In Praise of Technology

More than 25 years ago, Jim and I bought a house built in 1933. Only one family had lived there; with that comes good and bad. There had been relatively few updates, which was good, but those that had been done had mostly been done badly. Though most of the issues were cosmetic, the kitchen was worse than an eyesore. On one side were painted, built-in wooden cabinets with unadjustable shelves at heights I could barely reach. On the other were “St. Charles” metal cabinets, and not enough of them. Countertops on each side also differed, including their mismatched metal rims. The floor was covered in linoleum tiles that had shifted and drifted, the color reminiscent of street-splatter on my car after rain. The gas stove was in harvest gold while the small refrigerator was in avocado. The stove fan, which didn’t vent out of the house, was in brown.

Pretty, huh?

We took our time planning the update while also repainting every other room. Primitive design software helped us determine cabinet placement, and dozens of glossy kitchen magazines helped us sort out the options for decor. I was getting impatient for the kitchen’s turn at renovation, and everyday found myself huffing a little about how awkward it was to use, or how ugly the Pepto-Bismol pink paint was. While waiting, I read an anecdote. Perhaps it was in one of those kitchen magazines, or maybe it was a Reader’s Digest entry. It went something like this:

A young woman proudly showed off her new home’s kitchen to her grandmother. Excitedly she described the various features — countertops, cabinet styles, appliances, finishes. The older woman was quieter than expected, nodding as she took it all in. The granddaughter, surprised by the lack of reaction, prodded for more. “Grandma, what parts of my kitchen do you like best?” she asked. Grandma turned and looked around again before saying, “The hot and cold running water.”

That short reminder helped me keep my kitchen in perspective. We did have hot and cold running water, then and throughout the renovation. We did have appliances that worked, as basic and ugly as they were. After that when I worked in my old, mismatched kitchen everyday, I was grateful for the technology of indoor plumbing and what an amazing impact that had on our lives.


Fast forward a few years. Jim, Son and I were in England, traveling from London to Dover by train. The passenger cars were unlike any I’d seen in the U.S., wooden carriages with doors that opened outward, and bench seats inside. At one point I started giggling to myself and Jim asked why. “Well, I was going to say, ‘We’re lucky to be able to travel this way. A hundred years ago we couldn’t have gone from London to Dover like this.’ But then I thought, ‘A hundred years ago, we could have gone exactly like this!'” No, the rail travel between the two cities hadn’t changed much in that time, but it still was a faster means than walking or horse-drawn carriage.


This week I struggled to finish one of the VA hospital quilts, the one for which I’d already made a rookie construction mistake. It was on the long-arm frame with quilting nearly done, when all of a sudden OOUPH!! The needle hesitated running through a little build-up of fabric near a complex seam, and suddenly the sound of quilting changed. I stopped the machine and looked closely. On top nothing had changed, but underneath I could see bits of white batting fibers clinging to the stitches I’d just run.

I changed the needle and began again. After 15 or 20″ of stitching, I examined my work. Again on top it looked fine. Underneath I had loops galore! The tension was seriously out of whack.

How many steps are needed to solve a problem like this? As many as it takes to fix. Since I hadn’t changed the tension setting, I didn’t start there. New needle, rethreading both top and bobbin, cleaning all microscopic bits of lint out of the bobbin assembly, testing and retesting, rethreading again… I even reset the timing because in the meantime it had started skipping stitches, but the loops remained. Finally I tightened the upper tension dial, figuring I had nothing to lose. And that was the magic step, allowing me to finish quilting.

The work-to-glory ratio was not in my favor for this quilt, all the way through. (And I still need to bind it, so I’m prepared for more problems before it’s done!)


20150904_081406Though my frustration built at times, I tried to remember the modern miracles we enjoy as we quilt. It isn’t just the rotary cutter, which I wrote about recently. It isn’t even just the sewing machine, modern versions of which have been available for about 160 years. (YES, quilters in the 1800s did both piece and quilt on machines, if they were lucky enough to own them.)

The technology of quilting has changed in spurts throughout quilting history, or at least the last several hundred years of it. Consider a few recent changes. In 1794 Eli Whitney patented a cotton gin that could clean short-staple cotton, the only kind that could be grown economically away from the U.S. east coast. Power looms invented in the same decade allowed the rise of factory textile mills in both the U.S. and England. Improvements in dyes and printing technology throughout history let us enjoy the range of colors and designs we have available now. Modern transportation allows fabric and associated products to be shipped anywhere in the world.

Besides fabric production and distribution, though, there are other technological “miracles” that make our lives as quilters easier. Have you ever purchased fabric using a credit card, whether online or in the local shop? Have you ever read or written a blog post or looked up a youtube video about quilting?

My project got bogged down in various ways. Even so, 200 years ago it would have been beyond the imagination that I could use the fabrics I did. One hundred years ago, the even-lofted polyester batting wasn’t conceived of. Fifty years ago, no one had the notion that making a quilt from start to finish would take so few hours, regardless of my personal challenges.

As a quilter I try to appreciate our history, both from the artistic standpoint and also the technological. Practicing gratitude about the achievements of those who came before helps me keep my own challenges in better perspective.

This Thanksgiving, I wish you a sense of wonder and fulfillment in your craft and the rest of your life. 



20 thoughts on “In Praise of Technology

  1. jimfetig

    That kitchen is uglier than any we’ve ever had and that’s saying a lot.

    Your story reminded me that when we first moved in 1986 to this suburb in our nation’s capitol, we did not have cable TV, no privately affordable cel phones, call waiting, caller ID, or even voice mail, let alone email. Our current house was last updated in 1978 before we bought it. The difference in style, technology, materials and construction technique compared to today is amazing.

    Our daughter, who is a digital native having always had a computer since I started handing down my Macs when she was three, told me the other night that she was worried about technologically competing with younger colleagues – she’s 26! Makes you wonder what our grandchildren will behold.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      We can only wait and watch. 🙂 Our son lives in a building built in about 1895. Though he’s never lived in that era house before, he likes the old woodwork, big windows, and sloping wood floors. There are positives about all eras, I think, but I would not choose to give up what we have to go back in time.

  2. katechiconi

    As a serial renovator all my adult life, I’ve had a good few kitchens like that. You didn’t mention the years of caked on grease and food residue around the stove, or the beetles and roaches in the cupboards, so I’m assuming the former owners of your place were better housekeepers than mine. I’ve had a small taste of the Grandma’s lifestyle while I was remodelling kitchens; washing up in a bowl of hot water on the table, cooking over flame, outside on a small barbecue, keeping my groceries and crockery in stacked plastic crates, so I truly appreciate my conveniences.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, the spilled BOTTLE of cooking oil behind the stove? It was there. No bugs, fortunately. That’s the biggest reno we’ve done, and it included the bathrooms, also. We set up “kitchen” in the next room, with a small microwave and the fridge. Washing was in the bathroom. It worked. But yes, helps me appreciate my modern well-designed kitchen I currently have!

  3. KerryCan

    I like this post a lot!! You’re so right that we should step back, often, to recognize just how very easy we have it, even when it seems not-so-easy. Even the space we have in our homes to do all these crafts is amazing–no need to set up quilting frames over dining room tables or put everything away after each sewing session. Happy Thanksgiving, Melanie!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      It’s easy to take it all for granted, but I’d rather not. I find our history to be an essential part of how I appreciate what we do. It’s hard to imagine how technology will change the future of quilting. Ultimately piecing is still a matter of cutting up fabric and sewing it together again; quilting is still a matter of layering fabric with something soft, and stitching through 3 layers. There are shortcuts to all parts of it already, but if we want the satisfaction of making, we must make, rather than watch a machine do all the work.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, Kerry. I know your candy season must be gearing up, too. Enjoy!

  4. snarkyquilter

    You know, you could probably sell that stove to someone enamored of retro kitchen appliances, though you may have just carted it off to the dump. As for quilting, I didn’t really take to quilting until rotary cutters became the norm. I got tired of the dents the scissors made in my hands. Yet, there’s now the craze for hand sewing. Well, I think that’s great as long as I can do the bulk of quilt construction by machine.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      HA, I don’t think anyone would find that stove retro or lovely enough. No classic design, for sure!

      As to hand-sewing, yay for those who wish to. But likely that will never be me. 🙂

  5. allisonreidnem

    I try and remember to give thanks everytime I turn on the tap for a glass of clean drinking water. That’s a privilege too few people in the world share. Thanks for this post and the comments it has generated.

  6. Larri

    The clean, running water and electricity are only a small amount of which I am thankful. Thanks for sending notification of this delightful blog.

  7. Thread crazy

    Each of us have something to give thanks for. Sometimes all we need to do is stop and remember; remember the past and what we’ve experienced and where we are today. I chuckled upon enjoyed seeing pictures of your kitchen in it’s earlier life! Now you can look back and truly be thankful for your new kitchen!!

  8. shoreacres

    Avocado and Harvest Gold! Oh, my. Yes. I grew up with them. But before those colors, in the ’50s, the rage (at least in Iowa) was for dark colors: forest green, maroon, brown. I still remember the set of Melmac dishes Mom was so proud of — in chartreuse and maroon.

    When I left Liberia, I traveled alone from that country to London. I went overland for a good way, through Sierra Leone, and etc. I finally got the Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, and flew from there to Madrid. When I got to the Las Palmas hotel, the fellow who accompanied me to my room pointed out the view, the fresh flowers, the wine, the plush white robe. I must have had quite an expression on my face, because he asked, “Is there something wrong?” I just looked at him and said, “I’ll bet you have hot water, too.” They did, and I was the happiest person in the world.


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