So, after taking some time away from fabric design (hopefully temporary) and just about everything else, I am starting to re-emerge from my hermitage re-engage with the quilting world. And with that I am encountering some of the same things that drove me batty, but this time with a lot more time to think under by proverbial belt.

As I start making plans for Spring Market and the publicity work for my book I keep running into the same questions, almost all of which stem from the basic concern of demonstrating how it serves the hobby of quilting. I keep running into that word: hobby. It seems to be everywhere as the base assumption about what quilting is.

Of course it is a hobby, right? What else would it be??? That is certainly how the quilting industry seems to frame things, perpetually asking what more can we sell to hobbyists, how can we make it easier for them, what new gadgets, cuts, and kits will they need (or can we tell them that they need)??? But here’s the thing; I don’t think of quilting as a hobby; it seems more like a practice in a way similar to how I understand the term practice to be used in Buddhism.

I am interested in the history of quilting, as a social, personal, political, and cultural practice, one that for so many years was tied into the fabric of communities and lives. I am interested in how what we do now relates to that tradition, not just the modern notion of things. And I think there is a vast number of quilters out there that is put off by the hobbyization of the practice of quilting, put off by the cycle of props and gimmicks, the next marketing ploy and push. Furthermore, I don’t think the coming generations of quiltings (if there will be any) are going to engage the tradition as a hobby. They will be looking for something more, a practice that is resonant and profound, not an occasional escape from the world, but a meaningful relationship with the world.

How then do I get this view to fit in with Quilt Market and the industry at large? I am expected to show how my book, and everything else I can do, can sell more stuff, but so much of what I write about, and so much of what I do, is about showing that the stuff just doesn’t matter. And it is not just a matter of idealism; I truly believe that if (yes, IF) quilting is to have a future it will not come as a hobby, through wave after wave of fads, but through showing future quilters what quilts mean and how they can be used to making meaning.

I am teaching a few people to sew over here, part of a Cambridge group. They are just starting to sew and had not planned to start quilting, but then I showed them a few quilts and talked a bit about what quilts mean to me, and have meant historically. The next thing I knew I had a group of new quilters. The transformation didn’t come because of a kit or a collection or anything of the like. It came because they wanted to engage in that tradition, to make something meaningful, something profound, not just another thing to use, or end up in a closet somewhere, but something that will be part of their lives for years to come.

It is in sharing what quilting is and means, in going deep, that quilting will continue, not by capturing the latest trend. Yes, there may be a healthy market out there for kits, gadgets, and things, but with each passing year I think that market shrinks; it is quilting as it has been done since the end of the era of need. But looking forward I see a new profound need, not a need for things or for doing, but a need for a practice, for resonance, to depth and substance.

All of this is what I am trying to teach Bee, taking time to help her find a connectedness not just to the making and the having, but to the larger practice, to find her place within both her actions and a wider world of meaning. Already she is eager to make her first quilt, a gift for Babbit to remind him that his big sister will always love him.


So, I am not sure if there is a place for me in the hobby of quilting; nor am I sure that I want to have a place there. But I have found my home in the practice, in the extraordinary tradition of quilting and the future that I hope it can have.

(Not putting too much pressure on myself, am I???)


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8 Responses to Hobby???

  1. 1
    Mona Keegan says:

    Dear Thomas,
    On this Thanksgiving morning, your post is spot on for me. The “practice” of quilting is a very accurate description of what quilting is to me.

    I come from a long line of strong women, pioneers in the settlement of the United States. I not only marvel at their strength and tenacity to survive but I am astonished at their holding on to, practicing the fiber arts and creating beauty, warmth, and sustenance.

    That it has been diminished as a hobby sometimes infuriates me.

    Keep on with your pressure on yourself. You go in the right direction.


    Mona Keegan

  2. 2

    I am driven once again to ponder the depth of quilting not only personally but collectively. Quilting has shifted in my life from something of a hobby to a career choice and a life style. It’s not a particularly easy shift as there is much involved in this. Thanks Thomas.

  3. 3
    Lucinda says:

    I am finishing a master’s degree in December in theology and spirituality — and am writing my final research paper on spirituality and quilting. There is not a lot of documented research on the topic but quilting brings people together in ways that go well beyond a hobby. Depending on your definition of hobby, quilters may start as a hobby but find it brings them a way to contribute to the lives, their loved ones, and other men and women they meet through quilting. It is a way to give back to the community and to bring attention to various causes — all of which are meaningful activities to be involved with.
    I admire your perseverence as you struggle with the issues you mention and hope you continue to write and challenge our thinking and that you keep designing fabric and quilts.

  4. 4
    Aoife says:

    I think you’re right, it is reductive to aim your business at providing for a hobby, when the people involved may see it as much more than that. I started quilting when the next generation started to enter my extended family, though I’ve always been drawn to quilt making and started several out of old special clothes of mine that I’d outgrown as a teenager. But having gotten caught up in the buy buy buy of the fabric world at the start of my most recent quilting, led me to look harder at the clothing and bedding retail markets with a greater respect for effort and quality of workmanship and materials. This then cycled fully around and I find myself look harder, and more cynically, at the manufacturers of the fabric, notions, threads, and books in the quilting world. I have definitely stepped back from the crazy consumerist cycle that I think many of the online blogs and manufacturers try to whip up into a status/frenzy/can’t find quite the right word – I hope that I’m making some sense.

    Anyway, yes, I think I grasp the situation you now find yourself in, and as always I find your examination of it both illuminating and often in line with my own developing thoughts on the subject.

  5. 5
    Joan Ciolino says:

    I never thought of quilting as a “hobby” because I’ve been sewing since I was in 7th grade and have always seen it as a way to nest and nourish. I’ve made curtains, clothing, pillows, tote bags – and quilts. My sewing involves layers of meaning and significance – and yes, history – in everything I’ve ever made. Wedding quilts for my sisters, baby quilts for their babies – it feeds me spiritually, it connects me with my Mother (I have her Bernina), it calms me the hell DOWN when I am stressed, and it gives me a way to make meaningful and useful gifts for people I love. Besides, I love having bathroom curtains made of the polished chintz fabric my bridesmaids wore!

    I view so much of the quilt world cash-grab marketing I see today as a feeding frenzy, instead of nourishing a long-term appreciation and love for a real craft. It saddens me to see many young quilters feel the need to label their style as “modern” and (whether willingly or unwittingly) diminish and disassociate themselves from other quilters. It’s a big tent, people. My style and palette changes with whatever I am working on. I’ve learned so much from others before me who – while I might not care for their finished work or style – have taught me SO much, spared me a thousand headaches, and who have inspired me to greater challenges, blow up boundaries and learn from looking – really looking – at every quilt regardless of color or era or technique or style.

    There is SO much more to quilting than rapid-fire production and chalking up the number of “finishes” in a month. I probably spend too much time contemplating the fabric, the look, eyeing the position of a block or debating the right choice of quilting motif. For me it is a thoughtful process that enriches my spirit and brings me quiet joy. I find my zen in quilting and have a Book of Mormon-like zeal for spreading the message and bringing others along. It is hard to do when our world is so focused on speed, short cuts, short attention spans and instant gratification. Sewing, like cooking and lovemaking, is best done slowly, thoughtfully and with great love!

  6. 6
    Mary says:

    What’s a “hobby” or “avocation” but a “practice” that gives pleasure, meaning, and fulfillment? Do we need to vilify words?

    As for the vendors at Spring Market — they aren’t the 1% who are making millions on the backs of the poor. They’re just little people like the rest of us, trying to keep their jobs, their health insurance, and their heads above water.

  7. 7
    Angela Baker says:

    Mr. Knauer: You are a breath of fresh air. I discovered you through your column in QNM and had to seek out more, and found your blog here. Above you identify something that helps me tremendously – the idea that quilting is a practice. That’s exactly the right word. That word helps me elevate in my own mind what it is exactly that I do in all this fabric collecting, planning, designing, stitching, meditating, creating, and why, even when I have little time to actually work on something, that I feel its siren call. The last time I read something this ennobling and inspiring about the process was what Alice Walker says in her interview with Roland Freeman. Freeman’s book (“A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers and Their Stories” 1996) seems to be a forgotten gem — every thinking quilter should have this in his/her library. Anyway, Walker talks about people being baffled as to why someone could have time, or make time, to actually create a handmade quilt. Her response is that, actually, time is all we do have! She goes on to tell a story of Buddhist monks who spent weeks building a sand sculpture in front of a San Francisco museum only to have a vandal jump on their sand mandala when they finished. The monks’ response? They stood and smiled. It is indeed the practice that is the key.

  8. 8
    jean linsley says:

    I had a class with Thomas 8th march 2014 in cambridge..doing a mini quilt & how to layer it & sew when put together etc.. I found the class really delightful plus Thomas is very good at explaining & showing details of what we are doing.. Absolutely loved the day.. than you. Jean

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