Operation: Make Quilting Manly
30 Jul, 2010 - J.G.C. Wise
One Sunday last fall, a friend was gathering people for dinner and asked me if I wanted to join. I respectfully declined, but this particular friend is not so easily rebuffed. He wanted to know why, and naturally, the less I wanted to tell him, the more he wanted to know. He badgered me for what could have only been another ten seconds before I abandoned my feeble protests and told him the truth.
“I’m working on a quilt, and I have to finish it by next weekend.”
Silence ensued, followed by an uncomfortable chuckle from my friend. He didn’thave to ask if I was serious; I could see the question in his eyes.
To his immediate chagrin, though I believe he has now come to terms with my unorthodox hobby, I was, in truth, quite serious. Surely much of the surprise came from the fact that I’m a guy, and as best as my generation seems to know, guys don’t quilt – even I’ll accept that as informed ignorance. After all, you don’t usually hear of men sitting around discussing fabric patterns and thread colors. (Indeed, every time I use the word “bobbin” I feel like I should take my shirt off and lift something really heavy, making sure that all of the nearby women see it happen.) But I’ve learned that, uncommon as it may be, I’m not the only one. There are others like me out there, other men unafraid to wield the mighty needle, and like all uncertain minorities, we need a voice, a spokesperson, someone who isn’t afraid to stand tall and proud behind a full beard and a hairy chest proclaiming that, by God, we are men and we are quilters. Unfortunately for the rest of them, I’m the only one who writes for a nationally-recognized online magazine.
I began quilting longer ago than I’d care to admit, when I unwittingly rolled my teenage self out of bed early on a Saturday morning, due in large part to the vicious morning sun screaming through my bedroom window. Meandering through an unusually quiet house, I found in the kitchen a note that my mother had left behind for me.
“I’m at Gen’s. Come by when you get up.”
Gen was my mother’s best friend and, conveniently, the mother of my best friend. I knew her quite well and since she and my mother were both frequently guilty of asking me to do things whose purpose I didn’t understand, I thought very little of this vague command on a Post-It as I retreated, zombie-like, to my bedroom for my torn- up Chuck Taylors and any pair of shorts presenting the illusion of having been washed in the previous three months. Satisfied with my otherwise-sub-par wardrobe choices, I climbed into my beat-up 1983 Chevy Blazer and made my way across town to whatever unknown fate awaited me.
The day’s task, I learned, was to make a quilt for a young woman who was very dear to me, and because of that mitigating factor, I was petitioned (and agreed) to help. For the two days that followed, I spent just about every waking moment with two of the most maternal figures in my life sorting through and sewing fabric– which might take a stab at the developing manhood of most teenage boys, but not this guy. Oblivious to all that was obvious in the world, I didn’t realize how dangerously close I was to being feminized.
But even odder than the circumstance was the result: I actually enjoyed what I was doing, and not just because I was doing it for someone I cared so much about. I liked hearing the precise ripping of the fabric as the rotary-cutter methodically sliced through each strip and square. I liked the slow deterioration of the impossibility I felt as yards of fabric (quickly, in that case) came together to form an unspeakable, meticulous work of art. I liked the boyish rush of seeing it almost complete, yet having to maintain the discipline and patience for the tedious, time-consuming conclusion – attaching the binding. I realized that, like it or not, my days of quilting were far from over. More importantly, though, I realized that if I was going to embrace this, if I was going to take on quilting as part of who I am, my very identity, then somehow, no matter the odds, I needed to make this a masculine hobby. But how?
First and foremost, I needed to stop quilting with my mother. Sure, it was a great excuse to bond, but so was sitting on her lap when I was five. A time comes when a boy has to get off his mother’s lap, not because it’s wrong to sit there, but just because it’s weird. So, just as a day comes when a boy declares his developing masculinity by saying, “Mom, I’m going to sit on the floor and have a tea party with my sister instead,” so also the day came when I declared my quilting independence: I would make my own quilt in my own apartment in Brooklyn, NY. On that day, I ventured into The City Quilter with the same nervous confidence as a high-schooler buying a pregnancy test (“It’s for my parents. Really.”) and was pleasantly surprised to find that, although fully staffed by middle-aged women who probably like cats, they took me more seriously than perhaps I took myself. They helped me where I needed it, let me be when I preferred, and before long I was on my way home, ready for my first undertaking as a solo quilter.
Materials purchased, the second step was to buy beer. Why, you ask? Because beer is the staple of the American man’s masculinity. So what if I’m threading a bobbin? It so happens I’m also throwing back a brew, wiping my mouth on my bare arm while I’m at it. Beer would be my trump card, my impenetrable defense should any of my roommates come home and think to jeer at me. Flowery patterns and ironing boards be damned; I was a quilter drinking beer.
The third step was to make my surroundings as masculine as possible. Since my apartment isn’t all that feminine to begin with, the most important thing to consider was the background noise. With no DVD player connected to the TV, my first choice– watching The Godfather — was nixed, which meant I had to fall on the back-up plan: my Guns N’ Roses library. I settled on the Use Your Illusion albums followed by some live tracks to keep me thinking of manly things like mullets and cigarettes as I measured fabric.
For two days I worked alone in this perfectly-masculine home quilting studio, gradually becoming comfortable enough to forget the potential that one might perceive the gender of my activities to be a bit questionable. The prep work complete, I was just sitting down to sew the first stitch when my roommate returned from a weekend away, stopping in his tracks just inside the doorway. I swear I saw one of those cartoon thought-bubbles over his head, empty but for a throbbing ellipsis to match the blank stare on his face.
“What are you doing?” he finally asked. I told him I was making a quilt, obviously. He asked me why. I gave a perfectly sound explanation for why the quilt itself was being made, but what he didn’t seem to grasp was, why was I the one making it? I took his point as the color rushed to my face for the second time in days.
Don’t give in, Cacopardo, I thought to myself, What you’re doing is okay. Perfectly natural. Perfectly masculine. Drink another beer, you’ll see.
Though he was eventually kind enough to acknowledge the work that goes into it, I’m not sure my roommate was ever convinced that my craft was anything less than grandmotherly (which would be inaccurate since most of the quilters I know are only mothers, not grandmothers). It was that same week when I confessed my pastime to the other friend mentioned above, and I think we all remember how that turned out. In general, Operation: Make Quilting Manly was, regrettably, a failed experiment.
None of this, however, has stopped me from my quilting practice. To date, I’ve completed three imperfect quilts, with a fourth on the way. I’m thankful there are still a few who take me seriously. (Mostly just the women at the quilting store and a friend of mine who I’m pretty sure has questioned my sexuality at least once.) Regardless, the time has come not only for the world to accept male quilters, but for men to get in on the fun. (Stop laughing. Now.) In all sincerity, this hobby not only is a great way to be creative and constructive without having to do too much thinking, but it’s also a way to make sure that you stay warm when winter comes around and the gas company starts double-charging for each unit of gas used. Of course, if you’re the transcendental type, there’s the fact that quilting allows you to create a unique, personalized blanket for a loved one, an unrivaled expression of affection that reaches down and touches the very core of the beloved’s soul. But then you’d better be sure you draw blood with the sewing needle, or burn yourself with the iron in the process. Otherwise, you’ll just look like a sissy. Or in my case, a sissy who drinks beer.