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Contemporary Quilters Are Piecing Together a New Era of the American Craft

Made apparent by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Costume Institute’s latest exhibition In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, quilt clothes aren’t exactly a new concept. A section of the show titled “Nostalgia” features a sweater-and-skirt ensemble from Ralph Lauren’s Autumn/Winter 1982 collection that is crafted out of antique patchwork quilts and references 19th-century needlework samplers.

Popular clothing brands regularly market patchwork-inspired clothing, and even outside of fashion, contract textile manufacturers are playing up the aesthetic through collections such as HBF Textiles’ solid-tone commercial upholstery collection Ms. Quilty (2019) or KnollTextiles’ patchwork Homage textile, part of its Heritage collection launched this year at NeoCon. But as many contemporary makers will tell you, quilt clothing is about more than just a sentimental longing for the past—if anything, it is a form of stewardship.

In 2018, Oregon-based sewist Taylor Nelander made her first quilt jacket after spending two years reselling vintage, hand-mended, and “reworked” clothing online. It wasn’t until she was job searching mid-pandemic that the prospect of turning quilts into clothing could become a business model.

Nelander explains that she sources most of her material from Goodwill bins, and many of the quilts she repurposes have imperfections like stains, tears, or burn holes. “Eighty percent of [quilts] that I get would not exist if I wasn’t re-creating them into something that people are going to wear,” she explains. Nelander has also purchased quilts just to find an older quilt functioning as a middle batting layer. She says, “It’s funny and almost ironic. It comes full circle.”

Yet early last year, Nelander’s studio, Softpaw Vintage, was one of a handful of small businesses targeted in a viral YouTube video titled “Quilt Clothes Must Die,” in which Mary Fons, writer and quilt historian, vehemently calls for artists and fashion designers to “stop cutting up quilts to make clothes.” While Fons’s argument gets buried in the insults, name-calling, and general air of hostility portrayed in the video, she has a point: All handmade quilts are one-of-a-kind. With that in mind, Nelander agrees that it is sound advice that novice sewers feel comfortable in their craft before attempting to cut up an heirloom quilt for a new DIY project. But at the same time, Fons’s video misses the mark on the bigger picture: Quilts have been battered, beaten, torn up, added onto, patched, reused, and transformed throughout the entire history of the craft. Aside from the influx of tutorials and imagery on social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, has much really changed?

While Brooklyn-based quilter Zak Foster, perhaps best known as the craftsman behind A$AP Rocky’s 2021 Met Gala look, doesn’t make new clothing from old quilts, he does know a thing or two about making new quilts from old clothing. “The more I fell in love with quilting, the less I could stomach the idea that something I loved so much would also be causing some kind of harm to our [planet],” Foster explains. “Working with repurposed material forces one down a certain creative path, because you have to work around the material’s own background, stories, and imperfections. Ecologically and creatively, it keeps me on my toes.”

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