Everyone’s a beginning quilter…. once.
I was on Facebook the other day and was very sad to read a post by a beginning quilter expressing her discouragement and frustration. After seeing all the posts by more accomplished quilters and having had several of her quilts critiqued rather harshly, she was at the point where she didn’t think she wanted to quilt anymore. I have heard similar comments at quilt shows. People standing in front of a quilt and instead of finding inspiration, find themselves feeling a little inadequate and overwhelmed. People should leave a quilt show excited and inspired; wanting to rush home and quilt something, not so discouraged they never want to quilt again.
I’m not suggesting that people who quilt for show should simplify their work. Half the fun of show quilting for me is the challenge. Over the last 10 years the bar has been raised to ridiculous heights, and I love it. Being constantly challenged to up my game inspires me to keep trying to perfect more and more difficult techniques and to design increasingly intricate quilts. What I want people to consider is that nobody starts at this level.
Quilts that are for show or even many of the posts that you see on Facebook are quilted by professional or expert quilters (people who design patterns, quilt for hire, or make a large portion of their income entering shows, or even just those who have been quilting for decades). Most of these people are not quilt savants. They did not start out making these gorgeous, intricate, complicated quilts. I know I didn’t.
I started sewing when I was in grade school. I did 4H through most of middle school, making the obligatory dresses and skirts. I continued sewing garments through high school and actually helped pay for college making custom suits and doing alterations for people, but I didn’t quilt. I made the occasional “baby blankets” that I guess were technically quilts (i.e. top, batting, backing) but they were mostly straight-line piecing of squares and were generally tied. Free motion quilting wasn’t even in my vocabulary let alone my skill set.
I made my first “real” quilt after I got married. I was working as a nurse on the Navajo Reservation in Chinle, AZ. I worked four on three off and then three on four off; 12 hour shifts. I need to explain a little about Chinle. The closest town is Gallup, NM, 90 miles away. This was also the closest place to get your hair cut or even find a Walmart. Chinle has a gas station, a feed store, a couple of motels for the tourists, and a convenience store. That’s it. I grew up in rural Nebraska, so I thought I understood living in the middle of nowhere. I was wrong.
Where I’m from free range meant everybody went out once a year and rounded up all the cattle to brand and then had a big party. In Chinle, it meant the cattle had the right of way. My husband’s job was to chase the cattle off the dirt runway so that we could land the medical transport plane. Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of things to do when you weren’t at work. We put 100,000 miles on a dodge neon the year we were there and I started sewing quilts. Or, I should really say, I started piecing tops. The concept of actually quilting them came later.
When I first started piecing, I thought “no problem, I know how to sew. I’ve been doing it for years”. I figured quilting couldn’t be that much different from sewing clothes. Boy was I wrong. Turns out ¼” seam allowance is actually more than just a suggestion, and accurate cutting is really important. Not that seam allowances and accurate cutting aren’t important in fabric making, but there is a lot more wiggle room when you are sewing clothes.
I pieced my first quilt top almost 20 years ago, and it was probably a little ambitious, but it was what I wanted to make. My husband looked through the quilting books I had bought and picked out the pattern. It was a combination of bear paw blocks and blocks that look like polar bears. My long seams are not particularly straight or even. My seams don’t line up and we aren’t even going to talk about my points, but I was really proud of it. I look at it now, and think how far I have come, but I’m still happy with it. I wonder if I had started quilting today, if I would still feel that way. Back then I didn’t have a guild or Facebook to share my project with, so I didn’t have anything to compare it too. I also didn’t have any “helpful” people explaining to me how to “fix” my quilt.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that the ability to share ideas and techniques with so many different people is totally awesome. We just need to remember that not everybody is at the same level and sharing is not necessarily an invitation for critiques/criticism. I have an awesome customer who makes t-shirt quilts for each of her kids/grandkids. She is in her 80’s and almost blind. The tops are not flat or straight, and her seams are occasionally a little wonky, but she’s having fun and her family absolutely love them. Who am I to “teach” her the “correct” way to quilt.
The same goes for a lot of my customers. When I ask what their quilting/thread preferences are they say “whatever you think. You’re the expert”. I always tell them that I’m happy to suggest, but it’s their quilt. If someone wants me to quilt purple variegated thread all over their hand applique, I will probably gently suggest it wouldn’t be my first choice. But ultimately, it’s their quilt. I’m never going to see it again. If it makes them happy, that’s all that counts.
Back to that first quilt top. I will admit it was another 10 years before I got around to quilting it. I initially toyed with the idea of hand quilting it, but I don’t have the patience. I have hand quilted a total of two quilts in my entire career and I have nothing but respect for hand quilters, but it’s not for me. My hand quilting looks a lot like Morse code you know dot, dot, dot…. dash, dash, dash. It wasn’t until I got my long arm that I actually started quilting my tops. I already knew I didn’t have the patience to hand quilt and I never seemed to have the coordination to quilt on my domestic. When I got my longarm, I knew this was the only way to quilt, for me. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t a learning curve, however.
I was very fortunate that several of my first longarmed quilts were juried into major shows. Don’t think that this had very much to do with my quilting skills. It didn’t. It had everything to do with my photography skills. Anything will lie flat and hang straight if you nail it to the wall before you photograph it.
My quilt “Passionately Purple” was one of these quilts. Note the cross hatching which is not even remotely straight or even. Also, I learned it is a good idea when you have been piecing together purple blocks to remember to switch to white thread when you add the white setting blocks. Who knew?
I decided with the next quilt that I would do a whole cloth so I didn’t have to mess with piecing. Still hadn’t quite figure out how to do straight cross hatching, but I was getting better.
The only real difference between me and a beginning quilter is several thousand hours of practice.
When I teach classes people frequently tell me they will never be able to quilt like me. I always tell them that’s not true. Anyone can learn to quilt like I do. Just spend the next 5 years quilting 40-50 hours a week, and you can do it too.
In the meantime, if you are a beginner, enjoy yourself. Have fun with your creations and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. Remember they all started where you are once too, and if you are a more accomplished quilter, try to remember what it was like to be a newbie. Enjoy the process. Remember it’s all about the journey.