Interview with Denyse Schmidt

on February 13 | in Interviews + Profiles | by | with 70 Comments

Denyse Schmidt has inspired a transformation in quilting. Her subtle collaborations of modern with traditional have wide appeal. Denyse’s designs have a graphic simplicity in the most thoughtful, artistic and beautifully involved sense of good design. She shared her design approach and skill in her book Denyse Schmidt Quilts and shares her quilts, fabrics, patterns, paper goods and more with the world. Denyse recently talked with us to share some of her thoughts for our Quilting Month.


A diverse background & studies in design
Denyse had a diverse foundation in sewing and design prior to starting her company, Denyse Schmidt Quilts, more than ten years ago. She spent her childhood making things, and was influenced by the skill and pride her parents exhibited as they made things too. Later Denyse worked in a variety of positions from seamstress for a ballet to sewing ecclesiastical garments. In her late twenties she returned to school for more formal design studies. Denyse says, “I really just wanted to go back to school and study design, and I kind-of randomly chose graphic design… I knew that I wanted to be in the supportive environment of education and be learning.” Denyse enjoyed her experience at RISD and says, “I came out of there with skills. The design industry was undergoing one of its major revolutions that had to do with technology…” Companies were struggling to make changes to computer-based design and in this transitioning design environment Denyse’s skills as a recent graduate opened up opportunities for well-paying jobs. This, in turn, supported the start of Denyse’s company.

Developing a business

After Denyse graduated she moved to Connecticut and had a series of design jobs. She ended up working for a mass-market children’s book publisher where the work was fairly easy but not wholly satisfying. The ephemeral nature of graphic design with hours of work devoted to something almost intangible (that many people don’t even notice) was frustrating. It didn’t take long for Denyse to feel her work wasn’t taking full advantage of her skills. Denyse had taken some summer art courses before RISD, working with fabrics and collage, and she had become interested in quilts even though she hadn’t made one yet. With a combination of dissatisfaction with her job and “wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” Denyse made her first quilt for someone. It was a 9-patch and she says, “There was something about working on that quilt that would last forever and I had a tangible record of doing the hand quilting… That felt really important to me.” At the same time Denyse was falling in love with so many of the “beautiful, simple, quirky old quilts” she was finding in books that weren’t popularly known. This was before the Gee’s Bend quilts gained renown and Denyse says, “I was looking at quilts like that, that really got me fired up.” At the time Denyse started her business, the various quilting worlds were steeped in their own traditions and department stores were referencing a type of “country aesthetic.” Quilting traditions with clean lines, bold colors and graphic simplicity were not a focus. “I thought there was this whole wealth of sophisticated design… I wanted to make people realize that quilts could be really cool.”

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A quilt from the Denyse Schmidt Works Cotton Collection.

The beginning of Denyse Schmidt Quilts
Denyse made some really good decisions when she started her company. Intellectually and aesthetically she had clear ideas about how she wanted the business to develop but as Denyse says, “There weren’t a lot of people I could model myself after.” She figured out pricing based on how many quilts she could make and thinks she made a good choice in starting out at the high end of the market. Early on Denyse made another good decision when she exhibited at a contemporary home furnishings trade show. “There wasn’t anybody doing anything in bedding at the time and the quilts are really graphic so they really stood out.” Denyse kept her graphic design job for the first four years, funding her company’s development and gradually tapering off hours at her old job as her company grew.

Balance and creativity

Denyse Schmidt Quilts has a wide variety of products and designs. The company offers Couture and Works quilt lines and Denyse has also designed quilts for Sarita Handa Exports and Crate & Barrel. In addition to her popular Katie Jump Rope and Flea Market Fancy fabric lines and patterns, Denyse Schmidt Quilts offers a large assortment of paper goods in association with Chronicle Books. Denyse enjoys all of the facets of her company’s work but her favorite part is, “Making things… Creating things.” Working with partnerships, licensing and the more “management” aspects of the company are all things she enjoys though it takes some juggling. “I have been longing for awhile now to get back to making things… Actually to work in a series format. I have these bins of wool and I keep pulling them out and then I get too busy and I have to put them back. And I really just want to get them up on a wall and sew stuff together and kind of explore, mostly in artwork form and then put them out there…” Denyse laughs when asked if she ever gets to do “recreational sewing.” “Absolutely not!” she replies. She learned how to knit a year and a half ago and takes a lot of pleasure in that (she’s kept it to scarves so far), and she has a project in mind incorporating embroidery and typography. Denyse says in a way it’s like when she started her business, “Coming home at the end of a long day and trying to make time for creative work is really hard. And I know that so many people out there, especially all of you guys who have creative, crafty blogs… A lot of you are working other jobs and it’s hard to make that time, but it’s also really important.” Denyse hopes to gradually shift the focus of her daily work a bit more to the creative, making side she loves.

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What a Bunch of Squares couture quilt, shown in twin size.


Quilting wisdom

Denyse Schmidt Quilts, 30 Colorful Quilt and Patchwork Projects brought Denyse’s designs and quilting wisdom to an ever-broadening and appreciative audience. After working in book design it was fun for Denyse to be on the author side of book creation; she put a lot of heart and effort into sharing her love of quilting through the project. The book includes many of Denyse’s popular designs including What a Bunch of Squares and Drunk Love 2-Tone, and is full of tips and inspiration for quilters of all skill levels. Denyse says it’s a lot of work to do how-to books and she’s, “grateful people are using it and appreciating it… It was really fun to be able to put stuff out there and the most rewarding aspect for me is to see photographs of people’s versions of the projects or to hear ‘I looked at the pictures and I made my own…’” Denyse says it gives her a thrill when someone shares their work inspired by her designs. “It’s a springboard… Everyone brings their own perspective to it and I love that.”

Denyse teaches hands-on, improvisational quilting workshops in her studio. The advice she shares with her students echoes her words the book and resonates for all quilters, whether you’re just starting out with sewing or have a life-long love of quilting.


Images from Denyse’s improvisational piecing workshop.

Denyse elaborates, “It can be overwhelming and I think any of those things you want to undertake to break it down into small steps is really a great idea. I find the improvisational way of working really liberating. I teach a workshop on that and I didn’t invent the process but it’s more like a process of collage. In my workshop I sort-of relieve everybody of the burden of all the decision-making about what colors you’re going to put together next… by making them draw blindly out of a paper bag and I put time limits on it. It’s a really great process because I really push people to stop editing. I think so much of what makes it overwhelming is wondering, ‘Is it going to look OK? Which color should I do…’ Just sort-of the deliberating process. And then to do a whole quilt of pattern is fine but it’s so big that after awhile you might loose interest in it… To just sew the fabric together and not think about it so much is really liberating… The cool thing about quilts is that mostly they’re going together in block form so you have that sense of accomplishment in each block you make and that’s a good feeling.” Denyse suggests breaking things down, “not putting pressure on yourself to complete it… tomorrow” and giving yourself the opportunity to just sew fabric together without feeling like the fabric is too precious. She says there are so many great books that share the history of quilting and can provide a wealth of inspiration in the designs and stories. She suggests you take a look around, go one step at a time and “Trust that it’s going to look great!”

Upcoming fabrics

You’ll likely be enticed to cut into some of Denyse’s new fabrics this spring. Her County Fair collection is a home dec weight cotton canvas with a bit of texture and tooth. There are many designs from Flea Market Fancy and Katie Jump Rope (pictured here to the left) lines recolored in a pear and ginger colorway, a rose and berry colorway and a lagoon and porch blue colorway. Denyse loves the weight of the cloth which is heavy enough to use for slipcovers but appropriate for quilting too.

She’s most excited about the Patchwork Promenade cheater cloth she designed to go with the collection. Denyse says, “I’m always interested in historical or vintagy precedents and there used to be a lot more of this stuff called cheater cloth which is printed to look like it’s pieced. You could go into Woolworth’s and buy a cut of it and make a skirt out of it or make a quilt out of it but not have to do all of the piecing. It was really a time-saver for a lot of women that were starting to enter the workforce and had less and less time to do that kind of thing.” Denyse’s Patchwork Promenade cheater cloth utilizes her Drunk Love in a Log Cabin design and is printed as blocks, with six blocks on a repeat the full width of the 64”. Each block is about the size of a pillow. The full collection will debut at Quilt Market in April in Oregon and in stores shortly thereafter. There are also plans to release more patterns in the future.

The future for Denyse and Denyse Schmidt Quilts

Denyse says as life progresses and the business grows she finds herself taking stock of what she wants her future to look like. With the various components of her company and a desire for some simplicity and focus, finding a new balance is a goal. Denyse would love to focus more on the creative aspects of her art, to find time for wool sewn together on the wall and a bit more improvisation to her days. Wherever her art takes her we can’t wait to see what Denyse does next.

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70 Responses to Interview with Denyse Schmidt

  1. henny says:

    wow, thank you for this article and interview. fantastic! beautiful and very inspiring…

  2. What a great interview! Thank you…

  3. Glaucia says:

    Thanks for the interview. Her work and fabrics are really inspiring!

  4. Katie says:

    beautiful pieces.

  5. Deb says:

    Great post…an enjoyable read!

  6. erin says:

    Very nice!

  7. beki says:

    Wonderful interview, so very inspiring!

  8. Lil' d says:

    Such talent.

  9. Amy says:

    I love the idea of improvisational piecing! Thanks!

  10. Kathryn says:

    Breaking it up into small manageable pieces and steps. Of course. That makes sense.

  11. Michele says:

    How wonderful to find out more about Denyse and how she started her company! Her work is beautiful…I definately want to go and pick up her book now.

  12. Missy says:

    She is truly a inspiration to me and my girls.

  13. Beth says:

    wow everything is so pretty! I love the fabric.

  14. Denyse Schmidt has been such an inspiration to me — she was the first designer who made me feel like my work could still be beautiful, even if the lines aren’t straight and the blocks aren’t square. I owe a lot to her and her book, and am so happy to see her interview here today. Thanks!

  15. Maxine says:

    What a great article. I have some of the Katie Jump Rope Fabric which is great and I’m really looking forward to seeing the new colourways.

  16. Dorte says:

    Oh, it will be lovely to see the new colours in the prints I already love so much!

  17. Carol says:

    I think Single Girl has been calling my name for a while. :)

  18. emily says:

    Her book is really great, and this interview is quite inspirational for a graphic designer like me who wants to break away into something more tangibly creative.

  19. Gina says:

    The new fabrics look very nice. Thanks for this interview!

  20. Mealy says:

    Got this book for my birthday. I LOOOOVE IT!

  21. Libby says:

    I just recently looked through her quilt book and was very inspired by her work and philosophy. I also recently bought some of her Katie Jump Rope material and am absolutely in love with it.

  22. Amy says:

    I am in love with Katie Jump Rope and am using it for my almost three year olds new bedroom…bedding, curtains, heck I might just frame it!!!

  23. Sarah says:

    How much would I love to take an improvisational piecing class in Amy’s workshop?? What a dream come true.

  24. Christine says:

    I’m loving the fabric!!

  25. upstatelisa says:

    I have the book and while I haven’t made anything from it yet, I love looking through it. The simplicity of Denyse’s patterns is so beautiful!!!

  26. Michele C says:

    Thanks for the interview. I have been following Denyse for a few years and have been inspired by her work. I’m so glad she is putting out fun fabrics for us to use.

  27. Lisa says:

    Love Katie Jump Rope, and looking forward to the new designs.

  28. Cassie Ogle says:

    The upcoming fabrics are so gorgeous!! I want, I want, I want!

  29. Gretchen says:

    I just got her book and simply love it! What an inspiration!

  30. alicia says:

    I am going to have to check her books out from the library–so inspiring!

  31. Char says:

    It’s kind of funny that Denyse wishes for more creative improv time in her life. I would have guessed that her life is full of that. But I guess all of us wish we could have more…

  32. Carrie says:

    I was not familiar with Denise Schmidt before the start of quilt month, but I am quickly becoming a huge fan! I love her work and am dying to get a copy of her book. Thanks so much for giving some more information on her.

  33. Kristi Van Os says:

    Thanks for the interview. It was very interesting and inspirational!

  34. Sandy says:

    can’t wait to see her new fabric, denyse schmidt is by far my favorite quilter

  35. Dawn says:

    Thank you so much for the article! I have her book and I am currently finishing up my first project from it. I can’t wait to see her new fabrics either!

  36. Violet says:

    The Katie Jump Rope fabric line is one of my favorites!
    -violet

  37. Alissa says:

    I’m super impressed with her work. I think we all want to be “the best” at something, and it looks like she’s done it with her beautiful work!

  38. brandy says:

    Wow! The colors alone are inspiring! I think I just figured out what I wanted for my birthday.

  39. Julia D says:

    So my favorite fabric designer! Thank you for the inspiration!!

  40. Kriszta says:

    Her design is just amazing!! I leared so much from her!!!

  41. She really did change the face of the craft of quilting. I’m sure so many people took a second look at quilting once they saw her creations. Thanks for the interview!

  42. stacysews says:

    OOOOh, new fabrics! I can’t wait!

  43. Rose L says:

    OK, now I really have to get my hands on her book. Thanks for another great quilting post!

  44. Stacy says:

    Thanks so much for this interview. I’ve already put her book on hold at our library!

    ~Stacy

  45. Libby says:

    I love, love Katie Jump Rope. I also love Denyse’s use of solid fabrics in her quilts. Nobody picks solid colors as well as Denyse Schmidt!! Thanks for the great article!

  46. Andrea says:

    I just love her quilts and fabrics. I just need to get some more!

  47. Sam VanDerPuy says:

    This interview is inspiring. I currently have a degree in graphic design, and am wondering if that is really what I want to do for the rest of my career….just thinking about the possibilites is exciting! Thanks Denyse!

  48. Amy W says:

    WOW! I love the fabrics and can’t wait until spring! I love the paper bag….I’ve already started one for my next scrap quilt. I take the leftovers from whatever I’m working on, cut it into strips, and toss it into the bag!

  49. Allison says:

    I recieved her book as a birthday gift last year, and absolutely LOVE it! I’ve made two quilts and almost all the projects from it.. it’s wonderfully inspiring, great article!

  50. Suzanne says:

    what a great interview! thank you so much for posting. I can’t wait for the new fabric!

  51. Brandy says:

    OOh! That last quilt is really neat. Not that they all aren’t ^-^

    I love the fabrics in her set, can’t wait to see them all.

  52. trishia says:

    how exciting to get to interview her! I love her quilts… That she didn’t find the business until later in life is very inspiring to those of us who are wondering what in the world we are doing at our current jobs/career lines. :)

  53. Darby says:

    Inspirational! I’m so motivated after looking at the pictures. Love the new fabrics, too.

  54. Darby says:

    Totally inspiring! I’ve been procrastinating on picking up her book, but I can tell it needs to stay at the top of my to-do list!

  55. Helen says:

    Fantastic interview! I have my copy of Denyse Schmidt’s book on order from the library and it’s taking far too long to come in! The fabrics are just beautiful.

  56. amelia says:

    i am totally excited about the new fabrics! also, i normally am not a fan of cheater cloth, but i am so excited about that too!

  57. Jennifer G says:

    The quilts my grandma made me are all out of cheater cloth–and I am excited that I finally know the name of it.

  58. alison says:

    Love the new fabrics coming in spring.

  59. Regina says:

    oohh – tomorrow can’t come soon enough!

  60. Amy says:

    I love the idea of picking pieces out of a paper bag and going with it. I find I tend to fixate on the design aspect so the idea of forced randomness is quite liberating. Thanks so much for sharing!

  61. mj says:

    So interesting to read about her background! Thanks for the interview.

  62. Pat says:

    I really enjoyed learning about Denyse. Love that new fabric line.

  63. Mellissa says:

    New fabrics is exciting to hear. Thank you so much for sharing this interview.

  64. Renee says:

    What a great interview. Now I’m inspired to pull out her book again and get started on a project.

  65. Ellen says:

    Thanks for the great article on Denyse Schmidt…Can’t wait to see(and touch!) her new line.

  66. jackie says:

    what an amazingly talented woman! i love all of her designs, quilts, and fabrics and plan on soon making a quilt from the ” katie jump rope” line.

  67. mary says:

    I just got Denyse’s book and can’t wait to try something. I’m enjoying learning about design from the first section in the book. New ideas for me! Thank you!

  68. So excited about new fabric from Denyse. Love her comment about not feeling that fabric is too precious not to play with it. Thanks for sharing this interview with all of us!

  69. Kelli says:

    Her Katie Jump Rope line has me all but swooning!
    Great article.

  70. LadySnow says:

    I can’t wait to check out the new line of fabrics…and will have to see about the book. ;D

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