This is the first book review I’ve done about a quilt book. It may be the first book review I’ve done about any book. I really don’t remember. Just please note this is an extraordinary circumstance. And it came about because when I commented on an announcement of the book on Facebook, the book’s author asked me to let him know what I thought.
There seems to be something called a blog tour going on about the book, but this is not part of that, I don’t really know how those things work. I’m not (yet) part of the larger quilting community, though I’d like to join.
I had preordered the book Modern Quilt Perspectives from Amazon based on reading some of the blog posts Thomas Knauer has written over the past couple of years. I first discovered him when I was pondering questions like whether quilts are art or craft, what’s the difference between modern and traditional quilts, etc. If you want to learn a whole lot, start with his post A Brief History of Modern and follow the links to subsequent posts. (But I can’t find the 4th in the series?)
So when I heard he was doing a book about Modern Quilting I knew I had to read it.
Here’s the thing: I think this is the first quilt book I’ve actually read like a book. I mean I own plenty of them, but now I realize I don’t read them, I use them. As one uses recipes from a cookbook. I look at the patterns and figure out which ones I want to make and read the instructions to see if I am patient enough to follow them. Then the real fun begins: what fabrics to choose, how to make it my own. I read a paragraph or page here and there to help with a particular task.
There are some I plan to read like a book, even start at the beginning, but soon I find myself paging through to see what the author’s approach looks like… to look at the quilts, searching for inspiration. If it’s a Kaffe Fassett book, I look at them again and again, trying to discern what makes his fabrics and quilts so appealing, why they make me so happy. But even that isn’t like reading a book, it’s more like devouring it with my eyes.
But Thomas’s book is different. First, it must be said that he is just effing brilliant. I don’t say that often. Hardly ever, in fact. It’s not just that he knows so much about art history and quilt history and puts them in a cultural context. He also thinks about what it all means. And his quilts so simply and beautifully illustrate his insights into those meanings.
Each quilt is accompanied by a short and accessible story or essay explaining how it came about and why it matters. For example, how quilting and community are connected. The role of individuals in a healthy society. What identity means. How babies are made. Social commentary and political expression.
My favorite might be In Defense of Handmade, which uses the bar code of a mass produced quilt as the pattern. How freaking brilliant is that?!? The quilt could serve as the poster child and its essay the manifesto of the maker movement.
At the same time, the book is filled with little gems in boxes…like about using tonal fabrics, aiming for randomness. How to get beyond symmetry. And techniques for achieving quilts I had never imagined, like joining four small quilts into a larger whole with loops and buttons.
He’s also so very observant, of very big and very little things. For example, one of the quilts in the book is made of multiples of the letter H, because when he and his daughter were walking in the sun holding hands, she pointed out that their shadow was an H. The fact that he was attending to her, noticing what she said, being so inspired by it that he designed a quilt and then included her in the making of the quilt shows her that her ideas matter. She matters. Imagine our world if every child grew up with that. When I see and hear this story, the letter H also becomes Hope for Humanity.
Most of all, Thomas encourages readers to use his book as a point of departure in their own quilting journey. It explained a lot of things that made my own progression make more sense and why I’m at a kind of crossroads now. I don’t think I would know I am here if I hadn’t read his book.
When I first started quilting, I was learning techniques. Enough to follow very simple patterns. I even made one from a kit!
I picked fabrics I liked but didn’t know to pay attention to how the fabrics worked with the pattern, or not. Often not in my case.
Once I felt comfortable enough with technique, I focused on fabrics with gorgeous saturated colors, then looked for a pattern that would let it glow. At this point I just wanted to make quilts that were beautiful. Something to eat with my eyes.
But then that was no longer enough. One day I made blocks with colors I thought looked great together and were “on trend” but looking at the top laid out on my design wall I was overcome with a feeling of utter boredom. I mean, the colors were pleasing and all, but just. so. boring.
So I timidly slashed some of the blocks and mixed up their order. Making “mistakes” on purpose. Basically trying to deconstruct the boringness by introducing unpredictability. Which is inherently more interesting to me than the blandness of every square the same size, a pattern repeating. A funny footnote on this quilt: Every mistake was on purpose until I got to the very last piece in the very last block in the sequence, the one in the bottom left corner, when I inadvertently sewed the last seam with the wrong side of the fabric facing up. I started to rip it apart to resew then started laughing as I realized it was the perfect period on the quilt that I named Shit Happens. (And I thank Thomas for helping me feel it is okay to use the word shit.)
My next quilt was one I designed to convey differences among settlement patterns. Drawing from my academic background studying geography, I tried to take the concept of differences between gated communities of large private estates and inner cities that are crowded and chaotic and illustrate the different feelings they evoke. That when settlements have too much order and privacy they can lose serendipity and liveliness. And why I would rather set myself up for unexpected discoveries and unforeseen moments even when it means giving up security and control and comfort.
I used a print collection by Malka Dubrawsky (from moda) to help make this point but after reading Modern Quilt Perspectives, I have enough confidence to try expressing myself relying less on the fabric and more on my own design.
While I will still make quilts because they are beautiful (especially as long as there is a Kaffe Fassett Collective!), now I know that I will seek more meaning whenever I start cutting fabric for my next quilt.
Yes, I’m aware that this book review has turned into an examination of my own quilt journey, but it feels like that’s the way Thomas Knauer would want it. And that’s why his book matters so much. And why you should read it.