With multiple projects in process at any given time, it’s hard to find a busier quilter than Barbara Eikmeier. Her first quilt? The Streak of Lightning pattern, of course! Barbara energizes the quilting world whenever she touches the ground.
Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to the work you do today?
As a rural farm kid with 8 siblings, our mom enrolled all of us in 4-H. I was 9 when I joined 4-H and sewing was the only project I ever took. When I was 14 my dad traded two calves for my first sewing machine, a Singer Genie. By the time I was in high school I could hem curtains, make a dress, and one year I made my own winter coat. This was the mid-1970s and my mom’s ladies magazines featured quilts. It was an article by Jean Ray Laury that ignited my interest in making a quilt. I copied a Streak of Lightning pattern from the magazine and made a red and yellow quilt for my bed.
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How did you fall in love with appliqué? As a military spouse, you have lived all over. How has that influenced your work?
In 1986 my military husband accepted an assignment in Hawaii. When I shared the news with my quilt group some said, “Oh, those Hawaiian quilts are ugly.” But just as many said, “You will have to learn to make those gorgeous Hawaiian quilts.” I arrived in Hawaii pregnant with my first child, and I didn’t have a car, a job, or any friends, so I signed up for a quilting class at Hickham Air Force Base where I learned to do needle turn, Hawaiian appliqué.
I’m not sure I was in love with it at first but the teacher told me I was good at it and encouraged me to continue. It was only years later that I realized the richness of those lessons and that being good at something is often a bridge to loving it.
As we moved around the country and to South Korea, the regional differences in each location and also the people I met along the way influenced me. Military wives subscribe to a sort of “tribal” wisdom – tidbits of information passed from one military spouse to the next. I often knew about the quilt groups in a new location before arriving when a friend of a friend knew someone there who quilted.
I bought a sailboat through a quilter, rented a house, sight unseen, with the help of quilter I had never met, and regularly found my new dentist and hairstylist through quilters. When I landed at the remote desert post of Fort Irwin, CA, 30 miles to the nearest town, where they didn’t even have Walmart in those days, I opened a quilt shop in my home so I could teach quilting classes. In 1999 we moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I did original research on Korean quilts that was subsequently published by the American Quilt Study Group. Had I not been a military wife, immersed in the Korean culture, I never would have known enough about their quilting history to embark on such a journey.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I was a quilter before I was a mother so my children grew up with the sewing machine pedal in their forts under the dining room table. I always had a specific sewing space somewhere in our home – sometimes it wasn’t much more than a closet, but it was enough to have a sewing machine set up at all times.
Now I have a dedicated sewing room with a permanent design wall and a built in closet for storing fabric. When we renovated the house I had an open arch installed in place of a door because I never closed the door anyway. I have south and west facing windows which provides luscious natural light. I don’t have doors on my closet either because I need to be able to see all the stacks of quilts and bins of fabric – they feed my creativity.
If you could have just 5 items in your studio, what would they be and why?
Needle, thread, scissors, fabric (is that a fair answer?) and paper.
It was hard for me to make that list because, I admit, I am a notion junkie. When I find a tool that can make my work easier or more fun, I’m happy. But when it comes right down to it, most of all I like to sew and create. With the most basic of sewing supplies, like a pioneer woman (or like myself as a new quilter!), I’d be just as happy.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? What kind?
When I’m working intently on a project I like to work in silence. But recently I put an Alexa Echo in my sewing room and I’ve been having fun asking her to find music from specific artists, such as Ed Sheeran. Did you know he started out as a rapper? Or the Beatles. How many of their songs do you really know? Or Luke Bryan. He’ll sing to me for hours if Country Music is what I want! But mostly, I work in silence.
When you travel, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I have a fear of being stranded in an airport with no handwork. So, while I don’t always stitch, I ALWAYS have stitching with me.
I’ve found embroidery work to be easiest to stitch on a plane, especially redwork embroidery with only one color to worry about! But I also take small appliqué projects with me, too. My travel kit is a pouch with a lighted needle threader (great for dim light on a plane!), scissors on a lanyard (so I don’t lose them in the seat), a packet of extra needles, a folding seam ripper, my reading glasses and a small notebook in case I need to make a quick sketch of something inspiring. I add to that whatever thread I need for the current project.
How many projects do you have going at once? Or do you focus on one creative project at a time? Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
When I sewed quilts for my book Back Basting Applique Step by Step I forced myself to complete one project at a time under a short deadline. I remember finishing a quilt around 8 pm one night and thinking, “Darn, I don’t have a single thing in progress for this book that I can work on now.” I didn’t like the feeling of wanting to sew more that night but with the deadline, I couldn’t justify working on anything except the book. That’s when I realized my style is to have many projects going at once.
When I go on a three day sewing retreat it isn’t unusual for me to pack 25-30 works in progress. I can usually finish 7-8, but I need options! Last year I stood in my sewing room and made a list of the projects I could see parts and pieces of without moving anything. There were 31 projects within my view. I make no apologies. I am comfortable working this way and I know that eventually I will finish the projects. My oldest UFO was 30 years old when I finally finished it a couple of years ago. And, as I tell my quilting friends, if I don’t finish them it will be an awesome estate sale when I die.
I don’t know how many UFOs I actually have – they are tucked in mysterious places! Besides, what constitutes a UFO to one quilter may not be a UFO to me. For example, if a quilt top is finished, and ready for quilting, I don’t think that’s a UFO. I think it’s finished, waiting for quilting. Thus the awesome estate sale!
What do you believe is a key element in creating a successful quilt design?
I feel like a successful design has contrast and repetition. I don’t mean repetition as in all the same blocks in rows, but elements within the design occurring in more than one place.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I am a traditional quilter. Throughout my quilting life I’ve watched friends transition to making art quilts. I’ve tried a lot of different things, many that fell into the art quilting realm. But they weren’t me. I finally stopped feeling like I should apologize for making traditional quilts – this was akin to the moment I decided I no longer had to try to like downhill skiing.
Sometimes someone I don’t know will say to me, “I love all your designs.” I think to myself, they’re just traditional blocks. But then I realize, they may be traditional but I do something different with them – such as put sashings were there weren’t any, rotate blocks or combine blocks in unusual combinations. The fabrics I design are reproductions – it doesn’t get much more traditional than vintage fabrics! I start with authentic scraps and recolor or rescale them to fit a specific theme, then I design projects with a vintage feel to go with each collection. It’s a happy combination for a traditional quilter like myself.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I’m sure that creativity comes naturally to many, but I also think that some people have more opportunities to explore creatively than others. Given opportunity, I do believe it is a skill that can be learned or, at the very least, unleashed.
For example, I recently watched my four year old granddaughter explore with school glue and a tray filled with all sorts of things she could stick in the glue. I thought she’d like the bright colored pom poms and glitter, but she really loved squeezing out that glue! She just wanted to make shapes, and dots, and big puddles of glue on her paper. Over the course of a week she progressed to putting items in the glue. It seemed the longer she worked the more ideas she got for what to do with her glue.
This is a simple example of creativity fueling creativity. I have often lamented, “The busier I get, the more ideas I get.” Because creativity breeds creativity. The hard part is getting over the hurdle of thinking you aren’t creative.
When you have time to create for yourself, what kinds of projects do you make?
Last year I made a list with several categories. It’s my Quit Collecting and Start Sewing List. On this list are projects I have collected and saved for many years.
For example, there’s a beautiful bin of vintage Hawaiian prints from the 1980s, a box of recycled denim pieces, and shoeboxes filled to the brim with tiny scrappy triangles trimmed away from other projects. There are woolwork projects and a large collection of jelly rolls. There are piles of books with designs for doll quilts – which I adore sewing.
When I have time to create for myself I make something on my Quit Collecting and Start Sewing List.
Another thing I like to do is peruse books in my library just to see what sparks my interest. Most recently I’ve been working on a sort of color wheel quilt using a technique in a book picked up at a used book sale. Every few years I seem to revisit color theory in some form or fashion – maybe my inner artists lurks around a color wheel!
If you were no longer able to quilt, how else would you express your creativity?
I’m also a writer, having just completed my first novel – of course there’s a quilt in it! If I couldn’t quilt I would write more quilt fiction.
What do you wish you knew about quilting and appliqué before you got started?
As a new quilter I heard, “You need good scissors” so I bought Ginghers. I heard, “You must have an accurate ¼” seam allowance” so I bought a special foot for my machine. I heard, “Use good thread”, so I bought more expensive thread. But the one thing that I did not hear enough was, “Get a good steam iron” and I wish someone would have pounded into my head early on “press as you go”.
I was once at a retreat where a group of us were sewing blocks for a block of the month quilt at a nearby shop. One of the ladies asked, “Why are your blocks so flat and mine are not?” I said “Steam.” She said, “I was taught ‘never use steam’.” Somewhere along the line steam has become a bad word to quilters. I say, “Give me steam, and lots of it!”
When you started to make quilts, were you making just for fun or did you always envision it becoming a business?
There was no one more surprised than me to have my hobby turn into a business. I can remember the exact moment it happened. I was preparing freezer paper applique shapes at a sewing group in 1989. As I quietly worked while listening to the low hum of conversation, the lady next to me said, “What are you working on?” I explained how I was preparing my appliqué shapes by gluing the edges. It wasn’t new. I had learned it at least a year prior, and I assumed that if I knew how to do it every other quilter knew too. As I explained the room grew quiet until everyone was listening to me. That’s the day I became a quilting teacher.
I was educated and trained as a registered nurse. But with each military move came re-licensing and finding a job I could schedule around my husband’s work. Eventually we moved to an assignment where to work in my specialty required traveling 75 miles one way. It was then that I created a quilting career that moved with me.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, patterns and blog?
Find what works for you. Try new things, and explore techniques and tools. But when it comes right down to it, find what works for you and stick with it. And press as you go. With steam. (If that works for you!)
What is your favorite part of teaching? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule a lecture or workshop?
Hands down, my favorite part of teaching is meeting new quilters and seeing “the lights come on” when they have that ah ha moment.
Interview posted November, 2019.
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