Something to Think About

Making: Another view

Christmas Chickadee_Taylor.jpgRecently 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?”

TakeMeBacktoItaly frontI 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.”

Happy quilting!


16 thoughts on “Making: Another view

  1. This is why I stopped sewing for money. It sucked all the joy out of it. (I also found that there were other things at which I could make more money !) It’s interesting, I find that I actually almost want to make a mistake or have something that I can’t quite figure out, because it is really pleasurable to fix it. I don’t know, this post really struck a chord with me. I find myself getting sucked up into getting things done, when I realize for me, it’s not in getting it done it’s in doing it. That’s why I give so much stuff away.

  2. Elizabeth,
    I can relate to David Wu’s article. First, I believe we are all too hard on ourselves. In doing so, it takes away from how you experience the process. It lessens it’s value.
    I have sewn in those shoes and really didn’t like the end product and maybe myself for choosing certain fabrics etc.
    Moving forward I have refolded my quilts many times, many years and in doing so realized what a treasure I had 💕 in those old projects. We learn and we grow. What a joy life offers.

  3. Oh Elizabeth . . . you’ve tapped into many things that have crossed my mind before. As usual, you are able to articulate my thoughts so well. There was a time when I felt I should only make my own designs since I called myself a pattern designer. And like you I have a ton of ideas in various stages of development. Most live in my computer and many will probably never get made. But in the last year or so I’ve chosen to make some of the quilts that I’ve always liked that aren’t my original work. A good example is finally getting to my recent X-plus quilt finish. Even though the block has been around, I felt great satisfaction in interpreting it with my fabric choices. My pleasure comes from playing with fabrics. Something I need to remember when I feel frustrated that something I want to make has been made before. It will still be new to me.

  4. Great post. I totally agree with David. I think goals can sabotage us, too, because they pretty much ignore the journey, focusing way too much on the result. The journey itself can bring us joy and teach us much.

  5. Yes, Yes, Yes. I am so excited to have just arrived at a point where I no longer feel like I have a list of “have to” projects, and can spend some time doing what I want, which makes me excited to make time to sew each day. It also makes me more creative, I literally had an idea in the shower yesterday, and couldn’t wait to be done so I could start the process before I forgot.

  6. I totally agree also. I will never win awards or even show quilts because I’m at the stage it’s about the making, the process, the challenge! It’s definitely about the journey not the destination! I am often sad when I’ve finished a project I was so involved in because I enjoyed the process so much!

  7. Amen. Hobbies are what gives joy to life. Like many others, I have sewn for others and found it extremely frustrating, stressful and unfulfilling. Quilting, on the other hand, contains so many “what ifs” that the possibilities are endless, and that is where the joy comes in.

  8. Once again Elizabeth you have articulated so well some true gems about the creative process. Finding joy in the process is far more fulfilling for me than the end result. My college age son was recently given the writing assignment to explore the concept of Happiness. For his age group this idea is like clouds in the sky, constantly shifting, and is so often linked to some arbitrary measure of excellence. And because excellence is hard to achieve, pursuits are more often completely abandoned because in their minds it’s better to walk away early than to have tried and failed to be the best. It’s a sad state that is robbing us of joy. Thanks yet again for thought provoking content. You’re amazing.

  9. Oh boy! You are so right. And you didn’t even mention social media which I think has created another stumbling block in the creative process. I am thankful to fall into the group of “delighted to be learning and trying to get better” while I donate my quilts to charities or family members. My husband and I are going to enjoy discussing this. 🙂

  10. Very insightful. I like the idea of being satisfied with mediocrity, at least sometimes. As far as hobbies go, I believe in the mental health benefits of doing something just because it brings you pleasure, and research I read recently cites the benefits of hobbies, especially ones that aren’t connected to your career, if you have one.

  11. This was such a good thing for me to read. I have gotten to the point where I just want to quilt “because.” Sometimes I want to tackle an idea that needs to get out of my head, sometimes I just want to make something designed by someone else. And both of them for no other reason that just to enjoy the process of creating.

  12. Oh my. What a profound blog post. I don’t know where you find these insightful people, but Mr. Wu’s reflections made me take notice. Guilty! I’m guilty of quiltmaking as “work” rather than play, and of the comparison game. I’m always striving for that elusive “best” at whatever I attempt. The truth is that if I’m not good at it, I don’t do it, and this applies to all my activities. Why would I want to pursue something that isn’t somewhat innate? I see that I need to be more like Cindy (above) and make quilts “because” – to enjoy the process, which I am now in a big hurry to accomplish. Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth! I can count on you to make me sit-up-and-take-notice!

  13. Your post was good to read. And all the comments by others an added bonus. I find many days I just want to sew “something” for the pure joy. I have enjoyed making blocks for myself from those I had to make for the Gridsters Bee each month. I will eventually put them together, but the fun in making them is what relaxes me. Once I wished I could enter a competition and win something, but that is no longer important. I like the process of constructing with my own ideas, learning along the way. Thank you.

  14. I really agree – let’s all make the quilts we want to make, and find fulfillment in the process of creating as much as in the final product. So many of the quirky vintage quilts I love surely wouldn’t have won accolades for design or workmanship – but they convey confidence and love.

  15. I learned many years ago that making quilts for pay (even for people you like!), took the joy out of the process. I made two baby quilts for a boss years ago–took 9 months out of my life. The older I get, the more I realize it is all about the process. I only make quilts for those I love and for charity. I won’t teach classes either…I will freely share anything I know. My time is getting dearer the older I get and the list of quilts I want to make just doesn’t get shorter! Thanks for sharing this wisdom! As usual, your posts are thoughtful and thought provoking!

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