Something to Think About

Maintain vs. Innovate

I’ve been reading a series of articles by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, two academics who have noted that we tend to focus on innovation and ignore maintaining.  Maintain?  Innovate?  When I insert this into the quilting world, some thoughtful parallels arise.

LIghtbulb moment
some images cheerfully swiped from the internet; find them using a Google image search.

First, some background.  In an article on Aeon, Russell and Vinsel observed that our love affair with the new and the untried has obscured our reliance on, and the need for, the “old things,” those items like the electric fan that have been unchanged for a century or more.  And by letting the new obscure our vision of the old, it has also blocked our view of the humans who do “the work that goes into keeping the entire world going….from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation.”  And to no one’s surprise, it’s “women — disproportionately — [who do the work] to keep life on track.”  Russell and Vinsel argue that it is time to bring the work of maintainers into clearer focus.

EPP Stitching

When I first heard this interview on the radio, I let it sink to the background while I worked in my sewing room that morning. But something in me wondered if this idea also applies to quilters.  To see it, come at the idea from a different direction:  Say you have nineteen bins of fabric at home, a list of at least twelve quilts to be made from the above-mentioned bins, yet when you are on Instagram and you see the latest quilt that EVERYONE is doing, you click through to get their suggested fat quarter bundle because that is the most awesome thing ever.  Sound familiar?

To borrow Russell and Vinsel’s terminology, I would suggest this is a classic case of quilter Maintenance vs. Innovation.  We don’t want to do the hard work of re-imagining why we stashed that fabric, purchased that pattern in the first place, preferring instead the WOW feeling (and let’s face it: the easiness) of contemplating sewing up something fresh and interesting.

Fabric Stash

I believe in innovation.
I do like the feeling of a few fresh cuts into the fabric with a new pattern by my side.  And full disclosure: I’m not a “sew-from-my-stash” only sort of quilter, believing instead that occasionally everyone’s stash needs a punch up of energy with a few fat quarters of current fabrics with their current color palettes.

Plitvice Quilt_unquilted

I believe in maintenance.
Having recently I’ve slogged through a few really old UFOs I found out that there is happiness and satisfaction in working through those projects, yet often it didn’t come until that last stitch on the last inch of binding.

Tesla Roadster

Some fall into the trap that Elon Musk did recently, when he outlined a tunnel transportation system in Los Angeles demonstrating that he believed “that the best path forward is to scrap existing reality and start over from scratch.”  Yet, as Russell and Vinsel note, “a clean slate is rarely a realistic option.  We need to figure out better ways of preserving, improving and caring for what we have.”  Although tempting, we can’t torch our fabric stash in order to begin fresh and new and wonderful and exciting.

But the mental tussle between finishing up those UFOs vs. buying new fabric perhaps goes deeper, as Russell and Vinsel describe in their article, “Let’s Get Excited about Maintenance,” when they say that often we “fetishize innovation as a kind of art, [which] demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.”

Innovation=Art?  Upkeep=Drudgery?

  • If I’m buying new, I’m making art?
  • Sewing up my old half-finished projects is drudgery?

The answer might be yes to both questions, but it’s more like often or sometimes, but not always.

EPP 4 cutting pieces

We need innovation.  I can’t imagine making a quilt today without my rotary cutter, mat or ruler.  But we also need maintenance to help us keep our lives in balance and on track.  Make that new quilt, buy that new fabric, but don’t think of it as better than pulling out the quilt you started last year.  Likewise, finishing up a painfully old UFO that would have been better donated to the scrap bag isn’t necessarily more noble, either.

Innovate? Maintain?

We need both.

13 thoughts on “Maintain vs. Innovate

  1. I listened to that interview and loved it – and your thoughts are spot on! My husband is a maintainer and proud of it and I’m sure that over the years much of his vision has rubbed off on me. And of late he has begun to embrace more innovative things – battery charged tools and even his smartphone which gives a weather forecast on demand vs. scheduled TV reports! My question to you: do you think it takes getting older to see the merits of maintaining (with a little innovation thrown in)? Regardless, great post!

    1. You ask a good question. One thing I can say, as I get older, I don’t seem to desire new innovation. I have what I need and don’t seem to need new (except, fabric is an issue). My 2 daughters seem to have had the mindset of maintain since they moved out on their own. They make do with what they have, and re-make some of those things, giving them new life. I suppose it is a matter of perspective.

  2. I am so guilty of falling into that “shiny new thing” pull especially as we see all the wonderful new things so quickly with the push of a computer button! I am trying to slowly work through those UFO’S and that feeling of accomplishment when finished is just as strong for me when completed. I just need to remind myself of that often!
    Thanks for a very thoughtful post!

  3. I agree! You write the most insightful blog posts. I have always loved fabric and the potential of it all. As a costumer for my kids shows I was constantly recycling items from the thrift shop into something fun and new. But as a fairly new quilter I am struck by the built in obsolescence of fabric lines. If you see something you love you better buy it before it is gone forever. Or be prepared to pay high prices for that last piece. I guess it’s time to head back to the thrift store for fabric inspiration.

  4. What a thought provoking post! I’m currently working on a 10 year old project that just wasn’t working at the time. I redesigned it, and now love it. I’m in the quilting process, doing ruler work for some of the quilting. That wasn’t an option 10 years ago. I think maintaining and innovating can go hand in hand.

  5. thank you for these wonderful, insightful words.. as always! I too get very excited/thrilled thinking about, planning, buying for a new project… then it goes into my closet and I forget– as I am onto another “flash”. Everything I see on Instagram and Facebook is so gorgeous! Meanwhile I am a 78yr. old quilter– learned in the 70s/ work mostly by hand when possible. I need to be able to have a balance– ignore those flashes of excitement/ addiction and keep working on the wonderful projects I have planned before!! ha ha.. also PS- I grew up on a farm at the bottom of the Grapevine and went to El Tejon School by Gorman.. neighbors! now in Seattle area.

  6. You know how much I enjoy reading anything written by you. This was very interesting. I have too often fallen into the trap of ordering a fabulous fat quarter bundle that is curated from different lines–because I will probably see it again. Lately I have been trying to replicate the look of the bundle by pulling out my own fabric and seeing how close I can get. It’s kind of frightening how successful I am!

  7. Alas, I have long suspected–no, make that observed–that the modern quilt movement is driven in part by the need to keep selling us new things. If the new designs are any good, they probably should work in fabrics that we already own. Good post!

  8. Very thought provoking post. I think of this in terms of housework, and kitchen gadgets. Simplicity just feels better to me, but it’s so tempting to try all kinds of new things. In quilting…. for me I guess “maintain” resonates with me, but oh I do love my shiny new sewing machine just as much as I appreciate my Grandma’s vintage machine. I guess I love the old, simple blocks (nine patch, log cabin, star, house, etc.) and settings…. these simple timeless shapes speak to me and yes I sort of make the same quilt over and over, in a way. :). Thanks for another great post!

  9. I, too, get so much from your posts. I am not sure how you do it, but you give the reader much to consider. I am presently going through my (yes, 3 basement rooms) of craft supplies. I thought I could keep up and turn out while I was working, but with kids, job, house, and extended family, it never happened. I now have the time, the excitement, and the energy. But, alas, I have too much and realize I don’t need all that to make a lovely quilt. I thoroughly enjoy the creative process and just want to make all of it. I remember a statement by Edyta Sitar at a workshop: Blend the fabric you have with one piece of new for the half-square triangles and you will create a beautiful quilt. I am trying to finish some of the UFOs I have had for 20 years because they were items I liked. There are fabrics and projects I am passing on to others because I realize I can’t make them all in the next 30 years.
    And we can get caught up in the excitement of new items when we are with others (shop hop, retreat). I am learning to hold back when in those situations.
    I agree with Cynthia, the gadgets for house and kitchen, most are not necessary. I still use my ages old peeler because it works better than any new one. I don’t need an egg separator, the shell works fine, and the spiralizers (yes 2) I bought didn’t work out, so they left the house.
    Thanks, Elizabeth, for haring with us and letting us comment.

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