Allison James tried her hand at traditional quilting and felt constrained by the need for precision. She discovered art quilts and now creates colorful textile art inspired by nature. Look closely for the small details abstracted from plants.
How long have you been quilting and designing? How did you get started?
I’ve been quilting seriously for about 5 years, although I have sewn all my life. My mother taught needlework and had trained as an embroiderer and so I grew up surrounded by all kinds of cloth and threads.
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In the few years before I retired from my job as an academic, I did City and Guilds Embroidery qualifications, reaching diploma level, and then did classes in felting and in quilting. Gradually, I realised that it was quilting that really floated my boat!
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I had always loved the texture and patterns of traditional quilts, their comforting weight and feel. After taking a few quilting courses I realised that I didn’t want to make traditional quilts myself. I got bored making the same block over and over again. I also felt constrained by the need for such exacting precision.
When I discovered art quilting I knew that I had found what I was looking for. My quilts are often a mixture of techniques, such as improvised piecing and appliqué, or indeed sometimes just appliqué. I tend toward a more graphic style, whether they are abstract or more representational. I mostly use solids, often a lot of black, and love to make strong contrasts in my work.
How does your environment influence your creativity?
I often take inspiration from the natural world for my quilts – large landscapes or small details of plant shapes. These I abstract and reconfigure in my quilts.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I am definitely more of an improviser. I start with a germ of an idea, might do a quick paper collage or sketch but rarely, if ever, make a pattern! Sometimes I can just picture a finished quilt in my mind. I cut up fabric, place it on my design wall and see where it takes me.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
I am definitely a finisher. I cannot bear the idea of UFOs, nagging at me! If a piece is not working I will put it aside and revisit from time to time, but usually I know already that the piece is not worth finishing. The decision has already been made and the materials will be recycled and reused where possible!
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
We have recently moved houses and I had to give up my large room, which I used as my sewing room. So now I have taken over two bedrooms! One is my dedicated sewing room where I have my design wall and where I keep my sewing machine and Handiquilter set up. The other is a spare room where I have my cutting table and ironing board, along with a sofa bed for visiting grandchildren. The table can be folded right down and the ironing board put away when we have visitors.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I start a new project on average every couple of months or so, depending on what the impetus is – a call for entry to a show or the need to produce for the two textile art groups that I belong to: www.20perspectives.com and www.ecostitchers.com. I usually only work on one piece at a time
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
The piece “Joyful” was inspired by the amarylis plant that I had flowering in my kitchen last winter. Its colours and petal shapes drew me in and I knew I wanted somehow to incorporate these into a quilt.
I made another quilt first, however, – Moonlit Garden – that enabled me to explore the petal shapes, the colours and the best techniques to use. Before Joyful, there was also another failed attempt at using large scale appliqué pieces onto a background – these had puckered and wrinkled. So I cut that up, reused the fabric and decided on a different approach – smaller petals layered on one another and a heavier weight backing fabric. My process is always one of experimenting, each quilt represents a new challenge and I learn constantly.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
My favourite part is when I begin placing shapes, ready for appliqué, onto my design wall, moving them about, repositioning them until a pleasing design begins to come together. The challenge begins with the quilting, working out whether it’s best to stitch everything down before layering the quilt or to use the stitching as part of the quilting process. What kind of quilting to do on a particular piece is always difficult to decide.
How is your work different than it was in the beginning? How is it the same?I
The more art quilting I do the more freedom I am allowing myself. I’m beginning to include patterned and hand dyed fabric, to incorporate paint and to use different kinds of fabric other than cotton – silks, linen, mesh etc. What remains is the desire always to include some hand embroidery on the quilt.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Review each piece you do, keep notes on the processes you used and work out what worked and what didn’t. And remember to go back to those notes next time!
Do you enter juried shows? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?
Since joining SAQA I do enter their juried shows with the occasional success! I don’t do anything different, although the theme may prompt me to make a quilt that otherwise I would not have done! My recent acceptance into the SAQA, Bearing Witness exhibition, which premieres this August in the USA, is a case in point.
Do you keep track of your work? Shows that you’ve entered? Tell us what works for you.
Yes I do. I keep a simple list of upcoming shows, which quilts I’ve entered where and whether or not I’ve been successful.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
I have always been self motivated and quite disciplined about work. As an academic you have to generate your own research and ideas, so now, as an art quilter, I don’t find that a problem. I will see things that make me think ‘I could make a quilt out of that’. I don’t think I will ever run out of inspiration!
If I’m feeling less inspired or tired I will do jobs like making the hanging sleeves, putting on facings/ bindings, things I really don’t like doing but need to be done and don’t require me to think that much!
Has rejection ever affected your creative process? Explain.
No, not really. I work from the principle that if I get accepted it’s a bonus! I know that I haven’t been doing quilting that long, and that I am continually learning from every piece that I make. Sometimes I feel a bit disappointed, if I really feel the quilt was a good one, but I am also realistic enough to know that the competition is huge!
How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
I leave it for a few days on my design wall to see how it “feels” .
Where can people see your work?
Interview posted January 2024
Browse through more inspiring art quilts on Create Whimsy.