Quilt Coats - Taking apart and piecing together the many viewpoints
Quilt Coat by Lorraine Woodruff Long
Making clothing from quilts has been quite the trend recently. It’s not without precedent. Clothes from quilts have been featured on runways in various past decades, influencing mainstream fashion somewhat. But for the past five or so years, fueled by social media’s capability to disseminate an idea far and wide, the trend has picked up momentum.
Feelings run high among quilters when discussing this topic. I encourage you to read this post and share your views with an open mind and a respectful approach. Let’s examine a few perspectives.
I recently watched Mary Fons’ YouTube video, ‘Stop Cutting Up Quilts to Make Clothes’.
It seems Fons wants to sound the alarm, believing quilts of significant historical value are being sacrificed to make clothing that will be worn for only as long as the fashion lasts.
The YouTube video has been taken down due to a copyright challenge. It was a long and passionate appeal to leave quilts in their original state.
My initial response to Mary Fons’ message was sympathetic. I’m not in love with the quilt coat ‘lewk’ - but my subjective view about that is irrelevant. Her point that the quilt world is losing its historical pieces to a passing trend is something that made me anxious. So I brought up the issue in an instagram post (@juliamcleodquilts) and received some really interesting responses.
I’m a fan of civil discourse and respectful debate. I enjoy ‘Yes, AND’ more than ‘No, BUT’. I am so grateful to the fellow quilt makers and collectors who weighed in and shared their truths.
Let’s begin with the thorny question of ‘What makes a quilt too valuable to cut up?’.
As you may have discovered if you have ever tried to sell or donate a quilt, one person’s idea of value may not be another’s. Indisputable attributes like dates, names, places and condition contribute to a quilt’s value. Quilt historians date unlabeled pieces based on the colors, prints and designs used in the quilt. Beyond that, personal opinions come into play as to the quilt’s aesthetic value.
There’s no disputing the fact that a historical quilt is irreplaceable - the maker is dead, the textiles are no longer available. It cannot be recreated. And there are simply fewer truly antique quilts in existence. The quilt historian’s view is that we should preserve them.
Has the quilt-coat trend has caused a version of deforestation in the quilt world - have we lost our old growth forests to the wildfire of quilt coat fashion?
Some sewists argue that there are SO many old quilts in existence, why does it matter if some - particularly the tattered and torn - go under the shears?
Others claim that ownership allows them to do as they wish with their property: Just as a home owner can remodel their house, an artist should be similarly free to access whatever materials they choose without being policed by other people.
To explore this parallel; while there are restrictions on what alterations owners of historic homes can make to their properties, historic quilts are unprotected. Ownership of something historically valuable usually comes with an implied responsibility of stewardship and conservation.
There are upcycling makers who believe that the quilt-to-clothing transformation is just another step in the textile cycle of life. What was a quilt, after all, if not cut-apart clothing?
One quilter shared with me that the experience of wearing a quilt coat was like wearing a piece of art - the textile was appreciated and commented on in a way that it never was, folded away in storage.
Aside from the vintage beauties, there are millions of quilts in existence that fall into the category of ‘ordinary’ - perhaps mass-produced to a pattern for commercial sale, or hand-made a few decades ago and no longer a favorite. Arguably, no one will miss these coverlets if they’re turned into a cute jacket.
Americans currently only redirect 15% of their textile waste. The remainder goes to landfill, taking up 5% of landfill space. Quilts are among those textiles, sometimes dumped, sometimes shipped overseas for dumping or resale, unbalancing other countries’ textile industries.
So why not reclaim and reuse an unwanted quilt?
A side shoot of this discussion of whether to cut or not cut up old quilts concerns issues of commercialism and capitalism versus creativity (not that they are mutually exclusive). Mary Fons raised this point in her video.
Are we sacrificing quilts in the interests of making a quick buck off a short-lived trend? Are we adding to the value of a quilt by turning it into something wearable, or are we simply destroying its worth? Are we disrespecting a (mostly) women’s craft by not honoring quilts for the objects they are?
The questions around the quilt clothing topic are legion, and I am hearing many answers and perspectives that make sense to me. As a quilt maker I focus on using reclaimed textiles - neckties, garments, furnishing fabrics, travel souvenirs etc. In my classes and lectures I urge people to bring their treasured items out of the closet and put them into a quilt. Life is short; cut up the good fabric! Now, where would I be if Mary Fons’ plea were inverted and challenged me to ‘Stop Cutting Up Clothing for Quilts’?!
Whichever side you take in this multi-faceted debate, I wish you joy in your sewing, pleasure in the quilts you own, or view in museums, and grace in your interactions with fellow quilters.
No quilts were harmed in the making of Lorraine Woodruff Long's quilt coats. Read her blog about making a garment from quilted panels.