Quilts: By the Dozens


The electronic quilt exhibition, By the Dozens, features at least 24 quilts. The exhibition is designed as a complement to our article "Quilted Symmetry " which appears in Bridges 2001: Mathematical Connections in Art, Music, and Science. While several of the quilts here are from relatives, colleagues, and friends, others have been chosen from the Mid-Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale in Hutchinson, from the current Library of Congress Exhibit, and from texts on quilts and quilting. A few are from the collection of co-author Deb Schmidt, a colleague and a friend.

Aristotle has argued that art should please and instruct. To this I often add—and to bear witness. Our intent here is less instruction than pleasure. In a minor way we hope to bear witness to the love and labor and yes, the mathematics, that have gone into these quilts. As God is often acknowledged as a mathematician so are quilt makers inevitably mathematicians. It could not be otherwise.

I have quoted author Alice Walker (The Color Purple) elsewhere with a certain righteous approval. She argues that quilts should not be treated as art but as a practical craft-- intended for beds in homes and not for the sterile walls of houses or museums. And yet, and yet, and yet. Perhaps it was an avaricious aesthetic that stirred in me when I attended my first quilt auction at the Mennonite Relief Sale. I studied the quilts with care and marked those that I wanted to bid for in my sale booklet. "Two hundred dollars, tops," I instructed myself. Few of the quilts I had chosen even started at $200. If they did, they shot up in price so fast I was left with my mouth open. This year’s auction in Hutchinson, Kansas grossed nearly a half million dollars during its two days and the quilts themselves produced $116,775. The "top quilt," an original design from the First Mennonite Brethren Church of Wichita, Kansas sold for $6500. Whatever else it is, quilting has become big business in the United States.

Feeling a bit like the boy who follows the elephant in the parade, I did manage to buy three pieces. One of these, a baby’s quilt, I gave to a colleague’s daughter who had just made of her father a grandfather. A second, a bargello quilt, I gave to a colleague who had first shown me these art quilts. The third, a comforter, I gave to a friend working on a dissertation and who, therefore, was in far greater need of comfort than I was. I will forever recall the sniff and the grunt that a petite, white haired lady gave when I showed her the picture of my purchase in the sale booklet. "Why, it’s only a comforter!" she pointed out in a dismissive fashion. "This world of quilts is one tough world," I mused as I put my comforter and sale book out of sight, in the trunk of my car.

These quilts are here for your pleasure. While they have much to teach us, in a world moving far too fast over enormous data streams, the lessons are yours to take but no longer ours to give. Enjoy the patterns and colors with us. Be dazzled as we continue to be by the variety of America’s quilts and the skill of her quilt makers.

I do want to thank Deb Schmidt and Slavik Jablan for the hours they have devoted to this project. This while each had work to last a lifetime and families who deserved better. As one small example of the trials each had to suffer, one day Slavik said, "You have not formatted the last text you submitted to me." With more than a touch of sarcasm, I replied, "Oh, did I violate some of your rules?" Summoning a penetrating analysis and a command of English previously unknown, Slavik stared at me and said, "No, Dan. To violate the rules, you had to know them. You obviously do not know the rules."

I have learned a few of the rules, by now. One of the rules certainly is to work with friends who love the work and give themselves fully to it in order to please, to instruct, and to bear witness.

Dan Daniel
Winfield, Kansas
May 2, 2001