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Uncomfortable Quilts: A Conversation with Multimedia Artist Erika Barcott

Bitch Quilt

Erika Barcott is a West Coast based technical writer, blogger, and life-long crafter, who has explored dozens of different materials, techniques, and art forms, starting in childhood. Her current work focuses on quilting, but we cover everything in this sweeping interview.

RV: Let’s start out with your claim to fame: the Tree Sweater.

EB: Ha! Yeah, I was Internet Famous for a few minutes, but nobody really knows that was me.

RV: Right! It’s just the image that went viral.

The Tree Sweater on the cover of Seattle’s The Stranger

EB: Yeah, it became this whole thing. Everyone wanted me to be making some kind of grand, deeper statement with it, but I literally just thought it would be funny. There was also an artist [Maria Elena Buszek] right at that time who was using crochet, and she was making tank cosies. She was a real artist, who had artist statements and was getting artist-in-residence jobs, and she herself wasn’t very well known at the time, but the picture of the tank in the tank cosy was just so compelling. Of course, she had much bigger goals, and would never stoop to putting a sweater on a tiny tree, but between the two of us it seemed like a trend, and really took off and got a lot of attention. 

Buzek’s Tank Cosy

EB: I think the tree sweaters went viral because knitters saw it and thought “I could do that!” while nobody is going to look at a tank and think they could crochet a cosy for it. It was much more accessible, and I even published a pattern for it in a book about yarn bombing.

RV: And why did you take up knitting to begin with?

EB: Well, I’m a nerd with a big fondness for optimization. I was telling a friend that I wanted to start a new craft, but I wanted it to be useful. So many crafts are strictly decorative, and if I was going to launch into something and embrace it, I wanted to make things that people want/can use. I mean, maybe “need” is a bit strong, but sweaters and socks and scarves have utility to them. She taught me to knit, and it’s complex enough that there was a lot to learn, and I liked the challenge of it. Knitting is easy to do, but hard to master. I like the research aspect of crafts, and feeling like I’m learning.

RV: And you started spinning as well around that time?

EB: Yes, a lot of knitters dabble in spinning. After I left Seattle in 2008, I moved to a small cabin in Skagit County. I didn’t have cable TV, my internet was touch-and-go (I was using an aircard with spotty cell service), and this was before I started gaming. So I found myself in need of other hobbies to help fend off boredom. I bet a lot of people are learning to spin during quarantine, now that I think about it.

I eventually started knitting less because I was gaming more. Knitting is a great thing to do when you are watching TV, but you can’t do it while you game. And then when I moved to Southern California, I couldn’t maintain the pretense of utility: nobody needs sweaters and socks and scarves in that climate. So I transitioned into quilting, but I did keep spinning. I’m still spinning – I spin for a few minutes every day. Then I end up with all this yarn I don’t use, so I’ve been selling it at our local quilt guild events.

RV: You could also soak it in glue and make things out of it! But you’ve done lots of different kinds of work: I’ve seen your paintings, and photography…

EB: Yeah, around the time of the tree sweater I was also doing a lot of illustrated sketchbooks. Pen and ink drawings with a watercolor wash, that kind of thing. I really liked sketching, and it turns out I’m pretty good at drawing.

But after a while I realized that I didn’t enjoy it enough to do it for its own sake: it ended up being something I did because I enjoyed all the praise and attention. I realized that, if I wasn’t showing these to people, I wouldn’t be interested in doing them, and that’s not actually very good for your self.

There are things that you are good at, and things you enjoy doing, and they don’t always overlap.

I’ve also done candle making, and soap making. I really enjoyed book-binding. I think if I were to retire and have a lot of time on my hands, I would do more book-binding. It doesn’t take up a lot of space, but it requires a lot of specialized supplies. I was using found paper to make the book covers, and really enjoyed them. But then it comes back to The Friendship Bracelet Problem: I really enjoyed making them, but I didn’t know what to do with them – there are only so many you can give away.

RV: I find that, no matter what you’re working on, there is something really appealing about keeping your hands busy while you’re watching TV or doing something else with your thoughts.

EB: Keeping my hands busy is an ADD thing for me. Like, right now as we are talking I am gluing hexagons to fabric. Keeping my hands busy lets my brain concentrate a bit better, and if I don’t keep them busy then I end up fidgeting and ripping up napkins and that kind of thing. So I can make a big mess, or I can give my hands something to do and have something useful come of it. It’s kind of meditative, which is one of the things I liked about knitting. I can listen better when my hands are busy.

In fact, my first experience with quilting was actually back in the late 90s or early 2000s. I was working night shift at a call center. It was really quiet, and there was nobody around, and I had nobody to talk to, so I was watching a lot of TV at work and wanted to do something with my hands. So I went out and I bought some fabric that had chickens on it, and I cut it with just the shitty scissors that I had at the house, and I didn’t have a sewing machine, so I was hand-sewing the pieces together. I had never sewn anything before, so I was hand sewing the pieces together badly. I was bringing it to work and sewing in between calls, and I thought, “This is great! I’m really enjoying it, and I always wanted to make a quilt!” And I was holding it up and showing the guys at work, who couldn’t care less about it, and one of the guys was like, “Oh yeah, my mom is really into quilting. I always felt like sewing the top is the easy part, and then you have to quilt the whole thing with the big frame.” And I was like, “You what?!?” I didn’t know about the actual quilting part of it at all.

Fast-forward many years until I was living in Southern California and had stopped knitting, but was still spinning, and I was looking for something else to do, and then my boyfriend’s family came to visit. His mom has owned a quilt shop for many years, and his sister owns the shop with her. They came to town for a quilt show, because they travel to these shows and sell things at vendor tables. They really renewed my interest in it, so after they left I went to Walmart and bought the best sewing machine you can get at Walmart for $70. Buying a sewing machine always seemed like a huge step, a big financial commitment, and you run the risk of not liking the activity and giving up all this space and making all this investment. But I set those thoughts aside and decided to splurge on this sewing machine.

“To Walmart, good Sir!”

RV: How was the machine?

EB: It’s perfectly fine. It’s a Brother LX2763, and I still have it as my back-up machine. I use it to sew weird things: if you sew a tarp or something on the good machine, it’s not great for the motor, so I sew things on that machine.

The thing with quilting is that there are big barriers to entry, not just in terms of cost, but also expertise. You can learn a lot from YouTube videos, but the best way to learn is to take a class, and the classes are expensive, and they are offered during the day time. That makes it hard for people who have day jobs or child care needs to participate in quilting. 

A recent survey showed that most people don’t start quilting until after they retire, and that’s because it requires a decent income, and lots of uninterrupted time, and lots of equipment and space for the equipment, so most of the people who do it are upper-middle-class white ladies (like me!). It’s hard to find other voices in the quilting community, although there are some: I’m really inspired by artists like Chawne Kimber and The Migrant Quilt Project.

Tucson Sector by The Migrant Quilt Project

But these considerations do tend to have a chilling effect on newer, younger quilters. I am the youngest person in our quilting guild, by decades, which is kind of ridiculous. A 48 year old person shouldn’t be the youngest person, offering tech support for the whole guild. The stereotype about quilting being for grandmas is unfortunately true, and I wish I wasn’t always the youngest person in the room.

RV: So what is it about quilting that appeals to you?

EB: Well, firstly, I work in the tech field, and it’s very dude-heavy, so it’s nice to have female-centric activities on the side. Quilting has a lot of different steps to it, so it’s not as repetitive as knitting. Every quilt has 4-5 distinct stages, so you get some variety. It fulfills my utility requirement: there’s always someone who can use a quilt. I am making a summer quilt right now with no batting, so it’s lightweight, so you can quilt all year long. You can quilt a lot of different things: I’ve made a tote bag that I like, and a shoulder bag that turned out pretty great. And making masks, of course: who knew that a silly little hobby would turn into a literal life-saving pastime? Since quarantine I’ve also been making fabric postcards, since I’ve been mailing more.

RV: Quilted postcards sound amazing! You should share them with us!

EB: Yes, you make a very small quilt block, and then instead of fabric batting you use a piece of card stock. You can sew it to the card stock and write on the back, or you can write directly on the fabric. I’ve been mailing a lot of them.

RV: What’s your favorite tool? And quilting technique? 

EB: I am very into the rotary cutter. It’s so satisfying to cut fabric with it, and there’s an element of danger. I have a few different ones, and they are really fun to work with. I also love chain-piecing. If you can sew all the pieces together at once, making a really long chain, you can kind of zone out and assembly line it. It’s incredibly satisfying, and I will re-work patterns that aren’t designed for chain piecing so that I can do that. I have a mental race of how many pieces I can chain before I have to cut it for some reason, and I’m always trying to beat my own record, getting these ridiculously long pieces together. There was an old Simpsons episode where Principal Skinner was locked in the garage, and he said he passed the time by dribbling a basketball: “I made a game of it. Seeing how many times I could bounce the ball in a day, and then trying to break that record.” I always think of it when I’m chaining pieces.

Seymour’s Escape

RV: And what’s your least favorite part?

EB (without hesitation): I hate basting. Basting is where you have to make a quilt sandwich with the top and the batting and the backing, and you have to pin it together to make sure it’s all flat and smooth and doesn’t shift. So you have to lay the whole thing out, and be really precise and detailed with this object that is really big and hard to work with. You’re wrestling with the fabric, and you have to put in 150 safety pins, and I don’t have a table big enough to do it, and it’s not fun to lay it out on the floor and crawl around on your hands and knees.

It does not bring me joy, but I have to do it in order to get onto the next part that I do enjoy.

RV: Your quilts tend to be a bit “meta”. They offer commentary on the history and craft of quilting, in a self-reflective way.

Wage Gap potholder by Erika Barcott

EB: Well, one of the things that drew me to quilting is that it has this very fraught history. People have been sewing fabric to fabric forever, but didn’t really take off as an art form until the Victorian era. When it came to the United States, in the pre-civil-war south, quilting was a lot of work, and a lot of people assigned it to their house slaves. A quilt in my own family was made in this way.

RV: Wow!

EB: I know! So a lot of folklore arose around what different blocks mean, and what different fabric choices mean, and a lot of that information is just apocryphal, but I like understanding that history and participating in a tradition with a lot of meaning behind it. It has some depth and significance.

RV: The quilt you made about your friend Lee has a lot of significance in that way.

A Quilt For My Friend Lee, Who Committed Suicide by Erika Barcott

EB: Well, yes, and quilting is very maternal. It has all these associations with comfort and family and grandmothers, which is not the case in my family. It has all these cozy/cute associations, so it’s interesting to pick up that lens and turn it around and examine what else you can see with it. People find it very upsetting when you make a quilt and it is very not cozy. They find it inherently disturbing, so when I made a quilt out of tarp and window screens it got a big reaction. Honestly, it’s a little bit enjoyable to disrupt the kind of people who tend to inhabit the quilting community, to offer a push-pull against those conventions.

There’s no doubt that Erika’s active hands and curious mind will keep her creating fascinating work for years to come. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter for crafting, quilting, gaming, and wonderful cat pictures.

Featured image Bitch Quilt by Erika Barcott

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