I first really started quilting in 1995. I had done some before, but it didn't really take over my life until then. My husband was sent to Korea for a year and I had a daughter who was in elementary school. She and I moved to my home state of South Dakota, and I really started quilting then. I have to add that whenever my husband has been gone--be it 6 weeks, 6 months, or a year--I fling myself into quilting and it comforts me. But back to the beginning.
In 1995, in South Dakota, I had one choice for supplies: our local chain fabric store. It was there that I bought my first quilting book: Little Quilts All Through the House. I also bought all my fabric there as well. The fabric I could choose from consisted of "calicos" and solids. The store had their brands and then there was one area that had some Debbie Mumm--but it was almost $6 a yard--way too expensive. (ha ha!) I read the Little Quilts book, especially the part about their stash and how they bought/used fabric. I ended up making nearly every small quilt in that book, and other "inspiriational" quilts from it. It is still one of my favorite books and I would never part with it.
Above is one of my Little Quilts. The alternating squares are from a vintage feedsack.
That summer, my Mom, Grandma, daughter, and myself went on a geneaology trip into Wisconsin and Iowa. I had bought one of the early issues of Quilt Sampler and it featured a quilt by Country Threads. We stopped there on our trip. (Imagine--my very first real quilt shop and it was Country Threads--considered one, if not THE premiere shop in the whole country.) Anyway, I could hardly believe all the fabric/books/patterns, etc. The choices were incredible.
Back then, it was strictly "brick and mortar" shops. There was no internet--shops, blogs, etc. After my husband got back, we moved to Arizona, and there were several quilt shops that my friends and I would visit. We all shopped strictly by color and pattern. There were no "collections" aside from maybe Debbie Mumm, but those were all shelved with their respective colors. The first time I noticed fabric kept separate, in collection form, was Thimbleberries. I was a big fan, too. In 1998-99 one of the Tucson shops had a Timbleberries Club, and I eagerly joined. It was about the same time when "blocks of the month" started. I remember thinking that I had a hard time spending $20 for a book--full of numerous patterns, and here was one pattern that would end up costing $60 for 12 months of $5! (another snicker here)
There were now some shops on the internet--but I think I called to order. I remember that the Main Street Cotton Shop had "buck bags" (or something like that) where you could order a fat eighth of an entire collection. At that time, fabric was around $8 a yard, so it amounted to a piece for a dollar (hence the title). I got one buck bag of a Thimbleberries collection. I never bought another, because there just isn't a whole lot you can do with a fat eighth--at least back then--but to my knowledge, it was the first "precuts" I ever knew of.
I was still buying most of my fabric in the shop. I would take in the fabrics I was using and match the fabric I needed to them. Or I would just get some of what I liked. Well, do you remember what was happening in 1999? Everyone was wanting to make a millenium quilt. The idea was to make a charm quilt of 2000 different fabrics (no two the same.) I think everyone was exchanging 4" squares. Then the shops got involved, and as far as I know, the charm square concept was born, except now they are 5 inches.
In the 2000s, I was still getting most of the fabric in the shop, again adding to my stash as I wanted/needed. The internet was making things easier, but I really tried to buy locally since I could match the fabric--the exception would be for fabrics like Thimbleberries or Kansas Troubles. You always knew their colors and could count on them. Do you see where I'm going? Collections were becoming more prevalent. Quilting was exploding and there were all sorts of "themes." Country, Thirties, Civil War, batiks, just to name a few. No shop could possibly carry it all. If the shop in your area didn't have what you liked, the internet shops were there.
Now it was becoming a war: the brick and mortar shops vs. the internet ones. I feel that quilting had peaked about that time in popularity, too. Most quilters now had a huge stash. The economy wasn't doing so great. People weren't buying that much and so business started declining. The brick and mortar shops seemed particularly vulnerable and started losing business to online competitors (where one could find exactly what they wanted if the local shop did not have it.) Online Shop Hops helped consumers find more shops. Some "real" shops have thrived, but many couldn't stand the competition and closed. Others found that having a mail-order business was more profitable, so they closed their doors. The inherent problem with more online buying was that it is difficult to see true color and so it was hard to match things.
By now the popularity of collections was growing. Along with increasing amounts, it was easier than ever to "recognize" fabrics and patterns. Think about Jinny Beyer quilts. She designs incredible patterns to go with her gorgeous fabrics, and even is nice enough to include the number of the fabric right on the pattern. I could (and did) make a quilt just like hers. Thimbleberries Club was losing it's appeal to me, as well. I went each month and got a kit of fabric to go with the pattern. Just think, now everyone in the group could make the exact same quilt! And it wasn't just recognizable fabric, it was also techniques. Stack and Whack, Bargello, etc. One person came up with a neat idea, but it was easily recognized. But I didn't want the exact same quilt as hundreds of others. About this time (2005?) I had a quilting slump. I got a job and found that I had less time and creative energy to use quilting. I also couldn't seem to find a project that really appealed to me. Using the job as an excuse, I took a break.
In 2009 we moved to Hawaii and I elected to not work. I missed quilting and wanted to get back to it. I used to get so excited with projects that I literally could not sleep. I hadn't felt like that for years and I wanted it back. I had Bonnie Hunter's first book and either in it or on her blog (one of the first I found--probably because of the book) I read how she sometimes just had to force herself to chain piece. Running stuff through the machine. Just do it. Put in the "work." Taking this advice, I did so, too, and gradually it started coming back. I was always a huge scrapquilt fan. I liked to make an entire quilt from my stash and think to myself, "look what I found hiding in my fabric." Her quilts are also scrappy, so it was easy.
Meanwhile, I had found her blog. Then I found others. I had a list of favorites and I would read them daily. It is so inspiring to read about other's quilting. At the heart of quilting, I firmly believe, is socializing--teaching, sharing, working together, learning about each other while we stitch--and blogging fulfills all those requirements. I took a class in hand-dying and started playing with that. I got exposed to other styles. Now I think I was struggling because I had gotten stagnant. Now I get excited by other palettes.
Back to quilting and business: some of the major manufacturers had an idea. Similar to the concept of the "buck bags," they could provide fans with a taste of all the fabrics in a line. But they could do so with "usable" pieces--different amounts for different price points. It was genius. Aren't all quilters with a stash, in fact, collectors? Now we can get the whole collection--every bit. (If you disagree with this, look in your stash and see if you have any fabric that you cannot cut up--you can't bear to part with it!) Like I said, it was genius. Well, with those cuts available, it didn't take the pattern designers long to come up with quilts easily made from those cuts. I had never bought a precut in my life until recently. I would read the blogs and someone would share a finished project and say "this is such and such a pattern and is made with such and such a fabric collection." What? I was amazed that someone would make an entire quilt from one line of fabric. The finished quilts were always beatiful. The fabrics all coordinated well, but I couldn't help thinking that it was all a little unoriginal. Maybe too easy or something.
And then I remembered my slump--when I didn't have the creative energy to do something. Recently, I've acutally made some quilts with charm packs, all featuring the same line. Ordering online is now easy, because you do so by collection, not shade/color. The struggle (and even choice) is no longer there. The appeal is almost universal. Beginners, or even experienced quilters who may have varying degrees of color/pattern confidence now have the decisions taken out of their hands. The projects are fun and quick and we can't get enough of them.
But this change comes with a price. Now if I make a certain pattern with a certain collection, it is very recognizable. Either by the pattern or by the fabric or both. Somewhere along the line, Business got involved and now fabric manufactures supply pattern designers with free fabric, hopefully so that their fabric will be showcased in the new patterns/magazines, etc. So in my Bibelot Schnibble, which I posted yesterday, the pattern is a Miss Rosie and the fabric is Origins, by Basic Grey and Moda. When she made the quilt, Carrie (the author of the Miss Rosied patterns) used Origins. So how much of my Bibelot is "me?" The only decision that I made was the choice of the background fabric. I did the contruction and quilting, and the quilt is here with me--but anyone familiar with Schnibble patterns would recognize it immediately as, well, a copy.
It used to be (years ago) I would make a traditional pattern, like a log cabin. I would use a broad range of fabrics (whatever was in my stash--or whatever appealed to me.) My friend might really like it and borrow my pattern and make her own. Even if she used the same colors of fabric, it would look quite different. Quilts were way more unique. These days, mostly because of the direction quilting and quilt businesses had gone, unique quilts aren't always the norm. Don't get me wrong, there are still lots of new ideas and endless variety out there. But there are more easily "recognizable" things out there. And so the question of just whose quilt it really is, the fabric designer, the pattern designer, or the actual quilter, gets a bit murky.