Roderick Kirakofe, quilt collector and author

the imperfect, the patched, the torn — joy and beauty in these states

by guest blogger Roderick Kiracofe, quilt collector, consultant and author

SAN FRANCISCO CA  As I worked on creating my just published book, Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below The Radar 1950-2000, I thought back to the seven years leading up to the release of The American Quilt in 1993.

Although I had an early Apple computer, back then most of the work was done with a typewriter. Vast amounts of time were spent writing letters, calling on the phone, researching in libraries and other research centers—and traveling via car or airplane. What a difference a decade or two made in the gathering of my newest quilt collection and the compiling of information for U&U.

Eleven years ago, when I decided to explore the idea of collecting quilts made in the last half of the 20th century, the computer and the internet played a vast role. One of the exciting pieces of this journey was to explore eBay and to get to know it better.

I knew Julie Silber, Michael Council and a few other dealers who were buying and selling via eBay. In 2003 I ventured through the portals of eBay just to experience this big flea market. I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what was available—and I was only looking at the quilt selections. I turned and walked “out the door.”

Julie counseled me on how to use eBay and how to refine my search. A year later, with more knowledge and a keener desire, I began my newest collection.

I’ve always been attracted to the funky, soulful, and quirky kinds of quilts. The fact that the quilts were made predominately by women, and hold stories about the lives of the makers and those who used them, appeal to me. In addition, and equally as important, is the visual strength that really good quilts exhibit when hung on a wall.

The twentieth quilt I purchased via eBay in 2004 was Original Design. I loved the overall composition of the top. The green bars in the center and the piecing of the plaid fabric gave it real strength in the center.

Quilt collected by Roderick Kiracofe

The design of the quilt top was loosely divided into thirds, yet it glowed with a “painterly” quality. The white knots of the ties formed a grid across the surface—very dominate on the dark fabrics and almost disappearing on the lighter ones.

The kicker that really made me want this quilt was the iron-on patches so beautifully placed across the surface. I recalled a brief period, back in the 60s, when my mother used those iron-on patches to mend a few things. I speculated that someone other than the maker added those to cover some holes, but I will never know for sure.

Later that same year, a real “ah-ha” moment happened. I bid on and won what I call “Broken Grid.” (I could not find the pattern in Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns.)

Broken Grid quilt, collected by Roderick Kiracofe

I was drawn to this quilt for the “broken grid” theme that was taking shape in the collection. The brokenness was more subtle than some others that would later join the collection. It also did not use any printed fabrics—one of my collecting criteria. I learned however that all collectors can break their own rules.

The complete surprise factor hit when the box arrived and the quilt was removed. As I unfolded the quilt to hang it on the “viewing wall,” I began to see a lot of color and printed fabrics. No picture of the back was posted on the seller’s eBay page nor was there any mention that this might be a double-sided quilt.

Imperfect Grid, detail, quilt collected by Roderick Kiracofe

The color and placement of the strips in the backing shouted exuberantly. I then noticed an area where the fabric had separated and I could see the “back” of the front.

I first thought “I wonder how easily this seam could be sewn tighter?” Immediately following that thought, from deep inside of me, came: “NO WAY are you going to sew the seam closed!”

I hung the quilt on the wall with the back side showing. Again I had the image of a piece of contemporary art where the artist had deliberately slashed or cut the cloth to reveal a layer underneath. This experience early on in the collecting phase helped solidify my love and joy of imperfection.

One of my favorite quilts of the collection is Original Design.* The 1925 quilt by Sarah Patric features large pieces of hand-dyed coarse cotton stitched together. Very thick and heavy, this quilt possibly contains an even older quilt to create the batt.

Original Design, quilt collected by Roderick Kiracofe

Patric’s work is brilliantly utilitarian and simple. The additions of the pieced, printed cottons, made sometime in the fifties or sixties by Mary Meed with the possible assistance of Mattie Meed, elevate the quilt to masterpiece level—an intergenerational palimpsest and striking piece of contemporary art.

Here, the play of the vertical and horizontal pieces of fabric brings to mind aprons. The printed fabrics highlight and complement the colors and textures of the earlier quilt. The addition of the shiny magenta upholstery fabric along the “pillow” edge at the top adds a bold, dramatic line that continues on the back of the quilt with a large band of this same fabric and three presumed patches of magenta “floating” on the surface.

Another element of the internet, Facebook, influenced the making of Unconventional & Unexpected. I came to Facebook relatively late and with a bit of foot dragging.

Most of the quilt collection was formed by the time I joined Facebook. I used this online venue to show what I had found and to learn whether other people liked them or not. (I was afraid many quilters would “hate” them because of their imperfect qualities.)

VIntage quilt collected by Roderick Kiracofe

Although the quilts were not to everyone’s taste, I discovered other like-minded souls who appreciated them. In fact, through Facebook, I found a few other collectors whose quilts I was able to include in the book.

A recent Facebook friend, Andrew Baseman, leads an interior design firm in New York. I learned about Andrew’s intriguing blog called Past Imperfect: The Art of Inventive Repair. Andrew concentrates on ceramics, but has an earlier history with quilts—having worked for Tom Woodard and Blanche Greenstein, quilt dealers in New York. 

Wabi Sabi Book by Koren

I recalled the alluring Japanese aesthetic and ideal called wabi sabi.

Leonard Koren, author of “Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” tried unsuccessfully to discover a precise definition while researching his book. Leonard eventually coined his own: “Wabi sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental.” 

In Western culture, we have the adages of “waste not; want not” or “a stitch in time saves nine” among others. I grew up in a family where my grandparents and parents were affected by the Depression.

The practices of repairing, mending, reusing, and wearing hand-me-downs have stayed with me throughout my life. I’m sure those influences have affected how I am drawn to these wabi sabi quilts.

*Several quilts in the collection were given the title “Original Design” because they were the creation of the maker and the names they may have been given were not passed along.

To visit Roderick’s gorgeous website, click here.