Amanda Leins is a Modern Quilter who approaches her art and craft with an archeologist’s eye. She loves mixing ancient art and architecture with modern design sensibilities. She shares her insights in several books on quilting, including Inspired Free-Motion Quilting, co-authored with quilt historian and collector Bill Volckening.
Tell us your quilting “origin story”. How did you come to quilting as your creative medium?
My grandfathers were actually the ones who were interested in quilts. My paternal grandfather was a bit of a dapper dresser, loved fabrics of all kinds, and talked about his favorite quilt made from men’s wool suit samples. It weighs a ton, but my family still uses it!
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My maternal grandfather was the child of sharecroppers in Tennessee, and would tell stories of carding the cotton for batting while sitting under the quilting table listening to the ladies gossip (“nobody thought a 6 year old boy would listen to what they were saying.”) His mother made her quilts by saving her egg money and buying bags of shirting remnants by the pound from up North. She literally used cuts swept into bags from the floor.
Quilting made her happy, even though the quilts were a necessity to survive. I think that’s what drew me to the “modern” quilting movement back in the beginning, that push to make quilts that were beautiful and personal and meant to be used.
You have written a quilting book, Wanderlust Quilts, on your own. You and Bill Volckening have different areas of expertise. What was it like to work with a co-author on Inspired Free-Motion Quilting?
It was really interesting, actually, because we both brought a strong academic flavor to our work (because we’re both really nerdy and immerse ourselves in this stuff, which was fun!), Bill as a grad from RISD, and me as a trained Classical archaeologist with a Master’s in Classical Literature.
As a former archaeologist, I can’t help but be fascinated by how people constructed these objects and the situational things that might have inspired what they chose to make. Bill’s perspective was looking at these as finished objects, and often we’d surprise each other with insights we just wouldn’t have made on our own. It was really inspiring to me, and I’ve been playing a lot with traditional blocks and the sometimes minimal yet carefully chosen quilting that would accentuate them. I’ve also started collecting a few of my own quilts here and there.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your book, Inspired Free-Motion Quilting?
That there is always something to learn and always possibilities for inspiration, no matter what kind of quilting draws you in. After working through the designs, it’s my personal hope that quilters will feel confident enough to start riffing off these and other antique motifs to create something totally their own, and be delighted by it.
Which quilting pattern was the most difficult to transform into a free-motion design? What were the challenges?
The simple heart medallion made me feel like my eyes were going to pop out of my head. I am so incredibly happy to have figured out a way to do it with one start and stop. It’s definitely a little outside the box to quilt, I think, but it makes a beautiful design.
What inspires you?
Everything, which is a sort of cop out I know! I love making mashups of ancient art and architecture with modern fabrics and machines. It appeals to my sense of humor! Actually, I have a theory that the American quilt revival of the 19th century may have been partially inspired by the Grand Tours people were making to the great sites in Europe, which included a stop in Rome. All those mosaics had to have had an impact on people!
“Eggs and Darts” is an example of this. I took a small detail from the temple architecture of Greeks and Romans and blew it up for this quilt. The quilting supports the applique. We think that Greek temples were all white marble, but in reality they were painted really brightly and even had glass stuck to them so they’d glitter in the sunlight, so I wanted really bright colors to recall that, as well.
Do you visualize your finished product before you start it?
I”d like to say yes, but I haven’t had a quilting plan I’ve made yet that I’ve stuck with past the first hour. I always think of something I like better once I’m standing over the frame! I’m much more methodical about planning tops. Those I always have figured out before I begin.
How often do you start a new project?
I have a ton of concepts hanging around in the planning stage, where I acquire all the fabrics and materials, and then I come up with a new idea for something entirely different and then start acquiring the necessary items…. I hate to say it, but substantially fewer make it to the kick-off.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
School glue! Glue basting changed my life. Starch did, too, come to think of it. I’m a dedicated pre-washer and starcher.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I’ve been listening to the Harry Potter books. I think I’ve made it through the series 5 times this summer alone.
Technique(s)? What do you do differently? What is your signature?
I’m not sure I have a signature, because that means doing the same thing a lot, doesn’t it? My goal with my quilts is always to do something I haven’t done before. So my favorite quilt is always the next quilt.
What is the one thing you wish someone had told you about quilting before you started?
That having a stash means you’re not using your favorite fabrics. A stash should not be a museum with everything behind glass forever, but a restaurant with a revolving door and changing menu, or something. I’m not sure what the analogy is, there, but I’m going with it.
What is the biggest challenge to being successful in a creative field?
Right now, there’s a lot of pressure to have a certain look that draws the greatest number of people’s eyeballs. I worry that this is a homogenizing factor, meaning that all of us start to make things that are same-looking, and it can be hard to tell one person’s work from another. So as an artist, I worry about maintaining my voice and my individuality in the face of ever increasing noise. For new quilters, though, this can be a blessing because it takes some of the pressure off to be unique and frees them up to learn the basics, and there’s a lot to be delighted by. Thus, yin and yang!
When you have time to quilt for yourself, what kinds of projects do you make?
Something I’ve never done before. I am always trying new techniques and challenging myself to make my next quilt be nothing like the last quilt. My quilts for myself become patterns because I really enjoy the process of figuring out the how and then writing it out.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I teach a variety of classes on piecing and applique, and quilting on domestic and longarm machines. I have a sampling of classes and lectures listed on my website.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I’m feeling the need to focus on my own work in a deeper way, with layers on layers of personal meaning stitched in. Also, I’m thinking about making a show quilt, even though I swore I’d never do it! I don’t know, though, I like the challenge and competition with myself the most, and submitting it somewhere is a secondary thought. I have a really cool idea I’m working my way through right now, but it requires learning all about dyes and experimenting to even see if what I want to do will turn out. I’m SUPER EXCITED about trying!
Find more about Amanda:
Website: Mandalei Quilts
Interview posted October, 2018.
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