The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
FOR THE LOVE OF WEIRD
One of my favorite books in my quilt book collection — yes, this quilter will always buy and love actual books with actual pages! — is the late Jean Ray Laury’s Quilts & Coverlets: A Contemporary Approach.
“Pieced Quilt” by Phyllis Palmer and Ann Saunderson; 85’’ by 104’’. Plate 16, Quilts & Coverlets: A Contemporary Approach, by Jean Ray Laury, 1970.
Quilts & Coverlets was published in 1970 by the Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, which means it is older than me by ten years and probably also speaks German.
My copy is torn and tattered and smells like I found it for a buck in a bin of used books at a secondhand store because that is precisely where I found it. But it’s still in heavy rotation when I feel fatigued and need relief from the innumerable slick, pixelated images of perfect quilts on computers and the internet. Indeed, I believe “Perfect Quilt Fatigue” is something that creeps up on us all and can do sneaky, serious damage to one’s vision for her next quilt. A good book of quilts from another era (think pre-internet) can do wonders. How so, you ask?
Well, leafing through Quilts & Coverlets never fails to remind me of two important things:
1. It’s all been done before — so you might as well go for it.
2. Some of the neatest quilts are the weird ones.
That first point might seem cynical to some: If it’s all been done before, why bother? Anyone who knows the joy of making a quilt will answer: “Because we’re obsessed, that’s why. Fork over the fat quarters.”
Beyond this, the fact that in quiltmaking, “it’s all been done before,” is actually a freeing concept. If the blocks and the techniques, the settings and the color combos have all been done before, then you really can’t a) screw it up or b) shock your quilting buddies into not being friends with you anymore. Want to put orange, black, and purple into a quilt with green sashing? Onward! It’s been done before, and no one got hurt, now did they? Want to piece a quilt with velour, lace, and paper-måché polka dots? Knock yourself out (with those heavy polka dots, this could be a real possibility.) The point is that nothing is standing between you and your weirdest, I’m-thinking-out-of-the-box-here quilt but your own hesitation. Once you embrace the fact that there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s less scary to go for it.
“Denim Quilt” by the Third Ward Relief Society, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 56’’ x 72”. Plate 4, Quilts & Coverlets: A Contemporary Approach, by Jean Ray Laury, 1970.
The second curative truth I glean from Quilts & Coverlets and books like it is that a lot of the coolest quilts I’ve ever seen were straight up weird-looking — and there are a few of them in this book.
Now, we must take into account that when Laury was writing her book it was the late ‘60s; therefore, there are high levels of lime green, burgundy, and puce polyester in a number of the quilts. Not only was this “weird” color palate not weird at the time (for reasons we may never understand), Quilts & Coverlets predates the Great American Quilt Revival, which means the quilters had to use what they could find. There simply wasn’t much quilter’s cotton available when the makers were making these quilts, so those featured look especially unusual to us, what with crazy paisley-printed corduroy next to electric blue sateen.
Still, all the funky quilts in this book were intentionally designed by their respective makers. These sewists made choices and created quilts that made them happy and they chose from what they had, which wasn’t nothing. The quilts don’t look like anything in the latest Martha Stewart catalogue, that’s for sure; they’re too bold, too flashy, too big, too wild and weird. I mean, a denim quilt with rick-rack lightning bolts? Who does that?
Detail, “Large Batik Quilt” by Maureen Nichelson. Plate 58, Quilts & Coverlets: A Contemporary Approach, by Jean Ray Laury, 1970.
Well, you could, if you wanted. And so could I.
The quilts in this favorite book of mine remind me that quilts are like people: the ones that are a little weird are so often the ones that we can’t forget, and none of us wants to
How weird do you want to be today, quilter? Only your secret polyester stash knows for sure.