The Quilt Scout

by Mary Fons

Please Don’t Call

Me a "Sewer"

Column #13

Throughout my time as editor of the late Quilty magazine, there was an ongoing conversation regarding the spelling of certain words in quilter jargon.


Photo Right: An object not found your favorite totebag, I presume.


Are we “quilt makers” or “quiltmakers?” What’s that thing you do when you load a big quilt onto a big frame in your basement in order to quilt it: are you preparing to “longarm” or “long-arm”? When you boast to your guild that you toiled nine years on a single twin-sized quilt, was it because you “hand-pieced” it or because you “hand pieced” it? And why did you do that?


Publishing companies typically have standards for these sorts of things, but if you’re looking for something to do, go through any quilting magazine and find inconsistencies within a single issue; despite everyone’s good intentions and desire to be thorough, words are hard.


But not all of them. It was always extremely easy for me spot and promptly cut any use of the word “sewer” when referring to a person who sews. I wouldn’t accept it then, I don’t accept it now, and I’d like to gently suggest you reject it as well. It’s not the word I’m mad at, just the application in the quilter context.


When most people read the word “sewer,” they don’t see a person who sews -- at the very least they don’t only see a person who sews. No, they also instantly see “an underground conduit for carrying off drainage water and waste matter.” Great. Because that’s what quilters love to be associated with: stinky underground water. Water with...surprises.


A Quick Grammar Lesson

A homophone (or “homonym”) is a word that is pronounced or spelled the same as another word but has a different meaning. For example:


write: to mark letters, sentences, etc., on a surface

right: opposite of ‘left’


ate: what I did to that jar of Marshmallow Fluff

eight: the number of pounds I will gain if I keep eating Marshmallow Fluff straight from the jar at ten o’clock at night


Both those examples are words that sound the same when spoken, but mean different things. The definition of homophone states that two words spelled the same but that mean two different things -- like “sewer” and “sewer” -- can be homophones, too. It’s not the fault of the word; no word asks to be a homophone. But “sewer” is one.



Photo Above: Objects not found in the Waste Management Plant in your town or city, I presume.


When I first started making quilts around 2008, I swear I don’t remember coming across the term “sewer.” I wasn’t spending every hour deep in the Quilt, Sew, Fiber Library & Resource Center, though; maybe the word was regularly in play and it was only a matter of time before I saw it.


But I believe it’s popped up more -- and everywhere -- since the quilt world exploded on the internet. More people are writing about sewing and their life in sewing, which means there are many hundreds of thousands of opportunities to see a sewing person refer to herself, in print (more or less), as a sewer.


There’s a perfectly acceptable alternative: sewist.


“What do you do in your spare time?” someone will ask a person who diagnoses diseases and injuries of the foot on the weekend. “I’m a podiatrist,” they’ll say. A person who blogs about blowing things up in the garage? A chemist. You’ve got linguists, transcendentalists, evangelists.



And a person who sews fabric…why, that person is a sewist. It’s elegant. The world clearly means what it implies: a serious craftsperson who makes things from cloth and thread.


Photo Right: Those are coats, not hazmat suits! Get your mind out of the..gutter. Hmm.


The rhetoric we use is far more important than we think it is. If every time you break a nail or trip on the rug you say, “I’m such an idiot!” it has a subtle effect. It frames something; namely that you believe you are not very smart, which probably isn’t true. If you insist “ain’t” isn’t a proper word to use in social situations, when someone worth listening to uses it around you, you’ll make a judgement on them.


Words do matter, and there’s something vaguely, subtly hostile about saying a person who sews is a “sewer.” It’s this hard-to-explain-or-describe joke that isn’t funny. Am I making too much of it? Maybe.


But if there is any possibility that what I love would be thought of in the same second as what’s running under the streets of Chicago right now, I’m willing to change the last two letters of a word.


Indeed, I quite like “sewist” and am putting my proverbial foot down on the proverbial floor that is covered in thread: I am not a sewer. And neither are you.