A recurring subject of discussion among quilters is the extent to which the use of commercial patterns is the spawn of the devil. I come down strongly on the spawn side.
When I started taking my quilting seriously, almost two
decades ago, I joined a traditional quilt guild.
I thought it would be helpful and fun to
connect with other quilters, and that thereby I might be able to progress
faster than I could do on my own. Turns
out that guild was not for me, which I first realized when I noted the standard
dialog of show-and-tell. Somebody would
hold up the quilt she just finished. The
audience would ooh and aah, and then somebody would ask, what pattern did you
use? And the quilter would always have
used a pattern, which many of the other ladies were quite familiar with and
might have used themselves.
I never used a commercial pattern in my life, and so I was
unable to participate appropriately in the standard dialog. When I said I just made the design up, the
nicer ladies had blank stares and the not-so-nice ladies gave me dirty
looks. So that relationship didn’t last
I have subsequently told many a group of traditional
quilters that my object in life is to make it unnecessary for any quilter to
ever use a pattern made up by somebody else.
(I don’t count people who like to reproduce
the traditional old pieced or applique patterns like Clay’s Choice or Carolina
Lily, just those who want to make functional quilts with a somewhat
non-traditional or contemporary feel – in other words, those who go out and buy
a pattern or use one from a magazine.)
I tell them that there are two parts to a quilt, whether
it’s traditional or non-traditional – design and execution. Practically everybody in the guild is good at
execution, but many if not most of them are not good at design. In fact, many if not most of them have never
even tried to do their own design, except for fabric selection and some don’t
even do that by themselves.
You all are constantly trying to improve your quilt
execution skills, I say, and wouldn’t it give you pleasure to also improve your
design skills? Wouldn’t you be even
prouder of your quilts if you did both parts yourself instead of outsourcing
half of the job to commercial pattern makers?
At this point many heads are nodding in agreement, but
there’s a detectable current of doubt wafting around the edges as people wonder
if they could really do their own designs. And then I give them the pasta analogy.
It’s like cooking, I tell them. Let’s say you never learned to cook at home
because your mom was governor and your dad was too busy doing housework so you
ate out all the time. Or whatever your
excuse is. So one day you decide to
learn to cook. You get a cookbook and
choose a recipe, and make it exactly as the book says. After a while you gain confidence and realize
that you can make substitutions. The
recipe called for rotini with broccoli, and you don’t have any rotini, so you make
penne. Or even more daring, you make
penne with cauliflower!
After you get more confident with one-for-one substitutions,
you realize one day that you don’t even need the original recipe because you’ve
learned the general plan for making pasta. You need four things: some pasta, some liquid, some solids, and some
flavor. As long as you have all four represented,
you can do pretty much anything you want. If you wanted to, you could serve pasta every night and never repeat
yourself exactly. Or you could broaden
your repertoire even more and in addition to your general pasta plan, have a
general soup plan and a general salad plan and a general chinese food plan and
a general quiche-or-omelet plan.
The same can be true for quilting. My favorite general plan for “contemporary”
quilts is log cabin, just as my favorite general plan for food is pasta. And just as I could happily serve a different
meal for many nights in a row from my general pasta plan, I could make a
lifetime’s worth of bed, lap and baby quilts from my general log cabin plan.
Just as the pasta plan calls for four essential components,
the log cabin plan does too – a center, logs, a construction method and a color/fabric
scheme. Just as the pasta plan allows
for many possibilities in each component (for instance, the solids could be
broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, ground beef, sausage…..) the log cabin plan
does too (for instance, the logs could be fat, skinny, rectangular,
I’ve written a book on this log cabin plan, but have found
that it’s a lot easier to write a book than to find a publisher and get it
executed. So maybe I’ll just write about
it now and then in my blog. And if you
want me to come and give this lecture or workshop to your guild, just give me a
As I thought about the pasta analogy I realized it really
works because the way I approach my quilts is very similar to the way I
approach my kitchen. And I thought that
just as I have enjoyed writing this blog to share my ideas about fiber art, I
might enjoy sharing my ideas about cooking. So today I’m inaugurating a blog about cooking called Kathy’s Soup
Kitchen, and the first post is about my pasta plan. Please visit me there as well as here!