Amber Elliot leverages her background and knowledge as a software engineer to design modern quilt patterns and manage her digital membership and subscription box service. Inspired by nature Amber’s designs blend organic elements with geometric motifs to create contemporary designs that are perfect for modern home decor.
Software engineer to modern quilt designer. How did that happen? What skills from your engineering background do you find invaluable for what you are doing today?
I’ve been sewing since I was a young child, and have always been a craft-hopper. I always wanted to do something artistic and creative as an occupation, but also needed a stable career path!
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I went into software engineering, but continued my creative hobbies. Once I discovered pattern writing, I realized that there was far more overlap between my day job and my hobbies than I realized.
It took years of growing my business before I could quit my job and take it full time, and I knew that when I started it. I focused in on creating multiple different ways to serve my customers in my business to make it sustainable and to meet my goals. For example, I design and write quilt patterns, run the Modern Makes Membership, write books, and teach several different courses.
Once I started the Modern Makes Membership, which is a digital membership and a subscription box service, I was very glad I had a decade of engineering under my belt. There’s no way I would’ve been able to get it off the ground without that! My technical background also made writing professional and clear patterns much easier, and led me to teaching the Pattern Writing Academy every year.
You design quilt patterns, manage Modern Makes Membership club, teach classes and more. How do you balance all of this, your personal creative time and family?
To be honest, I think balance is a bit of a myth in my season of life. I have two very small children, and balancing a full time job (especially one where I never am quite ‘off the clock’, which is my own fault of course) with them and all other aspects of life is not always possible.
That said, it’s much better now than when I was running my business and working a day job. During that time, I worked every night and every weekend. Almost every single second I wasn’t actively spending time with my son I was working, which was about as unsustainable and exhausting as it sounds.
How do you keep all the balls in the air? Is there one you wish you could drop? Which one will you never give up?
I drop balls all of the time! The two balls I always make sure are still in the air are my kids and my business. Other things ebb and flow, but of course raising my children and paying my bills aren’t optional.
Personal time to do anything creative (that isn’t work related) or engage in a hobby is so wonderful to have, but that is always the first ball to get tossed out the window.
My husband and I also made the decision to hire house cleaners once a month, which is a wonderful luxury and makes juggling everything else a bit easier.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
My designs tend to be very modern, rarely block based, and use sophisticated color palettes. My work is almost always influenced by science and nature and I think that comes across fairly clearly, especially in my landscape based patterns.
When I was quilting years ago I almost never followed patterns because I couldn’t easily find designs that I would actually want to use in my home. That has become one of the most defining characteristics of my work: it needs to seamlessly fit in with a modern home. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean “modern” in an interior design sense, which is much more specific. My own home is a blend of modern, traditional, and bohemian styles, and I like my quilt designs to be soothing but interesting components of my home, that can easily be used or displayed while fitting the overall feel.
What other creative avenues have you explored?
Almost everything. Name a craft, there’s a good chance I’ve done it!
I love trying new crafts so much that I added on a new subscription box option to the Modern Makes Membership last year that is all about exploring new crafts once a quarter. I just finished making a small woven ring bowl learning some rope basket techniques, and it was so fun!
When I have some rare free time, I usually spend it either knitting or painting. I always wanted to be a professional artist when I was younger, and am planning to finally do some art licensing this year.
Can you share a bit of your process of bringing a new idea from glimmer to reality?
I do all of my design work using Vector Graphics software. I recommend and teach Affinity Designer, as it’s perfect for quilt design and is much cheaper and easier to use than Illustrator. Not only do I create my actual diagrams in Affinity, but all of my concepts originate in that program.
I gather inspiration from many places, but the first time any of it is visualized is on my laptop. Part of what’s great about this process is that it allows me to design and do the math at the same time. So, at the end of my design phase I have a fully laid out quilt with all of the math already determined. After that, I move to the process of determining best construction methods, making the diagrams, and then the actual pattern writing!
What trends do you see in modern quilting today?
I see modern quilting exploding in growth and diversity lately.
The fairly rigid parameters of what makes a quilt count as “modern” have, in my mind, relaxed within the community since the definitions were originally established. I think that while much modern quilt design continues to focus on bold and graphic quilts, there are so many amazing quilters that are stretching the definitions of what modern is with their unique and fresh designs.
When you have time to create for yourself, what kinds of projects do you make?
I usually spend extra time working on garment sewing if I sew at all. Most of the time, creating for myself is in other mediums now – I rarely sew or make quilts off the clock. Even if you like your job, it’s still a job and loses a bit of the “hobby” appeal!
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I don’t use any physical mediums for quilt design. Every one of my designs begins in a vector program, and usually in a single design session I’ll come away with a finalized design.
I can’t force it though; I design when inspiration strikes, and then I save those designs for future projects. I always have a backlog of them!
Who or what are your main influences and inspirations?
It sounds cliche to say, but most of my influence comes from nature. I love blending organic elements with geometric motifs to create contemporary designs that fit in with a modern home’s decor.
Much of my inspiration comes from nature, and I tend to mix landscape concepts with modern, graphic blocks to create unique quilt patterns. I try very hard not to be exposed to too much art in any medium when I’m in a big design phase, because I don’t want elements of anyone else’s work coming through in my designs.
Do you have great bursts of creativity or does your creativity flow continuously?
Definitely bursts. I have days, sometimes weeks, where I feel extremely uncreative. The vast majority of work involved in running my business is logistical and organizational computer work, so when I’m having a creative slump I always have so much to do, I barely notice.
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?
Whew, it’s really hard! Organizing pattern writing isn’t difficult, but keeping track of all of the different projects I’m working on is a challenge.
I have a rule that I only have one quilt pattern sample in progress at once, and never during the Modern Makes box fulfillment time period, to try to keep the physical clutter to a minimum. That’s once a month, so it really forces any samples to be done in a timely manner!
I also live by my planning and note apps to keep all of my projects moving forward. Pattern writing is definitely the easiest, and easiest to organize, part of my business.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have a home studio space where most of my work happens! I have a modular sewing table and desk that are pretty flexible, as well as a large custom cutting table that we built that has batting roll storage on it as well.
I’d love to say that my business is confined to this room, but running a large subscription box service requires a lot of stuff! So there are definitely things like sealed fabric bolts hiding under couches and unfolded boxes stacked in the garage.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I’m very bad at working on one thing at a time. I usually have two patterns in different stages of the process at any given time, but pattern writing is only one of four or more main channels that I need to be consistently working on. I have to be very careful about task and project tracking because things fall through the cracks so easily when you wear all of the different hats for one business!
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My primary website is alderwood-studio.com, and there you will find my blog, shop (which has all of my patterns as well as some other sewing-related things), and links to the Modern Makes Membership and all of the classes I teach. I like to share lots of fun tips on my blog, and frequently have quilt a longs or free pattern events running as well.
Interview posted January 2023
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