Germaine Greer’s view of quilting

Germaine Greer’s view of quilting

Germaine Greer has written a piece for the Guardian which will stir a bit of comment among quilters

There’s nothing new in this kind of heroic pointlessness; women have frittered their lives away stitching things for which there is no demand ever since vicarious leisure was invented.

Greer ends up arguing that quilts subvert the pretensions of art which is true.

For me through the medium of fabric you can reference womens lives. Fabric holds cultural associations that you can work with unlike paint as you can make those associations speak for you. For instance use a piece of gingham and it immediately has associations of 50’s aprons, crisp table cloths and picnics. Use a piece of denim and it holds different cultural associations. Use a bridal fabric and you can make it talk about rights of passage, or marriage. Unlike paint the medium of fabric is culturally loaded. Sure you can paint and represent for instance a 50’s apron but there is nothing like using the real thing to make it say something you want.

Why do you work in fabric? Leave a comment as I would love to know peoples thoughts on this.


  1. I’ve just read the full GG article & it made me wonder about the work of Edrica Huws. I found this video of her work on You Tube –

    I think they are lovely – ok not “cutting edge art” but not all art has to be, does it. How does she define are anyway? Longlasting? Has she ever studied how a watercolour needs extreme care to avoid colour fading & foxing (the little brown spots that can form in paper, over time), if it gets damp it will rot. Hey!- not unlike fabric really, is it?!
    As for frittering away time making things for which there is ‘no demand’ – has she never heard of self expression for it’s own sake? And how about all the wonderful old architectural follies of the 18tcentury? Do you think there was a demand for such “useless” though wonderful buildings. The handicrafts she so despises are merely womens own personal follies and have so much use in ways that may not be practical, but so personal & spiritual.
    I actually have quite a lot of respect for GG and many of her opinions, but when it comes to anything about gender based differences, she just has a huge chip on her shoulder.

    Annie R
  2. I feel GG is a person who appreciates her own words but not one who can garner enjoyment from simple pleasures.
    I never know whether she is so overconfident she needs to bend people to her way of thinking or so underconfident she has to justify her existence. There are many reasons for handling textiles and needles. Comfort, relaxation, therapy and sheer pleasure of touching and creating.

    We are all different.
    What a lot she is missing out on.


  3. Wow, so many passionate comments ! I also don’t think GG is knocking patchworkers particularly, more the “art” world, where the line between art and craft has never been more blurry. I loved the links to Edrica’s work, thanks for those. Did you see that her last few pieces were made when she was in her 90’s? Hope I can still see well enough to hold a needle at that age. I wonder what GG would say about people like Christo, the “artist” who used to wrap up buildings in plastic for a short time? His photos lasted, but not the original “artwork”. Or light artists, whose installations are only works of art when the power is turned on? A very thought provoking article, but what else do we expect from our GG?
    Hooroo from Christine in rainy Sydney Australia.

  4. GG hopefully is looking for a response however I think that her fame has made her arrogant, in an age were women should be encouraged to be individuals who does she think she is to belittle what an individual choses to do with their time.
    I think my CQ is ART it is my work not copied, sometimes I am inspired by others however every artist is inspired by something.
    Some of the comments have said their craft is their love and even their religon but for me it is my meditation. I have to concentrate and put other things out of my head I distance myself from the stress in my life.
    “Art is it’s own reason for being” so if I chose to call my efforts Art or Craft then I don’t have to justify it to any one.
    If what I do brings joy to someone else I am happy. More importantly it gives me joy and a sense of acheivement.
    My quilt group makes quilts for our local womens shelter. One of the quilts was given to an 18 year old young woman and she cried as it was the first gift she had ever had.
    There is more value in that than in worrying about what some self opiniated individual thinks of sewing.

  5. Why waste time loving when we know the person we love is going to die anyway? Why waste time raising kids and trying to do it right when we know they are going to die within the centuary?
    Why let kids waste time making paper boats to float in rain water, when the water is going to drown it anyway?
    Why plant perennials when we know they are going to wither and die anyway? We enjoy the process? We take pleasure in the process? It gives us happiness. If all the above things are depressing, then seriously we belong in the shrink’s couch.
    The embroidery I do gives me pleasure not only when it is being done but everytime I see it and everytime someone admires it, appreciates it.
    A few months back there was a post here about how some idiot unpicked the threads from the embroidery of an unknown embroiderer and used the threads to make a square block and called it art. Now that is what I would call a pointless waste of time!!!

  6. I have been moved by GG’s article, which shows respect and love for patchwork, from what I understand.

    It is true that women have been forced to do textile crafts in the past, to show they were well adapted to society, and it is true that using kits all the time is somewhat intriguing and depressing for the outsider.

    I also had the impression that one question asked in that article was “is it important to do art?” (or to call what you are doing “art”).

    I am new to bead embroidery but would never have tried if I had thought I was being an artist. I like to use fabrics and beads and buttons because they felt like little bits of magic when I was a child. It is also important to me that threads and beads have been used from prehistoric times. Sewing and embroidering feels like connecting to a long line of women and to streams of love. (By the way, in France, lots of men enjoy doing embroidery).

  7. Oh boy just what i needed to get me going!
    Paragraph 1 contains 5 negative adjectives, p.2 6, p 3 explains the process by making it sound grueling…should i continue?
    In the last paragraph Ms.Greer magnanimously grants us redemption,for which i’ll never be grateful enough.
    as for me why do i work in textiles? As i quoted in my website
    “Single fibers are like letters of an alphabet, with them one can form words and sentences then create prose and poetry”

    and a further quote- Bhakti Ziek in one of her awesome weavings “textiles are my religion”

    neki desu

  8. One other comment…I have seen a book of Edrica Huws’ collected work and I consider her to be a genius of our artform…rather like the pictorial work of Ruth McDowell but decades ahead of her and more ingenious as well. The book is out of print, but if I could find it, I would treasure it.

  9. Hellllooooo.

    Germaine, am I missing something here????

    Weren’t you the one who fought for women to have a right to be their own person? Which includes expressing themselves as they please?

    But now you would like to put down how I choose to express myself?

    Could it be that my form of self-expression includes beauty, designed to please me only?

    (Let us not go down the line of discussion between feminists about whether or not it is politically correct to wear lipstick.)

    I wonder what you think of cake decorating?

  10. Having read and reread Miss Greer comment, I have to say that I don’t think she is damming quilt makers at all.

    “What this suggests is that for Edrica, as for many other women artists, the art activity was haptic, like dancing, say, which may leave a pattern in the sand but the pattern is not the point. She chose to interpret visual subjects in fabric because she liked doing it.”

    In the end she concludes that “Edrica Huws might be surprised to find herself shoulder to shoulder with Tracey Emin, whose untidily sewn tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95, sadly destroyed in the Momart fire, is in the same self-mocking tradition.”

    I must admit I don’t quilt and have only recently discovered the joy of beading and embroidery. The reason I enjoy it, is because it another expression of my art which is very much base on the fact I am a woman. Through my short journey in this sphere, I have discovered the joy in creating again and soon plan to work on a series of drawings and paintings.

  11. “There’s nothing new in this kind of heroic pointlessness; women have frittered their lives away stitching things for which there is no demand ever since vicarious leisure was invented.”

    She starts with a flawed assumption – that there is no demand for our stitched items. There is a great demand for them! Not just among our relatives, either. =)

    But even if there weren’t, is demand what determines art? There was no demand, in their own time, for many of the pieces of art that are considered classic treasures today.

    I work in textiles because I am a tactile person. I can become a part of what I stitch, and what I stitch serves a useful purpose.

    Another quote from the article: “
    Making pictures from strips of cloth isn’t art at all – but it mocks art’s pretentions to the core

    Germaine Greer
    Monday August 13, 2007
    The Guardian

    On August 4, an exhibition of patchwork by Edrica Huws opened in the primary school at Llangefni, on Anglesey, possibly the most inaccessible art-venue in the British Isles. I had meant to make the 12-hour journey from east to west and back again in honour of Edrica, who was once very kind to me, and gave me an unfinished watercolour flower piece by her aunt, Ursula Tyrwhitt, who was at the Slade School of Fine Art with Gwen John, Gwen Salmond, Edna Clarke Hall and co. The flower piece, which Tyrwhitt abandoned when the composition went wonky, now straightened up as well as may be in the framing, hangs in my breakfast room to this day. Perhaps, if I went to Anglesey, I would find the answer to the perennial question why any woman would set about to make a portable artwork, a picture, out of bits of old fabric?

    “What could be the point of such an exercise in futility? The work of art is supposed to defy time….”

    Again, I think presumptuous. Who determined that art should defy time? Is it less art because it is seen by one generation than by 10? Is it less art because the ocean washed it from the shore than if it’s sculpted in stone?

    Her article seems to wander from one idea to another, leaving the reader unsure of whether it is putting quilting down, or raising it up. I didn’t have the feeling that she really understands patchwork, however she views it.

    I think she is doing what men have done for centuries – devaluing something because it is women who do it. Shame on her for not seeing the art in the work of women’s hands.

    Or maybe shame on me for not understanding *her*.

  12. After reading GG’s article, I think it is intellectually pretentious writing. I’ve read her books and loved her writing in the 1970s, but I couldn’t follow her argument in this piece. Oh, I get it that she doesn’t like fabric art and thinks it’s a waste of time, but will someone please explain to me what “vicarious leisure” means? How does one experience leisure second-hand?

  13. What an interesting article from Germaine Greer. I don’t think she is being negative about quilting/patchworking or working wiht fabric at all. I believe that when she asks “What would be the point of such an exercise in futility” for instance, she is simply posing a question that some people might ask. She answers the question in the last 2 paragraphs of her article where it seems to me that she really understands why Edrica worked on her patchwork picture.

    As for women frittering away their lives – well of course that’s true. Just as other people may fritter away their lives in a garden of beautiful flowers, even though the flowers are just going to die. Others “waste” time on cars that are just going to tryu to beat others around a racetrack. Others spend time on their own bodies, trying to make them go faster or to be able to lift heavier things even though they will lose that extra ability when they stop exercising. I don’t think she is being negative about spending time on something that will not last. She talks about “self-mocking” traditions – and I think she is being self-mocking herself, with this article.

    Why do I work with fabrics and fibres? Because I like the feeling of them in my hands, I like watching my needle go through the fabric and leave a design, a pattern, that grows each time the needle comes out. I personally have no interest in using a sewing machine to create interesting things (as opposed to practical things like clothing), I prefer to do it by hand. I like to stitch in the evenings, sitting beside my husband while he watches television (I listen to it, rather than watch LOL). I enjoy “frittering” away my time with something that I believe looks nice, but which isn’t necessarily practical, after spending my day in the analytical world of accounting.

    I like the way I can create many different effects using a dew basic materials – a needle, some pices of fabric, and some thread. I can produce things that look interesting and that are texturally interesting.

    (Sorry for the long essay LOL)

  14. There is much in the art world that mocks itself. That is the first thought that came to mind when I read Greer’s piece after seeing your link. She cites the the fact that fabric and fiber are not enduring media as one disqualifier. I do believe that many frescoes of undisputed status as works of art are dissolving or crumbling; so her argument there seems a bit shallow.

    I think her answer is not going to be found in a museum, because the answer to why we create things with fiber is more about spirituality and relationships. We take ordinary things, fiber, fabric and thread. We weave or stitch them into objects that beautify our homes, our families, ourselves. There is a common urge to create beauty, and I believe it is part of our relationship with God, who created beauty.

    A plain blanket can warm a body, but it can’t impart comfort the way a quilt can.

    As for frittering away my life, I have the credentials to be a poster-child for feminism’s victories in the last century. My generation had the first women in my family to finish college and get advanced degrees. I have two degrees in engineering and have worked in male dominated fields for my whole working life. I have risen to some level of success in a man’s world. Yet, I choose to spend my free time creating things with fiber, fabric and thread. I do it as stress relief, I do it to leave something behind for at least that one generation that knew me. I do it because I am the only woman in a house with three men.

    Exactly what does Greer think I SHOULD be doing with my free time? I don’t think she answered that in the article.

  15. I love fabric and simply love making things for my loved ones. I’ve been told that my crazyquilting is art and maybe it is. I have always loved to embroider and sew. Since I started crazyquilting I have felt as if I have found a place that sooths my soul and makes me feel artistic. The making of cloth “things” for one’s family leaves a legacy of love. My grandchildren tell me they love that I stitch and make me feel that they value my creations more than some gifts that someone bought from a store. I also belong to a group that makes “Blankies” for breast cancer patients and we are constantly told that by the patients themselves that their blankies hold a special place in their hearts. They say that when their days were darkest the blankie convinced them that others care and the very touch of the fabric and sight of the colors soothed them. Often when their ordeal is over and they’ve come out into the sunshine of life, their blankies are placed in a special place of honor in their homes. Could a trinket or even a mass-produced blanket from a store accomplish all that?
    I do embroidery,knitting, crochet and quilting to leave a legacy for my family, much as my Mum did. I hope the quilts and garments made now will bring love to my great grandchildren and beyond.

  16. This is the tired old–“high art or fine art” vs craft argument–like quilts and other fiber arts art not “art”—phooey! why did many major museums show the Gee Bend quilts –if they are not ART?

    I like fibers—and I have been working in fibers since the ’60’s—because I love patterns, and I find handwork—beading, embroidery,knitting, crochet, spinning etc.—meditative and relaxing.

    I had a 10 year (or so) period where I didn’t work with fiber much–I did printmaking and drawing and painting—but then I just found myself adding beads and fibers to my prints and paintings…and now I’m back with fibers, buttons and beads.

  17. Well… as those before me have said, Ms. Greer is taking a very narrow view of art in her article. Now she needs to talk to quilters and see what is behind the quilts to find the real story.

    I quilt because I love the intense colors and they way they work together, the feel of the fabric in my hands and the intricate beauty of the layers of a heavily embroidered and beaded seam treatment. I quilt because I have to create in one way or another and baking has given me a Rubenesque figure that means no more baking! I quilt because simply walking into my sewing room gives me a feeling of peace and contentment. I quilt because I like to be doing something with my hands while I watch TV with my husband (who is a movie nut). I quilt because I love the feel of wrapping myself and my loved ones in the warmth of one of my quilts… and you can’t do that with a painting!!

  18. Her superiority of attitude and meanness of heart give intellectual Feminists a bad name, IMHO.
    Fabric is certainly sculptural; it allows me to work in three dimensions. It is malleable. Sewing with it, and the hand/eye/repetitive motions required, set up patterns in my brain that are calming and expansive.
    I’m interested in how creating makes me feel WHILE I’m creating. Working with fabric helps me to explore myself in peace. The finished product is always secondary, but does usually reflect what I’m feeling…does that make it art?

  19. I began working with needle and thread after becoming disabled and housebound. With little money, I used materials at hand, including my husband’s cast-off undershorts, and the cheapest cotton floss. It was creative work I could do in a small space with little mess, nothing I had to clean up as I went along. Making things with what I had, making do, was a challenge I enjoyed. Mostly I made gifts for loved ones. I work with fabrics because it brings me joy. And now I can buy scrumptious materials to work with!

  20. I think GG has produced the response that perhaps she wanted from her comment- that women should continue to fight passionately for what they hold dear.
    I sometimes think she has been deliberately provocative and all who have commented have demonstrated how we care about our shared women’s heritage. I find working with textiles deeply satisfying and excitingly creative. I value other people’s opinions but ultimately, I work to please myself.Whether or not it is pointless is a value judgement and needs to be seen as such. The whole article seems to be contradictory and should perhaps be viewed as her thinking aloud rather than having fully formed her own opinion.

  21. I work in fabric and thread both because it is personal and because it is tactile. Think about painting; standing in front of a canvas, the smell of oils, the immense empty space in front of you. You are held away from the surface by your brush. Painting (and sculpture) are rarely done strictly for oneself and one’s family. Although you may not sell any of your works, there is always the feeling that you should “get your work out there”.

    Stitching, on the other hand, is small and personal. Mostly you hold the pieces in your hand while you work on them. Even a large quilt is the work of many small pieces. The tactile qualities of fabric and threads (shiny, rough, translucent, patterned) is as important as the colors. Mostly these pieces are made for yourself. You don’t plan to sell them and you only make them for friends and family once in a while. They are creative, relaxing, and fulfilling. You don’t need a commentator to tell you whether a piece is good or bad. It is yours and you can love it or hate it as you choose, and go on to make more and better things.

  22. In answer to the question of why I work in fabric … it is far more tactile than paint. I’ve never seen someone stroke a painting!
    By the way, I also do watercolor painting. It makes me angry when I see the prices on prints of paintings … they are often more than an original work of art. It is really the frame that has worth.

    vivian in stitches
  23. Don’t even get me started on this one!
    I agee with Greer that women should be able to develop their abilities and take an equal place to men in society. However, I don’t agree with her put down of a particular form of art simply because it has been predominantly women who have done it. There was a time when women weren’t allowed to attend art school … hence they developed their own forms of art.
    When an art gallery can show a video of someone using the toilet and call it art … I think the critics have lost focus on what art is! vivian

    vivian in stitches
  24. Oh and another thought. The first question most art students are asked is “what is the difference between art and craft?” Whilst it produces lively debate, there is no definite answer.

  25. I do believe she has completely missed the point. I used to wonder about the value of my knitting, and then my mother became ill with cancer. She asked me for a hat, then another and another. I made her a shawl and a teddy bear which she took everywhere with her for good luck. She loved them because I created them for her. They gave her comfort the way a mass produced item would not. They reminded her that even though I lived almost 1000km away from her, I thought about her every day.

    That’s just one of many reasons that there is value in what we do as needleworkers.

    Now, from the point of view of an artist, she’s also mistaken that art should be able to be preserved forever. What about performance art? What about ballet and other expressive art forms? None of them are permanent. Unfortunately once again she’s speaking from a point of ignorance rather than an informed point of view.

  26. I work in fabric because of the texture, and crazy quilting because I don’t have to follow a pattern. I embroider to relax, to “craft sanity” as Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood (www.craftsanity.com) puts it. I don’t feel I am “frittering my life away stitching things for which there is no demand”, as it isn’t the “thing” which is important, it is the rhythm of the needle going in and out of the cloth, it is the colors and the textures of what is in my hand, it is collecting the materials and putting them together in an attractive pattern, it is looking at the finished piece with a sense of accomplishment and pride. It is the making of the thing that is important, not the thing itself.

  27. wow. is that what she thinks quilting is all about? using up vicarious leisure?

    i’m with you. every print, every fiber, every stitch style and block used in quiltng tells a story. combining them just so tells a fascinating tale.

    pity ms. greer doesn’t know how to read this language.

  28. Seems to me GG is a very sad little person who will not find satisfaction in the warmth of a quilt or the personal happiness experienced when we stitch bits of fabric together to make what we call ‘art’.

    I know I’ve sure seen some ‘art’ made with cold paint that didn’t appeal to me – I think I could have had my dog paint a better picture. But it’s art to someone!

    I don’t always – or even very much – call my work ‘art’. It’s just what I do. And I can tell you very firmly that my life has NOT been frittered away. hmph!


  29. Good question Sharon. For me it’s because I like the feel of the fabric and fibers. Working in fabric is a very tactile experience much different than say working in oil painting or glass blowing for instance. I love sitting at my loom and the feeling that I get when I throw the shuttle. And although I weave for the pure pleasure of creating it connects me to all the women who have come before me and spent time weaving cloth to keep themselves warm or to earn pennies to buy food for their families. Is what I do art? Who can say, and honestly it doesn’t matter what you call it or what people like Greer think of it. It pleases me to do it and that’s what matters.

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