|Is Originality possible in Patchwork these days?|
Oddly enough, I started this post 2 years ago. This topic bothered me then, and it has resurfaced recently. In order to clear my mind, I need to talk about it, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
I am wondering if it is still possible to be truly original in quilting? I guess I should qualify that question by saying that I am talking about patchwork blocks in particular.
What rekindled this debate in my own mind was some scuttlebutt I have read about the Accuquilt Win The Dream Quilt Block Design Contest. Blocks entered were supposed to be original designs. Some blocks had to be taken out of the contest because they resembled blocks designed by other people. First, let me say the few that I heard of did appear to be close copies, and at least one was an actual photo of the original designer's work. Not cool. But, looking through some of the other entries, I notice a fair amount of log cabin blocks, pinwheel blocks, star blocks, etc. These designs have been around forever, are in the public domain, are not original, yet they were not disqualified.
I know that blocks published before 1923 are pretty fair game for use, but what about other, more recent blocks? What about blocks that are so common, but you don't even know who designed them in the first place (like the ever popular x-plus blocks, or disappearing 9 patch blocks)?
I recently saw a vendor of a booth at a quilt show literally yelling at a woman for taking a picture of a quilt hanging in her booth. The vendor was upset because she was selling patterns of the quilt and didn't want her work copied. What really surprised me was that I swear that the quilt was the Ohio star pattern and pinwheels. Haven't those blocks been around forever? Surely she wasn't the first to use these blocks in pastel colored fabric? Yet, there she was citing copyright laws.
I think what makes things even more interesting/difficult is that we are all dealing with similar shapes and sizes in patchwork. I know some of you math buffs will remind me that there are an infinite number of ways to change/arrange the shapes and patterns of a quilt. But since we are really working with a finite set of measurements (we tend to use similar block sizes) and the same shapes (squares, rectangles, triangles, etc), couldn't we argue that everything has probably been done before? Quilting has been around for ages with a lot of people making quilts. Could it be possible that I could be the first person to put a HST where previous designs had a square? I've even got a visual for this one....
Look familiar? I've been seeing a lot of it on Instagram. It is essentially the same block. I only replaced the outermost HSTs with a solid square, and put it into only 2 colors. But if this block was created/designed today, is it possible that the maker is the first to make that change? Someone, sometime, didn't make enough HST's by mistake even??
Incidentally, the first block has many names, one is called "(New) Mexican Star" and according to Barbara Brackman's Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns & Electric Quilts Blockbase program, it was published in 1935 by Workbasket, and in 1937 by the Country Gentleman. It is very similar to "Goose in the Pond" published in 1929 by the Kansas City Star, and a bunch of other similar blocks published in other places. The 2nd block is Camille Roskelly's Red Letter Day pattern. I literally took the Mexican Star block, clicked my mouse 4 times in EQ7, and I had the new popular pattern of a complete genius.
Now before you all start sending me hate mail. I would like to say that I am not selling this block, I'm not even giving it away for free. I am not damaging her business or her reputation. I LOVE Camille Roskelly's patterns and style and have bought several of them even though I am aware of the old blocks they resemble and how to manipulate them to get the updated versions. I merely want to use a current example for discussion purposes.
Do you think this is an original design? Should we all run out at change HST's to squares and vice versa and rush to be the first people to hit "publish" to stake our claims? I hope that is not where quilting is headed. Of course, we should all try to give credit where it is due, but one could spend years researching to see if your block exists instead of actually using it.
This leads me to my next related discussion point....
There seems to be a fine line between "influenced by" and original work, and everyone thinks that line is in a different place in the sand. I peruse a lot of blogs, I have been to several large quilt shows, and several art shows too, and let's not underestimate Pinterest. I now wonder/worry if any of my ideas are original. What if these ideas are stuck in my head because I have unconsciously seen them before? That is certainly possible right?
And given the amount of stimulus out there today, is it impossible for two people to have the same idea by looking at the same set of pictures? Or even different ones? For example, Jess at the Elven Garden recently finished an AMAZING quilt called Sunshine through the Rain. It was so similar to something I had sketched in one of my journals after taking a Curves class from Rachel at Stitched in Color and seeing this quilt called Raindrops and Sunshine. This quilt was one of the projects included in the class, but I wanted to make mine a little differently with a sun in the corner and rainbow arching across the quilt - should I ever find the time to actually make it. My design was unrealized, I have no claim to it AT ALL (besides Jess did a much better job with her quilt, sans rainbow, than I would have). I only use this example because it is remarkable how two people, thousands of miles away, across oceans, could have such similar ideas.
What about being influenced by someone's work in a different genre? I read a blog this week where the writer was making an art quilt based on the designs she found in a glass vase. So, does that mean that if the artwork is in a different medium, it is fair game to be "resembled"?
I've also heard several quilt designers say that they look at the home decor market to get their design ideas. Not only does this bring up the same question above about having the same idea from the same set of pictures, but also home decor designers frequently look at textiles and quilts to get their design inspiration. Is it a cycle where attribution for originality gets lost? It reminds me about a play, based on making a movie which is based on making a play.
There are even books about this cycle of originality/influence/or lack of - Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative (affiliate link) by Austin Kleon. In this book, it is suggested that you should not be so concerned about where your influence comes from - just do it! In art, it is impossible for someone to paint the exact same brushstrokes, the exact same way. So just do it! Quilting is a little different, but how much? I've heard it argued that your fabric choices even make the design unique.
I am not writing this post to ruffle feathers, I honestly want to know your opinion. I've had EQ7 for well over a year, and have been working for the last 6 months to learn how to use it, with the intention of designing patterns. But with these lingering questions in my mind, I am afraid. I thought designing would be fun, the next phase in my growth as a quilter; instead I am paralyzed.
I look forward to hearing what you think.
Thanks for reading,