Although I’ve been using a needle and thread since I was a child, the spark of an interest in sewing didn’t truly flame until my love of craft came together with my passion for history. I’ve written before about how Eleanor Burns rocked my world one day with her one-woman traveling historical quilt show, consequently shaping the kind of teacher I was to become as well as setting me on a path to sewing obsession. I have a significant collection of books about historical quilts, which I browse from time to time as much for the beauty of the quilts as the stories behind them. I find it amazing and fantastic that this craft that has been around for hundreds of years is still thriving, connecting each of us to the past in small, but significant ways.
When I went to Quilt Market in October I had the pleasure of sitting next to Denyse Schmidt at dinner one night. I was thrilled when she gave me a sneak peek of her new book, Modern Quilts Traditional Inspiration. The book contains 20 traditional quilt styles that look exceptionally modern, hip, and fresh, with limited color palettes and minimal use of prints. To me, it is the best of both worlds– tried and true patterns with stories to tell, interpreted by this talented woman who helped define modern quilting. The modern/traditional debate is moot here, which is refreshing and wonderful.
When I received my copy of the book, I emailed Denyse and asked her if I could interview her about it. We had the opportunity to chat on the phone last week.
Kristin: Thank you for talking with me today. The new book is wonderful! It must be great to see it in the hands of readers and quilters. How long has it been in the works?
Denyse: Does it ever end? It’s a long process. Easily 18 months. We were making the samples two summers ago.
K: I think many people I know would say you were the first modern quilter they knew by name and distinctive style. You really sparked a movement and revived an interest in quilting. Your first book is a staple and your improv classes are legendary. It seems like it would have been natural to do another modern quilting book. I’m wondering if a book of all traditional quilts felt like a bit of a risk?
D: Well, probably. I think I have a habit of doing things in a way that aren’t always necessarily the best business decisions. It would have been easy to continue to ride out the modern quilting thing, especially since right now it seems to be gaining so much momentum. I think probably because I have been doing this for such a long time… You’re kind of at the beginning of the swing of the pendulum and that doesn’t always translate into big dollars or anything. But you have to follow your own drive for what you feel is the next right thing. I often follow my gut on these things and it seemed like it was the right time to revisit where I started from— the quilts that first inspired me. And also I wanted to share that (and it’s true that everyone thinks of me as a modern quilter) but definitely what inspired me to begin in the first place were quilts that were very old, but looked modern. Especially fifteen years ago when I started the business most people who were making contemporary quilts weren’t really referencing the simplicity or the limited color palette or the kind of quirkiness of some of those really old quilts. That was a driving force for me— I felt like these (traditional) quilts would fit in a modern interior, they seemed like modern paintings to me, and yet the quilting world wasn’t referencing that so much. I wasn’t in the quilting world then. I was in the design world.
K: Yeah, I can see that. In the book I recognize all these traditional patterns but I also see your interpretation and the way you use color and just a little bit of print here and there. It makes it seem familiar to me but also very modern. Not really a question— Just an compliment to you!
D: Well that’s good!
K: When we were at Quilt Market I told you about how I really love quilting history because I feel like it’s a great way to study people— mainly women. It gives you glimpse of what their lives were like through the material that they used or how a quilt was constructed or why they made it. In your book it seems like you did a lot of research. Did you enjoy that part?
D: I did enjoy the research. Probably like most writers or anybody who gets into it, you realize you could spend the rest of your life researching. It feels like I just scratched the surface. I made a lot of discoveries because as quilt scholarship advances over the years a lot of commonly held ideas that get passed into popular culture about our own past… We find there’s a lot of misinformation. So even just beginning to get into it, I found that things that I always thought to be true… I discovered that they’re not. I think that what happened is that the colonial revival movement in the ’20’s and ‘30’s perpetuated or created a lot of myths that we believe about patchwork and quilt-making. It still has things that resonate with me— like the quilting bee— those things really happened, but maybe not as much as our culture has made them out to be.
K: Oh, like we’ve romanticized some of those things.
D: We’ve totally romanticized those things! But that’s true of a lot of things and I think what’s important about it is what is our take-away, if you will. And that is still true for each individual. I think it’s important to get the facts right but– I talked about this in the introduction [of the book]– When I moved to Connecticut I didn’t have any friends here. I started looking at quilts and thinking of making a quilt and I really related to this idea of the pioneer woman having a quilting bee or a barn raising kind of thing and that would be the time that she got together with her women friends and could talk about the common issues that they shared and their hopes and dreams and all of that. That really was one of the things that I loved about it, that made me want to participate in this craft. So for me it will be always be true.
K: Yeah, I think a lot people have heard a story about Underground Railroad quilts, but most of those stories have been debunked. But there was something about it that captured peoples’ attention and they got interested in log cabin quilts and everything. Maybe the stories aren’t true, but it got people interested in quilting.
D: Exactly, and that’s all that matters in a way. I certainly didn’t set out to be the be-all and end-all information source, but I did struggle a bit with trying to be accurate. For me, some of those things that I always believed are true in my heart. It is an interesting process.
K: In the book intro you describe quilt patterns as “living, breathing entities.” Can you explain that?
D: It’s one of the things that’s clear from having looked at the research… of Barbara Brackman and her encyclopedia of quilt patterns and just the sheer number of variations. From a design point of view I really relate to theme and variation. A quilt pattern has so many opportunities within all the variations on block patterns and even the variations you can make with the same block pattern just with the fabrics that you use, the colors that you use, and the way that you put the blocks together. Every person who touches those patterns does something different with it and it’s amazing to me. I don’t know if there is anything similar. I relate it to music a little bit— like old-timey Appalachian string band music-– where you’d learn a tune from a particular person and you’d forget parts of it, so you’d make it your own. To me one of the most beautiful aspects of this craft is that every person is going to bring something different. It continues to evolve, it continues to change and it’s never really stagnant. It never gets old— It’s just remarkable.
K: Let’s talk about some of the quilt patterns in the book. There are patterns for beginners and experienced quilters alike. The Basketweave is one I think I could tackle. I was surprised to see a whole cloth quilt, which is really beautiful and wonderful. What else would you recommend for beginners?
D: The stamped quilt would be really easy because it is essentially a whole cloth quilt. There are a number of ways you can approach it. It’s really a very old quilt form that I never really knew about until a few years ago when I went to Winterthur in Delaware. It’s really easy to find fabric stamps on Etsy and eBay or flea markets. You can make your own fabric or you can do as I did and make an overall design on the quilt and with some very simple supplies. You can create anything really complex or really simple. It was so fun to make that one.
Stamped Quilt, full view.
K: There’s the postage stamp…
D: Yeah that was really fun… In the small scale like that it was so enjoyable.
K: You mentioned that you hand-pieced that. Is that something that you did much of before you started the book?
D: Not so much. The first quilts that I made before I started the business I hand-quilted and I loved doing that. I love doing hand work. I wish I had more time for it. Knitting gives me tendonitis in my elbow, but I can still quilt and I can still piece by hand. If I can watch a movie and still feel productive, that feels really good.
K: There are a lot of quilts in the book that are constructed with applique. Is needle-turn applique something that you’ve done a lot of?
D: Yeah, I haven’t experimented with a lot of ways personally, which is why I recommend needle-turn. I like it because I have a lot of control over it and you can do it by hand without a machine and you don’t need a lot of equipment. You can get really beautiful curves and if you can sew by hand, it’s not at all hard. And like I said, you have so much more control over it, I find it really enjoyable.
K: The Hawaiian Quilt is gorgeous, but wow, that’s a lot of curves! It’s so beautiful though and it seems like the kind of thing you would do as an heirloom piece.
D: I did it as a wall hanging size, but you can do it as a pillow. Because of the tradition of Hawaiian quilting where you’re not really supposed to copy anybody, I would love to see people do their own variation of it. I took the way that I sort of make loopy sketches and turned that into the form so it feels more my own. You can certainly simplify the shape so there is less sewing. That would be easy to adapt to someone who has less experience. Purl Soho had something on their blog one time that was much more simplified so you can definitely find a way to make that one easier.
Hawaiian-Style Appliqué, detail.
K: The back of the book has a great list of books you used for historical reference. Do you have a favorite?
D: The one that really opened my eyes was the Exhibition catalog from the Whitney Museum in the ‘70s. (Abstract Design in American Quilts: A Biography of an Exhibition by Jonathan Holstein)
K: There’s also a list of places to see historic quilts. Do any of them have a special significance to you?
D: The Shelburne Museum is amazing. I remember seeing some amazing quilts in Deerfield, but I haven’t been there for a really long time. I’m a sucker for historic houses and historic museums. There’s an amazing museum in Massachusetts called the American Textile History Museum— It’s just so great, it goes through the whole history of textile production in this country from growing flax, to making your own homespun to the beginning of the industrial revolution. If I could just do that my whole life I’d be pretty happy.
Ocean Wave, full view
K: Isn’t it true that most states have a museum that has a quilt collection?
D: Yeah, but it’s hard to preserve textiles properly. I love the charm of those town or state museums, or historical societies, and they often have amazing quilt collections that nobody ever gets to see… The Kentucky Project started documenting their quilts and I have several of the state quilt books.
(There are Quilt Documentation Projects in many states. If you’re interested in your own state, search online for your state plus “quilt documentation project.” The research in many states is still active and ongoing.)
K: I want to talk about fabric collections. Flea Market Fancy is back, and I’m waiting for Katie Jump Rope!
D: I don’t know about Katie Jump Rope. We’ll see. Flea Market Fancy is its own entity. It has surprised everyone with how well it’s done. I’m thrilled and I’m happy that it’s working for everybody— For the stores and Free Spirit, and me.
Chicopee is the next collection and will be shown at Spring Quilt Market and will ship in August.
K: And that’s Free Spirit?
D: Yes, and as we speak I’m designing the next collection which will be for next spring. So we’re operating about a year out. I haven’t named it yet. I’m still struggling with color but it’s due next week
K: Will you be at Quilt Market in May?
D: Yes, I will and I will have a booth for the first time!
K: Thank you, Denyse. I love the new book and will bring it with me to Quilt Market for you to sign!
Today you can WIN a copy of Denyse Schmidt: Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspiration. Comment below with your appreciation for Denyse’s work or fill us in on your own thoughts about modern quilts and traditional inspiration… Tell us about your love of Denyse Schmidt fabrics or how her first book changed your sewing world. Leave your comment and we’ll select a winner at the end of the week. You can also check out the STC Craft blog for more about Denyse and the book.