Why we make what we make…

We all make quilts for different reasons, have different influences, and different aspirations. As a quilter I am perpetually interested in why other people make quilts, or more specifically, what draws them to make the quilts they do make. The reasons for the quilts that get made are various and incredibly diverse, but what I find most compelling is the thought processes behind the numerous decisions that go into every single quilt.

I am fascinated by the ways in which people translate their influences and preferences, their originality and tendencies into finished quilts. It seems, though, that those elements are often the least discussed. We tell the stories of who we make quilts for in great detail (and I think it is incredibly important to do so), but we so frequently shortchange all those nuanced decisions, the conceptual framework, the fundamental choices that explain why any particular quilt is made. As a student of quilting, I continually crave this information, the conversations about these topics. Perhaps I am being greedy, but it feels like there is so much more to learn from the quilting community that gets left unsaid.

It seems to me that there are two absolute givens about why we make quilts:

One: Everyone who makes it to their third quilt loves making quilts. Some, like me, realize that they love quilting quicker than others (I was hooked after my first finish), but very few people make a third quilt without loving doing this. It is too laborious, too obsessive, and frankly a bit too expensive to keep doing if you don’t love it. There are a lot of things we keep doing in life even though we don’t enjoy them, but none of them include hand binding or ripping out a quarter-mile of marginal quilting.

I think it is important that quilters tell the stories of their passion for quilting, share the back-story of how they came to the craft. Those are the stories of the quilting tradition, the lifeblood of how the practice continues and grows. It perpetually astonishes me that quilting survived the rampant industrialization and commercialization of the 50s through the 80s, and every quilter (from my grandmother-in-law in the mountains of eastern Kentucky to the emerging art-quilters in the 70s) is owed an enormous debt of gratitude, and their stories are a remarkable part of the heritage that has been passed down to us.

At the same time, those stories rarely explain why any particular quilt is made the way it is. The individual choices we make are of course wrapped up in our larger quilting lives, and stem from the greater quilting tradition, but so much more goes into every decision about color, scale, and design; each choice of fabric brings meaning; the choice of a pattern brings a whole range of references. All of us in this community love quilts and quilting, but what we don’t know is why any particular quilt gets made the way it does.

Two: We all want to make things that we like. That may seem like an obvious statement, but I think it merits discussion. For most of us quilting is a hobby, something distinctly different than what we do everyday. It is a place for doing what we enjoy and making the things we like. We make these things for ourselves, our families, our friends, and for people in need. And in all of those cases we generally strive to make something that we will be proud of. At times we will make a quilt that we don’t particularly care for, but we know the recipient will, which in turn makes us happy, so we like it. At times all of us fall short of liking what we have made: experiments go awry; accidents happen; things just don’t come together. That’s just the nature of making, but the goal generally remains the same: make things we like.

While this is true, it is not a particularly informative part of the conversation. But it does lead nicely to a really useful question: Why do you like it?

I know I’ve been talking about the question Why? a lot lately, but it is seriously embedded in my head right now; it is the question I keep finding myself asking. It also seems like a word that gets a bad rap. Too often, Why is seen as a critical word, invoking negative connotations. It sets some on edge, expecting disapproval to follow. Why? is often seen as oppositional rather than as a genuine, open inquiry.

Perhaps I am stuck on Why because Bee is going through her Why? phase. I’ll admit, Why can be really irritating, but it is also the most beautiful question in the world. It admits an interest in what is happening, a desire to understand, and a degree of respect – the person being asked is presumed to have some degree of knowledge. To ask Why? admits a degree of vulnerability; it is an admission of ignorance (ignorance is not a bad thing). Asking Why? is an opening of a dialogue, a common space for sharing and learning and intimacy; the offering of Why? is an act of generosity.

I see Why? as a vehicle for inspiration, the means to learning more about the practice of quilting and quilters in the community. The stories of how we arrived at quilting tell us of the richness of the community we participate in, but there is so much more to our practice. Each quilt that gets made is a moment, a instant (though one that may take years to finish) in the quilting tradition. Every quilt has lessons to impart: it is a blend of intuition and experience, influence and innovation, respect and rebellion, community and individuality. It is in the details of a quilt, the Why?, that others can find inspiration.

Often we don’t consciously think about these decisions; intuition frequently just takes over, but all of those elements and more are in each quilt we make. Every quilt is a blend of our love for quilting, our preferences (our desire to make things we like), and countless decisions subtle and grand. Why? is an invocation to share the entire story, whatever that story may be, to allow others to learn from your quilt, from your experience and expertise. It also opens a fundamental reciprocity; it expresses a willingness to learn from others.

It seems to me that Why? is the cornerstone of community. Real community does not stem only from commonality, but also from our willingness to acknowledge, accept, and learn from our differences. Perhaps I ask why too often, too insistently at times, but it is a question born of love, love for the craft, for the quilting tradition, and for a remarkable community.

Of course, Why? can also be used to smash a few walls, but sometimes walls need toppling…

Yay quilts!!!

-T

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6 Responses to Why we make what we make…

  1. 1
    Sequana says:

    When I look back at WHY I quilt something, I can see how that answer has changed. It began because I saw what other quilters were doing, and I thot……why can’t I do that? So I set off to prove I could. Then I moved on to why? because I want to learn something new and how to do it. So I did. Now however, sadly, the answer seems to be, why? because this is something I can make without pain. More and more I find less and less of that. 🙁

  2. 2
    Dr. S says:

    When you are here, we will go to the Jurassic Coast, where she can ask Why Why Why Why about fossils and geology to her heart’s content!

    (Sorry that that doesn’t have anything to do with quilts. I am identifying with the Why? Why? Why? part of your post most of all!)

  3. 3
    Mary Ann says:

    Thomas, even if I didn’t love your fabric and quilts I would still read your blog. The use of language and thoughtful discussion of what many people simply consider a hobby draws me in every time. Today it’s the sentence…”oppositional rather than as genuine, open inquiry.” Thank you for speaking to us all in such a meaningful and erudite manner.

    • 3.1
      thomas says:

      Thank you so much. That seriously means a lot. I have come to care a whole lot about this community and what we do, and want to do whatever I can to bring people and conversations together…

  4. 4
    chibidani says:

    I have three girls. Since one is only 12 weeks old, we’ll ignore her for now. Of the other two, I’ve got one on each side of the “Why?” stage. The first has surpassed it, and now that you’re talking about it, I kinda miss it. The second should get there sometime in the next year. Your comments today have made me think that I will try to be more patient with any more “why” questions I get asked, no matter which child they come from.

    I quilt, and sew, because I enjoy it as a creative outlet. I make the decisions I do mostly based on the fabric stash I already have – I have too much to warrant buying more. I make other projects because I want to give someone something special. More important to me is learning from others, which requires me to ask “Why?” sometimes too.

  5. 5
    Dianne Mitzel says:

    I would love to make the “H” quilt for my grandson. His name is Harrison, and we call him “H” . If you would be so kind as to tell me where I might purchase the pattern, I would be so grateful. Love the Savannah Bop collection, your inspirations girl is so precious…thank you so much

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