Up until recently I was a member of a popular social media modern quilting group. The group is a robust collection of thousands, and it’s heavily moderated; each submission or post needs to be approved by one of the group’s founders. This isn’t an uncommon practice in large groups or forums such as this; they need to weed out spam and off-topic posts, and make sure people are playing nice.
The problem, unfortunately, is that once a month or so, someone submits photos of a quilt that the moderators do not find to be modern enough. And so they delete the photos. And then things do get nasty. The original poster gets upset and hurt and demands to know why the quilt was literally shunned from the community, and the moderators respond with something like, “Your quilt just wasn’t modern. Sorry.” The quilter feels as if their work is devalued, and it’s resulted in fewer and fewer posts to the group; members fear that their work will be arrested by the Quilt Police.
SIGH. The “modern” QP squad are the newest iteration of people who feel the need to disparage the quilty work of others, but the Quilt Police as a whole have been around for ages. Mary Fons provides a spot-on definition, and the Onion has even parodied them. (And for some more cerebral discussion about judging quilts vs. criticizing quilts and the role of technique, be sure to check out Beverly Fine and Ebony Love’s excellent pieces.) I’ve been thinking on this since the latest group drama, and I think that there are ways we can promote modern quilting and encourage others to adopt a modern aesthetic without being total butts about it. Here are some good standards of practice:
Lead by Example
When we cut people down by telling them straight-up their work isn’t modern enough, it is an affront to everything the modern quilt community should stand for. How can we expect people to join and learn about modern quilts when we shun them for their efforts?
How you frame and word your suggestions is key. Constructive criticism (given only when it’s solicited) can be difficult when you have strong opinions about that sawtooth star made of repro fabric, but we’re grownups. Nothing is ugly enough to merit being rude, condescending, or insensitive. There is always a way to be kind. When I taught college English to
infuriating lovely 18-year-olds, I saw some baaaaaaaad papers. But when students came to me for help, I never said, “Wow, this isn’t even an essay” or “Maybe you shouldn’t even try to write.” I found something to complement first. I began criticism by saying, “Maybe next time you could try ________.”
People who come to us asking our opinion either in person or via the Internet are showing respect. We should return the favor by being gracious with our feedback. And if you have a modern technique or aesthetic that you feel strongly about, share it! Many people who began quilting in the traditional sphere and want to make the transition need to learn about the basic conventions of modern quilting. And they can’t do that if we alienate them and don’t inspire experimentation in a safe space.
Never Say Never
Strangely, the Modern Quilt Police really, really like rules. We’ve heard them in the recent and not-too-distant past, right?
Modern quilts don’t have raw-edge applique.
Modern quilts don’t have batiks.
Modern quilts never have a black background.
If you are paying attention to modern quilting trends, you’ll find that these rules have all been busted a thousand times over. Modern quilting is about breaking boundaries. It’s how it all started, right? The Modern Quilt Guild was founded in response to the restrictive rules of traditional quilting, to flaunt all the Quilt Police who told people that everything had to be symmetrical and solids were for borders only and WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T PUT BORDERS ON YOUR QUILTS?
Ironically, some modern quilters seem to have forgotten the origins of our movement. They cling to the original definitions of modern quilting (wonky piecing, negative space, bold solids) as if they’re gospel, not realizing that those definitions were originally simply what set modern quilting apart from traditional quilting. They’re a guide, not an edict. Those rules, too, are made to be broken. What if, instead of desperately regulating what constitutes modern quilting, we decide to let its organic evolution surprise us? What if, as one of my fellow guild members says, our litmus test for modern quilting is not a set of criteria as much as it’s Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 litmus test for pornography: “I know it when I see it”?
Breathe. Accept the fact that there are many different kinds of modern quilting. Don’t like wonky quilts? Don’t make them! Think the gray and baby blue your tablemate is using for her queen-size quilt is an abomination? Smile and complement her piecing, and recognize that her approach is different from yours. YOU ARE NOT THE ARBITER OF MODERNISM. Nor am I. Nor is anyone. Diversity of opinion as a community only makes us stronger. Come to terms with this. Come to terms with this as you moderate your modern quilting social media groups. Come to terms with this as you decide who to nominate for your local MQG executive board next year. Come to terms with this as you wonder why your latest fabric swap prize had so much green.
Most importantly, let’s not forget why we’re all here: this is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be encouraging and liberating and a fabulous outlet for expression and creativity and invention. And yes, quilting is a serious art form. And yes, as Ebony says, quilts that we’re submitting professionally for publication or for a quilt show should be judged by high standards, and sometimes their standard for what makes a quilt modern differ from yours. But otherwise, if you feel the need to criticize or comment on the degree of a quilt’s modernity without being asked? If you feel the urge to belittle (or worse, erase) someone’s contribution to your group or to modern quilting at-large based on some abstract aesthetic criteria? Breathe. Pause. And then don’t.