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The craft that is now art

Published 3 March 2014

Novelist Tracy Chevalier, who curates a new exhibition of quilts, argues that this traditional activity should be accepted as a contemporary art medium.

  • From the Spring 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    In 2010 I went to see ‘Quilts 1700-2010’ at the V&A, and was blown away by how beautiful, sophisticated and thought-provoking the quilts on display were. Despite initial scepticism from the art world, the exhibition was a big success.

    Around the same time, I was researching my historical novel The Last Runaway (2013), in which the English heroine is, among other things, a quilter. I chose quilting because I wanted my characters to take part in an activity that was popular in both Britain and the US during the 19th century. I found quilts to be a fascinating mix of the practical and the creative. Made for beds, they also gave women one of the few opportunities they had in their daily lives to play with colour, pattern, texture – often using fabrics from old clothing, sewing their lives into the layers. Quilts became personal historical documents, covering sleepers and literally absorbing them.

    As well as researching quilts, I learned to make them. As a result, I became something of an armchair expert in quilts and last year I was asked to be a judge at the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, for the newly reintroduced Fine Art Quilt Masters category.

  • Grayson Perry RA, Right to Life

    Grayson Perry RA, Right to Life, 1998.

    Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry.

  • Are quilts having their moment? Are they making the leap from craft to art? Pots have made the transition (Edmund de Waal); glass has (Dale Chihuly); tapestry has (Grayson Perry RA). Should quilts also be taken seriously as art? Perhaps more accurately: should quilting (the act of stitching together layers of fabric in patterns) be considered an artistic medium?

    I think: yes. Art is not defined by how it is made, but by what it does to us.

    To me, craft is something made to be admired and used, while art is made to get a response, to make us think or feel. Whether the media used is marble or paint or thread should be immaterial. Yet somehow sewing does seem to be treated differently. In 2012 I attended a talk at the V&A by the quilt artist Nancy Crow, a mild-seeming American who unsheathed her claws the moment the art/craft issue was raised. There was no doubt that she defines herself as an artist and feels the art world treats quilt art with condescension, perhaps because quilting is often associated with women, and the art world – artists, critics and dealers – is still largely male.

    In the end, the difference between art and craft is about context. Make a quilt, use it on?a bed, and it’s craft. Hang it on a gallery wall, light it well and give it a label, and it’s art, right?

    Perhaps that is too easy an answer. I expect to make some people uneasy at the quilt/art show I have curated for Danson House this year. ‘Things We Do in Bed’ displays antique quilts and quilted clothes alongside contemporary pieces by Grayson Perry RA, Sara Impey and other artists who use quilting in their work. There are also ‘amateur’ quilts, including one made by prisoners through the auspices of Fine Cell Work, a charity that teaches prisoners how to sew.

    Some of the antique quilts in the show are displayed on walls, while the contemporary pieces cover beds. Amateur rubs alongside professional. I hope this will make visitors question the line they draw between art and craft and ask whether that distinction is relevant any longer when it comes to quilts.

    Things We Do in Bed is at Danson House, Bexleyheath from 1 April – 31 October 2014.