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Quilting is a Language

*This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase the referenced book, I will receive a small commission.  Thanks for reading.  Enjoy!

THE QUILTING BRAIN

The Quilting Brain is an amazing thing.  I think most of us take it for granted.  Common traits among quilters, crafters, and artisans include the ability to “steal” an idea- to see how something is put together & pull an idea from it.  You might not go home & make the exact same thing, but you take something from it & make it your own.

I had a boyfriend who worked in a professional setting & loved to collect unique ties.  He was crazy about them.  He was also the first one to introduce me to the theatre.  We went to see Les Miserables.  One day at our annual Fall Foliage Festival in Bedford County, PA (if you’ve never been- it’s well worth the trip- people travel from all over the US!), I saw a vender selling homemade men’s ties.  I decided that if she could make them, I could make them!  I went home, asked my dad for an old tie that I could take apart to make a pattern out of & went to work.  On the first run through, I did not know to cut it out diagonally on the fabric & ended up with a tie that twisted like a corkscrew!  Hilarious!  Thank goodness for moms who can come along & tell you what you’re doing wrong… I got the cutting problem straightened out & started major tie production.  Eventually, I started to embroidery them as well.  He really flipped out when I presented him with a stocking full of homemade ties at Christmas.  But that’s a quilters brain for you.  I want it- therefore I will make it!

Les Miserables hand drawn & hand stitched on a handmade tie.

Creativity like that can’t always be taught, but I think it can be learned.  It comes from thousands of hours of labor & experience.  When I began learning Spanish, the first thing I learned was to read the words & recognize them in print.  It was surprising to realize that I also had to learn to hear the words & that hearing was separate from reading.  It was the 2nd step.  The final step in fluency was being able to speak because you have to be able to both hear the language, think in it & respond in a very short amount of time.  (I was actually shocked when I first learned that I would one day think in Spanish & not just always translate English to Spanish & vice versa.  I didn’t realize that it would become a part of me.) It takes more practice than you can imagine.  You practice reading.  You practice writing.  You practice hearing.  And, you practice speaking.  If you practice enough, you begin to think in the language; it becomes a part of you.

THINKING IN THE LANGUAGE OF ART

People who are artisans- whether they quilt or sew or paint- don’t realize that they are learning a language- that they can think in quilting, but it becomes a part of them as much as any language.  It took me nearly 40 years to recognize that the reason that I see & react to the world so differently, so incredibly uniquely is because I am completely immersed in the creative process- I think in quilting- I think in art.

How do you think in quilting or art though?  One way is by approaching many facets of life using the design process.

The design process broken down simply is this:

  • Gather up all of your options (materials/patterns/etc.) & survey possibilities (like free writing in creative writing class)
  • Eliminate what doesn’t fit & begin to focus
  • Choose pattern/design/fabric/etc.
  • Begin project
  • Problem solve throughout the project

I follow this process at work.  In sales, I gather up leads for potential clients to work with.  I keep a large file (several boxes actually- kind of like a fabric stash!!!) & when I’m running low on appointments, I go through the box & pull out all of the ones that I might want to work with.  Then I eliminate the ones that can’t afford my services, followed by the ones that aren’t as likely to advertise at that time of year, until I’ve whittled my selections down to the right ones to chase.  Then I problem solve through the process of trying to land the account.

I fall back to the design process when I have any problem to solve, really.  What are my options?  (Gather up all of the possibilities.)  Sweep away the stuff that is too hard, too expensive, ridiculous, etc.  Reduce, reduce, reduce, until I can choose a solution.  Implement.  Repeat the process to further problem solve.

The design process spills over into a lot of avenues in my life and I’m proud to say that it’s a really practical & useful skill set that I have gained from my quilting & art adventures!

SEEING COMPONENTS & POTENTIAL

Another way that you can think in art is by seeing how things fit together & using that knowledge to pull anything apart, extract what you need & create something new.  It’s an incredible talent that seems to be innate to most artisans; so we typically take it for granted.  It’s part of that language of art-  an integral part of how we think & process life.

I was totally guilty of taking this part of the language & the talents I have gained from years of making art in various ways for granted until I went to college.  I was not a little bit surprised to find myself among a dozen PHD candidates who expressed amazement & stated that they couldn’t understand how I could alter an item of clothing by making my own pattern or take a couch that had been kicked to the curb, strip it, figure out how it was upholstered & how to reupholster it, when to me, it was just “common sense.”  It was easy to look at things and see how they worked or didn’t work- what I could or couldn’t do with a given material & what might work on a proposed project if I tried because I had done it with so many materials & so many projects before.  Skill sets & experience easily transferred over to new things.

Blouse gone wrong goes purse!

MISTAKES ARE OPPORTUNITIES

But, of course, it didn’t always work.  One time I ended up making myself a purse out of a blouse that I cut out with the stripes going the wrong way on one panel.  But that’s another thing that the quilting brain does- it sees possibilities.  That ruined shirt made out of fabric that I could no longer get more of at the store still contained brand new fabric.  WHY waste it?!?  ;-). Mistakes are opportunities.

ARGUMENTS FOR & AGAINST

Some might argue that this is not a language that I’m thinking in, but a skill set that I’m applying to various facets of my life.  I think the bell could toll both ways.  Because the skill sets that I’ve gained affects the way that I think & approach life, to me it has become a language.  I also state this because the things we make convey meaning outside of words & to be immersed in the making of those things means thinking outside of words- it means to think in quilting or art.

I picked up a book last night about Scandinavian embroidery & was fascinated to learn about the custom that some of the folk women had at one point of keeping an elaborately embroidered bed made up at all times for show & nothing else.  It was a status symbol among them.  It conveyed meaning.

LANGUAGE AFFECTS PERCEPTION

So- yes.  I think it’s possible to think in quilting.  I believe that art is a language & that it can shape the way that you see, think & interact with the world.  There are some fascinating Ted Talks on the subject of how different languages affect the culture’s perception of the world.

One of my favorite examples notes that in the US where we speak English we generally have 1 word for snow- and will add just a few adjectives such as wet or dry.  However, the Eskimos have 21 words for snow!  They live with it for much more of the year.  They interact with it more intimately.  Of course they see more types of it.  My bet is that there are names for crusted snow verses drifted snow, dirty vs. pure & so much more.  (If I recall correctly, the Ted Talk references this example as well, but I heard it in a different talk years ago.)

Another example that I love comes from my days in Spanish class, as well as the Ted Talk (linked below) that I recently viewed on YouTube (not an affiliate).  In Spanish- there are no words that assign blame to the individual who forgot something.  The literal translation of: “I forgot my keys.” is “The keys, they forgot me.”  What’s interesting is that English speakers are much more likely to be mad at the person who forgot the keys and made everyone late, whereas Spanish speakers accept that sometimes things forget themselves!  (Here’s the link to the Ted Talk for anyone who wants to watch it: How Language Shapes The Way We Think)

Languages really do shape how we see the world & the decisions that we make.  When we immerse ourselves in quilting & art, it becomes a part of us- it becomes a part of how we think & see things.  It is entwined into our vocabulary & vision.  I believe it can only change us for the better.

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Applied Art™

THE NEW ART OF LABOR & TRADE:

Today we think of art as something that will go into a museum or decorate a space. However, art was once a trade. Michelangelo was part of a sculpting guild & apprenticed under a master in the same way that masons pass on their knowledge of building & stone work to upcoming generations- both in ancient times and today. Artisans who formed these guilds & did the work of both building & beautifying their communities were ​highly revered specialists ​who performed extremely important work.

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS:

Today, when we think of an artist, the word “starving” is usually the first to come to mind. We do not value art or an arts education as we once did, much less folk art like quilting. Fine art is separated from craft & trade, devaluing folk art, craft & trade further.  All are pushed to the sidelines of “core curriculum.” This is evidenced by the budget cuts to arts & trades education categories. They do not get the same funding that scientific programs garner because we do not see their application in society as readily. In our current culture, you’ll never hear a teacher say,​ “If you don’t learn how to draw or take things apart & make something new out of them, you won’t have a good future.” ​They say, “If you don’t study for this test & keep your grades up, you won’t get into college & you’ll struggle for the rest of your life.” ​We need a wholesale change in our education system to include applied arts that balances the heavy usage of technology with the practical everyday folk art, trade & skills of our ancestors.

APPLIED ARTS™:

Applied Art™ can influence not only its own field of craftsmen/women & fine artists, but can also enhance other subjects as well.

SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION:

Art, Trade & Craftsmanship is scientific exploration. In order to learn how to draw, you first have to discover what the different materials do. Why does this pencil draw darker lines than another? Which one is harder to erase? Why? How do you draw with something other than lines? (Shading creates contour & depth- the perception of a 3D image.) In order to learn how to quilt, you have to know which fabrics with stretch & in what ways, how one color & pattern choice will affect another in the overall design of the quilt, the numerous ways that the fabrics can be joined together & the pros & cons of each method, etc.  A good artist knows how to expertly manipulate the materials he/she is using. Practice in these fields lends itself easily to manufacturing. How does this material work? How far can I bend or manipulate it? What can I combine it with to create something that will solve a problem? How can I look at raw materials & imagine different uses for them? (Creativity & imagination!)

Close-up of Yosaic™ Quilting

PROBLEM SOLVING:

Art is also problem solving. When you have an idea of what you want to create, you both mentally & physically take it apart. You look at all of its components & figure out how they compare to one another. Nothing comes out perfectly the first time you draw it on a page, play it on an instrument, or weld it into place. An artist/craftsman/woman is continually looking for what part of their project is “different” from what they want. These pieces aren’t matching up the way they’re supposed to.  One piece is longer than another.  There’s puckering of the fabric where the thread bunched up.  This fabric gets eaten easily by the sewing machine.  Why?  And how do I fix it?

As you move through the project you make changes until it becomes what you want. This is a constant problem-solving process from start to finish & produces patience, persistence, critical thinking & creativity.

A LANGUAGE:

Art is a way to learn other things. Indeed, it is often referred to as a language. We study language by itself, but we also use language to study other subjects. One pursuit does not detract from the other. In like manner, applied art™ which includes both art, craft & trade applications could be brought into the regular classroom & used to explore other subjects. It would be ideal for each school to have one or more arts & trades counselors who could work with the regular classroom teachers to create projects that allow the students to use creative reasoning & include hands-on experiences as they explore all of the other subjects. Indeed, Applied Art™ could be the solution to the Skills Gap.

APPLIED ART™ IN HISTORY:

There is historical precedent that tells us that this type of approach would not only bridge the skills gap but enhance “core” curriculum. During WWI there was a movement to ​“Knit Your Bit” for the soldiers. Not only women, but men left behind & children were called on to knit socks, scarves, hats & mittens for the soldiers. It was a patriotic duty that compelled some to knit in church & eventually in school. An amazing thing happened. Teachers everywhere noted ​betterbehavior in class AND improved testing. Today we know that the patterning & mathematical elements of this craft are highly important in a number of fields. As a result of this understanding, Waldorf Schools worldwide teach both knitting & crochet to improve reading, writing & mathematical scores beginning as early as kindergarten. The only question that remains is, ​“Why hasn’t the world followed?”

REFERENCES:

No Idle Hands : The Social History of American Knitting
TEACHING KIDS TO CROCHET AND KNIT: WHY WALDORF SCHOOLS INCORPORATE CRAFTING INTO THEIR CURRICULUM

©Christy Grace Collins, 2018.  All Rights Reserved.