Fashion's Obsession with Quilting Is Breathing New Life Into a Classic American Craft - Fashionista

Fashion's Obsession with Quilting Is Breathing New Life Into a Classic American Craft

From Calvin Klein to Dior, quilting has been all over the runways — but what does that mean for the quilting community?
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Photo: @carleen/Instagram

Photo: @carleen/Instagram

There's no occasion quite like the Fourth of July to celebrate all things American. Here at Fashionista, we'll be spending the week examining the fashion industry in our own backyard, from the state of U.S. apparel manufacturing to American-born models on the rise. You can follow all of our coverage here.

When Amy Bornman picked up a copy of Harper's Bazaar a few months back — the first fashion magazine she'd read in years — she was surprised to find an issue full of quilting motifs.

"OMG quilts everywhere!" she enthused in her Instagram stories, sharing pictures of an Off-White quilted skirt and a patchworked Dior dress. "And Coach is into quilt appliqué tops now? Wow, I'm way out of touch with normal fashion."

Bornman, a twenty-something textile artist and theater teacher in Pittsburgh who started quilting for fun a few years ago, is just one of many American millennials engaged in the "insular, little weird world" of contemporary quilting who have been surprised to see their interests suddenly reflected on mainstream catwalks. 

"Quilts are having a moment in fashion, which I wasn't expecting," Bornman tells me on the phone. 

Anyone who's paid attention to the runways recently knows she's right. While Calvin Klein's pieced and quilted dresses made perhaps the most explicit and memorably quilt-y splash, the truth is that Raf Simons was joined by a whole host of designers whose patchworked, pieced-together and subtly puffy looks referenced quilts in the past two seasons. Dior, Prabal Gurung, Tibi, Coach, Off-White, Mara Hoffman and Isabel Marant have all joined in on the trend in one way or another.

Quilts being heavily referenced in fashion lately seems at least related to, if not directly arisen from, the industry's recent obsession with the American West and Americana. Though quilting isn't unique to the U.S., it's found its fullest expression Stateside. Early in their history, quilts were largely born out of practicality — they provided warmth through tough winters, and the fact that they could be made from leftover scraps of cloth appealed to thrifty American forebears. 

As time wore on, small communities like the Amish and the quilters of Gee's Bend transformed quilting into an art form, helping to further cement quilting's place in American visual history. That quilts are both practical and beautiful, requiring visual creativity in addition to science-like precision and plenty of math, only added to their appeal.

"The women that were producing quilts 100 years ago had no outlets to express their intelligence, really," says Emily Fischer, founder of Brooklyn-based design studio Haptic Lab, which is known for its elaborate quilts (and more recently, its quilted coats). "So this was a way that they kinda showed off, especially when it comes to the parts of education that they were shut out from. Women weren't allowed to be scientists in the 19th century. But they could sew the crap out of a really fancy quilt."

The main visual building blocks of quilting are the quilting itself — which is to say, the stitching that holds together two pieces of fabric and the batting they sandwich between them, creating a textured and subtly padded look — and piecing or patchwork, in which different colors or types of fabric are sewn together to create a pattern. Appliqué, in which a layer of fabric is sewn directly on top of another fabric "ground" to create a shape, is a slightly less common but no less recognizable technique. 

An appliquéd Haptic Lab quilt. Photo: @hapticlab/Instagram

An appliquéd Haptic Lab quilt. Photo: @hapticlab/Instagram

None of them is exactly new to fashion, and quilted stitching in particular has long been a mainstay in outerwear. But the degree to which a quilted look in the form of stitching, piecework and appliqué has been showing up in fashion has definitely amplified in recent seasons. 

When Kelsy Parkhouse of the independent label Carleen incorporated cut-up vintage quilts into her senior thesis show at Pratt in 2012, the approach felt so unique that she earned a Cathy Horyn shoutout in the New York Times. This past February, relative newcomer Bode became one of the most-buzzed-about designers at NYFW:M with her workwear made from vintage and antique quilts. That Raf Simons took a similar route for his last two collections is something that Parkhouse, at least, has mixed feelings about.

"It's kind of fun to have this groundswell of interest that people are paying attention to that's supported from a couple of different directions. It's nice to be a part of that," Parkhouse says on the phone. "The other side of that is when there's something like the Calvin Klein collection that's doing something very similar to what you've done and they just have infinitely more resources and eyeballs — it can be a little frustrating."

Leon Bridges in Bode. Photo: @bode/Instagram

Leon Bridges in Bode. Photo: @bode/Instagram

Another question raised by the popularization of quilting and specifically piecework in fashion comes from the fact that it's a notoriously laborious and time-intensive process. For Carleen and Bode to use vintage quilts to create one-of-a-kind garments is one thing. But if the desire for that look reaches the mass market, will the industry actually be able to step up and meet the demand?

Bornman, who is somewhat tickled at the thought of her niche interest becoming certifiably "cool," is nonetheless skeptical of that happening without exploitative labor practices being involved somewhere along the supply chain.

"Because I know how much work it takes to make a quilt, I know that it cannot be manufactured in a one-for-every-woman-in-America kind of way," she says. "That's where it kind of gives me pause."

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Fischer, who works with partners in India to manufacture some of her incredibly complex quilt patterns, agrees that it's probably not possible to create quilted clothing at a mass scale and a super cheap price point without compromise in the realm of labor ethics. But just as potentially troubling for her is the gray space of ownership, intellectual property rights and appropriation.

"A few of the quilt motifs I've seen [in fashion] are African American, from Gee's Bend," she says, referencing the famous quilting community in Alabama. "Those are pieces of art. It's one thing to use a traditional American block [as a designer]; it's another thing to say 'I'm going to make a one-for-one facsimile of this Courthouse Stitch design from  Gee's Bend.' That's where I'm like, 'You've gone too far.' You wouldn't make an outfit that's a one-to-one facsimile of a famous painting."

Sticky ethical questions aside, there are also plenty of benefits to the quilting community that may arise from the mainstreaming of their craft, including an overall increase in demand for the skills they've been quietly working on outside of the spotlight for years. Parkhouse in particular says she's seen the quantity of orders for her quilted styles (which make up just part of Carleen's overall ready-to-wear offerings) increase every season.

And the fact that quilting can be such an environmentally friendly way of working if it utilizes scraps or secondhand textiles provides an ongoing benefit for designers who are trying to be careful about waste. Cult ethical fashion favorite Ace & Jig recently partnered with Portland-based designer Natalie Ebaugh, another well-known figure in the online quilting community, to have her create quilted kimono jackets from their fabric scraps. 

A piece from Ace & Jig's collaboration with Natalie Ebaugh. Photo: Ace & Jig

A piece from Ace & Jig's collaboration with Natalie Ebaugh. Photo: Ace & Jig

"As a no-waste company, we aim to save all of our textile scraps from the cutting room floor and use them to create one-of-a-kind products," an Ace & Jig representative said via email. 

At Eileen Fisher, another label known for its leadership in the realm of sustainability, it's not uncommon to find garments in the upcycled "Resewn" collection that are made up of scraps of cut-up clothing, either. For brands like Eileen Fisher and Ace & Jig, using piecework is less about being on-trend than it is about sticking to their eco-friendly guns.

Regardless of whether quilts disappear from the runways and magazine pages in one more season or stick around for a longer run, there will likely always be a group of people making them, using them, bonding over them and loving them.

"Quilts have aways been cool," says Fischer. "Even ones that were made 200 years ago look modern. There's a really complex visual language to quilting. It's like modern art. I think people are attracted to that as just an object."

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