Sunday, February 5, 2017

Quiltiness & Fuzzy Edges

When I was in graduate school in Linguistics in the early 1980s I was fascinated by an innovative theory about language generally referred to the Prototype Theory of Categorization. I mentioned this theory obliquely in my last post on defining a Southern Quilt Style.

Black & White & Gray
Is it a string quilt or not?
Laura Fisher's Shop

If things are black and white, what is gray?

Prototype theory is an alternate to the traditional way of classifying things. Traditionally categorization is viewed as black or white, animal or vegetable, vegetable or fruit, bird or lizard. Prototype theory proposes that this model doesn't actually work and it's not the way humans think---- although they like to believe there are sharp categorical distinctions.

Barb Oaker's Mater Quilt

Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

One category often used to illustrate the prototype theory is birds. Birds have feathers, two legs, wings and they fly.

A robin is an American prototype for a bird. A most typical bird in our mind's eye. It's in the center of the chart.

But what about a penguin? Can't fly. Is it a bird?

Or an ostrich. If the robin is the most typical bird and in the center of our definition of BIRD, then an ostrich or a penguin is way out on the edges of our definition of birds. The fuzzy edges.

Class assignments were to make circle charts like this, putting our prototypical birds in the center and birds that were more questionable in the outer rings. This is somebody's bird categorization---an analysis of "Birdiness".

I'd put the hummingbird and the toucan closer in. They fly.

Lady in Red (c) Ruth McDowell, 2012

Chickens don't fly. I'd move chicken further out. To the fuzzy non-flying edges.

I have found Prototype Theory to be a great way of looking at the world.

Somebody's chart of sports categories.
This might be useful every Olympics cycle
as people discuss what is an "authentic" sport.
Pie-eating is definitely on the fuzzy edges of the category.

Humans are always looking for "authenticity" and one of the things I like about Prototype theory is that it proves the folly of categorizing anything as "authentic." In the center is our personal prototype, around the edges....

UPDATE: Do notice the hostility which some people reject prototype theory in the comments, e.g. target practice---chickens do fly. Many rely on black and white categorizations. NO fuzzy edges.

Stumpwork Stars from Laura Fisher's Shop
Is this kind of bedcovering quilty?

We can apply prototype theory to quilts. Objects are categorized as quilts, summer spreads, throws, bedcoverings, bedspreads, comforters, coverlets, etc.

My analysis of Quiltiness.

My prototype for quilty in the center is a patchwork, quilted object. A little further from the center are bedcovers like summer spreads (finished but a single layer), wholecloth, quilted pieces like French white work, unquilted but finished silk hexagon table covers.

Embroidery on a single layer bedcover is way out
on the fuzzy edges of quiltiness to me.

Out on the edge are stencilled bedcoverings with no quilting or tied wholecloth comforters (with a batt but no quilting and no patchwork).

Tied blanket of two layers, no batting.

Try making a circle chart of Crazy Quiltiness. What would linger around the fuzzy edges?

Christian Kram has a short summary of the theory here:

And here's a long explanation in a book from the early 1980s.
Noun Classes and Categorization: Proceedings of a Symposium on Categorization and Noun Classification, Eugene, Oregon, October 1983, Editor Colette Grinevald Craig

You can read it online at Google Books.https://books.google.com/books?id=fJdccGokHmoC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false


  1. Ive just been reading about "either-or" thinking sometimes called dualistic. So this post made a lot of sense to me. Thanks for expanding our perspectives on "quiltiness."

  2. I've never heard of these terms. Fascinating and truly food for thought! Reminds me of the argument about the relationship between love & hate. Complete emotional opposites or so similar due to intensity?

  3. Thank you! May I please ask for your most kind permission to take one chart for target practice on a nearby archery field?

  4. Interesting - thinking "outside" the circle.

  5. Great thoughtful post Barbara, Thank you!

  6. Sorry, but chickens do fly, they wouldn't win any prizes for style but they do it. Perhaps these charts depend more on people's lack of knowledge and our 'understanding' of the facts. The example of a tomato is not just a difference of opinion, a tomato is a fruit, because it has seeds. Our perception of categorisations because of a lack of scientific knowledge still doesn't change the facts. I doubt scientists define birds by whether they can fly or not.

  7. Since I live on the fuzzy edges of a lot of things, it's nice to see one place where I would be smack in the center! Thanks for this interesting post!

  8. Fantastic post. So thought provoking. I am particularly partial to the new word, "quiltiness". Fuzzy edges and all.