Concerning the Quilt Industry: The Problem with Perfectibility…

Perfectibility.

When it comes right down to it, the entire quilt industry is predicated upon this one idea: that the greatest pursuit in the craft is to make our quilts ever more precise, ever closer to some platonic ideal of flawless seams, identical stitches, and flawless fabrics. In many ways it seems self-evident for this to be our aspiration, thus making the multitude of manufacturers our benevolent assistants providing endless aids to this glorious goal. On the other hand, this seemingly simple idea, when examined, may carry some troubling implications.

Historically speaking, very few quilts even approached the standard of perfection that is so prevalent in the quilting world today. This is as much a byproduct of simple need as it is a result of the material realities of the past, the tools available to quilters before the advent of rotary cutters and infinitely complex machinery. While our 19th century forebears were undoubtedly practiced in all of the requisite skills for making a quilt (far more so than almost any of us today), the simple truths of the westward migration imposed extraordinary requirements. The vast majority of quilts were not intended to be heirlooms; rather they fulfilled the basic need for warmth. So much of the 19th century quilting lexicon is a result of reinventing a tradition to suit the needs of pioneer life.

While our museums may be filled with quilts that demonstrate exquisite technical mastery, the view of quilting seen there is largely a matter of happenstance, the result of what quilts have survived. That vast tradition of quickly made patchwork is largely lost to us, subjected to the vicissitudes of daily use or discarded in the decades that followed the emergence of plentiful manufactured blankets. What we see today is largely a matter of what has been preserved. Furthermore, in the years following the Great American Quilt Revival there was an extraordinary emphasis on displaying those remaining exemplars of the tradition, which then established an outsized role for technical perfection and aesthetic idealism within the quilting world.

But that is only part of the story, what we might call the benign factors in the rise of the cult of perfectibility. If quilting today were still a material, practical necessity, a very different industry would have emerged. Instead quilting re-emerged in the 80s, following the Great America Quilt Revival around the American bicentennial, as a hobby, something aimed at middle- and upper-middle-class women, a leisure-time activity now that so much of the domestic realm was becoming increasingly automated. Certainly, many quilters had a more intimate connection to the practice, but in the years between the Second World War and the quilt revival, two generations of (primarily) women lost their connection to quilts, especially in urban and suburban environments.

So, as an industry emerged to support this newly ascending hobby a marketing model was required to capitalize on this newfound interest in quilts. And this is where the whole venture takes a dark turn…

The transformation of a fading practice into an industry requires an impetus for economic expenditure, a reason to buy. And it is not enough to simply establish a rationale for initial outlays; an industry requires ongoing consumption to survive. Here is where perfectibility steps in as an ideal marketing model: proficiency is no longer enough when nothing short of the ideal is regarded as authentic. As each newly converted quilter progresses within the craft, ever more sophisticated techniques, tools, and equipment become seen as necessary. Thus the industry established an endless economy of the upgrade allowing for the production and valuing of more advanced (and expensive) supplies, both as facilitators of perfection and as (more and more) status symbols.

The tools of the craft rapidly became signifiers of commitment to the craft as well as demonstrations of ability; “real” quilters used only the best in materials, notions, and machines. A hierarchy emerged with show quilts at the apex, just as a parallel hierarchy of economic capability arose. The outlay of money in this kind of system becomes a shorthand for value, worthiness. The proximity to perfection stands as the measuring stick of quality regardless of meaning, sentiment, social or personal context. In this shift to precision we see not only an effective marketing strategy, but the rise of an associated register of worth, both in terms of the quilts we make and who we are.

And here we begin to see the truly troubling, and potentially destructive, implications of the idea of perfectibility. The fact that our quilts come up short of perfection is no longer a material inevitability, it is a shortcoming, a failing. Not only are our quilts not good enough, we are not good enough. Material flaws become reflections of our own flaws, our inadequacies. Furthermore, our inability to afford the requisite compliment of tools and devices to attain technical perfection becomes a signifier of even greater inadequacy, a reiteration of the moral assumptions surrounding economic status in America. But there is so much more to this…

While need is a valuable motivator, and desire is better still, there has yet to be found a better marketing strategy than shame. As material imperfection becomes increasingly associated with personal failing within the quilt world economy (misaligned seams representing a lack of regard for the tradition or a signifier of incompetence) the already insipid institution of desire shifts toward a fear of embarrassment.

While the quilting community over the past decade has been abuzz with concerns over the idea of the quilt police, the hierarchy that creates such a situation is purely a result of a redefinition of quilts following from the economic imperatives of an industry. What may have started as an expedient driver of continuing consumption is now something entirely different, an economy predicated upon the profound and essential dehumanization of the members of the community the industry purportedly supports.

The transformation of imperfection into inadequacy inevitably takes on a profoundly anti-feminist dimension within the context of a practice predominantly regarded as the purview of women; the institutionalization of inadequacy within the quilt world reveals itself as deeply, and darkly, demeaning. As the quilt industry increasingly relies upon tropes of making quilting simple, it reveals an exquisitely tailored message to prey upon the viciously dual obligation that now presses upon the psyches of women across the country: that they must be simultaneously strong and submissive, capable yet less so than the men in their lives. At its core, the imperative of perfection and the impossibility of achieving it is a perfect analogue for the impossible position women occupy in American society writ large.

As such, the quilt industry reveals itself as preying upon this fear of inadequacy, and further relying on a fundamental infantilization of the women it claims to support. The premise of inadequacy always encompasses more than a simple lack of technical expertise; it both implicitly and explicitly carries the implication of a lack of maturity, the insinuation of being lesser, incomplete, and ultimately inferior. Despite the façade of encouraging individuality and creativity, the essential foundation of the industry – with its patterns and notions, machinery and technical adjudications – is dependent upon the idea that we quilters (more often than not, women) are inherently insufficient. If perfection is the ideal, none of us can ever be good enough. Even in the face of endless expenditure we nevertheless remain flawed, a state that inevitably requires further expenditure.

As I used to teach my design students back in my previous life as a professor, when crafting a message, we need to be just as aware of the unintended consequences as of the intended content. The ongoing sale of quilt patterns requires a space in which both math and design are framed as being too difficult for the vast majority of quilters. Selling the widest possible array of notions necessitates a space in which the methods used by the countless quilters that came before are simply too complicated for our meager capabilities. Indeed, that originating premise of perfectibility leads to a whole set of related propositions that ceaselessly replicate the assertion that we are not good enough. So, in the end, the question of whether these messages are intentional or not is entirely beside the point, though the industry is certainly replete with deeply anti-feminist messages.

The “Husbands Lounge” at Quilt Festival is simply a rehashing of the sit-com trope of the reluctant husband in tow as his wife is frivolously (in the husband’s mind) shopping. The “Big Girl Block” contest may have been intended as a simple reference to large scale blocks, but that phrase is so fraught with implications that I find it remarkable (or want to) that it was even proposed let alone actually came to fruition. Indeed, the entire array of humor surrounding the theme of quilters hiding their fabric purchases from their husbands is a staple in the quilt world, despite the fact that is clearly relies on seeing women as economically (and morally, since they clearly have no self-control) dependent on men.

Ultimately, though, the simple truth about the quilt industry is that perfectibility, and all of its ancillary implications, is its sole reason for existing. If that were stripped away the entire structure would collapse. This doesn’t mean people wouldn’t make quilts, just that there would be no need for the quilting industry. And this is the ultimate sleight-of-hand maneuver that the industry has performed: even as we are presented Amish Quilts, the quilts from Gee’s Bend, and so many other clearly imperfect quilts as exemplars of the practice, we are simultaneously sold a bill of goods that tells us that we must follow along the path toward perfection. It is only within an industry in which we have internalized the act of judging every quilt we make as though it were a show quilt – as if showing were the primary purpose of a quilting – that we could accept so many anti-feminist positions and still keep coming back for more.

-t

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