Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Redemption of the pattern whore

I was in Cincinnati last weekend teaching for the Contemporary Quilt and Fiber Artists, and one of the workshop participants said that she was so happy to have gotten ideas that would allow her to embark on a new project without using a pattern.  She said she'd never done that before -- "I'm a pattern whore!"  And I realized that helping people like her get free of that nasty habit is the reason I teach.

the pattern whore's non-pattern work




















If you are at all accomplished in your craft, there probably comes a time when you have the opportunity to teach.  The quilt world, at all ends of the spectrum between traditional and high art, is awash in venues for workshops and lessons -- quilt shops, quilt shows, conventions and other gatherings, books and magazines, the internet, not to mention kitchens and dining rooms -- and many people make a nice living in some of them. But before you commit to teaching, it's always a good idea to understand your own motives.

I know I'm not alone in grappling with the question of whether, how much and what I should be teaching.  I've had conversations recently with more than one person who questions whether she should be trying to get more teaching gigs, or teaching at all, or whether she should be in the studio making art so she'll have something for the upcoming show deadlines.  If you need the money, that may make the decision easier, but even then you have to set priorities in your business planning.

Would-be teachers also have to choose a niche.  At the high end, some teachers are excellent at helping students with design and composition and other high-art considerations.  Some specialize in basic sewing and quilting skills.  Some teach about specific techniques, equipment or products.  Others teach projects, even to the point where you have to buy their pattern and/or kit.  There seem to be plenty of potential students out there for everybody.

But the niche I have chosen for myself is to liberate quilters from the tyranny of other people's patterns.

When I talk to traditional quilters I note that making quilts has two parts: design and execution.  Most if not all of them have spent years trying to perfect their execution, and yet most of them are perfectly willing to buy the design part from other people.  I ask them: Why outsource half your craft -- and the most exciting half at that?

For people who have always bought their designs, the idea of taking that step in-house can be scary.  I know this -- I used to be there myself.  Although I never used patterns, I did get ideas from books and magazines and often made quilts where I simply tweaked those borrowed concepts.  It took me a long time to get past that point and develop my own totally original ideas.
 
So I try to help my students move slowly toward totally original design rather than jumping into the deep end.  I often teach what I think of as "recipes" -- processes that will lead them toward a moment where they can put some stuff up on a design wall, step back and look at it, and then decide how to move toward a finished composition.  And I always try to preach the gospel of organic growth -- after you've finished one quilt, evaluate it and develop your next quilt on the shoulders of the first one, rather than starting from scratch.

I don't expect accomplished fiber artists to show up at my workshops; they're already swimming in the deep end of the pool.  I can't teach them about design or composition.  But I think there's a market out there for people who wish they could swim well enough to venture deeper.  Heck, I know there's a vast market out there for quilters who are willing to outsource their design phase, because I see the number of patterns being sold.  If only a tiny fraction of them would like to be liberated from the tyranny of other people's patterns, I could teach every day for the rest of my life.

6 comments:

  1. An excellent post about teaching. You are doing challenging work yourself, and it is generous of you to open doors for others to their own designs. Getting away from patterns.

    I love to teach, but I am jealous of my creative time, and take sabbaticals from it.

    p.s. I love the image in your sidebar of CRAZED 10, red alert.

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  2. It is funny the dependence people have on purchased patterns. When I saw a pattern for a pillowcase being sold for $8 at my LFS, I just couldn't believe it. Surely we all have a whole linen closet full of such "patterns"? With the benefit of knowing which ones fit our own pillows best!

    It does seem like generally there's an assumption that people who design patterns are somehow "experts" and "know about design". It sorta makes people feel that they somehow "can't design" on their own. Aren't 'creative enough'.

    I will frequently buy a pattern I like with little intention of making it. If I look at it and can come up with a whole bushel of ideas to tweak it in the two minutes it spends in my hands, then I'll call it 'inspiration' and reward the person who inspired me. Rarely does what I end up making look like the pattern I bought. It just goes through too many swap-outs, changeups, and tweaks. The creative part is about playing with the design and the technique, and working through the what if ideas. It's all just practice. People don't seem to believe that though. Sometimes I think the need for instant gratification squashes the creative spirit.

    Having a pretty quilt done fast via a pattern trumps coming up with an original quilt.

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  3. Great post...I love doing my own thing. I like what you said about developing a quilt on the shoulders of a previous quilt.

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  4. The trouble being, I suppose, that it is possible for an experienced but un-confident practitioner to evaluate/critique their technique and form a view about its quality or not, but as regards 'design' the issue always is: IS IT ANY GOOD?? And that's the rub. Who knows? How do you judge? If your partner/friend likes it, does that mean it's good? If your partner/friend doesn't like it, does that mean it's good but they just don't like it?? And before you know where you are you are agonising about representative vs abstract, about what is the MEANING (what if you don't know - does it matter? If you do know - does that make it trite?) And this is the problem. If you are a "pattern whore" you can dump this stuff as someone else has already figured it out. Maybe...

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  5. Karen -- maybe you're right about the motivation -- but how many purchased patterns are any more worthwhile, artistically, than what the quilter could come up with herself?

    Who knows whether your original quilt design is good? If you don't, then just make something you like. That's exactly what happens when people go out to buy patterns -- who knows if the pattern design is good, so you just buy something you like.

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  6. Very good and thoughtful article. Having a fair amount of experience in teaching, I might add that different people learn in different ways and some people need to know how the product will turn out, which fuels the pattern industry. Must be something about left brain dominance. In any case, I like your teaching philosophy.
    best, nadia

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