Toe-to-toe with Rihanna on the Met Gala red carpet in September, A$AP Rocky did what few others could:
His style icon partner was, as usual, among the night’s finest. But it was the rapper’s voluminous, multi-colored quilt that stole the spotlight.
Inspired by a blanket found in a California thrift store, designer Eli Russell Linnetz and quilter Zak Foster created a unique piece. Her great-grandmother had made the original quilt, according to an Instagram photo.
Fashion’s biggest night was just the latest example of how modern revivalists are redefining quilts as luxury items. Fashion designers have used repurposed fabrics to demonstrate their environmental credentials on major runways and nostalgia-inspired winter collections this season.
Seeing them go mainstream excites long-time quilters like former Quiltfolk editor-in-chief Mary Fons. “Quilts are, in fact, stylish. They endure, “she wrote by email. As quilters, we’re glad to see them on red carpets.
Quilted detailing has recently been used by luxury brands like Norma Kamali and Moschino, but indie brands like Stan Los Angeles have adopted it.
The California brand’s surfwear collections feature upcycled quilts. In Pennsylvania in 1870, one overshirt cost $2,250.
Former baby quilt turned jacket by brand founder Tristan Detwiler. Mr. McKarns, now 80, took him to her warehouse full of “hundreds and hundreds of hand-curated quilts.” With the help of her craft group, Detwiler met other experienced quilters.
A sun-patterned coat hand-stitched by his great-great-great-grandmother in the 1800s is one of Detwiler’s upcycled pieces. His clothes are labeled with their origins. It’s obvious that the energy of family, generations and history activates emotion.
He has been working on unique pieces for two and a half years, two of which are on display at the Met Costume Institute’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibition. McKearns’ 19th-century quilt was featured in the show’s jacket-and-trouser ensemble. An exhibition of 12 quilted pieces, it stands next to a 1980s Ralph Lauren patchwork outfit made from antique textiles.
For example, Fons says the quilting trend comes back “every 30 years or so.”
Quilting for generations
Quilting is a “democratic art” that has been practiced by people of all financial, racial, and religious backgrounds throughout American history. The enslaved community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, quilted for “survival,” according to artist Michael C. Thorpe, with women repurposing clothing and feed sacks to keep their families warm.
In his famous 1988 “patchwork quilt” speech, Rev. Jesse Jackson described America as a quilt of “many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.” The quote opens the Costume Institute exhibition, according to assistant curator Amanda Garfinkel “inclusiveness and diversity People “react emotionally” to quilted exhibits, Garfinkel says, because they contain “personal and historical narratives.””
“Of course, our country doesn’t always exhibit these values, but quilts are still seen as icons of maybe what we hope to be,” Fons said.
Rather than copying historical styles, quilters like Thorpe are incorporating other design elements. Thorpe’s textile portraits depict Black history, his own biracial experiences, and childhood dreams. Despite his contemporary approach, viewers of the artist’s recent Miami exhibition recalled their own grandmothers, he said. It makes people feel, he said. “It’s like a familial reflex (ties). That’s what I think they want.”
Connecting the pieces
Hand sewing skills are also becoming rarer. Quilts are usually made by hand or machine patchworking fabric together, then sandwiching batting between the decorative front pieces and fabric backs (giving them a distinctive puffiness and insulation for warmth). While electric longarm sewing machines have revolutionized the craft in recent decades, some quilters and designers are returning to “hand-piecing and hand-quilting” and “connecting with… quilt heritage,” Fons said.
Quilting’s revival may reflect a desire for “authenticity” in an age of mass production and digitization, she said. In contrast to the accelerated pace of modern life, the anonymity of industrial production, and the ephemerality of digital culture, Garfinkel noted “the sense of community and preservation associated with quilting.”
“I think people are now more interested in things that take a little bit longer, and like reverting to craft… The idea of very slow (handcrafting) and something to do with a community,” said Thorpe.
A new generation
However, DIY-minded TikTok users are using their new skills to save money on clothes despite the high cost of machines, fabric, and batting. Wandy the Maker, for example, shares quilting tutorials to inspire Gen Zers to be more eco-friendly. @samrhymeswithhamm’s video of her making a cactus-themed quilt has 2.4 million views on the platform using the hashtag #quilttok
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