The Invisible Quilter 41


The other day I went to a friend’s birthday lunch at a local cafe. I was seated among a group of women I didn’t know, and when I mentioned that I made quilts I got the response I almost always get when amongst the muggles (i.e. nonquilters): admiration (“that’s so cool!”) underscored by confusion. People still make quilts? When I mentioned my favorite quilting event is coming up soon—the 85th annual Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party—the woman next to me asked in an incredulous voice, “Do people actually go?”

Sure, I told her. Lots of folks from the Eli Whitney community attend, as do quilters from all around the state. I then gave her the standard Yes, Quilters Still Exist spiel: Do you know there are 16 million quilters in this country? That quilting is a 3 billion dollar a year industry? That there are dozens of quilting magazines and podcasts, and hundreds if not thousands quilting blogs? Quilting, as the Donald would say, is YUUUGE.

The response is always the same: I had no idea.

Why is that? Why do the muggles not know that we exist? If you do the math, 16 million quilters means that 1 out of every 20 Americans quilts. The fact that my local grocery store stocks six quilting magazines on its periodicals rack (For the Love of Quilting, Quiltmaker, Quilter’s World, AQS American Quilter, and Quilting Arts) suggests that quilting is very much a going concern in this country.

So why is the fact that we make quilts so shocking? Why don’t more people know that quilting is vibrant, thriving craft practiced by women (and a few men) all over the country and across the world?

I have a few ideas. I’ll begin with the obvious:

Quilting is a woman’s thing. Believe me, if 16 million men were quilters, Sports Illustrated would cover it like an Olympic event. The Best of Show quilts from Houston and Paducah would be on the front page of the New York Times. There would be a 24-hour quilting cable channel, and quilters’ trading cards would be available at every supermarket checkout line.

(I can just hear it now: “Cool, I got a Joe Cunningham!” “Man, I already have two Luke Haynes! Who’ll trade me for a Ricky Tims?”)

The media does a piss-poor very bad job of covering quilting. I understand that your average features writer is not a quilt historian, but when, oh when, will we get away from these sorts of headlines:

  • “Quilt group threads modern style into old-fashioned hobby;”
  • “Kansas City Regional Quilt Festival puts a modern take on a vintage art form,”
  • and the nearly ubiquitous “Not your grandmother’s blanket.”

Most articles treat quilting as though it were a dusty butter churn found in a long forgotten great-aunt’s attic. The general assumption seems to be women stopped quilting somewhere around 1930 and have just recently rediscovered it.

“Modern quilts aren’t exactly what your great-grandmother used to make,” a Toronto Globe & Mail reporter reassures us. “Like the resurgence in rug hooking, another practical craft of generations past, quilting clubs are popping up across the country and guilds are consistently gaining new members.”

Yes, like the resurgence in rug hooking. Yes, exactly like that.

It must be said that sometimes we quilters are not our own best advocates. “Quilters,” one quilter told the Columbia County News-Times in a recent article, “are not a bunch of little old ladies sitting around,” an  oft-referenced  image  that has lacked currency for for decades. In the same article another quilter goes on record to say that the modern quilt movement is “a whole sort of revival of quilters.”

(ETA: One of the quilters quoted in this article has written to tell me that the quotes were in response to a young reporter who began their conversation by exclaiming that her grandmother made quilts. So in fact, the quilters were trying to convince the reporter that lots of people quilt, not just our grannies. Always good to know the context of a quote!)

While it’s generally accepted that in the U.S. quilting had a fallow period from roughly WWII until the late 1960s (though if you read Roderick Karcofe’s Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar 1950-2000, you might reconsider), once quilting took off again in the 1970s, it never stopped. The only time quilters have needed reviving in the last forty-odd years is at the end of a long day at Quilt Expo, and we’ve long given up smelling salts in favor of a nice Cabernet.

(Here’s a dream: next year when every newspaper in Georgia does a piece on QuiltCon 2017, wouldn’t it be great if the only time the word “grandmother” appears with the word “quilt” is in the headline “Woman becomes grandmother when her daughter gives birth on QuiltCon’s Best of Show quilt”?)

There are two other reasons I can think of for quilters’ invisibility in the larger culture. Nowadays, when so many people are hard-pressed to thread a needle, much less sew a straight line and a quarter-inch seam, the muggles believe that making a quilt is a near-impossible endeavor, on the level of performing neurosurgery or splitting an atom, and should not be attempted outside of a laboratory. The idea that someone could make a quilt in her own home by sewing little pieces of fabric together using a sewing machine? Outlandish! Preposterous!

Finally, most of us quilters work in a gift economy. Quilting is a 3 billion dollar a year industry because of the stuff we buy—fabric, classes, books, machines, conference passes—not because of the stuff we sell. Most of us don’t sell our quilts; we give them away. For free. For zero money. In a culture that measures a thing’s worth in dollars, and celebrates and idolizes and fetishizes the stuff the costs the most dollars, is it any wonder that homemade quilts fly under the radar and the women who make them are no where to be seen?


Also on The Off-Kilter Quilt blog…

Some Thoughts on Judging the Modern Quilt

 


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41 thoughts on “The Invisible Quilter

  • Donna Nelson

    Thank you for essentially demanding respect for quilters. I have seen people’s eyes just glaze over when I mention I’m a quilter. They just don’t get it. I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and I’m still finding inspiration to make more quilts. I’m very glad the “quilting underworld” exists, and will continue to be a part of it.

    • Frances Dowell Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Donna! I, too, am a proud member of the quilting underworld. We should get badges and ID cards!

  • NONNIE

    When I give my quilts away I give a copy of the PRINT OUTs … How to care for a quilt and HOW MUCH DOES A QUILT COST … I tell them this is for insurance purposes, so if the quilt gets damaged or stolen they have some recourse. It helps the MUGGLES to know the value of the quilt and how they can best take care of it…. My poor effort in education of MUGGLES.

    NONNIE

  • Abix

    What a crazy thing to be so angry about! I am so grateful that I have no opinion on whether or not people see quilters. The author seems angry almost to the point of being bitter. Also, I didn’t see any sources for the statistics or any expert testimony to back up the assertions that SI would consider quilting a sport if more men did it. Many men work on cars, but SI doesn’t write about it. Poorly written, lacking basic reasoning skills, and based on assumptions rather than facts. I am so glad I love to quilt and that I do not care if I get press for it.

    • Frances Dowell Post author

      Hi, Abix, Thanks for taking the time to comment! Just wanted to say that I’m not angry about this, just amazed. How can there be so many quilters and so few people know about us? Sorry this piece didn’t resonate with you. Enjoy your quilting!

      • Abix

        Frances,
        If the tone of your piece doesn’t match how you feel about it, you may want to review the piece to see how it comes across. It is also quite obvious that you are not a regular reader of SI or TNYT. Our writing is best when we use examples that we know because even hyperbole has to make some kind of sense. It is also illogical that you are amazed that many people do not know about quilting. You are trying to force the square of a particular niche into the round hole of popular culture. Unless there were more than 20 people at the birthday party, then your experience fit the societal norms, nothing amazing happened. We no longer quilt for the same reasons my grandmother sewed old clothes together and put warm potatoes in the bed with the children on the farm. Quilting requires a lot of uninterrupted time, some measure of disposable income, and enough space to work. If you are amazed that today’s society doesn’t afford those luxuries to large scores of people, then I suggest more study of TNYT.

        • Frances Dowell Post author

          Hmmm … but if 1 in 20 people quilt–and we’re talking about active quilters, which is to say quilters that make at least one quilt a year–then in fact a lot of us have found the space, the time and the money. So I’m not sure about your logic here. There are so many quilters that you would think that nonquilters would be aware of us. Just because you yourself don’t participate in an activity doesn’t mean you don’t know about it, occasionally read articles about it, have some general knowledge. I don’t play or even follow golf, but I understand the basics of the game (because my family subscribes to SI, yep, it’s true; and I subscribe to the NY Times, too), and am familiar with the major tournaments and players, etc.

          I feel like you’ve missed my point here, and while I’m sure the fault is mine, it’s probably best to end the discussion. Again, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

          P.S. For statistics about quilters, go here: http://www.quilts.com/announcements/y2014/QIA_survey.pdf

    • Very Lazy Daisy

      hm. I didn’t detect any anger, just thoughtful speculation. I enjoy these types of posts because they get me thinking. And that gets us all talking. As quilters, we belong to a great community of smart, insightful, and respectful people, and I value it greatly. As far as the statistics, I attended quilt market year before last and I learned these are spot on. I was amazed by the demographics that were presented to us.
      Quilting in general is a solitary function. Sure, we belong to guilds and bees and clubs, but the majority of our sewing time is spent alone. I think that probably plays a lot into why quilters can be invisible. I still find people I’ve known for years, and suddenly discover that they quilt too. It’s funny when it happens, but now I’m thinking there are a lot more of us than we think. We’re just quiet.

  • Very Lazy Daisy

    The idea of quilter’s trading cards really makes me smile. How fun would that be?! Can we make sure they each come with a chocolate frog?

    The misconception about a “resurgence” just makes my teeth itch. It never really went away. So many muggles buy into the misconception that quilting is an old fashioned hobby. I’m not surprised since there are loads of people who can’t even replace a button on a shirt. There is a cool thing happening in the past decade though with such an acute focus on DIY. You can’t scroll through facebook without seeing “a better way to do this everyday task.” As more and more people embrace crafting as a whole, I think awareness of quilting will grow.
    Now I’m fantasizing about turning quilting into a massive spectator sport, with beer commercials and billion dollar endorsements. And announcers! “Tom, did you see that curved seam?! Amazing! Let’s go to the instant replay.”
    It’s not so much about getting “press” as it is about bringing awareness to a beautiful craft, and what can be a beautiful community when united. We don’t want to be praised or showered with accolades, we only want people to stop looking at us like we suddenly grew a tale and scales when they say “You MADE that?!” I still get comments like “what’s a podcast?” And I’m happy to explain and open up a whole new world of entertainment and information for them, whatever it is they’re interested in.

    Pass the Cab, Baby.

    • Frances Dowell Post author

      We should get Pam to do a pretend quilt-sport cast on The Stitch! And I hope awareness of quilting does grow, through the general DIY movement, through the excitement Modern Quilting is bringing to the table, through whatever means necessary. Not because I think quilters want or desire the attention (though it would be nice not to be treated like dinosaurs), but because making quilts is such a wonderful way to spend time. What a wonderful world it would be if everyone quilted!

      • Verylazydaisy

        Oh that would be a cute and fun segment. Pam could pull it off, she’s funny.

        Yes, about the dinosaurs. For me it comes back to respecting a person enough to not discount or dismiss who or what they are.

  • Coral

    I endorse this salty rant! I can’t say much more than THIS THIS THIS!
    I think a huge part of it comes from being “women’s work”. So many “domestic” arts and crafts fly under the radar.
    I hope your post inspires more quilters to come out. I admit I was nervous about admitting I was a quilter, particularly to my friends on social media, but I’ve always had really positive feedback.

    • Frances Dowell Post author

      Hey, Coral–I’m a big fan of yours (you are indeed salty!) and I really appreciate your comment!

      I’ve always had positive feedback about quilting, too, which is great. I’m hoping to lure more people into our little (big) cult here!

  • Kati R.

    OMG Frances, it’s such a great article! And you are so right in all the things, and it sounds hikarious when you say if it was a men’s hobby… And the other hand it’s sad. It’s like racism. Everyone says it doesn’t exist, but it does. Anti-feminism is the same thing. I had a few good chuckles, thanks so much for the cheer!

  • Laura

    I made my friend’s daughters each a quilt when they graduated from high school and another when they graduated from college. One of the daughters introduced me to her college roommate as ‘the lady who makes our quilts’, like every family needs/has an official quilt maker. I love making things for these girls because they appreciate them, and I love being introduced as ‘the lady who makes our quilts’.

  • Rebecca

    Just to clarify, as it also confused me when I read it online first… The article comparing quilting to rug hooking was immediately following an feature on modern rug hooking in the actual physical newspaper. I know this because I was interviewed and quoted in that article. And it was not a UK paper, but a Canadian one.

    • Frances Dowell Post author

      Thanks for the clarification, Rebecca. I see now that the article was in the Globe & Mail and not the Guardian, which I originally had in my notes. I think the spelling of “Colour” threw me! I’ll make the correction in the post. Also, you’ve cleared up the mention of rug hooking, which seemed awfully esoteric without a larger context!

  • Ellen

    Funny! I think a lot of the work that women do is done quietly, in the background. Maybe that’s not all bad? And my grandma was an amazing quilter. Rock on quilting grandmas!

  • Siobhan Furgurson

    Interestingly enough neither Tari nor I are grandmothers. We were however being interviewed by a very, very young journalist (ok, still a student) about a quilt project our guild did for the VA. Tari’s quote was in response to the reporter sitting down at the table and blurting out “I am just so excited to meet you…my grandmother quilted!” So…now you have “the rest of the story….”

    (and btw…the quilt donation we did to the VA was appraised at over $20,000…we do know the value of our work)

    • Frances Dowell Post author

      Thanks, Siobhan, that’s interesting to know–I appreciate you giving me some more context for the quotes. And congrats on the amazing appraisal!

      • Vivian

        But also much to Frances’ point is the fact that while the article (I looked it up) noted that an auction quilt raised $3K, I’m sure it never occurred to the article writer to ask what the quilt was worth which is a fact that is usually shared when talking about auctioned/donated items. Imagine the different direction the article might have gone in if the $20K appraised value of the donated VA quilts that Siobhan shared here was offered to or had been asked by the writer in the course of the interview!

  • Jackie

    Bravo! Another thoughtful piece. I think it boils down to respect. Respect for the skills and creativity and certainly generosity as most quilters are very generous in their giving of time and resources. Too bad there is a study that’s done regarding the hours and dollars spent and number of quilts donated every year.

    • Frances Dowell Post author

      One of the things that occurred to is many of us middle-age quilters had grandmothers who were setting up households during the late ’30s and 1940s, a time when quilting was at an ebb. So many of our grandmothers never made a quilt in their lives!

  • Quiltin Jenny

    Love this! And I agree that anything 16 million men did would be better known.

    I bump into this all the time when I mention that I am going to my guild meeting after work. I had someone say, “Wow, you’re lucky to have a group so close!” I love the expression on their faces when I say that my guild of 80 or 90 people is not even close to the largest in the area, that there is one in the next county with HUNDREDS of members, and that there are guilds and shops all over Atlanta. Yes, I’m lucky, but also one of many.

    I have had to explain the cost/value of a quilt so many times, most notably when my cousin asked me to make a queen sized quilt for her 5 year old daughter. She offered to buy the fabric if I would make it, which I would have. I told her about the minimum yardage that would be required and the cost of the fabric if it ended up being on sale, and the conversation abruptly ended. I believe she found something lovely from Pottery Barn for a fraction of the price! LOL!

    PS…I didn’t detect anger or bitterness either – just your classic brand of humor and wry observation.

    • Frances Dowell Post author

      So funny about your cousin–but sadly not a unique case! Of course I, too, am shocked by the price of yardage, but that hasn’t stopped me yet.

  • Jen

    I’ve always been highly suspicious of the Quilting in America Survey. The group of people they surveyed wasn’t random. For example, they printed the survey in quilting magazines owned by F+W Media and asked readers to fill it in (it was printed in the Fons and Porter magazine, possibly others as well.) Then, from the set of completed surveys that they received they selected a subset of quilters that they deemed “dedicated” who they surveyed further. It’s also concerning that they don’t publish margin of errors with any of the results — any quality survey would proudly include a statement along the lines that the numbers are accurate to “plus or minus x percent, y times out of z.” Their sampling methodology likely made this impossible or absurd (or it was only published in the version of the results that they sell for $150.) Combine the overwhelming self-selection bias and the lack of a margin of error and the numbers become meaningless. In my opinion the only group of people about which they can form conclusions is the group of people who read quilting magazines owned by F+W Media and who like to fill in surveys. It’s easy to come up with a list of groups that would be drastically under-represented in the people they surveyed. I’m kind of impressed that they had the balls to extrapolate national numbers. Some of the numbers are truly bizarre (Minky is the favourite fabric of 16% of quilters? Batiks are the favourite fabric of 60% of all of the quilters in America? I have my doubts…)

    Long time listener, first time commenter. I have a math degree and every time I read about the survey all of my university statistics courses come rushing back. I couldn’t resist sharing my two cents. Feel free to ignore me 😉

    FYI, there are some more detailed numbers claimed by the survey here: http://kqimageserver.com.s3.amazonaws.com/digitaldownloads/compilations/2pageQIA14.pdf

    • Frances Dowell Post author

      I would never ignore you, Jen! Thanks for the insights–and yeah, as much as I love batiks, that number seems wildly out of whack …

  • Patricia Cash

    Great post. I am a new quilter and a Great Grandma. Last year my Granddaughter got married and I decided to make them a quilt. It turn out great and they loved it. A friend that does not sew asked, “Is their apartment decoration country?” I answered, “No, quilts are for all types of home decoration!”

  • Jaye

    I think you are right when you said that quiltmakers do not advocate for themselves. How many quilt shows send out press releases that they are happening? How many send out press releases about the winners? Librarians share a lot of the same advocacy problems for the same reasons.

  • NONNIE

    A couple of years ago I over heard someone comment that I was wasting my time with my quilting …. it could be better spent doing something else.

    I turned to her and said… “YEAH, I CAN WASTE TIME LIKE SHE DOES PLAYING CANDY CRUSH AND OTHER ON LINE GAMES…. AT LEAST I HAD SOMETHING TO SHOW FOR MY TIME.”

    Needless to say she AND hers will never get one of my quilts …

  • Clair Ballard

    I always get the comment ” That’s a lot of work”. Yes, it is. It keeps me from habits like smoking, drinking, and over eating. It also relieves my anxiety. And I love your use of the word muggles. LOL.