The Dumbing Down of Quilting

I am talking this week about a topic I feel verypassionate about. 


If you are a sensitive person, this blog is probably notfor you.

If you think consistent seam allowances are merely asuggestion, this blog is not for you.

If you think turning out quilts en mass is the best thing since sliced bread, this blog isdefinitely not for you.

If you think that good technique is optional, then do meand you both a favor and just stop reading right now.

And if you think just anybody can turn out a great quiltpattern…you’re delusional.

The topic I would like to discuss is this:  The Dumbing Down of Quilting.  This is not a new idea.  Around 2011, when the Modern Quilt Movementwas getting its legs, this was a fairly hot topic floating around the quiltsites on the internet.  I kept quiet atthat time, still sifting the topic through two filters:  That of a quilter and that of a high schoolscience teacher.

See, as a teacher (of both science and quilting), I realized something – in order to get folks starteddown the path of success in either field, you couldn’t throw advanced topics atbeginners and expect them to grasp those immediately and be successful.  You had to start with the basics, emphasizethem until the student fully understands them, and then build on those precepts.  What I saw in the quilting arena was theopposite.  We had one group of moreexperienced quilters who were expecting a younger group of quilters to be justlike they were, perform just like they did, make quilts just like everyone elsedid, and be completely successful without much teaching.

And from the younger quilters I saw more attachment toblogs, the internet groups, Facebook groups, Instagram, and Pinterest than Idid actual personal contact with quilters who had been toiling at their art foryears and knew a few things that the latest, greatest quilt blogger didnot. 

There was a great deal of arrogance on the part of bothgroups.

In my mind, we more experienced quilters had to realizethat the new generation of quilters probably lacked two things that we took forgranted:  We had sewing classes in highschool (where I attended, those classes were mandatory), and we had mothers orother family members that sewed.  Wecould go to them with questions. The next generation lacked one or both ofthose factors. 

Thus, the Dumbing Down of Quilting began.

Allow me to explain my way of thinking about this topic.

Like all great wars (and I do consider this a battle), thejump to a full-fledged assault didn’t begin with just one issue or oneaction.  As the Arts and Crafts movementbegin a resurgence in popularity, fabric designers saw an opportunity to cashin on the development.  This process ledto more lines of fabric, more attention to popular colors (such as the PantoneColor of the Year), as well as more internet sites from which to purchasematerial.  We were barraged with the newcolors and patterns.  This wasn’t a badthing.  Pretty fabric attracts new sewersand quilters.  Fabric websites wereselling their goods a brisk clip – which unfortunately eventually led to thedemise of many LQSs. 

Along with the fabric came a new bunch of folks thatthought they could design patterns and instruct quilters.  If there’s that much fabric in the retailmarket, sewers and quilters had to have something to make with it, right?  So, enter new patterns designed by peoplewe’ve never heard from before.  Andthere’s two-pronged blame for this: The fabric producers and the publishingcompanies.  The fabric manufacturersneeded patterns that would highlight their material and the publishingcompanies needed to sell more patterns.

There is nothing in itself wrong with this.  This is what drives the retail market andconsumerism.  This is what keeps fabricand pattern production profitable and allows both fields to reinvest intechnology, employees, and better-quality goods.  This keeps material and patterns affordablefor the consumer.  The problem is, thatat least as far as some of the pattern production goes, it seems fact-checkingthe pattern went out the window.

Let me give you an example.  I hope that you have heard of the Mountain Mist Batting Company and their patterns (if not, stop right now and Google it). 

From 1929 until 1970, Mountain Mist Batting Company included a free pattern printed on the wrapper of their batting.  These patterns consisted of traditional pieced blocks or applique quilts.  The batting company had a group of quilters that worked with them, and each pattern was made several times by different women in this group in order to ensure the patterns were correct, clearly written, and easily understood.

If you understand the timeline of 1929, you realize thatthis was the beginning of The Great Depression. Paying these women was an added expense, but it was one that MountainMist surmised was necessary in order to keep their product not only sellingwell, but also to have return customers. And it was wildly successful – far beyond anything anyone expected.  Their quality product was both profitable andpopular.

Let’s take a look at today’s market.  It’s faster-paced than Mountain Mist ever wasat its zenith.  There are digitaldownload patterns as well as books and paper patterns.  The quilt pattern market is flooded by namesof designers we’ve never heard of before and some I hope to God never hear fromagain.


Many of their products are seriously lacking in clear instructions, correctness, and are difficult to understand.  I’ve experienced this on a personal basis.  Remember this quilt? 

Well, I am still working on it.  But the directions are horrible.  One of the first things I do when I begin anew pattern is to Google it and see if there are any blogs, YouTube videos, oranything else out there written by quilters who have made this particularpattern.  In this case, there was nothing.  That should have been my first hint and Ishould have backed off.  But I hadcommitted to the project with a couple of my quilting buddies. 

Now as I have lamented before, the book for this quilt iscrap.  There are few directions, lots ofline drawings, and a few helpful odd and ends, but that’s it.  Here’s what I think happened (I can’t proveit, but I think it’s a plausible theory). Mary Buvia made the quilt, never thinking that it would become a book orpattern.  She started the quilt as a wayto deal with her husband’s cancer.  Shemade the quilt, entered it in an AQS show and to her credit, she won aribbon.  And with this ribbon came thequestion:  What pattern did you use?  Well, it was her pattern.  It came fromher heart and her head…from her advanced knowledge and experience.  I bet she never imagined that AQS would askher to write a pattern for it and that pattern would become a book.

This is where I lay the blame at AQS’s feet.  They probably took Mary’s notes and goteverything in book form while the interest in the quilt was at itshighest.  I can say with more than a fair amount of certainty:

They never proofed the book for more than just grammaticaland spelling errors.

They never had anyone else construct that quilt in orderto make sure the directions were clear.

Because if they had, the book would be much, much betterthan it is. 

And from what I hear, this same issue is coming up in moreand more quilt patterns.  I have gottento the point that if I use a pattern, it’s from someone that has a track recordof producing really, really good patterns with real accuracy and really cleardirections.  I firmly believe that todaythe race is to get the pattern on the market at the same time as the fabric –not to quality-test it before it’s released to the quilting community.

In some ways, this factor (erroneous patterns) has led tothe second aspect of The Dumbing Down of Quilting:  Lack of attention, respect, and commitment onthe part of quilters.  They not onlyaccept these poorly designed quilt patterns without so much as a whimper, butthey have also sacrificed technique on the altar of speed.

Before everyone stops reading at this point, let meplainly state There Is Nothing Wrong With A Quick Quilt.  As a matter of fact, every quilter shouldhave two or three quick quilt patterns in their files for baby quilts, hospitalcomfort quilts, and surprise gifts.  Butthe steady diet of these has led (IMHO) to a dumbing down of the quilter

The act of quilting is a gift.  Not just to others, but to you.  Quilting works both sides of the brain – the theological, mathematical side and the artistic side.  It’s a gift to your mental state andemotions.  Difficult patterns andtechniques allow both sides of your brain to stretch and exercise.  It helps alertness and there is some medicaltalk about it preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

However, this is not the only reason to execute goodtechnique or difficult patterns.  Let’sstart with technique.

When you began to quilt, what did you learnimmediately?  Most likely it was to keepa consistent ¼-inch seam allowance, be accurate in your cutting, and careful inyour stitching.  More technique camelater, after the basics were grasped. However, I feel that many times in today’s quilting world, with thelatest and greatest quilt patterns along with the latest and greatest quiltfabric, we’ve given up technique for cleverness.Let me explain.  Sometimes – many times –we admire a new quilt designer for her patterns and those patterns fly in theface of good, standard quilt technique. Points don’t match?  No bigdeal.  Blocks aren’t a consistentsize?  Don’t take them apart, just throwsome coping strips around them.  Appliqueis off-center?  No one will notice.  Top stitching is all wonky?  It doesn’t matter.  Your quilt top isn’t squared up?  Surely that will quilt out…

I am all for cleverness, dear readers.  If there’s a quick, accurate way to makehalf-square triangles, pinwheels, and do set-in seams, I am in line to learnhow – as long as it doesn’t sacrificeaccuracy and solid, quilting technique. I’ve seen too many times in recent years where quilters’ work has justbeen down-right sloppy.  Maybe this isthe look they were going for…maybe some of them just hadn’t been taught ortaken a class…but to continue to accept this as the “quilting norm” does asmuch harm for our art as a fire would roaring through the National QuiltMuseum.  It kills off what makes ourcraft unique and wonderful.  It erasespart of our history.

For awhile many “traditional” quilters tried to lay this lazinessnew phenomena on the backs of Modern Quilters. And in the beginning, since a lot of these new quilters were new toeverything – the sewing machine, quilt patterns, etc., – that could have heldsome truth.  But we’re at least ten yearsout from the Modern Quilt beginnings and that no longer rings true.  Sure, these quilts are many times simplerthan what a lot of my generation makes. However, there is nothing wrong with simple, especially when it’s executed well

Frankly, we have accepted poor designs without so much asa whimper and have also allowed ourselves to accept less than our best with ourwork.  And in the process the entire artof quilting is suffering what I consider to be a Dumbing Down. 

I’m fighting this battle hard.  Here’s what I’m doing, and I hope you willjoin me in the war.

  1.  If one of the less-than-stellar patterns fallsinto my hand, I contact the designer and let them know.  If it has errors, I let them know that,too.  Sometimes I get a response andsometimes I don’t.  But primarily, I letmy dollar do the talking.  If I use yourpattern, and your pattern is crap, I don’t buy from you again.  And I tell my quilting friends your patternstinks.
  2. Withevery quilt, I do try to keep the basic techniques as perfect as I can getthem.  No quilt is ever completelyperfect, but if I try as hard as I can with each quilt, pretty soon my quiltswill be as close to perfect as they can get. And I may catch a handful of show ribbons along the way.
  3. Irefuse to make the same quilt over and over again.  Part of quilting is learning.  And you can’t learn new things if you don’ttry new patterns.  Or try making your ownpatterns.  If you keep doing the samething over and over, you’re getting the same results.  I only make the same quilt twice if it canteach me new things.  Dear Jane is one ofthese quilts.  So is The HaloMedallion. 
  4. Ibelong to several Quilt Bees, groups, and a couple of Quilt Guilds.  These members are generally pretty seriousabout their quilting.  They are generouswith their knowledge, but they do not suffer fools lightly.  If your work is bad, they pull no punches.  They’ll tell you.  And then they offer suggestions on how to fixit. 

This topic has weighed heavily on my mind for a while nowand The Dumbing Down of the Quilt is the primary reason my 2018 blogs were so“teachy.”  I wanted quilters to have areference point – for the folks that are quilting today and the others who maytake it up five years from now.  Goodtechnique is part of our culture as quilters. We lose it, we’ve lost part of who we are.

Until next week, Quilt with Passion!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

4 replies on “The Dumbing Down of Quilting”

Amen sister! I am not particularly knowledgeable about the design and production of patterns, but I am quite familiar with blogs. And the issue with them includes garment construction as well as quilting. As I teach/mentor students learning to sew garments I often look at bloggers who sew for themselves and their young children. I am appalled at the number of sewists who have been sewing for barely a year with no real instruction and feel they are qualified to teach others. They don’t even notice their numerous photos clearly illustrate their lack of knowledge. I have kindly corrected a few of the bloggers when I had time and felt I could manage to be polite. But I am constantly telling my students that looking to youtube or blogs can be helpful, but try to get a good feel for the level of experience first. If the blogger has just been sewing a year to make quick fashion for their adorable babies (those photos can distract even me) she is unlikely to be a good source of credible information. I also tell them (mostly tongue in cheek) that I have been sewing for longer than their moms have been on this earthr, so take full advantage of my knowledge and experience.

Mark Lipinski gave a lecture at my guild a couple of years ago, and talked about this. He said most of the patterns are the same skill level, and most of the fabrics are in the medium range. They don’t require thought at all.

I absolutely agree with this assessment on “modern quilters”. Some…not all, are poorly skilled, sloppy and just want to get it done fast by throwing time and tradition out the window. They have no respect for the history and tradition of American quilting and couldn’t care less about the names of blocks that have been handed down from generation to generation. They just rename them. Youtube is the worst when it comes to sloppy influencers who cover their poor skills with their hands, tools or video edits when showing “the latest binding trick”. I’m not fooled. I am a self taught quilter since 1980 but also sewed right out of high school Home Ec in the early 1970s. We made dresses in HomeEc, not pillowcases and threading a sewing machine was not a task to be dreaded for the rest of our lives.
In the 1980s all of us believed that the beautiful quilts that we hand quilted were heirlooms, not just another fast fabric trophy.
Despite all the new and fancy quilting tools and gadgets, the quality of most modern quilts is inferior to even the everyday quilts we made a few decades ago. Now our country is flooded with crap quilts and imports from other countries. So much for The Great American Quilt Project of the 1990s.
I admire the women who came before us and created gorgeous heirloom quilts with a minimum of tools and often difficult access to materials.

I would caution that I do think Modern Quilters have gotten better over the years. While I think some of them began as “Quilting Mavericks” I do think quite a few of them have improved on their techniques. While there still is definitely a ways to go with some, I think some ground has been gained.

YouTube remains the Wild West of Quilting Teachers. Since no one checks content (except to make sure it does not violate TOS), there is no way to know how good or how not-so-good the instruction is. While most of the well-known instructors (Jenny Doan, Angela Walters, etc) consistently produce good quality videos, it’s “Buyer Beware” for the others.

I do think Quilt Con has really helped modern quilters to understand what makes a good quilt and why technique is important. However, the influx of “quilts” from foreign countries remains distressing. How many people will want to learn to make a quilt when they can buy a so-called quilt for a fraction it takes to make one?

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