Spotlight: Lorraine Torrence, Quilter and Creative Clothing Maker
Lorraine Torrence has been a quilter and creative clothing maker since the early 1970’s and now teaches innovative quilting, clothing and design on the national circuit. She has inspired art quilters and garment makers with her series classes in design and creative clothing in both the Seattle area and Madison, Wisconsin.
Tell me a little bit about you and what you do.
I am a quilter and wearable art maker and have been doing both of those things since 1971. That was also the year I got an MFA in sculpture (cast bronze and welded steel, primarily.) Six months before I graduated, I needed to give a wedding present to the foundry foreman at the University of Washington School of Art’s Metal Art Facility. I had no money but I had a bag of scraps, having sewn my own clothes since I was an adolescent. I decided to make a quilt for the wedding gift. “How hard could it be?” I thought.
I accomplished the task using common sense and intuition and the next day after presenting the gift, the foundry foreman came back with a message from his bride, whom I had never met. (Turns out, she was a grad student in textiles!) She asked if I wanted to share a booth with quilts in the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair that summer. I agreed, we were accepted and we embarked on making an inventory of quilts for our art fair booth.
I never made another piece of sculpture because I had found a medium that was far more natural for me. We sold quilts, I was asked to teach quiltmaking and soon I was making garments using my new-found quilting skills. This was on the very cusp of the Quilt Revival in the 1970’s. Now I publish 2 lines of garment patterns, have written 3 books on Design for Quilters and teach on the national circuit.
What made you interested in fiber arts and garment/pattern design?
I had always sewn and I had all the tools and know-how (I thought) to make pieced garments. I loved fabric and color. And I enjoyed teaching and used my art background to encourage my students to design their own quilts. The teaching process also forced me to organize, clarify, verbalize and expand what I knew.
As for my pattern business, I had already tried vending my art wear garments at craft fairs and sales and found that after making thousands of dollars of inventory, people wanted to custom order my designs in different sizes and colors. This increases my time and work exponentially and people wanted to pay the same price as the “off the rack” garments. Too hard!
In 1996, I designed and made a sample garment to help a friend market her new line of hand dyed silk. She came home from her first show and told me she “could have sold a million patterns of my sample” – if I had one. I thought the prospect of designing and making patterns so people could make their own wearable art seemed much easier than the custom sewing I was doing so I opened my pattern business a year later with 4 patterns.
Every year I added more and started going to Quilt Market (wholesale) and Festival (a consumer show) in Houston, TX, to sell my pattern line. In 2000 I was offered the pattern line of another garment pattern designer and added Grainline Gear to my business. I added to this line by inviting others to design for it. In 2009 I started a third line of patterns (Sewn…square one for your style) for young women who were new to sewing. In 2012, I sold that line to one of my young designers.
How did you learn to sew?
My mother facilitated my learning to sew by encouraging me whenever I showed an interest. She sewed, but chose to have someone else teach me. She had a seamstress she knew help me make my 8th grade graduation dress. And she signed me up for Singer teenage sewing classes. I also learned a lot in 4-H. Of course, when I was in high school, home ec class was mandatory for girls and I learn there too. By 15, I was making most of my own clothes; in college I made money by sewing for others.
What is your favorite storage tip for your creative supplies? fabric?
In my studio, I have open shelves with much of my stash exposed. I like to be able to see it all and know what I have. I do have plenty more fabric in boxes and bins and I recommend going through it regularly so you are reminded of what you have. Also, I believe in getting rid of the things that no longer interest you to cut down on wasted space.
How did you get into teaching, writing books and drafting patterns?
In 1971, just after I got my MFA and had started making quilts, I had a booth selling quilts in the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair. A Seattle Park Department Recreation Center Director came into my booth and asked me if I would teach a quilting class at her center. I agreed and taught the first class there in 1972. At the time the quilt revival had just barely begun and there were no quilt shops, classes, books or TV shows on quilting. I pretty much made it up as I want along, encouraging students to design their own.
Teaching grew from there and became my primary occupation. I didn’t write my first book until 25 years after that first class, thinking naively until then, that everything I knew was already in a book. In the late 90’s I realized that there were hardly any books that even contained a little bit of design principles and elements for quilters. That’s when I started writing.
As I became consumed by quilting, my garments started incorporating more and more of my quilting skills. In the early 90’s, I made a sample garment for a friend who had started a business selling her hand-dyed silk to quilters. When she told me she could have sold “a million” patterns of the vest, I made a pattern for it. Then I realized that a pattern business with only one pattern didn’t make sense, so I published more. I was not trained in pattern making so I usually just modified existing patterns to make them look the way I wanted. Ultimately, I hired a professional patternmaker/grader to perfect my prototype designs.
Are you the kind of quilter that plans everything out ahead of time? Or do you just dive in and start playing with fabrics?
I work both ways, depending on the technique I use. I do lots of sketching of ideas usually, though, especially when the designs require making patterns.
When you are in your creative mood, do you listen to music, watch TV or do you prefer a quiet spot? If it is music, what types do you listen to? If watching TV, what kinds of shows?
I listen to NPR a lot when I’m working. Sometimes I just like it quiet, though. I only do mindless handwork when I watch TV. Watching TV doesn’t work for me when I’m engaged in creative work. So I don’t have a TV in the studio.
Do you have a favorite tool to help you succeed at your projects?
Aside from my sewing machine and serger, the rotary cutter has to be my all time favorite tool. The entire top of my 38″ x 60″ cutting table is a cutting mat. All that said, I have a seam ripper within arms reach anywhere in my house!
What inspires you?
I am inspired by color, fabric, nature, designs in art, fashion, architecture, photography and advertising; in short, the world around me.
What other hobbies do you have?
When you say “other hobbies,” you may assume that sewing, designing and quiltmaking is my primary hobby. It’s not. It is my profession, and my primary endeavor. For hobbies, I enjoy movies with my husband, being with my adult children, playing with my grandchildren and swimming for exercise. Beyond that, it’s pretty much doing my art and business. I only cook and clean out of necessity!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
My father always told me, “Be yourself.” By doing what I love, I guess I’m doing that. I will never retire until I am incapable of forming a coherent sentence or threading a needle!
Anything else you’d like to share?
Yes. Discipline propels me to get started working. Once I’ve started, creativity, productivity and ideas come easily.
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