My wife didn’t make that quilt. I did.

A growing number of men are taking up quilting, many of them retired engineers

by Josh Dehaas

My wife didn't make that quilt. I did.

Photograph By Chris Bolin

Al Heslop spent his life travelling to far-away places taking measurements from oil wells and then analyzing the data using the computer programs he wrote. As he watched the violence in Libya unfold on television, the retired petro-physicist from Airdrie, Alta., was able to spot a few of “his old stomping grounds.” It was an adventurous career.

That’s why it seems strange that the 76-year-old’s new avocation involves carefully matching his fabrics to his threads and then meticulously piecing them together with needles and a Singer. Al Heslop is a proud quilter. And no, it was not his wife’s idea.

It was the other way around. Heslop dragged his spouse to the quilt shop to pick out their very first patterns, one day about five years ago. When he got home and opened up that first set of instructions he realized he’d chosen an advanced quilt by mistake. But the pattern that might have taken an advanced hobbyist months to finish was ready to hang two weeks later—just in time for him to enter it at the county fair where his daughter lives, in Kennewick, Wash.

As he stood proudly with his work, a pair of women came up to examine his quilt. “Look at how she did that stitching,” gasped one. Heslop corrected her. “She didn’t do that,” he said. “I did!” The woman gasped again. He won first prize and the local guild changed its name from the Material Girls to the Prairie Quilt Mercantile.

Matt Sparrow, the owner of Sparrow Studioz in Edmonton, isn’t the kind of guy one would expect to be agonizing over thread colours either. For the photo on his blog, Manquilter.com, he struck the type of badass pose one might see on a pro skateboarder’s site, and he’s not averse to using swear words. He says that whenever people hear he’s a quilter, their first reaction is to imply that he’s gay. “But whatever,” says Sparrow. “I’ve got nine kids.”

Heslop and Sparrow are part of a growing crowd, says Vivian Kapusta, secretary of the Canadian Quilters’ Association. Sparrow’s online forum has reached 185 male members (including some from as far away as Germany) since he started it two years ago. Kapusta has also noticed that a large percentage of male quilters are retired engineers. The former high school principal from Maple Ridge, B.C., has a theory about that. She had always wondered why boys seemed attracted to the geometrical wall-hangings in her office, unlike girls. Then she realized they were fascinated by the geometry.

Heslop sees the math connection too. “It does involve some trigonometry,” he says. “Like in this Star of Bethlehem quilt I did, you sew six strips of fabric together in the colours you want and you cut them in 45 degrees and they all end up in diamonds. Then you sew the sets of diamonds together to get the stars,” he says. “It’s really quite intriguing.”

Other men are drawn to quilting by the complex long-arm quilting machines they get to use, says Sparrow. “My daughters’ friends’ fathers come over and they’re right down on their knees looking at how it all works,” he says. “Men see it as pretty much just a big power tool.”

Before quilting, Sparrow was a website developer. But within weeks of purchasing his own long-arm, he quit his Web job because he had so many requests from female quilters to help them finish the stitching on their pieces. His romance with the craft started one day when his wife was struggling to stitch together a multi-layered quilt. “I wasn’t confident she was doing it the right way, so I looked it up on the Internet,” he says. “She wasn’t.”

He wasn’t afraid to tell her. That’s one of the biggest differences between male and female quilters, according to Sparrow. “Women will look at each other’s projects and tell them how fabulous it is, even when it’s not,” he says. “But I’ve noticed that men can take one look at something you’ve been working on for years and they’ll tell you the truth right away.”

Heslop certainly doesn’t hide his true feelings about the quilts he saw at the Calgary Stampede last summer. And considering he plans to compete, female quilters better be prepared. “I imagine I’ll be in the prize money,” he says.




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My wife didn’t make that quilt. I did.

  1. I'm a female quilter and artist, who started woodworking a few years ago. If one is mechanically inclined, has good visual/spatial abilities and fine motor skills, it's pretty easy to become competent at most crafts. I must confess to being a bit irritated by the inordinate amount of attention and rewards paid to male quilters, when women have been making masterpieces for 200+ years, with very little financial reward. It's like it doesn't matter, until men start doing it.

    • It Doesn't

    • Actually, it's BECAUSE women have been doing it for 200+ years. That's the point. Now quit complaining and make me a sammich.

    • Why? We pretty much live in a world were they reward and pay absolute attention to woman for doing traditionally male work, even when there not very good at it. So why the hostility towards the same trend in regarding men and traditional female work? Also who cares it's quilting for gods sake.

    • Men have been doing it for hundreds of years as well, albeit mostly men in the textile profession. I recently looked through a book of historic quilts, and many of them were made by male weavers and tailors. One amazing quilt that was covered with pictures and symbols celebrating the British Empire was a multi-year project of a husband and wife team.

      • That's very informative, Daphne, unlike some other comments on here. Can't we all get along?

    • That bitter taste, welcome to the other side. Embrace diversity, but not for males and certainly not white males right?

      • God, how we white males suffer.

  2. Another piece of cultural nonsense over with….hurray!

    • Glad to see you hate the french also. lol "cultural nonsense" Plus a lot of others! Thats great. That cultural growth is only good in wine and cheese.

      • The cultural nonsense is that only women can quilt, Sot

  3. i think it great men like to quilt too but being snotty about is another thing i wouldnt get to over cofindent you might get knocked down..

    • OH dear! I just don't understand the outlook of "…..you might get knocked down" If no-one went out and did something new, nothing wouldhappen in the world, and there is NOTHING wrong in feeling proud of doing something new AND doing it well. I dove into quilting the same way. I don't think he's being snotty at ALL. You have to hear all about woment that become Arch Welders and the things they had to overcome so why not hear all about the men that sew?!

  4. Me man! Me like power tools/math!

    (Also, ugh.)

    • Your catty response is also gender appropriate. Way to go!

      • I chuckled. Sweat moniker, btw.

  5. Yeah, what's with women being all supportive of each other? They should tell their friends when their craftwork sucks! That's why men are so much better at quilting! Sorry, ladies, now that this butch quilter is in town, you better put away your sewing machine and go cry in your lattes.

    Completely agree with Night Owl. Crafts such as quilting only get attention from the media when he-men start doing it. These guys are jerks.

  6. Love this write-up! And, Karen, support also includes criticism not just gushing and saying “Oh, it’s lovely” when in your mind you’re going “What the he** was she thinking?!?!” I’ll take the honest criticism any day over the false platitudes. Honest criticism leads to better efforts and improved techniques. Go for it, guys!

    • Catherine, I have no problem with constructive criticism. Nor do I have a problem with men quilters. I do have a problem with the subtle put-downs on women in this article. Here we are still dealing with the "boys are interested in geometry, girls aren't", and "women are too nice and not honest with their feelings." The point is, there are plenty of women quilters who make contemporary, geometric, daring quilts, but this article makes it sound like men have suddenly discovered quilting and are making these cutting edge art quilts while women quilters only do boring traditional calico works.

  7. Love this article! Josh Dehaas successfully evoked the response I'm sure he was looking for. LMAO! I especially love the caption 'My wife didn't make that quilt. I did.' under the quilt 'MY WIFE MADE'.

    PRICELESS!

    Just remember these were selected quotes taken from half an hour interviews. Props to my wife who just happens to be the most precise quilter I have ever met. Luv U Babe!

    • Men have dressed women for centuries by designing their clothes. It is not a surprise that a man would know how to lay the fibers down to dress a bed as well. You ROCK Matt!

  8. where were the men when women had to make quilts to stay warm and use used fabric! And this could have been a year or two ago! I love it when anyone quilts but do not let it go to your head!

  9. These male quilters deserve an article written about them. Only problem I see is that the article is too short. There are so many men in quilting…. Joe Cunningham, Mark Lipinski, David Taylor, Micheal James and Kaffe Fassett to name a handful. The quilting world is broad and contains such variety that there is room for many, many interesting articles. Hooray for this one.

  10. Love the picture and the article in Macleans (normally associated with business and politics! Whatever it takes to give credibility to quilting as an art! I'm tired of all those boring women who golf all the time and then say to me, "You what? Quilt?" I guess they would feel better if I said I was an artist!

  11. @ nightowl-
    In reply to your comment about it doesn't matter until men started quilting…..Many women have never upheld their value in their work. They give things away for free. Men who do these kind of artistic crafts are also doing it for an income and a living. yes, many women are as well. However, the stereotype that has been set all these years again is they majority of women give their work away instead of putting a value on it to sell it to make a living at it. That standard needs to change and the only way it will change is if again people (mostly women) put a value on their work and stop giving it away for free. That is why when a man goes into an artistic profession, it is taken more seriously.

  12. Awesome article, great photo, Matt, and funny that your WIFE made that quilt!!! Heck, I would LOVE it if a few guys came to my quilting group! Too many women do discount their talents, you are so correct, Christopher. I have seen thread after thread (no pun intended) on quilt oriented message boards where woman call out women who they see actually pricing their work at a living wage, not at a subsistence third world existance. One reason I don't sell or make for others for money right now…

  13. Love the article, love the picture, love love love! I am WOMAN and I did not read one part of this that offended me whatsoever. My husband is a designing engineer having worked at Texas Instruments for 20 years, and other companies and contracts. I have been trying to talk him into quilting for years and one of these days I hoping he'll give in. When he does he will be a designing perfectionist which I am not. It will annoy me at times but then I will remind myself that I was the one that talked him into it, and will be very proud of his work! Men who quilt rock!!! Rock on!!!

  14. I don't find it an offensive article, just an annoying one. It annoys me on behalf of the male quilters I know who are in it for reasons other than power tools and math. It annoys me for the Men are like This, Women are like That commentary at the end.

    I'm certain the author wrote this article from that slant – why would men want to take up women's crafts? – and went looking for answers that would prove the potential manliness of it. I just wish he would have talked about more than that.

  15. I wish I could edit my comment, here's a bit more: I have a quilt top in my closet that I've been sitting on for months, wanting to send it away to get quilted and the only name on my list of potential long arm quilters is Matt Sparrow. He does really great work, more creative and suited to the projects in question than any of the people I looked at who are local to me. But you wouldn't know it to read this article – there's nothing in here about what he really does, just that he uses a big machine to do it, and I think that's sad.

  16. "He says that whenever people hear he's a quilter, their first reaction is to imply that he's gay."

    And here I was thinking that you can spot a gay man by his being sexually interested in men and uninterested in women. So all those times when gay men are thronging to gay bars and clubs in search of happy adventures with other men are in fact a mirage, and they're actually sneaking off to do some needlework.

    80% of the stitchers involved with Fine Cell Work are men, and I haven't heard that their manliness suffers as a result.

  17. FYI, Prairie Quilt Mercantile is a quilt SHOP, not a guild, in Airdrie Alberta. Owned by Sharon Smith and Devon Lavigne, our shop is proud to have Al Heslop visit our store regularly for inspiration, and show n’ tell. Prairie Quilt Mercantile is on the web at http://www.pqmercantile.com .

  18. A year ago, the Wall Street Journal featured an article on quilting (and knitting)truckers.

    "Idle Pastime: In Off Hours, Truckers Pick Up Stitching
    With Less to Haul, Drivers Try New Hobbies; Quilting in the Cab"
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704

    Many inmates do various sorts of needlecrafts too.

    I wonder if any of the naysayers would be brave enough to call a burly trucker or inmate "gay" or "pansy?" LOL!

  19. Go guys go! Sew guys sew! Proud of you! (from a woman who does crafts)

  20. As a quilt shop owner, I'm ecstatic that people are quilting… people… women… men… children… EVERYONE!! And… I'm ecstatic that Maclean's finds something that's newsworthy in all of this… It seems that there will always be those who find something worthy of taking offense… what a pity!

  21. Great article. This is inspiring to read about the retired engineer.
    If the women are irritated by this article, then do something about it. Ask to give a presentation to the local Brownies to show the young girls the correlation of quilting to geometry.
    Girls are trained to be nice. These engineers have been paid to contribute their real thinking.
    Girls have changed over the past 30 years by understanding the current patterns. IF the men are winning the competitions, well look at why. In law and medicine, women have learned and then added their own dimension and what a change from 30 years ago. So no more whining please about how horrible this article is to girls. Face reality.

  22. great my husband quilts also, we spend many wonderful hours each of us working on our own projects

  23. i found this article to be really interesting but over compensating on trying to make quilting seem “manly” and “straight”, really who cares? quilting is rad, you don’t have to try to sell it and make sure that, oh hey, he quilts but just so everyone knows, he’s still straight and a man. i guess i was just hoping that it would be more of an article that was saying that men were interested in doing something that would blur gender roles not find ways to reinforce existing ones.

  24. For those who are unaware, there is a long history of men quilters. Men in Egypt have been making appliqued quilts for decades for sale and probably 100′s of years, if not thousands, before that for utilitarian purposes. Many soldiers hundreds of years ago, here in the U.S., would make quilts out of pieces of old uniforms. If you’d like to see a quilted ottoman made by a soldier, one was featured on Antiques Road Show. We could probably trace the lack of public support for male quilters to the 1950′s in America. I’m just guessing about that. I’m sure we’d be just as fascinated by a woman who broke into the world of, lets say, the NFL.

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