The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Free Quilt : A Manifesto
Anyone who has even passively registered my trajectory vis a vis quilts knows that I didn’t know anything when I started, and then, over the years, I came to. Most people start making quilts the same way. You want to learn something. You start. You fail. You get better.
But most people who learn to make quilts don’t do it in front of millions of people. This was my experience, however, since I joined my mother on her PBS show in the greenest of my days and learned, in real time, how to design, cut, sew, and press on camera, my attempts splashed on the pages of magazines.
This was because the nature of my family’s work in the quilt industry has always been in the realm of publishing and media, and in publishing and media, there is an unending demand for content.
A newly free quilter (that’s me) holding a vintage quilt that believe me, paid no attention to the rules. Photo: Leah Nash for Quiltfolk Magazine.It is a monster who must be fed, month after month, issue after issue, episode after episode. Therefore, the moment I entered the world of the quilt, every quilt Fons The Younger created was for public consumption. All of my quilts were bound—in both senses—to be content. Either the quilt would be a teaching tool for an episode of the television show or its pattern would be written and published in one of the many quilt magazines that bore my family name. Most of the time, my quilts appeared in both places.
Indeed, in the past 10 or so years I’ve been around, I have been the content. My contributions, my talents, however meager, and my quilts have been contractually obligated to please a mass audience. I’m not complaining, exactly, though in the past couple years, I have slowly realized the net effect of this experience on the quilts I have created. Though I have loved many of them—even most of them—and though I believe my particular style and point of view hasn’t been cloaked or totally sold out, the fact is that I have been creating quilts in a very small room, and I don’t mean my studio.
When you’re making quilts on a deadline that will be patterned and shown on TV, your quilts cannot be weird. They cannot be poorly made, though I’ll admit to a few early ones that squeaked by and shouldn’t have. It goes without saying that your quilts can’t be “political,” and they can’t be impossible, which is to say they can’t be that creative. (Think about it: When have you seen a roughshod/fabulous pictorial quilt patterned in a mass market quilt publication? Exactly.)
Whisper, a quilt for my book was somewhat of an outlier. Told for
years by my mother’s former publishing company I couldn’t make a
white quilt because it wouldn’t photograph well, I made one for my 2014 book with C&T, instead.When I stopped working in a significant capacity as a contractor for my mother’s former company, I didn’t stop making quilts—but I was still bound by what I now see were invisible constraints. The quilts I was making up until about a year ago weren’t lockstep, exactly (I’ve always been scrappy and shrug at most fads), but my quilts were block-based. They were easily patternable. I would hope they weren’t boring—but they certainly weren’t provocative.
And then something changed. My quilts began to get weird. I began to make patchwork that was decidedly different from that which I had made before. This patchwork was intentionally strange, and even ugly. When I realized I was no longer bound—contractually, editorially, or psychically—by the rules of creating quilts for the general public, I became deeply happy. Even giddy. The joy I had at the beginning of my life as a quiltmaker returned.
The rumblings have been there, if you look closely: I wrote about playing with pictorial shapes in Column #55. I wrote about my love of weird quilts in Column #33. I made a Crazy-quilt-ish birthday quilt for my friend Sophie and tied it rather than quilt it, an act that felt so transgressive it was furtive. Tie a quilt? But what would people say if they knew? Sacrelidge! Heresy. And I loved every single knot. Because no one could say no, and the only deadline I had was my friend’s birthday.
My quilt manifesto, with family dog looking on. (She loves it.)
Photo: Marianne Fons—who also loves it.I can point to a specific quilt, however, that now serves as the official turning point, a declaration of independence rendered in fabric. The work is also a one-quilt critique of post-quilt revival stagnation and over-commercialization, a two-word provocation that I hope compels us all to consider the priceless value of the quilts we make. The work is called Free Quilt, and I finished the top a few weeks ago.
I chose fabrics from my stash that didn’t “go.” It’s made of Nine Patches, the most rudimentary of blocks. My mother helped me up my needle-turn appliqué game and I’m quite proud of my technique, but the intrusion of the big, black, block letters on the (ugly) pastel background will distract the quilt police from noticing, I’m sure. Because of all of this, I couldn’t be happier with Free Quilt. It’s the best quilt I’ve ever made. It’s my manifesto, and I hope this quilt will encourage another quilter to think about how much she may be undervaluing her work in every regard. I hope another quilter will set herself free from the constraints of the industry, the guild complex, the Pinterest board, the advertisements, the latest notion, and get weird, get free.
I’m going to tie Free Quilt this weekend. The yarn I use will be the only ties that bind her.