Every quilting magazine I’ve ever seen (or edited) assigns a skill level to each featured project. This level of difficulty is typically represented by a set of icons (e.g., three stars, four stars, one thimble, two thimbles, etc.), and the icons are paired with words to advise the reader as to what she or he is getting into.
At Quilty magazine, we used series of dots with the words “Easy Beginner” for the most basic of quilts, “Confident Beginner” for quilts that might involve several different blocks, for example, and “Advanced Beginner” for projects that could end in tears.
A magazine’s technical writers are the ones to assign skill levels, and as much as I love technical writers—any good quilt magazine editor knows they hold every issue in their hands—I often felt uncomfortable with the levels assigned. It’s my belief that a quilt with 200 half-square triangles is actually pretty easy once you figure out how to make the unit properly.
ABOVE: Star Quilt; You’re clearly amazing. But can you improv piece? Gotcha! Sawtooth Star variation, Virginia, c. 1850.
But in most magazines, a quilt with that many half-square triangles would be labeled “Confident Beginner” or even land in the advanced category. I never blew against the wind, though; I had other things to worry about, namely that everything was late again, and it was my fault.
Quilters have been doing this rating job for themselves, determining their personal skill level since they took needle to fabric, long before quilt magazines existed. This is normal; humans are naturally interested in whether or not we’re getting better at something and everyone wants to know what we’re up against.
But a skill rating system in quiltmaking—dictated or self-discerned—backfires after you exit the beginner stage. At best, rating one’s skills is taking yourself too seriously. At worst, it’s taking yourself too seriously and is incorrect, which sets you up to turf out hard when you can’t do something you boasted you could do (feathers, for example).
ABOVE: Old Ladies; That’s the best you can do? Fairmont Golden Circle Senior Citizen’s Club, 1941. Photo: Charles O’Rear
My niche the first five years in the quilt industry was the realm of the beginner quilter. Beginner quilters have it hard. There’s the little matter of not knowing what you’re doing, first of all. But beyond that, it’s tough to find teachers who enjoy teaching beginners, especially when the students are under the age of 40, as these people often have little experience whatsoever with a sewing machine. This means the first, second, and even third day of class is spent on threading and re-threading both the upper and lower thread.
Perhaps the worst part of being a beginner, though, is the tainted label. “Oh, I’m a beginner” has a vague ring of “Oh, I’m terrible” or “Do not listen to a single thing I suggest, because I cannot possibly know what I’m talking about.”
Not surprisingly, most quilters want to leave the land of beginner as soon as possible, so many move the needle and decide they’re “intermediate” (I like the term “junior varsity,” myself.) It’s okay to hang out here, to live in the land of the intermediate or “Confident Beginner.” Because it’s true that once you’ve finished a number of more-or-less successful quilts, you do know a thing or two about making a quilt. Copping to an intermediate level shows experience, but humility as well. It says, “I’m not fresh off the turnip truck, but please, teach me how you get your points so perfectly matched.”
But there are plenty of quilters—I have met a number of them—who place themselves firmly in the advanced quilter category and shall not be moved. These people usually sit at the tables in the back of the church basement (because they aren’t particularly interested in the little projects that are being done this month—they can whip out nine mug rugs a second, but must they?).
Self-proclaimed advanced quilters do not congratulate someone who finally finished a quilt they took nine years to finish. A quilt that takes nine years to finish is not a quilt; it’s a child about to go into junior high school. The advanced quilter takes two classes a year: one from someone who invented a new ruler that is selling well, and another from a “sewlebrity” who has toiled, like they have toiled, for 30 years.
In other words, I don’t get a lot of advanced quilters in my workshops.
ABOVE: Bed; Beginners, start here: this is a bed. Quilts go here. Photo: Wikipedia
If you are a quilter who claims to be advanced, you’d better be Jinny Beyer or Liz Porter, both of whom I’d wager never refer to themselves as advanced quilters, because they don’t have to, which is the first lesson. I’ve met a handful of women—no men so far—at guilds, who have casually mentioned to me that they’ve been making quilts for decades and consider themselves advanced quilters. Later, during show-and-tell, I’ll spy a roll of the eyes or a bored look when a rookie approaches the stage.
There’s nothing wrong with being proud of one’s work, especially when you’ve worked hard for a long time. My point is not to chastise self-proclaimed advanced quilters. It’s more that I’m issuing them a challenge. Rather than pouring your honed skills into another perfect, blue ribbon quilt, take a beginner under your wing. Your skills live a lot longer that way, and you might discover something from the beginner. To communicate that you’re a master quilter is to communicate that you have nothing left to learn.