Whose Design Is It Anyway?

I wrote yesterday about my Spring Quilt, but in the writing, I realized I had another post about how we come up with our designs, and the tangled strands of the World Wide Web.  This post is about the whole story of design, as I see it. After I had purchased my fabric, for several days, I trolled the web, my quilt magazines and books looking for ideas.

One of my early quilts was a log cabin, and certainly that is the base for many modern quilts: a center square and strips sewn around. I hadn’t sewn one in years, and I thought it would be a good idea.  But how to change it up?  The idea came to me: what if I skewed the strips, wonky-like, like in some quilts?  I sketched out some ideas, but wasn’t quite happy with them.  Since I’m still working on the applique on the wild dotty circle quilt, I hoping for something a little more ordered.  Then I saw another one that had left off one side of the “cabin.”  This one I liked.  I opened up my Quilt Program (since I have a Mac, I use Quilt Pro) and drew my own version.  It doesn’t really have this much white in my vision–I just got tired of clicking to color the strips.

I called it Fractured Log Cabin.  Here is the block on the left, mock-up of the quilt on the right:


I kept surfing through the web after I finished up, and found an almost identical quilt on Red Pepper’s quilt site.  She calls it something different, but I did notice she has a pattern for sale if you don’t have quilt software, or don’t want to draw your own pattern.  I hesitate to draw attention to this, as it could be said the process worked differently–that I may have seen her quilt and copied her pattern.  What I did take away from hers was to move the top strip to the bottom.  It threw the quilt off a little bit–didn’t make it quite so ordered.  I liked that.  But then I thought, what if I re-drew the block to accommodate that design shift, and sewed it like that?  My new block is on the left, the new quilt sketched on the right.

This is where it gets tricky.  When I first started quilting it was a a given that what you were doing was a derivation of what you had seen before.  Only occasionally did quilters make up their own patterns, instead drawing on the rich heritage that was ours, was given to us.  In those early days, some quilters would attempt to call patterns their own.  We didn’t mind.

But I’ve noticed that this idea–this is my design, my pattern–has just exploded, and that now, even if we feel like it’s our own–or mostly our own–there seems to be someone, somewhere who has already done the same design.  Only now they’ve copyrighted it, made a pattern for it, and are making their living off it.  I try to be sensitive to this new reality.  The internet has given us a much wider market in which to sell our goods, and many talented people should be compensated for their work. I am not a fan of those who plagiarize another’s work with the intent to defraud, in one way or another.  That’s why I buy books, magazines, and patterns–not only for ideas, but to pay for the quilter’s work.

But where is the open space for those of us who are long-time quilters with our own digital quilt software, who pull their own ideas from their history, their travels, and have their own ideas, only to find that the zeitgeist has delivered the same idea to someone else? Or that we may–as I have done here, borrowed a detail or a shifting?  Is that okay?  I don’t have answers, but I do try to be transparent about my own creative process.  When I was going to grad school, this was talked about a lot, but in terms of authors borrowing from each other.  Some quilt designers have a “look” just as some authors have a writing style.  Anyone would be nuts to take an idea from Piece O’ Cake designs and call it their own, as their style is so unique and so distinctive.  But I have always been fascinated at parallel evolving in the case of Ruth McDowell and Cynthia England.

They both use a freezer-paper fracturing approach to their quiltmaking, and while the look can be different as in this example (England on the left, McDowell on the right), the end result of cutting fabrics into shards and shapes and reassembling them is mighty similar.  Should only one woman be using this approach to pictoral quiltmaking?  And here’s the bigger question: isn’t there room enough in our quilting universe for two such quilters and methods?

I would be just as flattered if you credit me with the brains to look at a quilter’s site first and to draw on their blog offerings, just as the Old Masters learned from one another by copying each other’s paintings.  And just as authors have always done, and just like this sign that the street artist Banksy, appropriated from Pablo Picasso’s words:

I’m just as happy to have you imitate steal borrow from me, and would be thrilled if we had the same idea at the same time and executed it and blogged about it, thereby adding to the rich offerings of quilts on the web.

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