The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
A student of mine told me that when she pulled out a machine appliqué project at a retreat earlier this year, the woman sitting behind her scoffed.
“Machine appliqué ?” she said. “That’s cheating.”
This is a problem. Let’s examine why.
Here’s the Webster’s definition of “cheating:”
1 [no obj.] act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game or examination: she always cheats at cards.
• [with obj.] deceive or trick: he had cheated her out of everything she had.
• informal be sexually unfaithful: his wife was cheating on him.
In a single definition we’ve got people gambling, thieving, and getting some on the side. No wonder my student felt like crying. She was just trying to finish Aunt Patty’s Christmas tree skirt and now she’s lumped in with common criminals.
This Hawaiian applique was made 100% by coconut. Image: Wikipedia Commons.
But what was her crime?
By stitching her gingerbread men and candy cane shapes onto the background of the skirt using her sewing machine — instead of sewing them on by hand — my student would be done with the skirt in no time. If she doesn’t get too crazy with the mini-fridge of Zinfandel her roommate brought along, she could add some rick-rack.
How is this acting dishonestly or unfairly to gain an advantage?
Well, if my student was planning on submitting Aunt Patty’s Christmas tree skirt to the local hand-appliqué contest, we would certainly object. If she had her eye on landing the cover of Hand Appliqué Review, she would be acting as abominably as the people in the definition.
But my student had no such plans, and the woman who made the comment surely didn’t think she did. The woman was making a comment about authenticity.
Is a quilt more authentic if it is made without the use of a sewing machine? Let’s say that it is. But is it the sewing machine itself that’s “cheating” or is it the wacky, newfangled electricity that is the problem? If it’s electricity, then a quilt made “by hand” in a room with the lights on is less authentic than one made by the light of the sun — or in pitch darkness. (Good luck with that, honey.)
You can have your spindle and you can have your Starbucks, but you can’t have your spindle and your Starbucks. Think about it. Image: Wikipedia Commons.
Perhaps we should be harvesting cotton and hauling out our old spindles — only cheaters would use store-bought spools of thread. And while I’m at my spindle, I’ll make sure to stop every hour or so and stoke the fire in the pot-bellied stove and heat up the sad irons for when it’s finally time to press patchwork. In four years.
Obviously, when we follow the logic of the “machine appliqué is cheating” position, things get ridiculous. Using today’s technology to create what we love isn’t being dishonest: it’s incredibly cool. Our great-grandmothers would have crawled over each other to get at a sewing machine with a laser beam (or even a simple rotary cutter.) Those who believe a quilt has less value because it was made with modern tools think they’re being purists; in fact, they are purely silly.
Woman pressing things in 1946. (Oh, those wonderful, simpler times!) Photo: Wikipedia Commons.
It’s good to be familiar with old-fashioned quiltmaking methods; one gains an appreciation for how far we’ve come in the craft.
But remember: We are not at the apex of quilt technology history. This is a continuum. In 100 years, quilters who are using eye-scanning technology and holograms to make their work will look upon the Christmas tree skirts of today with all their machine-appliquéd reindeer and marvel how we did so much with so little.