Monday, March 28, 2011

Fabrics: the Bold, the Beautiful, and the Ugly

Yesterday, I sent a sloppily written message to a Yahoo quilting group that caused a bit of an uproar. I didn't choose my words wisely and as a result, I offended people. I've already apologized, but I think the subject, the perception of colors and beauty, is important and worth exploring here.

When I wrote my original message, I was thinking of people I know personally who are visually impaired and really don't care about colors. Their attitude is that quilts should be warm and soft and wash well, and that's all that counts. So I suggested that fabrics that we consider to be ugly could be used to make quilts for people with visual impairments. I did not intend to convey that all people with visual impairments place no value on color. I should have been more careful in my use of words, as I do know that colors are important to many visually impaired people for a variety of reasons. It would be more accurate to say that some people, for various reasons, do not place importance on colors. These people are probably a very small percentage of the population, but they do exist.

Neither did I intend to advocate that people purposely use all of their "ugly" fabrics for charity quilts. Please don't! Quiltmaking is a wonderful blend of craft and art, providing myriad opportunities for self-expression.  We all need the freedom to create what is pleasing to us and to use materials that we take pleasure in using.  Some of us find pleasure in challenging ourselves to create something out of materials we consider to be less than nice, such as "ugly" fabrics.  On the other hand, some of us get no pleasure at all from such a challenge. For those who don't, it's better to pass those materials on to someone else, or use them for testing new techniques. 

What I am advocating is that age-old proverb that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What I perceive as ugly may be perceived as beautiful by someone else. And, though I might not like admitting it, the flip side is also true: what I perceive to be beautiful may be perceived as ugly by someone else.

As I thought about my "ugly" fabrics, it occurred to me that the artist who designed that fabric must have seen beauty in it. So did the people in the manufacturing company who were responsible for choosing to print that design on fabric. The same can be said of quilt designs.  I don't like every quilt pattern I see in a magazine or catalog.  There are even some that I'd call "ugly."  But the designers liked, even loved, those designs.  And the editors of those magazines and catalogs must have seen something of beauty in those designs, too.  Just as "you can't please all of the people all of the time," no fabric or quilt design is going to be loved by everybody everywhere.

But somewhere out there, there is a perfect someone for every fabric and every quilt created.

Perhaps the importance of color is more a matter of pragmatism versus esthetics for some people. Even before my dad lost his sight, he would have said something like, "Stop fussing about the colors. My eyes are closed when I'm sleeping so it doesn't really matter to me whether the colors match or not." My dad is a pragmatist. As long as an object serves its function, what it looks like is not important to him.

I'm not like my dad. Looks matter to me just as much as function, and I love working with colors. If I wasn't so in love with color, I might have gone into woodworking or baking or some other craft where the use of color is more restricted. I'm willing to bet that most people who enjoy quiltmaking have a similar love affair with colors. That's part of what attracts us to this craft. But I don't think that all people are as attuned to colors as I am.

I've been learning since childhood that other people often "see" colors differently than I do. One of my uncles was color blind. Decorated Christmas trees that looked like they were sparkling with beautiful jewels to me, looked like brown trees with various shades of brown objects hanging on them to my uncle. To design a quilt for someone like him, I'd need to ignore colors and focus on values only. Sometimes I like to challenge myself to do a monochromatic design, but in general I prefer to have the entire color palette at my disposal. But many people love monochromatic designs.

My mother is not visually impaired, but she sees colors differently than I do. What I call blue-green, she calls blue. What she sees as green, I see as yellow-green. It's as if her personal color wheel is one notch off compared to my personal color wheel. Her use of color and pattern is also different from mine. I irritated her immensely as a young child when I refused to wear clothes she set out for me, things like pink socks with a red dress or a paisley blouse with a plaid skirt. To me these things clashed horribly, but she saw nothing wrong with the combinations. She still doesn't. The baby/toddler quilts she makes are a wild mismash of colors and patterns that make me cringe, but young children tend to love them. Their parents may suppress a grimace and a shudder, but the kids love them and that's what counts. My mom has found the right target population for the quilts she makes.

Colors can also be perceived differently by different cultures. Not so long ago, my culture considered black to be the color of death and mourning. In some cultures, white symbolizes death. My culture's white wedding dresses make no sense in these cultures. Color combinations that I perceive as gawdy might be quite pleasing in another culture. Once again, my "ugly" quilt might be an object of beauty in another culture.

Got some spare time?  Do an image search on "ugly quilts."  You might be surprised at what comes up.

Going back to the topic of blindness, way back in my college days, I learned that colors give off (or absorb) varying degrees of heat, and that some blind people can distinguish between colors of paper, fabric and similar substances by how warm these substances feel. My first reaction was "no way!," but after giving the matter some thought, I could understand the possibility. Even as a sighted person, I have experienced this in small ways: white and pastel clothes are cooler than dark clothes, a car with dark upholstery is unbearably hot in the summer, and my white cats' fur is considerably cooler than my black cats' fur. If I had to, I could probably learn to distinguish white fabric from black fabric without sight. I seriously doubt my own ability to learn to distinguish between more subtle color differences like red from green or yellow from white, but I can accept that it's theoretically possible. For those who can, it adds a whole new dimension to design. Imagine creating a quilt design based on how we feel the colors rather than how we see them!


c said...

I read the other comment and I read this long one. The person(s) who may have gotten upset, are not reading it like I did. I think you were generally speaking. And I think now, you are feeling like you need to right yourself. Just
realize you cant please everyone, I dont like browns...but I made a brown and pink quilt and just love it. so there you go, we all change our tastes , when I look thru a magazine I tab the ones I like. When I look at the same magazine much later I see quilts that I didnt notice the first time. So it
is an everchanging world and it also effects quilting-and our senses. Hang in there, carol c

Pat V. said...

I love your comment that a fabric you may consider "ugly" was beautiful to the designer and the manufacturer. What a great perspective!