I fell in love with quilting when I was in graduate school. I didn’t know it then, but just like all addicts, that first meeting at the local extension office was my hook. Who knew that a group of little old ladies were introducing me to my personal gateway drug?
Because folks, quilting is an addiction for me. A sickness. I’m not about to give it up anytime soon, so please don’t even think about staging an intervention. I’m not trying to rationalize, but it could be worse. It could have been (dare I say it???) exercise that took over my life.
Thank God I dodged that bullet.
For six years now, I have been sewing and cutting, making and creating. For the past year, I have been practicing and growing my long arm quilting skills. I felt like it was time for me to enter a quilt into a show. I wanted to be able to hang a quilt and say, “Look over here, everybody! I haven’t been sitting on the sofa watching soap operas and eating bonbons for the past five years of my life!”
I wanted validation from my peers.
I’m not ready to hear the judgments of those seasoned by years in the biz at professional shows, so I decided to stay local and low-key. I know my limitations, and y’all, I have a fragile ego. One bit of unfair criticism, and I’m in a downward spiral of questioning everything I’ve ever accomplished (I know it’s irrational, but I had one of THOSE childhoods where I never did anything right - anyone else out there from my tribe? Hold your hands up high so I can see you and we can bond!).
But I thought I could handle an entry or two in the Tennessee State Fair. I come from the land of Kentucky, where competition to get an item in the state fair is pretty stiff. Apparently it’s not really like that here, so I decided to finish a quilt or two that I thought were presentable enough to share.
Friday night, the fair opened. I’d been warned not to expect much. Williamson County has a nice fair, I heard. Wilson County has the largest and best in the state.
It was still a disappointment for me. Not for the reasons that people told me, but because I had expectations based on quilt shows that I’ve been to in the past. Professional quilt shows. My mistake seems obvious in hindsight. Why did I think a quilt exhibit in a state fair would in any way resemble the quilt shows put on by quilting organizations for quilters? In my defense, I had no other experiences to base my assumptions on, but still. I should have known better.
First, I thought it was kind of weird that I had to put tape over the quilt label to hide my name when I dropped it off. I want people to know which quilt is mine. In my mind, that sort of raised a red flag for me. What was the purpose of that? To keep judging unbiased? If so, I was in trouble. I knew no one would know me, but if the ladies in charge figured that the judges might know some of the people entering quilts, I figured they might just recognize the work of a friend (or enemy!!) without having to see a name. Maybe I read too much into that requirement, but when I looked at the photography displays, there were names of each photographer proudly displayed on their work. Playing a game of hide-the-name-of-the-creator felt like a bad sign to me.
When I walked into the quilt exhibit, I immediately noticed that the description tags were small and some were so far away - the quilts were cordoned off so no one would touch them - that I couldn’t even tell what category most of the quilts were in. As a quilter, I want to see the work my peers put into their creations, and I want them to see what I did, too. If someone hand pieced and hand quilted, all that work might not be obvious from five feet away. It was a letdown. Not only could I not see who did the work, but I couldn’t see much of the work itself beyond the obvious pattern made by the fabric. I guess that’s good enough for the general population, but I wanted to admire the work of other entrants.
And last. Last but not least. There were a lot of what I would consider traditional quilts, but not much else.
I am not a traditional quilter, and I don’t really care for the brown tones of a lot of “traditional” fabrics. They make me sad. They remind me of the dreary colors of my childhood home. If you grew up in the 70s, I KNOW you know what I’m talking about. The awful mustard yellows. The pukey avocado greens. The random orange accents that still hurt my eyes. Worst of all, the ugly ugly ugly browns. I have baggage. I know this. If you had grown up in a brown house where color was frowned upon because it wasn’t “neutral,” you might have issues, too.
Lots of the quilts that I saw at the fair could have come from that muted brown world that I worked so hard to escape, and those quilts had the only benefit - to my crazy way of seeing things - of being able to hide dirt (I’m half-way kidding on this one - that was always my mom’s test as to whether anything would work in our house).
Which leads to my title. I can’t seem to find my niche in this wonderful, beautiful world of quilting.
It is a lonely place when you don’t have somewhere to belong, a group of peers to validate your work. I can’t fit into that traditional quilter mold. I just can’t. I like traditional quilters. I respect their work. It was a group of traditional quilters who taught me the basics, and who inspired me to learn more. These quilters know the drill. They can tell you the names of hundreds of traditional patterns, the best needles and thimbles for handwork, and while they’re at it, they can rattle off a recipe for a great marinade or side dish while they stitch along, creating an heirloom piece for the latest grandchild. They are a part of my quilting heritage, and as a woman from humble rural beginnings, I appreciate the role that quilting has played in the lives of my ancestors. But I can’t be a quilter who replicates what has been done again and again. I need to find a way to make my quilts my own.
Unfortunately, I’m not modern enough to fit in with the “cool kids” of the modern quilting movement either. I can appreciate their work, too. They push the boundaries of what it means to be a quilter, using negative space like nobody’s business, and taking advantage of all the benefits of modern manufacturing. They use crisp whites and subtle grays to make colors pop. They can achieve a level of precision that wasn’t possible in the era of hand-piecing. Sometimes, though, I see modern quilts and I think that they are awfully simple. They don’t always use a lot of technique, although occasionally, they are technically beautiful but don’t touch my heart. The creators of these pieces are the contemporary innovators of a long tradition, though, and what is now “traditional” may have once been cutting edge. We need these ladies and gentlemen to keep us all on our toes.
Me, I fall somewhere in between. Most of the time, I’m okay with that. I know that there are many other quilters out there in Quilty-land whose work falls in this space that I inhabit. The internet proves it to me over and over again. Thank God for the blogosphere or I might never have gotten to where I am now on my own creative journey, because all those quilt bloggers out there showed me what I needed to see. But when you’re straddling a great divide - and make no mistake, all you non-quilty people reading this, there is a HUGE divide between these two camps - it kind of sucks. The traditional quilters think I use childish colors and rely on fancy fabric prints to make my quilts interesting, and the modern quilters look at what I do and think, oh how nice, she’s using modern fabrics, but bless her heart, she still uses those old traditional techniques. (Okay, maybe that’s not specifically how I’m judged by either group, but this is what comes up time and time again as what defines modern versus traditional, and I think I am not far off the mark.)
I know that my quilts didn’t do well in the fair because they don’t fit the aesthetic of the judges. I am making my peace with that. I have to go through my usual process of questioning my ability to stand firm in this little plot here in no-man’s-land that I have claimed as my own, and if it’s really worth it to challenge the status quo while trying to hold onto the integrity of what it stands for.
I will eventually get around to realizing (as I always do) that I am where I need to be. It’s my inability to fit in that has made me the person that I am now, a person who can make a path of her own.
But it sure would be nice to be a cool kid every once in a while.
Disclaimer: I in no way mean to imply that I did not see some beautiful creations in the Tennessee State Fair quilt exhibit. There was a stunning display of Dear Jane quilts, some done in traditional fabrics, one in tones of creams and browns, and another in creams and reds. I loved them all (even that brown one!). The quilts of valor display reminded me of how lucky I am to be in this great country, and that there is always an opportunity for me to give back to those who defend our nation. There was also a whole-cloth quilt, embroidered quilts, bargello quilts, log cabin quilts, grandmother’s flower garden quilts, and so many more that I adored. I appreciate the amount of time and the level of commitment required of each person who entered these quilts. My issues with brown go way back, and it’s kind of a running joke with my quilting group that meets on Tuesdays. I wholly own that others may see brown and think it is beautiful. I don’t understand them, but I respect those people all the same, and I hope you can see that this post is about me trying to figure out where I belong in the world of quilting. It is not my intention to belittle or insult the hard work or aesthetic choices of any other individual.