Why your grandmother’s quilt is today’s luxury fashion staple

Written by Megan C. Hills, CNN

When A $ AP Rocky arrived at the Met Gala in September, they managed to do what few others could: tiptoe with Rihanna on the red carpet.

His style icon companion was, as usual, among the most dressed up of the evening. But the rapper took the limelight with his own fashion statement: a voluminous multicolored quilt.

The piece was custom made by designer Eli Russell Linnetz and quilter Zak Foster and was based on a blanket found at a California thrift store. A woman later identified the original quilt as the one her great-grandmother had hand-sewn, posting an image on Instagram.

A $ AP Rocky and Rihanna attend the 2021 Met Gala on September 13, 2021 in New York City. Credit: John Shearer / WireImage / Getty Images

Its appearance at the biggest fashion night was just the latest example of the modern revival of craftsmanship, which is transforming quilts from family heirlooms to luxury products. They have appeared on major runways and in nostalgia-laden winter collections, as labels increasingly turn to repurposed fabrics as proof of their environmental credentials.

For lifelong quilting enthusiasts like former editor-in-chief of Quiltfolk magazine Mary Fons, seeing them go mainstream is thrilling. “The thing is, the quilts are great. They are timeless,” she said via email. “When you see them on red carpets, it strengthens it and, like quilts, that’s what we’re here for.”

New American

Although mainstays of luxury like Norma Kamali and Moschino have recently incorporated quilted detailing into their collections, independent brands like Stan Los Angeles have come to use the technique as the foundation of their work.

Recycled quilts feature prominently in the California label’s surfwear collections. An overshirt, created from a quilt handmade in Pennsylvania in 1870, is priced at $ 2,250.
A quilted suit from the Califonia Stan Los Angeles label.

A quilted suit from the Califonia Stan Los Angeles label. Credit: Stan Los Angeles

Brand founder Tristan Detwiler first took an interest in upcycling quilts when he turned his old baby quilt into a jacket – the first piece he has ever made “from scratch,” he said during a video call. . He later met with quilting machine Claire McKarns, who is now 80, who brought him to her warehouse filled with “hundreds and hundreds of her hand-curated quilts,” he added. He later extended an invitation to his artisan group, where Detwiler hooked up with more veteran quiltmakers.

The story of the individual fabrics is central to Detwiler’s creative approach, which also sees him recycling a variety of other pieces passed down from generation to generation, including a sun-patterned coat hand-stitched by his great-great-grandmother in the 1800s. His garments are accompanied by labels that explain their stories. “The energy of the family, of the generations and of history that obviously activates the emotion,” he said.

Two and a half years after the launch of his brand, the designer is now focusing on unique creations, two of which are currently on display at the Met Costume Institute’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibition. Exploring the nation’s fashion history, the show features a suit jacket and pants that Detwiler made from a 19th-century quilt given to him by McKearns. One of the 12 quilted pieces in the show, stands next to a Ralph Lauren patchwork dress sewn from antique fabrics in the 1980s.

Fons said the quilting trend resurfaces “every 30 years or so,” adding, “Adolfo did it in the late 1960s, Ralph Lauren did it in the 1980s, and then Calvin Klein and designers like Emily Bode. they took it back around 2017. “

"In America: a lexicon of fashion" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented some examples of quilted fabrics.

“In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured some examples of quilted fabrics. Credit: Taylor Hill / WireImage / Getty Images

Quilt for generations

Quilting has deep roots in America, with Fons describing it as a “democratic art” practiced by people of all financial, racial and religious backgrounds throughout the country’s history. Regional styles have also evolved, from English-inspired mosaic quilts made by predominantly white New England artisans to the brightly colored geometric designs of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, whose slave community quilted for “survival,” the artist Michael C. Thorpe, who works with the medium – said, with women repurposing clothes and bags of food to keep their families warm.
A visitor looks at the "Gee's Bend quilts" exhibit at a 2004 exhibit in Washington, DC

A visitor looks at the “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” exhibit at a 2004 exhibit in Washington, DC Credit: Stephen Jaffe / AFP / Getty Images

Civil rights leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, even referred to the craft in a famous speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention – a metaphor he revisited in his famous 1988 patchwork quilt speech – describing 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 exhibit, with assistant curator Amanda Garfinkel claiming to be in line with the show’s “emphasis on inclusiveness and diversity”. People “react emotionally” to quilted exhibits, Garfinkel added, because of the “personal and historical narratives they bring.”

Fons said the continued love of quilting is “material proof” of American values, adding, “Of course, our country doesn’t always show these values, but quilts are still seen as icons of what we perhaps hope to be.” .

Artist Michael C. Thorpe poses in front of two quilted basketball-themed works.

Artist Michael C. Thorpe poses in front of two quilted basketball-themed works. Credit: Alec Kugler

Rather than looking at historical styles, artists like Thorpe are incorporating other aspects of design into their quilted works. Thorpe, who recently collaborated with Nike on down jackets inspired by the NBA’s past and future, brings the history of blacks, his biracial experiences and childhood dreams to life through textile portraits. But despite his contemporary approach, people at the artist’s recent show in Miami still raised their grandmothers by looking at his work, he said. “Quilting makes people feel,” she added. “It’s like this instinctive reaction of family members (ties). I think that’s what people are looking for.”

Connecting the pieces

Ironically, by reshaping fashion with antique quilts, even American designers could endanger craftsmanship, Fons said. “We are in tremendous danger of missing out on great stretches of American history, particularly the history of women and marginalized communities, since these are the people who have made the most quilts in our nation’s history,” she explained.

Traditional hand sewing skills are also much less common today. Quilts are usually made by patching pieces of fabric together, by hand or with a machine, before inserting a layer of padding between the decorative fronts and the back of the fabric (giving them a characteristic swelling and insulation for warmth). But while electric long-arm sewing machines – which can sew on both the x and y axes – have fundamentally changed the craft over the past few decades, some artists and quilt designers are now bringing back “hand piecing and quilting” and are “Connect again with … the quilt tradition,” Fons said.

The Quilting revival could, he added, reflect a desire for “authenticity” amid the rapid digitization and mass production of fast fashion. Garfinkel meanwhile stressed “the sense of community and conservation associated with quilting, especially in contrast to the accelerated speed of contemporary life, the anonymity of industrial production and the ephemeral of digital culture”.

Norma Kamali attends an event in New York City on October 13, 2021. Her recent collection featured digitized patchwork.

Norma Kamali attends an event in New York City on October 13, 2021. Her recent collection featured digitized patchwork. Credit: Michael Ostuni / Patrick McMullan / Getty Images

Thorpe added that people are experiencing “extreme exhaustion due to technology”, saying, “I think people are now more interested in things that take a little longer and like going back to crafts … idea of ​​a very slow work (craftsmanship) and something to do with a community “.

A new generation

Fons, who still works as an editorial consultant for Quiltfolk, says the magazine’s audience averages “around 50,” but has seen a surge in interest among younger generations. Over the course of the pandemic, he said he spoke to both the quilt makers for the first time and the people who “got him back during the lockdown.”

While there are some barriers to entry, including the cost of machines, fabric, and batting to stuff quilts, DIY-oriented TikTok users are using their new skills to save on clothing. Wandy the Maker, for example, shares quilting tutorials to encourage Gen Z to think more sustainably about their wardrobe. Others, like @samrhymeswithhamm, have been successful on the platform through the hashtag #quilttok, with a video of her making a cactus-themed quilt that garnered 2.4 million views.
Model Gigi Hadid walks at the Moschino Spring-Summer 2022 fashion show at Bryant Park on September 09, 2021 in New York City.  The brand has included looks with quilted details in its new collection.

Model Gigi Hadid walks at the Moschino Spring-Summer 2022 fashion show at Bryant Park on September 09, 2021 in New York City. The brand has included looks with quilted details in its new collection. Credit: Gilbert Carrasquillo / GC Images / Getty Images

Fons said there was an “element of fetishism” in the American love of quilting. “At its heart, the desire for handmade things, craftsmanship and ‘slow’ processes makes sense. Modern life moves very fast and can be a little scary.

“For many people, a quilt is an icon of ‘simpler times’, even if it’s kind of a false equivalence.”

“It’s a great time to be a quiltmaker,” she added.

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