Spotlight: Annie Smith, Quilter, Designer, Teacher and Author

Love Is Spoken Here Quilt - full image

Spotlight: Annie Smith, Quilter, Designer, Teacher and Author

When Annie Smith discovered her passion for appliqué, she never looked back. Her quilts express the joy she feels when she creates, and she shares it by teaching – through her books and workshops.

Annie Smith

What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially your new title, The Ultimate Appliqué Reference Tool?

My aim in writing the book was to inspire readers to understand that:

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  • they are inherently creative
  • that it’s okay to be a beginner
  • there is more to appliqué than merely creating a project — the book is more about the process of appliqué techniques, inspiration and designing than it is about “pretty projects”.
  • learning a technique is more than making a quilt — when you learn a technique, you can use that technique again and again on many projects —  the technique becomes a part of your creative arsenal.

So — sometimes when you take a class to learn a new technique, it’s okay to let the project from that class become a UFO (unfinished object), and maybe never finish it. Lots of people lament that they have so many unfinished projects that they 1.) can’t buy anymore fabric, 2.) take another class to learn another technique, and/or 3.) feel like failures. My answer to that is that you got what you paid for — you learned the technique, now use it to create the project or piece that you learned the technique for! Buy new fabric, take another class to learn MORE and move on.

Book Cover

How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?

There’s a saying in the quilt world, “The quilt will tell you what it wants.” On page 79, there are pictures of an unfinished quilt and the finished one. Little yellow dots on the quilt were the finishing touch that made all the difference in the quilt. I knew that if I didn’t add those dots, then I would look at the quilt for the rest of my life and KNOW that they should have been there. So I added them, and I have peace about the quilt.

Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?

Love Is Spoken Here!

I created this piece in 2002, to be a border for a memory quilt that I wanted to make for my maternal grandmother, my favorite person in the whole world. But I could never quite figure out how to create the rest of the quilt — I tried to sketch ideas, bought fabric that I thought I’d use, and just kept putting it away. So the design I created became my logo because I loved it so much.

Gran's Garden Border
Gran’s Garden Border

When Aurifil Inc. called me and invited me to design a thread collection, I had to choose a theme. I wanted to choose something that people were familiar with, so I chose my logo. So now I had to create a quilt using that border design — and force myself to do it.

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done!

I struggled with how to fit that border design into a larger quilt while keeping the integrity of the piece. How do you take a piece of what is supposed to be a border of a very different quilt and turn it into the top of another quilt? I knew I wanted to leave a good amount of negative space in the quilt for deliberate machine quilting, and also design very personal, meaningful and symbolic elements that would represent my love for her and our love for each other. 

So, I made an environment to work in.

I made a Spotify playlist of songs that my Gran loved and used to sing around the house. Songs by Vera Lynn, Perry Como, Russ Colombo, Nat King Cole — but particularly Always by Irving Berlin, sung by Deanna Durbin:

“I’ll be loving you – always, 

with a love that’s true – always, 

when the things you’ve planned

need a helping hand

I will understand – always.”

Annie Smith's Grandmother

I placed pictures of her and of us around the room and put on a little red satin turban that she used to wear to be able to feel her spirit while I worked. If I hadn’t had her help, I don’t think I could have designed the quilt the way I did — I definitely felt inspired.

The entire quilt is about the time spent at her home in a thirteen acre cherry orchard. They bought the house through the Sears Roebuck home catalog — The Amsterdam model, a Dutch Colonial. 

If you look carefully, you’ll see that there is an “S” on the front door of Gran’s house because Gran was Gertrude Smith. All I ever wanted to be when I was little was just like her. 

Gran holding Annie

When I got married, and became a Smith myself, then I knew I had “arrived”. She was my Gran, and now I am also a Gran of seven beautiful grandchildren.

My childhood was the happiest when spent with my Gran. I was the middle kid of five and I spent the most time with her. 

She had the most beautiful garden of hanging and potted flowers on her patio and in the front yard. Rose trees, hollyhocks, fuschia, gladiolas, hibiscus and poppies were a profusion of color and happiness. Each of those flowers is presented on the quilt — as well as some others that are symbolic of our love for each other. There is a little ring of Golden poppies, which are the state flower of California — representing five generations of women born in the San Francisco Bay Area: her mother, my Gran, my mother, me and my daughter. In addition, there are violets which represent my mother (her favorite flower), my Gran’s only daughter and living child. 

The center rose trellis represents my siblings. We have a tradition in our family that when someone passes away, we each place a rose in their hands — each in a different color. In age order: Susan is yellow (our dad’s and her favorite color), Mike is peach (for brandy roses), Red is me, white is Judie and pink is Wendy. I started the tradition when Gran’s husband died and I cut a red rose from his rose trees that lined the driveway and placed it in his hands.

Lori Kennedy, of The Inbox Jaunt (and a fellow BERNINA Ambassador), quilted the quilt for me on a domestic machine. Lori added intricate personal detail in the quilting, which you can see in the photo. The amazing thing about Lori’s quilting: she doesn’t mark the designs — she uses registration marks.

Love Is Spoken Here Quilt - full image
Love Is Spoken Here
Love Is Spoken Here Close-up
Love Is Spoken Here – Close-up

It took 16 years to finally create this quilt to celebrate my Gran and our relationship. I feel like I ultimately got it right. When I got the quilt back from Lori, I pinned it to my design wall and then just stood there to take it all in — and cried.

Tell us about your studio. What does it look like? How is it set up?

I used to have a 300 square foot studio space and then a home workroom, so I had lots of space for a fabric extravaganza. Last year, we decided to relocate from California to Texas and decided to downsize our belongings to 30% of what we owned because we didn’t want to move the excess. At first I thought, there’s no way I’m going to downsize any of my precious acquisitions – but then it started to make sense to me. I decided to have a Studio Sale, then went through everything I owned and took the Marie Kondo approach. I gave myself ten seconds with each piece to decide whether to keep it or part with it — truly, it can happen!

So I ended up selling 6 sewing machines, selling my sewing cabinets and cutting table, shelving, lighting, books and excess fabric*. Over the course of two weeks, I sold enough to finance our entire move and buy a new bed, washer and refrigerator in our new home. 

You know, we just don’t realize that we have an investment in the materials that we have acquired for our work/hobby/passion.

*On the subject of fabric: everyone who came through the sale kept giving me their condolences about me having to “get rid” of my stuff. But I wasn’t “getting rid” of anything. I was letting go, and there’s a big difference there. I loved everything that went out of that sale. And I had bought it with great hopes and inspiration and it was hard to let it go. But I just wanted not to move it more that I wanted to keep it! Do you want to know how much fabric I kept? Forty boxes! So that’s still a pretty significant amount.

Now, this is what some of my fabric storage looks like. 

I downsized from the largest Koala sewing cabinet available to using two Arrow Gidget II sewing tables. I use Ikea rolling carts and Ivar sections to create the shortage size that fits in my new very-much-smaller workspace. So I make it work for me, with less.

The great part about having two smaller tables, I can set them up in any configuration I want. The tops both recess, so I can use two machines side-by-side, or use it as a pressing surface. I can fold the tables and store them in the closet so guests can stay in my room. The white board on the wall is actually a Clarus glass board — I can write or design on it using any type of pen I want (Posca, permanent Sharpie, dry marker, etc.). The magnetized board holds quilt blocks, notes, cards or anything on it!

Annie Smith Studio

But I also use the kitchen island as my cutting table because it’s the perfect height for doing a lot of rotary cutting without stressing my back – and taking up more room in my workspace. I like that less is more.

Annie Smith Cutting Surface

What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?

I had to be really creative in my new smaller space! I’m in a 10’ x 12’ bedroom with a walk-in closet. You can see by the photo below the empty closet and my challenges in how I was going to get everything in there. 

Annie Smith Closet

It wasn’t hard to fill the closet.

Annie Smith Fabric Storage Closet

I found this solution to store and arrange my dress-goods, and I have to say that I love Ikea for affordable storage solutions!

Annie's closet

But here’s my very favorite thing:

Organized Fat quarters

My husband and I were DJ’s for twenty years, doing dances, corporate functions, weddings, and we had a large inventory of vinyl records and CD’s. Leftovers from that era, hubby wanted to send these three cabinets to Goodwill. I rescued these babies because I realized that if you fold fabric a certain way, it’s exactly the same size as a CD jewel case. So the one on the right holds all of my fat quarter collection, the one in the center holds my half yard collection, and then the one on the left, my Aurifil thread collection. There’s no wasted space on the shelves like there would be if it were a bookcase.

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

One thing I can’t live without is the largest design wall that I can make in my space. I’m a very visual person and I want to be able to evaluate my creations on an equal plane, rather than looking down on them on the floor or on a table top. 

I used two insulation boards from Home Depot (4’ x 8’), covered them in a sticky fabric and nailed them to the wall. It covers the whole wall and allows me to have multiple projects on the wall at the same time.

Annie Smith Design Wall

My favorite lighting is a photographer’s softbox. It’s nice true white light that’s soft and not blaring. Perfect for choosing fabric for quilts and soft on the eyes.

I talk about the benefits of a design wall on page 30.

Design wall with quilt

Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?

I actually make my own! About twenty years ago, I started making handmade design journals and used to sell them at a local farmer’s market. I like using ones with graph paper pages so I can design blocks, and quilts within the squares to plan for their potential size. I use decorative cardstocks with ribbon and ephemera to give each book a title or theme. I’ve made hundreds of books, but never duplicated a design.

I talk about the benefits of using a design book on page 10.

Annie's handmade journal
Ideas with fabric samples from Annie's sketch book

Here is an example of how I’ve developed and evolved a design:

This is the original idea:

Another design in Annie's sketch book

Then it became this:

Sketch book

Once I pulled fabric and began working, the quilt evolved into Love Is Spoken Here (photo above).

Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?

I do lecture and teach workshops. My expertise is Machine Appliqué, and Color and Fabric Selection. I’ve been teaching locally since 1984, nationally and internationally since 2003.

I keep a brochure of lecture and workshop offerings on my website at  My calendar of events is on that same page — just scroll down.

There are only 8 states that I haven’t yet taught in: Hawaii, Alaska, Florida, Maine, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. So if I have an invitation, I’ll travel.

If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?

I already have, actually. In 2005, I created the first podcast for quilters, Quilting Stash. It was really early in the day of iPods and podcasts, but I’m from Silicon Valley so it came naturally. The first people I interviewed, sisters Pat Holly and Sue Nickels, created The Beatles Quilt, now in the permanent collection at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. Here is a link to the Beatles quilt:

I’m a huge Beatles fan and remember when I saw them the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show — they mesmerized this third grader. Little did I know that their music would become the soundtrack of my teenage life. Pat and Sue captured the music and impact of the Beatles on the landscape of culture in an astonishing way. Such amazing detail — and mostly in miniature, with images representing not only albums, but songs. The back of the quilt has handwritten lyrics to each of their songs, written in the style of inscriptions in high school yearbooks. The Beatles Anthology mini-series inspired them — but I think their creativity took it further than that.

I learned how to do machine appliqué from Sue in a week-long class at Empty Spools Seminars at Asilomar, CA. It hooked me immediately. I knew that I would love appliqué for the rest of my life, and twenty years later… well, you see what the result is.

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?

We are all born with an inherent need to create. Creativity definitely comes naturally to people. As kindergartners, we all excelled at painting, drawing, singing, playacting, and using all sorts of materials. It isn’t until we progress up through the grades that we start to become self-conscious about being an “artist” or in essence, being creative. We’re supposed to get serious and people sometimes think being creative is immature and irresponsible. Ever heard “get a real job, you can’t make a living being an artist/musician, etc.”?

On page  8, I talk about that very issue in detail.

How do you get unstuck creatively?

Several years ago, I went through a difficult time when I had a creative block. It lasted for a year and a half. I didn’t realize that I was blocked because I was still actively teaching classes and lecturing, but I had no desire to create anything new. So I spent the majority of my time reading books, one after another, like chain-smoking. I really enjoyed all that reading! But, one day, I became aware that I wasn’t doing anything, and that I was depressed. Something that hadn’t occurred to me.  

I had a class that night and I bought some new fabric for a quilt that I had no idea what to do with it, and in fact, felt guilty for buying that fabric ($350 worth). Even though I felt guilty, it felt good to buy it, too, because it was beautiful and had possibilities. The next day, I had massage therapy and during my session (with my face in the stirrup and my eyes closed), the therapist must have unlocked something I had been holding onto in my back, and I saw the design for a quilt — in living color — using the fabric I had just bought. I wanted to jump off the table and grab paper and pencil to get the design down before I forgot it. When I got to my car, I sketched the design on a napkin.

I knew at that point that the creative block was over – and I was now truly unstuck. Sometimes it’s difficult to realize that you might be in a period of depression, which when you’re in it, it’s hard to create anything. Selfcare is really important for that process.

Browse through more inspiring Spotlight interviews on Create Whimsy.

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