The art of stitching
This past JanPlan, students in American Studies 097: Hands-On Approach to Quilts in American Cultures gained a range of knowledge of quilting extending from precise needlework to an intimate understanding of quilting culture. Richard Caro, husband of American Studies Professor Julie Caro, taught the class.
Students, many of whom were not only first-time quilters, but also first-time sewers, began to learn to sew on the first day of class. By the end of January, each of the students had created their own 70 by 50 inch quilt. The quilts were showcased in Miller Library through last Friday.
Caro became an avid quilter later in life, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in literature and a masters degree in secondary English education. He now works as a fundraiser for United Way. However, he still leaves time for his creative side.
“I started with weaving, but I didn’t like that too much, and then I found quilting,” said Caro. He found a love for quilts, because the large and artistic objects could actually be used.
He also was drawn to the “ubiquitous genre” of quilting that does not include any fine art pretenses, making it more accessible to first-timers and newly converted artists. Additionally, for Caro, the fun of becoming a quilter was being a clear minority, because quilting is a “predominantly female culture with lopsided demographics.”
Caro attempted to inspire his students to share his sentiments about quilting, and challenged the students to make beautiful quilts in an unorthodox, freehand manner.
Caro layed out certain parameters for the making of the quilts: students could not use traditional patterns, fusible adhesives, rotary cutters, rulers, squares, equilateral triangles and could not plan more than five steps ahead. These strict requirements, designed to free the students’ creativity, resulted in the creation of completely unique quilts with personal value to the students in the class. “I didn’t want to just have them making a quilt, but becoming a quiltmaker,” Caro said.
Four visiting speakers came during the month, and the class also visited the Colby Museum of Art to look at quilts in order to break up the tiring work of sewing.
The class also included plenty of assigned readings. Students would arrive, start sewing, and then would discuss the assignments, whose topics included African-American quilting, feminism within quilt making, and quilts and the Marxist theory of value.
Caro included these readings and discussions because he thinks “quilting can be pigeonholed,” and he is also intrigued by the “conceptual and cultural aspects of quilt making.” The very clear practical aim of making a quilt was balanced by a focus on the true value of material as it takes on various forms, like the cultural significance of a quilt.
In Caro’s view, learning how to look at a quilt for its greater meaning can allow people to look at other forms of art in American culture for their greater significance as well.
Grace Schlesinger, a sophomore in the class, found it to be a rewarding JanPlan experience. She signed up for the class for a more relaxing JanPlan, but she learned a lot and is also proud of her patchwork.
“You don’t normally think about quilting as a serious work of art but [the class] changed my perspective on quilting as an art form,” said Schlesinger. After sewing the entire quilt by hand, she also appreciates the dedication involved in quiltmaking.
As for the cultural significance of quilting highlighted in the class, Jazmine Russell ’13noted, “I had no idea how much quilt making is a huge part of American culture. There’s a ton of literature about it—what it means in American culture, as a metaphor in American culture—I just had no idea.”
The successful fusion of acquiring new skills while also learning the contextual background was also very rewarding for Russell, who continued, “I absolutely loved the class and hope that it’s offered again and [that] lots of people get the chance to take it.”