[Not] For Sale: Quilting Contradiction in a Craft Economy – Christine Quail

Emily Lawrence, VP Production at Craftsy1, a popular North American online craft and cooking education, social media, and sales platform, states: “over the past year, we’ve seen more and more makers across the country want to learn how to create meaningful gifts for their loved ones….We often underestimate the time it takes to create a gift from the heart, but…[we understand] the value of handmade gifts” (PR Newswire 2013). Craftsy suggests that the value of the handmade is obvious, and that the handmade comes “from the heart” and is therefore inherently “meaningful”. The company leverages this emotional, caring, affective, value in their business model, urging users: “do more of what you love.” Most quilters, knitters, and other craftspersons indeed understand the time and labour involved in the handmade, not only the individual work but the oftentimes collective/collaborative, as well as the historically gendered labour bound up in producing these “valued” material goods while reproducing or challenging social/political/economic relationships. Lawrence’s claim, though, is fraught and provocative – how is the value of handmade quilts messy, complicated, contested? Who is determining value, and to what end? How can that value be expressed as a series of contradictions? This article serves as an entry point into my larger research project on online/offline quilting, craft tourism, and gender and labour in quilting2, and will focus on the tensions of quilt “value” through an exploration of quilting in the town of Fogo Island, Newfoundland.3

Fogo Island sits off the coast of central Newfoundland and consists of several small towns that incorporated into Fogo in 2011; the population is around 2200, a decline from years prior, due to a struggling economy, high poverty and unemployment, and resulting lack of opportunity for young people (Statistics Canada 2016). In the face of these industrial, economic, and population shifts, most notably brought on by the decimation of the cod fishing industry in the province, Newfoundland & Labrador Premier Dwight Ball has named both tourism and arts and culture as essential to the province’s economic growth (Ball 2015).4 Hospitality Newfoundland & Labrador, a non-profit organization representing the tourism industry, has understandably fully embraced provincial efforts to spur tourism, increasing grants and funding programs, as well as commissioning annual high-end tourism ads.5 Carol-Ann Gilliard, CEO of Hospitality NL, articulates the tourism project as one with an affective goal, what she calls a “return on emotion”, in which visitors’ affect, joy, love, pleasure, caring, can be harnessed successfully for profit. She envisions such a commodification of affective connection by:

Packaging experiences that people don’t get anywhere else. Whether it’s with people who are rug hookers, musicians, someone who knows where the best berry patch is, someone who knows how to bake bread…. Right now, it’s hard to access. A traveller could be passing through a community and there’s stuff happening all around them, but how do you package it so they can access it?….It’s going  to be very critical as we’re moving forward that we’re not going about this in a way that’s artificial. If it’s contrived, then it’s too contrived and so it’s a really delicate balance. (Adey 2015)

This return on emotion concept easily lends itself to a marxist read, where use value is transformed into exchange value through commodification of emotion attached to cultural experiences and material goods that will fill emotional needs. The mechanism of this process, of this desire to “package experience” (and thus emotional connection), yet not come across as “artificial,” belies one contradiction of value—this “delicate balance” is at the heart of her attempt to create value through commodifying emotion via a leveraging of cultural authenticity, cultural symbols or heritage, and contemporary daily life (see Leone 2015). Such a conundrum is bound up in the examples of quilts on Fogo.

Fogo Island’s quilt story is tied to Zita Cobb. Having grown up on Fogo Island and making her fortune as an executive in the tech world, Cobb returned to Fogo to help revitalize the community through sustainable development. She founded a non-profit foundation, the Shorefast Foundation, with a social entrepreneurial goal of improving life in Fogo.6 Through the foundation, she built a luxury hotel and tourism destination, the Fogo Island Inn. With the goal of a small tourism footprint, Cobb and her partners designed the hotel as a five-star luxury resort, with all-inclusive pricing of a minimum $1675 per day, per room (Fogo Island Inn 2017). The hotel is an architectural masterpiece, each room having full ocean views; the restaurant is high-end modern restaurant with sophisticated foods, and the grounds include a cinema, gallery, and library open to the island public. Guests are treated to planned activities and excursions—all-inclusive, as the island itself is sparse on stores and consumer-based activities, as it is a small, rural community. Cobb’s project is so present and pervasive on Fogo Island, in fact, that she has risen to the level of celebrity where the pronoun “she” is often unintentionally used to refer to Cobb without first stating her name. Cobb recently won the prestigious Order of Canada (McCabe 2017),“as a social entrepreneur who has helped revive the rural communities of Fogo Island and Change Islands through innovative social engagement and geotourism” (Globe Staff 2017). This value that has been bestowed upon Cobb signals another potential contraction; the Inn is so exclusive that it is out of reach for most people that live and work in Fogo (not to mention, most people in Canada, generally). It is at once an attempt to respond to community need, yet lays bare existing class distinctions that become even more apparent in the Inn’s presence.

Cobb’s project rests on her definitions of value. When planning the Inn, she stated: “we have 400 years of culture here, which has incredible value. The underlying thing that drives the foundation and me…is this belief in the preservation of culture” (McKeough, 2010). Here, Cobb emphasizes the value she places on Fogo’s culture, and its long history, which should be preserved. This particular framing of value is expressed by the fact that the goods in the Fogo Island Inn are made by local artisans and craftspersons. Handmade wooden stools and chairs, handcrafted coat hangers, knitted pillows, and season-specific quilts, adorn each room as well as the common spaces. All of the goods are beautifully designed and made, and contribute to an overall rustic modern look at the Inn. Additionally, they are available for purchase, for guests of the Inn, or on the online store. Adjacent to the inn sits the Winds and Waves artisan co-op, through which the Inn commissions the goods for the resort; co-op artisans also sell other goods in the Winds and Waves shop. So not only are the Inn quilts for sale, so are non-commissioned quilts made by a variety of island quilters.

The cultural value and local expression of the quilts is complicated. Fogo Inn’s official quilts are not simply the expression of a quilter’s artistic vision–they follow an approved set of patterns, a system which originated with artist from away Yvonne Mullock, who toured the island, meeting women in their homes, viewing and selecting quilt designs to be displayed in a quilt parade, helping executives chose which, and whose, quilt designs would be used as templates for those made for the Inn. In addition to the design itself, there are three types of material that must be in each quilt – vintage, new, and recycled, and there is a preferred colourway. The fabric is purchased by the Inn, and kept in a fabric closet in the workshop. Vintage fabric is new fabric with a retro look; new fabric has a modern look; and there is recycled fabric from old textiles – aprons, tablecloths, blankets. Using this combination of material speaks to quilting histories and practices, in which women often made (and make) quilts from old material as a way of re-using and re-purposing the last remaining bits of clothes or other textiles that are past their prime, can no longer serve their original purpose. When thrift is valued, largely out of economic necessity, cloth is not thrown out, it is re-mixed into a new item. This practice has become popular for ideological reasons, where “up-cycling” as a maker practice promotes sustainable consumption, frustrating easy understandings of reusing and recycling based on immediate individual need. In the Inn’s case, the combination of fabrics speaks to both values—Island quilters, who do reuse material, are familiar with this historical thrift practice, while the Inn’s commitment to sustainability is also articulated. The Inn’s production process also speaks to quilting histories, of labor-intensive, and sometimes communal production practices: the quilts are hand-pinned, and hand-quilted (rather than using a long-arm quilting machine), and are produced collectively at a large table in the workshop, which visitors can view if a quilt is being worked on at that moment.

The marketing of the quilts captures these values: “furnishings and furniture….weaved the new from the fabric of the old” (Fogo Island Inn 2016). The online store description of one quilt uses a similar framing: “Seemingly simple, the strip quilt is a testament to the creativity of the quilter. Each strip quilt is a complex balance of colour, pattern and texture resulting in a splendid fabric composition that will brighten any room. Making use of carefully selected recycled, vintage and new materials, no two quilts are the same with its endless sewn combinations of stripy fabrics” (Fogo Island Shop 2016). The language of vintage, recycled, and unique, demonstrates a keen understanding of cotemporary design and marketing trends where in “vintage” (Leone 2015), “artisanal” (Hemsworth 2014), “craft” (Rice 2015), and “rustic” branding (Butss 2015), that might appeal to tourists interested in the value of craft, and who may be familiar with, and expect, design and marketing that speak to contemporary trends. The quilt marketing, however, smoothes over some of the conscripted choices that the Inn has made, from the selection of the quilt designs, to the purchasing of material, to the quilting techniques. Here, value is “curated”, and interwoven with broader symbolic and marketing values.

The Inn’s quilts are commissioned through the newly developed artisan co-op Winds and Waves, situated adjacent to the Inn. The space consists of a space for artisans to sell goods, whether or not they are affiliated with the Inn community, a workroom, and a space that holds sewing training and workshops. The sewing workshops function to help provide what might be a marketable and lucrative skill, now that quilts and other textiles are popular tourist items. During one workshop time, no one showed up to take the class. Rather than view this as a failure, the quilters said they were happy—this means that the potential participants found a summer job so they are unavailable because they were working.

In the shop area, there are many different handcrafted goods, but the most prominent are the quilted items—small hand-sewn pieces and full quilts, filling numerous shelves—a surprising number of handmade quilts, on first blush. But one Fogo resident explained that the Inn and the Wind and Waves co-op have given women a sense of value. For the first time, she says, women are hopeful that they may be able to make money from quilting, an activity that used to be a purely domestic, functional, unpaid act: making blankets to keep children warm in the winter, or for special gifts for special occasions. Now that there is a potential to sell their quilts, many women feel that they are valued in a new way, that their work is valued, that they have value. This sentiment is shared by feminist scholars of labour, in that, gendered domestic labour has historically been undervalued, with classed and racialized women’s domestic labour insisting on a complex, intersectional understanding of “women’s work” (see, e.g., hooks 2000, Hochschild 2012, Federici 2012). Beyond the individual sale, public recognition and artist grants have also supported local artisans. A group of Fogo Island quilters were awarded a provincial grant to make several quilts to hang in the new ferry that carries cars and people from Fogo to the main island of Newfoundland. The pride and enthusiasm about that project, and being displayed publicly, on the ferry, was palpable—a public display of the quilts demonstrates broader value and recognition.

But the recognition and appreciate is uneven. In Winds and Waves, as I was interviewing a few quilters, a tourist who was staying at the Inn, came in to shop. She looked at many quilts and then asked the quilters if they had any that were exactly like the one in her room at the Inn. They pointed to a queen-sized strip quilt hanging in the shop. “No,” she said, “that’s different. The centre squares are all the same colour. The one in my room has centre squares of four different colours.” The quilters explained that each quilt is different, and discussed the design and patterning of a strip quilt and how the centre squares are pieced together and depending on the selection and organization of fabric, they can come out differently; but these are almost the same, they told her. She looked at some of the other quilts at the shop and eventually left, frowning, without purchasing any of the quilts. While every quilter knows, that literally, “no two quilts are the same”, as noted, even, in the Inn’s marketing text, the tourist wanted “the same”, valuing replication, more akin to the standardized comfort of a mass-produced textile rather than a hand-crafted one, while simultaneously wanting the handmade. This contradiction belies some of the capitalist contradictions of “craft rhetoric,” as Jeff Rice (2015) explores in the tensions of craft beer and the various ways that “craft” signifies and carries meaning differently, in different contexts, with uneven sets of political imaginings.

Tourists’ quest for the authentic handmade quilt goes beyond the Inn. In a corner store, one of only a small handful on Fogo, some souvenirs are sold. Amongst the souvenirs are hand-knitted socks and mitts, as well as handmade quilts; the shop has a small material and sewing supplies section for residents to purchase craft supplies. The quilts are not the Inn-inspired vintage-meets-modern-and- recycled quilts, but rather, those made with less professional artist input, more everyday, more likely to be found in an average home; some with novelty characters, flannels, pastel butterflies, and a variety of non-trendy prints that do not exude “vintage modern”. These quilts tend to be sold for a significantly lower price than the Inn and co-cop quilts, more like $200, rather than $1000. The aesthetic distance again speaks to the authenticity of the quilts—while these less expensive quilts are handmade, they do not evoke the same articulation of hip consumerism and yet are more common on the island.

In an interview, one quilter reported that she was at the store matching fabric for the back of a quilt that she had made for a charity project. While there, a tourist saw the unfinished quilt-top that she had laid on the table. The tourist offered her $200, the approximate price of the finished quilts the store were selling. The quilter declined, telling the tourist that she made the quilt for a cancer fundraiser. The tourist returned with higher bids, trying to convince the quilter that her quilt was a good value, and that she then wouldn’t even have to finish it. The tourist eventually gave up at $500, when the quilter convinced the tourist, finally, that the quilt, even in its unfinished state, was not for sale, it was going to be completed, and then donated to a charity. The monetary value wasn’t the point.

A similar thirst for quilt souvenirs, handmade gifts, has disrupted a museum on the Island. Historical quilts displayed in the Fogo Island Marine Information Centre, now contain hand-written notes that they are “NOT FOR SALE”: “Old-Time Quilt. Stitched by hand… NOT FOR SALE”. “Crocheted blanket of many colors… NOT FOR SALE.” When I inquired about the displays, and asked why some of the quilts were folded up rather than hung to show their full artistry, the docent explained that they had grown tired of tourists trying to buy the quilts; they would rather have them folded, out of reach, with bright red sine age, dissuading haggling tourists.

At the end of this short piece, the question of “value” remains in constant, fluctuating contradiction. How is “return on emotion” seeking to exploit a use-value of a place, as well as an affective connection? Why is the value of women’s quilting now bestowed an exchange value, when the Inn’s hipster quilts, which are a blend of island and from away artist designs, the thing of value and not the more precious quilts found in people’s homes, guest houses, and corner stores? Why do some wealthy tourists search for a “good value” by trying to buy a quilt that is not for sale—whether it is a museum piece, or a charity quilt? How is domestic labour transformed through equity in class, race, gender, place, etc., and the transformation of capitalism? What are the limits of hope and value that women have of their own quilting work, particularly as either connected to or detached from broader concerns over social equity? How do the myriad use values need to be understood in radical specificity, yet in broader social relations? This patchwork of contradicting values is entangled in contradictions in social relations culture, and the problems we work through as we try to envision a way forward in the world. These are some of the questions that I continue to explore in my work.

Notes

1. In this article, I simply nod to Craftsy, which I take up in more depth in another article.

2. This research has been reviewed and approved by the McMaster Research Ethics Board, McMaster University.

3. In this article, I will use “Fogo” or “Fogo Island” to refer to the Island as a whole, and will not differentiate between specific communities on the Island. Fogo Island is familiar to many as a result of Colin Low and the National Film Board (NFB)’s past development of the Fogo Process of community-partnered, community-driven filmmaking and dialoguing, with the goal of identifying, voicing, and working through local social problems and fostering social change.

4. I am focusing here on Fogo Island, but the broader project more fully engages the debates surrounding creative economies, and creative industries.

5. There is not enough space here, but my larger project engages with nation/place-branding and involves an analysis of the Newfoundland & Labrador tourism commercials and policies.

6. Detailing all of the Foundation’s activities is beyond the scope of this brief article.

 

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Image Attribution: Link Here

 

Christine Quail is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She is conducting research on quilts, craft tourism, online crafting, and she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in communication and media studies.