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Do You Swirl? A Clever Hack for Photographing Quilts

People who have never tried to photograph a quilt probably think it’s easy. Unlike toddlers and pets, quilts don’t move when you’re trying to take a picture. But they are tricky buggers nonetheless.

In order to capture the entirety of a quilt properly, one needs to shoot directly into the center of the thing. Otherwise, it won’t look square. This is why the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, has a special photography room with a cut-out in the ceiling up to the next floor: A telescoping mechanism inside allows them to raise and lower a camera overhead to capture any size quilt laid out on the table below it. I’ve done some serious gymnastics trying to duplicate the results, sometimes by lying flat on my dining room table and scooching over the edge with my camera to photograph a quilt on the floor. But that only works with small quilts; I can’t hover 20 feet above a quilt like the museum’s cameras.

As someone who both makes and writes about quilts, I’ve been obsessed with how to photograph them for years. I even developed a lecture called Better Quilt Photos NOW. And as a staff writer for Quiltfolk magazine since Issue 8 (that was 18 issues ago), I’ve personally witnessed our team photographing quilts on everything from cars to hay bales (Michigan), horses (Kentucky), and rock formations (Utah)—among other diverse objects. Our photographers always pack a clothesline so that they can shoot a quilt among the trees. And a bedsheet so that they can drape quilts over whatever landscapes and edifices present themselves, without dirtying the fabric. They keep finding clever new ways to drape quilts, whether over furniture or the arms of the makers.

A vintage Crazy quilt, made by Karen Lieberman’s grandmother and her cousin, complements a 1966 Mustang. Photo by Melanie Zacek.
A vintage Pinwheel quilt, photographed as the sun sets over a Michigan hay field. Photo by Melanie Zacek.
Sue Marshal's Star quilt with American Saddlebred M.J. Photo by Melanie Zacek.

Introducing the Swirl (or Twist)!

All that to say, I never stop looking for fresh ways to photograph my own quilts, and I recently found a nifty hack on social media that has come in very handy. Some people call it a “swirl” and others call it a “twist,” but the idea is to smooth a quilt out flat on the floor or ground, then grab the center and rotate it vigorously clockwise. Doing this allows you to stand near the center and shoot straight down because the quilt takes up less space.

Machine pieced and hand quilted snowball and nine patch quilt (c. 1920) made for Lois B. Graf of Wisconsin by her aunt. Photo by Breanna Briggs.

And I love playing with the aesthetic. It gives the quilt a graphic look and a flowy feel. Like soft ice cream piled on a cone, it comes to a pleasing peak surrounded by dreamy folds. It makes a quilt look more active, less passive.

Although I’ve mostly seen people twirl modern quilts, I’ve found the technique a lifesaver on occasions when I needed to photograph vintage quilts. Most recently, I was moderating a panel for a Textile Talk on Zoom, talking to curators and historians about how to label a vintage quilt whose maker is unknown. I wanted to ask the experts how to label two quilts I own: one that I purchased and another passed down through my family. Both are full-size quilts made by “Anonymous.” I didn’t have time to properly load them onto a quilt stand, set up lights, take a photo, and then crop out the background. I was looking for the “quick and dirty” fix that would give them, and the viewing audience, a good enough look to make some conclusions.

So, I twirled both those babies, and I came up with pleasing photos that met my needs. I purposely shot my photos so that the edges of the quilts didn’t show. That was especially helpful in the case of my family quilt, which has some yellowing in the borders. (My advice to you: Don’t buy a quilt, especially an antique, without seeing photos that show every inch.)

An anonymous vintage quilt owned by Meg Cox.
An anonymous vintage quilt owned by Meg Cox.

A Trending Technique

It is a fool’s errand trying to pinpoint the origins of social media photo trends, but quilt designer Suzy Williams of SuzyQuilts.com thinks this took off when Instagram got popular with quilters. “I think this started on Instagram with people posting multiple images of the same quilt,” she told me. “You want viewers to have the urge to almost reach through the phone and touch that quilt. You have to show the texture and drape. The flat lay of a quilt doesn’t capture that.”

As a busy designer and mom, Suzy said she also thinks this clever trick is born out of the need for speed. “You don’t always have time to drive to the beach or hike into the woods to grab a gorgeous image of your latest quilt,” she said. “You need a way to ‘bang, bang,’ get a dynamic image that shows it off,” and this is one of her go-to ways to “pose” a quilt.

In January, Suzy posted a video on Instagram where she demonstrated her three favorite ways to style quilts for photos, and her twist was one of them. She said she demonstrated it with her Maypole quilt in part because that quilt was inspired by an actual maypole, “and I wanted to show the quilt in motion.” Click here to see the Instagram reel showing the twist and her other two favorite quilt poses.

Another proponent of this maneuver is quilt designer Emily Dennis over at the Quilty Love blog. Emily was a professional photographer before she took up quilting, and in 2017, she posted a terrific tutorial on her blog called “How to Take Photos of Quilts: 10 Photos You Should Take.” After the first 10, she couldn’t help herself and added a couple bonus concepts, including the twirl I’ve described, which she calls “swirling it up.” Here is a link to that excellent photo tutorial.

Click here to Suzy Williams' Instagram reel showing the twist and her other two favorite quilt poses.
Click here to see Emily Dennis' excellent photo tutorial.

Obviously, there are times when this approach won’t work, like when you need to take one of those all-over formal portraits required to enter your quilt in a contest. And it works much better on a quilt that has a repeat design so that you aren’t obscuring some of its glory when you twist it.

But I’m excited to add this to my quilt photo toolbox, and I wanted to share it with others. Will you give it a whirl?

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