While finishing my first twin-size quilt, I also wrote my master’s thesis. Perhaps paradoxically, the quilting kept me focused on the writing. Piecing colorful squares into blocks with my sewing machine grounded me in reality and let me process my research in ways staring at a computer screen or texting friends could not.
Quilting is, for me, the perfect antidote to the socially networked and hyper-mediated world we live in. Practicing this craft forces me to single-task—to pick one thing and pursue it. I can rip out stitches or order more fabric, sure, but there comes a point when I must commit to a design and carry it through or there will be no quilt. Quilting also creates a space for me to be alone with my thoughts. Because my fingers are distracted with a rotary blade, a sewing machine, or a needle, I can’t check Facebook or read the latest news, and because a sewing machine is loud, I rarely watch TV while piecing. Choosing fabric textures and prints and slowly testing out color combinations is a stark contrast from the world of whirling bytes, where I can hop between 20 open tabs in Google Chrome to occupy my time while my email loads.
Americans spend an average of 17 minutes of their leisure time each day “relaxing and thinking,” according to the US Department of Labor’s American Time Use Survey. The rest is spent playing computer games (27 minutes), socializing (38 minutes), playing sports (17 minutes), reading (19 minutes), and watching TV (2 hours and 49 minutes). Employment statistics suggest that, increasingly, we are also processing vast amounts of knowledge in our workplaces. As management scholar Peter Drucker says in the Harvard Business Review, this is “the first society in which ‘honest work’ does not mean a callused hand.”
I, for one, am in this boat. I rarely do anything these days that does not involve processing information. And I also find that I am, or could be, constantly busy with that work. As a graduate student, work is always waiting for me in moments that could be leisure. I don’t punch a clock, but there is always another paper to grade, an email to answer, an article to submit, and the ever-looming competitive job market to anticipate.
As with many jobs, when gaining knowledge and processing information brings in a paycheck, it’s easy to feel that doing more is better. We could or should be doing more with our time, and multitasking becomes an enticing routine. In an odd conundrum, though, this multitasking only makes us more frustrated with our lack of time. “No matter what people are doing, people feel better when they are focused on that activity,” University of British Columbia psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn told The Economist.
Maybe it’s no wonder that, amid our culture’s drive to multitask frenetically and constantly, domestic arts like quilting are making a comeback. When most of the day is spent sifting through information, settling down to work with your hands can be the best relaxation. From 1994 to 2006, the number of quilters in the United States nearly doubled, increasing from 15.5 million to 27 million, according to the Quilters in America survey. While the number of quilters has dropped back down to 16.4 million, the value of the industry has kept growing: US quilters now spend $3.76 billion on their craft each year, a nearly steady increase from $1.55 billion in 1994.
While there is some mental art to quilting—choosing color palettes and calculating how to cut the most pieces from a swath of fabric—much of the process involves what I would call mental idleness. As Tim Kreider writes for The New York Times, “Idleness … is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
In the beginning, I was an apathetic quilter. My first quilt square—an Ohio Star block made with old-fashioned red and blue printed fabric—may still be gathering dust, unfinished, in my parents’ basement. While job-hunting in the depressing 2009 market, I picked up quilting again as a distraction, and now, as I push further into graduate school, I turn more and more often to it as a relaxing contrast to everything else in my daily life and routines.
A lot has happened in the past six months: I took my doctoral exams, wrote my dissertation proposal, taught two classes, moved, and got married. Through it all, I have been piecing and slowly hand-quilting a queen-sized quilt. Each stitch has given me mental and physical space to process these transitions—to think about what I have left behind in my old dwelling, my old relationship status, and what phase of life I enter as I begin to write my dissertation and live as a wife.
I have started to realize that, for me, the idleness of quilting has another name: Sabbath.
Sabbath exists to re-situate humans in time, writes Abraham Heschel in The Sabbath. “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord,” he says. For Heschel, writing to a Jewish audience and rooted in the manual labor economy of the 1950s, Sabbath means giving up physical labor and remembering that our existence is not, and should not be, defined by things. For me, living in the information- and knowledge-driven economy of the 21st century, Sabbath has come to mean thinking less, narrowing my focus, and doing work with my hands.
I write, of course, from a position of extreme privilege. I am a woman, but I am white, speak English, and am pursuing advanced education in a specialized field—all of which give me the privilege of not having to work two full-time, labor-intensive, minimum wage jobs just to pay rent in Seattle. For me, pulling out a quilt project and adding a row of stitches is the rest my body and brain need.
The commitment, single focus, and solitude of quilting remind me that I live in a real, physical world where my decisions have visible impact on my surroundings, mistakes must be undone, and persistence has a reward. It connects me to a community of women who have persisted in bringing beauty out of rags—many early quilts were made to reuse worn-out clothes—and gives me mental space to process my rapidly changing life and world. By giving my hands something to do and letting my mind wander, quilting has saved my sanity and restored my rest.