Thursday, November 3, 2016

A pep talk, in case you need it

As I have mentioned before, I belong to a couple of the big quilting groups on Facebook, and I love them. People get weird on occasion, but for the most part, they are earnest and kind. And no, most of the quilters on these groups aren't creating masterpieces—and that is precisely why I love them. I love seeing people make things just for the love of making them, and doing so according to their own aesthetic, however that aesthetic was developed and even if I don't necessarily share it.

The other day, I was scrolling along on FB, and I came across this post, which pretty much stopped me in my tracks:

There were so many things I wanted to say to her, but I knew that, for one thing, any comment would be eventually lost in the sea of comments that flood the posts on these groups. And for another, I had a LOT to say. So I'm going to say them here instead, and maybe my thoughts will work themselves around to her someday, or maybe they'll help someone else who is feeling something similar. Or, maybe I just like hearing the sound of my own...keyboard.

So, here goes:

No matter how good a quilter you are, someone will always be better than you. Maybe that person is better than you right now, or maybe they existed 50 years ago, or maybe they haven't been born yet. Maybe they are famous. Maybe no one knows who they are at all. But they're out there somewhere in the space-time continuum, you can be sure of that.

And the converse is true: No matter how bad a quilter you are, someone out there is worse.

See, some quilters have natural talents for color and design, and some of those quilters have been able to develop those talents through education. Some quilters have had the luxury of time to be able to practice and practice and practice, and the luxury of money to make endless numbers of quilts that weren't quite good enough until they got it right. Some quilters have access to specialized or higher-quality machines that make some of the more difficult techniques a little easier. Some quilters are able to attend classes and workshops to learn new techniques or improve upon the ones they already know.

But the key word there? Some. Some quilters.

Not all.

Not even most.


The internet and social media are distortion fields. They are funhouse mirrors that make some things seem bigger and better than they really are. It can be very easy to scroll through Instagram and Facebook and Pinterest and assume that everybody is creating masterpieces while you are still trying to figure out how to sew in a straight line.

But let's think about numbers.

The 2014 Quilting In America survey estimated that there are about 16 million quilters in the United states alone. Sixteen million. And because of the way that survey is conducted, many people believe that a large number of quilters are left out of it, so the number may be even higher. But we'll work with it for now.

The group on Facebook called "Quilting" has 76,000 members and is, as far as I can tell, the largest such group on FB. Even if ALL the people in that group were expert quilters, they would still only represent .4 percent of the total number of quilters in the US. That's two fifths of one percent (if my math is correct, and I grant you it may not be).

Instagram quilters are harder to quantify, but let's look at the #quilting hashtag there. A search for that tag pulls up 523,256 posts. Undoubtedly, many of those are multiple tags from the same person, but barring any way to actually check that, let's just assume that it represents 523,256 individual quilters. Who are all better than you. (For the sake of argument.) Those half million quilters still comprise only about three percent of the 16 million.

And how many people can you even see on Instagram anyway? Even if you looked at a photograph from a different quilter every second for 24 solid hours, you would have seen the work of only 86,400 quilters—.5 percent of the quilters in the U.S.

In other words, even if you try to start making the assertion that every quilter is better than you, you start to come up against the fact that you cannot actually create a reasonable number of social media users you could potentially be exposed to that even approaches a majority of all the quilters in the country. So, if you are using the images you see on the internet to make yourself believe that a vast majority of quilters are better than you, you are using evidence from a vast minority of all the quilters in the country, not to mention the world.

I'm throwing all this math at you because I really want this point to get across: the internet is not a window into reality. It's more like a petri dish, where the right things in the right environment will grow and spread. But some of those things will be penicillin and some will be E. coli and it's important to know the difference.

So where are all the other millions of quilters? Oh, lots of them are online too; it's just impossible to actually come across 16 million of anything. And lots of them are just making their quilts and giving them to friends or family or charities, or keeping them for themselves, and not bothering to set up a photo with soft, reflected natural light on reclaimed barn lumber—a photo which, because of the angle and the distance of the camera from the subject and the fact that you are viewing it on a phone and you really need to update your reading glasses, may conveniently camouflage the fact that none of the points match up, the quilting is kinda herky jerky, the binding didn't actually get sewn all the way down in several spots, and the back has pleats that could double as pockets.

So many of the quilts we see so artfully photographed online are not as perfect as they seem. How do I know? I've photographed them. As the former art director of a fledgling quilting magazine, I often photographed the quilts for the project pages, and while all the quilts were lovely and perfectly suited for being quilts, none were perfect, and some were very far from it. And those imperfections had to be hidden as much as possible because a magazine is supposed to be aspirational. We don't buy magazines to see images that reflect our reality; we buy them to see images that reflect what we wish our reality could be.

And when it became possible for individuals to display their own images to thousands, maybe even millions, of people on the internet, people began to gravitate towards those bloggers and Flickrers and now Facebookers and IGers whose photographs of their quilts had that aspirational quality we had depended on magazines for before. We are instinctively drawn towards these pretty, well-lit, almost professional-quality photos, and we just as instinctively scroll past the ones that are too dark, taken on the floor instead of a fence on a misty country lane, most definitely not professionally shot and not professionally sewn either.

So while it may certainly seem as though, as seen through the lens of an app or a browser, that the entire world is a better quilter than you, it isn't. It couldn't be. The numbers just don't add up. Some are, yes. Maybe lots. But not all.

I cannot tell you how many times, when I post something about what I have recently made, somebody says, "I could never do that." My own mother once told me she felt bad when she saw what my sister and I have learned to do in quilting because she never advanced that far. And then there's our friend from Facebook up there at the top of this post.

So to her and to all those people who write to me and tell me they'll never be as good as me, and to my dear departed mom, I have one last point. If you make ANYTHING, you are a magician. A quilt, a table runner, a placemat, a block, even just two pieces of fabric sewn together and dropped on the floor—hell, even one piece of fabric cut out of a larger one—none of these things existed in that form until you brought them into being. You are Minerva freaking McGonagall, transmogrifying fabric and thread until it becomes something new, something that, no matter what it looks like or how skillfully it was constructed, is greater than what its parts were before you brought them together. That's magic. That's art.

It's okay to make crappy quilts until you make better ones. It's okay to not want to learn how to do blindfolded origami paper piecing. It's okay to like the fabrics and colors that you like. Just the fact that you are creating something is wonderful and worthy of celebration, no matter how many other people in the world are actually "better" or "worse" than you. Just making something as lovely, as warm, as comforting as a quilt is adding a bit of loveliness, warmth, and comfort to a world that, right now, desperately needs those things.

So, please. Don't give up.

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