For a good part of their history, quilts have been a product of making due with less – the most practical of textiles. They served the utilitarian task of keeping people warm, layered on beds and chairs, or blocking drafts in window and doorframes. The patchwork pattern came from odd scraps of fabric being pieced together into a useable whole. But quilts also acted as a mirror of the times. Sewers were quick to stitch eagles and other patriotic symbols onto their wares during America’s War of Independence (memorial quilts were also popular).
The earliest example of quilted material, found in a Siberian cave, can be traced back to the 1st-century. Crusaders are thought to have brought quilts to Europe in the 12th-century, in the form of padding under heavy armor. (It would take a few more hundred years until Coco Chanel picked up on the trend of pairing chains with quilted fabric to great sartorial effect.)
Fast forward to the 20th-century, when quilts took on a more political purpose: In WW I, the U.S. government urged women to “Make Quilts – Save the Blankets for our Boys Over There.” In the 1960s, Alabama quilters famously helped to fund the civil rights movement of which they were members by selling their pieces to New York auction houses. By the early 1970s, back-to-the-land followers revived interest in quilting as a contemporary art form. Modern purveyors are continuing the tradition – but with a twist, like Brooklyn’s “designed to touch” Haptic Lab.
KM spoke with founder Emily Fischer about mapping cities onto cloth, and the unique vernacular of a Brooklyn quilt.
Haptic means “sense of touch” and your Soft Maps play on the tactile qualities of a quilt. Why did you focus on that aspect?
Haptics are the be all and end all of my work. I started the Soft Maps project in grad school. My mom had been diagnosed with glaucoma and she had a cornea transplant. Watching her struggle – cutting a finger during dinner, dropping a letter in the driveway – inspired me to make the tactile maps. She taught me to sew as a kid. The first quilted maps I made were supposed to be a tool for the visually impaired – something very practical. (I used open source map data at openstreetmaps.org to create to-scale representations.) But they’re also an evocative, emotional way to connect to a place.
How did you get into quilting?
I grew up in northern Wisconsin. In an environment like that you just learn – in church basements and stuff. I studied architecture at University of Michigan then moved to New York. In 2009, I was working 12 to 14 hour days and survived two rounds of layoffs before I was let go. Within two weeks of losing my job, I was having anxiety attacks and quilting became a way to relax. I entered a design competition and needed a company name, so I came up with Haptic Labs. Within two weeks, photos of my first quilt were picked up by websites like Coolhunting and Apartment Therapy. It was a small map of Fort Greene on silk – not much bigger than a potholder! People chose what I was going to do next. It’s such a good luck story, but the timing was right. Basically, I just started the company by accident.
How has your background in architecture influenced your approach to quilt making?
Architecture is just the composition of data. The translation of map to quilt is derived from straight-up information. I don’t do anything except trace the lines. But all the little idiosyncratic hiccups along the way as my hand moves across the fabric is what makes it unique.
The map pattern itself is hand-drawn and then hand-sewn, which works best. I’ve become so disenchanted with digital tools like CAD/CAM and MakerBot. They’re great resources, and you can create things with them that are incredibly complex, but you have to inform that with a material object or the logic of scale. You’re not designing something if you’re not thinking of the human body.
There’s this long tradition of quilts being passed down for generations. How does it feel to be making a future family heirloom? In terms of a retail experiment, it’s very interesting. Somebody loves you when they make you a quilt – your mom or aunty or grandmother. The custom projects I do with a client make me feel very connected to that person, since I’m adding personal details to the base map. I know the route somebody walked their dog or the corner where they had their first kiss. I don’t know these people, but I know something of them. The joke in my studio is that I could easily drive a cab around San Francisco – even though I’ve never been there!
Quilts are these storytelling narratives with a regional vernacular. Amish and Mennonite quilts are different from those made by a sharecropper in rural Alabama. A whole pattern language was used in the Underground Railroad.
What is the Brooklyn vernacular?
Brooklyn is more urban, obviously, and that changes things. Space is so limited in both quilting studios and homes. There’s no room for big machines. But there’s a lot of interest here and some amazing quilters, like Jimmy McBride (his art pieces go for thousands of dollars) and Carrie Strine. Customers are looking for things outside of Ikea.
It can be frustrating that people don’t understand the value in quilts or how to care for them. You can’t just throw them in a washing machine! You have to teach people the value in objects and revive the knowledge around them. That’s why I started my DIY kits: to give people the means and see how they interpret the idea. Over the last year, people have been sending me photos of their work, which is awesome. Because that’s at the root of what quilting is: a community endeavor. It’s not something you make alone. People sit around, talk and get outside of their homes. Sewing circles traditionally produced commemorative pieces for big community events like a wedding or a death. Amish mourning quilts, for example, are so simple, but you feel the emotional weight. When I was a kid, I saw one that was completely black with just this one blue square. It was beautiful, abstract art with a clear emotional context. I wondered, Did she make it alone? Did the community make it for her?
Quilts are such interesting design objects. They have a use function but they’re also bought and displayed as art. So they rest in this uneasy territory of historical artifact, everyday object, art piece…