 months ago
This is a beautifully produced book, with featuring profiles of 40 contemporary quilters (with gorgeous images of their work) answering the question of why they (we) quilt. When it's so easy to buy a mass-produced blanket, why do we keep cutting up big sheets of fabric into tiny pieces and stitching them back together again? It includes work from both traditional and modern quilters, and even includes a brief history of American quilting. It's a beautiful and inspiring book!
leylaj 10 months ago
An interesting read, combining quilt makers reason for quilting and a little about their style and what led them to take up the fibre art form. The chapters are divided into connecting to tradition, exploring/expressing creativity, moving beyond consumer culture, creating connections with loved ones, changing the world, and finally a chapter called "and because we cannot help but do so". There are 28 well know quilt artist, with their stories spread over these chapters, all make interesting reading and their quilts make beautiful examples of their work and style. A good book to dip into at various times or read whole.
Tracy34 11 months ago
As an enthusiastic quilter I was delighted to see this book. It was not quite what I expected but the main reason for its conception came across well and resonated with me more than a few times. The author is a statement quilter, he uses his art to address today's problems while others quilt for the exact opposite reason (me included). The testimonials from both sides of the Atlantic were varied in their explanations as to why they quilt as is to be expected and their offerings were equally different in all but name. There is a supposed history of need being the mother of quilting in the way bedding was made from what was close at hand. Quilts were sewn together for warmth as pioneers crossed the American wilderness or mothers and grandmothers provided for their families in poorer communities the world over and examples of this are beautiful in their simplicity and complexities. There was however a time when only the wealthy were able to afford the imported fabrics which were the basis for wholecloth quilts and these too are shown in all their splendour. This is a book to make you think about your own reasons for quilting and how they change as we get more experienced or less hesitant. It also shows that what one person thinks is beautiful and noteworthy is not likely to be universally agreed upon. Some of the examples are of quilts I would love to make or own, others not so much! This is not a book with patterns, instructions or projects it is instead something to make us consider why we love to do something creative and thinking this through as you sew seems a very good idea to me. I was able to read an advanced copy of this book thanks to NetGalley and the publishers in exchange for an unbiased review and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys considering why they create things and whether others agree.