Principle

On Friday while I was flea market hopping, I found a tragic piece.

(c)2015, Lori East
ca. 1855 Carolina Lily quilt

Many of you saw this when I posted it on Facebook. It made me sick. As much as I wanted to rescue the remaining pieces of this quilt, on principle I couldn’t allow myself to do it. To my way of thinking, paying the person who cut this gorgeous piece up would be somehow condoning their behavior. It would give them more money to buy another great piece and cut it up. Not gonna happen.

I’ve said before that if you own a quilt, you can do anything you like with it. I still stand by that. I might not like it, but it is your right. But if you are cutting up sound pieces just to make a few extra bucks, I will certainly think less of you. Any time I see an eBay seller or flea market vendor cut up a quilt to use for “crafts,” I am done doing business with them. (And it’s for this very reason that I despise being called, “crafty.”) To my way of thinking, the folks who do such things have no clue about the history, the artistry, or the effort that went into making such a piece. I liken such an act to adding glitter to the Mona Lisa. Yes, really.

Should you never cut up a quilt? Well, not exactly. While I have a huge problem, as you might’ve guessed, with cutting up a 160-year-old quilt to make a Santa Claus or a teddy bear, I do recognize that there can be extenuating circumstances. Cutting might be a means of a family retaining what they can of a worn family piece, for example. In these cases, though, the family is looking to extend the piece’s life, not accelerate it. It’s treated with reverence, not convenience.

There are certainly times when I will take a top apart, or use orphan blocks. Quite often, in fact. For example, I bought this piece Friday.

(c)2015, Lori East
My $4 flea market find. Cotton and wool, ca. 1930
(c)2015, Lori East
The foundation for all blocks is brown polished cotton

It is cotton (green plain blocks and block foundations) and wool (striped blocks), and dates to the 1930s. As you can see in the photos, it has some issues, issues that for the purchase price of $4.00, I was willing to accept. In its current state, it will never be used or appreciated, and is destined to live out its days in either a closet or a landfill.

I will most likely take the blocks apart and salvage the un-moth-eaten wool blocks by sewing them back together. I can see a pretty dynamic piece with all those stripes, can’t you? I am not sure what I’ll do with the green cotton but it will surely find its way into another piece. Green, 1930s cotton is always useful.

So is my taking this wool/cotton top apart the same thing as the flea market person cutting up an 1850s quilt? Not at all. Cutting up a finished quilt such as the one above, shortens its life, hastens its end in a landfill. No quilter ever made blocks intending not to finish them. By using what we can of an aging or tattered piece and reworking it if necesary, by finishing it and giving it a place to be seen and appreciated for a long time to come, we honor the maker and his or her work.

What do you think? Do you think it’s okay to cut up an old quilt?

  • Cathy Fussell

    Lori — I love this post because it addresses an issue I deal with every time I salvage a top. Sometimes I alter the top a bit before I quilt it, and I always feel a little guilty. You’ve made me feel better. But to the original question of cutting up an old quilt to make something new — No, I would never cut one up to make pillows or teddy bears or all that crap — but what if I cut one up to use in a new quilt — in a “reconstructed,” artistic way? Did you see the stunning Victoria Finlay Wolfe quilt that won first prize at Quiltcon last year? It was made from a quilt she cut up, added to, then put back together in a new way. Now, the quilt that Victoria cut up was one that she herself had made — but what if it had been an old one?

    • Lori East

      It’s a tough line, Cathy. I have no problem altering or reusing an old top. There is a reason it was never quilted, usually, so I figure I am giving it life. As to cutting up finished quilts, I have a hard time with that. Yes, in Victoria’s case, it was one of her own, and the result was stunning. I might have balked at it being an old one (although I’m sure she would still do something wonderful with it). That said, I do own several sets of pieces of old things, not things I cut up, but pieces that were given to me because somebody else used the rest of the quilt for something else. I keep thinking that I would like to use them, as you say, in a reconstructed way, but am afraid that someone will think I hacked up a perfectly lovely quilt first. It’s really something of a conundrum, isn’t it?

      More than anything, this is just my response to seeing people who have no idea of the historical value of things making potholders or other “throwaways” out of them. It just saddens me.

      I guess those who think if something is not being used it’s fair game to chop up might not be too kind to Grandma either. 😉

    • Lori East

      It’s a tough line, Cathy. I have no problem altering or reusing an old top. There is a reason it was never quilted, usually, so I figure I am giving it life. As to cutting up finished quilts, I have a hard time with that. Yes, in Victoria’s case, it was one of her own, and the result was stunning. I might have balked at it being an old one (although I’m sure she would still do something wonderful with it). That said, I do own several sets of pieces of old things, not things I cut up, but pieces that were given to me because somebody else used the rest of the quilt for something else. I keep thinking that I would like to use them, as you say, in a reconstructed way, but am afraid that someone will think I hacked up a perfectly lovely quilt first. It’s really something of a conundrum, isn’t it?

      More than anything, this is just my response to seeing people who have no idea of the historical value of things making potholders or other “throwaways” out of them. It just saddens me.

      I guess those who think if something is not being used it’s fair game to chop up might not be too kind to Grandma either. 😉

  • Patricia Failla

    I disagree on some points Lori. I am a dealer that will conserve quilts as best I can. BUT there are a tremendous amount of quilts that were used, and mostly destroyed because of it. I have found quilts that were half burned, or had huge paint spots that stuck the fabric together, and some that looked like a cannonball went right thru the middle. These quilts, if not salvaged, would not be put away and loved, they would be thrown away. I, as a seller, have taken the good parts, and created smaller quilts, which have been very popular and sold very well. People love having small pieces of the past to decorate with, without the high price or the storage problem. These little pieces go on to live a long life as a cherished smaller quilt. So, please remember, there are some situations that make sense. How do you know what the rest of that quilt you found (and posted above) looked like? Why would a seller cut up a good quilt that is worth much more intact?

    • Lori East

      Hi Patricia,

      I don’t have a problem with cutting away the bad parts of a quilt and refashioning it to extend its life. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear. What I have a problem with is pieces like this one that the scraps showed was not in terrible shape. Assuming that the person didn’t cut out the worst parts of it to use, it could have been salvaged. As it is, there is little there to work with now, thereby effectively ending this quilt’s life. That’s where I have problems.

      I am aware that a lot of dealers do exactly what you’re talking about. No worries there. But there are folks out there cutting quilts in pieces just to be used for “crafts.” I have to assume they are doing this in the belief that that quilt in pieces will fetch more money than a whole quilt. I know that you know differently, but a quick scan of “cutter quilt” on eBay produces lots of pieces that are not, in fact, cutters. Willful disregard for a quilt’s historical value is tough to take, don’t you think?

    • Lori East

      Hi Patricia,

      I don’t have a problem with cutting away the bad parts of a quilt and
      refashioning it to extend its life. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear.
      What I have a problem with is pieces like this one that the scraps
      showed was not in terrible shape. Assuming that the person didn’t cut
      out the worst parts of it to use, it could have been salvaged. As it is,
      there is little there to work with now, thereby effectively ending this
      quilt’s life. That’s where I have problems.

      I am aware that a lot of dealers do exactly what you’re talking
      about. No worries there. But there are folks out there cutting quilts in
      pieces just to be used for “crafts.” I have to assume they are doing
      this in the belief that that quilt in pieces will fetch more money than a
      whole quilt. I know that you know differently, but a quick scan of
      “cutter quilt” on eBay produces lots of pieces that are not, in fact,
      cutters. Willful disregard for a quilt’s historical value is tough to
      take, don’t you think?

      • Patricia Failla

        Okay, I was thinking that you were against any crafting, even with the worst of worn quilts! Yes, I would shudder to think someone would cut into a good quilt, and I have seen chairs that were covered in them (gasp!) I also think that the new machine quilted antique tops are so very sad….especially the early ones. 🙁

        • Lori East

          No, my real concern is seeing what appear to be sound quilts chopped up.

          While I know that not everyone feels this way, I am okay with machine-quilted tops as long as they are done well. That said, like you, I’ve seen too many early pieces poorly finished by someone who didn’t really understand the importance of the piece, or with what I call “mattress pad quilting” allover. Poorly done is poorly done, and inappropriate is inappropriate.

          That said, I do have several vintage pieces (20th century) that have been masterfully longarm quilted in such a way that they’re really enhanced. They would have been rather blah without it.

          Speaking of upholstering things, I have some scraps I’ve have to show you. It was a gloriously-quilted 1930s piece that someone cut up to reupholster their couch with. It nearly makes me weep every time I take it out.