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A peek into the world of Nairobi’s quilt artists

Bright colours, layering, stitching, and mixed media describe the work of art quilters.

“Art quilters can do things with fabrics that painters can never reproduce on their canvases,” says Dena Crain, one of the founding members of Kenya Quilt Guild and a keen art quilter.

Art quilts are created especially as works of fine art, intended for use as wall hangings. Similar to oil, acrylic or water colour paintings in imagery, these works rely on colour, texture and composition to depict both realistic and abstract content in an engaging manner.

Dena explains that quilting in Kenya has improved over the years, with the shift towards art quilting being the most recent trend.

She added that it was fostered by increased exposure to international patchwork quilting due to travel and participation in the activities of other quilt guilds, as well as the growing access to the Internet.

“Together, both traditional and art quilters in Kenya are making increasingly better quality work, and we expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future. Currently, there are only about a dozen Kenya Quilt Guild members making art quilts on a regular basis.

“Only a handful of these produce art quilts exclusively,” says Dena. Traditional quilters are fond of sharing and using common patterns and designs, making only minor changes in colour schemes through their fabric selections.

Art quilters make their own patterns if needed, and push themselves hard for original thought and self-expression.

Art quilting is a true movement in the field of fine art, although recognition as bona fide artists has been slow to develop.

The traditional patchwork quilting’s purpose is to produce soft furnishings like bed covers, cushion covers, tea cosies, table runners and so on.

The design in such cases is frequently based on geometric repeat patterning, the use of the quilt “block” which is a square pattern, subdivided into fabric patches and stitched together, repeated many times and arranged in such a manner as to create a secondary design through clever use of colour.

The alternative is to repeat patterns to include whole cloth quilts in which a layer of cloth forms the decorative surface against which complex quilting (stitching through all layers) creates a symmetrical design.

These designs are often floral but may include stitched grids, stippling or other dense quilting to function as a filler for open spaces, allowing the primary shapes to rise and stand out against the background.

Appliqué, the stitching of cut out shapes onto a background cloth, is another form of piecing that permits design amongst traditional quilts.

Quilting is laborious in general. Art quilting uses many of the same skills and methods of traditional quilting, but it is for quilt artists to determine for themselves how much labour to include in any given piece.

“Those of us who make art quilts appreciate them because they allow a rich character and texture because of all the layering and stitching, whether produced by hand or machine,” said Dena.