Depression and the Quilt Industry…

I never should have gone to Quilt Market. The fact that my body was trembling, shaking really, for the entire week before heading to Houston should have been a clear warning. The fact that I was not nervous about doing a schoolhouse or a book signing, but was quite simply in a panic just at the prospect of being there, in the belly of the industry, ought to have served as a sign, with flashing neon lights and all, to take the first off ramp and cancel the trip.

But depression is an evil motherfucker. It doesn’t really have to do a thing, just sit there, just be there, and perhaps secretly put a thumb on the scales of reality. No lies needed, just the promise that something better is right around the corner if you can just hold on, push through, a little longer. It just has to tell you what you already want to hear, or more accurately, what the person that you are in the grips of depression wants to hear, knows to be true.

But perhaps I am sliding through too much too quickly, jumping straight to a shorthand that makes sense only to me, the person living inside my head. While my physical maladies have only made themselves apparent over the past eight years, chronic depression has been with me my entire adult life, and likely far longer. And over these past few years my depression has been spinning its most dangerous story: that it isn’t really there, that really it is my physical problems, my doubly rare illnesses, that explain everything and my perpetual downward spiral is simply a byproduct of inadequate medical care, or the vicissitudes of the quilting industry. And it is there that depression shows itself at its most pernicious, its endless ability to weave plausible truths, to perpetually revise the map to happiness with just one more corner to turn.

And here is the ultimate truth about depression: it always knows how to attach itself to your greatest vulnerability. As my path to some form of physical wellness, or at least a state of being less sick, becomes real, my personal demon quietly attached itself to my quilt industry aspirations. Or, to be precise, the idea that to have aspirations on that front was possible, reasonable, and just one puzzle piece away regardless of all evidence to the contrary.

Over the past six months I should have been in the process of accepting the fact that the quilt industry and I are simply diverging, that my investments in the quilting tradition might not be the best fit. As my physical health has improved I have had more time to actually make new quilts, which has led me back to my commitment to activist, or more specifically, agit-prop art. Any sane person should know that reverse appliqué AR-15s and quilting the names of victims of gun violence would not mix well with the mainstream quilting world, but my depression insisted that I could pull it off, make it work somehow despite years of experience pointing in just the opposite direction. But depression is a clever bastard and it knows just how to affect a maximum of damage.

You see, a career in the quilting industry has very little to do with quilts for me; it is a lifeline, a potential for having a life that extends beyond the four walls of our home, a possibility of making an economic contribution to the family, even if only to earn enough to put my beloved children through college without the burden of debt. Having lost my vocation, my life in academia to unremitting physical illness, this (at first) accidental journey into the quilt industry became a chance to once more do something meaningful, something that just might be important, to again have a professional life. May path through life has changed innumerable times over the years, but there has always been a single constant: an internal drive to have a positive impact, to speak necessary truths, to do something important. As long as I can remember I have had an instinctual understanding that I was capable to extraordinary things.

Like so many women that have approached the quilting industry I saw a possibility to recapture some semblance of a professional life after leaving the traditional workforce. It was not simply a hobby to fill time between home-life responsibilities, but a potential return to economic dignity, a sense of independence that comes from not being wholly reliant on the income of a partner. Clearly I could write thousands of words in a Marxist analysis of the horrors of the quilt industry and its dehumanizing tendencies, but that is beside the point here; what matters here is that my resident depression understood the stakes at hand, the countless layers of self-worth in play. Even if all of those understandings of self-worth are clearly predicated on false narratives of the self, those societal norms perpetually find a welcome home in depression’s embrace.

So, over the past six months I have kept pitching, sending emails, submitting proposals, trying again and again and again. And again and again I have failed. The reasons are irrelevant at the moment; what matters is that the rejections have piled up. And here again we encounter the brilliance of depression: accomplishments are fleeting, temporary, and rejections are permanent, successes are short-lived and failure is forever. This is not just depression speaking; it is reality. A career is contingent on a continuous stream of successes, so each successive failure is an interruption, a limiting of possible paths. This is the most powerful truth in depression’s arsenal.

Depression understands the numbers game all to well. While I ought to be exhilarated by having an exhibit at the IQSCM, the flood of fabric companies telling me that I lack marketability far outweighs that singular milestone. Having three quilts accessioned into the IQSCM’s permanent collection becomes irrelevant in the face of book proposals being deemed too difficult to sell. Depression in the face of absolute failure is easily recognizable, but it is in this ambiguous space between accomplishment and rejection that depression does its most devious work, hides itself most perfectly, and inflicts optimal harm. It is in this uncertain space that depression offers its most painful promise: the idea that happiness is just around the corner, that you just have to suppress all the pain just a little longer. But depression cannot be fought; it is too strong of a foe. It can only be dealt with when you fully accept that the entire narrative is wrong, that the next corner to be turned does not exist. Depression is an inescapable truth for those of us afflicted with its poison and the only way to confront it is to accept it, to see it. And in doing so you have no choice to recognize the limitations in front of you, the truth separated from depression’s power to string you along.

For all of these reasons I should have known better than to go to Market because this industry is simply toxic to me. As my physical illness has made my world smaller, confined me more and more to the four walls of my home, this industry that once held out promise of a life out there has only made my world feel that much smaller now that I am no longer part of it. Every unreturned inquiry, every proposal that meets initial success only to shift from conversation to ghosting (a sudden silence, refusal to reply) only enhances that sense of invisibility, irrelevance, insignificance. Every moment at Market became a manifest reminder of all the partners and people who no longer need me; every person who avoids eye contact, dismisses a greeting serves to chip away at my fragile dignity, that tremulous self-worth that depression has already carves so deeply into.

So, there will be no more fabric. The next book is not forthcoming. No more essays await publication. But the professional failure is beside the point; the residue of reality is all that matters now. Hope is replaced with suicidal ideation, fantasies of my physical illnesses suddenly taking a turn for the worse, shuffling me off this mortal coil at last. For those of use besieged by depression the moments of elation only set us up for ever more profound depths. And in the quilt industry my depression has found a perfect partner. The mere thought of another doomed proposal, a further reframing of an idea to better conform to the expectations of marketing and sales intensifies the dreams of death, an escape from the futility of trying.

Indeed, that is where my time in the quilt industry has brought me. While I hoped I would be freed from that overwhelming sense of self-loathing once I made it through my sojourn to Market, only the opposite is true. My absolute irrelevance to the industry that once held forth promise for me can be nothing more than a reminder of how much has been stripped away by illness and aspiration. My depression has so perfectly commingled with the mechanisms of exploitation so central to the quilt industry that its effects are inseparable. What seemed like infinite possibility just six months ago has all slipped away, and with that so has any sense of purpose, of optimism, of hope of overcoming these eight years of physical pain. And in that place depression has once more stepped in, filling all those empty spaces with an emptiness all the more profound.

It is here that depression springs its final trap: it at last proclaims its truth that no more corners exist, that there exist only the wall, that singular, perfect wall that pins you in so completely. And now I understand my folly, that fantasy of making a new life in an industry built on the exploitation of dreams. But now I am five years further down that downward spiral, weaker than ever for the experience. Those fleeting moments of recognition now ring hollow, reduced to economic terms that render them failures through the lens of profit and loss. As the final threads of connection to the industry snap the solitude feels ever more intense, perfectly underscoring the story depression daily writes across my body. But still, that evil motherfucker whispers the questions “what if?” And in doing so it strikes new scars, makes itself felt anew as it likely will with each new day, reducing my time in the quilt industry to nothing more than wreckage, the remaining bolts of fabric and left over books as monuments to a pain that cannot be erased.

I should have known better than to go to Quilt Market this time, because it truly is a dangerous place. For mine is story I have seen played out again and again in the quilt industry, and it is a story that has scarred a whole generation of quilters. But the fact that so many others have walked this same path with me offers no balm, does not assuage the hurt. I am but one more now wandering the wasteland, and that final anonymity only makes the cuts that much deeper.

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19 Responses to Depression and the Quilt Industry…

  1. 1
    Karen Seitz says:

    I’m so very sorry you are going through these experiences. Please know that many of us do not find you and your work irrelevant in the least. Please keep making art, no matter what media you use.

  2. 2
    Margaret says:

    A lovely, if difficult, essay. Thank you for sharing.

    I’ve been quilting as a hobby for almost two decades which means I started when quilting was at a very low point (the remaining shops were dying off) and have seen the explosion of recent growth. It was exciting at first, even though by the time things really took off my quilting skills had moved beyond the beginner stage.

    But the quilting industry seized on this and has driven it into the ground. I suppose that is what industries do, but it is depressing to see book after book of the same color palette, with the same “fresh” designs. It’s incredibly boring and limiting—a true fad. Sometimes it is hard to remember that it was initiated by true artists, and that their work remains interesting today, while their knock-offs are quickly forgotten.

    I hope you can continue to work as an artist in the quilting world. I enjoy your work and sense of humor.

    There are some revolutionaries to be found even in the most stodgy of quilt guilds.

    When my group was given militaristic fabric (printed with 12-inch seals for the air force, marines, etc.) for a quilting challenge to make a quilt of valor (a service project for the guild that year), I pushed them to make a “sunbonnet sue” quilt. That didn’t go over well. Then I thought an enormous peace sign would be clever (if a bit on point). That one failed, too. If they had argued that a quilt of valor isn’t the place to make a “challenging” quilt, I would have seen their point. But their objection was that these designs were not acceptable for this type of fabric. Bah!

    We need your voice, and the quilting world needs your voice—as long as it doesn’t damage you in the process.

  3. 3
    Leslie says:

    I’m so sorry for your pain. I’ve greatly enjoyed the pieces you’ve written for Quilter’s Newsletter because they make me think about art and its relation to life. Please keep getting treated for depression so that it doesn’t still your incredibly talented and necessary voice. That would be a loss for us all.

  4. 4
    Meredithe says:

    Hi Thomas, I can only re-iterate Karen’s comments and add – ignore the industry and balm your soul by making quilts for you.

    • 4.1
      el-jay says:

      Make the quilts that you need to make for yourself. Externalize that darkness in fabric if you need to do so. So many artistic souls are tortured (Vincent Van Gogh and countless others). Confuse your brain by trying something completely alien–beekeeping or creating crossword puzzles or screenwriting or anything as long as you’ve never tried it before. I’ve never been to quilt market but it seems like it would overwhelm me with size, stimulation and minimization of something I love. I wish you well, your letter has touched me.

  5. 5
    Sue says:

    As someone who has family members suffering from depression and seeing their struggles my heart goes out to you. I love your work and the meanings behind them I hope that you get through this time and continue to put you quilts with there meanings out there. The quilt world needs quilters prepared to be honest.

  6. 6

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I am sorting through my responses (all positive in your direction) and may not make it back to share them here. But know you are heard and appreciated.

  7. 7

    I send you warm wishes. Yr Asbury fabric line is one of my all time favorites, filled with joy and the love of color and , of course, the spirit of place. Stay strong and as my son wd say, PMA (positive mental attitude). Maybe the closed doors are an invitation to a new adventure…

  8. 8
    Sarah Jimenez says:

    Thomas, I heard your lecture on “modern” at Quiltcon 2013. It was one of the best I have ever heard. I saw you in a booth the next day and told you as much. I made a quilt from your fabrics for family friends that reminded us of the fun we had at the State Fair of Texas. It is still a favorite of mine and theirs! I agree with much of what you say about the industry. I am at least a 4th generation quilter, and have watched it evolve over the last half century. Walking the vendor aisles at Festival actually makes me sad. The feeding frenzy of consumption beyond need is reflected in more than just shopping bags…

  9. 9
    Kari says:

    I remember when you were in Denver for an impromptu sew in, and showed some materials you were working on for a book proposal. I think they were important and relevant ideas to share with quilters and ones that no one else has illustrated for this audience. I saw the value in it and was excited about what it could mean to quilters. I got what you were talking about. I just thought you should know that. What you were talking about is not without merit even if it wasn’t judged to be sellable. I’m sorry depression has taken such a grip on you and hope that healing from that is your next corner.

  10. 10

    Thomas Knauer meet Spike Gillespie. Another so-journer in this world with the satan of depression riding on her shoulder. A journalist, with piles of rejection letters (and rejections from life partners galore too), please look her up and perhaps you might find some help from a fellow sufferer. Meditation has become her right hand in her battle. As one who has seen both in the “industry” and been a quilter since that first quilt at 16 (I’m now 61), I can offer nothing more than this connection to you. I wish I could do more. Right now, my quilting is my own solace, and though I once thought it might offer a path to financial security, I too realized eventually that, like the 30 years I spent in telecom management, sometimes the vocation needed to make ends meet, just can’t become one’s avocation… the things we do to please ourselves on this journey, and make it to tomorrow. Good luck on your Journey. If you’re ever in Austin, please look me or any of the Austin AMQG besties… we’ll have GOOD BBQ – and Shiner Bock (or something just as good!)and maybe afterwords a nap, and then some sewing! – Karen Alexander

  11. 11
    Alejandrina pattin says:

    Why even worry about the “industry”? You have meaningful things to say and to sew. Your stuff is good, man!

  12. 12
    Eileen says:

    My joy in making quilts is for a couple of charity groups. No fancy matchy fabric lines from designers needed.

    The industry has gone a little nuts in pursuit of the dollar.

    A Vietnam Veteran receiving a quilt does not give a hoot if the points are cut off. It may be the first time someone has thanked him for his service.

    A child ripped from their home and put into a foster one does not care who the designer of the fabric is. They are happy to have something to call their own and hang onto.

    This is my part of the quilting world. Hugs to you as you find your way.

  13. 13
    Linda Thune says:

    Thomas,
    I lost my daughter to suicide six years ago; she was 24 and constantly struggled with depression. She had lost her hearing because of a virus in infancy. Her feelings of loneliness and isolation, alienation, were compounded. I have managed to stay in the light by turning to quilting; I’m so sorry it has become another source of suffering for you. Please feel all of the support and hope coming your way.

  14. 14
    Chloe Read says:

    I am sorry to read this – I have really enjoyed your work and its challenge. I hope you find what you need and, selfishly, that you continue to share your work/art/social commentary with us.

  15. 15
    Candy says:

    Please know that your words & your work have GREAT meaning & make a difference. A true philosopher. But at what sacrifice?
    I see in the community the often fine line between income generation & volunteering, between work & leisure, profit & charity, copyright & open access. All difficult to navigate. When things get tricky we say ‘it’s just quilting’ but for many it is their livelihood. I don’t envy anyone trying to find their niche in the industry.
    When something becomes ‘work’ it can take away the pleasure.

  16. 16
    Gretchen McDaniel says:

    Please consider showing your works in the art world, NOT the quilt world. Your work is art, the medium is fiber/fabric/texiles. I refuse to enter a quilt show, but have had my work in art show. Much love to you.

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