Reflections on the industry…

Note: This probably has more typos than you could shake a stick at; I’ll fix them when my meds kick in…

If you’ve ever visited my blog before you probably know that I love doing follow-up posts; hell, I frequently write about something for days on end until I feel like I’ve really wrapped my head around a topic. In many ways this blog is as much for me as it is for possible readers. And as one might imagine I am in no way done with my last post

I meant to write this yesterday, but had a colonoscopy instead, and that post-anesthesia reality just wasn’t so conducive to terribly thoughtful writing. In the meantime, it appears that Ebony posted a follow-up post of her own that covers one segment that I wanted to talk about, so I’ll gladly refer you there. I would also like to reiterate that I fully and absolutely still stand by the premise of making shit as outlined in this post from a while back. I have and always will make a lot of crap, and I love that crap, but that crap will not end up part of my professional practice, or at least not too often ‘cause sometimes crap just happens.

That’s the thing, I make things both for me and for my business, and while they interrelate, they are not the same practices. I think much of this industry is predicated on the image of the beautiful, creative lives of the designers, but when it comes right down to it each and every professional around here is perpetually making serious and careful business decisions. That isn’t a bad thing, and that doesn’t mean we aren’t deeply committed to what we do and make, and that we don’t love our practices and the chance to be part of this community, it is just a reality. A bad decision can have serious implications on one’s livelihood and future; a word or phrase in the wrong place can derail everything, trust me. But I digress…

There are two reasons why Lisa Sipes quilted every one of my book quilts: 1] she is fucking awesome and I love her work (yes the swearing was necessary), and 2] I know my quilting skills are not yet up to the level of my ideas and designs. I know when I need help to produce the quality of work for the practice I want. That said I quilt almost all of Bee’s and Baby Rabbit’s quilts. They are no less important, probably more so actually, but they are from me, for her, and about us. The fact that I am still pretty crappy at the quilting side doesn’t matter. We love those quilts and I wouldn’t want them any other way.

I believe in the idea of professionalism, that all of the nuances matter when it comes to standing up and declaring oneself to be a professional. Otherwise the word becomes meaningless. To be honest though, the craft of making is not my biggest concern. In this world it is perpetually easy to pick away at craft problems, but it is almost taboo to criticize the conceptual development of something.

When I first started considering fabric design I was told that a collection is about telling a story, and I truly took that to heart and try to tell a rich, complex story with every collection; sometimes I do better than others, just like so many other designers. The thing is that the real purpose of fabric is to sell bolts. We all know that, and can all see that. Fabric is about trendspotting; what was hot at Target last season will be on fabric this season (and yes the fabric world does not set it’s sights high in terms of trendspotting). Media and product tie-in will always be coveted; hell there is a One Direction collection coming out.

And that is the reality that drives the entire industry: it is about what will sell. And there is nothing wrong with that, at least when it is done well. The thing is that most manufacturers and publishers and shops predict what will sell based on what has sold. It is the nature of risk assessment; if someone cannot fit a new product or idea into an existing marketing model that thing is unlikely to be made. Hence you end up with a largely regressive system, one that rewards similarity over innovation, trend following rather than originality.

At the same time it is certainly hard to blame the industry, and this is the way it goes in pretty much every field. You see it costs a lot to make fabric, produce a book, market and distribute a new product. And if a company is going to invest the kind of money it takes they need to build in some guarantees of success. Fabric is expensive to produce: you need to source the base-cloth, which itself needs to be manufactured, you need to print it, ship it, fold it to bolts. You have to warehouse it, pay a sales force, and distribute it to shops. Somewhere in there you have to pay all of the staff involved along with finding some money for the designer (very little). And then shops have to get their money, which doesn’t come easily to them, so they too need to figure out what will sell, and that is largely based on what has sold. So manufacturers produce what they think shops will buy, because the shops are really their customers. And shops buy what they think they can sell, or more immediately, what will actually allow them to make money (and pay the bills).

Because a lot of the time it isn’t just what will sell, but what will actually be profitable. My first book pitch that was accepted (and will likely never be made) involved carefully digging through 20th century art for ideas that would be applicable to quilting today, developing a conceptual and aesthetic lexicon through which we could all discuss modern quilting. The thing is that the book was going to require image permissions for 40+ pieces of Modernist art, each of which would have to be licensed. That would have added five to ten thousand dollars to the production costs, which would have raised the price of the book way outside of the viable range for craft publications. Hence the book was unmakeable, or makeable only if I was willing to do it at a loss. Thus, authors pitch what they think will be publishable, designers aim for the ever-so-slightly new, and most innovations are carefully market-tested into what is perceived to be palatable to the widest possible audience. Manufacturers are always balancing costs and quality and try to walk that very fine line. Sometimes the succeed and sometimes they fail, but then each additional step adds to the ultimate price and changes the equation. Consumers then buy what is available to continue their practice, balancing their desire for quality and originality against the need for low prices and their interest in the lastest trend, fashion, and fad. And the cycle begins anew.

The thing is that creativity doesn’t come free, even if we like to imagine the lives of creative professionals as wonderful things. As much joy as it may bring to work in this industry it is still a job, and love doesn’t pay bills. All to 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.

In some way we the consumers get what we ask for, but in others the shops control what consumers can even get. In some ways shops drive what gets produced, but in others the manufacturers limit shops profoundly. It is all a feedback loop based on people predicting what they think other people think, and that process will always be several steps behind current reality because it cannot help but be determined from what individuals have thought rather than what they will be thinking. As manufacturing takes a long time (nine months to a year for a fabric collection), it is primarily a backwards looking practice, one that capitalizes on trends. Certainly a few things will get through, some truly innovative work gets made, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

All of this is the nature of industry; it’s primary purpose is to not go out of business. A business, unless it is incredibly secure in its position, will always be risk averse. And that goes all the way from the large publisher and manufacturer to the individual designer. I perpetually censor myself. I adore Chawne’s work, but cannot risk making things like that. If I want to make a living in the industry I have to nibble away at the edges, work with subtle metaphors and hidden meanings. Everything must be palatable, because everything I make reflects on my practice, and each and every partner I have carefully guards their reputation and cannot risk what they may see as a negative association, even if it is by just a certain segment of their audience.

I have been told my work cannot really be authentic because it is ultimately just a prop for promoting myself, and that is the bind every professional has to cope with. Part of our job is to promote our partners; we are contractually obliged to do so, and without those partners we have no business, no job, no income. We generally choose our partners carefully and try to do so authentically. I work with Pellon because I like their stuff and adore Erin Sampson. I work with Janome because I have only ever sewn on Janome machines, and so it seemed a perfect fit. I write for Quilter’s Newsletter because I see it as an amazing opportunity to expand the discussion of quilting that I find so profoundly meaningful. But in doing these things I accept limits to my practice. It is always a balancing act. That said I have two words for anyone who dares to reduce my work, and by extension me, to a being purely a marketing ploy: Fuck you. And I mean that sincerely.

You see, what is at stake for everyone in this industry is a living, one that can disappear at a moment’s notice. And nobody doing this makes much money. Put a number in your head and cut that in half, and then half again and you might get closer to what the average designer actually makes. And that money doesn’t go to luxuries; it pays bills. In my case it is all about trying to put a college fund together for our children, two kids who based on their parents are likely to be aiming at some really expensive schools. So each time I screw up and potentially alienate a partner I see that as jeopardizing their futures, and I cry.

And the same applies to the companies; poor sales mean fewer designers and fewer employees. It means magazines getting shut down and jobs being lost. It means editors being laid off and reps being cut loose. The creative world doesn’t just happen, so yes the industry tries to capitalize on trends, but that is the safest bet, and consumers buy that stuff. So when you complain about it all be too trendy, or too commercial, stop buying that stuff. Each and every quilter is part of the machine.

So yes, it is easy to pick on the people who perhaps dive in too early, but when you get an opportunity you take it. And the publishers and manufacturers who push projects through way too quickly, but they need to get their stuff to market ASAP before the trend is over. Yes, it all dumbs down the industry. I have never understood why we would ever need another book on nine-patch variations again, ever. It’s an effing nine-patch. But there it is; as long as someone is buying the books they will sell. The market drives what gets made to a degree, but the consumers play a role.

So, stupid stuff will get made, and it will get made poorly. Every TV show that survives for more than a season will eventually end up on fabric. Pattern books will keep getting made even if no-one makes those patterns. Knew tools will come out to make everything “easier” rather than better. Things will look much as they always have. I remember when Denyse Schmidt came out with Greenfield Hill and so many people went all crazy over the fact that is was so different than her previous collections, it didn’t give them more of what they wanted, in short it wasn’t Flea Market Fancy or Katie Jump Rope. Hell, at first I was confused by that collection, but soon came to adore it. But consumers quickly associate a designer with a look, shops want all of a designer’s work to fit together (Moda does that brilliantly) so it can live together on their walls. That’s why we get what we get.

If you don’t like this reality, fix it. Stop buying the crap you think is crap. Tell your shops that you can’t stand to see all the crap. Tell the manufacturers and publishers. Until consumers stop rewarding trendspotting, redundancy, and mediocrity nothing is going to change. At the same time, go out and support the work you love ferociously. Stand up for it, shout about it. Spread the love for the designers you care about, whether they be professionals, semi-pros, or complete amateurs. Most importantly of all, go make shit. The only way great work gets made is through putting in the time. Make the best shit you can, and then do it better the next time.

All that said, I have my fingers cross for no fallout from this. I have tried to be honest and fair to all the parties. This is just the reality as I see it. I do think the industry should strive for more, and that standards really do matter, but industry standards are not the proper benchmark for every maker. When you make for you, you are making for you and nothing else matters. If some one goes all Quilt Police on feel free to tell them to back off; do not let them make you feel bad. At the same time be careful to differentiate between intended cruelty and a genuine effort at help. And when it comes to the professionals, think twice before you tear into them, or vent your unkindness, because there is always more backstory than you know, and once their designs and words leave their hands they often have very little control over what goes on.

I hope it is obvious that I think there is way too much crap, but why that is is complicated. And sometimes crap is great. Ultimately I feel compelled to repeat these words from my last post:

“When it comes right down to it though I will always take the quilt of mediocre construction that is just freakin’ brilliant over the technically flawless variation of a block I have seen a thousand times.”


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