Thursday, December 11, 2014

learning to sew

Have you ever met an award-winning quiltmaker who didn't know how to sew? Well, here I am. Of course, calling myself an award winning quiltmaker is completely tongue-in-cheek. The truth is, I can barely thread a needle and it takes me about an hour to do that. Sure, I've got a couple ribbons and maybe eight quilts under my belt, but they were all a big challenge to make because I never had much formal sewing instruction. To me, the quilts felt like outsider art, and I had no complaints about that.

"House of Wonky" 2012, Viewer's Choice
Small Wonders Challenge, Sisters, Oregon
"Wild Eyed Susans" 2013, Honorable Mention
Small Innovative, Pacific West Quilt Show
For a little while, I got by on my art school background, with a good working knowledge of color theory, design, and some inspiration from quilt history. Other than a retreat in Sisters in 2013, the only sewing instruction I received was in 7th grade, Home Economics with Mrs. Schweitzer at Moorestown Middle School in New Jersey. I made a ghastly lightbulb pillow, and it was wonky. We also learned how to make a streusel coffee cake, which I felt was a much better life skill at the time.

"Oregon July" 2014, quilted by Jolene Knight - click on photo to enlarge
Last time I made a quilt, "Oregon July",  I realized I needed some serious help. My machine, a vintage 1930s Singer Featherweight, was giving me troubles and I couldn't get a long, straight seam going without the threads becoming hopelessly tangled. I brought the top in three pieces to Jolene Knight, who was also doing the long-arm quilting. She finished piecing it together, quilted and bound it for me, and did a wonderful job.

Michelle Freedman shows me how to piece at Modern Domestic PDX
In a lot of ways, "Oregon July" is more Jolene's quilt than my own. If it was ever to receive a ribbon, I'd hand it to her. That got me thinking about getting some sewing instruction so I could do more of the work on my quilts. Modern Domestic is one of many shops catering to the sewing community in Portland, and it is a hub for Modern Quilters. Several friends from Portland Modern Quilt Guild (PMQG) shop there and work there. Michelle Freedman, Past President of PMQG is one of the teachers. She is also one of the first people I met in the guild.

citrus wedges fabric I designed using Spoonflower
Michelle understands what it's like to go to art school. She went to Otis/Parsons in LA and New York, and one of her teachers was Tim Gunn! So, I signed up to get some one-on-one instruction with Michelle. We talked about some ideas beforehand, and I decided to bring some of my recent Spoonflower fabrics.

sashing and cornerstone repeats designed with Spoonflower
We met last week for a couple hours and put together a "Fruity Beauty" block, sash and cornerstone set. Yesterday we met again and continued with the project, finishing a small, four-block top. There are some things I need to work out with the fabric in terms of sizing and spacing, but I have a good idea of where I'm going with it. My goal is to eventually make a 16-block quilt with the fabrics.

composite photo made from first block, sash and cornerstone sample
Some of you may be wondering...since I have a house full of incredible, historic quilts and 70 in the New York Beauty family, why would I want to make one? After spending a lot of time working on my upcoming New York Beauty book with Quiltmania this year, I was inspired.
antique pieced quilt, an inspiration for my "Fruity Beauty"
There are a lot of ideas bouncing around in my mind, and many of them are for quilts. I always thought it would be fun to make a "New York Beauty" quilt, but never thought I would actually make one since it is such an advanced pattern. Sewing is something I can't seem to escape, though. Everyone around me is sewing, here in Portland and all around the world on social media. People are even sewing on TV when I tune into Project Runway. With all this sewing going on around me, I was beginning to feel like the only person who couldn't sew.

The "Fruity Beauty" project is basically cheater fabric designed as blocks, sashing and cornerstones without all the elaborate piecing. It is a postmodern, digital-age spin on historic quilts. I came up with the idea as a way to create an impressive looking New York Beauty quilt without having advanced skills. There is cutting and piecing involved, and precision is important, there's just not as much as there would be with a traditional New York Beauty. Michelle pointed out that Modern Quilters do not often include traditional sets of blocks with sashing and cornerstones in their quilts, and mastering these elements is harder than it looks. She's right about that, but with her guidance and great information, I did pretty well matching up corners.

It was a good time to learn how to sew, and I am enjoying the one-on-one instruction with Michelle at Modern Domestic. It's like being back at art school with a friend in another department, and in fact we both went to art school in New York at the same time. She was at Parsons studying fashion design with Tim Gunn and I was just blocks away at School of Visual Arts studying photography with Andy Grundberg, then photography critic for the New York Times. Sewing is a whole new thing for me, another process-oriented practice, and no longer a spectator sport. I thoroughly enjoyed working on my own project while learning how to make it work.

"Make it work!"

Where have I head that before?!?


  1. I kind of admire your self-taught ingenuity. And your designs are quite wonderful. You deserve what recognition you get.

  2. Fun quilt, Bill! Now you don't just collect New York Beauty quilts, you also make them!
    PS I started a NYB quilt years ago. Think I have 16 blocks made. I might have to revisit that project . . .

    1. Oh! I can't wait to see!! You are one of the people who I believe can sew anything.

  3. Congrats on taking a class to improve your skills. But what happened with your Featherweight? Is it back in service and producing perfect stitches again? I have two FWs -- a 221 and 222K and I love them both as piecing machines.

    1. The Featherweight is probably just fine. It's the operator that's the problem. ;)

  4. Yes, I love it! Modern Domestic looks like a great place to get creative.

  5. Congrats! Sewing is a great skill to have. Love that bright citrus print!

  6. I love that you had one-on-one instruction at Modern Domestic! I keep asking people where I should take a sewing class, and that's the #1 place that is recommended. Great work!

    1. Highly recommended!! Modern Domestic is a special place. It's a beautiful shop, for one. The staff is friendly and helpful-- and talented! I recommend the 1-on-1 instruction if you already have your own project ideas in mind.

  7. I was completely self taught, the first class I ever took was on surface design after I had been quilt making four years. I learned from mistakes and books and experienced quilters. My motto was just do it. And I made the mistakes work. One quilt I had scant seams and I appliquéd motifs over the worst. I was more careful ever after. Several hundred quilts later I got an excellent workmanship by an appraiser. Only took twenty years lol.

  8. Love your citrus beauty! Glad you've caught the bug to sew.