What Is Art Quilting?

Posted by on Nov 02, 2012

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Even quilting enthusiasts often struggle to answer the question: "What is art quilting?" We've turned to author and art quilting expert Susan Stein for some tips on defining the genre.

What Is Art Quilting?

There are simple answers to this question, like “it’s a non-traditional quilt,” but the term art quilt means many things and everyone will have a different opinion. 

Generally, art quilts are made for display only and not for beds. Art quilts vary in size from tiny 4" (10 cm) square pieces to huge pieces made for corporate walls. Yet they don’t even have to lie flat against the wall — in fact, some are mounted on a series of sticks and stand on the floor while others are suspended from the ceiling on clear monofilament.

Since art quilts do not have to withstand daily use and handling, they can be constructed in different ways and contain different materials from traditional quilts made for regular use. Good construction is still valued and the principles of design and composition come into play much more, since the quilt will be viewed hanging on a wall like the piece of art it is. Hanging mechanisms are built into an art quilt, are designed to support the quilt for long periods of time, and are often hidden from view. In some situations, quilts made for public buildings are required to be fireproof or are hung behind Plexiglas. Indeed, art quilts made for public spaces often carry with them very specific requests, like being easily removable or firmly attached to the wall to prevent theft.

Art quilting often "breaks the rules." Art quilts often comply with the rules of traditional quilting in that they have three layers and stitching to hold the layers together. However, they break the rules in many cases and exhibits of art quilts carefully spell out the new rules in their entry forms. Art quilters who want to exhibit should expect to follow stringent requirements for photography and electronic submissions, making the quilt’s creation just a part of the whole process.

Art quilting incorporates surface design. Some artists dye or paint their own fabric, while others purchase fabric from the many artists selling one-of-a-kind cloth. Art cloth is yet another offshoot of art quilting and lengths of fabric with no stitching or layers at all make up whole exhibits of their own. Some fabric isn’t even fabric but spun polyester, Tyvek, handmade paper, wool or silk roving, metal, etc. Even foil candy wrappers find their way into contemporary quilts!

Art quilts vary from traditional arrangements or "blocks." Art quilts may be comprised of rows of blocks like traditional quilts, but more often they cover the surface with a less formal arrangement of elements. Some quilts are just one piece of fabric with painting or dyeing plus lots of stitching to add detail. Quilts may be divided into separate units meant to hang together in close proximity. Both hand and machine techniques are used extensively in making art quilts, and piecing and appliqué both play important parts in construction. Appliqué in all its many forms is probably the most common technique used because it allows for great freedom.

Getting Started with Art Quilting

art quilting
An art quilter may approach the design process in a variety of ways. Some people use a sketchbook to plan projects or record ideas on the run, while others make complex diagrams on graph paper. Some use computer design programs to map out a plan. Others take some fabric out of their stash, hang it on the design wall, and let ideas percolate throughout the course of the day’s activities, adding coordinating fabrics and trims to the wall as they appear while digging through the stash for other things. Some quilts begin with photo manipulation and printing, using the computer and printer to transfer images to cloth. In the case of commissions, the customer’s requirements may dictate the design of the project.

The most important part of becoming a good art quilter is to practice being an art quilter! No amount of dreaming or wishing will make you good at anything you want to accomplish — you must get into your work area and begin something, even if it goes into the wastebasket later. 

Set aside time, no matter how little, to work on your art as many days a week as possible. Creative time is very therapeutic and stimulates greater productivity in other areas of life, so it shouldn’t be considered a waste of time. If necessary, involve other people — especially children — in their own projects alongside you to allow you time to work. Putting small studies up on the design wall can keep the juices flowing and lead to further development during the next session. Having even the smallest area to work in that doesn’t have to be cleaned up can lead to continuous progress over a period of time. Eventually, you will develop a personal style or voice in your work. It may take years of playing and experimenting, but what a fun journey! Working in a series promotes the generation of lots of “what if?” ideas and makes your style recognizable. Again, doing the work will generate results, no matter how many false starts or hesitation points there are along the way. Learning happens just as much from failures as it does from successes. Dive in!
complete photo guide to art quilting
This article is excerpted with permission from "The Complete Photo Guide to Art Quilting" by Susan Stein and published by Creative Publishing International.

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