Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Joe the Quilter

Sunday I took an awesome workshop with Joe Cunningham, a.k.a. Joe the Quilter. Seriously, it's changed my entire approach to quilting.

The workshop was put on by the Flying Geese Quilters Guild. Honestly, seeing Joe on their schedule of presenters was one of the reasons I joined this particular guild. The fact every single guild member at the class was super friendly to a new kid like me was just icing on the cake.

The workshop took place at Material Possessions Quilt Shop, which is HUGE. I suspect it has as good if not better selection of quilting fabric as G Street Fabrics in Rockville, Maryland. And the classrooms were spacious, well-lit, well-equipped, and well-organized.

Now on to the class itself. Its title was "You Maverick, You", though the current partisan use of the term "maverick" might have inhibited Joe from referring to the title. If you look at the origin of the term "maverick" and Joe's philosophy of quilting, it's actually quite an appropriate title for the class. Conveniently enough, the New York Times addressed the history of the term in a recent piece.

In the 1800s, Samuel Augustus Maverick went to Texas and became known for not branding his cattle. He was more interested in keeping track of the land he owned than the livestock on it, Ms. Maverick said; unbranded cattle, then, were called “Maverick’s.” The name came to mean anyone who didn’t bear another’s brand.
Joe's philosophy of quilting is based on his search for the origins of what is considered "traditional" quilting. Antique quilts do not conform to the forms and techniques commonly accepted as "traditional" quilting. The rules enforced by present day "quilt police" seem to have coalesced in the patterns and kits made available in the 20th century. Patterns and kits were designed with control and efficiency in mind so quilters could predict the amount of fabric they would need for a particular project and predict the appearance of the end product.

Basically, (and I might be taking this idea farther than Joe himself might be comfortable with) what is commonly accepted as "traditional" quilting is really a set of patterns and techniques created by the quilting-industrial complex. These "traditional" patterns and techniques are like branded cattle, they can be traced back to their owners, purveyors of 20th century quilt patterns and kits. A maverick approach to quilting eschews these "traditional" patterns and techniques, it does not bear the brand of the quilting-industrial complex (unless you consider Joe, who does make his living teaching, among other things, this approach, a part of said complex - though arguably his is such a loose approach that you couldn't look at someone's quilt made using it and know for certain that it was the result of his approach - so the individual quilter's end product does not bear even Joe's brand).

In a sense, this approach harks back to pre-20th century improvisatory quilting in which women created without patterns or techniques beyond those they shared with one another on an interpersonal level. As a guild member noted at his lecture Monday evening, this process is very similar to that of the Gee's Bend Quilters. It strikes me as the type of approach that would appeal to the anti-corporate craft movement that all the lip-ringed, tattooed knitters and Threadbanger fashionistas are into these days (Of course that could be the result of my delusion that my inability to knit does not prevent me from being a cool crafter - quilting can be cool . . . really).

Perhaps most importantly for me, abandoning the pre-planning injects creativity into each step of the process. Making a quilt from a commercial pattern doesn't appeal to me because as far as I can tell, it's just manual labor. Designing an entire quilt and then making it front loads the creativity, which explains why a lot of my quilts stall out between the design phase and the execution phase. Once the quilt is all planned, it's just manual labor.

So what's the approach? It's a lot like Mona Brooks' Abstract Design Warm-Up from page 68 of Drawing with Children. Basically, you start with a piece of fabric approximately the size and shape of the quilt block you desire. We used a square, but I see no reason you couldn't start with a diamond or a triangle or a hexagon - any shape that can be tessellated. Then Joe presented two simple modifications to the block which totally reminded me of the Abstract Design Warm-Up's instructions,
Turn your paper in any direction you want.
Make three straight lines anywhere you want on the paper, but start the line on the edge of the paper and run it off another edge of the paper when you are done.
But where Abstract Design Warm-Up would just have you draw lines, in an exercise like Joe's each line would be cut with a rotary cutter and strips of fabric would be added before the next cut. Each cut is a creative act. Each fabric choice for a strip is a creative act. The only thing that repeats with each block you make is the set of "rules" Joe set out for us (or that you've set out for yourself). How you execute that set of rules can vary with each block - so each block requires a set of creative decisions. Once you've squared up (or diamonded up or triangled up or tesselated shaped up - which, given the sort of odd shape you get from the improvisatory piecing stage, turns squaring up into another creative decision), the process of laying out the blocks was a heckuva lot more interesting than your usual quilt design as each block was unique. And Joe spent time with each student working through their layout. How rarely do quilt students get to that stage in the process so they can really get some practice?

Everyone in the class was amazed at how far they got on their quilts in what was basically a six-hour class. Many people finished their whole top. Clearly this technique can produce creatively satisfying results in record time.

More generally, the lessons learned from this approach - even if the abstract "modern" quilts that result may not be your cup of tea - can be applied to other quilt projects. It can be a lesson in working with a limited color palette (many students, including myself, used only three fabrics). I found it to be one of the most relaxing times I've had quilting in a class, which is particularly impressive given that it was my first class with this guild, I didn't know anyone there, and I had never been to this shop before. The class sparked ideas for ways to incorporate improvisation at every stage of the quilt making process, which should help jump start my projects that are stalled at the design stage by injecting creativity into their manufacture. The practice arranging completed blocks can certainly inform the arrangement of any quilt where the blocks aren't all identical - like those with scrappy fabric choices or a sampler of many different kinds of blocks.

Not only did the Mona Brooks'-style design prompts remind me of my first and favorite quilt instructor, Jeanne Benson, like Jean, Joe established a very positive and open classroom environment. He set every student at ease by introducing himself individually. His comfort in front of the class, and in the presentation in front of the whole guild on Monday, really allowed the focus to be on learning rather than on the performance. He provided unconditional positive constructive feedback even in the face of die-hard pattern followers who were expressing a lot of self-doubt about their own creativity. He spent time at each stage of design with each student. And he encouraged group affirmation and participation in the design process by calling our attention to each student's work on the design wall. If you're looking for a guild workshop that isn't just another pattern or technique, i.e. that appeals to all tastes and skill levels, I highly recommend Joe Cunningham's "You Maverick, You."

FYI: The three fabrics I used in my blocks are Kaffe Fasset's Pansy in blue, Luana Rubin's Honey Bees and Clover in Lemonade Yellow from her Joie De Vivre line, and FunQuilts' bilaterally symmetric light blue print 1122-215.

Updated 10/18/08 to add: Joe blogged about the class and included a picture from the guild meeting of six completed tops from the workshop. It's a great picture that shows how different each quilt turns out even though they all started with the same design prompts.

Updated 1/26/2009 to add: If you'd like to read more about my impressions of Joe the Quilter's take on creativity and see individual pictures of each block I made in class, check out this post at my other blog.

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Thalia said...

That sounds like a wonderful workshop - and I really love the blocks you came up with! It sounds like a great way to have an individualized approach. And I love your fabrics, especially the honeybees!

Now I want to take up quiliting again. I think I can do that when we live somewhere with a bigger craft room. Right now, just storing yarn and needles is more than enough.