The Future of Quilts: A Manifesto of sorts…

Perhaps this is just a by-product of my current state of mind, my current emotional turmoil, but I don’t think so. Or maybe I am just a self-indulgent child searching for excuses, but I’d rather believe otherwise. The truth is I am feeling sadly pessimistic about the quilting world these days. The energy, the excitement that seemed to pervade quilting just a few years ago seems to be waning, dissipating into an over-marketed aether.

If I had five dollars for each time someone in the quilting world told me that I think too much or that a project was too “thinky” to find an audience among quilters I could likely afford to take this next year off, and that is a truth that profoundly saddens me.

A quick glance at the shelves of quilting books reveals an over-abundance of the words “quick,” “easy,” and “simple.” The fabric shelves too often seem to offer collections engineered to free quilters from the apparently dreadful task of actually having to think about what fabrics to put together. The stacks of patterns pile up with detailed instructions for all of those wonderful variations that the quilting populace used to stumble upon in their sewing spaces with minute changes regarded as the stuff of copyright protection.

Quilting today seems far removed from the practice that was for so long based on figuring things out, making do. On one hand it is wonderful that quilting now reaching millions, but I wonder about the hidden costs of it being a multi-billion dollar industry. What do all the gadgets and patterns, collections and instructions really add? In commodifying every aspect of our practices, marketing endless objects to perfect our quilts I worry that the quilts themselves are being turned into commodities rather than the resonant objects they ought to be.

The growth of an industry inevitably gives rise to marketing and sales departments, which take on more and more authority; the psychology of the focus group invariably takes hold. Sales figures take precedence over innovation, leading to a self-replicating cycle, a process that values the mean rather than the outlier. While we perpetually glorify the idea of creative inspiration, we work within an industry that reinforces similarity (every publisher wants to know what books your idea is similar to in evaluating potential salability). Malcolm Gladwell once said of focus groups, “ We are putting people through a process that alienates them from their true needs and that biases them in favor of the unsophisticated.” That sentence weighs heavily upon me when I think about the quilting world.

A creative practice ought to encourage individuality, exploration, and transformation, but I fear we have found ourselves with an industry that offers far too much of the opposite. Rather than an expanse of experimentation it appears more like a sea of homogeneity. Of course there are individuals out there stretching and pushing, moments and instances, sparks of the new, but those moments are rare and are too often reduced down and folded into the machinery of the focus group, translated into the language of the average.

Perhaps this is simply the reality of a creative practice in a consumer world: everything must be fitted into expected and approved structures as understood by the expanding apparatus of commodities. For designers to make a living they must yield to the market’s understanding of the average consumer, a notion that has less of a basis in reality than stereotypes of an audience; the idea of the widest possible appeal trumps the value of the unique. The structures of production, sales, distribution, management, and marketing need to support themselves leaving designers and makers at the edges of the industry that they work within.

To be blunt I am worried about the future of the industry; I doubt that the current structure can continue to support itself, or more immediately continue to attract designers and makers to participate in it. I can only do what I do because my wife is a tenured professor; I have never made enough money doing this to even rent a studio let alone contribute to the family’s finances. But without a continuing influx of quilters and designers willing to work for so very little the entire structure of the industry risks collapse.

As the meta-structures of the industry take on greater roles – sales teams and marketing departments making more of the decisions traditionally made by editors and art directors – I fear for more than the place of the creative professionals. The focus group approach rarely predicts what an audience might or will want; instead it tends to reiterate what it has wanted in the past. It steers an industry to repeat what it has done before even in the face of a radically changing audience and marketplace. Rather than serving new and emerging audiences, this approach tends to alienate just those people that need to be brought into the fold.

Ultimately, I am concerned about how the growth of the quilting industry affects the fabric of the quilting community. When likes and follows are transformed into monetizable necessities (they are frequent considerations in book and fabric deals), when designs become a part of the cycle of intentional obsolescence it fosters a fundamental distrust within the community itself.

Here’s the thing: an industry that encourages experimentation, fosters deep relationships between makers and the things they make, will develop an engaged audience, one that keeps coming back for new ideas and possibilities, an audience that will ultimately be more profitable. Basic math would indicate that makers willing to just try stuff out and make mistakes will inevitably buy more stuff in order to try again.

Of course there are some notable exceptions: Victoria Findlay Wolfe, Jacquie Gerring, and Denyse Schmidt always jump to mind. Their practices seem based upon a wonder notion, “Here’s how I do it, but what are you interested in?” Within an industry that seems driving by the next project, the next finish, and the next must-have product, that simple question somehow seems quilt revolutionary, even as it is so essentially traditional. Can you imagine what it would be like if the entire quilting industry, from the top to the bottom, truly articulated that concern? It brings an enormous smile to my face.

A boy can dream, can’t he?


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30 Responses to The Future of Quilts: A Manifesto of sorts…

  1. 1
    Sarah Bond says:

    I saw you when you came to speak at Philly MQG, and you are a thinky fella. No way around it. But any good quilt is a product of a thinky process, whether it is word-based thinkiness, or something more visceral. I grew up in a family of academics and I had a real flash of nostalgia listening to you talk about how you quilt. I’m not trying to make a living in the quilt world, and I guess I’m grateful for that! Quilt world may be problematical, but I’m glad you’re in it. Looking forward to Sunday’s workshop in Burlington!

  2. 2
    Mary Kate says:

    I think you need to come back to our offices so you and I can do a Moyers/Campbell-style series of interviews/conversations on this topic. There is a lot to unpack here.

    • 2.1
      thomas says:

      I agree, and would love to sit down for a long discussion of this with you in front of the cameras with our QNNTV coffee mugs. I’m working on my next essay for QN and am seriously pondering writing about the relationship between quilting and the focus-group methodology…

  3. 3
    Kate Percival says:

    Same here. Bravo!

  4. 4
    Denise in PA says:

    Thomas, the “thinky-ness” of your projects was what fascinated so many of us when you spoke at our guild last year. I went home and re-read your book with new insight and was even more inspired! I hope you continue to do what you do!!

  5. 5
    ann says:

    This is an excellent dissertation Thomas, you articulate my thoughts on the current state of the quilting world perfectly. I did not renew the last two quilting magazine subscriptions as they were so redundant with the same simplistic patterns every issue, and the articles were getting to be geared towards the beginning quilter. Yes, I know beginner’s need lessons too but the *easy/quick* is just everywhere! I do hope the industry doesn’t continue on in the same fashion for much longer, maybe your post will spur some action Thomas.

  6. 6
    Maggie Magee says:

    Thomas–Your concerns mirror mine and other artists. This is an excellent essay. Thinking about what is going on with the industry–when the focus is what will sell based on what sold, making quilts and sewing what is just cinchy –to me is reflective of what is wrong with many other things in our society. Much is pablum, mediocre, fast and easy, not requiring much thought–just conditioning by advertising. I am finding as I get older, am happier using simple tools–and a straight sewing machine for the most part, even though I own other machines. Making things for myself with my own ideas–wherever they fit in is another thing. Learning with traditional methods as groundwork (don’t consider myself a traditionalist)–including what was learned in art school, I started to quilt by teaching myself referencing old methods also. My grandmother was a quilter, used the old Kansas City Star patterns with the limited supply of fabrics she used from flour and feed sacks, and scraps left over from clothes she made for herself and family. Learning from her too–by observation since her mind was clouded in confusion by the time I wanted her to teach me how to make a quilt. I had to simply look and study what she had made–all by hand, utilitarian, and such an incredible sense of color, such beauty and how she put it all together. Design, it could be called–she made quilts because it was her art and pleasure. I think that is all we can do as artists–some of us are recognized and deserve such. Do think that you are doing the art and quilt world–and those who practice, a great service through your essays, your books and quilts with purpose. You express an awareness that needs to be addressed. Art and artists will endure in their own way whatever’s in our nature. The quilting industry has had a huge up and become monstrous, and maybe a little down will return it to something reasonable. We simply can’t give up! I know it is extra difficult for you physically, but your thinky brain simply keeps barreling along with great thoughts and valid criticism of an industry that reflects in its own way what is wrong with our society of excess. Thank you, Thomas–keep up the good thoughts and work–you are a treasure!

  7. 7
    Dayna says:

    I have been growing more and more concerned about the abundance of and reliance on fabric “collections.” I am not interested in a paint-by-number approach to designing quilts. Nor am I interested in quick & easy. (although I do love my rotary cutter.) But I’m not sure how much to attribute to the natural swing of the pendulum as more and more people enter the arena, and how much to attribute to industry decline… Thanks for thinking (talk about a practice falling out of favor!)and sharing…

  8. 8
    Sue says:

    Thomas, I love your work. I love your essays, and I don’t think you’re too ‘thinky’! I think that for a lot of us, quick and easy works, because that’s all we have time for right now. Working full time, kids, housework, activities, it’s damn tiring! I buy a lot of the quilting magazines, and a few books, but I’ve never used a pattern. I have quite a few rulers, usually only use one. I admit that I am one of those people manufacturers market to, but I was really starting to get pissed off. I just realized that I don’t want or need it all. Fabric, I buy what I like, what I think works together. No full lines for me. I just started to feel bogged down by the stuff. I sorted through, and donated a ton. I sketch out an idea and go. Quick and easy? Sure. One day I will have more time for the more complex ideas running through my head, but for now, I’m just happy to make shit!
    Keep doing what you do, I love your thinkiness!

    • 8.1
      thomas says:

      I too love quilts that are in fact quick and easy, but I think they are very different than the marketing mechanism that surrounds “quick” and “easy” in this industry. I am baffled by so many patterns for four-patches and the like. So many technically easy quilts require a wonderful degree of thoughtfulness and consideration. Just because something is simple does not mean it is necessarily simplistic. Cut squares and sew them together, use whatever fabric is at hand and a wonderful, thoughtful quilt is usually the result, but that is very different from the perpetual remarketing of patterns for what is essentially the same quilt…

  9. 9
    Rosanne says:

    I’m right there with you on the entire situation. I am loathing the entire ‘dumbing down’ of the entire sector and as my skills evolve and preferences change it is grating on me more and more. All the classes here are beginners level and nothing to further develop skills or to encourage true creativity in quilting. I shudder looking at magazines with the words ‘quick’, ‘easy’ or simple. There are so few with challenging projects in; that in short require you to use your imagination.

    I still cherish the conversation we had at FQR in July and it got me looking at things differently. That and Jen’s hand piecing class! Then I started to read Mark Lipinski’s Slow Stitching Movement info and more pieces fell in place. Add in more Mindfulness and DBT recently and I realised that we are made to feel guilty for taking time over any task. Meals are quick, crafts are quick, housework is quick (amen)etc. All in all, why are we made to feel like this?

    Why is taking time over something so wrong. Why is there always the rush for the next ‘big thing’ Why is obsolescence inevitable? Why so we feel the need to do everything at breakneck speed instead of cherishing the time we spend taking pleasure in the doing rather than racing to an end result. We all need to take charge of our own creativity and develop it to produce something unique. By all means take a patter but make it your own. Not sell the rehashed pattern but adapt to our own tastes. Take the centre from one, a border from another, another border from a third, add sparkle change threads etc to make it unique. It’s not about money for most of us; it is simply the joy of doing

    As a group, we need to step back and see the driving that the marketing and sales people are doing and go back to being led by our peers. In other words, stop being sheep and start being lions

  10. 10

    Great discussion – it will be interesting to see where the industry goes next. I’ve been in it for awhile and it’s always changing. I echo some of your sentiments which I call “the fast-foodization” of quilting, LOL!!

    That’s why I love teaching others to slow down, to appreciate the art and imperfections of quilting their own quilts, and to enjoy the entire process. 🙂

    You always have good food for thought.

  11. 11
    Meg Hannah says:

    I’ve been making quilts since the 80s, and well, from what I’ve seen, the “quilting world” has been pretty much as you describe all along. I’ve spent these 30 years picking through the “fast”, the homogenized, the push to sell more gadgets and fabric.—looking for the bits that feed my creativity, that resonate. My inspirations have come largely from Gwen Marston (Liberated Quiltmaking), books of old quilts, and books on African-American quilts in particular. Gwen is the best I’ve seen at encouraging creativity and giving quilters the confidence to branch out, to make quilts that are “theirs”.

    The commercialized part of the quilt world will always be there, and it may boom and bust, it may eat up designers and quilters and spit them out when they’ve been drained, but I believe there will always be quilters who will carry on the traditions and bring creativity and fresh perspectives to this art and craft.

  12. 12
    Carmit says:

    I’ve not been quilting for long, but I’m already seeing in quilting what bothers me about so many other things in my life: same-sameiness. It’s not that I’ve invented any wheels in my own quilting – sure, I use other people’s patterns, or adapt them, but what I’m seeing is people replicating other people’s work piece for piece, and my god, I’m bored.

    I’m bored of seeing the same project on blog after blog. I’m bored of blog tours and blog hops. I’m just. bored.

    As for your concerns about the decline of the industry because of rising expectations of quick and easy, I see that in my own profession; a dumbing-down of something to the detriment of actual good work, with the end effect of leaving a big hole in the pockets of those who don’t succumb to the fast and cheap. I guess the only way I can slow this down in quilting is not to trend-hop, but to do things as deliberately as I can, while staying true to my own preferences rather than buying (literally and figuratively) what the industry is trying to sell me.

  13. 13
    Alanna says:

    Knowing that quilting is a US$3BILLION industry, each quilter has an option to interpret, consume and partake in a pleasant corner of this stitch universe. I work in a longarm quilting studio whose mission is to offer facilities or services to turn tops into quilts. For some of our clients, that means they drop off the top and back and say… “Go to it!” For many quilters, it is an education where they learn to use a longarm quilting machine and begin a journey of discovery.

    While my own quilts are incredibly personal, I can’t judge how another includes quilting in his/her life. Quilting for some is a creative outlet. For others, it’s a social hobby that results in gifts and duplicates of other quilts they see.

    About 15 years ago, Michael James stated that quilting would not advance or be respected as an art unless a more principled approach to expression developed. He caught a lot of flack for that, but I agreed with him!

    In this large industry, there will be something for everyone. We have the pleasure and responsibility to take time to consider why we create with fabric. Easy and quick may be something you just want to filter out of your quilter’s viewfinder.

  14. 14
    Meredithe says:

    Thank you for your manifesto. I must say, I’ve become disappointed with some of the blogs I started reading several years ago. I began following them because of the “different” work they were doing, but since they’ve been “discovered” and are now authors and/or have fabric lines, posts are sadly lacking in that “difference” or just sadly lacking as, one can only assume, commercialism has taken over their time and creativity. But I take heart that I know of several quilters who are still pushing boundaries – there’s life in the quilting world yet! (Thanks for letting me vent!!)

  15. 15
    Sue says:

    It’s a continuing dilemma between ‘industry’ and art. even those who quilt casually are part of the ‘art’ field. When the ‘business’ is driven by dollars, mostly made by fabric and notion manufacturers, almost anything is apt to lose its soul. you are an artist working in a medium that is attractive to the masses, who, like you say, are not being encouraged to be inspired, but to copy and paste their way to some so-called happiness. I’ve not had the pleasure of participating in any of your workshops, but I think the more that you and your peers can promote inspiration instead of instruct to replicate, the better we will all be for it. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  16. 16
    Janette says:

    Your blog is always an interesting read.
    I find myself increasingly mistrustful of many popular quilting blogs / magazines which have an obvious vested interest in promoting their sponsors.
    You, however, always provide a welcome dose of sincerity. I hope that you find a viable role within the industry because it would be yet another terrible indictment against it if you did not.

  17. 17
    Tim Latimer says:

    WOW great post…..where can I get the pattern for that?

  18. 18
    Jeanell says:

    Very interesting, Sew Mama Sew also had an interesting article on Jan 21 about sustainability of the business. I wonder if the quilting industry were compared/contrasted to the making/production of a block buster movie what that would look like? I know they are not related industries, but I think the process of creating each one would be interesting to compare.

  19. 19
    Elizabeth E. says:

    Growing pains for the moderns?

    As a longtime quilter, I have watched with interest the Modern Quilt Movement bud, blossom and now try to figure out what to do with itself. Aside from your “Amish Problem” essay, I’ve agreed with all your writings and think this particular problem (as outlined in your post) is indicative of where the younger quilters find themselves (and I include those who have come to quilting recently, not just an age demographic).

    This is where the book The War of Art comes in handy as well as a little reading from Sister Mary Corita. It might do the soul a little good, for all art needs a patron (and yes, my husband is a tenured professor and he keeps me in fabric) and a refocusing and a willingness to chuck it all to go in a different direction.

    You’ve got it–just keep going the direction you want to and ignore all the commodification, the copyright blather, the insistence on following the crowd–and you’ll come out fine in the end. You have fans, as well as followers. See you in Austin?
    P.S. Tim Latimer’s comment was hilarious.

  20. 20
    Cher says:

    You state in your usual concise and “thinky” manner what has become increasingly clear to me. Everyone rushing to make a quilt just like so-and-so’s (be it designer or fellow quilter) rather than quilting what makes their heart sing. Of course that is over simplifying it. If everyone is making it, I am sure to not want to. To be honest, I have always been a non-conformist, but quilting is an expression of joy and creative vision for me. I appreciate taking classes from those like Gwen Marston that show you a way of doing something but then encourage you to make it your way in your choice of fabrcis/colors/style. I am always sad to know that there are too many like yourself that have so much to offer and yet cannot make a living in doing so. Always happy to read what you have to say Thomas.

  21. 21

    Too few resources focus on design, process, strategy, and problem solving. Too many books and magazine articles and blogs/bloggers sell the fast and easy, as you say. Those of us who go our own way learn to figure things out on our own, occasionally lucking into books long out of print for to teach us process and problem solving.

    My quilts are not easy. They are hard. Each one is a new design, designed as I go. They even require math! But everything I do is accessible to others who want to do it, too. I can teach you what makes a good next border on a medallion quilt, and why you don’t actually want *every* border to be spectacular, but need to balance the design throughout. I can teach you why one center block will be easier to use than another, because of value or color or size differences.

    Is there an appetite for learning? I don’t see much of it. I see a lot of quilters/bloggers excited about the next quilt-along or BOM with patterns and colors provided. I see a lot of hubbub about new fabric lines, or ones bought SO LONG AGO (10 months) and waiting for just the right project.

    But is that okay? It’s okay with me if they enjoy it. Like the paint by number paintings you say you’ve collected, the quilts aren’t art and they aren’t particularly interesting. It won’t necessarily advance the industry, and in some ways may dilute it and hold it down. But maybe one of those new quilters will stumble into original work, becoming over time a big contributer at some point in his/her lifetime.

    So … maybe we should just be glad that there is enthusiasm for making. It may not stay with quilts any more than it stayed with macrame. We won’t know that for many years.

  22. 22
    Barb Vedder says:

    Well Said! I’ve been concerned about this for years. One of my big concerns is that the quilting community is also making competition quilts to satisfy the judges. Whatever won before, you can bet there will more more more of that. It is a trend I’ve watched for about 6 years. Nothing unique, creative, personal or thoughtful…..
    My passion is folk art applique’ and I have just gotten my first workshop booking for it. Most quilts groups want a “project” based workshop or a technique. I wish more quilters wish to learn how to make their OWN work. Thanks for the post – I’m with you –

  23. 23

    I hope that The Improv Handbook For Modern Quilters will be a bit of a remedy to what you are describing. I agree it’s discouraging to see the popularity of books titled 15 Minute Quilt blocks being replaced by books titled 10 Minute Quilt Blocks and 5 Minute Quilt Blocks! I’m waiting for the 1 Minute Quilt Top! Sure to be a best seller 😉

    But not to worry it is the nature for true creative practice to run counter to consumer practices. Art and creativity unfortunately operate and probably will always operate in the cracks and crevices of mainstream consumption. That’s just the way it is.

    It’s up to each of us to choose how we want to spend our precious lives — following the quick and easy thoughtless patterns of everyone else or take the slow challenging road of exploring our own patterns, discovering new territory, and bringing the rewards to light in the encouragement of others. Keep choosing your own way. It does make a difference in the big long term picture of things.

    Although the true rewards are beyond monetary, occasionally there is fair compensation to be found, and we should never stop fighting or asking for that to be the case.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post Thomas.

  24. 24
    JulieAnn says:

    Thomas, you have started a very interesting and lively discussion. I am just not sure I have the same concern as you do.

    I believe it all boils down to personal preference and I believe there is room for everyone.

    The commercial trend in the quilt world is focused on the beginner or for someone interested in fast and simple. I am not sure that is such a bad thing. In most areas of creative endeavors there is much the same thing.

    The important aspect is that there are people who are interested in quilting! The fabrics, patterns, books, etc. that you may find boring are fascinating and exciting to beginners. My first quilt was a log cabin. I loved it and could not get enough information about this new art that had entered my life in such a profound way. It opened the doors to creativity and I went on to design my own quilts, dye fabric and learn as much as I can about this industry. The artists that I now follow inspire me and motivate me to be better.

    I have moved on from where I was when I began quilting, but try to remember the excitement of the beginner. Things that are now mundane to us and feel stale and restrictive are wonderous for the beginner. We all started some place. Some may be satisfied with just enjoying what they are doing and others may want to grow and seek new ideas.

    The quilt world is so diverse and it is better for it. Quilting is very personal and we all do it for different reasons. If someone gets a lot of enjoyment by quilting by a pattern or using a kit, that is their choice and we can be enjoy that it is making someone happy and proud of their work.

    As far as thinking the quilt world is losing its appeal, I don’t believe so. The quilt blogs that I once followed have been replaced by new ones that inspire me. We are all at different levels of this wonderful world of quilting.

    The one thing that you can count on is that quilting is ever changing and I can’t wait to see what is new tomorrow!

  25. 25

    I loved your post. I just want you to know the perspective of someone outside of the industry. Of late, the commercialism of it is setting my teeth on edge. Some of my long beloved blogs are no longer about their lives and their process. The emphasis is now on pushing their products. Not only their stuff but the books and products of their friends.
    Not only am I not part of the industry, I can’t afford the books, cutters, templates, fancy machines or fabric lines. Believe it or not I buy by fabric at thrift shops on bag day to get the best deal. Sheets, curtains any type of clothing will do. I beg scraps from my friends who sew and don’t know what to do with that precious resource. I cruise blogs for visual inspiration and intellectual perspective such as your own. (Thank you for that) I’m sure I am not the only one. I design my own quilts based on the materials at hand. Even though I have a real job, seasonally at a motorcycle resort, sewing and quilting runs in the background to the point that it takes over my dreams. That is where my quilts come from. Don’t worry about the industry. Somewhere out there is the rich and fertile ground of our roots carried on by legions of people like me. At least that is my hope. Unfortunately, most of those people do not have blogs and a public face. That is why I am struggling to start my own blog. It is hard because in the summer I have to work hard while work is available. I am holding on for those 5 months in the winter when I can immerse myself my true love. Through my blog I hope to connect with quilters like myself who do what we do. In that field of experience I am like the Maytag repairman, a lonely girl, but a happy quilter.
    Keep up the good work, I love your point of view and your process. You are an inspiration.


  26. 26

    I wish I had seen this article/post sooner. I so agree with you ! This is exactly why I do not offer Block of the month or do Blog hops! I have been a quilter all my life and the changes to this mass produced commercialism drives me crazy. I started a website to sell “basic Quilting Supplies”, Sadly I realize I’m not “trendy” enough but that’s okay, I believe in the staying true to the craft and will always be , what I call “a natural born quilter”, traditional and a bit old fashioned. great post and I’m glad I found it today!

  27. 27
    Gail says:

    Great essay! I do think the quilt world is a becoming a bit homogenized. Being “thinky” is a very good thing in my opinion…

  28. 28
    Leigh Olsen says:

    I’m so glad that you expressed such a thoughtful series of observations about what I’ve been feeling of late. I am overwhelmed with quilting fabric, notions, patterns and almost to the point of suffocation. I want to cut the cord and get on with something else–perhaps a new way of looking at the craft and make art. I just feel done with it all. Now, what to do with my ten machines, and wall to wall fabric collection?

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