I had a very interesting conversation last week with a group of women women talking about ‘The Stash’. This is a subject which quilters will always talk about with great enthusiasm, and I thought I would take a little bit of time to write about what the scholars are thinking. To keep it a bit lighter I am going to sprinkle internet memes about the stash throughout – this is why the pictures are a bit small today.
Nearly everyone I know who pursues any sort of craft has a stash. I am in awe of those people who just buy enough for a project and thus have a pristine workroom. I am not quite sure what they do with the scraps at the end; I presume they make them into things to give to the deserving poor. I cannot believe they throw them away. I have to have a stash for my work because very often I just need a one inch piece of something so I keep vast amounts of scraps, but also big pieces which will probably just have a corner cut out sometime in the future. I think about this as my compost: eventually it will break down into something lovely and sustaining.
The fantasy way to keep all this stuff is shown in the photograph at the top of this post, but the reality is much more like this:
Which brings me onto my first point discussed by the academics: our feelings about our stash. There are a number of these:
- A number of well-adjusted women take the view that they work hard to be financially independent and so how they spend their money is no-one’s business.
- Some women see what their husbands/partners spend their money on and see their stash as being an equivalent. It might equal a set of golf clubs or an expensive camera plus accessories.
- Some women feel extremely guilty about their stash. This possibly because it is spending money on themselves and not their families, or because they buy it and then can’t bear to use it. There are probably lots of explanations, but they mainly come down, I think, to women thinking that they are not worth it. If ever I want to buy something extravagant I phone one of my male gay friends. They always say one of two things: ‘You work hard, you deserve it’, or: ‘Do you mean to tell me that you don’t think that you are worth a (insert item of choice plus price)?’ Or I recall my mother’s wise words: ‘You will remember (insert name of item you wish to buy) far longer than you will remember the overdraft’.
- The older women get the more likely they seem to find the stash a burden. I have noticed with friends that our mothers become really keen to declutter and to throw stuff away that has been in the attic for years as they get older. In my case, the stuff transfers from my mother’s attic to mine. This desire to get rid of stuff seems to be even worse if there is a stash involved, and I think there is sometimes guilt about leaving the burden of sorting it out to whomever has to clear out the house. I have come across quilters who have had to sell off another quilter’s stash who vow never to pass that job onto someone else.
Some of the women in the group were what are called ‘early career academics’ which means that they are doing their first or second jobs, just having finished their PhDs. They talked about moving and having to ‘drag it from house to house’ as they tried to find a permanent position.
A really extreme position was that having a stash was morally corrupt because it represented having an excess while others have nothing. The Western world always has too much and never enough in the context of a global world
One of the ways that having the stash is often justified is to collect vintage fabric for reuse, a form of recycling, and this is certainly something that I like to emphasise. A lot of my stash is old samples or remnants which would have gone into landfill if I hadn’t rescued it. But, as a colleague of mine who works on the engineering of waste and recycling says, this just delays or defers the problem. Recycled presents are great, but you are just passing the stuff onto the next person. ‘It’ still exists and will have to be dealt with at some point in the future. Overproduction is the problem and recycling is not the answer.
A slightly lighter note was struck by one of the women who said that she thought the ideal was the ‘sweet spot’ between having enough but not so much that it crossed over into being clutter.
Even more positive was the position that the stash represents potential. It is there to be transformed and it is there to liberate creativity. Certainly in my work with grown-ups involving making of any sort I have found that it works best when there is an enormous, generous amount of stuff. Having stuff to waste or experiment with seems to liberate the childlike desire to create in people. It always gets mentioned in feedback. ‘There was just so much stuff, so much to choose from’. I wonder if people somehow read this as care in material form, and if you are being cared for then you are safe and free to play.
There was also some conversation about how stashes circulate, a bit like those friendship cakes where you get a small piece of batter to make your own cake and then to pass on to friends. I get parts of my mother’s stash which I pass on to friends needing new cushions or bags or backing fabric. The academic women described these as ‘small circulating economies’ which just means that there is a form of exchange involved.
An interesting suggestion was that Ebay represents a global electronic stash. There is all that stuff just sitting there all over the world just waiting to be transported and rehomed and re-used. I think this is an interesting idea, although this is a very brazen commercial form of stash, and yet it is one that I have participated in, of course.
As all this material circulates between us, one interesting question is whether or not knowledge is being transferred as well. Do the skills follow the fabric? I think it’s an interesting idea, and it is possible that when someone gives you, or swaps you, or even sells you a piece of fabric or equipment they will tell you how to use it or what they used it for or intended to use it for, but my suspicion is that it is mainly about the material exchange.
There was some talk of the stash being a community resource where people could come and take what they needed for their project. I thought this was a bit idealistic. I think that there are politics around the stash, and unwritten and unspoken rules. We have a sort of stash at Bristol Quilters where there is a Saint Peter’s Hospice stall with fabric for anyone. But we all know that we are expected to pay for it. If I just took a chunk of something I would expect at the very least to get some dirty looks. Even when the lovely women who run the stall and know that I collect Laura Ashley fabric give me something free I feel obligated to make a donation anyway as it is for charity.
I think there is even a question of who gets to use your stash. I have two stashes: one is available to anyone. Take and waste as much as you like. Cut the centre out of the piece rather than snipping a bit off along the edge. Spill stuff all over it. Make something incredibly ugly with it. I genuinely don’t mind. The second is my stash for me. Now if you are a really good friend and want, say, some red fabric, you can have anything, but only because you are a really good friend. This is a relational activity. It builds and binds friendships. It makes me a mealy-mouthed person community-wise and makes me a terrible fabric capitalist, but it is how I feel. Hands off the precious last bit of my favourite fabric. I know at least one woman who really resents being seen as a community resource. She hates takers who never seen to flip over into givers, and I sort of know what she means.
There is also a class element to all this. I can afford to spend money on fabric; I have enough disposable income to allow me to do it. But not everyone has. My very good friend, Marybeth Stalp talks much more about the guilt over the stash in her interviewees in the US, probably because it is a more working class pursuit than in the UK where the guilt is less. I think there might also be an age component. Many quilters were born during or just after the war when there was austerity and utility and shortage. Having a store of things was fine as that would feed and clothe the family in hard times, but buying things for yourself for the pleasure of stroking and folding and having them was an indulgence and therefore morally wrong. So I got used to smuggling things in past my father when my mother and I had been shopping. So I think this brings me back to my starting point about the mixed emotion of the stash. I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts if anyone would like to leave a comment.