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The Dumbing Down of the Quilting and Sewing Industry

Ok you guys, I’ve had it up to here, and I just can’t take any more.  Pardon me while I rant about a few things on my mind.

I work hard, every day (ok, except yesterday because I was really tired) to hone my craft, make it better, make it worthy of putting out into the world to represent who I am and what I do.  I also feel like my work represents every artist out there, as an example of what is possible when you apply your talent to something tangible. I am harder and more critical on myself than anyone else, and maybe harder on myself than I should be, but I truly believe that an object should look just as good on the front as it does on the back; just as good on the inside as it does on the outside. I’m always looking for ways to enclose raw edges, make smoother curves, and I’ll even sometimes take the trouble to match patterns if I have enough fabric to do so.

What I am realizing is that a lot of people just don’t seem to give a shit. Yes, I said it. And I’m sorry for the inclusion of this word, but those who know me know how rarely I curse, and I really need you to understand the depth of my feelings on this topic.

I’m not talking about perfection; I’m talking about attention, respect, commitment.  Attention to detail, respect for your own work, and a commitment to putting out the best work that your talent & skill allows.

What is killing me these days is this assertion that being a “modern” whatever means that it’s okay for you to sew seams any which way, that if your piece doesn’t lay flat, it’s ok; that if your topstitching looks like a drunken spider stitched it, that’s all ok too.  And maybe it is, if you’re just stitching for yourself, or you haven’t developed that skill yet and you’re still learning, or you just wanted the darn thing finished because you’re tired of looking at it and you’ve stopped caring.

But if you’re going to teach?  If you’re writing a book?  If you’re cranking out patterns to sell? If you’re selling the item itself?  That’s where I draw the line.  This is what I call the dumbing down of our industry.  And it’s not just the makers of crappy work that I’m directing my ire toward; it’s also the consumers who lap up substandard work just because that person is popular, and the editors of books and magazines who don’t call people on their crappy work and make them do it better or not at all.

Someone told Lisa Sipes the other day something to the effect of, “You could sell poop and people would buy it.” Lisa does not sell poop, she has an incredible work ethic and talent, and I totally get what the person is saying.  It’s supposed to be meant as a compliment, but I would be horrified to be so popular, to have such celebrity that someone would allow me to sell shit as gold and not call me on it.

I’m not including pictures in this post, because I’m not talking about any specific person; I’m not trying to shame anyone or call them out, but I know you’ve seen this stuff out there.  It’s like an epidemic; the close-up shots of tangled starts & ends, because the person couldn’t be bothered to lock their threads or hang onto the tails when they started. The haphazard binding put on any which way that is lumpy in one spot and empty in another. Raw hems on dresses & trims that have masses of threads hanging off of them, because the person can’t or won’t draft their pattern to cut on the bias in order to properly employ a raw edge.  We call this stuff cute, we ooooooh and aaaaaah over it, and drool, and drape praises over them like superhero capes, all the while reinforcing the idea that crap is great and great is overrated.

And this isn’t restricted to novices; I’ve seen this stuff in glossy, well-made books.  I’ve seen it from very talented designers and makers alike.  I’ve even seen it in full page ads taken out by quilting celebrities in magazines.

Here’s how this cycle of ineptitude starts.  Some person starts blogging about their sewing projects. They develop a following because they came up with something clever, and even though that clever something isn’t particularly well-made, because it was clever, people pay attention. We don’t know how to separate the clever part from the construction, and so we heap praises on that person, and no one bothers to tell them, hey if you did this a different way, your piece would look better.  Or hey, next time you should do X, because X will keep your piece from looking like crap.  But no… people will share the clever, not the well-made, and that blogger develops an insane following and someone in the industry takes notice.

The industry person wants a piece of this person’s popularity, because if they can ally themselves to that person, they can reap some of the rewards that popularity brings.

“If I give this person some fabric to work with, their followers will buy my fabric, and I’ll make money.  If I give this person a book deal, their followers will buy the book, and I’ll make money. And to hell with whether or not that person has a talent for sewing or quilting.  I’m not going to help them by mentoring them or suggesting they actually take a class on sewing and quilting techniques, or how they can improve; they are popular now, and that’s what I want.  To hell with them developing their skills. They don’t need to; they are popular without it.”

Because this now-popular person is being courted by the industry, and now has followers, and industry people chasing them, they think to themselves, “Well, this isn’t a big deal after all.  I was worried at first about my crooked seams and crappy construction, but no one seems to care, so it must not matter.”  They continue putting out crap, the crap is selling, and the attitude is reinforced.

Other folks producing crap feel encouraged by this blogger’s success, and so they start putting out crap.  Some of this crap gets through, and another crappy book comes out.

Meanwhile, there’s a sector of folks who have been doing this a while, the folks who have talent, and have honed their skills over time, and who ordinarily do not put out crap. They start noticing this trend of crap flooding the internet, flooding the bookshelves, the popularity of crap, and they think to themselves, “Why the hell am I working so hard?” And they throw some crap at a wall to see if it sticks. “What do you think of my crap?” They ask.  And you know what happens?  Because that person already has a measure of success that they BUILT ON  WELL-MADE THINGS, and are already popular, no one will dare say to them, “Did you just throw some crap at a wall hoping we wouldn’t notice?” NO.  Nobody says BOO.  They heap praises on that person, call the crap golden, and it reinforces to that person that they can sell shit as gold and no one will object. Now that person can start producing crap on a regular basis.

And I’m not making this stuff up.  I watched this very scenario unfold on Facebook last week. It happens every minute on Etsy. I’ve got examples of this very thing on my own bookshelf.

And so the cycle goes; someone makes crap, the crap sells. More people make crap, and that sells. Then someone makes something even crappier, and THAT sells too, and pretty soon the whole industry is putting out substandard work; fabric quality degrades, everything is made of plastic and breaks easily, and we buy the books and patterns and magazines filled with glossy photos of crappy projects.  This gives everyone the impression that crap is great, and the standards take a hit.  The bar is lowered, and all of a sudden the crap drowns out the well-made so that people don’t even know what well-made is anymore.

Then there are the rest of us, watching in horror as all of this happens.  And by “the rest of us”, I mean the people who refuse to put out crap, even if it means doing it over, or who put out crap because they honestly want feedback and to learn and improve but who wouldn’t dream of hoisting it on others as if it were not crap.   Those of us who wear out seam rippers by the dozen because it’s worth doing right if it’s worth doing at all.  Those of us who will still take the time to do a French seam even though it takes longer and we’re going to miss our deadline. The rest of us who point out the crappy parts in our own work so that you know we’re not perfect.  We don’t do this so you will tell us how fabulous we are anyway; we do this because we think you should know what crap looks like so you can make an informed decision if you ever decide to buy or make crap of your own. It’s the rest of us who want to hold the standard high so that even if we miss, it’s still better than the crap that most people will put out there.

Everybody makes crap – it’s how we get better.  In all things artistic, you have to make a lot of crap before you ever start to make anything good, and sometimes you have to make crap because only by doing it wrong can you find the way to do it right.  I’m not objecting to the idea of making crap, what I’m railing against is the part where crap sells and everybody thinks that’s OK.

It’s like the person who is told all of their lives that they can sing, and then they go audition for American Idol and the judges have to tell them they have no talent.  Simon Cowell was my favorite judge. He didn’t mince words; people called him mean, but Simon is someone who refuses to call crap golden. If you can do better, he’ll tell you to go take some lessons and come back next year, but if you have no talent, he will tell you to pursue another career.

I am not suggesting that we all start going around trolling people’s blogs and criticizing their work; but I do think that as consumers, we need to push back on the industry and refuse to buy stuff that we know is crap in the false name of supporting the “artist”. I don’t know what the solution is to get people to stop selling crap, or to stop believing their own BS. As makers, we need to have enough respect for our own work to know that we can do better, and enough care for the folks who come after us to show them what good looks like.

I do not want to set myself up as the Simon Cowell of the quilting industry. I know crap when I see it, and I refuse to lower my own standards in my work.  But I can only sweep my own house; it’s not for me to become the sweeper for the whole town.  It just really makes me sad to see how the quality of work has degraded so much that people no longer even respect the skills that it takes to do things well.  I get frustrated every time I open a book and see a closeup of terrible topstitching, and I get really upset when I see yet another artist I respect throw crap at a wall and get praised for it.

And it’s not sour grapes either, because I’m not sitting here whining about poor me, everyone else is popular and I’m not, or everyone else is getting a book deal or fabric or sponsorships or whatever.  I get the book deals, and the fabric, and the industry attention so you know I’m not begrudging what someone else has.

I don’t have a great solution to this pervasive dumbing down, other than to ask my fellow makers to examine your work to see if there is room for improvement & make a commitment to yourself to develop your talent for your own sake; and to ask the consumers to vote with your dollars, to recognize crap when you see it and to hold us to a higher standard. Don’t let someone sell you shit and call it gold and be okay with that.

And if anyone needs a sewing mentor, or a quilting mentor, or wants some constructive criticism on something they are working on, I will raise my hand and offer to be that person for you.  I won’t tell you your work is crap, but I’ve been sewing almost as long as I’ve been on this earth, so I have a lot that I can recommend.  Maybe I should start posting tips on how to make things less crappy.  I’ll do my part, but mostly I think I preach to the choir; the folks making the crap that sells won’t listen because they’re already writing and teaching and selling.  But if you think you can do better and don’t know how, let me know and I will try to help you.  I’m not a 100% expert on everything, but I know enough that I can share.

What do you think?  Do you see what I see? Does any of this bother you too?

Update: If you’ve gotten this far, I hope you’ll also take the opportunity to read the follow up post that I wrote (I don’t apologize, but I do clarify the difference that I see between professional standards and personal ones; why my crap isn’t your crap; and why everybody should keep making crap, but not necessarily sell all the crap they make) as well as my new Friday series called Crapology 101.