If there existed a book titled Women Who Quilt and the Men Who (Are Forced to) Let Them, the tome would be filled with the sheepish testimony of countless Fabric Widowers. Here, these otherwise strong and domineering men would confess their powerlessness over wives who've been infected with what the quilting community terms "quiltpox." Put conservatively, when it comes to their art, quilters are enthusiastic to the point of rabid fanaticism (a line most would gladly cross were they not held back by life's constraints: work, chores, kids, husbands, and the sad fact that sooner or later, no matter how badly you want to finish a quilt, you have to stop and sleep once in a while).
According to the latest industry statistics, twenty-one million Americans are currently working on quilts. This is a broad-stroke number—"working on" could be defined as merely possessing a quilt magazine with the hopeful but delusional intent of reproducing a quilt pictured therein "one of these days." Or it could refer to having a project half-done and sitting in the basket by the sewing machine for the past five years waiting (perhaps in vain) to be completed.
But for more than one million of the twenty-one million, a subset known as Dedicated Quilters (DQs), "working on" means going at it with a vengeance—maybe cranking out a dozen quilts in a year, maybe spending three years creating a single quilt that will win Best of Show at one of the big annual shows. But always—regardless of pace, regardless of technique (hand or machine sewn, pieced or whole cloth), regardless of style (bold and contemporary or calm and traditional)—for this group, "working on" means performing some quilt-related activity nearly every day.
These women (99 percent of all quilters are women) spend over $500 per year on quilt-related purchases. With an average annual income of $75,000, many of them happily spend much more than that. In 2000, DQs forked over $1.7 billion (an 83 percent increase over the 1997 figure.)
In 2004, at the International Quilt Festival (IQF)—the largest annual gathering of quilters in the world—over fifty-four thousand attendees from across the globe poured into George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Gawking and walking, they took in more than 1,900 displayed quilts, snapped up fat quarters to heap upon already towering fabric stashes back home, and reveled in a glut of round-the-clock quilt talk with other elated stitchers.
IQF's producers have been successful enough to add a new annual spring show. They also put on an international show once every other year. Additionally, there are a number of other major quilt shows, including the Pacific International Quilt Festival and the American Quilter's Society Quilt Show and Contest, held annually in Paducah, Kentucky. Internationally—for quilting has caught on at a frenzied pace in the UK, Japan, and Australia—there are still more shows, such as the annual festival in Yokohama, Japan, each November and the Quilts UK Show in Malvern, England, in the spring.
At these big shows, the stakes are incredibly high. At Houston's IQF 2004, nearly $70,000 in prizes was awarded, with $10,000 going to Best of Show winner. Paducah show purses have weighed in at over $100,000. The competition is fierce and jaw-dropping, dramatically illustrating how what was once an art of resourcefulness—recycling old clothes and rags and flour sacks into patched-together blankets—has turned into an art of the finest form: We're not talking bedspreads, Dorothy; we're talking museum-quality work that sells for tens upon tens of thousands of dollars.
Beyond the flashy shows there are the little shows. Held in public libraries, churches, small museums, state fairs, and other smaller venues all over the United States, they offer hundreds of opportunities for quilters of varying skill levels to demonstrate their passion and offer the viewing public—many of whom are unfamiliar with the intricacies of quilting—a close-up view of the hard work, microscopic details, and tremendous time commitment quilts require. This is also a place for newcomers and quilting hopefuls to whet their appetites—"quiltpox" is quite contagious in such a setting.
My own passion for quilting was sparked by an article I wrote on the topic, suggested by my friend Sarah, which appeared in the Dallas Morning News in January 2002. I confess having one goal when I set out to write that story: pay the rent. I had no idea I was about to cross a threshold into an alternate, fabric-filled universe that would wrap me in its batting and not let me go.
Prior to that article, my only knowledge—if you can even call it that—of quilts was this: for years I'd slept beneath a store-bought quilt, which I never gave much thought beyond two facts—I liked the way the cotton felt, and I liked how just being in the same room with a quilt brought me immediate comfort.
The comfort I derived from that quilt didn't date back to any particular real-life memories, say, me sipping hot chocolate and reading Little Women in a nookish window seat, huddled beneath a well-worn quilt made by my great-grandmother. As far as I know, no one in my family made quilts. But somewhere along the line, the idea of quilts equaling all things good and warm and right was implanted in my mind. Too, my love of quilts no doubt was an extension of my love of blankets, which I'm certain was born of the nomadic life I lived from eighteen through twenty-eight. I might have to leave furniture, books, and friends behind as I moved (and moved again, and again, forever restless). But blankets could always be folded up and smooshed into some crevice in the car, to be brought along to whatever new destination I landed in, ready to lay the foundation for coziness I liked to establish as soon as possible in a new place.
When that quilt wore out, I put it in the mudroom for my beloved dogs, Satch, Tatum, and Bubbles, because even though the thing was ragged, it still emanated a sense of comfort (the dogs agreed). Not long after, I replaced it with another, fancier, thicker quilt, also a department store purchase. By then I was aware of sweatshops and knew the quaint description "imported," which appeared on the package, was merely a nice euphemism to cover up the working conditions of the women who were forced to make quilts for, I'm guessing, pennies per day of constant sewing in unpleasant working conditions.
But I silenced the guilty voice in my head. Not in my wildest dreams did it occur to me I could learn to quilt. Quilting involved sewing. I did not sew. I'd sooner tape, staple, safety-pin together, or simply throw away torn clothes. Under no circumstances would I voluntarily undertake a from-scratch sewing project.
Researching the quilt story for the Dallas Morning News was quite an adventure. I fast discovered that dedicated quilters belong to a large, not-so-secret club with members all around the world. I also learned that if you call one quilter for quotes, you will immediately be given the names of at least a half dozen other quilters to interview. At some point I was forced to stop my interviews—not because I'd heard enough to satisfy me, but because the space allotted my story was extremely limited.
In the final edited version, the one that appeared in print, my editor insisted on cutting back my quotes from quilters and replacing this information with quite a bit about store-bought quilts. Her reasoning was that many women reading the article would want quilts but would have no interest in making them. Lut De Meulder, one of the quilters I interviewed for that story who has since become a great friend of mine, wasted no time getting on my case when the piece ran. How dare I give so much space to sweatshop quilts? she demanded.
At the time, while I did clearly recognize the great difference between homemade and store-bought quilts, I didn't quite realize my "crime" in lumping the two together as I had. Although I apologized to Lut, I also defended myself—I didn't have much of a choice in the matter, I told her. And it was true—I was forever deferring to editors in my newspaper work, and this case was no different. If the piece was going to run at all, I had to accept my editor's insistence that I discuss shopping for quilts as well as sewing them.
Rather than hold a grudge, Lut did something quite admirable. She befriended me, and over the years, she took (and still takes) the time to educate me. For my birthdays she's given me quilting books and fat quarters. Thanks in great part to her efforts, I'm finally quilt-wise to the point that if I could go back in time, I'd certainly argue with my editor that the two types of quilts should never be lumped together again.
But full-blown quilt fever did not seize me overnight. Besides Lut's efforts, I was also being nudged by Sarah. Since writing my article, it had finally dawned on me that Sarah's collection of quilts was the perfect blend of form and function. Prior to my article I was vaguely aware that her house was full of dogs and kids, each on a couch under a quilt, but I'd never scrutinized her work before, hadn't even really realized the quilts were carefully designed. Now I looked and I saw, and I was increasingly excited with each new discovery I made. These were not haphazard, thrown-together productions. They had specific patterns, fantastic color schemes, and special touches—embroidered cartoon characters and mementos of big family events. It still didn't enter my mind that I might be able to do this art, but my appreciation for quilts was growing keener.
In the fall of 2002, Sarah and I were both reading a book called Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis, in which the author shone his journalistic light upon the wacky world of Scrabble fanatics. I'm not talking about friendly family rounds of the word game that get a little out of hand. I mean competitive Scrabble players who dedicate large parts of their lives to improving their skills and who enter tournaments to win big bucks. In addition, Fatsis decided he, too, would work toward the goal of becoming a Scrabble champ.
Word Freak is a great book, inspirational on more than one level. Over the course of reading it, Sarah, both a quilter and a woman prone to many brilliant light bulb moments (not to mention an excellent Scrabble player), came to me and announced, "We need a book like this about the quilting world. And you need to write it."
I immediately fell in love with this idea. If Sarah believed that I could quilt, then maybe I could quilt! And how wonderful that my most important qualification as perfect-author-for-the-job was my near-complete lack of knowledge on my topic. Whereas most books are best written by experts, in this case my blank slate would be a boon. I could keep a running account of how I went from hopeless fumble-fingers to quilting genius. Being a romantic and, too often, an idealist, I envisioned immersing myself into a fascinating subculture and emerging later as a card-carrying member, adored by my peers for my matchless quilting skills.
Well, it's been a couple of years since that vision of mastering the art of quilting first visited me. I won't tell you here what level of success I've had (or not)—you can read on and follow my sewing (mis)adventures in detail. But you've probably noticed, if you're a dedicated quilter, that my work has yet to appear on the cover (or any other pages) of well-known (or even unknown) quilting magazines. And if I were you, I wouldn't stand in front of the Best of Show slot holding your breath, looking for my name to appear with the winning quilt anytime soon.
Nonetheless, I certainly have had (and am still having) a lot of fun exploring the quilting world. I've met more than a few enthusiastic quilters, some famous, some not. I've conducted a survey that netted me piles of great responses. I've attended three International Quilt Festivals (so far). And I've found that, no matter where I am, if I bring up quilting in conversation, there's always someone within ten feet who is either a quilter or knows a quilter or has a story to tell of a favorite quilt.
My goal with this book, besides recounting my own personal quilting adventures, has been to capture and share just a few of the great stories I discovered along the way. My regret is that there is no way I could possibly present all the stories I uncovered. Maybe I need to write a series—because certainly there is more than enough material (pun most certainly intended) out there to fill volumes.
Before I commence to detailed sharing of these quilting stories, I want to take a moment to recall a great conversation I had at the outset of writing this book. I'd already written a proposal, over fifty pages, which I submitted to my then agent. Not a quilter, this woman didn't get what I was aiming for. At first she asked if I might instead prefer to write a book about knitting. Mind you, I am an avid knitter, much better at that craft than I am at sewing. But the way this woman put it, it was as if she thought the two were interchangeable.
When I made it clear to her that quilting was unique and that I intended to stick to the topic, she acquiesced and ceased with her call for me to write a yarn about yarn. Still, while she reluctantly agreed that quilting might work as a topic, she didn't share my vision for project execution. I wanted to write about living, breathing quilters—traditionalists, contemporary artists, hand quilters, machine quilters, etc.—patching together an eclectic bunch of profiles. She suggested that instead I write a book about the history of quilting.
I admit I understood her motive for this suggestion—the book market these days is most often looking for a formulaic, surefire best seller. Pitching a wacky people collage, as I had, didn't meet that goal. But with all due respect to my agent's needs and visions and the demands of the publishing market, not only did I feel like the history of quilting had been adequately covered numerous times by people far more knowledgeable than I, but it also didn't come close to what I wanted to accomplish.
So I parted ways with that agent, next approaching the agent who had sold Word Freak, since that was my inspiration. He read my proposal and did get it but wanted me to reshape my idea to follow the lives of just a few quilters, their ups and downs, the arcs of their stories—very beginning, middle, and triumphant ending. Not a bad idea, but again, not my vision.
Which is when I made the very good choice to query Theresa May, who had edited a previous essay collection of mine. Would UT Press ever even be interested in the topic of quilting, written in the spirit of quiltmaking—that is, many small stories pieced together?
Theresa invited me to drop off my proposal. Within twenty-four hours, she called to set up a lunch date: Yes, she wanted the book. Besides the very good feeling that comes whenever a book idea gets a green light, I got something else from Theresa. I knew she was a seamstress—she makes amazing costumes for theater productions.
During our lunch we talked at length about sewing. I confessed my near phobia of the activity while she expressed her joy in it. I didn't need to work to convince her that capturing many small tales of everyday quilters would be exciting. She already understood that passionate sewers hear the hum of a busy sewing machine the way orchestra patrons hear the sweet triumph of a masterfully performed symphony presentation.
Theresa was the one who pointed out to me what a perfect metaphor quilting is for women's lives. We all have our stash—of skills, memories, drawbacks, drama, tragedy, and joy. And from this stash we piece together our lives, each of us creating an amazing and unique pattern. This resonated deeply.
And so with the encouragement of Sarah and Lut and Theresa, I set out to piece together my first quilt and to piece together this tale of many quilters. While I certainly encountered many obstacles along the way, from broken needles to a tape recorder that chose to malfunction at a crucial moment, I have come away much richer for my experiences.