We’ve watched with sadness the shuttering of quilt shops, fabric companies and quilt magazines in the past few years and fear that we haven’t seen the end of industry consolidation. Hearing yesterday that Modern Quilts Unlimited and Machine Quilting Unlimited are ceasing publication was disappointing indeed. As retail and publishing environments experience structural changes, owners will be forced to adjust their business models to survive and in some cases it just won’t be possible.
Our business model has always been different. We’ve never relied on advertising for our publications and have never had a large staff, high overhead, debt or investors to please. We started our business 19 years ago this week with our own savings in a studio in our home with just the two of us. Our only goal has been to design and make quilts that are expressive of the time in which we live. Along the way we added a studio manager, an e-commerce site, began designing fabrics, wrote six books, collaborated with a job training facility for developmentally disabled adults and became publishers as well. We’ve adopted a child, dealt with illness, moved and fostered 84 homeless animals.
Occasionally we’ve wondered if we should close our business and pursue more lucrative lines of work but we found our sweet spot when we took the risk to put what’s in our heads on paper. If you had been up at 6am on a hot summer Saturday morning last August you would have seen us dragging a leather sofa out of our van and onto a sidewalk adjacent to an industrial pallet yard in Chicago with 18-wheelers whizzing by just because we wanted the patina of a rusted iron door of the pallet yard in the shot for our Reclaimed quilt. If we’ve just had a foot of snow and it’s 5 degrees out, chances are that we’re packing up quilts to shoot for our calendar while the snow is fresh. No sane editor would ask her staff to refinish a beaten up table found in the alley because it’s the perfect curve for the cover shot of Modern Quilts Illustrated 8. Several years ago we abandoned the subscription model almost all magazines use in favor of just putting out the best possible publications we can and taking the time we need to do that. We believe that if we’re excited about every detail of our publications that you will sense that as you flip through the pages and that you will want more.
In the future we may offer digital versions of our publications and patterns. However, just as there will always be a place in the world for books, there will also be people who love flipping through an ad-free quilting magazine on high-quality paper with beautiful photos and detailed diagrams. It saddens us to lose talented colleagues and inspiring publications, but we take these industry consolidations as marching orders to put out only our best ideas and our most inspiring work. Right now we are working on a project for fall that’s been in the works for six years because we believe that our best work is yet to come. Sincere thanks to those of you who have supported us for the past 19 years. Without you, we wouldn’t be here. Onward!
May 1. Today’s the day that you’ll finally be able to read Rachel May’s epic 400-page book An American Quilt. Do yourself a favor and suggest this book for your book group or quilting bee because it’s the perfect read to discuss with quilters and bibliophiles alike.
The breadth and details in this book are as fascinating as the true story that forms the skeleton of the book. May delves into the history and background of not only an unfinished quilt made from fabrics from the 1830s but also the household of the couple who made it. It’s a tangled web indeed that spans from New England to the Caribbean as well as the historical backdrop of both white and slave family life during the era, the slave trade, trade routes between the agrarian south and the industrialized north and everyday details of 19th century life.
An American Quilt is a work of creative non-fiction, which is not a genre I’ve explored before so it’s worth explaining if it’s unfamiliar to you as well. May uses a bountiful supply of letters, photos, ephemera, the quilt itself and historical records from New England to the Caribbean to piece together the story with painstaking detail. Overlaid on the story of the quilt, however, is May’s own story as she takes us along as she pieces it all together. She describes her own journey of finding parts of the story and how she imagines the characters must have felt or interacted. Weaving together the facts she discovers, May also suggests possible context when she doesn’t have documentation to make the story more coherent.
May’s device of taking us on her journey to research the story of the quilt makes An American Quilt an intimate read. You’re there in the room as she delicately handles the quilt and reads the words “Seaman,” “Barbados,” and “casks” on the papers used for piecing the quilt. You go with her to Charleston where she combs through the files of the Historical Society to find more information of the characters we meet in the story. You sip coffee with her in Havana as she searches for information on the slaves she’s researching. For me, this is what brings so much life to An American Quilt. There are two parallel stories unfolding as you read. May also takes you on occasional “field trips” to give the reader historical context on how fabric was dyed at the time, how Rhode Island and Charleston, South Carolina became so closely linked in trade, what medicine was like for slaves, how rum production was linked to the slave trade and how the legal system treated slaves for example.
Reading An American Quilt reframes the way many of us will see historical quilts moving forward as not just the quaint product of the maker but as also having an additional complex backstory of the lives, culture and commerce that were part of the production of the cloth and the making of the quilt itself.
In the past few years, nearly every fabric designer — including us — has come out with a black and white fabric line. Now the Smithsonian has published a fascinating article on the history of black and white fabric in the US. Who knew that black and white fabrics came into vogue as a result of President Woodrow Wilson’s marriage coinciding with the start of World War I, which created a dye shortage in the US? It’s a fascinating read and shows us once again that the cultural and geo-political history of fabric is full of surprises.