Tuesday, December 4, 2012


(Photo: crazy quilt of my life and travels)

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” ~ Aristotle

Amidst the laws of nature in the scientific field of study called “complexity” (termed the “science of the 21st Century” by Stephen Hawking) is the phenomenon of emergence.  Emergence can be explained as complex patterns and behaviors arising from simple parts combined in various ways. It is the innovative combination and recombination of simple building blocks which become more complex than the original entity. Examples familiar to many would be flocks of birds or schools of fish moving as one organism in graceful yet random patterns; ant colonies consisting of individual ants, each with simple tasks, together creating organized and complex habitats; global metropolitan cities with ever changing demographics; the stock market with its complex unpredictability and organized chaos; hurricanes devastating coastline communities or fizzling over the ocean; complex computer technology developing from a simple language of “0” and “1”;  and atoms combining into a molecule (i.e., hydrogen and oxygen becoming water) possessing amazing properties unlike either atom.  Also, unlike an organization of individuals that has a leader at the top—like the conductor of an orchestra or a general in a battle—emergence systems operate from the bottom up. No one bird in a flock or fish in a school guides the group, although there appears to be a few rules they do follow—keep going the same direction, don't get too close or too far, and get out of the way of danger. The individuals can adapt, evolve, encourage and reorganize ever-increasing diversity and complexity in patterns and behavior. If this subject fascinates you as much as it does me, there is a book written by John Holland, a professor of psychology as well as computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, titled Emergence: From Chaos to Order that may be worth your time.

I ponder the concept of emergence in relationship to food and art. Put five or six common ingredients together (butter, flour, cream cheese, eggs, vanilla, and sugar), bake for one hour and you have created a cheesecake worthy of rave. Add together random strokes, splatters or drips of various paint colors on a canvas and it could be as exciting as a Jackson Pollock. Combine small scraps of colored fabric (which in and of themselves are too small to have a purpose) and sewn together, they become a quilt offering warmth, cover and design.  The many combinations in patchwork (piecing fabrics together) are mathematical and magical. From random crazy quilts to geometric Amish designs (such as square within a square) the concept of emergence is made evident.  A quilter can take a simple square and recombine it in so many variations and colors that it defies its original simplicity. It becomes quite complex, and I love that.

My Amish style quilt of simple squares and rectangles

Recently, I acquired bags of fabric scraps at a textile fair (Tactile Textile Arts Center) and was inspired to create something useful. Design ideas began emerging from simple squares and rectangles, it was plain fun! Researching on the internet for patchwork patterns, I discovered five wonderful blogs/websites that were inspirational in helping me. In the interest of sharing here they are:

  • Mama Love Quilts – Nicole is a brilliant textile artist! I am in awe of her creativity and color sense.
  • Quilt Story – Two sisters, Heather and Meagan, share their creations in a homey welcoming way.
  • Fave Quilts – a website dictionary of designs and ideas for quilters.
  • Quiltville – Bonnie is a master at putting scraps together and making do!
  • Piecemeal Quilts – Sandi finds the art of cutting up fabric into little pieces and then recombining them a joy.  
Botanically inspired fabric squares sewn into a simple quilt.

On an emotional level, I find a heartwarming metaphor of emergence woven into each human being similar to the craft of patchwork quilting.  Random pieces and parts of ourselves (both colorful and plain) can combine into complex more creative aspects of ourselves and something more useful. The human brain contains billions of neurons and each individual neuron connects with 10,000 other neurons; this makes for incredible complexity. Interestingly, a computer element generally only has contact with 10 other elements. It is possible that human consciousness arose from the complexity of these neuron interactions, where no single neuron is in charge. I believe we all are a complex patchwork of the Universe’s purpose. Truly, our whole is greater than the sum of our parts.

Holland, John. Emergence: From Chaos to Order. Paperback. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1998. Print. 

Quilting websites and blogs