21 September 2010

Reflections on: quiltmaking and shopping

Imagine a world without rotary cutters, special rulers and convenient quilt shops full of fabric. Twenty five years ago, the Australian quilting world was exactly like this. Would you still enjoy making quilts without all these modern conveniences?

Sometimes I am in two minds about all the tools and notions available for quilt makers today. Sure, it is handy to have a ruler that makes it straightforward to cut tricky shapes with a rotary cutter and it certainly saves time that can be used for stitching the fabric pieces together. It is very satisfying to be able to purchase exactly the desired shade of thread to perfectly match a particular printed fabric, but if you had to use a different coloured thread, would it stop you in your tracks?

Do we really need all the notions we buy? Do we enjoy the act of shopping for the requirements to make a quilt more than the actual making of the quilt? It has long been recognised that shopping makes us feel good. I have lost track of the number of times I have asked quilters who have recently visited a quilt show to tell me about the show. Inevitably, most of them start listing all the things they bought there. Rarely do they talk unprompted about the quilts in the exhibition – it is always the shopping experience they describe first.

According to an article by Willow Lawson in Psychology Today magazine (March/April 2006), when a person is faced with something new, thrilling or challenging, such as shopping, dopamine floods the brain’s pleasure centres. This produces an agreeable feeling and contributes to the act of buying. I think we often shop to enjoy the overall sensory experience as much as to actually purchase goods we need.

Consider how many times we visit a craft show or a quilt shop, not really planning to purchase anything specific, but just to look. In how many of those instances do we leave the venue with a clutch of bags containing interesting new acquisitions? It is very rare that a person does not come away with at least a fat quarter.

Think about all the quilt making tools and gizmos, patterns and fabrics we buy. Do we use most of them straight away to make quilts, or do most of them end up stored safely in our sewing rooms? Do we really need all that stuff, or do we just buy it because we enjoy shopping and the social activity with our friends?

Pared back to the essentials, quilt making only requires fabric, thread, scissors and needle. Many people still make quilts using these basic ingredients. They continue to enjoy the act of creating a quilt and they are satisfied with the pleasure and warmth the quilt provides. Their need to create is fulfilled without having to outlay a huge expense.

In fact, many quilters make gorgeous quilts from the off casts of others. Many groups that make quilts for giving away to members of the community work in this way – using donations from other quilters. They use the fabric that is given to them to make interesting designs that are gratefully received and enjoyed by the recipients.       

I'm not immune to the charms of shopping at a well-stocked quilt shop. I often splurge on must-have items, even though it wasn't planned. Sometimes an item catches my eye and after I buy it and use it, I wonder how I managed to sew without it. I am only human, after all.

It just gives me pause for thought. Are we so caught up in consumerism that we buy the latest ‘must-have item’ automatically before thinking through whether we will really use it? Or do we consider carefully before adding another tool to our sewing room or another fabric to our stash? In my case, I would like to think the latter is true, but I am sure it is probably mostly the former. Perhaps this is also true for you?


  1. Hi Erica - I can honestly say I am not a gadget person. In fact I shy away from them and am probably missing out on some handy tools. BUT I can't pass by some gorgeous new fabric - or even old as in vintage for that matter.

  2. Anonymous12:01 pm

    Sometimes i think I must be weird ..... I can spend all day at a show and see just a few of the shops. I go for the quilts, and also the quilters .... and after that come the shopping if there is time. Last year in Adelaide for three days I still only saw a fraction of the shops.

    Judy B

  3. Lets face it Erica, do we really need all the clothes or shoes in our cupboard or all the extra items we purchase in a supermarket. If we didn't spend our money on fabric and quilting tools then we would find something else to spend our money on and there are a lot worse things like gambling and cigarettes. I guess we all have different priorities for what gives us the most pleasure.

  4. Hi E,
    There is something to be said for the feeling of supporting so many female inventors when we acquire these things. I do actually use a lot of my gadgets. I have been known to build my own out of duct tape (for instance, a sort of custom thimble for that spot on my middle finger that I otherwise manage to rub raw while sewing on binding). Do you, like me, have a love for old, especially wood, sewing tools?

  5. I am a true "gear" person, and like you, I find something along the way that often seems heaven-sent. But for the past two years I have been unable to keep up my shopping and buying habits because we we caught in the economic housing market crunch. We wanted to move back home to be near grandchildren (babies) but didn't wait to sell our house in Tennessee first, where we had moved to take care of my father-in-law before he passed away in 2007. We would miss so much of these grandchildren's lives by waiting.
    So for two years I have "made do" with what I already had. And the most amazing part is that I think my work has improved because of this experience! The Tenn house sold in September, and since them my only expenses have been for some books. I suddenly realized how much I REALLY had. A close brush with poverty can be humbling and creatively enhancing at the same time.


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