Thursday, August 29, 2013

Does the Back Matter?

It seems that the topic of the condition of the back of an art quilt comes up regularly in textile art online forums.  Some folks argue that if the back of a painting doesn't matter, why should the back of an art quilt be of consequence?  Why do the "quilt police" care about the back of a quilt?

I'm going out on a limb here to say that the back of an art quilt does matter.

I know -- art quilt heresy.  

Here are two reasons I think the back of an art quilt matters:

1) The back is part of the whole.
For painters, the back of their art is some sort of substrate.  It's a canvas, paper, a piece of wood, or a piece of stone.  There really aren't that many options.

However, we art quilters have tons of options.  There isn't a standard "backing fabric" that comes in a few basic colors.  No, we can choose not only the look/color/print of the back, but also the type of fabric we choose to use.  Because of all our options, I think we have to be thoughtful about the choice we make for the back of our piece.  Personally, I believe I would do my art a disservice if I chose a backing fabric like this:

for a piece that looks like this one the front:

I'm making a whole package, not just a front.  A quilt still requires a front and a back, otherwise I believe it's art cloth.  Therefore, I believe the back is an integral part of the entire piece.

What did I choose for this piece, you might ask?  I selected fabric I had monoprinted that had a look I thought was complimentary to the front. Because the monoprinted cloth was a smidgeon too small, I needed to add in another section.  I thought it was important that the back have some relationship with the front of the quilt, so I chose to piece in a bit of the yellow fabric that I'd already used.  Here's the back (pre-sleeve):

2) Looking at the back is one way a buyer can evaluate a piece before buying.
I know there are lots of artists out there who quilt their quilts and then put a backing piece on to cover up most of it.  

I get it; I've done it.  There have been times when the thread I've used seems only to have wanted to make an appearance as part of a knot.  I've covered up the muck in an effort to make things look clean.

However, if we want to be recognized for taking care with how we create our work -- I think most of us DO want to be viewed as careful, not sloppy, artists -- and if we want possibly to sell our work, then I think it behooves us to put forth some effort to make all parts of our work our best.  Stitching is integral to our art form, both as a design element and as a way to make all the parts stay together.  I think it's fair for a buyer to take a peek at the back to take a guess at how long his investment in our art might last.  If something looks like it's going to fall apart because of slipshod stitching, then I can't fault the buyer for choosing not to lay down his hard earned cash.  The back might just be important to a buyer.

I also wonder what a buyer might think if he/she sees a clean front, but a sloppy back.  Does it give the impression that we are skilled at our craft or still learning?  My mother used to say the house wasn't clean if everything was piled in the tub behind a closed curtain. Similarly, is a quilt well made if the artist didn't take time to make the whole piece as carefully as possible?

I think there's a solution for those who don't want to have the buyer take a peek at stitching: mounting work on canvas.  It still looks professional and polished, though I imagine large quilts might be tough to put on canvas.

I think that those who use hand embroidery as a design element and as a way of securing their quilt are somewhat exempt from all this because it's just about impossible to make scatter stitching look pretty on the back.  However, I also believe that more practice will result in neater machine stitching if that's what you do.  Not all of us will bury our threads to have a pristine back; I've done that on some small pieces and does it take a LOT of time.   Most of us will still try to secure our stitches as we sew with small stitches or back stitching.  If we do, we might get a few thread nests on the back, but the nests will appear less frequently as we do more work.  I've certainly improved over the years and I'm certain my experience is not unique.  

I'm not suggesting that we try to manage our stitch count or never have a thread pile-up show up on the back of our quilts, but I do think it's a good idea to consider the back when presenting the whole; to put effort into our entire piece, as opposed to hoping no one looks. I say give your quilt's backside a bit more love.  What do you think?


Natalya Aikens said...

I concur. The back does matter whether its glued to the canvas or is open for everyone to see. An artwork must be a cohesive whole whether it's an art quilt or a mixed media work.

Norma Schlager said...

I very often hand-dye a back to coordinate with the front and try my best not to have too many thread nests or sloppy stitching. I do not bury my thread, though. If I do a lot of FM quilting, which is most of the time, i love the way it looks on the back.

Lisa Call said...

I agree. In fact I will pull out any stitching that is messed up on the back and fix it.

It's a question of the quality of work I want to put my name on.

We can pretend people aren't going to look at the back and we can be indignant that they judge us if it's messy but we get only 1 chance for a 1st impression.

Kathleen Loomis said...

I'm for neatness whenever possible. I bury all my thread ends -- no backstitching or eyelashes. I have been known to ignore a tiny pleat or two in the backing, if discovered so far along that I would have to rip a lot of stitching out (although once I ripped a square foot of dense quilting because it looked awful on the back).

But I don't obsess over the choice of fabric for the back. I'm willing to use miscellaneous drapery fabric, even fabric that used to be somebody's drapes. I think that gives character to the quilt.