Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Calvin Klein and Me

Calvin Klein and Me

Having been around the quilt world for the last 40 years or so, I have seen the way quilts are occasionally picked up in the mainstream press as something newly rediscovered--it happens about once a decade. The last big splash was made by the explosion of coverage on the  quilts of Gees Bend. Before that, it was the old order Lancaster Amish quilts. What these discoveries have in common is that the quilts uncannily resemble 20th century art, or modern graphics. I am sure you have heard the patronizing comments on these shows as often as I have: “And just think--she didn’t even know what she was doing!” or “They just used what they had…” These comments always, always, are meant to imply that since these quilts were made by little old ladies, they couldn’t possibly have been intentionally sophisticated, the effects they create had to be accidental, and only we sophisticated people can appreciate how cool they actually are. To hear people talk about the Gees Bend quilters, it sounds like people think they are blind and stupid: “They were just using whatever they could get their hands on and sewing it together any way they could.” (The quilters themselves sometimes foster this kind of thinking) That way, we do not have to consider the idea that this unschooled woman in this remote place could have such thrilling compositional skills from only her 50 years of experience making quilts.

No one knows how to explain that women in the mid-nineteenth century were able to create 6-foot-square abstract compositions 50 or 60 or more years before they became common in the art world, so they are reduced to a sort of reverse justification. “Looks like a Rothko,” or, I don’t know...Vasarely...Pollock. You’ve heard it. The idea is to deny the possibility that women of the 19th century could have known what they were doing. After all, they were just women, not designers. Not artists.

Okay. I have long come to terms with the idea that, since quilts were extra-academic, and since they were and are so widely made by women who did not go to art school, they were doomed to be confined to their ghetto...where winning the biggest prize in the quilt world would have absolutely no meaning in any other world. No curator or gallerist gives a hoot if you win Quilt National. Because of the unscalable wall between quilts and Art, we had to make our own museums. We had to create our own world where we can value each other’s creativity. That is my world and I am proud to be a part of it. Even today, when the walls between High and Low art are beginning to crumble, when the divisions between Art and Craft have less and less meaning, there is such a long way to go before quilt artists can get anywhere in the art world that I am resigned to the concept that I will not live to see the day when a quilt artist can be seen as an artist pure and simple. That is alright. I have had the great privilege of making my living here in this realm of women’s infinite creativity and generosity and mutual support. Even when I go way out on a limb with my explorations of what a quilt can be, I get nothing but support here in the quilt world.

But sometimes things bubble up through the fashion or art worlds that infuriate me. Take the recent Calvin Klein ad campaign. The company got a new creative director a year or two ago, Raf Simons, who has discovered American quilts of the 19th century, (obviously influenced by the Red and White show in New York a few years ago, although there is no mention of it anywhere I can find in his verbiage about quilts) and has been so taken with them that he is the latest in a long line of designers to cut them up and otherwise honor them by making clothes out of them. That is okay with me, I am inured to this sort of thing. Here is the real crux of it, taken from their website:

“Some arrestingly graphic, others intricately wrought, these heirloom objects are entrenched in America’s visual vocabulary, and synonymous in many ways with Chief Creative Officer Raf Simons’ vision for CALVIN KLEIN. At Simons’ debut for Fall 2017, vintage quilts lined oversized, utilitarian parkas, or became panel detailing on classic Wall Street topcoats; most recently they were seen on the Spring 2018 CALVIN KLEIN 205W39NYC runway, tucked under models’ arms.”

I love the idea that these arrestingly graphic, ….intricately wrought, ...heirloom objects are entrenched in America’s visual vocabulary, and synonymous in many ways with Chief Creative Officer Raf Simons’ vision for CALVIN KLEIN. I want to call Mr. Simons and ask how, exactly, are they synonymous? And if you value them so much, why do you advocate using them as floor coverings? Please also allow me to speak for the anonymous women of the 19th century when I say Thank You for using our humble quilts for your magnificent panel detailing.

Okay. I shouldn’t even get worked up over this. But then the New York Times has to publish an article about this latest fashion trend.  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/09/style/blankets-quilts-fashion-trend.html

The article is so full of this kind of patronizing, nonsensical, bullshit statement that it makes my restraint fall away. Let me see…let’s start with the sub heading:

The humble blanket, once a fixture of dusty antiques shops and flea markets, is now sold on Madison Avenue and in Paris boutiques.”

It’s humble alright. Just because 19th century American women completely abandoned the European high style of quiltmaking for the well to do and invented an entire realm of infinite creativity and creative freedom of expression, all the while doing it under the radar of men, by the brilliant innovation of making quilts a gift so there would be no money involved in their manufacture, so that oppressed and isolated women, prevented from participation in the worlds of commerce or politics by law and custom, could have entire artistic careers that lasted their whole lives if they wanted, just because they thereby birthed a Big Bang of creativity in the first half of the 19th century and invented this realm of quiltmaking we still enjoy almost unchanged today, just because they found ways of abstract expression that would go “undiscovered” for decades or a century by male artists, that is no reason to think of them as anything other than “humble.”

Moving on. “Calvin Klein features a red-and-white quilt in its provocative ad starring the Kardashian-Jenner sisters, who are languorously sprawled across the blanket in nothing but their underwear.

I think we are supposed to be surprised at the wild juxtaposition of Kardashians--the utmost in fashion sensibility--and humble, dowdy quilts. And once again you can see how much CK and Mr Simons value their “hand selected” quilts (no kidding, that is what they say) by the way they place the boots on them.

Oy. Okay. Next paragraph.

The French label A.P.C. sells a range of limited-edited quilts at its stores, alongside its utilitarian jeans and chicly no-frills shirts.”

Going to that company’s website you can find this statement: "Quilts to me are intrinsically linked to the past. They are made from yesterday’s fabrics, fabrics that we used and had leftovers of. In a way, quilts are to contemporary history what pottery is to ancient history.
I have chosen to name these quilts after the characters from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. First, because it is about the passage of time, as are quilts, but also because my mother was an avid reader of Proust. The fact is that my love of quilts first came from her."
Jean Touitou

Leaving aside the fact that his quilts which are not based on stolen ideas from the--again--Red and White show are stolen from the Gees Bend quilts.( “Ma Willie”?) Or the others which are simply boring and as if designed by an indifferent beginner, Mr Touitou has to drag Proust into it. Because HIS MOTHER WAS AN AVID READER OF PROUST. Somehow his love of quilts first came from her. And “...quilts are to contemporary history what pottery is to ancient history.”? What does that mean? Why not simply say that he looked at some old quilts and used their designs? And then to watch the 4 minute movie on the A.P.C. website, which shows how the quilts are made in India, where the company is so uninterested in the quilters that we never see their faces or learn their names, only the names of the designers, is profoundly depressing. And let’s not forget that he is trying to give himself legitimacy by using Proust’s characters when he has never read a word of Remembrance of Things Past.

I am going away from facts here. Allow me to get back on track. Next up:

“And Loewe, under the direction of its craft-happy designer Jonathan Anderson, showcased a collection of artisan-made quilts at the Milan Furniture Fair in April.”

Going to the link, we find another NY Times article that starts out like this: “The new capsule collection from Loewe’s Jonathan Anderson was born from the same sense of wonder with which the designer once marveled over his grandmother’s hand-knit quilts.” Yep, hand knit.
I shouldn’t be so picky about this...but it’s the Times! And then we learn that Mr Anderson scoured the earth to find artisans to make his vision come true, all of which are unnamed. Of course. I realize that no one needs to name the people in the design houses who actually do the sewing. But here are “artisans” actually doing the creating.

Next is “For me, this is how I relate to domestic life and how I relate to the emotions of a consumer,” said Emily Bode, a designer at Bode, a men’s wear label based on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that uses old fabrics for new designs. “To me, you’d want to wear it because of what is intrinsic to the fabric itself, it’s innateness.”

It is its innateness indeed.
It is innately perfect for cutting up.

Ms. Bode says there is a physical and emotional comfort from quilts that resonates with her customers, who pay $1,500 for her one-of-a-kind boxy jackets made from dead-stock or found fabrics. “We had two customers who, the day they bought their quilt jackets, slept in them,” she said.

It is so much better to sleep in a jacket than under a quilt.

It goes on and on. All this is standard fare for these kinds of articles. Sophisticates justify using old quilts and the graphic ideas they contain using statements that imply that quilts were once made in a long ago, grandmotherly place, and that these sophisticates are now using them in this fun, quirky way to simulate some sort of interest in the past. By doing this they deny two things: first, they deny the profoundly significant creation of the American way of quiltmaking that arose in the 19th century and, second, they deny that there is any significance to its ongoing evolution and true connection to the past.

Millions of people make quilts today. And because of the brilliance of the women who made this realm and their idea that a quilt should be a gift made by a woman for someone she loves, an idea that kept quilts from ever being noticed by the men in charge, quilts that are being made today are still unnoticed. It’s a little comforting to think that our quilts might have the good fortune of being rediscovered a hundred years from now and used as rugs or cut up for jacket linings because of their innateness. (Maybe we will be so lucky that one of our quilts will get tucked under a supermodel’s arms on the runway!) But I would appreciate a little bit of critical thinking from a writer for the Times, my favorite newspaper.  And I would appreciate the acknowledgement that quilts are in their 50th year of a major revival that has turned into an age, that they are not only “dusty” or “humble.”

Yes, yes, artists like Sanford Biggers can use old quilts any way he wants. Yes, yes, clothing designers can cut them up and use them any way they want. But please do not be so incurious about quilts that you do not even acknowledge on the business page, where the article above was found, that quilts are today an ongoing, huge business, with a sector in the billions of dollars. I would think that a little bit of digging would have given the writer the information that the enormous business of quilts today dwarfs any business related to quilts created or used by the designers in the article. I would think it would be fun to ask some quiltmakers what they think about the honor of having a quilt under the nearly bare bottom of a Kardashian. I would think that an article about the new visibility of quilts might not treat the world of quilts as invisible.


  1. Thank you! Love your thoughts, Very well written...

  2. I love your subtle irony. The cut up quilts resewn into garments worn by anorexic models looks rather sad to me. But, yes, surprise, quilts as backdrops for bored models. I think everything goes better with a quilt. And although it doesn't surprise us quilters that the critics don't think there is skill or artistry involved intentionally, we know differently. Well said, Joe.

  3. Thank you for this well-said article, Joe. It is so infuriating that the writers and fashion industry are so ignorant of the very alive-and-well quilt industry. Wouldn’t they be amazed at Quilt Festival or Quilt Week in Paducah?! So far off their radar.
    I’m glad to see that you’ve resurrected your blog. It’s inspiration for me. ❤️ You, Joe.

  4. Thank you for giving voice to the dusty and humble among us. The anger beneath the irony and sarcasm sadly reflects my own. I welcome the fact that a male voice has a greater chance of getting heard in this arena while deploring the fact that this is so. Like so much else that is crippling our world, the differences are only illusions that we treat as concrete and immutable fact.
    Best Regards, Lou

  5. I read that article and was floored at their sneering indifference to all of the history and stitches and materials that had more authenticity to them than the shallow write-up in the Times (my fav. newspaper as well). I remember watching the movie How to Make An American Quilt and I cringed when Winona Ryder draped it over her shoulders and then DRAGGED IT ON THE GROUND. Yep. That didn't pass the "really love quilts" test, nor does that photo of those doofuses on the quilts IN THEIR SHOES. Have they no sense at all? But then, your post says it best: quilts are not wallpaper, quilts are not backdrop, quilts are not props, quilts are history and people lives and art.

    Thank you for writing this--I'm posting it on my FB page, and linking to it from my next blog post.

  6. Love you, Joe! Thank you for sharing your thoughts (you do it so well!). I was thinking the same thing (only saying to myself, "the NERVE of these industries!!"). That somehow quilts are now "elevated" to the fashion level, which is supposed to give them more value than our blessed hands have wrought all these many years?? Ay yi yi. SO glad you're saying the things that need to be said--and eloquently too. Thank you from the bottom of my fifth-generation quilter's heart!!

  7. A great article Joe. Thanks for writing it. I, too, was shaking my head and mental fist when I read the Times article.

    I also think that quilters as a group bear some responsibility for this as well. Too often we minimize our work rather than proudly presenting it, if even only to our family and friends. We don't acknowledge the training, learning, hours of work and monetary resources put into it, and instead label it, "Made with Love". The recipients have been given no opportunity to understand the value of their "blanket".

    We minimize our work when we put 100 hours and over $150 into making a quilt that we donate to our guild which sells it for $65 at auction or quilt show, or we ourselves sell at a craft show for $95. Customers are unaware of the craft involved and are aware that blankets cost under $50 at stores, so paying someone $100 for one is more than fair. It doesn't help the craft to be willing to give away so much under the appearance of selling it at value.

    Each quilter must do more to educate family, friends, and the public about what is involved in creating a quilt. We must do more to promote its value. We must do more to acknowledge ourselves as creators and artists.

    1. I hear you, Andrea. But I think the real problem is that it is built into the definition of what a quilt is, in our culture: it is something made as a gift by a woman for someone she loves. It is in the DNA of the American quilt. So getting a monetary value assigned to quilts is extra difficult.

  8. Bam! Dead center Joe the Quilter! I am proud to call you a friend. It bothered me about the K family sprawled on the quilts but it was that g-d boot stepping on the quilt that really pissed me off. Quilters were and are truly innovative artists. Our occasional emergence into popular culture only matters to me in that more and more old quilts get cut up and ultimately destroyed. Would you burn a book? I thought not (horrible visions of Nazi book-burnings). Keep your untalented hands off the old quilts so we can preserve them for the future. They are the texts and gospels of our craft.

  9. I would love to say, “Unbelievable,” but it’s not. Thanks, Joe, for standing up for our quilting ancestors who will remain unknown in so many ways. “Hand knit quilts” says it all. Reminds me of the toilet tissue commercial several years ago that showed the older, white-haired ladies sitting around a quilting frame with quilting needles. Quilter’s raised such a stink that the company pulled the commercial! Maybe it’s time for us to step up again and let Calvin know what we think of this abuse of an art form. Many years ago, a metal template company was for sale. I mentioned it to my boss and his response was, “How many people would be interested in this item?” If only he knew how many of us there are now! Thanks again for your comments and those responses from serious quilters.

  10. Hi Joe, I have already made a comment on that horrendous 'booted' picture, it really incensed me. Having read this wonderful article by you I think I have an answer to CK's usage of Quilts. They know no better as stuff that goes into their underwear is also what they talk about quilts....a load of crap. They know no different sadly. Written once again in anger. They CUT QUILTS UP, oh my, that is way way way against everything I have been brought up to believe in, good for all, those beautiful quilts, old or new, it is just sacrilege. Vent over. CK I am watching you.

  11. I completely agree! Thank you for your candor and setting things straight--but us quilters already know better than to stand on a quilt with boots, refer to quilts as blankets, and no one I know "knits" a quilt. I think a letter to the editor of the NYTimes is in order. Keep us posted.

  12. Wonderfully expressed, Joe. You do have a way with words.

  13. Please, please, PLEASE, submit this to the NYT,Joe. It's my favorite paper, too, but I ground away 2 mm of teeth as I read those articles.

  14. Clearly those folks know nothing about Quilting. It is an Art. I was a Jeweler for over 20 years and when my friend suggested I quilt with her I very self righteously said," I don't want to do some old ladies hobby" Ha! Well I have been Long Arm Quilting since 1998, and I can tell them they don't know a thing of which they speak just like I didn't. So O.K. There's no harm in being uneducated in a matter, but study to show yourself approved, and you'll never have to be ashamed. So hey tell them they can learn a lot by actually doing it, a little bit from a quilt show, Just study, study, study, before you sling some quilts on the floor,especially the same quilt. Add some variety for goodness sake.

  15. I’m so glad that I read this. You have said what so many of us are thinking. Thank you.

  16. OMG, your breakdown and response to this article/trend is so intellectual in itself, but spot on hilarious! I don't quilt, but was laughing aloud at the "grandmother’s hand-knit quilts"! I do lots of other fabric artistry and costuming though, and yet I own lots of quilt books - why? Because they are beautiful to look at, inspire me in my fabric artistry, and I've got to buy them while I see them because unlike art books, I don't trust that they'll be re-printed. I hope one of my children appreciates the out-of-print quilt books I hand down to them even if I never spread my own sewing hobbies to quilting.

  17. The fashion industry is known to be out of touch with reality. Maybe for the shock value, hoping for more of the attention they seem to crave.
    Oh well, what else is new?
    I just found your blog while researching what class to take at the Pacific International Quilt Show 2018. I saw your name and class description and found your blog. Your classes look great, just what I'm interested in.
    Thank you.

  18. Interesting... and a GREAT 'call out' on misrepresentation. Saw another article where the "Millenials" were given credit for the the 'breakout' of quilting .... and how quilts are no longer being made by gray haired grannies in church basements anymore. A case of stereotyping and poor research. The only granny in the basement is there in her STUDIO or playing on her Longarm!

  19. Thank you, hope to see your response in the NY Times

  20. Thank you, thank you. Arrogance and ignorance go hand in hand. NYT is a great newspaper, but too often people write about matters of which they are ignorant. And the less said about fashion designers, the better.

  21. Thank you for so beautifully articulating the way the incredible creativity of quilting can so often be dismissed as a homely way to spend your time rather than for art that it really is. I recently came back to sewing and started quilting in retirement. I see the look on people's faces occasionally when I say I am starting to quilt. A pitying look for being so boring and lame! They don't get it - I am bursting with ideas and love going to my sewing room every morning. The colours and textures talk to me more clearly day by day.