Disconnected Threads, Part II

>> Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Note: This is the second part of my thinking aloud about simplicity and modern quilting.
Part II: Commerce and Quilting

As I noted in my first post, several bloggers have lamented and critiqued the noticeable increase in the sale of simple quilt patterns. There are certainly a slew of quilt patterns on the market that are relatively uncomplicated and possibly over-priced. I chose my words carefully: relatively, because the degree of complication certainly depends on the individual's experience and comfort level, and possibly, because cost is similarly dependent on perception of value.

Now a little background and a couple caveats. My mother taught me the basics of sewing; she showed me how to reattach buttons, operate a sewing machine, and piece together fabric. (Theoretically she also demonstrated how to hem pants, but I still prefer to ask her to hem my pants because I find it tricky to do by myself, or perhaps I am a touch lazy when it comes to certain matters. Anyhow...) After acquiring these skills, I became fascinated with quilting and, over the past (baker's) dozen of years, I've taught myself everything I can currently do through reading books, asking questions, perusing blogs, and ripping out a lot of seams. I've never taken a formal class and I've never purchased a stand-alone quilt pattern. I have, however, bought bag patterns and would consider buying clothing patterns if I ever figure out how to read garment patterns.

That said, I don't think there is one single way to learn how to sew or quilt. I recognize that different learning styles apply to sewing as much as they apply to school. In my early days of quilting, graph paper and colored pencils were my best tools. I used it to mock-up and reverse-engineer quilts on graph paper. Then I cut out fabric and sewed the pieces together. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. But as a math professor insisted in college, failure teaches as much as success. Indeed, failure is generally a pre-requisite to success.

In this sense, I would suggest that anyone learning how to quilt ought to plunge in and try, imperfections be damned. That said, some direction is necessary, and I would therefore suggest that, given the wealth of information on the internet, to start by trying some free tutorials. In particular, I'd send someone to Oh Fransson (for basics and patterns) and Crazy Mom Quilts (basics and patterns on her sidebar). For someone interested in traditional quilt blocks, the Modify Tradition blog would be a great resource. For some more modern options, Moda Bake Shop offers a plethora of tutorials, many of which demonstrate new techniques for conventional and improvisational quilts. (While this is sponsored by Moda, there is no requirement to use their fabrics and pre-cuts. Any fabric can be cut into 5" squares (charms) or 2.5" strips (jelly rolls) or any other staple "ingredient.")

These are just a few links that I would offer because I think they're especially clear. But there are plenty of other options out there as well, as the number of starred posts in my Google Reader attests. I would also advocate a trip to one's local public library to check out books on quilting. Some of the books may be old, but my local library stocks newer books as well. After borrowing a book, one might realize it's worth owning, at which point, buy it! Likewise, a trip to a used bookstore, a thrift store, or a yard sale might yield books to use as resources for very little money.

All of these suggestions assume that one has limited, rather than unlimited, funds and these will provide the best value. I think books are more worthwhile than stand-alone patterns because they usually include more than one pattern and they show a variety of techniques. But I also think books are most useful for learning how to reverse-engineer a quilt: being able to move back and forth between the final product and the individual stages ideally assists a new quilter in understanding the connections between steps and thus how to envision a larger quilt from smaller blocks (or how to break down a larger quilt into smaller blocks). Multiple examples only makes this more likely to happen. Thus even if money is no issue (and, please, if that's the case I know a graduate student who would happily avail herself of your sponsorship), these steps build and develop designing, sewing, and quilting skills.

Having said all this, why should I care if someone is selling a pattern to a strip quilt or a pinwheel quilt or rail-fence quilt or any number of straightforward (to me) patterns? First, I think it's ethically dubious to market and sell a pattern that is available elsewhere for free. No one can or will stop this sale, but this sort of commercial enterprise takes advantage of people who may not be aware that they could find a free tutorial in blogland. Of course, no one is forced to buy the pattern but selling something that can be easily attained for free remains problematic to me -- as Michelle has pointed it, it smells of a swindle. Second, I think it's intellectually questionable if not completely dishonest to sell a pattern that -- if easily available online for free -- hardly "belongs" to the pattern writer. It may not be copyrighted and thus it may be legal to sell it, but that doesn't make it right.

I've developed some tutorials (and have some in the works....that machine-binding tutorial will be posted one day), and I recognize it takes time to produce them. Nevertheless, I have posted free tutorials -- much to the chagrin of my far-more-entrepreneurial brother -- because I think it contributes to the larger crafting community. I know that sounds idealistic, but I truly believe that there is and should be give-and-take. As a result, I'm far more likely to buy a pattern (well, a bag pattern anyways) from someone like Rae who posts tutorials for free as often as she sells them.

In my mind, encouraging learning and encouraging other people to enhance their skill-set serves a communal good, and I want to contribute to and support that. There is much to be said about valuing an individual's time, and pattern/tutorial-writing absolutely times time and effort, thought and thoroughness. But given the choice, I will prioritize community over the individual, especially when the individual (person or pattern) is merely recreating something already available. I can't make anyone follow my personal ethic, but I can question the need -- by some, though certainly not all -- to commercialize the basics.

Quilting is part of the larger web of global commerce. This has positive dimensions, such as the availability of beautiful fabric world-wide and the ability of new designs and ideas to traverse oceans. But it also has negative, even pernicious elements, in which craving financial opportunities outweighs participation in fertile, free exchange of knowledge. As I see it, the latter represents a better option, a means of contributing to the larger common good. It's not curing cancer or eliminating world hunger, but it is a chance to, in the words of one of my favorite children's books, make the world a more beautiful place (Miss Rumphius).


Lee March 31, 2011 at 12:00 AM  

Another great post, thank you. There's nothing wrong with bloggers trying to make money from patterns or their blogs, but that's not the ONLY thing it should be about. There has to be some give and take—if blogs become primarily marketing tools or sales vehicles, many readers will lose interest, and this wonderful online quilting community will definitely suffer.

Pam March 31, 2011 at 12:05 AM  

I have to say I totally agree with everything you've said. It's always especially amusing to me when someone sells a pattern that women were probably hand sewing out of worn clothing in a wagon train as "my original design", and then have the nerve to say it can't be used to make things to sell. As in most things, there are no new ideas, just new and original ways to execute them.

I'm just happy to see a renewed interest in hand and home made. Thanks for the thoughtful ans considerate posts.

Lynn March 31, 2011 at 1:40 PM  

I love the Miss Rumphius parallel.
Thinking historically, quilts have been made for MANY years. Generation after generation the tips and techniques were shared in the community. Our community is much larger now through the internet.

~Michelle~ March 31, 2011 at 1:53 PM  

Ok, I'm officially envious of your ability to pull your thoughts together in such a cohesive manner (which I'm sure was aided by the fact that you stopped to think about what you were writing) - very well written! I'm also wondering why I've never heard of Miss Rumphius - I'm sure a quick purchase from Amazon will enlighten me.

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