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