The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
The ‘Zines’ of the
Last week, I plopped on a comfortable chair at a friend’s house and spent hours going through boxes of American quilt history. What’s in a box of American quilt history? Paper.
All kinds of paper, too: Notepaper, newspaper clippings, legal documents, catalogs, photographs (did you know photographs used to come printed on paper?), faxes (did you know faxes used to come out of fax machines?), stationery, and a lot of newsletters and self-published magazines. It was with this last sort of quilt history-related paper that I spent the most time.
A selection of zines on all manner of topics you don’t care about — but that someone, somewhere, can’t get enough of. Image: Wikipedia.
Before I tell you more about a couple of the publications I pored over, let me ask you: Do you remember the 1990s? I graduated from high school in 1997, so I remember them pretty well, I suppose, for a person who had to go to algebra and gym. One of the things I definitely remember is zine culture.
Nimble Needle Treasures was published out of Oklahoma from 1969-1975 by Patricia Almy (nee Randolph), who passed away in 2008.
Image: Scanned by author.Now, if you weren’t in high school or college (or maybe just right out of college) in the 1990s, you might not immediately know what “zine culture” is, since most of the people making zines were in their teens and twenties in the ‘90s. A “zine” is a magazine, usually on a specific topic, made on a shoestring budget, by a person or small group of people, which has a relatively low circulation.
That’s my definition, and I know enough to offer it. I made zines about my favorite singer in high school, I ordered funny zines off the internet, and I perused many, many zines in coffeeshops and used clothing stores, etc., because zines proliferated in the late 1980s and 1990s. Why? Well, desktop publishing was suddenly a thing. It was easier than ever to make a page of copy look at least a little like a legit publication—and you could use the “delete” key instead of more white-out.
Zines blossomed because music was undergoing a huge shift (out with Poison, in with Nirvana, etc.) and music is a great topic for a zine. And also because the internet was growing, and there was a beautiful period in the 1990s when the web and print world worked really well together. (It’s no mistake that this was the period before advertising took over the internet, but that’s a rant for another day.)
Music has always been a favorite topic for a zine. Image: Wikipedia.Mostly, a “zine” was just the latest word for a homemade magazine—and people have been making magazines themselves for a long time because making a magazine at your kitchen table is really, really fun. You can put whatever you want on the pages. You can choose the cover. You can give your friends space to write something or draw something. You can print interviews. Jokes. News items. Patterns. Instructions.
Quilt show announcements.
See where I’m going with this?
As I sifted through these boxes of paper and
self-published periodicals from the quilt world,
it hit me. Magazines like Nimble Needle Treasures, Quilter’s Journal, and the early issues Quilter’s Newsletter? Zines. They’re the zines of the quilt world and they pre-date the zine culture of
the 1990s, too, since most of these publications were put out (i.e., mailed out) in the late 1960s into the 1970s.
But the aesthetics are the same, and that’s what knocked me out. Trust me: A 26-page, hand-stapled “fan zine” about the lead singer for Icelandic pop-supergroup The Sugarcubes from 1990 shares many characteristics with a 1970’s Nimble Needle Treasures issue. The paper is mimeographed or photocopied; there are typos. There’s only one color page (and that’s the cover.) There are clearly places where the editor(s) needed something to fit and it didn’t totally work but oh well!
Decades ago, Wilene Smith self-published this index of quilt patterns that edges into book territory but shares many qualities of a good, old-fashioned zine, e.g., saddle-bound, limited copies printed, etc.Most importantly, these magazines are soaked in love for their topic, and that is the most important similarity they share. On every page, you see people totally invested in what they love to think about, talk about, and share with others. It’s really cool, and it didn’t take a lot of capital to get the thing made. Such projects take a lot of time, sure, but when you love something enough to make a 26-page magazine about it, you’re not watching the clock.
When the quilt revival of the 1970s began, these “zines” began. Or did they create the revival? Bonnie Lehman started Quilter’s Newsletter at her kitchen table in 1969. Before long, her mailing list was in the hundreds. Then the thousands. Publishing is powerful. Big magazines know that they shape culture; Vogue has been a tastemaking magazine for generations and it’s a global publication. But these smaller “zines” and newsletters and homemade journals work the same way, just on a smaller scale.
Whatever you’re into, there’s a zine for that. Or there used to be. Now there’s probably a website. Image: Wikipedia.But when something is handmade out of love and dedication, there’s power in it—power you can’t get from a mass-market version of that same thing. When we hold in our hands the result of a person’s time, energy, and passion, we feel connected to what that person cares about and by association, we care about the thing we’re holding and the person who made it.
Why, I could almost be describing a quilt.