Are quilts art? That has been a question reverberating around the quilt, craft, and art worlds for at least a century. The answer is not as simple as yes or no, and the debate concerns much more than new quilts versus old or formally trained artists versus domestic home sewers. Artist Michael James and art historian Sandra Sider have identified art quilts as holding a precarious position at the intersection of art, craft, and design.1
Considering quilts from an artistic perspective began during the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century. Ladies’ Home Journal and Needlecraft Magazine presented their readers with original designs and encouraged experimentation. Despite the dominance of the Colonial Revival’s influence, trained artists like Bertha Meckstroth and Hannah Haynes Hedley explored matters of material, content, and form in their quilt designs.
Crafters and artists revitalized the question after World War II. The back-to-the-land movement focused on handicraft traditions as part of a return to a pre-industrial lifestyle, while Pop Art expanded the art community’s definition of acceptable content, material, and form. Female pop artists of the 1950s and 1960s used textiles and patchwork in their work as an early feminist connection to handicraft traditions.
University art programs began incorporating craft programs into their curriculums. The first feminist art programs began in the early 1970s. Artists including Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro incorporated women’s handicraft traditions into their work while encouraging students to break out of the mold of fine arts strictures.
Abstract Design in American Quilts at the prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971 called into question the assumed position of quilts primarily as functional crafts. The timing coincided with a nascent group of artists experimenting with quiltmaking, as well as the 1970s celebration of the Bicentennial and its accompanying nostalgia for all things “colonial” and “American”.
The recognition of quilts’ potential as art gained ground in the 1970s and 1980s. Fiber artists slowly began forming communities, organizing shows, and cultivating advocates and collectors. The studio quilt is now forty years old. Neither the art world nor the quilt world may fully claim these objects as their own, but the artists who make them have succeeded in challenging the boundaries of art, craft, and quilt.
1. Perspectives: Art, Craft, Design & the Studio Quilt (Lincoln, NE: International Quilt Study Center & Museum, 2009).