The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
On Beginners and
My quilting life began in earnest roughly nine years ago, when I was 28. A few days ago, I had a birthday. If you do the math – I know you can, but I’m going to help you – you’ll easily figure my age. I am now 37 years old.
Another day at the office with a not-so-beginner anymore! Woo-hoo!
Since the average age of a quilter in the U.S. is 64, most of the students in my classes are older than I am. This used to intimidate me. How could I possibly teach these wise people anything? I’d made plenty of quilts and been doing instruction on TV before I started teaching, but no one could deny I was a spring chicken, which is to say I didn’t have fine lines and my first “is-that-a-varicose” vein. At press time, I have both.
Once I calmed down enough to be objective and look around the classroom, I realized that in quilting, “beginner” does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean “young.” By “young,” I mean someone whose complexion and veins are still buoyant, fresh, obnoxious.
In truth, at least half of the students in my classes are beginner quilters. It’s a misconception that if you’re a woman in her sixties or older, you were born with an innate skill – and desire – to appliqué a full-size Rose of Sharon. It’s simply not true. Some mothers raising children in the late 1940s and 1950s taught their girls to sew; some didn’t. Some folks took Home Economics (known today as Family and Consumer Science); some didn’t. Actual Rose of Sharon. If you squish them on your face they firm and tone.
If there was anxiety on my part that I didn’t know as much as the women in my classroom, it was nothing compared to the anxiety felt by those women (men are never expected to know how to sew, so they don’t deal with this) who are in their sixties or seventies and have never sewn a stitch. They hang back a little, apologize for themselves, blush when they come unthreaded. Some of this is just being new at something; some of it is being new at something they feel they “ought to know.”
I love these women. I love that they have the moxie to do something new, for one. That they are doing something new that they’re (wrongly) embarrassed about not knowing…well, that’s bravery.
Think about it like this: Say I never got a smartphone, then decided to finally get one and take a class about how to use it. At my age, I’d be the outlier. It would take guts to say, “Hey, I kinda missed the boat, but I want to know how to do this now.” It would take guts because the class would probably be taught by a baby.
In the writing class I taught recently, I shared my age. One of my students was shocked, like I had copped to eating an entire gallon of ice cream for breakfast that morning. (I thought about it but couldn’t find a spoon.)
Rose of Sharon with Birds. Top circa 1865, appliquéd by unknown quiltmaker in Connecticut; hand quilted by Valeta Edwards in 1993. From the Quilt Festival Corporate Collection.
“I can’t believe you say how old you are!” Minshu exclaimed.
Minshu is from China, and I thought maybe her extreme horror was a cultural thing. But you and I know that after a certain age, in all the corners of the world I’m aware of, women of a certain age will fall silent about how old they are and stay silent about it for good.
It’ll probably happen to me. But so far, I’m not going there. Today, I’m proud of my age and all the things I don’t know, as long as I stay brave enough to say so.