Thursday, April 25, 2013

Originality, Quilting, and Serbian Penis Hats

Some time ago, a reader suggested this as a topic for a post: how do you know if a pattern you create is original? Apparently, she had been working very hard on a pattern and a technique that she had never seen anywhere else, until finally, several Google searches eventually turned up something similar enough that she felt pretty discouraged about the whole thing.

So now here I am, farting around with fabric and wondering: does the stuff I come up with qualify as a "design," something that I could put my name on and submit to a magazine or possibly sell as apattern? My GenQ editors keep telling me I should design something and submit it to our own publication, because they somehow have gotten the idea that I can design things other than magazine layouts and the occasional t-shirt. And I have to say they are probably right, but what keeps me from moving forward is wondering how you know when you've actually designed something?

This answer should be easy. I have next to me a copy of American Patchwork and Quilting and the cover quilt is called Color Me Crochet, and the suggestion is that the pattern makes the quilt look like crocheted granny squares. What it looks like to me is the Scrappy Trip Around the World that everybody and their dead grandmas were doing just a few months ago. That particular craze was started (possibly) by Pink Castle Fabrics  (at least that's where I saw a lot of the inspiration for it being credited), but they got it from Bonnie Hunter, who posted it as a free tutorial back in 1999. Now, the quilt in the magazine uses a slightly different technique to create the blocks that give you this particular effect, but the result is exactly the same.

American Patchwork & Quilting/April 2013
And a Scrappy Trip Around the World made by Julie of Distant Pickles . See the similarities?

Bonnie notes that this pattern uses the Trip Around the World block, which is as old as, well, really old stuff, but is just scrappy. That's it. She took a traditional block and made it scrappy. So did the author of the AP&Q cover quilt. Did she copy Bonnie? No, I don't think so. I don't think it is such a leap of mental prowess to come up with the idea to make a traditional block scrappy that the only possibility is that one is a copy of the other.

Here is a quilt from the book 101 Fabulous Rotary Cut Quilts that dates from 1900. It uses blocks that are larger than the Scrappy Trip Around the World, and it uses the same fabrics in each block to achieve the effect, but I think you can see the similarity:

How often have you opened a quilt magazine and seen a pattern for something that is basically a traditional block? Or a combination of traditional blocks? How many times have you seen a quilt and thought, "Huh. That looks familiar." For another example from the same magazine, as soon as I saw this quilt:

I thought of this book cover:

Are they exactly the same? No, but similar enough to stir something in my grey matter that made me wonder if it was the same designer. (It's not.)

I don't really have an answer here. Is the magazine owl quilt a copy of the second? Is the magazine "crochet" quilt an "original design"?

Right now, laid out on my ironing board, are 8 blocks that I just "made up" a couple days ago and I LOVE them. I think they look sooooo cool and when they are all done, the resulting quilt might be worthy of being called Joe (for my beloved Joe Manganiello, of course). And believe me, I have Googled the ever-loving shit out of it, and though I have seen some things that come dancing close, I have seen nothing yet that is exactly the same. And yet I still hesitate to call this a "design," to think that it's worthy of attaching my name to and putting out into the world in any other fashion than a hey-look-what-I-made-now post on this here blog. Why is that? Why, when I am so ready to smack down others for being too copyright-happy, am I unwilling to claim a design as my own?

I think part of the reason is the fear that if I take the leap to put my work out there, someone will try to call shenanigans on me. They won't have a leg to stand on, and I know it, but I have seen so many "waaaa - you copied me" hissy fits out there—some of which have resulted in actual threats from actual lawyers—that I hesitate to run the risk of the stress and bother (and possible lawyer fees) that such a hissy fit would cause. Also, I'd have to smack a bitch, and no one wants that.

And part of it is that I am kind of freaky about wanting to produce original work, and this may come from being a writer and editor by trade. When I was an editor, I could spot a plagiarized article a mile away (and since the idiots always plagiarized from the internet, I could prove it while hardly lifting a finger) and got into some pretty heated arguments with my bosses about why we weren't firing the writers' asses and telling them why. (They didn't like to "burn bridges." I figure you should dynamite any damn bridge that leads to a plagiarist.)  I work very hard to make sure the words I put on a page are mine, and I get deeply offended by those who think they can get away with copying and pasting and then take money for it. So, when I sit down to think about a quilt, I tend to think about it like a writer, and try to come at it so that the result is a reflection of my style, my brain, my thoughts alone.

Design, like writing, takes practice. When I first started doing the design for GenQ, I looked through a lot of magazines for inspiration and ideas, because I was new and unsure of what I was doing. Now, five issues in, I don't pay much attention to other publications at all. I now have a way of approaching a layout and creating what I need without having to see how others have done something similar, and this is simply because I've now had enough practice at it.

So, I can only assume that designing quilts would be much the same: that with enough practice, I would begin to produce more original work. But I also think that, in quilting—and particularly when we are talking about straight piecing and not applique—it is just inevitable that certain configurations will show up again and again in independently created designs. It is not inconceivable that two people would think, "How can I make an owl out of just squares and rectangles?" And that they would think of that without having seen it somewhere else. Instead of assuming a design has been somehow copied or misappropriated, I almost think we have to assume it wasn't. (Now if the written instructions are copied — that's easier to tell and be concerned about, and that's where copyright law is actually clearer.) And we have to trust ourselves to enjoy and appreciate the work that comes out of our own heads, even if it turns out that somebody else, somewhere, thought of it first.

Remember that design isn't necessarily creating something that no one has ever seen. When I work on magazine design, it's not like no one has ever seen an article on hidden penis motifs in late-twentieth century Serbian quilts before. But it has never been that article with that title and that particular artwork (a banner of flying penises in traditional Serbian hats) placed in exactly that configuration before. Even if someone, somewhere used the same art (because, let's face it, those little penis hats are everywhere), it's still not the same design. Furniture, houses, clothes—nearly everything that has a visual design element has a basis in something that came before it. Just look at all the flower prints in quilt fabric out there. And dots! How do you design dots? By putting down some circles and coloring them in and having the confidence to say, "Here are my dots, made just the way I wanted them." You could do the same with penis hats, too. For my quilt, I should have the confidence to say, "This is my design," knowing that the work did indeed come from my own little noggin, even if someone else eventually says, "Been there; quilted that."

So, how do you know when your design is original? You might not know. It might not be original by your (or someone else's) standard. But the way you put it out into the world—your fabric choices, your block configuration, your method, and your way of writing about that method (i.e., your instructions)—can be very original and very much your own.

Especially if it includes Serbian penis hats.

Read More: Here are some things about originality in design that I have found interesting:

An Essay on Hedi Slimane and the Saint Laurent Paris Fall 2013 Collection: "If you think about it, we’ve seen it all. Fashion is fickle, yes, but is any of it ever actually new? What’s new to me is a designer choosing—in this digital age where we can work from anywhere—to make his work where and when he’s inspired, regardless if it’s a known fashion hub or not. What’s new to me is a designer brazenly choosing to reference not only his own house’s original designer but another designer, too (whether intentional or not). What’s new to me is a designer choosing to celebrate up and coming artists and musicians that aren’t household names."

Originality in Logo Design: "The less intricacies involved in creating your masterpiece, the more likely it is that someone has already created it."

Petrarch's Apes: Originality, Plagiarism and Copyright Principles within Visual Culture: "The artist or designer judges originality on the basis of aesthetic merit -- that is, the particular quality of the idea expressed in a particular way, so that idea and aesthetic are generally approached as though they are inextricably linked, or symbiotically related."

No comments: