Backs Do Matter

A  recent discussion on SAQA grew out of a member posting for advice on whether to use knots and how to hide them so they aren’t visible on the back.  There were lots of good replies.

But then came the broader question of  whether to even bother about neatening backs at all, since people don’t see the back of a wall or framed work, do they?  Some art quilt exhibitions do hang some of their works in such a way that people can walk around them, as much for maximizing available space as anything else, but the feeling is that messy backs determine that some quilts will always be hung against a wall. Period. Unsurprising, because in my possibly old fashioned view, although you can’t see it, the quality of craftmanship applies to the whole object, not just what is visible, and to this I would add that the craftsmanship should be appropriate for the overall integrity of the work.

I got it that backs do matter ever since polishing the backs of my brass Brownie and Girl Guide badges from around 8 years of age.   In 1957 hand embroidered doilies, table mats and similar items were a popular craft for girls – my grandmothers both embroidered so it was inevitable zs I learned from them and Mum that I became caught up this craze.

I am very proud of this first pic, showing LH the back, and RH  the front, of a doiley  I embroidered in 1957, aged 10-11. I remember loving this project, for which I chose the pre-stamped design, carefully stitched, and then crocheted the edge.

doily back and front grade 5

It miraculously survived years of my indifference to it in Mum’s linen collection where I found it and seized it up during the process of closing down her house and contents after her death, many years ago. Try to ignore the stain which I don’t plan to try to remove – washing hasn’t shifted it down the years.  However the stain is a marker that proves the authenticity of my claim that the left side of this pic is the back and the exact reverse of the front side on the right. The workmanship has withstood the  test of time and use.  I’m quietly amazed when I think of the age, 10-11, at which I produced this impeccably finished embroidery – definitely a child of a long gone era.    I clearly bought the ‘backs matter’ concept  very young, and they’ve continued to matter for everything I have ever produced, practical or ornamental there’s no difference to me.

Timetracks 7 copy blog

This theory on craftsmanship might seem to have gone out the window when I made this work, “Timetracks 7”, above, which made it into Quilt National 2009.  But it’s consistent with other works in my “Tracks” series, which has to do with decay on every surface and is metaphorical for Life, in effect.   The techniques I use there include leaving threads hanging, ripping, burning, melting, gathering, folding and more.  So, neatness has no place here – as Life and decay are not tidy processes, either.

Timetracks 7 edge close up blog

The next pic is the overall back view, and the one criticism I have on this work  is that the craftsmanship on the back is inconsistent with that of the object overall.   For the sake of sending it off to Quilt National when it was accepted, I removed the ripped piece of fabric I’d basted on roughly and quickly on for the photography to go with my entry, and added a ‘normal’ sleeve, carefully sewn on to my usual standard. My rationale was it needed to stand up to the rigors of touring, but, really, I could have done ‘better’ -I could  have made and attached a really rough-looking torn sleeve that was actually carefully attached  and at the same time one not likely to give way ever  … and come to think of it, I might do that next time I take it down.

Timetracs 7 back features

When you look at the two detail shots below you’ll see what I mean – there are wonky lines, little pleats caught up in the machining, and, OMG – what are those swirly marks on the back in only some parts of the grid?       It’s glue – I glued patches of leather onto the base fabric before covering all that with layers of ruched nylon organza and then burning through all the layers.   I did agonise over applying a false back – but decided that would be inconsistent and a total pain anyway.  So why did I focus on the hanging sleeve?  Maybe I thought of it being for ‘hanging’ and therefore not as a part of the actual art work.  Perhaps that is so, but under the heading of ‘craftsmanship’ it is inconsistent.

Timetracks 7 back detailTimetracks 7 edge close up blog

For the record

  • when hand quilting I use a knot and bury it in the layers – using my needle to wiggle a room in the weave for the knot to pass through, then close the weave using the needle tip.
  • Machine quilting –  without turning the quilt over, each time I stop I clip top thread about 7cm-10cm, then reach under the quilt, find the bobbin threadsnip it to a similar length and from the  top pull it up onto the front/top.  Tie and put both through a large eyed needle, head back down that hole, travel them for an inch or two, bring to the surface and snip.  The work of a few seconds, and all without needing to turn the quilt over  or wrestle with it generally.

11 Responses to “Backs Do Matter”

  1. Kit Lang says:

    I read your thoughts with great interest (I’m on the SAQA group too); and I both agree and disagree with you.

    When you are making (artisan) craft, or possibly even fine-art craft – indeed, the backs *do* matter. Certainly in embroidery (I remember as a child my mother urging my sisters to make their embroidery backs as neat as their fronts [I myself was much more interested in sewing and other crafts so didn’t participate in the embroidery lesson}) and I admit to having a somewhat snobbish response to embroidery that doesn’t have a “good” back.

    It’s also why (on the rare occasions when I use it) I call what I do “hand stitch” and not embroidery. First of all, IMO, it isn’t “embroidery” and as hand-stitch, I don’t have to worry about the “embroidery police”!

    Similarly, if I’m making a quilt, I make sure my backs are as tidy as possible, that bindings are even, straight and neatly sewn, and that it all looks ship-shape.

    But when I’m making art, I don’t worry about the backs. I’m not making a quilt – and therefore, the backs don’t apply. Nobody flips over a painting and critiques the back of it, nor do they flip over a sculpture and make sure that the bottom meets some arbitrary standard set by crafts people.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t bury my knots, and if a back is looking as if a crazed five year old was sewing, I will make a false back; but for the most part, I don’t worry about what the back looks like. It’s not a quilt.

    Your mileage obviously varies. 🙂

  2. Sue Kaufman says:

    Hi Alison, thanks for continuing the thread knotting conversation a bit further. I have actually considered doing a knot-making photo shoot for my blog, but really, I need a third hand? Plus, except to the very new sewers among us, knotmaking is an auto pilot move and everyone has a variation, I bet. I agree with both you and Kit, that there are more or less appropriate times for carefulness, according to the nature of the work. Kit, I use an embroidery method on one of my most used knots, but I don’t consider that move as embroidery. For me, seeing no thread end anywhere adds to the delight and mystery of the whole crafted object that a quilt is. Maybe it is also in the approach? If you had art first you might see those actions in a different light altogether than if you sewed as a child to adult specifications. I love that there is no real answer.

  3. Allison, I agree with your concept and appreciate you putting the thought into such a well done post. So many people today think if a work of art takes too long, or too much effort they shouldn’t make it. I’m just over that whole attitude. Who made speed the most important element? Why shouldn’t a person use good workmanship, good design and pay attention to their muse while making sure they use whatever care is needed for their medium! Thank goodness the great painters prepared their paint and canvasses and knew how to use their chosen medium so that their work lasted. Thanks
    LeeAnna Paylor at not afraid of color

  4. Robbi Eklow says:

    Oddly enough, I just read this after spending an hour in silence hand stitching a facing down on my quilt. I also took some time to bury some threads on the front. It was meditative.

    I used to fuse all of my bindings, this is a new thing for me.

    I do think that the back of the quilt should look good. When I was taking a ceramics glass at a studio run by four professors at Loyola University, they told me that the underside of the pot should be neatly done. In fact, creating the proper bottom of my small pots was a pleasure to do.

  5. Dori says:

    Not a quilter… backs of paintings don’t matter. Heck, sadly, most painters don’t think the sides of the canvas matter (and apparently many collectors agree as they sell). I stretch my art “quilts” myself (I don’t use prepped canvas) and make sure my SIDES look great, but as for the actual back, it is what it is – some other material, some interfacing, some stitchmarks from reinforcing the piece to the frame. I clean it up, but I don’t strive for it to look as perfectly finished as the front. After it’s hung, who sees it?

  6. Alison says:

    Kit – interesting POV, but I think intent of the maker comes into it. It seems there’s a world of difference between what you called ‘a quilt’ which I took to mean a bed quilt from how you phrased your comment – as opposed to an ornamental piece of quilted textile art, aka a wallquilt or what many would call an ‘art quilt’ perhaps?
    And, indeed, people don’t flip over paintings to look at the back because, usually there’s no point with only blank canvas there, anyway!

  7. Alison says:

    Sue – I’d come and be the third and even fourth hand any time – Montevideo’s a bit far away from wherever you are – I’ll check it out and see if my next trip to the US comes anywhere near you ….but seriously, do think about having someone help you get that video together – as you’ve probably been reading, there were several very good replies on options of how to deal with knots.

  8. Alison says:

    LeeAnna -I’m pretty quick at hand stitching – and have found that well done machine quilting, for example, takes about as long from go to whoa as does hand quilting – I love doing both. The point being that good quality craftmanship doesn’t necessarily mean something takes longer to make. I agree that there is so much emphasis on quickly done things today – hence the rise of the slow stitch movement; but speed and quality are not mutually exclusive, imho. Like Robbie discovering handsewing a binding can be meditative, I’ve always found that to be a pleasurable process, and don’t really understand how some people hate doing it so much as they say they do.

  9. Susan says:

    I was always taught from an early age (hand embroidery like Allison that the back should look as good as the front.

  10. Maggi says:

    I lean towards keeping the backs neat, especially if the piece is going to be a wall hanging as there are always people who want to see the back. Seems to be a throwback from traditional quilting. If I’m going to mount the pice on a box canvas I’m not always as careful with the back although I do bury the threads carefully on the front.

    Hand stitching a binding or facing is a must for me, it’s both therapeutic and gives me a sense of completion.

  11. Sylvia says:

    While people do not look at the back of paintings, the preciseness and neatness of the frame–the structure the painting is stretched upon does matter. some of the odd sized paintings are placed on a frame the painter either made himself or had made. If it is crooked or bowed and it is not intentional, for me it detracts from the piece.

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