Friday, February 10, 2023

Folky Quilts and the Term Folkart

Block in a late-20th-century sampler quilt advertised as "Folky"

The term Folk Art is often used to describe quilts or other forms of artistic expression. But it's complicated.

I feel the term Folk Art is so vague with so many possible meanings and connotations that it is useless as communication. Is the above, crudely-stitched version of Marie Webster's commercial design "Wind Blown Tulips" folk art or "folky" as the seller describes it?

Webster commercial pattern introduced in
the Ladies' Home Journal in 1911

What did the seller mean when describing this design made from a 
commercial pattern as folky? Badly stitched?

 Folky thus means unskillful?
Apparently so.

But "folk art quilts" also means a style of commercial
quilts designed decades after Webster by artists such as
Gwen Marston and Barb Adams who sewed quite skillfully.

From Barb Adams's & Alma Allen's Blackbird Designs.
This "folky" style of quiltmaking was extremely fashionable in the 1980-2010 period: Muted colors, exaggerated, distorted star shapes, asymmetrical floral arrangements far from traditional Germanic repeat formats and lots of plaids. What an art historian might call manneristic or highly stylized. Quite the commercial success.

On line ad for a folky, artsy quilt.
What makes this folky? It looks well stitched.
It seems that any quilt is folk art.

So what is folk art?

David Hackett Fischer in his book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America makes a distinction between the words "Folkways" and "Folklore," which encompasses folkart.
"The word folklore was coined by British scholar William Thoms in 1846 as 'the generic term under which are included...arts...and the like current among backward peoples."
William John Thoms (1803-1885)
A British snob interested in "backwards peoples"
or "less cultured classes of more advanced peoples."

Fischer goes on: "The idea of folklore was modified...biases still survive." Dell Thayer Upton, looking at housing types coined the word "Vernacular Architecture," in the early 1980s, a language term that does seem to specifically describe housing styles without reference to class.

The vernacular quilt?
Dated 1885, Putnam County, Tennessee

Two crazy quilts recently auctioned, described as "American Folk Art."

Crazy quilts, made with purchased packages of silk scraps and patterned in booklets one could buy for 25 cents were neither crude nor the product of "backward peoples." 

Note some other words above that do not apply: "Self-taught art" and "Outsider Art."


Crazy quilts were a commercial fad based in main stream popular culture, a clever economic response to an abundance of silk cutaways in the garment industry.

Instructions 1884

In my view the word folkart has no meaning, but the word is useful
when hoping to appeal to a customer's vague sense of nostalgia.

A marketing tool I have been known to use. Here
some "Folk-Art Songbirds" in a pattern Karla Menaugh
and I published 20 years ago.

I don't have a substitute term but I like The Vernacular Quilt. 

Gallery exhibit of Hans Hoffman Paintings

Vernacular Art. The dichotomy here today is "High-faluting New York gallery art" like the above (and its wanna-be's) versus objects created by unpretentious people who enjoy expressing themselves or are compelled to create. It used to be "The Academy" versus visual expression by people who had no familiarity with the formally trained, academy-accepted venue for showing work.

An Academy exhibit in Paris
Whatever the time period, there's a dichotomy---high art/low art.

Kansas's Garden of Eden, built by Samuel P. Dinsmoor in
the early 20th century.

When I was in the business of documenting this category of expression we called it Grassroots Art, a term coined by Gregg Blasdel in a 1968 article in Art in America. It's also called Outsider Art (Outside the Academy???) and in French Art Brut, which means Raw Art. Other terms: Self-Taught Art---again alluding to the the lack of high-faluting art school influence.

Bettie Mintz, a Maryland antiques dealer showed this quilt in an old
Quilt Engagement Calendar.
The vernacular quilt?


  1. Ugh! “Folk art” most often seems to mean art made by women. I’m so freaking tired of seeing quilters bring a piece of art to show and tell, and then give a catalog of every unnoticeable flaw in it. The day quilters describe themselves as artists is the day I’ll hang up my needle!

  2. I don't care for the term Verncular Quilts. It leaves out the homemade aspect and makes it sound too stuffy. Folk art, to me, implies making something original without formal training and making it out of the supplies that are available. And, I agree that it doesn't necessary mean the item or object is poorly made.

  3. I don't mind the term folk art. I've always thought of it as simply meaning the person who made it had no formal training and figured out how to make things on their own, perhaps with make-do tools and materials. Social or financial class of the maker is not a consideration in my mind. Then again, I'm not sure I knew folk art originally used the terms "backwards people" and "less cultured" in the definition. I like the term outsider art too. Vernacular art will take some getting used to, since the term itself sounds rather fancy.

  4. The academics always seemed to have "chosen" the words -- the "acceptable" vocabulary-- throughout history. (That seems to be the nature of a so-called "educated" civilization.) Thanks to my study of quilt history beginning in 1981, I have learned a whole lot about "academic" control of history and its meanings, including the arts, that I was not aware of before because I never took a course in art history. I explain all the terms mentioned--folk art, outsider art, primitive art and vernacular art -- whenever I talk to a group. (But first I had to look up vernacular!) I guess "ordinary people" is a step up from "backwards people"....buy why don't they just say "the non-academics" go by the terms "blah, blah" . (The word "modern" is another word that drives me crazy because it has so many different meanings!!)

    1. the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a particular country or region.
    "he wrote in the vernacular to reach a larger audience"

    2. architecture concerned with domestic and functional rather than public or monumental buildings.
    "buildings in which Gothic merged into farmhouse vernacular"