16 August 2012

We Ponder the Future of Quilting

On August 10, 2012, I attended a breakfast and panel discussion entitled Quilting with a Crystal Ball: The Future of Our Craft, part of the activities of the Lowell Quilt Festival and Images Quilt Show, which is produced by  the New England Quilt Museum (NEQM) auxiliary.

Kudos to the NEQM for organizing this forum, moderated by NEQM curator Pamela Weeks.


Marianne Fons (MF) - Eminence Grise in the quilting world, founder, with Liz Porter, of the Love of Quilting media company. Love of Quilting was one of the first craft magazines whose production values were not an insult to the intelligence of its target audience, women.

Mary Fons (MyF) - daughter of Marianne, continuing the family business with new magazine Quilty, aimed at the "rookie" quilter, someone who did not have to take home ec in 7th and 8th grade, as I did, but who is now interested in quilting and sewing.

Martha Sielman (MS) - Executive Director, Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) and author of Art Quilt Portfolio: The Natural World.

Laurie Matthews (LM) - President, Boston Modern Quilt Guild (BMQG) and self-described stay-at-home mom and blogger.

Rachel May (RM) - Author and BMQG founding member.

Audience and panel get ready for discussion.
Moderator Pamela Weeks began with a few statistics culled from the biennial industry survey sponsored by the Creative Crafts Group, a media conglomerate that owns Quilters' Newsletter Magazine, among other titles.  If you google "creative crafts group survey quilting" you'll find a link to the 2010 survey, ready for your download.

Quick facts, according to the 2010 survey:

There are 21 million quilters in the US
14% of US households are home to at least one active quilter
Average of dedicated quilter (female) is 62
72% of dedicated quilters have a college degree
Spent an average of $2,442 on quilting per year
Estimated total value of the quilting industry is $3.58 billion (yes, billion) per year

Quilting in America 2010 survey.

Following her presentation of these statistics, Pam introduced the format of the discussion - she posed a question to the panel, who responded at will.  The summary of the discussion is based on my notes, and is reported through my own admittedly subjective filter.

First question - Who is today's quilter?

According Martha Sielman (MS hereinafter) many SAQA members came to quilting later in life, after another career.  Of 1720 respondents to a recent SAQA survey, only 11 were male.  Many SAQA members have a math or science background, hence are comfortable with measurement and numeracy. In her view, a decline in membership in traditional affinity groups, such as those affiliated with religious institutions, has led women to seek new forms of community such as quilt groups and guilds.  Despite the fact that many SAQA members display confidence with math, quilters often migrate from "traditional" quilts to art quilts in order to move away from the need for much computation.

Marianne Fons (MF) shared a bit of her life story with us, to which many in audience could relate. She began quilting during the US bicentennial hoopla, when Americans were celebrating their history and heritage, and she was a new mother looking for a creative outlet.  In her words, a quilt "stayed finished," was "something for me," and was something she could "pick up and do" during free moments. 
Note price of $1.25!
Young mother Laurie Matthews (LM) reiterated that women still seek a creative outlet.  50% of the BMQG membership work full time, many of them also have young children at home; this means progress on each quilt is slower than that of the empty-nester who may have fewer demands on her time (wait 'til Laurie has to take care of an aging relative), but her guild members are not necessarily interested in "churning out" quilts anyway.  Since the advent of instant messaging, and instant everything else, perhaps the appeal of "quilt in a day" is over.  Finally, the BMQG members want to "do it in their own way" and in this post-feminist era seek to re-engage with domestic activities with their own rules.   

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-new-domesticity-fun-empowering-or-a-step-back-for-american-women/2011/11/18/gIQAqkg1vN_story.html
In addition, and especially for stay-at-home moms, the community and connectivity afforded by an affinity group is important; one key difference for her generation, though, is that this community is online. Rachel May (RM), who has an extensive online presence which reflects her multi-faceted career interests, stated that blogging is key for this generation of quilters - those who don't have their own blogs nevertheless follow bloggers.  Indeed, a virtual quilter may be able to self-promote as effectively as a quilter with a more substantial body of work but no web presence.

MF bemoaned the stereotype of the quilters as little old ladies, and posited that the origin of this stereotype may have developed in the 1940's. After all, in previous centuries, quilters came in all sizes - young girls (and boys) learned to do hand sewing, and young women did communal stitching. However, during the Second World War, MF theorizes, younger women worked for the war effort and only grandmothers had the time to quilt; a stereotype thus emerged and today "even librarians are sexier than quilters." MF herself couldn't look less like a little old granny, by the way, in chic gladiator booties, black leggings, belted big shirt and Iris Apfel-inspired necklace.

Speaking of librarians reminded me of the mini-crisis when Jo-Ann Fabrics banned an issue of Mark Lipinski's magazine, which featured quilts with political and - gasp - sexual themes.

Source: http://design-crisis.com/?tag=mark-lipinski.
Pamela Weeks moved the discussion right along with her second query: What is the impact of the web on the quilting community?

Mary Fons (MyF) made an important point is that we are not as isolated as media reports indicate.  I think she's right - we are not all bowling alone, to co-opt the title of one recent book on social isolation. And, as long as one isn't driving, texting isn't necessarily an inherently bad thing - as MyF pointed out, tongue in cheek, isolated women back in pioneer days would probably have loved a text or phonecall, if such an anachronism had existed, for example.

If I may paraphrase Elizabeth Gilbert, we "love, create, talk" about quilts online and it can bring us together. As MF emphasized, we all have an impulse to share, to be praised, to be nurtured and much of this happens online now.  However, tactile input is still exclusive to an actual artifact - nothing can replace touching a quilt.

MF also pointed out that quilters were quick to embrace technology, even back in the Pleistocene era when email was pretty much limited to aol.com.

MyF claimed that her readers report no time to take an in-person class workshop but want instruction online. MyF did not explicitly state the corollary to this,  but I will - which is that this online generation expects information - and this includes instructions - to be free.

An audience member mentioned that she can't give her instructional CD away - nope, not to Gen-Wiki!
Some things are hard to learn online - Maggie Weiss teaches thermofax printing.
LM does belong to a traditional guild ( I believe she said a guild in Chelmsford, MA) but is sometimes frustrated by the reliance of older member on "snail mail." For the BMQG, online meetings are the major form of interaction, and connectivity is achieved through Facebook and email.  Moreover she can't afford the "$13.99/yard" fabric in stores, so buys all her fabric online.  (Does she know about the Fabric Corner in Arlington? Very reasonable prices and lots of coupons for even better bargains.)

RM attributes the beginning of the "modern quilt" movement to the flickr site Fresh Modern Quilts, and mentioned there are zillions of modern quilt books in the pipeline, so books still sell evidently, albeit on Amazon.  The inspirations for modern quilts, according to RM, are Amish quilts, Gee's Bend quilts and Nancy Crow, who's no dummy when it comes to adapting to new markets. I was surprised that RM omitted mention of Denyse Schmidt, whom I would have thought THE godmother of modern quilts.  However, I've since learned that Denyse Schmidt will indeed be the keynote speaker at Quiltcon (of course, it would have that name!)
From website for Quiltcon.
Pamela Weeks was curious about the nature of these new communities and asked if they, like traditional quilt guilds, make any kind of outreach to the non-quilting community, say, through charitable donations of quilts? LM responded that this is not yet a focus of the BMQG, although it's still a new group. An audience member added that her cohort of modern quilters initiated their own quilt donation effort.

LM brought up a dark side to all this online connectivity: the ability to be dismissive, and yes, bullying, with few consequences. If you google "dumbing down quilting," results lead to blog posts which are rather negative, and worse, towards the "modern quilting" movement.

Reacting to this discussion of  modern vs. traditional antagonism, an audience member mentioned feeling unwelcome at a "traditional" guild.

RM underscored that this is a common feeling among younger quilters; however, the new movement itself risks falling into the same trap of becoming another clique. In her view, the goal should be to avoid this and break down barriers and reject labels. 

MyF, in an effort to mellow the tone of the discussion a bit, perhaps, stated that it's only natural for affinity groups to self-select - we have a need to make sense of our world, and sorting and compartmentalizing do this. However, she remembers her horror at one show-and-tell when a modern quilt, proudly displayed by its maker, was greeted with "crickets" (silence so pervasive you can hear crickets chirping). This should not happen to anyone.

An audience member picked up on Mary's remarks, stating that since her "traditional guild" met only once a month, there was an understandable tendency for people to gravitate towards folks already familiar, but the guild was recognizing the problem and trying to introduce "getting to know you" exercises. Also this guild has a rule that everyone must clap for every show-and-tell quilt.

Round Robin quilt projects get people talking to one another.
The above image is the Round Robin unveiling from Quilters' Connection, my quilt guild, in May, 2012.  We all clapped furiously for every quilt.

MF reminded us that some people just hate change, and that machine quilting was for a long time not accepted. She pointed out what had been obvious for a while in the discussion, that there are really no universally definitions for traditional vs. modern vs. contemporary. In Marianne's words, "I'm still here, so I must be contemporary!"

This led Pamela to her next question, To what extent is the modern label based on a certain aesthetic?

Interestingly, this question was largely ignored by the panel. I'll go out on a limb here, with my impressions of modern quilts.  They are often  characterized by what I call the "kate spade" color palette of neutrals and high tones - no more "Grateful Dead" rainbow brights, no more toned Civil War colors, and fewer "jewel tone" batiks.  Some modern quilts feature repeated blocks but many are improvisationally pieced.  Graphic impact is achieved not by intricate piecing but through contrast of hue or value. Most functional modern quilts are machine quilted, but there is a growing move towards hand work too.  Am I near the mark?
From Kate Spade website.
There was throughout this discussion, however,  a suggestion that the modern quilt movement is "owned" by women under 50.  This undercurrent of generational tension  may have prompted the reaction of one mature audience member who rose in defense of quilting as an activity for older people - keeps the brain active, not demanding physically, etc.

Before the exchange could devolve into generational antagonism, Pamela asked her discussants to peer into their crystal balls, and predict where we are headed?  For example, with this online emphasis, is print media dead?

MS practically leaped out of her chair at this, waving the books she had brought for the post-discusson book signing. She regularly convinces the SAQA board of the continuing importance of the print version of the SAQA journal.   MyF is pleased to announce that her newly-launched print magazine Quilty is doing well, which is a pleasant surprise, as I would have thought the market for quilt magazines quite saturated already.

Pamela continued with the question What role will shops and museums play in the years to come?
MF told us how she was influenced by seeing Nancy Halpern's quilt Archipelago at the NEQM many years ago, and the work of Caryl Bryer Fallert in another exhibit. Museums, in her mind, continue to be important as repositories and for conservation.  Not to mention events such as the one she was in at the moment, perhaps? I think museums must do much more to make themselves relevant, and I thnk the NEQM understand that too.  As MyF pointed out, The Met serves painters and quilt museums should serve quilters, but I think it would help if the museums educated quilters in the use and interpretation, as opposed to reproduction, of historic models.  The Victoria and Albert museum makes an effort at this, but then it was always designed to be a resource for industry as much as an edifice for culture.
Fallert's Corona #2. Source: http://www.bryerpatch.com/images/quiltrecords/corona2/corona2.htm
LM and RM cited the limitations of young quilters budgets and time.  Stores shouldn't charge for renting rooms for guild activities, as guild members will patronize the store.  Modern quilters need a selection of solids and desire fabrics that "bridge modern and historic quilts" in the words of RM, and the need for more solids was seconded by MyF.

For MF, who has had a successful online store for ages, aided by her television exposure, retailers must respond to market demand. She mentioned the role wholesalers Checkers Distributors in helping drag retailers into new territory and encouraging them to offer up-to-date fabric selections.

Finally, as time grew short, Pamela asked - what's the artistic direction for quilts?

The answers finally touched on something I'd been waiting for since eating my mini-bagel - a discussion of process, as opposed to product. MS mentioned the artistic approach of "Mark Making,"as opposed to quilt making, and gave two SAQA examples, Dorothy Caldwell, a Canadian, and Pamela Fitzsimmons, of Australia, as artists for whom "the time it took" is as much the product as the completed artifact.
Dorothy Caldwell. Four Fields. Source:http://www.quiltstudy.org/exhibitions/online_exhibitio/qic/international_quilts1.html
The aesthetic is of time and aging.  MF mentioned a comment made to her by quilt historian Gerald Roy, that the 19th century quilter was much more into the process, partly because needlework was an acceptable excuse for women to sit down and be in control of the pace of their own work, without being accused of idleness.  RM added that the modern quilter can justify spending time on a quilt if it's for her child. Sigh, is there still a need for women to justify how they choose to spend their time? Modern or traditional, some things never change, it would seem, and on that note, the discussion came to a conclusion. 
An enthusiastic "thank you" to the panel from NEQM director Connie Barlow.