The Cult of Difficulty

I was in a quilt shop the other day, and the conversation turned to the various projects we’re working on. I was getting a bit more of the border fabric I’d run out of for one of the baby quilts, and I mentioned the star quilt I was working on, with the Mariner’s Compass block at the center. The woman behind the counter let out an ooooh. “That’s a hard one.”  I shrugged. “I’m paper piecing it, so it’s a lot easier.” She rolled her eyes and said, “Well, that’s cheating.”

I hear this attitude a lot, this idea that the value of an action is in its difficulty rather than its outcome. Your quilt isn’t as nice if you attach the bindings by machine rather than by hand. You’re not healthy enough, domestic enough, good enough, if you don’t make every single ingredient in your food from scratch. You’re too dependent on technology if you store your grocery list in your phone. There’s this worship of labor-intensity in our society. This whole concept is based on the false idea that everyone has the same time, money, skills, and resources, and that’s just blatantly false.

In competitions, I can see how it would be valuable. A competitor performing a more difficult task successfully shows that they have a higher level of skill. But here’s the thing: life isn’t a competition. So instead of being so hard on each other for choosing to do things the practical way, to “use your head and save your heels,” as my great-grandmother would say, let’s celebrate each other’s successes.



8 Comments on “The Cult of Difficulty”

  1. I’m guessing that by the logic of these people… I should be acting all superior over people that cut designs in stones using a dremel tool because I prefer to do it by hand with a metal scriber pen. Meanwhile the person using the power tool is able to make objects in a reasonable time and is able to sell them at a reasonable price… while spend about eight to twelve hours to make one piece for my personal use, that I’d never be able to find a buyer willing to pay me even (minimum wage*labor time) for.

  2. raym64 says:

    There are degrees though. For example, I would place a much higher value on a quilt that you personally made (whatever the method you used) over, say a machine made quilt from China at Walmart. The same with my wood art. I spend hours doing intricate cutting that I feel puts myself into the work. This is even though the same thing can be made in minutes by a computerized laser cutter.

  3. Sophie says:

    I know I’m coming out of nowhere because a friend just passed this blog along to me as something he thought I would like, but I just can’t not comment.

    I just… love everything about this post. To me, doing things in the manner that is most efficient for you to provide your best work is good stewardship of resources.

    (Hello, by the way.)

    • Stephy says:

      You know, my grandma, who taught me to quilt, has been known to say something very similar. I think that “Look, I made a thing!” is something to be celebrated, whether someone uses shortcuts or gadgets or not. We as a culture, and especially crafters, need to be prouder of each other’s accomplishments and less critical of each other’s methods. That compass block that I was accused of “cheating” for paper piecing would be well above my skill level without. That was the only way I could stretch my skills to the level of that design.

      • Sophie says:

        I couldn’t agree more! It really saddens me we try to build ourselves up by breaking others’ down. Labor is labor and accomplishment is accomplishment. Especially with crafting, there should be supportive communities that encourage sharing and innovation in these time-honored traditions.

        I’m reminded of baking, and how I get the same amount of compliments on my totally from scratch cookies and my doctored-store-mix brownies. If people can’t tell the difference until you point it out to them, then they really have no reason to scoff about your methods. Rather, pull up a chair and share in the sweetness of triumph.

  4. voxwoman says:

    I call shenanigans on your quilt police snob. I have NEVER seen a blue ribbon on a mariner’s compass in any of the shows I’ve been to in the past 10 years that has NOT been paper-pieced.

    Does she also think that using a sewing machine to piece quilts is “cheating” ? (I know a couple of those people, too).

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