People ask me all the time if I do custom work, and I feel there is always a pregnant pause, a funny look and a caveat to my “yes” answer. Art is so subjective that it’s hard for me to do something custom. I can’t okay every fabric with you. I can’t FaceTime you as I place each ray of sunlight. And I can’t go back and forth making sure you are getting a precision replica of something that is in your head. I am the artist, after all. I need room to breathe.
When I make a piece on my own and then put it up for sale, you get what you get, and you know exactly what you’re getting up front. But custom work–there is an expectation sometimes that I will build exactly what you want. And believe me, I will try to capture your vision as best I can, but there has to be some trust there, and some desire for my fingerprint–my artistry. I assume you have asked me because you’ve already seen my work and love my style. So that should put us a step ahead. My favorite collaborations are when the client gives a few specifics, like a general theme or a particular subject, and then says “go for it!”. That was the case with this beautiful manatee quilt.
And to be honest, it wasn’t just any ordinary client. This was for my mother and I knew she would love it no matter what. But I still didn’t want to phone it in…I wanted it to be extra special. My mom loves manatees and asked if I would make her a lap size quilt (50″x70″) and her only requests were that it have a manatee and a setting sun, like one she had seen in a previous quilt. I love requests like that where I’m given a little bit of direction, but largely trusted to create what fancy ideas or forever swirling in my head.
Sometimes I have to think about a project for days, and sketch ideas, but I knew right away what I wanted with this one. The sunset over the water was already set, but I wanted to make sure that this looked like a manatee habitat and not like one of my typical ocean quilts. I looked at lots of photos and came up with this idea to have the grasses and some fish and also a sea turtle. Mom also likes my sea turtles. I knew that the sunset, the manatee and the sea turtle would each be so visually interesting that the rest would just be enhancements. A few palm trees, some grasses and some cute little fish would round it off nicely.
I started off with a strip quilt. I love using strip quilts as a background for several reasons. One is that I can gradate the landscape colors to create depth in the sky and in the water. Another reason is that it gives a strong feel of a horizon line, which is perfect for this type of image. It also allows me to use lots of my scraps and that allows for me to use many, many different prints and colors to make up a larger block, like the water or the sky. Much better than just a big piece of one fabric. The nature of the wax resist method used in making batiks means that most designs are only going to have about two to three colors. This means the prints will usually be bold and contrasting. Throw all those bold, colorful prints into an area that is meant to be one thing, like a sky, and it adds movement and life to an otherwise plain space. It is also a way of throwing in these hidden gems if you have just the right scrap. For example, I love the octopus batik at the bottom of the quilt. It’s a vibrant way of adding more sea life into the quilt without making another appliqué.
The next step is to put the quilt together. I pin the quilt back to the frame with the wrong side showing. Then I lay the batting on top and finally the pieced quilt top. After it is all stretched on the frame and pinned, then I build the rest of the design. This phase is all done with appliqués that I design and create myself. I never use anyone else’s patterns. Because the manatee and sea turtle were such focal points, I drew them out of paper first to make sure I had the proportions correct. I admit, I fly by the seat of my pants a lot and often skip any kind of patterning. But this one required more precise proportions to make sure they were the most prominent figures on the quilt. Once I got that correct, then I cut them out of fabric, used my handy spray starch and steam iron to turn the edges under on the appliqués and iron them flat, and then pin them into place.
After the quilt has been laid out and I’m satisfied with the design, then the appliqués get glued into place with a washable glue. This is my favorite trick! Plain old Elmer’s washable school glue. WASHABLE being the key word! I glue everything in place and let it dry thoroughly. I don’t overdo the glue–just enough to keep the piece in place. When the glue dries, I pin the whole quilt and remove it from the frame for the free motion stitching. The dried glue doesn’t gum up the needle and if you don’t use tons of it, it’s still very easy for the needle to permeate the fabrics. And then it’s all downhill from there!
Haha. Just kidding. Another question I get asked frequently is if I do my own quilting. Of course!!! As an artist, all those thread details are half of the design! I create and build every single aspect of my work. I would never give away the chance to do all the finishing touches. The thread gives personality to faces and all the finite details that make the quilt unique. Think about it. I could always build two of the same quilts–same fabrics, same layout, same pattern. But when you quilt freehanded, it is absolutely impossible to do two designs that are exactly alike. So, when you buy an original piece from an artist, you’re getting a little piece of that person that nobody else will ever be able to have.
I mean, nobody ever has more of a piece of your soul than your own mother, but I feel like my mother got something a little extra special here. Don’t we really just want our kids to grow up, use their natural talents and their hard work and their loves and their passions to create a life that makes them happy and brings joy to others? This was my chance to give a little of that back to a woman who has loved me unconditionally and has only ever wanted me to be happy and to feel fulfilled. And that’s exactly what I felt when I gave this to her. I like to think she thinks it’s amazing and doesn’t just love it because I made it like I did some thumbprint animal in kindergarten, but I’m sure that has a lot to do with it, too.
“Like a Manatee, I am peaceful, respectful, gentle, kind and self-healing.” Jonathan Lockwood Huie