Reflections on the industry (part two)…

People quilt for lots of reasons, and that is just the way it should be. Heck, most quilters do it for more than just one reason; we are complicated people. I do not think everybody ought to be quilting for the same reasons I do, nor in the same ways, but I think there is a significant number of quilters that is being underserved at the moment, that does not feel like the quilting industry is speaking to or supporting them.

In my generation, there are a lot of people coming to quilting as part of a broader social movement. This is not limited to just this generation, it is people of all ages, but it is a practice that has truly gained traction in recent years. Whether it be the slow food movement, much of the Ravelry community, Maker Faire, or the renewed interest in recycled materials there is a search for significance afoot. As such there is indeed an underlying political nature to these practices, and this includes many quilters. It is about far more than aesthetics, or giving, or tradition; it is part of a desire for a different, and hopefully better world.

That is what actually drew me to quilting, that current within the tradition that connected with these beliefs. This is not a new idea, but one that is re-emerging in the craft and wider world. We are making messages, not things. This is an approach I try to bring to everything I design. Again, I don’t think this is where everyone is, or should be, but I think there is a solid percentage of quilters who are searching for the larger issues, the implications of making and quilting and speaking and doing. These people are not better than other quilters; they just have different reasons and different goals. And I think this audience is being radically underserved.

At the same time, it disturbs me that things like Why Quilts Matter and Quilt Alliance put together have fewer followers than Moda Bake Shop on FB. There is nothing wrong with the Bake Shop, but in a practice that speaks so much about tradition and heritage and meaning that saddens me. As much as I hear quilters complain that the tradition is being forgotten, that the techniques are not properly respected, why is it that these organizations that exist to preserve the remarkable tradition of quilting and explore the profound meaning of these objects that we all love are not the most supported parts of our industry. Personally I think we need something like a swear jar around here; before you can complain about someone not respecting tradition or lacking proper skills you have to make a donation to the AAQ. If you are truly concerned about the preservation of the tradition forego a FQ bundle and send that money to a quilt museum.

I’m serious. Criticizing technique is the easiest thing in the world to do. Again, I do think craft and skills matter, and I agree at the basic level with most of what Ebony wrote in this post that has been circulating, but I’d like you to read this post on being an artist a while back and think of them side by side. Then read the comments on each. The posts are not that different, but we seem to be technique obsessed. Almost everyone rails against the Quilt Police, but everything about the industry reinforces that attitude. There are hundreds of books, articles, videos, and tutorials every year with tricks for perfect binding, tidy seams, and better appliqué flowers, but how much stuff comes out to help us make our own quilts better, to find our voices, to do what so many of us say we love about quilting?

In much of this I am indeed looking squarely at modern quilting. If modern quilting is indeed to be a movement it must, must, must mean more than just simpler quilts and domestic quilting. That is exactly what my wife’s grandmother did in the mountains of Kentucky fifty years ago. Here’s the thing, I do think modern quilting is about more, and I am sure it started as more, but if modern quilting is reduced to “Modern Tips” and “Modern Made Easy” there is no need for the word modern besides being a ready marketing tool.

Let me reiterate, I think there is enormous value in what is going on now. I have been fighting for it since I got here, as have many, many others. But what are the underlying questions driving modern quilting? If it is a movement, what are the issues that propel it forward? For many this doesn’t matter, but if history has taught us anything it is that a style, a fashion, can only last for so long without an abiding underlying reason.

And the thing is that I don’t think the pressure lies solely on the shoulders of the leaders or the publishers or the manufacturers. It is you, the consumers. If you accept it being nothing more than a trend, that is what you will get. I have seen book after book (not mine) transformed after it left the author’s hands. I’ve seen collection after collection watered down (again, not talking about me). If the work isn’t good enough, for whatever reason, let it be known, but always know that there is a complex network of issues at work and apply the pressure where it will be most effective.

Imagine you are a brilliant new quilt designer. You are not yet an expert quilter, but your designs and piecing are flawless. You are offered a book deal and you have to figure out how to make the quilts. Let’s use my book as an example:

I was given an advance; remember an advance is not just money you get in advance of doing the book, it is an advance on future royalties. It very well could be all you ever get for doing the book. From that advance I had to pay my literary agent; I love my agent because I don’t have a clue about contracts and contract law. It is money well spent, but money nonetheless. From that remaining money I need to make the book happen and theoretically pay myself something for actually writing the book.

I am not yet an accomplished quilter, so Lisa Sipes quilted all of my quilts for the book. The only reason that was possible was because she did it for next to nothing. I gave her half of my advance, but probably should have paid her close to that for the first one she did. If not for her remarkable generosity I would have had to quilt all of them myself and they would have been awful. Even then I am now down to something under half of my advance and I haven’t purchased any fabric, batting, or shipped a single quilt. Luckily I found some sponsors. Pellon generously sponsored the batting; I received fabric from various and sundry companies. But even then my net take-away from that initial advance is about 15%; enough to cover my plane ticket to Portland for Market had I gone, with enough to take Lisa out for dinner for being such an awesome quilt wife.

Hell, I am delighted to have gotten this opportunity, and I love working with F+W, but there are economic realities that always lie behind the scenes for every professional around here. Let’s go back to that brilliant new designer; he/she is not lucky enough to have a partner that can cover the bills for the next several years; this is not a luxury endeavor. He gets this deal, something she has been working toward late at night for years. Each expenditure takes away from other things. Not everybody has the luxury to say not yet, or go into debt in order to make something.

Every maker wants to make the best things possible, but there are costs associated with that. As such the industry favors the technicians over the designers. Not that there are not many who do both exceeding well, but it is a reality. And before you start tearing into one maker or another I ask you to think more deeply about the many issues underlying this profession. Yes, professionals need to be held to higher standards, but I think it is also important to understand why a lot of the things that happen in the quilting world happen.

When the projects in a book are not perfect enough, or the colors on a fabric collection are less than ideal it is easy to blame the designer, but I think we need to perpetually recognize the complex of issues that lead to that result. Before posting a bad review of a book ask yourself whether the author was supported well enough to execute the book to perfection. Before ripping that new designer apart for the quality of fabric, remember how much or little control the designer actually has over so much of the process. Consider whether the review should be criticizing the author or the editor or the publisher, the designer or the manufacturer. Nothing in this industry happens in a vacuum even if the authors or designers are placed in the spotlight, for good or bad.

And here is the thing for me; I think the industry need to be encouraging a wider range of voices as a more diverse audience of quilters comes to the practice. Unfortunately the pressures brought, in no small part by consumers, reinforces a certain hegemony. For the audience that speaks to, perhaps the broad span of the community, that works, but in my travels, conversations, and experiences there is a vast, untapped current out there, a lot of makers who want something more, or at least different. I think the modern quilting drew most of those makers in, but is at risk of losing them as the movement transitions into being a market force.

I don’t think I speak for everyone, nor do I want to. I don’t think everyone ought to agree with me, but I hope they may recognize that there is this perspective out there. Just as the quilting world has always been in flux, it is changing now. There are new voices emerging, and they deserve to be heard. The industry can either embrace and support those voices, or it may lose them and the audience that is attracted to them. The differences may not be vast, may not be revolutionary, but subtle shifts can carry epic significance.

In the end, though, I keep returning to something I wrote yesterday:

“All too often I hear that craft professionals ought to be doing this “for the love of it” I wince; that belief then limits being a professional to either members of the upper-middle class—those with a partner who has a good income—or those who are willing to make serious and profound sacrifices that involve their families in so many ways. I can only do this because my wife has a good job, but it wounds me that so many brilliant quilters and designers are excluded from the profession simply because they cannot afford to enter.”

To me this is still the most pervasive problem in the industry, the one that reinforces quilting as a hobbyist’s practice. The thing is that this seems so profoundly disconnected from the profound history of quilts. It is why I find it hard to see “traditional” quilting as traditional, and see the real opportunity in modern quilting to be to reconnect with the deep conceptual roots of quilting. My great-grandmother would have been horrified by the idea of a quilt kit as she worked in her natural food store in Lancaster. My wife’s grandmother would have likely wanted you to explain the idea to her, not because she was not intelligent, but because the idea would have been so foreign to her. They made quilts, not historical objects; they were each very much makers of their times and circumstances.

I know this puts me well outside the mainstream, but there it is. There is room for all of us, and we don’t have to agree. I want to speak with, to, and sometimes for those looking for that wide practice and understanding. Hopefully I can expand the awareness of certain approaches and ideals, and maybe bring in a few new quilters to a tradition I have grown to cherish profoundly. For the time being at least I am committed to putting my voice out there to hopefully carve some space in this industry for a different conversation. With any luck, every once in a while, I’ll get something right.


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