Recently, my mom passed along her sewing machine to me. Her aging eyes make even threading a needle hard these days, but my eyes can still see the tiny hole just fine, so I’ve taken up sewing. I started small with pillows. Eventually, I used a pattern to make two reusable shopping bags. Currently, I’m working on a blouse with a collar and buttons, all advanced techniques to this novice.
My newfound sewing interest prompted me to check out a recent exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art called A Joy Forever: Marie Webster Quilts. I was with my husband on an anniversary getaway to the city. Since we had no particular agenda and couldn’t check into the hotel for hours, we decided to spend a couple of hours at the museum, where we are members. We’d already seen the featured exhibit, an homage to our state’s two hundredth birthday, on a previous visit, and we’d swung through “Chemistry of Color,” an historical representation of how colors were discovered.
We glided up the escalator and wound our way to the opposite corner where subdued gallery lights illuminated dozens of applique quilts. From the museum labels, we learned that Webster was a Hoosier seamstress who, in her early 60s, launched a popular mail-order business in 1921 selling applique quilt patterns and finished quilts. Many of her quilt designs were even featured in popular women’s magazines of the day, including The Ladies Home Journal.
“Ooh, I like this one,” I said, snapping a quick photo of a white quilt with pink and fuchsia poppies forming a circle in the middle and again around the edges. I snapped another photo of a white and blue striped quilt with white daisies appliqued on each end. “This one too,” I said, pointing to the quilt.
“This one looks like it’s been used a lot,” Steve said, standing in front of Magpie Rose, a rather faded and yellowed quilt. After reading the description, we realized that it actually had been used quite frequently in Webster’s family home. In fact, a couple of flowers that looked much brighter than the others had subsequently been applied in a rather unpredictable pattern to cover rips and stains that had developed.
We made our way slowly through the 25 quilts, even a few inspired but not made by Webster, and by the end, I think Magpie Rose might have been my favorite. Not because I preferred its design but because I liked its story, the way this very utilitarian object—a quilt to keep warm with—had also been made so beautifully
This makes sense, considering Webster’s influence by the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century. The driving principle behind the movement was “art for life’s sake,” rather than the “art for art’s sake” of the Victorian era. The movement also emphasized nature and simplicity of form, a trait seen keenly in Webster’s quilts inspired by her own garden.
Interestingly, one of the “fathers” of the Arts and Crafts movement was the poet William Morris, who, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “believed that industrialization alienated labor and created a dehumanizing distance between the designer and manufacturer.” He also believed art should be both beautiful and functional.
In his 1882 collection of talks called Hopes and Fears for Art, we see this connection between aesthetics and use through a discussion of “work.” “I do not believe [a man] can be happy in his labour without expressing that happiness,” he writes. He goes on to say
that those expressions of happiness are actually art in the hand of a skilled artisan, which means art by its nature is intrinsically connected to our everyday lives and work. He continues:
“A most kind gift is this of nature, since all men, nay, it seems all things too, must labour; so that not only does the dog take pleasure in hunting, and the horse in running, and the bird in flying, but so natural does the idea seem to us, that we imagine to ourselves that the earth and the very elements rejoice in doing their appointed work; and the poets have told us of the spring meadows smiling, of the exultation of the fire, of the countless laughter of the sea.”
Morris speaks knowingly of the poet’s ability to express this happiness of labor, and indeed, it seems that poets, though not usually associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, inherently capture its very spirit in the inseparability of beauty and function. Just as Marie Webster could have sewn plain quilts that kept her family plenty warm, language so permits us to speak plainly and straightforwardly. As Morris described, we could simply say we are happy in our work and be done. Period.
Or, like Webster’s flowers and flourishes that expressed her happiness in her work through simple designs and appliques, we can wrap ourselves and our loved ones up in beautiful words, cozying up with the quilted artistry poetry provides. And along with Morris, we can look beyond a simple seaside picnic in a field, to see “the spring meadows smiling,” to marvel at “the exultation of the fire,” and to giggle along with “the countless laughter of the sea.”
Originally published at Tweetspeak Poetry on January 12, 2017. Featured image by Brian Lippincott, Creative Commons license via Flickr.