Review: Quilter’s Academy Vol. 5 — Master’s Year by Harriet Hargrave

(and her daughter Carrie Hargrave-Jones)

Yesterday I listened to a podcast featured by Abby Glassenberg of While She Naps. Abby interviewed Jennifer Keltner, publisher and chief visionary officer of Martingale, the big craft and quilting book publisher. (Fun fact — Jennifer and I were on our high school speech team together in the late 1970s, and our team won the state championship my senior year.) Jennifer talked about the books we cherish. She said if you ask anyone to show and talk about their favorite book, they may start out looking at the book, but soon they’ll be caressing the cover as they describe it. (If you have any interest at all in the publishing world, this was a great interview, well worth the time.)

That is how I wanted to feel about Quilter’s Academy Volume 5. As a book about medallion quilts by a premier author and teacher, I wanted it to be a great book. I thought it might be. After all, if I had to pick only a few books from my personal library to keep, one of them would be The Art of Classic Quiltmaking, by Harriet Hargrave and Sharyn Craig.

Quilter’s Academy Volume 5 came out on January 7 of this year. I bought it a few days ago. I wanted to love it. I don’t.

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A QUICK OVERVIEW
The format of the book is intended to emulate a year or more of coursework in quilting. The chapters are titled as “classes,” suggesting that studying each carefully will earn the reader credit towards their achievements in quilting.

This is the fifth book in a series of six. As the fifth book or “year” of coursework, this touts itself as master’s level study, incorporating all the quilter has learned from the previous four volumes, and extending it with the difficulty that medallions pose.

The authors’ note claims the book is not intended to be a pattern book, but a source of inspiration for design of original medallion quilts. In fact, however, half of the book’s pages are patterns.

WHAT I LIKE
Let’s start with what I do like. “Class 510,” aka Chapter 1, covers a history of medallion quilts, from palampores of the 1500s, to appliquéd Broderie Perse of the late 1700s, to fully pieced medallions of the 1800s and later. The chapter features many photos of historical quilts and has a bibliography at the end. It’s fun to see photos of a few quilts that are new to me, and I appreciate inclusion of the historical information for those who haven’t studied it.

Class 590, or Chapter 9, covers a wide variety of border ideas and their construction. From checkerboards and half-square triangles, to squares on point and diamonds, the book provides a lot of well-illustrated choices, with varying amounts of construction detail.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE
Unfortunately, there is a lot more I don’t like about this book than I like. I can’t cover it all, but I’ll hit a few points.

The Look
Though it’s a cliche that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, admit it — quilting books are judged on their looks. It’s a fair assessment in this case: if we want to make beautiful quilts, we want to learn from someone who understands and shows us beauty. The cover, as shown above, is highly unappealing to me. In greys, browns, and tans, there is nothing about it that invites a look inside. We can’t see a compelling quilt, just a stack of monotone fabrics and a pile of pencils and graph paper.

If that look brightened inside, the cover might be forgotten. Unfortunately it’s not. Most of the quilts are built in browns. Of those that aren’t, most are very muted palettes. The authors explain the choice this way:

If you are just discovering the Quilter’s Academy series, please don’t judge it based on the photos of the quilts. We have kept the fabric choices very traditional to keep them from looking dated, which the use of faddish colors can do. We do hope you realize that all the patterns can be jazzed up by using wild and crazy fabrics…

So, they want the luxury of showing us unattractive quilts without being judged on them. We just have to use our imagination and try some “wild and crazy” fabrics or ones that are faddish, if we want a different look. There actually are some classic, traditional color combinations that are brighter than those shown.

Another problem with the book’s look is inconsistency. Initial pages are full-page, single-column layouts. After that, page layouts come in a wide variety with no apparent logic. There are two columns of equal width, two columns of unequal width, and three columns. This leaves the illustrations, photos, tips, and notes of all different sizes.

Finally, the photos are generally murky, not crisp and showing good detail. This may be a problem of reproduction rather than photography or photo selection, or even quilt selection. However it further diminishes the appearance of the book.

The Content
The book is marketed as a text or reference book on medallion design, and one which will inspire readers to create their own medallions. The authors state it is not intended to be a pattern book. In fact it is. There are 12 quilt designs with construction information, or patterns. There is very little teaching of design. There are minimal comments on border widths relative to construction, but little to nothing on sizing for pleasing proportions. There is no obvious discussion of design principles and elements such as unity, repetition, proportion, color, value, or shape.

Instead, the design portion of the book covers drawing medallion layouts on graph paper. I didn’t notice any mention of the various software packages available, or even that there are any. The “Final Or Thesis” section provides graph paper layouts of six quilt designs. However, they are already drawn. I guess our master’s thesis assignment is to color them in, presumably with browns and tans, so they are not faddish.

A reference book and a pattern book do share one responsibility. That is clarity in writing. Here again, the book disappoints. Pattern directions are written in an informal way, rather than structured like technical writing. Construction directions for each border should include the same information in the same order. They should include the finished width of the border, finished width of the center when the border is attached, the size of the units, and the pieces to cut. Then concise directions for construction should follow, or a broader “make half-square triangles by your preferred method.” Too often the authors intend specific directions for units and refer the reader to other volumes in the series. In my opinion, the book should be able to stand alone, but it does not.

Math is mentioned but rarely demonstrated. Sentences like “The math shows … ” don’t actually show what equation was used or the inputs. The reader isn’t shown how to replicate the method with different numbers.

Clarity is a problem in the descriptive writing, also. Several of the quilts are “inspired” by photos of quilts found elsewhere, such as the internet. The inspiration pieces are referred to, but without pictures, it isn’t possible for the reader to make the leap between inspiration and execution. Also there are cases such as “This classy Christmas quilt is made totally from blocks… This quilt was inspired by… ” The second sentence immediately follows the first, but they refer to different quilts. It is confusing.

Finally, a reference or text book should have an index. This book does not.

The Tone
One of the points discussed by Jennifer Keltner in the While She Naps interview was the writer’s voice. The author’s personality should shine through, as it would in a spoken conversation. In this book, the “voice” is exhibited most clearly in the introduction. In less than a full page, the authors dismiss modern quilting as a fad, suggest modern quilters have few skills and poor workmanship, and accuse quilters in general of preferring “chronic mediocrity.” They speak of non-traditional colors as “faddish” and “wild and crazy.” And they excuse any mistakes in the text: “Our intention was to cause you to think through the problem and arrive at the answer… We have received all types of comments and emails concerning this…” The paragraph goes on to say the students who celebrated the authors’ mistakes as learning opportunities are the ones who “totally got it!”

Besides the negative, unpleasant tone of the introduction, I object to the premise of the book on the face of it. It pretends that medallion quilts are in rarefied air, something only appropriate for “master’s level” quilters. This is simply not so. Beginning quilters can create beautiful medallions if they can sew a consistent quarter inch seam. You don’t need special qualities, except perhaps being both adventurous and persistent.

Summary
The book is a big disappointment to me. I bought it hoping for a useful, enjoyable addition to my library. I bought it hoping it would be MY book, brought to life by someone else so I don’t need to. My book focuses on design, and on teaching quilters to make their medallion quilt, not MY medallion quilt. Sadly, the Hargraves’ book falls far short of my hopes and expectations.

[Having said that, in case you wonder about a conflict of interest, my book is on hold for now. I am not dissing the Quilter’s Academy book because it represents competition. It does not.]

Publishing this review, frankly, is fairly stressful. Everyone wants to be “nice” and say nice things about others’ work. However, the US retail price is $27.95. I buy my books carefully. I try to keep a small, useful, and inspiring library. If you feel the same way about your library and your book budget, you deserve an honest appraisal before considering this book.

Please feel free to disagree, respectfully, in comments. Either way I am interested in your opinion.

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39 thoughts on “Review: Quilter’s Academy Vol. 5 — Master’s Year by Harriet Hargrave

  1. jimfetig

    Although I know nothing about quilting other than what you’ve taught me through this blog, I do know something about publishing. By the sounds of it, this book either had a ghost writer or a very poor editor. As for the cover, I can’t say it’s inspiring. Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever have seen or could imagine quilts made with the fabric depicted. Hint: Novels with red covers sell the most… Just sayin’.

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  2. katechiconi

    As someone who worked in the graphic design industry for 25 years and has a good understanding of book layout and design, I can tell you that if I accidentally picked that book up, I’d quickly put it down again. There is NO excuse for crooked photos on a book cover (top left image). There is no excuse for using poor layout, multiple fonts, and (horrors) a roundel on the front of a book. The cover would make me assume the worst for the inside, and by the sound of it, my assumptions would not have been wrong. The authors clearly have strong opinions, and should be prepared to firstly provoke strong reactions, and secondly, defend those opinions. Thank you for the heads up.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I first saw the cover design several months ago, when another blogger pointed out to me the coming publication. I assumed it was an interim choice, and that when actually published the book would have a different look. Disappointing all around. I wish I’d spent my money a different way. 😦

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      1. katechiconi

        The round device with text in it under the on the front cover. Quite often, they are made to look like starbursts. The point is to call out an additional benefit or message. It’s quite a ‘shouty’ way of communicating and mostly they are used for packaging, not books.

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  3. Cathy H

    The “negative, unpleasant tone” of the introduction would have turned me off. While I may not like certain styles of quilting, dissing a style as a whole and a fad is just wrong. Quilting always changes and goes through fads. The whole Amy Butler style of fabrics are not pleasing to me. That does not give me the right to dismiss them. Others love them. That’s what I love about quilting. There is something for everyone’s taste.

    I’m curious why they called it a text/reference book. It sound more like a pattern book. That would be very disappointing. Especially if you are trying to design your own medallion not make someone else’s design. Many do no like to do the math, but to design a medallion quilt without the assistance of a software program, you need the math. It’s to bad they missed the mark.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Exactly. I have a bigger issue with labels than I do with styles. (What it is called vs. what it is.) And while I agree that there are fads, and some I don’t want to be in on, there isn’t any reason to make blanket statements like that. Thanks for weighing in.

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  4. Michele

    Thank you so much for your review…..I looked through the preview pages on Amazon and I was unimpressed. I asked C&T hat Volume 6 would be, thinking it might be more appealing to me than this book, and they said it hadn’t been determined yet.

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  5. Megan

    Melanie – I think that this is an outstanding book review. The quilting world does seem to put a lot of emphasis on being ‘nice’. What’s more, book reviews published in magazines are typically only very short and are almost universally positive – or neutral. In this context, I thought it was very refreshing to read a review that was constructively critical and commented on a number of aspects that are rarely mentioned in reviews of quilting books – such as cover/page design and quality of the writing. I’m surprised to read that the authors are willing to publish such apparently harsh judgments about the choices that other quiltmakers make (eg. the modern quilt style) while asking readers not to make judgments about their own choices and errors. I’m not particularly enamoured of much of what passes as the modern quilt style (including what I believe to be poor workmanship in many cases) so I don’t make quilts in that style. Nevertheless, I’m delighted that others have discovered a way of making quilts that gives them joy and satisfaction. As for medallions – I believe that they can be an excellent format for novice quiltmakers as each successive border only needs to be based on relatively straightforward blocks, and yet the finished quilt looks very impressive! Indeed, they could almost be seen as another form of sampler quilt, with each border being an opportunity to focus on learning a new block or technique. I agree with your comment that a masterclass-style book on medallions that purports not to be a project book should include detailed discussion about various aspects of design. That would be very helpful for those who want to learn how to design their own projects rather than relying on copying projects published in books and magazines.
    Again – well done on a thoughtful, well-argued review.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thank you, Megan. I appreciate the support. Yes, medallions are an excellent way for beginners to learn a variety of skills. One of my classes does just that. Just past that beginner stage, most quilters could begin to design their own medallions, given some structure on the process. But it has taken me a lot of experience and study to get to my stage, and I cobbled it together mostly from non-medallion sources. Wouldn’t it be great to have the medallion book that actually provides that? Thanks again.

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  6. TextileRanger

    I don’t buy a lot of quilting books, and the cover on this one would not have persuaded me to give it a shot! I like the individual fabrics, but without some touches of color, they look like a pile of tombstones.
    I think your review was very well-considered and fair. It would bother me that the construction instructions don’t follow the same order, but that’s something I know I wouldn’t have noticed in reviewing the book — I wouldn’t have noticed until I was in the middle of a project, and then it would bug me.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes. I have a hard time reading instructions anyway. That’s one of the reasons I’ve never used patterns. But I’ve done enough technical writing to understand step-by-step presentation, and it isn’t here.

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  7. zippyquilts

    Good review, with lots of specific examples. I know what you mean about folks always being positive, but if the review (good or bad) isn’t honest, it’s not useful. I expected better than this from C & T.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks for saying it that way, Mary. When I did submit my proposal, I chose them first because in the past I’ve been very impressed with their books. This one, and the Modern Medallion Workbook that came out last spring, both fell short.

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  8. Beth Strand

    In the course of my book reviews (mostly for literature houses), I’ve run across my fair share of disappointments. Like you, I buy books carefully and I appreciate your honesty!

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  9. Barbara

    I always appreciate a true, honest book review. There are so few of them. Most of the so-called reviews these days don’t actually review the content, just say what’s in the book. That was one thing I liked about Quilter’s Home magazine – they didn’t pull their punches in the book reviews. Thanks for telling it like it is.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh agreed on the review of the table of contents! Yes, I’ve seen a lot of “this book covers this, and this, and this…” without any analysis. That isn’t enough, is it? Thanks much.

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  10. randomtestingpad

    Oh dear, I like Harriet and love medallions, so buying this would have been a no brainer. So thank you in the first instance for making me pause until I see a copy first. In the second, how refreshing to hear what someone thinks (and indeed to see some thinking has gone on). Most reviews are gushy and insipid, and I suspect driven by a commercial I’ll scratch your back.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Exactly, please take a look. Perhaps you can borrow from your library, or from a friend before buying. It may well be just the resource you need. It isn’t for me. Thanks a lot for taking a look and commenting today.

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  11. snarkyquilter

    It sounds like Ms. Hargraves is now writing books via committee as her past books always stressed quality. She always expressed definite opinions, but to slander all modern quilters as poor crafts women, well…. Thanks for bringing some clarity to the lollipops and rainbows atmosphere of critiquing in quilt world. The current mode of a blog tour for a new book has led to a fair amount of sophistry by bloggers who don’t want to say anything bad. After all, their books may well be on blog tours next year. I have to say that recent quilting books have disappointed me. The latest to do so was “The Half-Square Triangle” by Jeni Baker.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I am totally fine with definite opinions — I have some, too! But I think attitude colored the expression of those opinions to give a rather holier-than-thou taste.

      I do think blog tours of books leave a lot to be desired. I understand their use to give extra exposure, but I’ve never read anything very helpful or informative in one.

      As to triangles, Marston’s book out last year looks more interesting.

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  12. Jim Ruebush

    I listened to your observations about this book as you read and analyzed it. Your review reflects all the points you made to me, and then some. It is clear you were hopeful the book would be a winner. You gave it every chance. I could hear the disappointment emerging over the few days as your thoughts formed.

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  13. Shasta

    I got this book from the library, and I have to agree with you. In fact, I got book 1 when it was first published and that was my opinion then. I did not find the book inspiring at all. At first I thought this was because it was presented as “lessons” and who wants to learn quilting as if they were in school? So the premise was bad from the start, in my opinion. But that can’t be the only reason, because I thought it would be nice to graduate to “master quilter”. Now I have book 5 and it follows the same premise and has the same issues. I was excited about being able to make medallions, but the book was too boring for me to make an effort to sift through. And when I leafed through it, I couldn’t see how it would help me.

    By the way, there is a book that is much more inspiring. It is called The Modern Medallion Workbook by Janice Zellar Ryan and Beth Vassalo. I bought this one. It has patterns and the colors are brighter and beautiful. It gives you fabric for each border separately, so you can mix and match. The patterns do tell you the measurement of the quilt after each border so you can at least mix and match. There is also a small section about making your own design which includes a little bit of math. Since I haven’t made a medallion quilt, I don’t know if this is enough, but this book certainly inspires me to make my own medallion quilt.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I haven’t looked at the earlier volumes, so I can’t comment on them. I will guess they are pretty consistent in approach, but that is just guessing.

      As to the Modern Medallion Workbook, I have issues with it, also. It does have some very pretty quilts, and I’m glad you feel inspired by them. I don’t usually buy pattern books anymore, so that part would not attract me. The big problem I have is in the “workbook” section explaining how to mix and match, or choose your own borders. There were a few good hints there, but the math in ALL THREE of three equations was wrong. (Supposedly the publisher was going to fix it for later printings.) I know enough about medallions that I caught the problems, and I would know how to fix them. Someone who was new to it would probably have no clue why they couldn’t get it to work. Also I don’t really consider a coloring book to be a workbook. I guess it would be helpful for some, but again, I wouldn’t find that very useful to me. But again, I’m glad you felt inspired by the book and perhaps will give medallions a go.

      Thanks for your comments.

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  14. Jeri

    I bought the book and began making the PEPPERMINT DELIGHT. Right off the bat there are errors in their math, critical information is left out or just plain incorrect. It has been extremely frustrating to try and make the quilt. I am SO very disappointed with this book. I am very sorry I purchased it.

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  15. Jessi

    Followed your link from a recent blog post…

    I find the explanation for using traditional fabrics to prevent it from looking dated kind of funny. It’s exactly those choices that make it look dated- because very few people quilt like that now.

    I definitely judge a quilt book on its colors. We had a guild speaker who I nearly left before she started because her quilts were so unappealing to me… and then it turned out she was actually really interesting.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Was that last month? I didn’t get to that one. Yes, what they say and what they do don’t always match up. Sometimes there are great, interesting quilts, and then the speaker… 🙂

      But there are a lot of issues with the book besides just the look of it. I can get past that if the quality of information is what I want. This one didn’t have it for me, though some people might find it to their taste or needs.

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  16. Annie Roth

    I once signed up for a class from this author and paid very good money for it. It was one of the worst experiences of quilting I have ever had. Try to imagine the “tone” you felt in her writing coming through in person as a teacher! I was a new quilter and it almost made me give up quilting. I did quit the class after half a day and lost my money. She was nasty, overbearing, her way or the hi way and had nothing nice to say at all about anything connected to creativity or modernity. Thank goodness shortly after that my sister and I visited Hamilton, Mo and Jenny Doan’s Missouri Star Quilting Co. and I gained a whole new perspective!

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oooph, sorry to hear about your bad class experience! A friend of mine took a workshop with her, too, and said she was quite stern. Our experiences with people can be as important as our experiences with our projects, especially when it comes to trying new things. I’m glad you’re having fun! Thanks for reading and commenting.

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