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By Michael McCormick

The Quilt You Didn't Make

Photos from our feature on quilter Judy Martin in Issue 02: Iowa

Steve Jobs said, “Focus means saying no to the hundred other good ideas.” He added he was “as proud of the things we haven’t done [at Apple] as the things I have done.”

As a business owner, I’ve reflected on this many times, and now more than ever. As Quiltfolk grows, I constantly make decisions that affect our business and our team’s future. Every day, we discuss dozens of good ideas, great story leads, and new approaches to things. And in the end, only a fraction comes to fruition.

And that’s not because we don’t get things done. The opposite is true: Our team is energetic, organized, and efficient. But the sheer nature of creativity is that you’ll always come up with more options than you can handle, more than you can execute. Hence the need to choose.



The Latin word for “choose” — decidere — literally means “to cut off.” This is fitting, since whenever we make a decision, we actually “cut off” all other alternatives, no matter how appealing.

Depending on which study you read, humans make anywhere from hundreds to thousands of conscious decisions each day, begging the question: What is left in the scrap heap of our own history? What priceless things have we cut off with our daily decisions?

Quilts themselves are the result of a significant decision process. Colors, fabrics, block pattern, thread, quilting motif, binding — what choices did we make? A finished quilt is the result of myriad conscious and unconscious choices, and in the end, we’re left with a literal heap of scraps.

So what about the quilt you didn’t make? The one that used that other blue, that different thread, that alternate pattern. The one with the stitching that zigged instead of zagged. What might you have made, had you chosen a different path from the very first cut?

Wondering what might have been is characterized in popular culture as “FOMO,” the fear of missing out, the dread of regretting what you might have experienced or created, had you chosen differently. But perhaps there is an alternate view of these consequences of choice.

I learned recently about a belief in some Judaic traditions. The empty (or negative) space found in scripture — that which lies between the text — is as important and worthy of interpretation as what the text itself reveals. In other words, reading between the lines is not simply an idiomatic expression, but a way of gleaning true insight into the author’s intent.


The great business mind Peter Drucker echoed this concept when he said, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” Robert Frost titled his iconic poem The Road Not Taken — and not “The Road Taken.” The list goes on, of interesting people who join Steve Jobs in caring about what didn’t happen. What is cut out can be pretty interesting and important — if only we pay attention.

When it comes to quiltmaking, one thing is certain: We will never see, with our eyes, the quilts we didn’t make. But they aren’t entirely lost either.

Embedded within our finished quilts, the ones we take to show and tell, give to family and friends, and enjoy for decades, are our omissions. Our myriad decisions can be felt, even appreciated, if only we take the time to look. And these choices, about what to include or not in a quilt, are in their own way a recorded history of who we were at the time of its making.

The tagline of Quiltfolk magazine is “Telling the stories behind the stitches.” But maybe it’s time to look between the stitches too and ask ourselves what can be gleaned from the small cuts of fabric buried deep within the scrap pile. While the quilts we didn’t make will never take first place at a show or keep us warm at night, their inexistence has paved the way for our most inspired work to see the light of day.

Until next time, 


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