The Future of Quilts: A Manifesto of sorts…

Perhaps this is just a by-product of my current state of mind, my current emotional turmoil, but I don’t think so. Or maybe I am just a self-indulgent child searching for excuses, but I’d rather believe otherwise. The truth is I am feeling sadly pessimistic about the quilting world these days. The energy, the excitement that seemed to pervade quilting just a few years ago seems to be waning, dissipating into an over-marketed aether.

If I had five dollars for each time someone in the quilting world told me that I think too much or that a project was too “thinky” to find an audience among quilters I could likely afford to take this next year off, and that is a truth that profoundly saddens me.

A quick glance at the shelves of quilting books reveals an over-abundance of the words “quick,” “easy,” and “simple.” The fabric shelves too often seem to offer collections engineered to free quilters from the apparently dreadful task of actually having to think about what fabrics to put together. The stacks of patterns pile up with detailed instructions for all of those wonderful variations that the quilting populace used to stumble upon in their sewing spaces with minute changes regarded as the stuff of copyright protection.

Quilting today seems far removed from the practice that was for so long based on figuring things out, making do. On one hand it is wonderful that quilting now reaching millions, but I wonder about the hidden costs of it being a multi-billion dollar industry. What do all the gadgets and patterns, collections and instructions really add? In commodifying every aspect of our practices, marketing endless objects to perfect our quilts I worry that the quilts themselves are being turned into commodities rather than the resonant objects they ought to be.

The growth of an industry inevitably gives rise to marketing and sales departments, which take on more and more authority; the psychology of the focus group invariably takes hold. Sales figures take precedence over innovation, leading to a self-replicating cycle, a process that values the mean rather than the outlier. While we perpetually glorify the idea of creative inspiration, we work within an industry that reinforces similarity (every publisher wants to know what books your idea is similar to in evaluating potential salability). Malcolm Gladwell once said of focus groups, “ We are putting people through a process that alienates them from their true needs and that biases them in favor of the unsophisticated.” That sentence weighs heavily upon me when I think about the quilting world.

A creative practice ought to encourage individuality, exploration, and transformation, but I fear we have found ourselves with an industry that offers far too much of the opposite. Rather than an expanse of experimentation it appears more like a sea of homogeneity. Of course there are individuals out there stretching and pushing, moments and instances, sparks of the new, but those moments are rare and are too often reduced down and folded into the machinery of the focus group, translated into the language of the average.

Perhaps this is simply the reality of a creative practice in a consumer world: everything must be fitted into expected and approved structures as understood by the expanding apparatus of commodities. For designers to make a living they must yield to the market’s understanding of the average consumer, a notion that has less of a basis in reality than stereotypes of an audience; the idea of the widest possible appeal trumps the value of the unique. The structures of production, sales, distribution, management, and marketing need to support themselves leaving designers and makers at the edges of the industry that they work within.

To be blunt I am worried about the future of the industry; I doubt that the current structure can continue to support itself, or more immediately continue to attract designers and makers to participate in it. I can only do what I do because my wife is a tenured professor; I have never made enough money doing this to even rent a studio let alone contribute to the family’s finances. But without a continuing influx of quilters and designers willing to work for so very little the entire structure of the industry risks collapse.

As the meta-structures of the industry take on greater roles – sales teams and marketing departments making more of the decisions traditionally made by editors and art directors – I fear for more than the place of the creative professionals. The focus group approach rarely predicts what an audience might or will want; instead it tends to reiterate what it has wanted in the past. It steers an industry to repeat what it has done before even in the face of a radically changing audience and marketplace. Rather than serving new and emerging audiences, this approach tends to alienate just those people that need to be brought into the fold.

Ultimately, I am concerned about how the growth of the quilting industry affects the fabric of the quilting community. When likes and follows are transformed into monetizable necessities (they are frequent considerations in book and fabric deals), when designs become a part of the cycle of intentional obsolescence it fosters a fundamental distrust within the community itself.

Here’s the thing: an industry that encourages experimentation, fosters deep relationships between makers and the things they make, will develop an engaged audience, one that keeps coming back for new ideas and possibilities, an audience that will ultimately be more profitable. Basic math would indicate that makers willing to just try stuff out and make mistakes will inevitably buy more stuff in order to try again.

Of course there are some notable exceptions: Victoria Findlay Wolfe, Jacquie Gerring, and Denyse Schmidt always jump to mind. Their practices seem based upon a wonder notion, “Here’s how I do it, but what are you interested in?” Within an industry that seems driving by the next project, the next finish, and the next must-have product, that simple question somehow seems quilt revolutionary, even as it is so essentially traditional. Can you imagine what it would be like if the entire quilting industry, from the top to the bottom, truly articulated that concern? It brings an enormous smile to my face.

A boy can dream, can’t he?


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