Monday, September 6, 2010

Patterns vs. plans

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 very long.

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, wedge-shaped, curved…..).

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 call!

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!


  1. what a fun analogy. I hope you don't mind if I quote you to my dressmaking students. C+G fashion. So, for them it is a skirt plan or a blouse plan. I so much would like them to try something different and not rely on pattern concepts.

    this right up there on the helpful scale as the analogy by Colleen Jones about rotating darts for fit, using the concept of a pizza with one piece removed. you can move the other pieces round anywhere and you will still get the fabric to go round the curve you are fitting!

    Thanks so much!
    Sandy in the UK

  2. thanks, Sandy! of course you can use this analogy and I can see how it would apply to dressmaking. so many concepts slide so effortlessly from one arena to another and we should all feel free to encourage that.

  3. Great analogy!

    I make traditional style quilts, and have never used a pattern without at least drastic changes. New blocks, and mixing assorted blocks means no one ever needs to make up a design that someone has made before them!

    Judy B

  4. Hey Kathy, I've seen your work at QN and FiberArt International and in Youngstown with the show Mary Lou curated. I love your work and think you'd like mine. check out my stitches on my blog today, Sept. 6th

    I digg your work.

  5. A fiber artist and a cook! My two aspirations as well. Now I have two blog addictions.

  6. Amen to all of this! You could have been describing my guild. Except if patterns are the spawn of the devil, what does that make kits?

    Anyway, I'll be looking forward to your blogs about the log cabin recipe. But sorry, I don't do food blogs--ever.

  7. kits are the second generation spawn of the devil -- the first-generation spawn having subsequently mated with Hitler

    I am perfectly OK if you don't visit the food blog. that's why I started a separate blog, since I don't like to read about recipes, grandchildren, cats, politics or divorces in the art blogs I follow. just hope that doesn't mean you don't do food, because you'll waste away, and we need you!