Don’t Hold Back; or Why Make Boring Quilts?



This post is part of a series about sewing NotQuilts. If you’re unfamiliar with this method, The NotQuilt series begins here. The link below takes you to the Cat Notquilt project.

What made me start thinking about this was receiving a catalog in the mail from Keepsake Quilting. I had never seen this catalog before. It is filled with kits to make a wide variety of quilts, pieced and appliquéd, in a wide range of sizes. They seem to consist of the precut fabric with which to sew the top together, along with fabric for the binding. The catalog doesn’t say, so I assume that the backing fabric and the batting aren’t included.

Wynkoop Court Quilt Kit from Keepsake Quilting.

Wynkoop Court Quilt Kit from Keepsake Quilting.

The prices are stunning. A king-size kit runs about $200. This doesn’t, remember, include the batting or the backing, so we will tack on another $50 at least.

If you have never pieced a quilt before, this isn’t a bad way to start. Everything is precut and the instructions tell you how to sew all those little triangles and squares together to create the quilt top. Add the batting and backing, quilt the layers together, bind the edges, and voila: a finished quilt.

While buying the kit will teach you the sewing process, it does not teach the design process. You don’t learn how to choose a block, guess what it will look like when repeated in a grid eight blocks wide and twelve blocks long. You don’t draw the block out on graph paper to see how the shapes work together. You don’t make copies of your graph paper pattern so you can color it in different ways, seeing whether or not you want to emphasize the large triangle or the small square.

You don’t choose your colors. You don’t go down to the fabric store and buy one quarter yard each of ten different fabrics and then figure out how to cut them into little triangles while minimizing wasted cloth and maximizing how you lay out said triangles to showcase the printed design.

You certainly don’t dig through those motley collections of scrap fabric left over from other projects, scrap that you were given and would have never bought.

But in the end you still have a finished quilt and you improved your sewing and quilting skills.

I suppose my real objection to these kits isn’t the cost (which is totally not in keeping with the spirit of traditional quilting) but how they look. They are so, so, so, bloodless! So boringly tasteful! So bland! Almost every design in the catalog lacks individuality. Nobody could ever object to any of them. Like Barbie, they are conventionally beautiful, mass produced, and not unique either as individuals or en masse.

I understand why the company did this. They won’t make money by designing and selling avant-garde quilts. People who want avant-garde quilts design their own or they commission such works.

boring quilts

Following your bliss (or your fabric stash) can take you down some strange paths.

I understand why people buy these kits. You KNOW what the finished product will look like. This can be very reassuring if you don’t like leaping off the cliff of design into the deep woods of “I don’t know how this will turn out.” Blazing new trails in design can mean wasting a lot of time and money. It is truly disheartening to have your finished product end up given away to Goodwill because you (or the recipient) don’t like it.

Making a NotQuilt means taking a risk. You have no idea exactly how any given NotQuilt will look like upon completion. If you restrict both your color palette and your fabric patterns and you lay out wide frames of set fabric, you can have fairly good idea where you will end up. But you won’t KNOW, for sure, until you are finished.

This can be unsettling.

night sky notquilt

Sometimes, they turn out pretty cool.

Some of my NotQuilts didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped. Others came out pretty decent. The cat NotQuilt challenged me at every turn, refused to become what I thought it would be and my end product was different from what I expected. However, I like it, quite a bit.

So are you up for a risk? It is a safe one as these things go as making a utility quilt using scraps doesn’t put life, limb or wallet into any danger. If you are unsure, try a small NotQuilt first and see how the design evolves organically with every scrap you sew down.

It can be freeing as well as scary to not know what will happen. Stretch yourself and see what you can do. Whatever you end up with, your sewing skills will have improved, your design and coloring skills will have been tested, and you will end up with a quilt that will keep you warm at night, even if you decide to put something else over top of it to cover it up.

Finally, we’ll wrap this up next Saturday with a look at the Quilt Odyssey show and what I learned there.