The entry line on the first morning of QuiltCon 2020 in Austin, TX, photo taken by Kristin Barrus
After making a lot of quilts and spending time with a lot of quiltmakers in different scenarios, I found myself watching the women more than what was coming out the other side of the machine. I was intrigued by their emotional approaches to making quilts (women's studies). I was interested in what felt like to me a definite increase in people joining quiltmaking at often younger ages (quilt history). I noticed patterns of people following quilt industry celebrities in person and online (fandom/fan studies). I wanted to know more.
I took a three-year deep dive at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I discovered that what I was interested in is cultural anthropology. And that I wanted to study how women use quilts to negotiate feminine leisure time in their everyday, heavily tech-friendly lives. This is actually called material culture, and it applies to the study of any everyday object we use, not just those made of fabric. I uncovered a treasure trove of brilliant people who have done important work in quilt history, museum studies, sociology, anthropology, feminism, fan studies, philosophy, aesthetics, and more. But there was a big gap in bringing all of these together to investigate quiltmaking today. And I had heard about none of this in the hobbyist end of the quilt pool.
Since one cannot cram fifteen years worth of
questions and scholarship into one Master's thesis,
and believe me I've tried, I chose to focus on a study
of QuiltCon. QuiltCon is an annual convention for
people who identify as Modern quiltmakers. Over
four days, one can attend classes and lectures,
shop the vendor mall, and view a large quilt show.
Studying the phenomenon of a group of people in
their event or experience is ethnographic research.
Thus my thesis, titled These Are My People, is the
first ethnography of QuiltCon, let alone any quilt
show or convention. What follows is my abstract,
the brief introduction to my study. I hope you enjoy
reading about twenty-first century quiltmaking, but most of all, I hope to contribute to the value and meaning of what it is to be someone making today. Because what we are doing is important.
This thesis presents the first ethnography of QuiltCon, the annual fan and artist convention for quiltmakers who identify with and enjoy what is defined as the Modern quilting aesthetic within the twenty-first century quilt world. Modern quiltmaking today is an ethos containing a social movement, a shared aesthetic, and retail niche inside today’s larger quilt world. QuiltCon (QC) is one product of this movement. This study considers the following questions: What kinds of people attend QC, and what kinds of experiences and encounters do they expect at the convention? What needs are met by QC for this subset of quilters in attendance and the greater community of Modern quiltmakers? What role does QC play in cementing the identity and core values of Modern quiltmakers and the Modern Quilt Movement (MQM)?
This cultural description provides a snapshot of QC and the MQM through the eyes of a long-time quilt group who identify themselves as Modern quilters, traveling from another state to attend QC 2020. I attend as an ‘acafan’: both as an academic researcher studying the phenomenon of which I am a part. I am a practicing Modern quiltmaker or “insider” having a fan experience. This social scientific and anthropological study utilizes qualitative research methods, with an arts-based, constructivist/interpretivist epistemology within the critical framework of quilt history, women’s studies and fandom. During the four days of QC 2020 in Austin, Texas, emic ethnographic fieldwork was conducted to document Modern quilt culture, observe and analyze fan interactions in classes, lectures and the convention floor’s booths, and analyze the juried quilt show to discover what QC means for the people who attend and the Modern community as a whole.
Keywords: modern quiltmaking, fandom, social movement, community, women’s studies, ethnography