Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar, 1950-2000

Amy FriendBook Review6 Comments


The last few evenings, I have been enjoying an advance copy of Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar, 1950-2000 by Roderick Kiracofe.

This book is full of beautiful, full page, color images of quilts that haven’t been published as a group like this before. These quilts are a departure from expected traditional block patterns and have what is described as a “freer, more casual, soulful yet bold aesthetic that departs from (and returns to) a multitude of norms and standards.” I think many readers will recognize in these quilts many of the design principals, improvisation, and tendency to “break the rules” found in today’s modern quilting movement. The quilts will be inspirational and liberating, I think.


But what I liked most, were the discussions of how to talk about quilts. As most of you know, I studied Art History and worked in museums before I stayed home with my children. I have always questioned the constant need to compare contemporary quilts to paintings in order to fit them into the established canon of Western art history. It doesn’t always quite work for me. I particularly enjoyed Allison Smith’s essay, “Quilts are Quilts” where Smith questions the validity of this approach. If quilts are comparable to fine art, why then are they considered inferior in the hierarchy of art and less valuable monetarily? How are we to deal with the artist genius concept and the quilter? She discusses the differences in construction and points out that quilts are more closely aligned with collage. She then talks about the fact that quilts have two sides, and suggests a comparison to flags where quilts are similarly in motion. She states that, perhaps, only in motion can we completely understand quilts in their human and social context.  I agree with her most basic point, that quilts need to be discussed as quilts.



It’s food for thought. I think it is true that quilts can’t and shouldn’t be continually compared to paintings. They have a different history. Their construction is different. The skills needed to create them are different. The materials are different. But there are so many kinds of quilts aren’t there? Clearly, there are quilts that are made as the creator’s artistic statement. He/she has chosen as her canvas a quilt and the potential for it to be used hasn’t really factored into the equation. Such quilts tend to be called art quilts—those made intentionally to express an aesthetic concern, and have no intended use as a bed covering. But have quilters done themselves a disservice by defining quilts that are not used as “art quilts”. Does that automatically bring down the perceived value of quilts that could conceivably be used? Does it label the others as “not art”? I know I often make quilts simply as an artistic statement and not because I need a quilt. How many quilters today really “need” another quilt? Clearly, it’s a fluid discussion as well because it changes over time, with economics, with material supply, etc.

I also appreciated Janneken Smucker’s essay where she discusses the myth of the scrap bag and how the myth helped shape a later reality.  It was a good read.


A number of the essays mention that the makers of the quilts are often anonymous which leads to complications not as prevalent in fine art but common in everyday/useful items. It should serve as a reminder to us to label those quilts! I know I am terrible about that myself but need to start doing it.

When I visited the Museum of Fine Art Boston’s show Quilts and Color, I remember thinking how fascinating it was to see what types of quilts Pilgrim and Roy had decided to collect. For them, color value and condition were both of supreme importance. Kiracofe’s collection is so vastly different but yet equally cohesive. His quilts are those that “break the rules.” The quilts don’t follow traditional gridwork with precision. They show the quilter’s hand more than most quilt collections I have seen. I really enjoy seeing how people put together their own collections and like to imagine what kind of collection of quilts I might put together.

Anyway, this is a fabulous book that I am sure will be popular among modern quilters.  I anticipate rereading it at a later date.