Quilting on the Edge…

If you’ve followed my ramblings here on the blog or over on the Facebook page you may have picked up that I wear my emotions on my sleeve. The highs are very high and the lows are incredibly low, and publicly so. I don’t hold much back and that has not always been a good thing for my career in the quilt world. But simply I cannot help that. Ask my wife; it is part of my very DNA, or so it seems. And as my time here in the quilt world has certainly been a rollercoaster, rising and falling and rising again (only to inevitably fall again) with maddening regularity. One minute I am on the way to being the king of the world, and the next that world is in tatters around me.

While I recognize that this is very much the nature of life, it feels profoundly at odds with my internal experience of being a quilter. Though I am certainly an accidental quilter – I made my first quilt purely to get a sense of how to design fabric for quilters, how cutting the cloth into small pieces might change how I design – I very quickly found myself devoted to the craft. Although I have been a working artist in one way or another for 25 years now I had never before found a medium so perfectly suited to my ideals. Though the shift from experimental new media to bed quilts may seem a radical leap, within me it could not feel more natural.

And therein lies my source of perpetual confusion and consternation. (Side note: I feel like I ought to drop a dagnabbit every time I write the word consternation.) With the passing months and years I feel I am growing closer to those ethereal matters essential to the quilting tradition; with each new quilt I simultaneously find myself more in communion with my forebears in quilts, more in tune with those that led the way decades and centuries ago even as I feel that I am stitching together new connections, introducing novel approaches that arise entirely from my explorations on the edges of the art world.

I’m not entirely sure what I am trying to say here. The thing is that the more time I spend thinking about quilts, researching the past, working with fabric and thread, the more I feel as though I am tapping into a deeper understanding of and reverence for the history of quilts. In those minutes, hours, and days I feel less and less an artist or designer and more a quilter. Not a quilt artist, a quilt designer, an art quilter, or any other term; simply a quilter. My quilts are finding their homes: in our house (Bee and Babbit are most ardent about their relationships to the quilts I have made them), as gifts when the right quilt find the right person, as donations for auctions and shelters, and inevitably as commissions and sales (though the commissions thus far have been part of fundraisers or exchanges with people I think of as family – James and Katie, your quilts are up next).

It is the prospect of selling quilts, I suppose, that is really prompting these ruminations. I have an uncomfortable relationship to the idea of selling quilts. I am not opposed to it, and recognize it as a longstanding element of the practice, but it hasn’t really felt right to me. After those first months of just figuring out how to make quilts (literally learning to sew, to bind, and eventually to quilt), my quilts have been a vehicle for giving voice to my concerns, a means to writing essays, stories, and poems that words could never manage. And I have never really figured out how to wrap my head around the notion of selling an idea.

But there it is, an economic reality, staring me in the face. As I go deeper into my connection to quilts I have found myself increasingly on the edges of the quilting industry. Back when I was something of a blank slate in the quilting world the opportunities seemed infinite. I signed my first contract for quilting fabric before I had made a single quilt; I inked a book deal based on a single idea for a quilt (In Defense of Handmade/Martha). Part of that was timing, those were the early years of Modern Quilting, and part of it was, to be blunt, the fact that the industry was looking to capitalize on the notion of the man-quilter (though I have done everything I can to distance myself from that term, turning down any and every request to be part of man-quilter themed projects). But between those two factors I think the first had the biggest effect; because I was just starting on my path in quilts I could be interpreted in whatever ways were most advantageous to those I was working with.

But there was a turn. By the time I finished Modern Quilt Perspectives my relationship to quilts and the quilting tradition began to come clear, the proverbial forest emerged despite the trees. While I still love that book, it became clear to me, and everyone I was working with in the quilting industry, that just one of the four chapters in that book made my heart (and brain) sing: Social Commentary, which included In Defense of Handmade, Palimpsest, and Excess, the three quilts from that book that I believe truly stand the test of time (along with URNH, the secret thirteenth quilt and pattern in a book that claims to have twelve). And with those quilts, and the path they set me on, I began my journey to the edge of the quilt industry.

Let me take a second to make a distinction: the quilt world and the quilt industry are two very distinct things. I think we have all seen it, sensed a widening gulf between our lives with quilts and the industry behind it. I don’t mean this as a critique of the quilting industry; it does what it needs to do to survive in an ever-tightening economic landscape. I do not wish to besmirch the industry, but I do believe there reality of trying to predict audiences and purchases is something profoundly other than being a quilter, and that gulf grows ever wider as the established avenues for sales changes. I don’t see that as a good thing or a bad thing, just a reality as it appears to me.

But I suppose that sets up this odd relationship I have with the quilt world and industry. I more and more feel like I am a traditional quilter, but not as it is understood in the industry. I feel increasingly connected to the Amish tradition, the quilters of Gees Bend, the extraordinary quilts of the Westward migration in the mid-19th century, those patterns that made sense of new experiences and realities, the rise of appliqué to translate a new world. As I feel more and more in touch with what came before, I feel as though I am moving further to the edges of the quilt industry, neither a part of it nor completely removed.

Even as I can barely keep up with exhibition requests, I find myself struggling to find homes within the industry. Even as I at last feel genuine connectedness to my practice, I feel adrift in the quilting world writ large. The shuttering of Quilters Newsletter was a profound blow to me, not only because it meant my philosophical essays there would come to an end, but because it foretold a larger shift in the industry, a move away from those things I held most dear. As I find myself profoundly committed to quilts as bearing something essential, something truly meaningful for these early years of the 21st century, I find myself on the outside looking in, on the edges of an industry I believe is resonant, important for making sense of just how we continue to be human.

Perhaps I am going about this all wrong, putting too much weight upon the shoulders of quilting. But when I look back at the extraordinary moments of quilting, at the extraordinary manifestation of values embedded in those Amish quilts, at the beautiful weight of making due, and what that meant, in those quilts from Gee’s Bend, I cannot help but see the tradition as something more than bundles and kits. Quilting is a medium that sings the story of devotion and suffering, of family and compassion, of story and resolve. So I sit here confused as to just how my devotion to those ideals has landed me here, on the edges, unable to shake the memory of those halcyon days just a few years ago when I seemed to know how to do it right. But for now I cannot avoid seeing my accidental business and my commitment to quilts as fundamentally at odds, as an intractable problem rather than the absolute joy it was even just a year ago.

Luckily I still have Bee and Babbit, a built in audience that will endlessly love these quilt I now feel compelled to make. And to be honest, they were always my first and most important audience. So for that I am truly lucky, and will remain forever indebted.

More later,
-t

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2 Responses to Quilting on the Edge…

  1. 1
    Meg Hannah says:

    I feel I truly understand. I too have grappled with the difference–the gap–between the quilting industry and being a quilter. Although I’m not as deeply involved as you, my path has been in overall parallel with yours. I learned to sew when I was nine, and after many garments and some home dec projects, I discovered old quilts in the late 1980s. Making quilts and combining them with my general interest in art and color was a revelation. I felt restless, though, and more so through the years. The Gee’s Bend exhibit was my epiphany. In fairly short order, I came to a pretty obvious (to me) conclusion: the quilting industry is primarily about making money. It started out helping quilters with genuinely useful things like rotary cutters and acrylic rulers and quilt-appropriate fabrics, but once the market was saturated, the industry moved on to pushing us to buy “stuff”. After my Gee’s Bend revelation, I realized that the quilting industry had very little true interest in quilts. My path as a quilter did not fit with their path of squeezing out profit. I stopped buying new fabric (except for the occasional backing). I almost exclusively use salvaged fabrics (mostly clothing) and have no interest in magazine subscriptions because they no longer speak to the kind of work I do. The quilt-related books I buy (and there aren’t many) either address concepts or have excellent photos of antique/vintage quilts. Being a “hobby” quilter, I happily make the quilts I want to make while blithely ignoring the quilting industry 98 percent of the time. Frankly, I believe that being a quilter is pretty much not compatible with a paying career that depends on the quilting industry. OK, that’s my two cents.

  2. 2
    Wendy Barker Paull says:

    I totally agree with you. There are almost no shops here in my city. A big shop opened up, which I will not name, and I was excited to see what they offered, and to see if I could teach some beginner classes to help bring in new people to the craft. They only wanted me to sell their gadgets. No one there…the founders, the owners, workers even knew how to sew, let alone made quilts! It was eye opening and disheartening in the same breath. Needless to say, I’ll never set foot there again. Shame on them.

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