The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To
I fly around the country enough to have A-List status on Southwest, a perk that offers a shorter line for check-in, and four drink coupons a year.
Mine never come out of my wallet until they’ve long expired and I’m heading home after a grueling four-day gig—just the time that a gin and tonic sounds fabulous. I then either pay eight dollars for my drink, or just give up and order cranberry juice like everyone else.
It’s common, however much we regret it 30 seconds in, to strike up a conversation with an airplane seatmate.¹ When the person next to me asks what I do for a living, inevitably—as much as seven times out of 10—they are surprised to hear that I work in the quilt industry.
The person—who is almost always a man in this scenario—is equally surprised to hear there’s a quilt industry at all, and usually curious about how I make my quilts. The question is always the same, asked with an assumed closeness and a kind of softness:
“So you do it all by hand?”
I respond that, well, yes, to make a quilt is to make something by hand. But the vast majority of quilters today use a sewing machine. If that’s what you’re asking.
“Oh,” the man will say, crestfallen for a second and then assuming an air of know-it-allness. He’ll stare off into the middle distance and with a shake of his head, he’ll say, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to, I guess.” He’ll smile at me to let me know he didn’t just totally insult me.
When this happens, my body involuntarily jerks, and I have to try and make it look like I had a back spasm. I unclench my teeth, and say something like, “Actually, quilters have been using sewing machines since the 1800s.² Everyone uses a sewing machine. Sewing patchwork by hand is not something anyone has wanted to do since Ulysses S. Grant was in office.”
But the seatmate is lost in his reverie. He’s surely thinking of simpler times when there was no running water in the home, no telephone, and goats ambled through the kitchen.
Surely, quilts from this idyllic era strike him as more authentic somehow, more soulful for the pain and suffering endured by the maker as she craned her neck and her hoop toward the window for a little more light while the quickly setting sun forced her to quit for the day.
If I think I can keep my seatmate’s attention for just a few moments longer, I offer one more thought to him (even as I get increasingly annoyed that at 35,000 feet, I’ve suddenly been forced to defend my art, passion, and profession).
“Making a quilt with a sewing machine is still making it by hand,” I repeat. “Think about a pre-fab quilt made in China, in a factory. That’s not something made by hand. Trust me, what we do is authentic and made by hand.” If the steward is passing by, I ask him for a gin and cranberry juice.
But I’ve lost him; a man who has never taken a stitch in his life.
My mother first warned me that this sort of thing would happen.
Many years ago, the guild she helped found in my hometown of Winterset, Iowa, did a quilting demonstration on the town square during the annual Covered Bridge Festival.
My mother and her comrades dressed in calico for the demonstration; I wasn’t born, yet, but the dress my mother wore is still in her possession.
Dressed in their period dresses, Mom and her guild set up on the town square and sat down in their rocking chairs, taking up their wooden hoops. Indeed, they were doing a hand quilting demonstration, not because the era they were representing was one without at least treadle sewing machines, but because none of the guild members had a treadle sewing machine—horrible contraptions that they are—and setting up iron sewing machines on grass was too much work.
They sat in their sewing circle and rocked the needles in and out of their quilts that morning, probably having a great time (hand quilting is a meditative, calming act as anyone who’s ever done it knows³).
So, Mom and her friends are there, quilting away, and—as Mom tells it—a rather large, round man approaches the group and watches for a little while.
“Well,” the man piped up, “I’m glad to see someone’s doing it right.”
I love the idea of the group of women looking up at him with the same withering look I give my airplane acquaintances. If only I could wear a bonnet in public.
“What do you mean,” my mother asked wearily, “by ‘doing it right?’” She knew the answer, but wanted to hear exactly what the man would say.
“You’re doing it all by hand,” the man said, “And that’s the way to do it. My grandmother…” and then he was off, recounting how his grandmother had lovingly, beatifically toiled and slaved with a needle and thread to create spectacular quilts that were, at this moment, surely stuffed into a plastic bag somewhere in his basement.
Antique quilts are not one stitch more authentic than the quilts we make today. They’re just older. If you make a quilt today, you are a quiltmaker in a long line of quiltmakers. You have made the thing by hand, machine-pieced, machine-quilted, or otherwise.
Correct the incorrect when you have the energy to do so, or let it go. If my seatmate was gifted a quilt made by someone who loved him, the last thing he’d ask would be how it was made.
¹ This happens far more often if you’ve had a gin and tonic.
² Frederick Lewis Lewton. The Servant In the House: A Brief History of the Sewing Machine. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1930. pp. 559-583.
³ I’ve never done it.