Why I Battle With Labels

If you read here regularly, you may have noticed me railing against labels. I’ve condemned the notion of “modern” medallions and objected some to “liberated” quilting. If you get me started on “traditional” quilting, believe me I can object to that label, as well. Are we talking about the tradition of using quilted material as body armor in the Middle Ages? Or as petticoats? Or wall-hangings to buffer the stone walls from the cold wisps of winter? Maybe those aren’t the traditions people mean by that term.

One of my main objections is that the labels are artificial. In particular, it’s hard to find meaning in the term “modern quilt” when even modern quilters don’t agree what it means. For some it is in the colors or patterns used; for others it’s in the amount of negative space; still others point to the creation of new blocks. For me, personally, modern quilting is that which breaks the grid. But even that is a poor conception, when we look at crazy quilts from the 1880s and wonder where the grid went in those.

Liberated Quiltmaking  was introduced by Gwen Marston in 1996. In her introduction she specifically cites African American utility quilts as a source of inspiration. She also notes that “Liberated Quiltmaking is guided by process, rather than published pattern. Process gives you a way to work, but it does not dictate a destination.” (Her whole chapter Significant Concepts is worth your reading to understand what Marston actually means by “liberated.” By her definition, everything I make is liberated. I agree…)

So what’s my problem with labels, other than that they do not mean what some people think they mean? Labels are a natural result of how humans’ brains work. Humans categorize and label almost everything, from food to animals to style of house to species of tree. Even poor Pluto has been classified a planet and reclassified as a dwarf planet. Astronomers continue to debate the right way to label it. We want to separate things by type in order to make sense of them. It’s like having an index card file — only if the thing is labeled correctly can you find that card again, and relate it to other things appropriately.

Labels are natural, but labels can affect how you see yourself and how you fulfill that vision, both for good and for bad. They affect other people’s expectations of you, too. What label did you have growing up? If you had siblings, you may have each had labels. I was “the baby,” setting expectations for how competent I was (or not) in a variety of ways.

There was a day not so long ago when I first called myself a “designer.” Though I have always designed my own quilts, never before had I thought of myself as a designer. Surely that was someone who had studied art or … maybe even design! No. Just as a writer is someone who writes, a designer is someone who designs. But simply relabeling myself in a more expansive way changed the way I think of myself and my quilts.

If we label ourselves in confining ways, that has an impact, too. How many times have you told someone you are “just” something — just a mom, just an accountant, just a volunteer? I have a friend who used to say “I am just a plumber.” He does not say that anymore, at least around me. After being scolded more than a couple of times, being reminded of all the things he is and does, he does not say that anymore. He seems to have a more expansive view of himself than he used to. Having that broader view feeds his willingness to try even more.

If you call yourself a traditional quilter, does that mean you can’t try a different approach? If you think of yourself as a modern quilter, are you willing to try using historical blocks and formats? If I am a medallion quilter, does that mean I only make medallion quilts?

In my case, I will say “no.” I reject that notion. I am a medallion quilter and I have expertise in medallions. But I am not afraid to try new things.

Here is the punchline: I am not afraid. I choose not to be afraid. I choose not to let labels limit my work by format or style.

Recently at a family party, I mentioned that I want to try skydiving. And zip-lining. And rock climbing… Someone asked me if that is my mid-life crisis. No. I’ve had my mid-life crisis, and it was the scariest thing I’ll ever go through. None of these things could be as frightening as that. As compared to that, how scary is it to try a “modern” quilt when I’m not used to working that way? Honest to pete, what’s the worst that could happen? I learn something from it?

Why let labels define me, box me in, determine what I will or will not do? Labels don’t get to decide. I do. I get to decide, and I am not afraid.

22 thoughts on “Why I Battle With Labels

  1. allisonreidnem

    I think my labels are ‘like it’ and ‘don’t like it’! And as the saying goes,’There’s no accounting for taste!’

  2. weddingdressblue

    The first time I was called a modern quilter I was very confused. Sometimes I still am. Really? I use small (sometimes tiny) scrappy squares and sew them together in a variety of patterns. Seems pretty traditional to me. Simple. Precise. But, I do think it has something to do with the white/negative space, maybe?? So, I have decided to just be OK with being a quilter of some variety and to continue to experiment and see where it goes…

  3. snarkyquilter

    When it comes to labeling my style of quilting I’m like my granny who would say to her husband, “whatever you say, dear” and then proceed to do what she wanted. A part of labeling is convenience for marketing purposes, and a shorthand for getting to what’s appealed to you in the past. That’s fine as long as it doesn’t restrict you from experiencing the full spectrum of quilting possibilities. Speaking of labeling, one gauge of how you see yourself is what you call the room/space where you work. Is it a sewing room or an art studio?

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Two thoughts: my studio has my sewing space in one room and my long-arm and stash in the other. I think of it all as my studio, but sometimes will refer to my sewing room, if that is the part of it I mean. In general though I think that’s a good metric. It’s akin to thinking of myself as a designer — more expansive.

      The other thought was the moment from Pretty Woman, when Richard Gere asks her “what’s your name?” And Julia Roberts responds, “What do you want it to be?”
      That might not be related to the topic at hand…

  4. Jolly and Delilah

    As usual, I love what you have to say. You know how I feel on this issue. I agree that labels are very limiting, and wonder why we apply them when we don’t really know what they encompass. It’s even more interesting discussing quilting labels with non-quilt people. I tried to explain it to Dad a few weeks back, and he outright didn’t get it (although he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and spent his career as a journalist, i.e. a professional labeler). The only thing I can think of is that it’s useful for show judging purposes. Then I lose the point.

    I definitely gravitate more to the work of people who describe themselves as modern quilters than traditional, but there are so many factors that go in to that. And honestly, a lot of that is about fabric and color choices.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      As we agreed before, labels can be useful as a descriptor, but only to the point that we broadly agree on the meaning. Generally, we agree on what a “cat” is, so labeling that animal in the yard a cat makes sense. Thanks for the comment.

  5. knitnkwilt

    I like the idea of expansive labels (and believing them). One of my friends in the past went to grad school and did well; she claimed it was very difficult to think of herself as a smart person. She did learn to. Similarly “designer” and “artist.” I get around the modern/traditional/etc thing by labeling quilts, not myself as a quilter. One day I make one kind, another a different kind. I agree with farmquilter–even that isn’t necessary except for entering various shows.

  6. farmquilter

    The only reason I see to label a quilt is for a show. THEY seem to be quite stuck on labels, even if they can’t define the label adequately!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I haven’t entered any shows yet but have considered a couple. Unless their categories are merely on size, it could be hard to decide where something should be entered.

  7. katechiconi

    My own thought is that anyone who doesn’t follow someone else’s pattern or design for a quilt is themself a designer by definition. Personally, I can’t bear the idea of simply reproducing someone else’s vision, whether that is ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’. Like you, I don’t find labels helpful in this respect…


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