The Quodlibet of the Quilt

A quodlibet typically refers to a medley of songs, most poignantly when the different tunes are sung at the same time--one on top of the other. The juxtaposition of the tunes communicates a message that the individual tunes could never do alone. When done correctly, the quodlibet can send chills down your spine and help you to see the individual tunes in a whole new light.

So what does this have to do with quilting? I'm taking poetic license here, but I believe that the idea and intent behind the quodlibet can be quite naturally applied to quilting. Quilts are a medley of songs--stories--communicating all at once singly and on top of each other. Quilts are a beautiful medley of stories. I am using both song and story as synonymous terns because songs are stories. So let's first take a look at the individual tunes.

The quilt design communicates the first story. Many quilt blocks have stories--stories of the culture that created it, stories of how they were used to communicate messages, stories that the quilt block represents, and so on. Different cultures have designs that are meaningful to them. Blocks can represent the flora and fauna of the area, for example, or of objects and symbols that have significant meaning. 

During my time on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I witnessed the great significance of the star quilt. Star quilts were given to people to honor them. I was the recipient of several of these quilts during my time with the Lakota, and they are among my most treasured possessions. I am honored to have been the recipient of such a longstanding tradition and courier of their story.

Whether you believe or not, the lore that began circulating in the early 2000's about quilts being used to communicate messages to slaves journeying by the underground railroad to freedom is intriguing. This idea, though, does underscore the fact that quilts have stories that communicate important messages, whether it is a form of code, a political statement, a memorial of a current event, the commemoration of a life, or other significant message.

Blocks are also created to represent a specific story. Blocks were designed, for example, to represent certain stories of the bible. 

The palm leaf block tells the story of Palm Sunday. Just seeing the block encourages one to recount the story.

The second story is told through the color choices. Colors connote different feelings that add to the story being told. They create the mood and tone of the piece.

Fabric choices and stitching techniques also contribute to the total story. Fabrics can be used from clothing and memorabilia items, which can really tell the story. Other fabrics can contribute to the overall feeling that the quilt connotes. Whether stitched by machine or by hand, the creator's choice can say a lot about him or her and what is valued, which can be another piece of the story. 

Another story emerges from the reason why the creator made the quilt and the recipient and occasion for the quilt. The reason for putting labels on quilts is to memorialize those stories. Quilt labels list the name of the piecer, the quilter, the recipient of the quilt, the reason for the gift, and the date and location completed. This information is important to tell the complete story of the quilt. 

The final story comes in the quilting. The designs used on the quilt complement the story. The quilting is like the harmony. A quilt top can be beautiful on its own, but once you add the harmony, it becomes an amazing song.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the quodlibet of the quilt is the crazy quilt. So many layers of stories are included in the crazy quilt. The end result is an amazing work of art.

This patchwork of elements--the design, colors, who/what/when/where/why, fabric, stitching, and the quilting create the quodlibet of the quilt. Each element by itself is important, but it's not until all the pieces are put together that the true story emerges and sings.

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  • Carol Schneider on

    Thank you, Arlene! I really enjoyed writing this one.

  • Arlene Hutchins on

    This is an amazing story. I really enjoyed reading it.
    Thank you.

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