The quilt world got another dose of controversy recently, this one sparked by a blog post from The Modern Quilt Guild at the end of July (note that the original post underwent changes based on some uproar from the community, and was then taken down and archived, with this one in its place – and the original+comments is now a 44 page PDF that you can’t get to unless you have a login to the MQG site). They are attempting to draw a line around what could be considered “derivative” with respect to entering shows. A rather HARD line.

Several friends and colleagues have ably commented on their perceptions of this statement by the MQG (and I will link them up at the end of the post). I found it heavy-handed, exclusionary, and sadly in opposition to what I perceive to be the role of any organization in quilting… that of promoting inclusion, and encouraging people to learn, and to enjoy making more stuff. I didn’t see the post as supportive or reflective of the membership, and I also question how it supports members who make a living through teaching when it’s scaring their students away. I have heard/read so many people who now believe they shouldn’t take a class or enter a work in the MQG’s QuiltCon show, based on their interpretation of the MQG’s statement.

And this really saddens me.

Instead of exuberant curiosity for new frontiers, I see a contraction of interest based in fear of the MQG handing down judgement. And I see the likely rise of a new type of quilt police (oh no!) helmed by people who are going to nitpick the definition of derivation to death and beat us about the head with it. Won’t that be fun?

While Fear is pretty much always Art’s companion (for a brilliant discussion on this, read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic*), Fear should never be in charge of stopping you from making art. Fear also gets the upper hand if you let it keep you from learning more about HOW to make your art. Fear can be a real party-pooper, and frankly, we should push back on anyone that tries to use fear as a tactic to control us, in the arts or otherwise.

Taking classes from masters and copying their work is a time-honored tradition in art. Entire schools were founded on this principle during the Renaissance, and artists toiling in the masters’ studios don’t seem to have stifled innovation in the arts in any way for centuries. To assume such studying could squelch quilting is, to my mind, a disturbing vote of no-confidence in the abilities of our makers to continue to evolve. We haven’t failed yet, and I don’t see it coming anytime soon.

Few, if any, of us are born into any art or craft with a master’s knowledge and prowess. We gain mastery by practice. We figure out what to practice by getting curious about something that turns us on. We buy the book, follow the maker on social media, and take a class from them if we get the opportunity. To “copy” a master is to hope that walking in their footsteps for a day will give you access to a little of the magic that drew you to them in the first place.

Let me give you an example from my beloved photo professor, Larry Lytle. He encouraged every one of us to go sit on a hill, in the dark, next to a curvy road, and capture that long exposure shot of the headlights winding around a bend. You know this picture, you’ve seen it a thousand times. Well, so had Larry. He would have been happy to never see another, but he emphasized the importance in learning how to make it. To fire off an hour’s worth of exposures was to learn what you needed to do to capture it, and those lessons were the foundation of other things necessary to a photographic practice. I leaned heavily (and gratefully) on that lesson when I set out to take pictures of fireworks, because learning the skill was the point, not making the picture:



The same goes for us in quilting. Make the 4-patch and 9-patch while you are figuring out your basic skills. Graduate to more complex patterns. At some point, take that knowledge and graduate to making something that has no published pattern, if and only if you so desire. Keep learning. Keep making. Keep getting inspired by what you see.

KEEP ENJOYING. Suffering for art is a terribly tired trope. Have FUN with it, for heaven’s sake.

Should you enter it in a show? Maybe. Maybe not. If you’re worried that QuiltCon might be too judge-y for your modern quilt, then there are plenty of other venues to offer it to. The MQG is not the only game in town; there are larger, more established venues with waaaay more foot traffic that would love to see your work.

But consider this too: If you are only making your work for a competition, I think you’re missing the boat. Such fame is fleeting, and in the big picture, being Quilt Famous is to be a notable fish in a very small pond. Out in the big world we barely register. Making for shows can also unleash the Perfectionism Monster, a cousin of Fear, who likes to keep us paralyzed. Who needs this Dynamic Duo of Destruction?

Not me. Not you, either.

Why not, instead, make your work for the joy of expressing your vision? For the challenge of conquering an idea? For the victory of figuring out something that was really hard? To just make something beautiful?

Competition, schmompetition. Quilting is so much more than its blue ribbons. And so are you.

There is one upside to the MQG edict on derivatives though. It should mean we’ll see less of the “wonky improv log cabins in a field of negative space, matchstick quilted to death” quilts, right? Which, if you know your quilt history, are derived from Nancy Crow, Gwen Marston, and the ladies of Gee’s Bend. Just sayin’.


Good posts to read:

Mandy Leins of Mandalei: You can’t break up if there wasn’t a relationship in the first place

Juliet, the Tartan Kiwi: Copyright/Copywrong

Weeks Ringle of Modern Quilt Studio: United We Stand

Lighthouse Lane Designs: Of Cabbages and Copyrights

*NOT an affilate link – and the audiobook is superb 🙂