By Edie McGinnis
When I began quilting, I didn’t own a sewing machine. My then mother-in-law gave me some old turkey red and white blocks that had been hand-pieced. She told me I could start with those because most quilters pieced and quilted by hand anyway. I found hand-piecing a calming experience, and I loved seeing a quilt grow steadily and slowly in my hands.
I could take my quilting anywhere and did. I pieced blocks while waiting for my children at ballgames, swim meets, doctor and dentist appointments, and every other place you can ever wait for a child. I was never bored as long as I had my handwork along.
When other quilters saw me hand-piecing my quilts, they gave me several labels. The first was, “Oh, you’re a hand-quilter.”
The second was, “Oh, I see you’re one of those purists. I bet you never use your sewing machine.”
Sewing machine? No, I didn’t own one. If I wanted a quilt, I only had one way to make it, and that was by hand.
Then one year my husband surprised me with a sewing machine. It was on sale for $99. It was one of those deals where you got exactly what you paid for. The machine didn’t work worth a darn and was in the shop more than it was out, so I continued to piece by hand.
I fell in love with feedsacks. I collected and researched and learned their stories. I made quilts using feedsack fabric. I was happy to be able to reproduce a quilt that looked like it had been made in the ’30s, and even a certified appraiser couldn’t tell it was new until she looked at the label on the back.
It wasn’t long before more information was added to my label. Now I was a hand-quilter who made ’30s quilts. I got that label after making one quilt using feedsack fabric. Granted, it was a quilt that won ribbons, but it was one quilt
The label of hand-piecer, hand-quilting purist stuck to me like glue. And for a while, I was OK with that.
Then I bought a sewing machine, a real sewing machine that worked like a charm. I still enjoyed piecing by hand, but I was in a car wreck that tore up my left hand. Handwork wasn’t going to be an option for a long time. But I had quilts I wanted to make, and I was determined that nothing was going to stop me. I learned how to make quilts using my sewing machine.
Now I had a new label. I was a machine-piecer. I also quilted my quilts on my home sewing machine, and that was added onto my label, so I became a machine quilter as well.
I made a quilt that was based on patriotic Kansas City Star quilt patterns. I chose the colors of our beautiful flag for the quilt – red, white and blue. The quilt was bright and stood out. I loved it, and I got a new label. Now I was a quilter who loved brights. And brights were not in fashion that year. I was told that it would be a good idea to “tone my quilts down and use more earth tones.”
So I gave it a whirl, and I even learned to use colors I didn’t really like, such as brown. I also learned to use reproduction fabric in my quilts. Along with those quilts came a new label. Now I was a traditional quilter.
Then I made a wall hanging based on “The Phantom of the Opera.” I appliquéd the phantom in the upper right corner onto a black background. I made a three-dimensional rose, placed it over the mask the phantom wore and put it in the lower left corner. I quilted in the notes to “The Music of the Night.” The quilt was not my best work. I had a lot of trouble with the phantom’s face. But suddenly, I had a new label. I was an art quilter.
I decided to try an appliqué quilt using different size blocks I designed using the old-school method, graph paper. The quilt is dark and was different from anything I had ever made before. People I knew loved the quilt and I, as a quilter, was re-labeled. Now I was a primitive quilter.
Now we have a new category of quilter, the modern quilter. One of the things I find so uplifting about the modern quilt movement is the way it has gathered in new quilters with an accepting and encouraging attitude.
But I also hear I can never be part of this world because I wear the label of traditional quilter. And apparently, I should not be called a traditional quilter because that label implies that I think my way of making quilts is the only right way to make a quilt. According to some schools of thought, traditional quilts are really utility quilts.
I recently heard a woman explaining modern quilting at a quilt expo. She said if you liked reproduction fabric, you could never be a modern quilter. And if you liked prints, you could seriously forget about making a modern quilt. And then I quit listening to her.
I quit listening because this is what I know. I can make any quilt I choose to make. I can use any type of fabric I like. I can make a quilt that looks older than the hills, or I can make one that looks as sparse and modern as any other.
The important issue at hand is that we want to be careful with the labels we attach to others. No matter what type of quilt one chooses to make, the only thing that matters is that the maker is happy with the result. It’s his or her quilt, not yours and not mine. And let’s face it, whether that quilt is your cup of tea or not, I’ll bet you can find something to admire and appreciate in it.
You can try to cram a creative person into any type or size of box you like. You can label the box with anything that suits your fancy. But creative people will surprise you. They will jump out of the box you’ve stuffed them in as soon as your back is turned. They will not be happy with being categorized and will make you look foolish when you’ve decided which label they should be wearing.
As for me, there is only one label that is ever going to truly fit. My label reads, “I am a quilter.”
Edie McGinnis is an author and editor for Kansas City Star Quilts. She writes every Friday.