Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Is Originality Possible? - an item for discussion

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....

If I were to start selling a pattern for the block above, someone would no doubt send me a nasty informative note letting me know that my block was extremely similar to 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,



  1. Very thoughtful post. Here are my thoughts on patterns. I'm generally good at figuring out how quilt blocks go together. I can look at them and see the basic units they are composed of, do a quick sketch, and figure out the math. When I buy a pattern, it's not because I can't figure out how to do it on my own (like the Swoon pattern- not an original block or a difficult one to figure out), but because with a pattern all the math is done for me. I can just read it and know how much fabric I need to buy, what the best way is to cut everything out, and the easiest way to piece it all together. The hard parts have been done for me. I know that's probably not how everyone thinks about patterns, but you're right. Most blocks have been around so long that trying to claim something made up of squares and triangles is an original design is just silly and kind of unfair.

    I don't think people should stop writing patterns. To go back to the Swoon again, what makes that pattern worth the money is that there are cutting instructions for fat quarters, which is really nice. And like I said, it's really nice sometimes to have the math worked out for me. Could I have made the same quilt without the pattern? Sure. But it would have taken a long time.

    I have seen a lot of discussions of copyright lately and I think these block based patterns can't really copyright the block (maybe they could but they would be jerks). But they can copyright their particular instructions. You know, the actual written part of the pattern. Even if there's nothing terribly fresh about the construction or nothing special about the cutting instructions, working out the math and writing up instructions takes time. Which is what makes patterns worth buying.

    I would say don't be afraid of writing patterns. As long as you're not deliberately ripping someone off or copying someone else's instructions word for word, there shouldn't be a problem. Ignore the naysayers and design to your heart's content. I feel like this comment was rambly and weird haha! Hopefully it made some sort of sense :)

    1. I agree. There is very little I can't figure out myself and given a bit of time, can do the math also. I pay for a pattern because I like the use of fabric, having instructions and math already done, the option of different sizes, etc. Any one of us can take a block and re-draft it to 20 or 25 inches. The important thing to me is the style of the author and the originality put into color, value and so on.

  2. Anna has pretty much said every single thing I think about patterns. I can work out a pattern for myself, but I buy a pattern so the hard work is done for me. When I'm in the market for a pattern I buy them for the cutting and piecing instructions. I want both those parts to go as quickly, smoothly, and efficiently as possible.

    When I design for myself, I take luxury in those parts. But sometimes, you just want to make something, and you want it to be easy and fun, and to talk you through all the little challenges and make you feel great when you've accomplished something. That's what really great patterns do!

    The copyright stuff, the design itself I don't believe can be copyrighted, much like cookbooks, you're copyrighting your instructions and your photos. But in fact, Camille is a great example, her designs may not be the most unique ever, but her instructions and cutting guides make getting it all together quick and easy and fun. And that's why people come back for more!

    Free yourself, there will always be people who will be negative and rude and frustrating, but they will be there no matter what you do, so do what you want! Don't let them giving you the heebie-jeebies stop you from designing and writing patterns - go for it!

  3. Great post and fantastich comments. I couldn't agree more. The sentence that really struck a cord with me was that you bought EQ7 to start designing quilts, but are now left being afraid of infringing unknown copyrights. That is sad. Take courage from the comments above. Go by your own concious and have some fun. I am sure (from following your blog) that your patterns will be stunning!

  4. I always appreciate a well written post on a thought provoking topic! In fact, as soon as I read the subject title, the very block you showed came to mind! It seems to be all the rage right now, but we did that block in our Sampler learn to quilt class 5 years ago. So, I guess everything old is new again. Copyright, on the other hand, is too big a topic for my brain to handle. It might be more applicable to modern quilting, but patchwork seems to just make the rounds.

  5. Oh boy. . . . have you (and the others here) said what I have been trying to convey for the past couple of years!

    Back on March 26, 2012 I wrote on my blog about the craziness that is copyright and what is and is not copyright eligible.

    Other examples that I can think of as "internet fire" is Swoon blocks. It is really just an oversized "old as the hills" block. . . . so, how can that be something that is able to be copyrighted? I could have come up with the same block by using my EQ7 software & just doing an oversized block so that I did not have to make too many blocks to finish a quilt.

    When I first started quilting we used templates. . . . .that, in my mind, was when there really was the ability to create new, original blocks. These days, with the use of precuts, speed techniques, and "get it done NOW" ideas there is not one blessed thing that is original.

    I have been quilting for quite a long time. . . . . more than 30 years. . . . and have the books & magazines to prove it! LOL Lately I have been downsizing by pulling just the patterns that I like out of the thousands of magazines that I have collected. . . . .and I have seen "old fashioned" blocks re-colored and declared a "brand new design" by an "up & coming artist". . . . but I could have pulled the old quilt I bought at an antique store that was done the same way out of my closet!

    And, the new, "modern" quilt trend. . . . . I don't know what is so modern about it. . . they use "old fashioned" blocks but only in solid colors. . . . .just like the Amish have done for many, many years. I don't know what is so modern about it.

    I will continue to make my quilts that way I want. I don't plan on designing any quilt patterns to sell, nor will I be pursuing any book deals (although the thought of being a published author really appeals to me) so I don't have to worry about being original or modern. . . . I just need to make quilts that make me happy. And it is a bonus if they make the people that receive them happy too.

    Good post. . . . .well said. . . . .

  6. Oh this is a good one, that I too have in my head every other day. I agree with the other comments and think too that when a pattern designer is selling a pattern or book with traditional designs, it isn't so much the actual block design, but how they are using the block design to create the quilt, color placement, layout, size that sort of thing. They are walking a fine line though.

    On a different thought, I am going to bring up the recent "drama" of the Patchwork, Please book (that included the envelope wall hanging project) and then the Issue 7 of Love Patchwork and Quilting that included on the cover a similar envelope wall hanging by a different designer. Now I don't know the facts nor have I researched it at all, but everyone was all in a hissy fit about the "blatant copying of the pattern." Lets pretend for a moment that the gal that designed the quilt for the magazine didn't have that book and had never seen it, is it her fault that it just so happened to be so similar? Or maybe she did see the book a year ago, forgot about it, woke up one morning with a "great idea" designed the quilt, submitted it to the magazine and voila, it was published. What if she didn't copy it and it was just a coincidence? I'm not taking sides, I don't know the story, but stuff like this happens all the time. You have no idea how many times I am drawing up a quilt design and bam I see it the next day on a blog. Well crap, now what? Usually I abandon it because everyone is just going to crucify me for "stealing their idea."

    Honestly I think the whole thing sucks, but is just the way it is for now and really I think if you have an idea, you better publish it quick like before anyone else does! LOL

    1. You know, when I was going through my books last night I found that I did have Patchwork, Please. In going through it I thought the design looked familiar but I couldn't place where I had seen it before.

      I thought I was going a little daft. . . . . thank you for letting me know I am not crazy (at least not yet! LOL)

  7. Oh and as far as you selling your own patterns, just start an LLC or make your business official and go for it, make sure you are protected in terms of being sued and having an official business, but if you wait for this matter to resolve itself, then you will never do it, you know?

  8. If you would take the category Original design from Bloggers quilt festival you would find similar examples. There are few not really original. I seen those before, just changing size does not make the design any original in my opinion. I totally understand why you feel paralized. I would be too!

  9. Jen – I have been pondering this for a while and it was a difficult thing to consider when entering the Accuquilt contest. This thought of is my idea original enough to be considered for entry and worry that I would be accused of stealing work. In my opinion -- OF course there are no real original ideas in basic patchwork, blocks or shapes can only fit into a grid in an infinite number of ways but there is originality sometimes in color placement and overall application. I did notice that several of the blocks were not originals and some weren’t even really patchwork – so why were these blocks not disqualified? Your use of EQ7 makes a perfect point of the concept of originality – a few clicks and you have something new but then how much “work” did the new designer do really. I say don’t let this deter your dreams -- everything that is old is becoming new again. We had a quilt historian come and talk at out guild several months ago and she showed a picture of a quilt that appeared very modern and a very similar quilt had been published in a magazine about that time, turns out her quilt had been made over 100 years prior. Love the post.

  10. Great article! Unfortunately, I have no answers. It is not at all uncommon for multiple people to have similar ideas at the same time. That's why the first one to submit a patent application for an invention wins.

    Many years ago a friend of mine was teaching a technique locally. One day I walked into the restroom at the quilt shop and saw a book promotion on the wall. The book was exactly the technique that my friend had been teaching for a couple of years.

    Most of the time when I buy patchwork patterns it's to remind me of something I want to do. I'd never remember without the visual. Sometimes it for a technique.

    I agree that there is a lot of derivative work in quilting today. I look at some patterns and wonder, "Why?"

    I'm with you in wondering if it is possible to design truly new blocks. I do believe that it is possible to produce an innovative quilt design using existing blocks with atypical color/value placement.

    Barbara in MD

  11. This is SUCH a great post Jen! As I'm designing more and more patterns lately it is something I've been thinking about a lot. Not all of my patterns are original block designs - and some are available free on the internet or in EQ7. The 'original' blocks I have designed are really just a twist on traditional blocks - and I'm pretty sure if I searched they may have been designed already. Personally I think a pattern doesn't have to be an original block - you're doing the work of figuring out fabric requirements, cutting instructions and deciding what size block to use, and a lot of people like to have this work figured out for them (which I guess is why people buy patterns in the first place.)

    I guess you can't really copyright a block design - but I do think that if you've put the work into writing a pattern and figuring out all the maths and drawing up diagrams you have the right to copyright the pattern, but not the design if that makes sense?

    Great, great post Jen - and thanks for the shout out! I had never seen Rachel's raindrops and rainbows quilt before.

  12. Well, please, start designing your inspirations, original or not, the process is wonderful,
    But the copyright isn't all to it's cracked up to be, I have 17patterns and can sell them to a magazine because they are copyrighted. ( to me)) Sucks, what a waste, but they are my Baby's and I am happy I did it. Live a learn. quiltedladibug@aol.com
    Just do it,,,, you will love the journey

  13. This reminds me of when a fabric company not long ago posted a photo of a quilt. There were a couple people commenting that were saying they were copying Thimble Blossom's puddle jumping quilt block. I pointed out that the quilt block is an old one and commonly known as rolling stone. I had seen it in a book in a sampler quilt from the 1800s.

    I've was reading recently about copyrights and quilt patterns. From what I recall, it's the written pattern, including instructions, illustrations and photos that the copyright covers. Not the design of the block/quilt.

  14. Wow, that was thought provoking! And the comments too ! All I can add is that oldest daughter did a 3000 word essay a few years ago ( fir philosophy degree) explaining that there is no such thing as an original idea!!!!! X

  15. I think originality is gone in most things- songwriting/ music composition is another contentious one, people suing left, right and centre when there's a finite number of notes out there. I thought you might like to read this article too... http://occasionalpiece.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/its-my-quilt-and-ill-name-it-what-i-want-to/

  16. Great conversation here - I try to describe my inspiration and design process when claiming an original, or use 'modified' or 'version' etc, and give a shout out whenever possible (credit where credit is due!)... I rarely use a pattern and if I do it is from the library or magazine - I have never actually purchase one. If you sell a pattern for a quilt you design, I don't think you really need to claim it is your original design, you are selling the instructions, layout, and method you used for your finished quilt. I think it ought to have some form of originality and creative genius to it though. Some people just need to chill.
    Off topic just a tad, but,
    I have really avoided the whole modern discussion too - it does crack me up a bit when I see quilts that are nearly identical to past quilt trends - especially Amish as of late because of their solids, elaborate quilting, negative space etc.. And contemporary quilting has been influencial as well.. Sometimes Modern just means Resurgence to me!

    I do wish Modern quilter's would not separate themselves quite so much. When I was a young quilter, I never felt like I fit in with groups I tried, so I understand a bit why they are forming their own local guilds. The whole 'movement' just seems a bit overboard to me though, and in a way it seems as though they may actually be limiting themselves in their craft.

  17. Really great conversation. I agree with Heidi's comment about the "modern" movement potentially limiting themselves. I identify with this movement a lot (there are a lot of times I question what makes my quilts modern, but since they look like other modern quilts I guess I fall into that category.) Recently I was working on a quilt and found myself asking if a modern quilter would really make the choices I was making for the quilt. I finally just told myself I was choosing what made me happy and I love the way the quilt came out.

    I will say as far as pattern designing goes I recently submitted a pattern to a magazine that was inspired by my work on the Farmer's Wife quilt. I changed the size of the block and used one block repeated multiple times for my quilt, but I was clear in my submission that the block wasn't mine. I was very pleasantly surprised when the magazine accepted my proposal. I'd say if you have ambitions of designing do it. What may seam obvious to you might not have occured to someone else.

  18. Pretty much everyone has covered what I was going to say, but I'll just repeat for emphasis, I guess. :) Anything you write is copyrighted. So patterns are copyrighted, but the block design is not. If you draw graphics or take photos, that's also copyrighted.

    To look at it another way, there are a billion tutorials out there on how to bind a quilt. The binding itself isn't copyrighted, or the method that you're writing a pattern for, but your words and photos and descriptions are. I could write a tutorial that uses the same method and that would be fine. If I copied and pasted your tutorial (or even a part of your tutorial) then I would be violating copyright. So as long as you're not copying and pasting someone else's patterns, you're fine.

    Yeah you will most likely not have all original designs, but you might have a new take on it, or a new method of construction. Or maybe not, maybe you just explain it particularly well. Those are all contributions worth sharing.

  19. I agree 100% with you! In the accuquilt contest, one person found her block photographed and submitted by someone else. But guess what? I saw the same block in an old book or Jinny Beyer's encyclopedic work, don't remember exactly. The only difference was the star in the contest block was surrounded by a 2-color border. So does putting some strips of fabric around an old block make it original? I don't know.
    It is interesting to note that there are no copyrights on fashions. None of the big pattern companies have any restrictions on their patterns as to how many dresses or bags can be made from their patterns, or whether they can be sold or not. I much prefer to buy patterns from simplicity mccalls or butterick, to avoid this issue. As far as quilt patterns go, most of the designs in magazines and on line are recycled. You are right, there are very few original designs. It seems that "designed by" often means using a familiar block with a new fabric line.

  20. I do think that applique designs are a different story.

  21. It's always a little bizarre to me and I've had a tough time with this one, too, especially some people losing their minds over things like photo-snapping (seriously - she's at a quilt show! People take cameras for that very reason and she just lost customers by doing that...), and then the flip side of people actually stealing patterns and republishing them as their own - not cool. When I was first starting to quilt, I bought patterns because I didn't know all that much. I use them less and less as I go. I tend to buy patterns mostly now to a)support a quilter I admire b)learn a technique c) I'm too lazy to do the math when it's quite complicated d) it's paper-pieced or e) it's for clothing or accessories. It irks me when someone takes a very simple block (2 stripes) and then claim copyright. I haven't published any patterns myself (though I've thought about it) but if I do, and someone figures it out without my work, more power to them. If they give me a nod for inspiration, even better. If they take my pattern and then put their own name to it - I'm going to be annoyed. But people are so quick to get litigious and uppity over what mostly could be considered "common wisdom". Retro Flowers, Groove... both drunkard's path blocks but those patterns sold like crazy (and I have both of them). So yes, and no, to answer your question. Same as every other art. It's mostly problematic for quilting because it's become a big-money industry. And people rarely play nice when there's money to be made... It's sad. I'm deeply ambivalent about the whole thing.

    I'm glad you articulated it though - not enough people are asking this question.


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