Concerning the Quilt Industry: The Implications of Aiming Backward

There are so many things I could write today. I could share the emotional impact of last night or my very real concerns about specific issues that will likely impact Matilda’s life directly, and Simon’s more subtly. I could write of my concern for my brother if the ACA is indeed repealed or for myself should our insurance ever lapse (the pre-existing condition exclusion, if applied, would be a death sentence for me). I could address policy or the personal, microanalysis or the meta. But right now I find myself struck by the similarities between last night and what is going on in the quilt world right now.

More than anything I see the results of last night as hinging upon a question of time, specifically which way we as a nation are looking. The implicit, and often explicit, narrative of the Trump campaign is to return to a time when America was great, while the Clinton campaign focused on taking this moment in our national reality as a starting point for developing answers and solutions to the multitude of new issues that we face. Certainly I could spend hours writing about the profound social implications that lie beneath the surface of returning to an idealized past (that of the 50s and early 60s) that could be prosperous for white, male America only because so many (women, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, etc.) were denied so many rights. But right now that is all too fresh, too real to put into words. And within that fog of concern I keep returning to the poignancy of time and how that is playing out in my professional space, the quilting world.

The quilting community seems to be replete with dissatisfaction right now. That connection to, and excitement about the industry that seemed so immense just five years ago seems to have given way to a deepening sense that the quilting industry is not speaking to, not producing for the quilters that make up this community.

For most of the modern history of quilting (which I date back to the Great American Quilt Revival around the Bicentennial in 1976) quilt shops were centers for the quilting community, the primary, if not the only, means of interacting with the quilt industry. What existed in your local shop was essentially the whole of the quilt world for most quilters. With the advent of online communities, and even more importantly social media, information about what was happening and being produced began flowing differently, bypassing quilt shops, offering the vastness of the quilt world to quilters and potential quilters the world over. Furthermore, this new media reality facilitated communities that were not defined by geographical happenstance, and this fact more than anything else spurred on the rise of the Modern Quilt Guild.

Almost instantly quilt shops, with their limited number of shelves and square feet, shifted from feeling like an open window to feeling extraordinarily small. In the face of that vast world of possibility now so immediately visible online, shops simply could never be big enough, could never replicate the expansiveness of the quilting world as it was now seen.

And with this new, extraordinarily broad perspective, a whole generation of new quilters entered the community, and then stepped into the industry. The slow decline that was already underway was forestalled and the quilting world grew. After initial trepidation, the industry dove headlong in attempting to supply this new audience and embraced countless paths and possibilities. Fueled by blogs and social media, a whole new wave of creativity entered the market, but there was a deep and fundamental problem: all of this new energy still had to be routed through the conventional economic and distribution systems on which the industry relied.

And here we confront the essential structural incompatibility that lies at the core of the quilting industry. The quilting community is not in fact the constituency that the quilting industry is concerned with; they are selling to retailers and must satisfy that audience. I will be writing about the implications of this reality at length in the days to come, but for the moment I can frame the problem this creates quite simply: So much of the quilting community is getting its information about what is coming and what is possible online, while quilts shops are dealing with the material constraints of a pre-internet distribution system.

As more and more quilters shifted away from their local shops in this widely expanded quilting universe, shop owners were confronted with some very real decisions on the directions they would take.

(It is important to note here that I don’t think shops were losing customers simply to lower prices online, especially because, once shipping was added in, the price difference was frequently negligible. The biggest effect of the internet on shops was that it demonstrated just how small a slice of the available fabric any one shop could possibly stock.)

In the face of declining sales, many shop owners had to make a single, yet all-encompassing, decision: Should they shift their emphasis to significantly reach out to this wave of new quilters, or should they redouble their efforts to support and supply their existing, and most reliable customers? And it is here that the fundamental issue of time and direction comes into play. An overwhelming majority of shops that existed at the time made the perfectly logical and rational decision, in many cases the only possible decision, but that choice has played out in profound ways.

In focusing on past and existing customers, the these shops directed their attention backward, looking for lessons in what had sold, what had been successful, in short what had worked in years past. I do not think this turn to the past was an ideological decision, but one of efficacy, of economics. But in doing so, shop owners and the industry that supplied them implicitly turned away from the manifold motivations behind the incoming generations of quilters. What I saw five years ago, at the peak of the modern wave, was not a new generation of hobbyists, but a manifestation of a resurgent DIY movement, that same energy that brought about an explosion of Maker Faires around the country.

That simple shift back toward existing customers opened up a rift in the quilting community that has led to a continuing drift away from industry engagement. The industry now needed an increasing supply of specialized tools, mass-culture fabrics (look at the increasing reliance on licensing designs from outside of the quilt world), and machines with an ever-increasing array of. They needed more things for long-time quilters to add to their quilting arsenals. This is simply an economic reality when the retail focus is on long-standing customers; these quilters already have the basic supplies.

Add into this business reality the changes in credential requirements for Quilt Market that no longer admitted bloggers as members of the press, and a nearly perfect storm arose. You see, those bloggers were a major source of connection to what was happening in the industry for the online community, for those quilters whose eyes had been opened to the full scope of the quilting world. With the credential change that link was severed, along with untold value in free advertising, marketing, and feedback from the community back to the industry. Even as this increasingly large online quilting world was solidifying, the quilt industry severed its most meaningful tie to the audience who came to quilting outside of the structure of a quilt shop.

And thus we end up here: a vast number of shops holding on to their past and existing clientele, the industry increasingly focused on its direct, most immediate customers (the shops), and a whole segment of the quilting community suffering from whiplash as what had once seemed so large, so open to possibility, became suddenly small. And now here we sit, with a vast energy in the community that does not seek products, but connections, not perfection, but intimacy. And hence a spiral begins, each of these realities feeding off of the other, with an industry ever more tied to past successes that no longer reflect the current community, fighting to hold on to what they once had, but in doing so relinquishing what might be, and with that a sustainable future.

Five years ago the community and the industry felt intimately entwined, but now they seem quite simply at odds, as if they were parts of entirely different realms, coexistent, but fixedly separated. The end result is that we are all the poorer for it, as the current overabundance we see coming from the quilting industry seems inevitably destined to become a paucity. Luckily the quilting community has spent much of its history in just that condition, and in the end I must hold on to the belief that the quilting community will again find ways to make do, to reinvent vocabularies, and return to the loving embrace of the meaning of quilts: that quilters will invent new paths to do the most good.

do the most good

And with that I return full circle to last night. And it is here that I must hold on to the hope that compassion, expansiveness, and generosity will, at the end of the day, win out. And until that day I will wake each morning with the words Do The Most Good ringing true as my first thought of the day.


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