Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Outsourcing the quilting 1 -- to quilt or not to quilt

Much discussion on the SAQA list for the last week about whether, how and how much credit and prize money should be shared with somebody who quilted your piece for you.  Opinions ranged the full length of the spectrum.  At one end, "I am actually a bit amazed that so many seem to hand their work to someone else.  I guess I puzzle about why choose quilting if you don't want to quilt?"

As someone who has done her own quilting for decades, and who has also outsourced some quilting here and there, and who has had some quilting outsourced to her now and then,  I have lots of dogs in this fight (and maybe a few of them are fighting each other).  Today I want to respond to the naive commenter above.  For her, and others who lead sheltered lives, I'll suggest several possible reasons why an artist might outsource her work.

1.  An artist may find it physically difficult or impossible to quilt her own work, but still wants to make quilts.  In my own case, after I free-motion quilted two huge pieces five years ago for an invitational show, and just about killed my back and shoulders, I swore I would never do anything that large again.  I relented and subsequently did straight-line quilting on some pieces almost that large, but I find it easier to deal with a roll of quilt with a walking foot than a big pile under a darning foot.

not so formidable when it's all rolled up!  

2.  An artist may want to make lots and lots of work but doesn't have time to both piece and quilt.  Nancy Crow would fall into that category, and she is famous for outsourcing all her quilting.  For many years she worked exclusively with hand-quilters but in recent years has had several people (including me) machine-quilt her work.  This approach allows a prolific artist to make ten or twenty quilts a year instead of one.

3.  An artist may like the piecing or surface design or applique or whatever much more than she likes the quilting.  Hiring somebody to do tasks that you don't particularly enjoy is a longstanding tradition among people with discretionary income, whether it's to clean your house, mow your lawn, change your oil -- or do your quilting.

Few people can quarrel with reasons 1 and 2, but a lot will balk at 3.  Isn't it intrinsic to being an artist that you do your own artistry?  There's a definite snob factor that enters the conversation here, where people who take justifiable pride in their quilting then extend that to taking pride in the very fact of doing it themselves, and feel superior to people who don't.

I've had those feelings myself, both toward quilters and toward famous painters and sculptors who have studio assistants to do some or even all of the work.  Damien Hirst, for instance, doesn't even tell the assistants who make "his" polka dot paintings what colors or sizes of dots to paint!  I've long been on the lookout for art involving fabric that was actually sewed by the artist's mom, and found quite a bit.  I still have some ambivalence on this subject, but as I get older and more decrepit myself, I think I'm more forgiving toward accepting help from others.

Besides, what's the alternative?

1.  I could buy a longarm machine, a popular approach among quilters who want to work big.  But I have no space to set one up, my ability to stand for long periods of time is compromised, I don't want to invest the time necessary to learn a new and quite probably temperamental machine, and I can think of many things I'd rather spend 10 grand on.

2.  I could work small, since I can easily handle the quilting on anything under 5 feet square.  But I want to work big!!

3.  I could abandon quilting as an art form, and take up collage or hand stitching or mixed media sculpture, all of which I have dabbled in, or learn to paint.  But none of those genres allow me to work as I like, making huge abstracts.  I love the quilt format, probably as much for emotional reasons as for artistic.  And more practically,  I am already established in the art/quilt world.  It's easy for me to enter shows, get teaching and lecturing and juror gigs, and get published.  I have lots of friends, both in person and on the internet, with whom I can network and consult.  If I were to switch to another medium or approach I'd have to seek out a whole new world in which to operate and become comfortable, and that might take a long time.  It took me a good decade or more to work up to that comfort level with quilting; not sure I want to devote the next decade to climbing another mountain.

So I'm sticking with the quilts.  If that means I have to outsource the quilting, I'll do it, although a bit of reluctance remains.  I'll tell you about another alternative in a later post.


  1. A comparison that occurs to me is architecture. The architect designs the building; others construct it. It is still considered the architect's art.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  2. A conundrum. To me it is two skills and yes, you need to learn a temperamental machine to do well at longarm quilting. And yeah, standing all day to do a quilt is tough.

    Regarding the snobbishness, I think there's a huge difference in having a quilting design tailored to the message/design of the top, and having an all-over computerized design auto-stitched across it.

    I'm a bit of a micro-manager on my design stuff, so it is hard for me to let go control. However at the same time, I'm not interested in getting better at free-motion quilting, as I prefer to design tops. Rarely do people even notice the quilting anyway, unless that's a primary focus.

    I've stitched the Lord's Prayer into the border of a quilt and had to point it out. (Don't ask. Never again.)

  3. As I approach my 62nd birthday, the warranty on my hands, wrists, and shoulders seems to have run out--and I love to hand quilt! Accomodations are in my future, which may involve other, younger hands doing some part of my work. I can relate to reason #1.

  4. It seems to me that when quilts are juried into shows they should be separated out by whether the artist/quilter did all of the work or some of the work -- only fair way to judge the work. Now that I've retired, I had planned to pursue my quilting again -- but what's the point if I have to complete with professional quilting machines! Sounds to me like the "art" of quilting has been taken over by the machine age!

  5. In the UK, the biggest show is Festival of Quilts, in August, in Birmingham. The categories mostly require one-person input, the exceptions being "two-person" and "group". In order to get four quilts from a mutual series in, my friend and I swapped a few blocks with each other for our "two-person" quilts.. Actually, I almost can't tell..

  6. I see the act of quilting as being just one more tool in my tool box. I dislike hand quilting, and when arthritis made it too difficult for me, I gladly turned to machine quilting, and consider myself good at it--on a domestic machine But, I don't understand the reverence in which many fibre people hold quilting. It is just another technique.

  7. Bravo!
    My sentiments exactly.
    Do what you like. Let others do what you don't like.

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