Disconnected Threads, Part I

>> Monday, March 28, 2011

image from here

Note: I had every intention of finishing and posting these thoughts last week, but life (in the form of wonderful friend coming to visit) intervened, so I'm late to the party, and not fashionably so. Nevertheless I'm posting this as a record of my thoughts and welcome your thoughts and feedback as well. I'm also going to separate this into two posts, given the length.

There have been a number of posts this (last) week grappling with the role of simplicity in modern quilting/design and in the commercial quilting economy.  Sandi led off with a provocatively titled, but quite fair and reasonable, post, "The Dumbing Down of Quilting," which she followed up with several more posts surveying what her readers do and want to do as well as a plan of action via a forthcoming skill-building series on her blog. I give her a lot of credit for publicly raising issues that I've heard others whisper and silently grumble about (can one really grumble silently? perhaps "softly" is more accurate). Michelle noted her own frustration about the sale of simple patterns, many of which are available through free tutorials or could be worked out with a little arithmetic; she's added some important questions here. Michelle also pointed me Ali, who expressed frustration about the sale of patterns that one could reverse-engineer and to Carrie, who has an important post that links the issue of "dumbing-down" to business matters.

I think these posts all raise important questions about modern quilting and the modern quilter. But I think they sometimes conflate issues that are not necessarily linked: a simple/challenging spectrum (and the correlated matter of simple for whom and simple according to what) and the relationship among quilters, blogs, and the commercial sewing industry.

Part I: Simple/Complicated 

I enjoy making simple quilts, and I enjoy challenging myself to learn new techniques. I also think looks are deceiving, and what appears simple may be complicated -- if not in execution, then in design. For example, this quilt is one of the most interesting ones I've seen pop up in my google reader of late:

 Image from here.

Let's take a look at it more closely. On the surface, the design is pretty simple: a column of paired half-square triangles surrounded by a solid (as I write this, I realize my non-sewing blog-reading friends might be smirking at this "quilty-babble"). I can figure out how to make this, and in fact I plan to make a version of it later this spring (emphasis on plan). But what makes the quilt work is a combination of wise decisions about color (in this case, decisions that started with a photograph), about layout, and about quilting. In fact, Lynn is an experienced quilter who has shown skilled precision piecing, curvesquilting, and applique in addition to "simpler" and improv-style quilts. I think her stunning Zinnias quilt is only possible because of her skill and experience in other areas. In this sense, I think we need to separate "adequate-simple" from "stunning-simple." I think I'm pretty good at the former and have a long way to go in terms of the latter.

Likewise, I think it's important to disaggregate simple-looking from simple technique, simple skills, simple color choices, etc.

A charm-square quilt is simple in a number of ways: it uses pre-cut squares (no cutting or fabric choosing necessary) and it relies on straight-stitching and chain-piecing (only requires knowing how to sew a 1/4" seam). The quilting could be complicated, but the one I made and linked to is rather straightforward: vertical and horizontal lines on either side of all seams. It's simple but it's a great exercise in layout because it does matter how the squares are arranged: the distribution of color and print size can -- and will - make or break this quilt.

Similarly, a strip quilt isn't too complicated to put together: cut a bunch of strips of coordinating fabrics, sew, and voila, a quilt. It's especially easy if it's no wider than 40" as you don't even need to piece strips together. But again, it does require aesthetic decision-making about fabrics that work together, about how wide to cut each strip, about how to place colors relative to one another, and about sewing a consistent 1/4" seam. The quilting can be really straightforward or, as in the first strip quilt I linked to, it can provide an opportunity to test out a new design, in that case stars.

To be clear, both of these types of quilts are simple in design and technique. They offer wonderful opportunities for beginners to piece their first quilt, and they're fantastic go-to quilts for more experienced quilters who want to make a quick quilt or showcase a fabric line (I plan to make a charm-square quilt for myself out of Kate Spain's Central Park line because I really like it). They're not complicated and they're not technically advanced. I think pinwheels -- the block labeled "intermediate" in the Sew Mama Sew post that rankled Sandi -- are similarly basic, part of the building blocks of more advanced -- in technique and design -- quilting. But any of these can be done well or poorly, using weak or strong technique, and drawing on bland or striking fabrics, and that distinction is, to me, quite important.

Part II: Commerce and Quilting...Coming Soon


~Michelle~ March 28, 2011 at 2:07 PM  

I think we need to separate "adequate-simple" from "stunning-simple."

Absolutely true. Another example of stunning-simple is almost anything Red Pepper Quilts does. None of her quilts are particularly complex in design - in fact, many are very basic. However, her piecing techniques, particularly her HSTs, are enviable. She also seems to be a natural at putting together colors. I think that's what people admire about her quilts, whether they realize it or not. That being said, I'm not going to pay for her patterns - I don't really need the instructions for a basic pattern, and money spent won't be able to buy me the time & patience needed to perfect my sewing technique. I'm sticking to my party line.

I'm waiting with interest for part II. :)

Lynn March 28, 2011 at 4:36 PM  

Wow. I am honored that you used my quilt to prove your point.

I, too, am frustrated that the commercialization of quilting makes people think that they need to purchase patterns and special gadgets to do something simple. Really it is all just cutting pieces and sewing them back together. I think all of the patterns and books for sale make many quilters feel that they can't choose fabrics or design a quilt. They buy a whole line of fabric because they are not confident that they can coordinate fabrics together.
I think we need to tap our inner child and quilt like we used to draw when we were little.

JennyD March 28, 2011 at 6:27 PM  

I'm a new quilter (as in, did a couple quilting projects in high school and just picked it up again about a month ago) who has been reading through this debate on the blogosphere for a little while now.

And I have to admit, I love seeing patterns that other creative people have designed. The day I got my sewing machine, I went down to the used bookstore and bought five or six books with patterns ranging from very simple to very complex.

And then, for my first couple projects, I picked a pattern, tore the pattern apart, and put it back together the way I liked it.

For those of us who are (relatively) creative, but are so new to this particular art, patterns can be very helpful to show us the possibilities. Now, at the moment I'm not using much more than squares, half-square triangles, and rectangles, and I know my color choices are safe and my technique is amature at best... But this is what is pushing me right now, where I'm at.

And so I'm happy to spend $8 on a book full of patterns, even if I never use them as written. Even simple patterns can help us stretch our creativity. =)

Lee March 28, 2011 at 8:43 PM  

Yes, yes, thank you! Could not agree more with everything you said. Technical/piecing/quilting skills aren't the thing that makes a quilt "advanced" or not. You've done a great job of explaining how the different elements that make up a quilt's design work together, and why it's not always "simple" to make them play nicely together.

Cathy March 31, 2011 at 2:02 AM  

I have done both.
I recently bought a pattern because I liked the idea, even though it was simple enough I could have probably reverse engineered it myself. I did not want to stand in the aisle and sketch the pattern. I had an antsy pre-schooler with me, and I had a few other ideas about how to use the pattern. So, I figure it was worth the few dollars to honor the designers ability to inspire me.
I have also taken photos out of catalogs and magazines and reverse engineered the quilts. They often go in my "Someday" file.
I can certainly see the difference in my skill level even in the last few years. I just pulled a UFO from about 6 years ago, and the quality of my technique has certainly improved. With improved technique I think we gain the confidence to figure these things out for ourselves, or at least give it a try.

Elizabeth Dackson April 2, 2011 at 9:46 AM  

You are absolutely right. Color and fabric selection are just as crucial as quilting technique, and sometimes the most simple looking quilt can have just as much of the behind-the-seams work put into it as a Dear Jane.

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