Thinking About ‘Primitive’

On a quiltart post this week someone asked about links to fibre artists working with  primitive style stitching in their art.  Of course, it all depends what you think of as ‘primitive’.   In the mind of a quilter, does this mean switching attention to a thick thread and sewing large stitches with a big needle? or is it something more? I suggested to just either take up a needle and thread and begin doodling on a cloth, (sample making) or thinking of each line as a straight stitch (the quintessential primitive stitch) begin making pencil marks on paper in various combinations and patterns – in other words, to just get started.

But I also suggested the quilter do a bit of thinking about what she considered the essence of  ‘primitive’ and think about what she wanted to do with primitive style stitching in her work.  The suggestions were well received by the original writer on this subject, but further comments from others set me thinking  about what I myself see as the essence of primitive.  As some more links rolled in from others on the list, a number of artists were suggested  and although I love their works I wouldn’t describe as them as primitive in the way the original questioner seemed to be thinking.   So then I got into a dictionary and then wikpedia,  and found the whole field an overlapping zone of confusing definitions bringing in terms such as rudimentary, primordial, untrained, naive, folk art , ‘primitivism’ – covering everything from art to anthropology and biology, none especially connected to stitchery but a good starting point for considering art through stitch.  People began to talk about several ethnic embroidereries employing running stitches,  such this oneuntitled squares on squares a work which I have not given a title to yet despite it being 3 years old and twice exhibited….

untitled squares on squares detail 

This next one is “Desert Tracks 3”

Desert Tracks 3 copy 

desert tracks 3 detail

And next is “Desert Tracks 5”

Desert Tracks 5 copy



detail desert tracks 5

So, although I didn’t have  ‘primitive’  in my mind when I was doing these pieces 2-3 years ago, perhaps that was part of my purpose.  I am not a great journaller and so didn’t record  much about them at the time apart from thinking of them in terms of ‘tracks’ left across surfaces.  


But in relation to the untitled one, I was really focusing on the very very basic pattern of a square within a square, primordial not just o early patchwork patterns but primoridal in a human design sense; and in that context I wanted to present it as ‘unskilled’  – one of the terms I found comes up in the plethora of words surrounding ‘primitive’ in the dictionary.  Now that I think about that, this does have more than a touch of the primitive about it.  Anyway, regardless of my largely unrecorded contemporaneous thoughts, they all certainly  influenced the development of  more recent works, which you can explore in the Tracks gallery on

Another point that was discussed recently was how looking back over your work, and also writing about it, can give new insights even when you think you know or knew it well at the time.

One Response to “Thinking About ‘Primitive’”

  1. Pat Pauly says:

    Alison, each time I read your notes and postings I admire your careful and insightful thoughts. Here, when you speak about the expressive stitch, which looks unskilled compared to our traditional tight quilted stich, I have to pause to deal with that additional mark on the surface. I would love to just seal the pieced top to its layers beneath, as I enjoy the top with no marks. So, I am always at odds with that hand-mark of the additional stiching. Some fiber artists can do it so beautifully, like Judith Plotner. I can’t seem to do it well. But thank you for bringing the topic to the front again.
    Pat Pauly

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