The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Going Global: A Quilt Scout Series Examining Quilts Not Made in America
Though it is hard for me to admit, surrounded as I am by friends and family members who are proud to be world travelers, people who are always on the lookout for the next great airfare sale to far flung locations on this big blue marble, I do not possess what’s known as “wanderlust.” (Frankly, I find the word itself distasteful, but I admit this is beside the point.)
Call me a plebe if you will, call me naive, but there you have it: I do not long to visit the shores of Vietnam or ice fish in Greenland. I do not need to take in the view from China’s tallest skyscraper. You can go ahead and go to sub-Saharan Africa; I’ll read a book about it. You know I will!
It’s not as though I haven’t tried it. I’ve been to France, Croatia, Italy, England, Puerto Rico, and Germany, and—if you’ll let me count it, which you shouldn’t—Canada. I’m no shut-in, either: I travel all the time within the U.S. and I enjoy it immensely, usually, for I like to see new things and meet new people as much as the next gal.
It goes without saying, I hope, that my lack of interest in globetrotting is not borne of some hideous xenophobia; I do not fear people from other cultures, nor does my passport collect dust because I have some superiority complex about my country.
So what is it? Well, in a word, it’s…words. As a person whose sole superpower is language, I find it intensely unpleasant to not be able to use it to communicate. Call me crazy, but not being able to talk in a place where you’ve never been, surrounded by people you have never met and will likely never meet again does not strike me as a fun way to spend spring break. Burkina Faso might be really pretty, for example, but as a mute illiterate, I can’t read the signs or talk about it. No thanks.
However … this might be changing. Maybe.
Not surprisingly, my boundless curiosity about quilt history is the catalyst for this nascent interest to get a bit “lusty” and go “wander” the globe. You are surely aware that nearly all cultures have a quilt tradition of some kind. Since quilts are my jam, it would follow that I would want to investigate the quilts in those places, if for no other reason than just getting to look at and learn about more quilts.
Professionally, too, broadening my view is arguably an imperative. How can I really research and understand the culture of the American quilt if I only see as far as our border? After all, early American quilts were often straight-up purchased imports from England, and almost any chintz quilt from that same period was made with fabric from East India.
American quilts didn’t begin in America, you could say, so I’m starting to wonder if I ought to get my tushie on an international flight. Because I can look at picture after picture of wholecloth calamanco quilts and visit an exhibition of appliqué chintz tours de force, but to see the land from whence these masterpieces came, to understand the terrior, if you will, that produced the materials and the people who made quilts from those materials, well, it’s becoming harder for me to defend staying so close to home.
The book that started it all! (Promotional image.)
All this began about six months ago, when I came across a book on Welsh quilts. The book was Mary Jenkins and Clare Claridge’s Making Welsh Quilts: The Textile Tradition That Inspired the Amish?, a fine book, though I am suspicious of any publication which includes a question mark in the title, e.g., Who Moved My Cheese?, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, etc.
A woman selling mola textiles — which are very much cousins of quilts — in Panama City. Image: Wikipedia.
hough tutorials and patterns make up the majority of the book, the introduction is fantastic, including a well-written (if brief) history and context regarding the marvelous quilts of Wales. There are 20 or so full-color photos of these quilts, and as I looked, I realized that I wanted to go to Wales. I grabbed my phone to confirm something important: Wales has two official languages and one of them is English. Great! I could learn a number of helpful expressions in Welsh out of respect to the people there and because it would be fun, but for the most part, if I were to go into the XXX, for example, I would be able to ask all the questions I wanted to ask in my native tongue.
I’m quite serious about wanting to make a trip to Wales to see the quilts of the land up close. Once I make that trip, I’m pretty sure I’ll be more open to making another, don’t you? I could go to England after that and see, firsthand, the quilts that laid the foundation for those we make today. After that, since I’d be in Europe and all, and since I did take a little Italian in undergrad, maybe I could pop over to Italy and look at the marvelous trapunto quilts and coverlets for which they are so known…
In the next few Quilt Scout columns, I’m going to let my fingers do the walking and examine quilts from around the world. We’ll begin with Wales next time, of course; after that, I’d like to look at quilts from Japan. An examination of French quilt traditions would be great, and if you’ve never seen a Ralli quilt from Pakistan, you’re in for a treat.
This wholecloth silk quilt, which now lives in Los Angeles, was probably made in India for European market in the 18th century. Now that’s some world history! Image: Wikipedia.
Once again — and by now it shouldn’t surprise me — we find that all roads really do lead to quilts—even when you can’t read the road signs.