The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Hard to argue with this, am I right? Image: Wikipedia.There is one question I have heard countless times over the years. It is asked frantically, regularly, not just of me, but of anyone who is in the business of quilting:
“How do we attract the young people??”
By “young people,” they generally mean teenagers. Because very young kids do sew a little, even as most family and consumer sciences classes have been scrubbed from grade school curriculum in favor of computers and now apps, I assume? While some eight to 10-year-old kids might do camp or church or craft activities and dig sewing projects, it is the rare teenager indeed who gets super into quiltmaking. (Don’t fuss at me about your niece, Karen. She’s lovely and she’s made 10 quilts since August, but she is the exception who proves the rule and you know it.)
There are several reasons why teenagers do not make quilts and will never make quilts. The first is technical: They do not have time. They are harried and stressed as the rest of us, juggling a ruthless combination of school, babysitting siblings, extracurriculars, working a job, enduring crushes, and managing their many social media accounts. It’s tough out there.
But the other reason teens are not going to go bananas over quilts anytime soon is because to most teenagers, quilts are not cool. At all.
Why is this? I think quilts are cool. In fact, I know quilts are cool because I know a lot about them and could present many examples of their coolness in America over the past 250 years or so, e.g., bold graphic designs, patchwork on the runway, how the best mid-19th-century gossip went down at the quilting bee, etc.
But I am not a teenager, for one thing. Besides, that kind of “cool” information is not what most teenagers get. Those tidbits are more of what you might call “deep cuts” into the life of our quilts and, unless you have someone as cool as I am* talking about quilts in this way, I suspect what comes to mind when most teens think about quilts looks more like:
doesn’t light up
Now, I only know a couple of teenagers and my little word bank up there is not composed of direct quotes. It would be very responsible for me to ask 100 teenagers why they aren’t quiltmaking maniacs, but do I really need to take the time to do that to reach my conclusion? Don’t we all kind of know this is true? Teenagers don’t see quilting as cool, full-stop, for at least one or two of the reasons above and if we can agree on this, I think it’ll reduce anxiety. We don’t have to spend so much time and energy trying to strategize how to make more teenagers sit at a sewing machine for nine hours a day like Karen’s niece. (Note: I have a hunch that Karen’s niece may not be considered the coolest girl in her class.)
“Okay,” some will say, “We can’t get teens making quilts because it isn’t cool. But can we make it cool and then they’ll be into it?”
Still pretty fabulous. Image: Wikipedia.
You make a very good point and in fact, this is the aim of many of my current projects. The trouble is that it’s hard to say what’s cool. The dictionary defines cool as “fashionably attractive or impressive,” but we all know one man’s cool is another man’s agonizingly lame (e.g., a complete set of “Star Trek” action figures.) There are a few things that are eternally cool to most of us: Antonioni movies; a busted up black motorcycle jacket; the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — stuff like that. What makes stuff like that eternally cool is that their attractiveness and impressiveness have endured. They’re still good after all the innumerable trends, fashion, cultural forces, and political changes that have occurred since they came on the scene. What’s cool is timeless. Well designed. Simple.
What is it about black and white photos that are cool? It’s hard to say, but it’s also hard to refute in this still from an Antonioni film. Image: Wikipedia.
Which brings us back to quilts — but not all of them. It turns out the vintage quilts, the older quilts, these are the quilts that are cool to non-quilting people, including interior designers in New York City; artists in Los Angeles; and…teenagers. It has something to do with time. It has something to do with the color palette that seems most simple: A neon pink and bilious green quilt made from a kitty cat novelty print in 2018 is painfully uncool when placed next to a blue and white Drunkard’s Path from 1900.
Teenagers may never take up quilting. But we can be interested in the quilts that are eternally cool: The older ones. The ones that used to take more time. We can value these quilts and take care of them. Later in life, because that seed was planted, teenagers—like so many quilters before them—may decide to make a quilt of their own.
**I’d like to point out that I spent Saturday night curling my hair and reading quilt scholar Jane Przybysz’s 1996 doctoral dissertation, which is 407 pages long. If that’s not cool, what is??