The Grumpy Quilter and the Changing Face of the Quilt World…Part One

I’ve explored how the quilt world has changed in several past blogs. 

Remember the year I ranted and raved about the decline of the LQS (Local Quilt Shops)?  Well, I’m still kind of upset about it.  And unfortunately, all my anger hasn’t gone a long way to stop the bleeding.  Since my first blogs lamenting the brick-and-mortar store fronts’ closings, the number of actual go-in-the-store-and-shop establishments continues to shrink.  The LQS’s that are surviving tend to have strong internet presences as well as wonderful physical establishments with great variety and a knowledgeable staff. 

With the continued increase of point-and-click points of sales, I don’t see that changing.  And that’s a shame because the LQS is a big part of the quilting culture.  Quilters gather there, share ideas, have classes, and encourage the next generation of quilters.  However, as someone who researched opening her own quilt shop, I can tell you in many ways unless a LQS has a substantial line of credit or other cash-ready resource, the retail quilt world is brutal.  Not only are the quilt shop owners up against internet sales, they’re also in competition with big box stores like Hobby Lobby, Joann’s, and Wal-Mart.  These establishments also sell fabric, although the quality of their products can sometimes be problematic as well as questionable.

That whole scenario is frustrating to me, because when we lose yet another brick-and-mortar quilt shop, we’ve lost a place to learn.  With the closure of that shop we usually lose a classroom.   And while I get that Craftsy (or BluPrint, as it’s called now) and YouTube have done a wonderful job filling those learning gaps, the loss of a room means more than just the loss of educational opportunities.  It means we no longer have an area to fellowship, share ideas, and encourage one another as quilters. 

However, the issue that is really irritating to me is: I not only don’t see the situation changing, I don’t see a solution to the problem, either.  In other words, I don’t see (at least in my area) readily available and affordable space for classes, guilds, and bees. While I understand that internet groups are on the rise (and don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my Facebook quilting groups and quilting forums), those do not make up for the physical concept of fellowship and real social quilting connections.

The next big shift I’ve seen in the quilt world actually goes hand-in-hand with two problems now facing the quilt world:  The aging of quilt guilds and the changes in quilt shows.  Let’s deal with the fact that we’re all getting older first.

When I began quilting about 32 years ago, the “average” quilter was 54 years-old.  According to the latest statistics from APQS, today’s “average” quilter is 63.  These stats were made public in October 2018 and applauds the fact that the age had actually decreased by one year.  In 2017, the “average” quilter was 64.  However, no matter how you slice it, dice it, and serve it up, as a group, we quilters on average are 10 years older than we were in the early 1980’s.  You know what that means…we’re getting more … “mature.” But despite all the tummy-tucks, Cool Shaping, hair color, and Pilates, as a group, we’re aging.  Time is marching on.

Add to this fact that the average guild/bee membership is also shrinking.  According to the same set of statistics, the average guild/bee membership is down 15% from the previous year.  I know that to be true in my local guild – our membership literally halved for 2019.  We could try to dissect why membership is decreasing for this entire blog. Maybe the guilds are no longer meeting the members’ needs.  Perhaps the dues are too high.  However, I do think the lower numbers are a direct reflection of the fact that we’re aging.  Some members don’t like to drive at night after a certain point in their lives.  If most of our members are following the trend and are hitting that 63-year-old mark, that also means a fixed income maybe looming in their future and they’re cutting expenses.  If the guild isn’t giving them enough bang for their buck, they may decide not to rejoin.  Also, different family situations can be factored in with decreased membership.  Since, on average, since humans are living longer, by the time a quilter reaches 63, he or she may be caring for a parent or helping to raise their grandchildren. 

But no matter how you sum it up, when you look out over your guild’s or bee’s membership, you’re seeing a few more gray hairs, more aching knees and backs, and decreased mobility.  And while I am cheered by the fact that despite everything quilt groups are hanging tough and still sewing together, another part of me is frightened that we may be a dying breed. 

However, there is one particular age group of quilters that is actually growing, and that’s the 45 years-old and under group.  This part of our quilting dynamic is actually adding numbers to its rank.  This group of quilters are well-educated and typically have made fewer than 10 quilts.  Due to where they are in life, they aren’t as dedicated to the art as some of us old-fogies, but on average they spend 10 hours a week working on a quilt or quilt-related projects – which isn’t shabby at all.  According to the same 2017 quilting statistics, these quilters now make up a good chunk of the 7 to 10 million quilters in the United States.  This group has an average household income of $98,000, attend quilt shows, purchase machines and fabric, but unlike the 63+ age-range, they depend more on websites, on-line tutorials, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest than actual quilt groups and classes.

So, yea!  We do have a group of quilters that are adding members to their rank, but boo! They don’t see the need for actual quilty, social contact.  Are they exhibiting complete disregard to our quilting history with its lineage of guilds and bees? 

Probably not.  First consider where they are in life.  What were you doing when you were 45?  I know where I was.  I was working full-time and running chauffer service for my two kids.  It seemed that every night of the week held some type of practice or PTA meeting or something to cut into my quilting time.  I was lucky if I had a few hours on Sunday afternoons to sew a few blocks together.  And with everything going on in my life then (the kids’ schooling and clubs, my grad school work, my job, etc.), quilting wasn’t the priority it is now.  It couldn’t be.  Other people and things were more important. 

I imagine that’s exactly where those 45-year-old and under quilters are at in their life.  Kids.  Jobs.  Responsibilities.  For them, on-line quilting groups and streaming classes fit their lifestyle the best.  They can watch a tutorial while packing the kids’ lunches or waiting for their kids at dance class.  They can Facebook a group on their lunch hour.  In addition to those facts, this next generation of quilters is very comfortable doing just that.  They’re the generation that pretty much grew up with computers in their home and had ready access to the internet, even though in the beginning it was dial-up.  They’re the age group that welcomed the iPhone with open arms and then developed the apps for it.

May I add at this point, they’re also the generation we’re going to leave our guilds’ and bees’ futures to.  And if todays stats hold steady for tomorrow’s quilt groups, it appears as if that our membership numbers may continue to shrink.  So, if our guilds and bees are to have as much of a future as they have had a wonderful past, we not only have to welcome this new group of quilters into our guilds and bees, but also make it convenient for them to join us.  In some ways this will be no different than what we are doing for our current membership:  Good workshops, practical meetings, ready access to other quilters and their knowledge.  But in other ways we need to shift a bit.  Most of these younger quilters have generated towards the Modern Quilting.  Perhaps our guild meetings should have a few more speakers that tend to lean towards that quilting genre.  Perhaps we should show our younger quilters how more traditional techniques work well in the Modern Quilt movement.

Then I also think we may need to change some very practical areas in our meetings.  The reason a lot of these quilters use Facebook groups, on-line forums, YouTube, and other on-line resources is convenience.  They don’t have to coordinate child care with their significant other or find a baby sitter in order to talk to quilters or learn a new technique.  Due to insurance reasons, I’m not enthusiastic about guilds or bees providing child care for members, but maybe we need to re-think when we meet.  Would it kill us to plan some meetings on Saturdays or Sunday afternoons?  I realize that most guilds meet once a month and that meeting is usually held on a week night.  And it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that if those monthly meetings are set out in an annual calendar, that most folks can plan their schedule accordingly.  But having some meetings on the weekend may encourage younger quilters to join us.

Another practical area we need to make sure is up-to-date and running smoothly is our internet presence. Guilds need to have a good web page and establish a Facebook presence.  It’s not enough just to have a web page.  That web page should be engaging and kept up-to-date. It should become the “go to” spot for information.  In other words, it shouldn’t be static, but updated regularly.  The same goes for a Facebook page, whether it is a closed or open group.  As a whole, quilters are a fairly savvy computer bunch.  We’re used to web searches and web pages.  This next generation of quilters is even more computer literate than we are.  They text more than they email.  They perform more web searches on their phones than on a lap top or tablet.  If we, as a quilt bee or guild, want to attract this younger group of quilters, I think we need to make our web environment as user-friendly as possible to them. 

Next week I want to talk about how quilt shows are changing…and not for the better…at least over all.

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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