The Window to the Mind

Why do you quilt?

I think I’ve been asked that at least one hundred times in my life. I’ve never been sure exactly why people have this desire to know why I do anything, much less quilt.  My husband asks me that from time to time, but that’s only when he see yet another  box from Shabby Fabrics, Keepsake Quilting, Pineapple Fabrics or some other fabric supplier land on our doorstep.


For me, it would be easier if folks just asked why I breathe – it’s a natural phenomenon that feeds my body and soul through creativity and logic.  While on the surface nothing may seem logical about quilting, let me assure you, there is logic there.  There are formulas and math involved that are necessary in order to make that quilt come out just right.  That’s the reason quilting, as well as other art forms, have been proven to help stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s – it works both sides of the brain at the same time, keeping those neuron-pathways alive and sparking.

I am younger than the average quilter – so if the fact that I’m not a white-haired, plump, grandma-type that is the stereotypical quilter prompts the inquiry – so be it.  But honestly, no quilter that I know fits that stereotype.

I attended a quilt retreat at the end of June.  The question of Master Craftsmanship and its cost was raised, and from that interrogative, the question “Why do you quilt?” came up.  Besides creativity and logic, quilting also makes me feel connected to the past – I’m a fifth-generation quilter – and the future – I’m teaching my granddaughters how to quilt.  But the cost of quilting as a form of Master Craftsmanship is another area.


We all know the financial cost of quilting.  Like any other art form, there are costs involved.  There are the consumables – fabric, thread, needles, paper, marking tools – all have to be replenished.  Then there’s the “small equipment” that must be replaced fairly frequently – irons, ironing boards, lights.  Finally, there are the investment purchases that are upgraded after several years – machines and computers.  To put this in perspective, the average quilter has $5,000 invested in his or her stash and has $13,000 invested in machines.  That’s the black and white end of the monetary investment.

But not everything is about money.  Any artist will tell you there is an emotional investment in their craft.  Quilting is no different.  I can have the worst day ever, come home, spend a half-hour in my studio and come out a different woman.  The feel of fabric between my fingers soothes me like nothing else.  A day without needle and thread feels infinitely incomplete.  Handwork goes with me to the doctor’s office and on vacation.  Does fabric produce pheromones only noticeable to those that stitch?  Maybe.

However, that emotional investment comes with a price.  The time I spend in my studio is time not spent with family, as none of my family quilts but me.  It’s time not spent tending to other areas that may need my attention.  I find I’m horribly behind on current television programs and that I go entire days without listening to the news which given the current state of both is not necessarily a bad thing.  You learn the Zen of balance when you quilt.

The cost is also dissatisfaction with less than your best.  I want each stitch to be better than the last one.  I want to learn from each quilt.  I want lessons from each top and each session at Lorretta to make my next quilt better.  This pursuit of excellence feeds the passion.  And the passion feeds the next project.

Comfort zone explosion is another reason I quilt.  We all get very comfortable with our normal schedule, performing tasks we’re good at.  We shop at certain stores because we know the price range and the layout.  We take one route to work over another not just because of the traffic flow, but because we can just about time the stop lights and we can stop at a drive-through to get coffee.  I prefer paper-piecing over traditional piecing because it’s more precise.  And then an opportunity arises… there’s a new pattern or a new technique or a new fabric line … Suddenly we’re learning new techniques and sewing in ways we’ve never thought about before.  New fabric shows up in our stash with color palates we either haven’t used yet or haven’t been comfortable with.   To quote Martha Stewart, “This is a good thing.”  These new colors, new techniques, and new patterns push us to learn new things; which in turn keeps our minds working and young.  Anytime we stop learning, a part of us dies long before our physical bodies give out. Immanuel Kant once said, “The hand is the window on to the mind.”  In other words, it is only through making things – by trying and failing and repeating – that we gain true understanding of our craft and of ourselves.    Abandoning our comfort zone – pushing beyond those self-imposed barriers – costs us the peace of the familiar but rewards us with the challenge of learning something that’s intimidating.

Let me throw in a personal example here.  Over a year ago, I purchased Loretta, my long arm.  I had lobbied and longed for her for years.  And then suddenly, with the help of a couple of friends, a large pizza and a couple bottles of wine, she was assembled in my quilt studio.  She was sparkling white.  She was huge.


She was intimidating as hell. 

Forget the fact that she’s just a big sewing machine that produces only a straight stitch.  This was a long-arm.  And suddenly all the 30+ years of sewing confidence I had flew out the window.  I loaded up a practice piece, stood back…

And left the room.  For three weeks I tip-toed around her, afraid to turn her on.  Afraid to touch her.  Afraid … simply afraid and imitated that that I would break her or that I couldn’t learn how to do this.

However, since she’s positioned directly across from Big Red, I can see her every time I sew.  I forced myself to get up from piecing and do one row a day.  I was lousy.  My stitches weren’t even, my curves were jerky.  But each time I practiced, I got better.  I’m still not terrific and if I’m entering a quilt in a show, I still don’t quilt my tops myself.  However, I am better at long arming now than I was at day one.  And next year this time, I’ll be even better.  The bonus to learning all of this new and intimidating stuff about long arming is that my piecing got even better.  Suddenly I know from a first-hand perspective what will truly “Quilt Out” and what won’t.  I understand even more now about how much correct pressing means to a smooth quilting process.  I realized that tops that are on-grain and squared-up quilt far more easily and far more beautifully than ones that aren’t.  This long-arm intimidation that pushed me out of my comfort zone not only taught me how to quilt my tops but also how to make my tops better.

So, is there a cost involved in quilting?  Certainly.  Financially there is no question to it.  But there are subtle costs involved as well.  However, those can be balanced.  The payoff?  A healthier brain, losing the fear of the unknown, experiencing new things are just some of the many.  The next time someone asks you “Why do you quilt?” pause a moment and think.

Even you may be surprised at your answer.

We’re over the half-way point in our year of “Quilt with Excellence.”


During the next several months I want to discuss sashing and borders, color saturation, and touch on some quilt history as well as share what I’m working on with you folks.  If there is anything you’d particularly like me to talk about, please let me know.  I do take requests.


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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