The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
The Librarian Problem
In popular culture, the perception of the quilter is antique… which is to say that the perception itself is out-of-date.
When non-quilters think “quilter,” they picture a fragile, elderly woman creaking along in a rocking chair, stitching with needle and thread. She wears spectacles at the end of her nose, and there are usually pins sticking out of her bun (because everyone knows that’s where people put small, sharp things).
The woman wears a lavender dress with a white lace collar, always. And there is typically a cat somewhere nearby. This Quaker, Amish, or otherwise bonneted woman’s first name is “Grandma,” and her last name is “Moses.” Though her name rarely comes up. The woman is assumed to be a widow, Mr. Moses having long ago passed.
This woman does exist, more or less (and we love her!). She is surely one sort of quilter among the 16.4 million quilters in America.¹ But she’s not representative of all of us—or, even, most of us.
While I certainly value quilters of a certain age for their knowledge, experience, and ability to bring national teachers to speak to their guilds², the prevailing stereotype—that quiltmaking is something done only by elderly women in rural parts of the country—has got to go. The data shows the average quilter is a spritely 64 years old. And everyone knows most 64-year-olds still hold jobs and take zip-lining vacations.
It’s been 40 years or so since the start of the Great American Quilt Revival, when many young mothers and many forty- and fifty-something women and men began to make quilts, but even that nationwide renaissance couldn’t dislodge the Grandma Moses stereotype from peoples’ heads. It couldn’t even bring it down a few years.
In our youth-obsessed culture, the quilter’s currency is as good as a wooden nickel. It is my view that a new perception is needed for both the health of our industry, and to establish an easier path for future quilters. It may not come as a surprise that people like to take up hobbies they deem “cool.” A PR campaign is what I’m after, and there’s evidence that the “old fuddy-duddy” image can, in fact, be reversed.
Consider the Librarian
It’s unclear when the “sexy librarian” stereotype entered popular culture, but it’s since lodged itself into the collective conscience, as evidenced by a vast number of 1980s’ music videos and a prevalence of smutty Halloween costumes. It’s nearly impossible for an actual librarian to say, “I’m a librarian” without eliciting an “Oooh, really? A librarian, eh?” with a nudge and a wink.
As you can imagine, librarians tend to hate this. They’d much rather get a “Oooh, a librarian! You must be a font of knowledge and an expert in research and citation!” But no one says this. They prefer to imagine a spinster who need only take the pencil out of her hair and remove her glasses to unleash the insatiable sex kitten within.
Quilters don’t have this problem. But because a librarians’ work is often obscured by the stereotype they must endure, it could be argued it’s actually a good thing we don’t have to field this kind of comment.
I mean, when you tell someone at a social function that you’re a quilter, do you really want the person to say, “A quilter, eh? Well, well,” with a knowing look? Maybe not.
So I’m not suggesting calendars with scantily clad “Quilters Of the Month” be circulated, (I’m sure this is done, probably in Texas) but what harm could be done in placing an ad in National Geographic featuring a quilter in her studio, cashmere sweater tantalizingly slipping from a bronzed shoulder?
We could also promote quilts in fashion magazines. A patchwork quilt featured prominently in a Michael Kors ad would be incalculably good for our industry. I’d also love to see a quilt at the Venice Biennale where the art world elite could ooh and ahh over it with cocktails in hand. “Quilting is hot,” the people would say, and they would dig out Mother’s quilts from the attic, buy a sewing machine, and watch old episodes of “Quilty³.”
It is to this end I call for the establishment of a Quilters of America Board, whose mission it would be to “Promote, inform, and encourage quilting in America,” or something along those lines. Such a board could launch a major PR initiative and move the needle to convince the public that quilters, too, have rich inner lives and as many facets to their personality as any other group. Possibly even— admit it—an inner strumpet.
We should probably get a firm in New York.