Katrina Walker

(Originally published in SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #52, April 2018. Written by Rita Farro.)

Katrina WalkerKatrina Walker has earned a reputation in the sewing industry as an exceptional teacher with a keen eye for design. She travels all over the country, teaching classes at consumer sewing shows and events. She especially loves teaching online and has classes with Taunton Workshops, BurdaStyle Academy, Craft Daily, and Craftsy. She says, “Coming from an isolated rural upbringing, it is especially meaningful to me to share the love of sewing in homes where they might not otherwise have access to sewing education. It’s amazing to have students all over the world.”

So, how does a little girl who grew up on a remote wheat farm, loving clothes, and horses in equal measure — decide to become an investment banker? And after all that — how is it that she finds bliss making her living as a respected sewing professional?

What is Katrina sewing next?

What is Katrina sewing next?

Katrina says, “Nobody could be more surprised than me . . . “Sewing is part of my heritage; I guess you could say that sewing is in my blood. When I was young, I spent a lot of time watching my mother layout fabric and put garments together. She wasn’t interested in formally teaching me but she certainly provided an excellent example. I grew up on our family wheat farm in eastern Washington State, where roads drifted shut during the winter. I never thought of sewing as a special activity; it was something you did to pass the time enjoyably during the long, dark, winters.”

Katrina calls herself a clotheshorse. As a child, she often got in trouble for running out to the corral to hug her pony, wearing her best dress (but always in cowboy boots!) There is a picture of Katrina, age two, wearing her first “little black dress.” Her Mom bought it at Macy’s during a trip to New York, and she found black patent shoes with trim that matched the dress. Katrina insisted to the photographer that those shoes must show in the portrait.

In the ’80s, stirrup pants and knit tunics were all the rage, so Katrina used her mother’s new serger to whip up all sorts of trendy, stretchy clothes. She also had to sew skirts and blouses for various choir commitments, so she got a well-rounded introduction to garment sewing and fitting.

Katrina was probably the only student at Wellesley College who brought a sewing machine on campus — but it was after graduation when her machine got a real work-out, and her sewing skills were raised to a new level.

Katrina made this silk dupioni zonal waist (vest), tucked linen blouse and silk dupioni hoop skirt from Godey’s Lady Book.

Katrina made this silk dupioni zonal waist (vest), tucked linen blouse, and silk dupioni hoop skirt from Godey’s Lady Book.

After she moved to Washington D.C. to start a career in investment banking, she needed a high-end work wardrobe. But, even if she could afford to buy one, at 5’10”, it wasn’t easy to find clothes that fit. G Street Fabrics was nearby, so she found herself spending every weekend at her sewing machine, creating suits, blouses, and cocktail dresses. This was the beginning of her love affair with beautiful silk and wool fabrics.

Katrina never ever would have guessed she’d end up in the sewing industry, but the one thing she knew for sure was that she had no interest in being an investment banker. In 1997, she moved back to Washington State and found a job managing the Jefferson County 4-H program. 4-H has always played a big role in Katrina’s life. She grew up in 4-H raising hogs and competing with horses. As an adult, she was the superintendent or assistant superintendent of the state livestock judging contest for nearly 20 years. She also served on the State 4-H Fair Board and as superintendent for the State 4-H Fashion Revue.

In 1998, she attended her first Sewing and Stitchery Expo in Puyallup, Washington. She learned about the Clothing and Textile Advisor program (CTA). She applied for training and graduated that year.

Her career path led from the 4-H program to teaching Family and Consumer Sciences, and then on to Nordstrom Product Group where she assisted in Technical Design and then worked as Raw Material Liaison. Throughout this time, she continued to volunteer as a CTA, little realizing how this involvement would change her life.

In 2003, Katrina entered the Make It with Wool competition. Much to her surprise — she won the state adult division. Then, she received a phone call telling her she had won the national adult competition.

Another unexpected phone call nudged her toward a future in the sewing industry. She received a call from Joanne Ross, the director of the Sewing and Stitchery Expo. Joanne knew Katrina as a CTA volunteer. “Katrina”, she said, “I need a model [for the style shows].”

The freestyle shows were always one of the highlights of Sew Expo, and Katrina knew they hired professional models to walk those shows. Katrina was flabbergasted by Joanne’s phone call and responded that she did not have the necessary measurements for runway modeling.

Joanne said, “You’ll be fine.” Then, she told Katrina where and when she needed to arrive for fittings. It was clear that Joanne was not going to take no for an answer. Remembering that phone call, Joanne says, “I first met Katrina when she became a CTA volunteer. In 2004 we were short one model for our upstairs style shows. I knew Katrina was perfect for the position. She was tall and not only had the figure of a model, she had the swagger and personality. I was thrilled when she agreed to model because she added a whole new dimension to our fashion shows, and the sewing designers and celebrities loved working with her. She was as good as any professional model we ever hired.”

Because she was an exceptional seamstress with an excellent work ethic — she was soon also teaching classes for Sew Expo.

“I’ve watched Katrina blossom into an inspiring teacher, an author, and a textile artist. She is well known for her expertise and has written articles for many sewing publications. Most of all, Katrina is extremely creative and others are excited to learn from her.”

Katrina Walker's online classes: Threads/Taunton Workshops, BurdaStyle Academy, Craftsy.

Katrina’s online classes: Threads/Taunton Workshops, BurdaStyle Academy, Craftsy.

Katrina’s quite unexpected and improbable entry into modeling at Sew Expo would be her catalyst into the sewing industry. She modeled garments for the biggest names in the sewing world — McCall’s and Simplicity, Pati Palmer, Martha Pullen, Linda Lee, Eileen Roche, and Dana Bontrager, among many others. That first year, Katrina was also asked to make appearances in her winning Make It With Wool ensemble. The sewing professionals saw that she was a sewing enthusiast, as well as a model. Those first runway shows began professional relationships and mentorships that have lasted to this day.

As a result of those relationships, Katrina became a sewing educator for Quality Sewing and Vacuum, and was invited to attend conferences to represent “young sewing professionals.” Other opportunities followed, and she was asked to design projects and write articles for magazines, i.e., CraftStylish, Stitch, Sew News, Threads, and Creative Machine Embroidery.

In 2011, Katrina and her husband, Scott, moved to a small ranch near Spokane, Washington. A guest house on the property became her beautiful new sewing studio. They have a flock of natural colored sheep that are watched over by a team of loving and dedicated Livestock Guardian Dogs. Barn cats, a couple of horses, and a small flock of chickens round out their menagerie. They recently launched their online yarn store, Spoiled Sheep Yarn. You can see photos of their adorable flock and purchase yarn from individual sheep. People are amazed that the colors aren’t dyed. www.spoiledsheep.com

Katrina says, “I’m definitely inspired by textiles. Textiles are truly my great love; this is why I mostly work with silks and wools. Being ‘animal’ fibers, they really seem to have their own life energy. I prefer designs that emphasize and highlight the beauty of the fabric, rather than the design itself. Life is too short and precious to sew boring fabric.”

A glimpse into Katrina Walker’s country studio.

A glimpse into Katrina’s country studio.

Her beautiful country studio is clearly Katrina’s happy place — sewing on her beloved Pfaff sewing machines, now as a Pfaff Brand Ambassador. She continues to design and write for magazines and has been published over 40 times.

One of Katrina’s favorite quotes hangs in her studio: “Fashion can be bought. Style one must possess.” – Edna Woolman Chase (former Vogue editor).

Katrina believes everyone should find their own “style” and not worry about fashion. That’s not to say that fashion should be ignored. Rather, that it’s best to pick and choose which trends work for you, and ignore the rest.

Ebony Love – Die Cutting Fabric Authority

(Originally published March 2016, SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #27. Written by Rita Farro.)

 

Ebony Love - Die Cutting Fabric AuthorityEbony Love is considered by many in the quilting industry to be the top authority in the field of die-cutting fabric. The author of The Die Cutter’s Buying Guide and the Big Little Book of Fabric Die Cutting Tips, 2nd Edition, Ebony describes herself as an Accidental Expert.  

“I had a crazy idea to make round fabric coasters with pinked edges. I cut a few circles using a template and a pair of pinking shears. If you’ve ever wielded a pair of pinking shears, you know the weight and force required to use them makes your hand ache miserably. After cutting the first set, most people would have abandoned the idea entirely; but instead, I went searching for a perfect way to cut pinked circles.

After a bit of digging, some failed purchases, and other experiments, I found a company that could make something called a custom steel rule die. Fantastic! I called them and told them what I wanted, and they got to work on my custom 5” pinked circle die. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask what I needed to actually use the die. Yes, you guessed it… I didn’t even have a die cutter.

Fabric Die Cutting Tips Cover by Ebony LoveSo here I was, with a custom die on order, frantically researching machines to use it. There wasn’t much information provided by the manufacturers so I went online looking for people who had experience with them.  I discovered the world of Yahoo Groups where all these quilters were essentially teaching each other through trial and error. Maybe because I was so enthusiastic, people started to email to ask me for advice, and I’d do more research, make recommendations or help troubleshoot their issues.”

The online groups are an excellent resource for quilters new to fabric die-cutting. But, at some point, it became overwhelming to navigate the archives. Although the information is THERE — it’s buried under 20,000 messages. Imagine trying to look up a phone number, but instead of an alphabetized phone book, all the names and addresses are randomly jammed into a dumpster. It became increasingly clear that some sort of reference manual was urgently needed.

Although Ebony didn’t think she knew more than anybody else, she had become very visible in the groups, and she had become active in the various communities that support die-cutting quilters. She’d also started posting how-to videos on YouTube and she knew she had a knack for explaining things to people. She was eager to share everything she’d learned with anybody who was interested, so in 2012, she wrote and published The Big Little Book of Fabric Die Cutting Tips, which earned rave reviews.

Ebony’s life has always been a blend of art and other pursuits. She is a degreed engineer who works full time for a large consumer packaged foods company in information technology, but she has always been a “maker.” When she was in elementary school, she made satin and lace heart-shaped pillows and sold them to teachers and other students. During high school, she made costumes for the drama department, and in college, she supplemented her income making evening gowns and accessories.

She came to the “quilting thing” pretty late. After college, she stopped sewing for a while. She got back into sewing and quilting because her friends were getting married and having babies and she started making quilts for them. At one particular baby shower, when her pregnant friend opened Ebony’s quilt, everybody wanted one, and she soon found herself making custom quilts in her spare time.

Magic happens in the LoveBug Studios.

Magic happens in the LoveBug Studios.

Ebony started LoveBug Studios as a custom quilt business. Although making quilts sparked her creative fire once again, it was hard to keep up with the demand. It was draining from an artistic perspective. Customers were way more concerned with getting what they wanted or envisioned than feeding Ebony’s creative spirit. She realized two things: she really didn’t like doing commissioned work and supplanting her own ideas with someone else’s, and there’s no way to make money customizing quilts unless you quilt for Oprah.

She needed to find a way to create something once and reach many more people with that effort. Instead of making one quilt for one person, she needed to figure out how to make one quilt for many people. LoveBug Studios changed focus from people who want quilts to people who want to MAKE quilts. As a degreed engineer, Ebony has a passion for finding efficiencies, and her love of the precision of die-cut quilts seemed like a good direction for LoveBug Studios. 

It’s no mystery! Ebony’s die cut kits save you time.

It’s no mystery!
Ebony’s die-cut kits save you time.

Ebony says, “I love die cutting because it really helps me to get past the points that I don’t love so much and get to the part that I do. If I can crank out all the pieces I need for a queen-sized quilt in a few hours and just get to sewing as soon as possible, I can see my efforts more quickly.”

The efficiency of die-cutting quilt pieces led to other problems though:  because she was churning out so many quilt tops she couldn’t get them quilted fast enough, so she had to buy a long arm.

Ebony thinks of herself as a cruise director or a concierge, and she wanted to create meaningful experiences for people and help them grow in their craft. That desire manifested itself into her popular mystery quilt alongs.

Ebony Love Mystery Quilt Alongs

Find Mystery Quilt Alongs throughout the year.

  • Ebony’s mystery quilts are based around a theme. She’s done three so far focused around Downton Abbey. The current one is “Dear Laura,” based on the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. 
  • Three to four months before the event actually begins, people go to the LoveBug Studios website to register. The cost typically ranges from $10-$30, depending on the quilt.
  • When the quilt along starts, Ebony releases a new block once per week, and people can download the pattern, watch videos to show how the block goes together or read through a photo tutorial. Quilt alongs last anywhere from 3–12 weeks depending on the project.
Ebony with Little House on the Prairie stars Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson ) and Charlotte Stewart (Miss Beadle) 2015 International Quilt Market – Houston TX

Ebony with Little House on the Prairie stars
Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson ) and Charlotte Stewart (Miss Beadle)
2015 International Quilt Market – Houston TX

She also has weekly webinars (fans call them W-Ebony-ars) where participants chat and sew together and ask questions. People can get kits of fabric from the website or from participating quilt shops. She also provides a forum where they can get help, and there’s a Facebook group where they gather to chat and share and post photos.  

In the spring she’ll be doing another Downton Abbey quilt, and the summer will be a Quilt Around the World Mystery. In 2017 she’ll be doing an Anne of Green Gables Mystery. Ebony says, “They are great fun, and it’s pretty neat to be able to connect quilters from around the world.”

Even though LoveBug Studios is Ebony’s “side business” — it has taken over her life and home. She moved the long arm out of the basement and into the living room so she could use the basement as a warehouse and shipping center.

Lights. Camera. Action! in Ebony Love’s video studio.

Lights. Camera. Action! in Ebony’s video studio.

About inspiration, Ebony says, “for me, inspiration always starts with an idea.  Not an idea for a quilt, but an idea for an experience.  I envision how I want people to interact and what I want them to take away.  For example, when it comes to my Downton mysteries, I think about the show and the characters and the plot points, and how I can tie the storyline into the quilt, what things might evoke a certain memory for someone or get them to really make a connection to the quilt or the process of making it.  When someone looks at a quilt they’ve made from one of my patterns, I want them to remember the fun they had making it, or what they learned, or the perseverance it took to finish.

My full-time job is about sitting in front of a computer or in meetings all day.  It’s hard sometimes to make the connection between what I do and some family out there grocery shopping and buying the food we make and feeling like I was part of that experience.  But the work I do with LoveBug Studios is very connected.  I can see the results of my efforts, and the impact it makes.  People give me feedback and I can take that and incorporate it into the next project.  I love being part of a community that is happy and joyful and sharing in their love of quilting. No matter what our differences may be outside of quilting — we have at least that one thing in common and that’s what matters.”

Ebony’s Big Little Book is going into a second edition.

She is also working on a new book, The Die Cutter’s Buying Guide. If anyone is interested in getting notified when the book is released, please sign up for a notification here:
http://eepurl.com/bDHCOT

To learn more about fabric die cutting, check out Ebony’s blog post:
https://www.lovebugstudios.com/blog/2015/04/20/cutting-up-monday-what-is-fabric-die-cutting/

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Cheryl Sleboda – Part 2

(Originally published January 2016, SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #25. Written by Rita Farro.)

 

weekly_quilts

Cheryl’s Small Quilts 

Cheryl Sleboda had been doing traditional quilting for several years, but she’d created a sketch book, The Art of Fabric Manipulation, full of designs and ideas. She realized she was never going to be able to make that many large quilts. Besides — where would she put them? At that time (2005-6), ladies were working through an email list called Quilt Art. Once a month, they were doing 8.5” x 11” pieces. Although that project was coming to a close, it sparked the idea that she could work in a smaller format. She decided once a month was not enough time in her studio. Her goal was to be in her studio every day. So, she gave herself three simple rules:

  1. A finished quilt each week. The binding must be finished by Sunday night.
  2. Size was 6 x 6.
  3. Any design.

Cheryl created one small quilt every week for five years, changing the rules every year. During Year Two, she introduced a monthly theme:  Pomegranates, Monsters, Robots . . . that year, she started to develop a cartoony style.

Year 3:  She changed the size — instead of 6×6, she worked in 8×5 . . . and she started doing more technique work. Inspired by a 1996’s copy of Collette Wolf’s Fabric Manipulation book . . . each quilt had two different squares on it. Cheryl said, “Collette assumed her readers knew how to sew, so she left out the preparation or lead-up. I developed many short cuts that year.”


Print

Cheryl’s Advice to an Emerging Quilt Artist

If you want to build a business, your art must be seen. One way is to enter your work in a Quilt Show or a contest. All the major quilt shows have a “Call for Entry” heading on their websites.

Mancuso Quilt Shows
(https://www.quiltfest.com/):  Enter Competitions

Quilts, Inc.
(http://www.quilts.com/home/contests/index.php):   Entries

American Quilter’s Society (AQS)
(http://www.americanquilter.com/):  Contest Details

There are other websites that list “Fiber Art Calls For Entry.” When you find an event that feels like the right fit, the website will list the deadlines, the size requirements, themes, etc. Carefully read the prospectus and the contest rules. Most events or competitions want to see a good photograph of both sides of your quilt, along with a small detail shot. There is usually an entry fee.

Excellent advice about photographing your quilts can be found on the Quilts, Inc. website:

www.quilts.com/CallForEntries

 

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Cheryl Sleboda – Part 1

(Originally published January 2016, SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #25. Written by Rita Farro.)

 

Cheryl Sleboda, SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW

Cheryl Sleboda

Cheryl Sleboda’s bio says:  I work in the comic book industry by day and am a fiber artist by night. I am fascinated by the intersection of technology and textiles. Juxtaposing heirloom techniques in modern quilts is part of my design aesthetic.

 

How did Cheryl become the quilting industry authority where technology meets quilting? Why make a six inch square quilt? How is she lighting up the world of art quilting?  

 

I grew up on the south side of Chicago. In 8th grade we moved to the suburbs. I learned to sew from Home EC classes! My grandmother gave me a sewing machine for Christmas my senior year of high school, but no one in my family sews but me.  I went to a local community college and majored in Theatre.  There I developed a love for costuming and for sewing.

In 1996 I met my soon-to-be-husband in the early days of the internet and moved to Baltimore. Soon after moving to Baltimore I started my full time job in the comic book industry. I work for a comic book distributor, and my job is to develop tools for customers to grow their businesses.  I work with small niche, passionate store owners every day.  I travel quite a bit for the job, attending major comic book conventions to meet with our clients and grow our industry.

Because I was so far away from family and friends I turned to sewing and picked up a JoAnn’s block of the month kit as my first introduction to quilting.  From there I started designing my own traditional style quilts and joined a quilt guild. I soon realized that I was going to run out of room for my quilts and worthy people to gift them to. Besides, making a bed-size quilt is a huge commitment in time, money and energy.

Cherl Sleboda Artists Trading Cards 2010

Artists Trading Cards 2010

In 2005-7 I started transitioning to art quilting. I started out making Artist Trading Card sized quilts (baseball card sized at 2.5 x 3.5 inches) and trading them with others on the internet. I was fascinated by journal quilting and wanted to start getting the art quilt ideas out of my sketchbook and made into work. So I launched my weekly art quilts in January 2007 and made one small (6×6 inch) art quilt every week for 5 years!

Road to Home Blue Ribbon Winner, 2009 Mancuso Pennsylvania Quilt Extravaganza

Road to Home
Blue Ribbon Winner
2009 Mancuso Pennsylvania Quilt Extravaganza

We moved from Baltimore to Chicago in the middle of 2007, so my quilts that year are very autobiographical.  

By doing that work for five years, I ended up teaching myself lots of design and art principles that serve me now with my current work. I developed a “style” of cartoony faces that are completely recognizable by others as my own. I think that if I didn’t do those quilts I would not nearly have honed my artistic voice as much as I have. It’s a great “journal” to be able to go back to see where it all started.  I also did one whole year of “Technique of the Week” which I documented on my YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/muppindotcom).

I had to make up some techniques just to get to 52 different ones. I like learning new things and trying new tools, so I plan to continue my video series in 2016 with a new season of Technique of the Week!

Two of Cheryl Sleboda's weekly quilts from Year 3.

Two of Cheryl’s weekly quilts from Year 3.

Every year, I would change my own rules. In Year 3 (2009) of my weekly series, I did a group of quilts based on heirloom sewing and fabric manipulation. This has become one of the things I most enjoy. I made a quilt with 44 different fabric manipulation techniques in it. That quilt was the inspiration for my DVD “Heirloom Sewing Techniques for Today’s Quilter.” I do these techniques by both hand and machine, and I now have a plastic template for people who want to do the heirloom Canadian smocking techniques.

Another thing I am known for is for lighting up my quilts. In 2010,  the very first “Technique of the Week” weekly quilt went viral . . . I used conductive thread in a quilt. Conductive thread  conducts electricity like wire. I made a bunch of quilts that are inspired by underwater life, as lots of creatures under the sea have a natural bioluminescence. No one was lighting up quilts at the time, and even now, it’s not for everyone, but I feel like I have been there from the early days of the technology. Now there are computer chips to program your lights that can be programmed from your cell phone. I started selling Light Up kits on my website and I’m now the quilting world’s eTextile expert, I guess!

 

“Geschwindigkeit (Speed)” Judge’s Choice - Mancuso Quiltfest Destination Savannah 2014

“Geschwindigkeit (Speed)”
Judge’s Choice – Mancuso Quiltfest Destination Savannah 2014

A couple of years ago I drew a skull and crossed thread-and-needle design while on a phone call at work. I loved it so much, I turned the design into a t-shirt. Next thing you know, my friends all wanted one. My husband had been out of work for over a year and I realized that there was money to be made, so a new side business was born. With the last $300 in our savings, we started selling shirts, and reinvested our profits back into the business. We developed other designs for shirts, patches, mugs, stickers, sweatshirts and much more. These are now available to quilt shops through distributors, launching with Checker in early 2015. Since I work for a distributor in comics, it’s a bit full-circle. This income and my quilting teaching income supplemented my full time income until my husband returned to work in 2014. All of my products are available through my online store at  http://shop.muppin.com.

As an extension of what I do for the comic book industry, I started giving people advice on their art businesses. Early in 2015 my friend Lynn and I did a recorded webinar about how to launch an art business. I have since written, taught, and lectured about business topics for quilt businesses on branding, time management, social media, and much more!
 
So I work full time, and I feel like I work full time on my art business too.  Since the move back to the Chicago area, I get to work out of my house, so I know I am incredibly lucky. I try to sew at least an hour a day in some fashion, with much more on the weekends. My goal is to make at least two large quilts for entry into quilt competitions each year. I also work on lots of small projects throughout the year. I have my business social media and other marketing plans worked out to be done in a very tight schedule, so I don’t get burned out. I teach and lecture to quilt guilds, and I love doing that. I have a huge bucket list of things I haven’t done yet, like write a book or design fabric, but I have lots of time ahead of me to get those accomplished. When I put my mind to it, anything is possible. I love what I do!

www.muppin.com
 

 
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Brenda Miller

(Originally published October 2015, SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #22. Written by Rita Farro.)

 

AMong Brenda's Quilts & Bags Logo

Brenda Miller and Harry the cat.

Brenda Miller and Harry.

Quilting is a creative outlet,  a hobby that can be relaxing and artistic. It is always interesting to learn about the journey of others:  Who or what their inspiration was; that moment in time when they took that fork in the road and turned their hobby into a business.  Brenda Miller’s story goes way beyond that.  For her, quilting became her ticket to see the world.  Quilting was her ride to China.

Brenda Miller of Ontario, Canada is the owner of Among Brenda’s Quilts.  She is a full-time pattern designer, specializing in bags and quilts.   In October 2015, Brenda will be making her second trip to visit China as an advisor to the Zhejiang Quilt Association.  How did that happen?

Brenda always loved being creative, and she studied graphic design in college. After she got married, she had the usual assortment of pay-the-bills jobs. She was a real estate sales agent for 12 years, but she knew in her heart that she was not destined to be a Realtor.

One of Brenda’s first quilts was inspired by the book Lap Quilting with Georgia Bonesteel.  In the afternoon when her newborn son was napping, Brenda made blocks. She excitedly showed each completed block of that sampler quilt to her husband when he came home from work.  It was a rush to be creating something so perfect, so beautiful and so useful. She still gets that same feeling with every quilt and bag pattern she designs.

In 2004, working as a Realtor, she sold a gorgeous circa 1869 Quaker General store to friends and fellow members of her local art group. Those friends started a quilt shop in the old store, The Marsh Store in Coldstream, Ontario, while living upstairs.

Brenda knew she wanted to break into this line of work.  It became an obsession. She started by teaching beginners how to quilt.  Those classes really took off and soon she was writing patterns for the classes.

Collage of Brenda Miller's bag patterns

A sampling of bags designed by Brenda.

She loved starting with an idea — sitting down with a blank slate and making that first sketch. She enjoys the process of experimenting, trial, and error, making things work. Those early designs became the foundation of her pattern business.  As sales took off, Brenda’s bag patterns became very popular.

“I love designing bags because they are functional, beautiful, fashionable, and can be made entirely by the home sewist.  A big part of my attraction to bag making comes from a childhood encounter with my great, great, great Aunt Tante Martha.  She was a dressmaker par excellence from Berlin.  One summer she spent a month with us.  It wasn’t long before she had both my Mom and me over to the local sewing shop picking out fabrics for new outfits.  I can still remember the gorgeous blue dress with covered buttons she made me.  The color and cut were absolutely perfect.  Along with the dress, she also made me a terry cover-up.  Using the leftover fabric from this project Tante Martha showed me how to make a tote bag with a zipper.  It was a great beginning for a little girl interested in making things from scratch.  I consider Tante Martha one of my pennies from heaven.”

Brenda Miller in China.

Brenda in China.

The inspiration for Brenda’s bag making often comes from fashion.  Lately, the style that interests her the most is Japanese Street Fashion.  What young Japanese and Chinese women are wearing is very young, fresh, and bold.  Last year, while in China Brenda did some serious people/fashion watching.  Again, China . . . .

In the summer of 2014, Brenda received an obscure email that looked like spam. After some investigation, she realized it was a legitimate invitation to attend the China International Quilt Festival sponsored by the Chinese Government in October 2014. The purpose was to introduce quilting and the quilting industry to China. In North America, we think quilting is universal but it is a new consumer concept in China.  It is interesting to note that back in 1999 when China first became open to imports from the Western world, the first things that sold were bicycles and sewing machines.

The people who invited Brenda were tasked with the job of bringing quilt experts from other parts of the world because there is no quilting industry in China. The quilting display was a very small part of the show and included Brenda and about 10 other booths with quilting related products, exhibitors from other countries, and antique quilts from an American collection.

Brenda in her booth, China International Quilt Festival.

Brenda in her booth, China International Quilt Festival.

Brenda displayed her bags and quilts so the show attendees could see the possibilities and finished projects.  The vendors at the show were mainly manufacturers of various types of fabrics.  Anything from faux leather to lace was available to be purchased in bulk.  However, there were no quilting cottons available for sale. Even though China is a manufacturer of greige goods and finished quilting cotton, that product is for export to the west.

The buyers at the show were mainly manufacturers of finished goods like clothing, household goods, and drapery, although the show was open to the general public with many college students attending.

Some manufacturers expressed an interest in purchasing finished pieces like the quilts and bags Brenda had on display.  This led to an ongoing discussion about marketing finished goods using Brenda’s patterns in China.

Brenda Miller in the Chinese classroom with three sewing machines.

Brenda in the classroom with three sewing machines.

As a guest of China, Brenda was required to do a presentation on how we use quilting to build sales and community.  She talked about quilt guilds, our network of fabric shops, consumer quilt shows, and classes.

Holding a class in China, via interpreters, was a unique experience.  When a lecture or class is offered in China there is no registration and no fee.  People just show up for free as they showed up to the festival itself.  Brenda’s Chinese hosts estimated the class might draw 20 people.  When 50 arrived it was a real scramble.  Brenda decided to have the students work in pairs to make the project. The majority of the class was college students enrolled in the newly formed quilting class at the local textile and fashion college.  Others were the wives of the various dignitaries attending the show.  Brenda’s class was filmed and broadcast to the sales floor.

Brenda Miller and her Chinese students.

Brenda and her Chinese students.

Although she knew the students would not be bringing sewing machines to class, she was surprised they didn’t bring any basic supplies.  No scissors, thread, pins, or needles. Fortunately, she had brought extra, but imagine 50 students sharing three spools of thread, hand sewing needles, and a couple of pairs of scissors. Brenda passed out six pins per person. There were three sewing machines and two irons in the room, and even though there were no ironing boards she was grateful!  The studious young people picked up concepts very quickly.  Many bags were entirely made by hand.

Brenda has been invited back to China this October in the capacity of an advisor to the Zhejiang Quilt Association. Teaching three classes, addressing the International Quilt Academics, judging and showing a number of her quilts and bags are on her agenda for the four-day show taking place in Shaoxing City near Shanghai.

Pennies from Heaven Quilt

Pennies from Heaven

Brenda has turned what was once a dream into a true business that consumes her from 9 to 5 five days a week. She has three employees to help with the day to day jobs giving her more time for teaching and pattern design.  She says, “I can’t imagine a life doing anything else.  My latest project (yet to be released) is my Urban Computer Satchel.  I’ll be packing one this October and taking it with me as my adventures in China continue!”

When asked what quilting has contributed to her life, Brenda talked about one of her favorite quilts, Pennies From Heaven.

“I used to walk my dog Hershey in the evening along the fence rows and meadows near our home in Strathroy, Ontario.  The sun would sparkle off the leaves of the trees creating what my eyes perceived as sunspots — pennies from heaven. In the fall the Monarch Butterflies would congregate in the majestic old maples before migrating. Over time the meaning of the quilt has changed for me.  I had a former student, Heather Campbell, very talented in beadwork who offered to embellish the quilt.  Heather has since passed away from cancer.  She was a penny from heaven, a sweet girl who died too young.  Time with my family, my friends, my pets, being outdoors, are all pennies from heaven.  The point of the quilt is that we should cherish the little things in life, those sweet and fleeting moments.  The people I’ve met through quilting and the opportunities given have become very dear to me.”

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