Recently I attended a lecture by David Taylor (at PIQF), which was humorous and interesting. One interesting fact was, that while he did these incredible quilts with very detailed applique and quilting — most taking about a year to complete, when he was at home when he wanted to relax, he did very different work for himself. He worked on the Piecemakers’ Calendars.
(A photo of his Christmas Chickadee is on the left.)
My husband and I had just had a discussion about this, about how I, as a pattern maker and creator of original quilts, sometimes make other people’s patterns. I had a hard time explaining myself, for both facets of my quilty life give me much pleasure. Why wouldn’t I alway make my own designs? I have tons more ideas than what you’ve seen, many more ideas to explore.
So I was intrigued by David Wu’s article titled “In Praise of Mediocrity.” His opening lines hooked me: “I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.”
Wu goes on to say that he believes it is because we afraid “of being bad” at our hobbies. If all the joggers are supposed to be marathoners-in-training, or all the painters supposed to be the next Rembrandts, that places the pressure of linking our identity to our hobby, with the result that we feel “you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?”
I just finished the last of my Guild visits for the year, and from early on this year, I worked into my lecture a quilt that I think it a distinct “failure,” on so many levels: the colors don’t work, the pattern is good, but the fabric choices are all wrong, the quilting is meh. But I show it in among my fancier quilts just to say that not every quilt is a home run, and most quilts don’t make it into the top ten of national shows.
Wu notes that in always striving to be excellent in our hobbies, it becomes more like work. We lose “the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it….But alien values like ‘the pursuit of excellence’ have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur.”
The people in my quilt workshops are always comparing their efforts with my samples, some of those sample having been made multiple times, so they are fairly free from errors. The result is that I often leave them up on the front table when I’m chatting with the students about color choices, or design choices, wanting to see what they want to put where, what colors they want to make their quilts.
If we, or our students, or the women at retreats, or the neighbors around the small sewing circle feel like we have to be excellent at everything we do, isn’t this like being “trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment”? Wu does not think that becoming good at something is terrible: “I don’t deny that you can derive a lot of meaning from pursuing an activity at the highest level. I would never begrudge someone a lifetime devotion to a passion or an inborn talent. There are depths of experience that come with mastery.”
I want all my students to want to sew, to enjoy the process. So what if the quilt doesn’t ever leave your bedroom? Is it less wonderful if it never gets into a show? It hopefully is the making that is the pleasure, or as Wu puts it: “a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better,” finding “exaltation in the mere act of doing.”