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The Men Who Quilt

An afternoon with the dudes of QuiltCon

“There are a few of us,” Daniel Rouse, a 50-year-old male quilter from Oakland, tells me about men who quilt competitively.

We’re walking through the exhibition room at QuiltCon, the world’s preeminent quilting competition/expo/training conference, at the Pasadena Convention Center, and all around us are some of the most intricate, stunningly beautiful works of textile art I’ve ever laid my eyes on — all of them hand-made by hobbyist quilters such as Rouse. Two in particular standout: A monstrous 12-square-footer that seemingly includes the entirety of the color spectrum — small lengths of fabric, each with a distinct hue, arranged in triangular patches to create sections of various oranges, greens, yellows, blues, purples and reds; and a mesmerizing white-and-blue number whose trapezoidal design is soothing, but also makes it feel as though your eyes are going crossed.

For his part, Rouse looks like a tragically hip art school professor — blue floral shirt; acid wash jeans; glasses; and an impeccably kept beard. He’s also one of the rare males with quiltwork on display this weekend. “In general, the fiber arts are more for women,” Rouse tells me. “Sewing and knitting, all that stuff, is seen as domestic work, and men aren’t encouraged to do it. Girls are taught to sew and boys aren’t.”

And so, at QuiltCon, the line for the women’s restroom is constant, while the men’s is non-existent. The gender disparity is also reflected in the membership of the Modern Quilt Guild, the group that hosts Quiltcon. Founded in 2009, the guild already has more than 13,000 members in 200 chapters across 39 countries — and a whopping 98 percent of them are women.

All of which makes Rouse impossible to miss — well, that and his towering 6-foot-4 frame. He can’t go more than 15 minutes without random women — most of them strangers who know of him only through the internet — stopping him and congratulating him on inclusion in this year’s show. Rouse is “the best,” one assures me.

He’s certainly among the best. More than 1,400 quilters submitted pieces for this year’s competition, and Rouse’s piece — a Warholian, duo-tone rendition of RuPaul — is one of the 300 that qualified for the jury round. (The quilt took 20 yards of fabric, 2,000 yards of thread and more than 120 hours for him to complete.)

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Hanging out with my Mama Ru quilt at #quiltcon

A post shared by Dan Rouse (@dsrouse) on

“A lot of quilters have been producing a lot of protest quilts this year,” Rouse explains of his piece. “I was looking to make a protest piece, too, but I wasn’t coming up with anything exciting.” Instead, he decided to create something joyful. “I’ve been determined to find joy in my life this year. RuPaul gives me so much joy with his music, his podcast, and of course, Drag Race. And this quilt brings me joy,” the quilt’s description reads.

Rouse started quilting 10 years ago. He moved out of his house and into an apartment as part of a painful breakup, and thought making a quilt would be a way for him to “own” his new space. “My first piece was ugly,” he says. “It was a queen-sized green blob that I imagine has proved useful for packing furniture. I gave it away years ago.”

Nonetheless, the process was cathartic — quilting gave him the empowerment he sought — so he kept at it. Soon, he began posting photos of his quilts to Flickr and discovered a thriving online quilting community. He achieved critical renown for his eight-bit quilt rendering of Mario, and eventually developed his signature street-art style. Rouse compares himself to famed graffiti artist Banksy in his use of stencils to create quilts with images of bears, dinosaur skeletons and skulls on them.

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A wider shot of the finished quilt

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Quilting is one of America’s oldest, most populist art forms. It flourished in the Great Plains states during the early 19th century because it was one of the only forms of artistic expression available to women of the era. It’s been passed down from mother to daughter ever since. Contemporary quilters, however, have elevated the craft into a form of modern art. Yet, the craft remains predominantly female. “It’s the history,” explains Riane Menardi Morrison, the guild’s communications manager. “Quilting was domestic work, women’s work.”

Still, Rouse isn’t completely alone. In fact, the chairman of the Modern Quilt Guild is a 36-year-old bespectacled man from Philadelphia named Andrew Joslyn. His husband Chad is an avid knitter, and one day a few years ago, Joslyn accompanied Chad to the knitting supply store, only to discover the quilting shop next door. He thought it’d be nice to make a quilt for his newborn niece, and “it just kinda clicked,” he says. “I’m an engineer in my 9-to-5 job, so I enjoyed the math and geometry [of quilting].”

“There’s just something so special about giving someone something so personal,” adds Johnny Barfuss, a broad-shouldered, square-jawed 46-year-old male quilter from Salt Lake City. “And unlike other art forms, quilting is tactile. Everything here is functional and intended to be touched. It can literally give you warmth and comfort.”

Barfuss grew up in a sewing family — his grandmother quilted as a hobby, and his mother was a professional seamstress. He was captivated by the fabrics when accompanying his mother to buy supplies, and acquired a fondness for reupholstering furniture growing up. Quilting, though, didn’t come until adulthood, after his grandmother had passed. “In Mormon culture, you don’t buy quilts, your grandmother makes them for you.” He opted to sew his own, and soon began giving his works away as gifts.

Barfuss’ quilt on display this weekend, titled “Out of the Darkness,” is a black-to-white gradation of triangles, and represents his emergence from a deep depression over the past year. “This quilt is very personal,” he says. “A year ago I was at the lowest point of my life. I was essentially homeless. I moved into an office room in an airplane hangar — a storage unit basically. There was no heat or running water, cement floors. I snapped. I wanted to end my life. I didn’t do it. I hung on a little bit. I got a job the next week. I found a place to live. The quilt represents that — light breaking out of the darkness. I normally work in brighter colors. But this is very personal.”

It’s also likely what Joslyn will cite when evangelizing on behalf of the holy trinity of a needle, thread and fabric to the younger men at the schools and Boy Scout groups the guild has outreach programs with. “When we talk to people about quilting, their initial impression is usually, Oh my grandmother makes quilts,” he explains. “The younger you go, there’s less of an opposition to quilting. They haven’t learned yet that that it’s wrong.”