Hanging with Bee, playing LIFE, and listening to the B-52s…
Hanging with Bee, playing LIFE, and listening to the B-52s…
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I am not really sure what I am going to write tonight; I just know that I need to write. And not just write, but write to someone, everyone; the real need is to write words that I know someone out there will read. My footing in the world is shaky right now, for more reasons that I could possibly count. I’m once more feeling that disconcerting distance between me and my body, that unnerving sensation of being within ones body rather than actually inhabiting it. My brain, too, feels as though enveloped by a miasmatic aether.
With my studio essentially shut down for the past month as the family and I have been packing up the old house and moving to our new home ten miles down the road I have been feeling adrift. All of the frustration with the world, the anger at the ubiquitous injustices that normally went into new quilts has been left to run rampant in this complicated tangle of neurons inside my head. Though you’ve never been inside my head, from the years of posts here you just might have a sense of what a dark and dangerous place it can be. Even temporarily constrained it easily becomes and unbearable place.
As you might guess, the days since the election have not been the best time to be unable to dive into new work. As I walk the sidewalks surrounding our new home I feel a resonant distance between me and the world, as though I am not quite in it, or of it. This election seems to have been less about policy than worldview, and what has emerged as the dominant worldview in this country is one I cannot quite fathom, one that is more of Hobbes than Locke, more tribal than social. Quite honestly, I don’t know how to exist in this world. I know what to do, how to resist it and challenge it, but that is different from living within it, surrounded by it. Now my every footfall feels as though it lands upon an alien landscape, a world fraught with impending danger. The fact that I will likely remain insulated from the impending refashioning of the world offers me no solace. While just what shall happen remains unknown, even now I grieve as the first hints arrive. Tonight I grieve for the future, for a world in which swastikas desecrate Adam Yauch Park. And tomorrow I will undoubtedly grieve over yet another desecration of the world I used to know.
Though these past weeks have brought me to a place of coming to terms with a new relationship to the quilt world, one less engaged with the industry and more involved with the community, I feel little else than uncertainty about just how to exist. I suppose that is to be expected as understanding seeps in that my sense of the world as fundamentally benign with outcroppings of injustice was merely a façade, a tissue-thin lens that only my privilege supported for so many years.
I suppose that is why I feel this dislocation so acutely; to put it simply I do not know what to do. While I can, and will, continue to affect what I can, that all seems so small in the face of a world so rife with base mandates. If you have followed my writings here or in the pages of Quilters Newsletter you have likely noticed that my anger, my critiques, are all predicated upon a fundamental utopianism. So much of my life has relied on the idea that words matter, are important, but in this rising tide of (white) nationalism, that premise feels merely quaint, an archaism of the Enlightenment, a matter of clinging desperately to a rock rapidly transforming to silt.
Yet even these words feel profoundly self-indulgent, a sadness that only underscores the enormity of my privilege, an anger so fundamentally bourgeois. Indeed, what do quilts matter in this world? Further still what do I matter? Honestly, I just don’t know; yet I still cling to something, some reason for continuing to resist, to hold on to a hope. More than ever I turn to my children, to Matilda Grace and Simon Thaddeus, in hopes that they may do what I have been unable, that what K and I teach them now might lead them to find a way to build the world I have always wished to give them, that they and everyone deserves.
I suppose that is truly the crux of my sorrow: the truth that my forty-four years have thus far been a failure, that the world is turning ever further from the ideals I hold so dear.
When it comes right down to it, the entire quilt industry is predicated upon this one idea: that the greatest pursuit in the craft is to make our quilts ever more precise, ever closer to some platonic ideal of flawless seams, identical stitches, and flawless fabrics. In many ways it seems self-evident for this to be our aspiration, thus making the multitude of manufacturers our benevolent assistants providing endless aids to this glorious goal. On the other hand, this seemingly simple idea, when examined, may carry some troubling implications.
Historically speaking, very few quilts even approached the standard of perfection that is so prevalent in the quilting world today. This is as much a byproduct of simple need as it is a result of the material realities of the past, the tools available to quilters before the advent of rotary cutters and infinitely complex machinery. While our 19th century forebears were undoubtedly practiced in all of the requisite skills for making a quilt (far more so than almost any of us today), the simple truths of the westward migration imposed extraordinary requirements. The vast majority of quilts were not intended to be heirlooms; rather they fulfilled the basic need for warmth. So much of the 19th century quilting lexicon is a result of reinventing a tradition to suit the needs of pioneer life.
While our museums may be filled with quilts that demonstrate exquisite technical mastery, the view of quilting seen there is largely a matter of happenstance, the result of what quilts have survived. That vast tradition of quickly made patchwork is largely lost to us, subjected to the vicissitudes of daily use or discarded in the decades that followed the emergence of plentiful manufactured blankets. What we see today is largely a matter of what has been preserved. Furthermore, in the years following the Great American Quilt Revival there was an extraordinary emphasis on displaying those remaining exemplars of the tradition, which then established an outsized role for technical perfection and aesthetic idealism within the quilting world.
But that is only part of the story, what we might call the benign factors in the rise of the cult of perfectibility. If quilting today were still a material, practical necessity, a very different industry would have emerged. Instead quilting re-emerged in the 80s, following the Great America Quilt Revival around the American bicentennial, as a hobby, something aimed at middle- and upper-middle-class women, a leisure-time activity now that so much of the domestic realm was becoming increasingly automated. Certainly, many quilters had a more intimate connection to the practice, but in the years between the Second World War and the quilt revival, two generations of (primarily) women lost their connection to quilts, especially in urban and suburban environments.
So, as an industry emerged to support this newly ascending hobby a marketing model was required to capitalize on this newfound interest in quilts. And this is where the whole venture takes a dark turn…
The transformation of a fading practice into an industry requires an impetus for economic expenditure, a reason to buy. And it is not enough to simply establish a rationale for initial outlays; an industry requires ongoing consumption to survive. Here is where perfectibility steps in as an ideal marketing model: proficiency is no longer enough when nothing short of the ideal is regarded as authentic. As each newly converted quilter progresses within the craft, ever more sophisticated techniques, tools, and equipment become seen as necessary. Thus the industry established an endless economy of the upgrade allowing for the production and valuing of more advanced (and expensive) supplies, both as facilitators of perfection and as (more and more) status symbols.
The tools of the craft rapidly became signifiers of commitment to the craft as well as demonstrations of ability; “real” quilters used only the best in materials, notions, and machines. A hierarchy emerged with show quilts at the apex, just as a parallel hierarchy of economic capability arose. The outlay of money in this kind of system becomes a shorthand for value, worthiness. The proximity to perfection stands as the measuring stick of quality regardless of meaning, sentiment, social or personal context. In this shift to precision we see not only an effective marketing strategy, but the rise of an associated register of worth, both in terms of the quilts we make and who we are.
And here we begin to see the truly troubling, and potentially destructive, implications of the idea of perfectibility. The fact that our quilts come up short of perfection is no longer a material inevitability, it is a shortcoming, a failing. Not only are our quilts not good enough, we are not good enough. Material flaws become reflections of our own flaws, our inadequacies. Furthermore, our inability to afford the requisite compliment of tools and devices to attain technical perfection becomes a signifier of even greater inadequacy, a reiteration of the moral assumptions surrounding economic status in America. But there is so much more to this…
While need is a valuable motivator, and desire is better still, there has yet to be found a better marketing strategy than shame. As material imperfection becomes increasingly associated with personal failing within the quilt world economy (misaligned seams representing a lack of regard for the tradition or a signifier of incompetence) the already insipid institution of desire shifts toward a fear of embarrassment.
While the quilting community over the past decade has been abuzz with concerns over the idea of the quilt police, the hierarchy that creates such a situation is purely a result of a redefinition of quilts following from the economic imperatives of an industry. What may have started as an expedient driver of continuing consumption is now something entirely different, an economy predicated upon the profound and essential dehumanization of the members of the community the industry purportedly supports.
The transformation of imperfection into inadequacy inevitably takes on a profoundly anti-feminist dimension within the context of a practice predominantly regarded as the purview of women; the institutionalization of inadequacy within the quilt world reveals itself as deeply, and darkly, demeaning. As the quilt industry increasingly relies upon tropes of making quilting simple, it reveals an exquisitely tailored message to prey upon the viciously dual obligation that now presses upon the psyches of women across the country: that they must be simultaneously strong and submissive, capable yet less so than the men in their lives. At its core, the imperative of perfection and the impossibility of achieving it is a perfect analogue for the impossible position women occupy in American society writ large.
As such, the quilt industry reveals itself as preying upon this fear of inadequacy, and further relying on a fundamental infantilization of the women it claims to support. The premise of inadequacy always encompasses more than a simple lack of technical expertise; it both implicitly and explicitly carries the implication of a lack of maturity, the insinuation of being lesser, incomplete, and ultimately inferior. Despite the façade of encouraging individuality and creativity, the essential foundation of the industry – with its patterns and notions, machinery and technical adjudications – is dependent upon the idea that we quilters (more often than not, women) are inherently insufficient. If perfection is the ideal, none of us can ever be good enough. Even in the face of endless expenditure we nevertheless remain flawed, a state that inevitably requires further expenditure.
As I used to teach my design students back in my previous life as a professor, when crafting a message, we need to be just as aware of the unintended consequences as of the intended content. The ongoing sale of quilt patterns requires a space in which both math and design are framed as being too difficult for the vast majority of quilters. Selling the widest possible array of notions necessitates a space in which the methods used by the countless quilters that came before are simply too complicated for our meager capabilities. Indeed, that originating premise of perfectibility leads to a whole set of related propositions that ceaselessly replicate the assertion that we are not good enough. So, in the end, the question of whether these messages are intentional or not is entirely beside the point, though the industry is certainly replete with deeply anti-feminist messages.
The “Husbands Lounge” at Quilt Festival is simply a rehashing of the sit-com trope of the reluctant husband in tow as his wife is frivolously (in the husband’s mind) shopping. The “Big Girl Block” contest may have been intended as a simple reference to large scale blocks, but that phrase is so fraught with implications that I find it remarkable (or want to) that it was even proposed let alone actually came to fruition. Indeed, the entire array of humor surrounding the theme of quilters hiding their fabric purchases from their husbands is a staple in the quilt world, despite the fact that is clearly relies on seeing women as economically (and morally, since they clearly have no self-control) dependent on men.
Ultimately, though, the simple truth about the quilt industry is that perfectibility, and all of its ancillary implications, is its sole reason for existing. If that were stripped away the entire structure would collapse. This doesn’t mean people wouldn’t make quilts, just that there would be no need for the quilting industry. And this is the ultimate sleight-of-hand maneuver that the industry has performed: even as we are presented Amish Quilts, the quilts from Gee’s Bend, and so many other clearly imperfect quilts as exemplars of the practice, we are simultaneously sold a bill of goods that tells us that we must follow along the path toward perfection. It is only within an industry in which we have internalized the act of judging every quilt we make as though it were a show quilt – as if showing were the primary purpose of a quilting – that we could accept so many anti-feminist positions and still keep coming back for more.
There are so many things I could write today. I could share the emotional impact of last night or my very real concerns about specific issues that will likely impact Matilda’s life directly, and Simon’s more subtly. I could write of my concern for my brother if the ACA is indeed repealed or for myself should our insurance ever lapse (the pre-existing condition exclusion, if applied, would be a death sentence for me). I could address policy or the personal, microanalysis or the meta. But right now I find myself struck by the similarities between last night and what is going on in the quilt world right now.
More than anything I see the results of last night as hinging upon a question of time, specifically which way we as a nation are looking. The implicit, and often explicit, narrative of the Trump campaign is to return to a time when America was great, while the Clinton campaign focused on taking this moment in our national reality as a starting point for developing answers and solutions to the multitude of new issues that we face. Certainly I could spend hours writing about the profound social implications that lie beneath the surface of returning to an idealized past (that of the 50s and early 60s) that could be prosperous for white, male America only because so many (women, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, etc.) were denied so many rights. But right now that is all too fresh, too real to put into words. And within that fog of concern I keep returning to the poignancy of time and how that is playing out in my professional space, the quilting world.
The quilting community seems to be replete with dissatisfaction right now. That connection to, and excitement about the industry that seemed so immense just five years ago seems to have given way to a deepening sense that the quilting industry is not speaking to, not producing for the quilters that make up this community.
For most of the modern history of quilting (which I date back to the Great American Quilt Revival around the Bicentennial in 1976) quilt shops were centers for the quilting community, the primary, if not the only, means of interacting with the quilt industry. What existed in your local shop was essentially the whole of the quilt world for most quilters. With the advent of online communities, and even more importantly social media, information about what was happening and being produced began flowing differently, bypassing quilt shops, offering the vastness of the quilt world to quilters and potential quilters the world over. Furthermore, this new media reality facilitated communities that were not defined by geographical happenstance, and this fact more than anything else spurred on the rise of the Modern Quilt Guild.
Almost instantly quilt shops, with their limited number of shelves and square feet, shifted from feeling like an open window to feeling extraordinarily small. In the face of that vast world of possibility now so immediately visible online, shops simply could never be big enough, could never replicate the expansiveness of the quilting world as it was now seen.
And with this new, extraordinarily broad perspective, a whole generation of new quilters entered the community, and then stepped into the industry. The slow decline that was already underway was forestalled and the quilting world grew. After initial trepidation, the industry dove headlong in attempting to supply this new audience and embraced countless paths and possibilities. Fueled by blogs and social media, a whole new wave of creativity entered the market, but there was a deep and fundamental problem: all of this new energy still had to be routed through the conventional economic and distribution systems on which the industry relied.
And here we confront the essential structural incompatibility that lies at the core of the quilting industry. The quilting community is not in fact the constituency that the quilting industry is concerned with; they are selling to retailers and must satisfy that audience. I will be writing about the implications of this reality at length in the days to come, but for the moment I can frame the problem this creates quite simply: So much of the quilting community is getting its information about what is coming and what is possible online, while quilts shops are dealing with the material constraints of a pre-internet distribution system.
As more and more quilters shifted away from their local shops in this widely expanded quilting universe, shop owners were confronted with some very real decisions on the directions they would take.
(It is important to note here that I don’t think shops were losing customers simply to lower prices online, especially because, once shipping was added in, the price difference was frequently negligible. The biggest effect of the internet on shops was that it demonstrated just how small a slice of the available fabric any one shop could possibly stock.)
In the face of declining sales, many shop owners had to make a single, yet all-encompassing, decision: Should they shift their emphasis to significantly reach out to this wave of new quilters, or should they redouble their efforts to support and supply their existing, and most reliable customers? And it is here that the fundamental issue of time and direction comes into play. An overwhelming majority of shops that existed at the time made the perfectly logical and rational decision, in many cases the only possible decision, but that choice has played out in profound ways.
In focusing on past and existing customers, the these shops directed their attention backward, looking for lessons in what had sold, what had been successful, in short what had worked in years past. I do not think this turn to the past was an ideological decision, but one of efficacy, of economics. But in doing so, shop owners and the industry that supplied them implicitly turned away from the manifold motivations behind the incoming generations of quilters. What I saw five years ago, at the peak of the modern wave, was not a new generation of hobbyists, but a manifestation of a resurgent DIY movement, that same energy that brought about an explosion of Maker Faires around the country.
That simple shift back toward existing customers opened up a rift in the quilting community that has led to a continuing drift away from industry engagement. The industry now needed an increasing supply of specialized tools, mass-culture fabrics (look at the increasing reliance on licensing designs from outside of the quilt world), and machines with an ever-increasing array of. They needed more things for long-time quilters to add to their quilting arsenals. This is simply an economic reality when the retail focus is on long-standing customers; these quilters already have the basic supplies.
Add into this business reality the changes in credential requirements for Quilt Market that no longer admitted bloggers as members of the press, and a nearly perfect storm arose. You see, those bloggers were a major source of connection to what was happening in the industry for the online community, for those quilters whose eyes had been opened to the full scope of the quilting world. With the credential change that link was severed, along with untold value in free advertising, marketing, and feedback from the community back to the industry. Even as this increasingly large online quilting world was solidifying, the quilt industry severed its most meaningful tie to the audience who came to quilting outside of the structure of a quilt shop.
And thus we end up here: a vast number of shops holding on to their past and existing clientele, the industry increasingly focused on its direct, most immediate customers (the shops), and a whole segment of the quilting community suffering from whiplash as what had once seemed so large, so open to possibility, became suddenly small. And now here we sit, with a vast energy in the community that does not seek products, but connections, not perfection, but intimacy. And hence a spiral begins, each of these realities feeding off of the other, with an industry ever more tied to past successes that no longer reflect the current community, fighting to hold on to what they once had, but in doing so relinquishing what might be, and with that a sustainable future.
Five years ago the community and the industry felt intimately entwined, but now they seem quite simply at odds, as if they were parts of entirely different realms, coexistent, but fixedly separated. The end result is that we are all the poorer for it, as the current overabundance we see coming from the quilting industry seems inevitably destined to become a paucity. Luckily the quilting community has spent much of its history in just that condition, and in the end I must hold on to the belief that the quilting community will again find ways to make do, to reinvent vocabularies, and return to the loving embrace of the meaning of quilts: that quilters will invent new paths to do the most good.
And with that I return full circle to last night. And it is here that I must hold on to the hope that compassion, expansiveness, and generosity will, at the end of the day, win out. And until that day I will wake each morning with the words Do The Most Good ringing true as my first thought of the day.