Growing Pains? Not If You Don’t Grow

How has your style changed over the time you’ve been quilting? 

Today I visited a holiday pop-up market and saw the work of a local quilter. For as long as I’ve been aware of her as a quilter (and she has some “presence” locally,) most of her work has looked the same. It’s a very particular style, and I don’t notice any change or evolution in it over at least several years. Maybe she loves what she does; maybe she has found her “voice,” and isn’t interested in changing it.

Other quilters change their style, and sometimes they way they think about their process. A blog post written by my friend Audrey touches on that. Some might describe her style as “primitive” or “folk art,” but I would say Audrey has a joyful style that is unique to her.

Audrey is clear about the effort she’s undertaken to transition her style over the years, to one that feels more authentically her own. Quilts she was pleased to make fairly recently are not those that light her up anymore. This post on Growing Pains from nearly two years ago describes her sense of dissatisfaction: “honestly, some of my quilts seemed to be missing just a little something beyond my grasp or understanding. This happened very gradually … But then I realized that I was growing increasingly frustrated with some of my earlier quilting choices, even projects ‘in-the-works’. It has increasingly seemed to me that I was betwixt and between.”

That’s how I feel right now, “betwixt and between.” I think of my quilting so far in three discrete stages. First was learning basic technical skills of piecing and focusing my efforts on block quilts. Second was learning more about design and focusing my efforts on medallion quilts.

And third? I’m in the doorway to the third stage. My year largely has been about learning techniques to improve at telling stories, to make quilts that are more fully expressive of me.

As it turns out, I finished a bunch of quilts this year, but mostly they aren’t “third stage” projects.

But there are some I’m especially proud of, things that I couldn’t have achieved before. Unless I keep reaching and trying new things, how will I ever experience that feeling? Here is one, called Fierce Little Bear. I made it for my niece as a way to express my love of her and understanding of her.

Fierce Little Bear. 67″ x 67″. Finished January 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

The fabric and layout begin the story, but the quilting finishes it. The quilt reads from left to right as a whole picture framed by trees on either side, canopied in leaves and clouds. At the base is a field of flowers. Butterflies float next to the tree trunks. An owl hides in the tree on the left, while a squirrel is on the lower right. And a fish swims in an aqua pool. Click on any one to open the gallery and see some of the detail.

Compare it to a quilt I made in 2011. The photo is poor, but you can get the idea. It’s pretty and well-made. I still love stars and hourglasses. But it is part of my first stage.

I can’t make the same quilts year after year and feel satisfied. Growth is difficult. It requires effort and sometimes discomfort. I’ll take the discomfort, though, in exchange for a more rewarding experience.

14 thoughts on “Growing Pains? Not If You Don’t Grow

  1. Pingback: Creative Juice #222 | ARHtistic License

  2. audrey

    Thanks for the shout out! It’s so true that we all have different motivations behind our quilting. While I like to say that quilting is about relaxation and ‘therapy’ from the crazy world we live in, there are definitely deeper things driving me throughout the process. I am so very, very glad this isn’t my job and I can just let it be whatever I want it to be! As always, I am fascinated by ‘your’ journey and the story of your individual quilts. If you are barely in the doorway of stage #3, then I am extremely intrigued to see what comes next!

  3. zippyquilts

    I’m with you! My husband occasionally asks “what or who is this quilt for?” And the answer usually is “because I haven’t made it before”. I want to learn something every day!

  4. Allison Reid

    Interesting! I’d like to think I’m moving closer to discovering my style but after nine years of patchwork quilting my projects are still much more about trying new skills than artistic expression. But maybe that’s because I consider myself a crafter rather than an artist and find creative satisfaction in learning to craft well?

  5. snarkyquilter

    I’ve thought my work changed a lot over time, but quilting friends have pointed out that I always have used color the same way, only now I do my own designs. I think your work has become more nuanced and individual over time, and I look forward to your new directions.

  6. Nann

    To answer your question, my style has evolved in 25 years from all-the-same-blocks that use three different fabrics to scrappy blocks that use many fabrics. I read about quilters who work in series and about quilters who have a distinctive design type (when you see one of their quilts you know it’s by Yvonne or Carol or Hollis or Frieda or Ricky). I envy that they’ve been able to work through design evolution to come up with that signature style — but on the other hand I enjoy my eclectic projects, from a Quiltville mystery to the monthly Block Lotto to something that my imagination conjures. [And, meanwhile, my next must-do project is Bookshelf Quilt #39 or so, to be presented at a retirement party December 19.]

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks very much for this! I tend to get smug and think my way of thinking about something so subjective is the *right* way. In fact, we all get our enjoyment from different parts of this crazy thing called quilting. My enjoyment or satisfaction isn’t the same as yours or anyone else’s. Then of course, my way isn’t any better than anyone else’s. It’s just mine, and suits me. Okay. Judgey glasses off now! 🙂 Thanks again.

  7. KerryCan

    I have to laugh–I saw this post just after I wrote my own that says, basically, “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam” as a quilter! You’ve evolved more than I would in 10 quilting lifetimes. I wonder why we’re so different that way. I think maybe I quilt for comfort more than self-expression and discovery?

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I love this comment — it really forces me to think a little more deeply about purpose. Certainly the WHY we quilt question would drive a lot of HOW we quilt, including how, if at all, our process or style changes. Or perhaps you’ve *always* been quilting in a way that provides that expression for you, and my way has been unfolding more slowly. hmm… things to think about…

  8. Kerry

    What a lovely story quilt. I think any quilt you make tells your own story – from beginner, to intermediate, to yayy I’m there! I look back at the first machine quilt (hand quilted) and still think – I could have matched those points better by hand. For a long time I hand sewed, cut with scissors, drew lines and it took so long. But I enjoy the process. Machine sewing was something to fear as I knew I was awful at seams. Now I’ve had a bit more practice and still like to watch tutorials because different teachers have different techniques and it’s a matter of finding which one fits. The only thing that I really go yuk at is my machine quilting. Those feathers in the sashing – ambitious but I didn’t pick out the stitches and carried on. The progress is quite visible. I do think you need a break sometimes and do another crafty thing just to get the creative juices running again.

  9. katechiconi

    I love how Fierce Little Bear is telling a story on two levels; first the colour and design layout, and then on a more intimate level, the quilting.
    I look back at quilts I made only a couple of years ago and cringe very slightly because I now find them a bit mundane and, well, dull. I’m getting better at listening to what the quilt has to say, rather than coming at it with everything chosen and pre-cut and a formula decided. It makes things slower, but on the whole, I’m much happier with the result.
    I’m looking forward to seeing where your new storytelling direction takes you 🙂


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