Last week, I learned that a member of my guild had taken first place for a quilt in her county fair. At our last meeting, she had encouraged us all to visit our county fairs to support local quilters. I was genuinely surprised; I suppose in the periphery of my city-girl understanding, I knew that fairs featured 4-H projects and probably involved some minor displays of craftiness. The angst-ridden teenager that I was at my last fair attendance, however, had not taken note of the local handmade offerings. I decided it was time to revisit the sacred summer tradition.
Both the Denver and Boulder County Fairs are in full swing, so I experienced both. I guessed that there would be a large selection of quilts at the fairs, but that they would be mostly traditional. I was half right. The Denver County Fair (a “county fair for the 21st century” now in its fourth year) had an incredibly paltry selection of quilts, all sort of shoved in a corner. Denver is home to at least four modern and traditional guilds that I know of, but there were no more than maybe twelve quilts there. Surprisingly, though, at least half of the quilts incorporated some sort of modern aesthetic. The Boulder County Fair was almost diametrically the opposite. There was a healthy collection of quilts (most of them quite large and intricate, and many displaying fine craftsmanship), at least thirty or so. There was definitely a larger display of talent and creativity here, more in the way that I expected…but, also as I’d anticipated, there was only one quilt featured that could be considered modern.
The garment selection was also sort of disappointing. There were only about ten garments submitted in either fair. A lot of the garments incorporated a costume-y aesthetic (think carnival biker bar wench); the Boulder fair’s selection, inexplicably, included a set of handmade adult diapers. For realz. Where were the garments people might actually wear? Where were the modern prints and flattering silhouettes? The displays looked sad, like perfect evidence of a dying art.
I can’t make sweeping generalizations about how well-represented local crafters and artisans are in state and county fairs throughout the nation, but I can say that the quantity and quality of work I witnessed locally was not an accurate representation of the immense talent we rock along the Front Range. There exists a fundamental gap between local sewing activity and local sewing display, and I’m willing to bet that mine is not the only area where this is true. My guess is that some of it is based on ignorance (“Wait, you can submit quilts to county fairs?”), and some of it finds its roots in hipster arrogance. Most likely, it’s a combination.
We have a tendency, as modern quilters and sewists, to dismiss traditional approaches to quilting—and possibly venues where that quilting finds its home. My 84-year-old grandmother sits around a quilt frame with her friends at church, quilting by hand. I’m sure she knows that people submit quilts to fairs; hell, she might have even done it herself at one point. I do things differently; I sit behind my machine, whirring away quietly at my guild meetings. I share my work online. I’m going to QuiltCon. I sew with designer fabrics, and I make modern quilts and garments. Does my work have a place next to the Poultry Pavilion?
A lot of people in the modern sewing and quilting world probably dismiss this type of venue offhand. But this leads me to my essential point: modern quilters and sewists should be participating in local fairs. Ultimately, as members of the handmade movement, we should be using traditional avenues to promote modern aesthetics and to join a larger community of makers. There are so many reasons for this:
1. Local competitions provide great experience in preparing quilts for shows. To novice quilters wanting to get into competitions, the prospect of larger quilt shows might be a bit intimidating. There are lots of criteria for judging quilts (full and square binding, even stitches, precise points and corners, etc.). Fairs are a great place to begin having your quilts evaluated in a competitive setting, and to get some helpful feedback as you continue your work.
2. We should educate others about the modern quilting and sewing movement. There is an absolute renaissance of DIY and the handmade in our culture right now. Look at Etsy, at QuiltCon, at the emphasis on local and sustainable food, at farmer’s markets and art walks and street fairs. It’s awesome! Instead of leaving celebrations of the handmade at county fairs to die a sad, lonely death, why not use them as opportunities for education and recruitment? The fact that my guild member took first place at her county fair with a modern quilt indicates that there are people out there who appreciate what we’re trying to do. Making fairs more relevant to a modern demographic might help spread our mission and let the uninitiated know that quilting isn’t an ancient relic of times past. (In fairness, this is what the Denver County Fair seems to be striving for. It’s only in its fourth year, and I really hope it gets there…but it needs help from makers like us!)
3. We need to celebrate and learn more about the roots of our craft. The whole notion of the fair, historically, is to take a break from punishing work to pay tribute to the immense amount of skill and investment of time in that work. There is very little opportunity in our society for this; too often, the message is “do it now” instead of “do it well.” In local fairs, we should take time to notice and celebrate the fruits of our labor, whether in apple-pie baking, sewing, or animal husbandry. If the fair has become just an excuse for eating a bunch of crap and then puking it up on the Tilt-O-Whirl, we make it a worship of our worst attributes instead of our best—consumption over creation. Instead, we should use this as a space to celebrate each others’ talents on a local scale. That’s what makes a community.
So I missed the deadline for this year’s county fair, but I’ll definitely be submitting some quilts and maybe a dress or two in 2015. If you’re interested in doing this with me, your state likely has an County Fair Association list online that provides dates and submission information for each fair in your state. We’ve brought quilty back in so many other places; let’s go all in. Meet me at the fair?