Gloria Steinem, Virginia Woolf, and German Motorcycles

Kate, Lydia and I went to a quilt show on Saturday. Boat shows, car shows, and motorcycle shows are held in carpeted convention centers; quilt shows are held in bombed-out ex-factory spaces with concrete floors and high-pressure sodium lights overhead. Which is not surprising, or anything: the day that skinny, mustached teenagers from New Jersey get suckered into taking out bank loans to put down a deposit on a shiny new $15,000.00 quilt is, I suppose, the day that you’ll see quilt expositions moving into the Javits.*

Quilting is an interesting hobby; it takes a lot of planning and a lot of patience; a quilt project can easily span a year or more. And there’s several different skills to master: color theory and an eye for selecting fabrics, the piecework necessary to put the quilt top together, and the skill to quilt the top, the batting, and the back together. My mom used to say that my grandfather’s hobby of fly fishing was “a hobby for men with exacting professions,” since fishing required mastery of a lot of little, individually difficult acts. Quilting seems to be the same way, at least in that there’s a number of different hard things to learn.

Watching Kate’s hobbies of knitting and quilting has been a really intriguing window into the world of traditional women’s craft-y arts. Some stuff that I’ve learned:

  1. None of this stuff is particularly easy. It’s takes just as much learned skill to cable a sweater as (for example) it would be to shoe a horse, or carve a dovetail joint. I naively thought that there were some basic skills that underlied everything, but that’s not the case — there’s a large number of quite difficult skills to learn. And you often see people doing things that are hard, just because they can, as you would in any other human activity.
  2. None of this stuff is particularly cheap. That seems to be a no-brainer in modern times (you expect that hand-carded wool, for example, would cost an arm and a leg, because it’s a vertical market item), but the nineteenth century Amish quilts that you see in Lancaster weren’t made with hand-me-downs, either. While it’s true that some of those quilts were made with dress material, they weren’t scraps or leftovers — women would buy large amounts of the high-quality dress wool to use to make quilts at the same time as they bought material for the family’s clothes.

So, I’m not sure what the surprise is, here: people think that traditional women’s crafts are easy and cheap, and it turns out that they are actually quite difficult, and can require expensive tools and materials. Gloria Steinem was absolutely right; in men’s hobbies, we BRAG about the special knowledge and ruinous expense required, as we roam the carpeted hallways of the Javits center, looking for fifty-dollars-a-gram molybdenum grease.

Well, that’s not quite right. I belong to a bike clique where you’re expected to do your own maintenance, and you should really demonstrate need before shelling out for the top-of-the-line boots. So I’ve got the tank off of my thirty-year old Teutonic workhorse of a bike, which has given it a dejected, swaybacked air. I’ve pulled the brake master cylinder in hopes of getting it cleaned, fixed, and rebuilt before the first really nice day of spring. It shouldn’t be too hard, despite Haynes’ manual’s insistence that what I’m about to do isn’t possible. Psssh.

I’m writing this blog post, however, in Kate’s sewing room as I’m watching her piece together strips of material in a “10001” | “01010” | “10101” | “01010” | “10001” pattern that will eventually result in a double Irish Chain, and I have to admit, at least for tonight, that her hobby has pwned mine.

* It occurs to me that the big quilt show in Houston is held in a big, carpeted convention center, and that permed ladies from Jersey do drop sixteen large on big-iron quilting hardware, so there goes my Virginia Woolf connection.

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