During the early years of the American colonies, they were commonplace bed coverings in a cold world before central heating. A cloth sandwich with warm batting in-between, a quilt was a utilitarian object made by women too busy spinning, weaving, dying and stitching their own fabrics -#8212; along with all the other household chores -#8212; to put any serious artistry into their work.
But when commercial fabric became available, women who were largely shut out of painting and sculpting began pouring their creativity into quilts. The process, advocates say, has now advanced to such a degree that many quilters deserve to be recognized as fine artists whose medium just happens to be fabric.
But it's been a slow and sometimes frustrating process for quilting artists to overcome old prejudices and gain what they see as their rightful place in respected art galleries, exhibits and collections.
"I call my art 'textile,' " said Carol Larson of Petaluma, one of a small but growing group of quilters whose work is starting to break through the barrier. Larson purposely leaves the traditional edge binding off her quilts to create the subtle perception that her striking abstracts, with their free-form stitchery, are something for the wall and not the bed.
"Even though I honor my quilting heritage, I really disassociate from it when I want to show my work," she said. "Once people see it they say, 'Yes, you're right. It's fine art.' But if you just say you're a quilter, they won't let you through the door."
Quilting as both a craft and a fine art has been spreading across the globe, a movement that began in the 1970s with the back-to-the-land and home arts revivals and the nation's bicentennial, which brought stunning historical quilts into public view, said Judy Mathieson.
A Sebastopol quilting artist with an international reputation, Mathieson has taught quilting all over the United States, Canada and overseas. Her 1985 "Nautical Stars," a luminescent piece inspired by a popular quilting image of a radiating star called a mariner's compass, is a supernova in the world of quilting. It was named one of the Top 100 Quilts of the 20th Century at the International Quilt Festival in Houston in 1999 and has been reproduced, not always legally, over and over, and shared virally on the Internet.
"Any craft you bring to the art level is not respected at first," said Mathieson, who shifted to art quilting after retiring from teaching and writing books about quiltmaking for some 30 years. She now uses collage techniques to create intricately nuanced landscapes and portraits with both pre-printed fabrics and textiles that have been hand-dyed or which she paints herself. It can take sometimes a year of off-and-on work to complete a single quilt. And while some art quilts now command thousands of dollars, that barely pays for the untold hours that go into what amounts to a labor of deep love.
Art quilters draw from many of the same principles as painters, using original designs and themes rather than the block designs, patterns, style and fabrics used by skilled craft quilters.
Quilt artists create both abstract and realistic designs and use a wide range of materials and techniques, including paint, hand-dyed cloth, Japanese tie-dye, bleach, silk screening, stamping and collage, said Santa Rosa quilt artist Linda Morand. She and Mathieson are members of The Pointless Sisters, a subgroup of the Santa Rosa Quilt Guild that focuses on art, contemporary and non-traditional quilts.