Sunday, June 15, 2014

Quilting's Worth

Why does a middle-aged woman spend her days stitch fabric cartoons of happy-faced extinct reptiles and humanoid females in pink? Or appliqué the Tooth Fairy on a pillowcase? Or tackle—and finish—a queen-sized wedding ring quilt?

Love, that's what. Love is the currency of quilting.

Quilting tradition is all about family. Mother teaches sewing to daughter; daughter, with rotary cutter, quick-construction techniques, and machine quilting, works up quilts faster than her grandmother ever dreamed, and then gives them away to family, friends, and charities.  In return, she feels a glow from expressing the love she feels, and sometimes—not always—from the gratitude she gets in return. So is the quilter paid.

Quilt buyers assume that since love is free, it has no monetary value.  They accordingly value a quilter's time at zero dollars, and in gauging a quilt's worth, pay only a modest multiple of the cost of the fabric. It's always been that way. In 1930, the Quilt Index says, 196 people paid 25 cents apiece to put their names on a quilt that sold for $40 as a fund raiser.  The pattern was Melon Patch.

In the 1860s, a church women's group quilted a full-size quilt for $2.00; Ruth Finley, who wrote about it in Old Patchwork Quilts: And the Women Who Made Them, figured that as a penny an hour.  In June 2013, if you use the Consumer Price Index as a gauge, that amounted to 16 cents an hour.  If that seems unreasonably low, just take a look at the quilt selling prices on eBay.

We all know that to sell a quilt usually means earning less than minimum wage.  We should refuse to sell at fire-sale prices.  We don't, though; we make quilts the way an artist paints canvas—again, for love, but this time for the love of creativity.

Now, we use our creativity to decorate our homes. Appalachian frontier women would hang a cloth on the wall and hang their knickknacks on the cloth.  We order marble kitchen counters and koi-pond kits, consulting not Mom but Martha Stewart.  Daughters no longer learn to sew; they learn to buy.

In short, it is a golden age for quilt collectors.  Today, even exquisite antique quilts go for a few thousand dollars.

Tomorrow will be different.


Three Kick-Ass Novels About Quilters

The headline calls them "Not-At-All Cozy" rather than kick-ass, but they're both. Tracy Chevalier reviewed three novels in an article on June 15 for National Public Radio, posted here.

One book is Happenstance (Carol Shields), about what happens when an art quilter leaves her family for five days to go to a quilt conference.  One part is from the husband's point of view -- he's the one left at home with their teenage kids -- and one from the wife's. He undervalues her work, of course. 

Alias Grace
Murderess Grace Marks is a
19th-century quilter behind bars. 
Next, in Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood) a visitor who wants a confession from a 19th-century murderess, who quilts in prison. The quilter bobs and weaves with the help of quilt-block names, including The Letter X and Snake Fence, which Chevalier thinks are "obscure."  Wha...?  Those have been on for years!

Finally, there's Toni Morrison's Beloved, in which a quilt is a link between daughter and mother, woman and lover. The reviewer quotes: "She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order."

Chevalier is a novelist herself, and this isn't her first book review for National Public Radio.  But it's one of the first we've seen that celebrates quilting as part of the literary arts.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Quilt Festival is over; feet rejoice

Besides being the biggest yearly convention in the city of Houston and the biggest quilt show on Earth, the Quilt Festival is awfully tough on a photo buff.  Standing next to a popular quilt was like being by the rail at the Grand Canyon.

Like most everyone else, I needed four full days to see everything properly and shop too.  I walked around all day every day until I had more blisters than I did on my first backpacking trip, and at the end of each day I was, in my stupor, greeting friends with fresh new names they'd never been called before. "Hi, Ginny!"

A lot of quilts were for sale, for a few hundred dollars up to $38,000.  That's low for a high.  Other years, quilters have asked for $50,000 and even $100,000, or so I was told at the information desk.

One of my favorites was "Cutting Down the Tall Poppies." It was a pictorial of a half-dozen brilliant multicolor poppies with tiny shadow figures trying to cut through their stems. Turns out there's an Australian custom of putting standout people back in their place, and the title is what they call it. The quilter had lots of fans among her neighbors down there. You heard more Australian accents in that corner than you would at an actors' workshop.  It was priced at $3,000.

The top prize went to another pictorial quilt showing an exhibit by an artist named Chihuly at a public garden festival.  Chihuly piled colored glass balls into small boats and set them adrift on the water there. The quilt showed one on a deep black background, and it was very pretty, but I heard a lot of complaints about it because, really, you couldn't see the workmanship. The pieces were much too small, so you couldn't see what made it a quilt. At least I couldn't.  With the ropes, you'd need binoculars to see it up close.

I had my nose three inches from the exhibits wherever the barriers let me.  No one touched them.  Quilters are all so well behaved.

Photos were another story.  SAQA, the Studio Artists Quilters Association, barred photography of its members' quilts. They'd like to make money from their work, but is someone going to go and make kitsch from their ideas?  Not likely. You'd have to be too good at manipulating cheesecloth or painting fabric to reproduce them.

Some of the SAQA quilts that were reproducible, though, would make great quilt patterns.  Flight Deck, showing skateboarders with their arms raised like birds taking off, was a standout.  A couple of quilts were throwbacks to a brassy style that showed grotesqueries representing how the quilter saw the world. Some were a lot like paintings. They were paintings.

Are visitors going to print and post these photos? Would that really be such a bad thing, to bring the artist a bit of publicity?

Other quilts in the show were barred from photography too, largely the ones from a single South Korean artist and some others in that area of the exhibits.  In any case, the quilt guardians just about tackled anyone who took a photo, and then stood there waiting while the embarrassed photographer deleted it.  I actually saw a guardian run across the wide walkway that ran down the exhibit hall shouting "Ma'am!  Ma'am!  You can't take photos there!" so that everyone turned around and looked.

Not that I'd trim those tall poppies of SAQA, but the photo thing did seem a bit giddy.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A brilliant way to mark 1/4" seams

The patterns on are block diagrams that you print out and cut apart to get pattern pieces.  The pattern pieces by themselves don't have seam allowances.

You can either cut the seam allowances as you go, which is fine if you never make mistakes, or you can do the wiser thing and add seam allowances to the pattern piece.

We're in awe of Mary Jo of for coming up with a simple, convenient, and inexpensive way to do that.  Here it is:

Find two sharp, happy pencils and get them acquainted.

Officiate at the wedding.

(That's Scotch tape.)

When the pencils are taped together, the points are almost exactly 5/16th of an inch apart.

(That weird ruler is called a pica ruler.  I use mine all the time.)

Tape your quilt-pattern piece to a bigger piece of paper.  Then line up your taped-together pencils with one point on the edge of your pattern piece and one on the paper it's taped to.

Draw the lines. 

Cut along the outer line for your new, improved pattern with seam allowance.

Using two pencils takes some getting used to, but remember, for quilters:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Quiltspeak: Online abbreviations for quilters

I love online abbreviations.  In their way, B4 and gr8 and n2 are tackling the problem of unpredictable spelling that has plagued writers of the English language since before the first Musquetoe bit Merriwether Lewis*.

Acronyms are another story.  They can be impossible to figure out.  I recently saw a list of quilter acronyms that's so useful I just had to share it with you.  

Who couldn't love SABLE, for "Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy?" I think my favorite, though, is "WOMBAT."  
 BOB - Black on Black 
 BOM = Block of the Month 
 DSM = Domestic Sewing Machine 
 FART = Fabric Acquisition Road Trip 
 FOB = Fear of Binding 
 FQ = Fat Quarter 
 HST = Half-Square Triangle 
 LA = Longarmer 
 LAQ= Long Arm Quilter 
 LQS = Local Quilt Shop 
 MAQ = Mid-Arm Quilter 
 OBW = One Block Wonder 
 OPAM = One Project a Month 
 PhD = Projects Half Done 
 PIGS = Projects in Grocery Sacks 
 PP = Paper Piecing 
 QAYG = Quilt As You Go 
 QST = Quarter Square Triangle 
 RR = Round Robin 
 SABLE = Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy 
 SEX = Stash Enhancing eXperience (or eXcursion) 
 SID = Stitch In the Ditch 
 SnW = Stack and Whack    
 Squishy = Mailing envelopes full of fabric swaps/gifts
 STASH = Special Treasures All Secretly Hidden  
 TGIF = Thank God It's Finished!  
 TOT = Tone-on-Tone 
 UFO = UnFinished Object 
 VIP = Very Important Project 
 WHIMM = Works Hidden In My Mind 
 WIP = Work In Progress 
 WISP = Work In Slow Progress 
 WWIT = What Was I Thinking 
 WOF = Width of Fabric 
 WOMBAT = Waste of Money, Batting, and Time 
 WOW = White On White
I'm not sure where the list got started; I got it from a post on  

Please contact me if you know of any more abbreviations and I'll add them to the list. 


*In fact, I hear that it was John Clark who invented 19 different spellings of the word. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

This is your brain on quilt pox

Ever since Tetris was the only video game that women really liked, I've been wondering if Tetris Pox and Quilt Pox are related.

Shortly after Tetris was released in 1984, video-game developers figured out that forty percent of Tetris players were women, compared to just one percent for the typical video game.

In Tetris, little squares would float down from the top of the screen, and you had to grab them and set them in the correct column before they landed. This video from August 2013 will give you an idea of how it's played.  

Game developers leaped into studying the woman question with a hilarious "What hath God wrought?" obtuseness. Women, they deduced, didn't like games that were violent or insufficiently pink. Soon there were rosy, no-kill, wretched games that made the typical woman want to put Hello Kitty's head on a pike.  Then there was the "not enough women game developers" phase, followed by the girl-gamer-led "all we want is good games!" backlash.  

There was one sensible comment.  "Tetris is different from many other kinds of video games which appeal to boys and men," said one (female) consultant hired by Gameboy.  "It's more of a pattern recognition game.  It's not a conquest game or a get-rid-of-the-enemy game.  Instead, it appeals to women's sense of order." 
Pattern recognition and a sense of order:
Sixteen Goose in the Pond blocks  (1897)

Pattern recognition.  A sense of order.  What could be more characteristic of traditional quilting?

A good scientific study on Tetris and quilt pox could tell us a lot about the hardwiring of women's minds.

It's easy to see why no such study has happened.  As a group, quilters are as far from the video-game marketplace as a flock of pigeons.  The only people who have a foot in both worlds are--well, you and me.  We don't know many researchers, unless you do.  

Gee's Bend aside, traditional quilting is overwhelmingly the province of aging, middle-income white grandmothers who are focused on their families.  

It's hard nowadays even to find young people who have sewing machines.  Their moms lacked the skills too.  That's probably because our clothing is made so cheaply overseas.   

Wired:  Playing Tetris is
like folding sheets
Still, we quilters can take some of the blame.  From the 19th century on, quilting has been awash in nostalgia about mothers and grandmothers stitching away in their  little houses on the prairie and so forth until you'd think that no one had ever electrified a sewing machine.  Today, a vanishingly small number of Americans can remember having grandmothers who grew up on a farm.  

We aren't fossils yet, but give us time.  So if scientists are ever going to discover the elusive link between pattern recognition, quilt pox, and Tetris, they'd better get a move on.  

In 2009, in "This is Your Brain on Tetris," Jeffrey Goldsmith of Wired wrote:
The Tetris effect is a ... metaphor, if you will, for curiosity, invention, the creative urge.  To fit shapes together is to organize, to build, to make deals, to fix, to understand, to fold sheets.  
To fold sheets?  Grandma, is that you?  


Note:  In 2012, women made up 47% of all gamers, or so the Entertainment Software Association said.  

Note:  In 2009, a bunch of scientists from Oxford, for heaven's sake, suggested that someone who had been traumatized might avoid terrifying flashbacks if he or she played Tetris shortly afterward, although they refrained from suggesting that ambulances be equipped with Gameboys.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How to make the Kansas City Star's Interlocked Squares block

Interlocked Squares block

Interlocked Squares was published in 1932 in the Kansas City Star*.  

I'm ridiculously proud of the diagram below.  Reason:  I figured out an easy way to make the block, and that's by putting in an extra seam (splitting "3" into "3a" and "3b").

The simplest way to piece this block is to split one of
 the #2 or #3 quadrilaterals into a triangle and a diamond.

Without that extra seam, you're stuck sewing really awkward acute angles where the pieces fit together -- when you join a piece 2 to a piece 3 in the diagram above. 

Instead, you can start with the center piece and build it log-cabin style.  That way you only have to do one weird-angled seam for the entire block.  The sequence is shown in this diagram: 

Sequence for putting together the parts of an Interlocked Squares block. 

There's a giant version of the block diagram on  There's supposed to be a link when you click on either diagram, but just in case, it's here:

You print out that diagram in any size you like, cut the pieces apart, and use them as pattern pieces.  You have to add a 1/4" seam allowance to each piece, just as quilters did back in the 1930s.  (There's actually a brilliantly simple way to do that, but it's going to have to wait for another post.)

Other instructions for the block are on the web in a couple of different variations. They either cost money, which means they don't belong on the site, or else they're not quite the same block.  Here are a few: 

• A "cathedral windows" style, which means that there are heavy black outlines around every piece.

• Here's one that uses a special set of templates.

• Here's one with a fancy star in the middle:

• This one is free,  but it has a bunch of small blocks in the middle:

• This one is also free, but it isn't quite the same block, and it has flying geese in the corners.  Still, it's supposed to be easy to make.


*The Star, for whatever reason, does not enforce copyright on its blocks, although there are tons of books based on Star patterns at a company called Pickle Dish, aka "Kansas City Star Quilts" (