With a prolific appetite for design, modern quilter Caroline Hadley has drafted more quilts than any human could possibly make in a lifetime. She has sketch pads and computer files full of ideas and variations. She schedules time to sketch and makes herself accountable by sharing her ideas on her blog. With so much going on creatively, Caroline has a wealth of options when it’s time to pull fabrics, set up her sewing station and get to work.
Tell us a little bit about you and what you do.
I’m a modern quilt designer and maker from Melbourne, Australia. My quilt patterns have been published in QuiltCon Magazine, Love Patchwork & Quilting, Modern Patchwork, Quilt Now and Down Under Quilts. Since mid-2016, I’ve posted a quilt design on my blog, Geometriquilt, and on Instagram (@geometriquilt) every week as part of my ‘Sunday sketch’ series.
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How did you find yourself on a creative path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I’ve always tried to have a creative outlet, but it’s only in the past 5–10 years that I’ve made a conscious decision to cultivate creativity. I don’t subscribe to this idea that there are “left-brained” and “right-brained” people, but it’s important for me to have a balance between “creative” and “analytical” tasks. I’m happier and less stressed when I devote time to creativity.
Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to the work you do today?
I’ve always been interested in art and design, and I’ve tried a few different crafts over the years (pottery, screen printing, paper crafts, wood turning, etc.). But quilting stuck in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I realise now that it’s because I work better in 2D than in 3D, and I feel more comfortable working with solid blocks of colour rather than prints or patterns. And I like working on projects that I can plan out beforehand, with a defined end point.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
When I’m designing quilts, I’m an improviser. I don’t design to a fixed schedule, and I don’t have any particular process that I follow. Sometimes I’ll fill a few minutes with a pen and paper; other times I’ll spend hours on Electric Quilt 8. I might create loads of good designs or none at all.
When I’m creating quilts, I’m definitely a planner. Accumulating stuff stresses me out, so I’m trying to get better at buying fabric for specific projects rather than just stockpiling it. Also, I don’t have room for a design wall, so planning everything out beforehand helps me to “see” the project before it’s finished. I don’t like wasting time – or money! – on quilt projects that I’m not confident are going to work out.
Tell us about your Sunday Sketches. How did they get started, and how have they changed over the years?
When I first became aware of modern quilting, I spent a lot of time looking at, thinking about and designing quilts. Like, a lot. I could spend hours with a dot pad and a pen, just playing around with ideas. It was (and still is) a really welcome form of meditation.
Even though I loved sketching, I knew it would easily fall to the wayside if I let it. I’m not great at doing things just for me – I work better when I have external accountability. (Isn’t it sad that it’s so much easier to let ourselves down than to disappoint other people?) So the Sunday sketches helped me not only create a record of what I was doing, but also establish a schedule that I had to stick to. At the beginning, I had no blog followers and very few Instagram followers, so I knew that it wouldn’t matter if I skipped a week. But just having a fixed schedule was enough to keep me on track. And the more I posted, the more I wanted to keep going.
Now I’ve published more than 300 Sunday sketches. In the beginning, they were all single-colour pen and paper drawings. Occasionally I’d design in Microsoft Excel. Now I almost always use Electric Quilt 8. So my designs have become a bit more sophisticated and a lot more colourful!
Of the many quilts you design, how do you decide which ones to make real in fabric?
I usually make quilts for a specific purpose, such as a magazine pattern or an exhibition. So I’ll work backwards from the end goal to decide which design I’m going to make. Some designs are easier to write up as patterns; others would have more impact as a modern quilt in a gallery exhibition.
Sometimes I’ll get really excited by a Sunday sketch as soon as I’ve designed it, and I’ll immediately start playing with the colour palette and selecting fabrics. But those steps are often the most time-consuming for me. Often they take me so long that I lose interest in the design! There’s always another exciting sketch to play with.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Yes and no! I’ve co-opted about half of our kitchen table for my sewing machine and cutting mat. My fabric and supplies are stored around the house, wherever I can find room for them. That setup’s probably a good thing, as it means I can only really work on one or two things at a time, and I need to stay pretty organised.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My ‘design’ brain relies on my ‘making’ brain, so if it’s easy for me to sew something, I will include it more in my designs. As soon as I got the drunkard’s path and long oval drunkard’s path templates from Papper, Sax, Sten, I got comfortable sewing with curves. And then I started designing more with curves. Quilts like Blue Wave, Whirlwind and Quattro are a direct result of that.
I’m a precision piecer – I care about seams nesting and points matching in my quilts – so I love my Bloc-Loc rulers for trimming half-square triangles. I used to avoid making too many half-rectangle triangles because I find the two-at-a-time method too wasteful, and I didn’t have a ruler for cutting one at a time in multiple sizes. But now I use the new HuRTy ruler from Latifah Saafir for cutting and trimming HRTs. It’s fantastic.
Other tools that have made a huge difference to my work are my mini iron and wool pressing mat, and an extra light for my sewing machine. The mini iron and light were gifts from friends in the Melbourne Modern Quilt Guild (thanks MJ and Cathy!). I didn’t realise I needed them until I used them, and now I’d never go back.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I still use a Rhodia dot pad and a gel pen for sketching by hand. It’s a quick way to play with shapes and test out ideas. There’s definitely something about putting pen to paper that gets my brain working in a different way. I’ve got a small dot pad that I keep in my bag, then larger ones at home.
I don’t often design full quilts on paper anymore, but I’ll draft single blocks or units. Or sometimes I’ll just draw: start with a line, and see where it goes. If I ever run out of sketches, I’ve got stacks of dot pads that I can look through for ideas.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I definitely think creativity is a learnable skill and, like any skill, it can come naturally to some people. But anyone can nurture it if they want to. It just takes practice.
I feel more creative now than I did a few years ago, and the only difference is that I’ve made a conscious effort to devote more time and energy to creativity. It doesn’t mean that everything I design is necessarily interesting or imaginative – my shelved designs far outnumber my published Sunday sketches! But the more I practice, the more I develop my skills, and the more likely it is that the next design will be better than the last.
Can you share a bit of your process of bringing a new idea from glimmer to reality?
Almost every quilt I make started out life as a Sunday sketch. Once I’ve settled on which sketch to make into a quilt, I’ll often revisit the layout or palette – sometimes to simplify the construction, or maybe to replace a fabric colour that I haven’t been able to find online. I usually use Kona cotton solids, and I’ll spend a long time playing with the Kona colour card before I settle on the final fabrics. That’s definitely the most time-consuming part of the process for me.
I spend a lot of time on my computer before I ever pick up a rotary cutter. I plan out all my cutting and piecing requirements, and even think about the most economical way of cutting what I need. I’ve learned the hard way that I need to take my time on this bit. When everything’s cut and ready, I’m usually pretty quick at piecing. That’s the easy part!
I always finish the quilt top with a victory lap (something I learned from Mollie Sparkles’ blog), and then send it off to Valerie Cooper at Sweet Gum Quilting for long-arming. A few years ago, I decided that I’d rather outsource my quilting than do it myself. I find basting and quilting difficult and stressful, and I was never happy with the results of my own work. Accepting that I don’t need to do everything myself was a game-changer!
For quilts that are destined for shows or exhibitions, I follow Cotton & Bourbon’s quilt facing tutorial, and Jacquie Gering’s hanging sleeve tutorial. The quilting community has such a wealth of valuable expertise at our fingertips, with so many people generously sharing their tips and tricks. I’m still learning!
Interview posted July 2022
Browse through more modern quilt inspiration and projects on Create Whimsy. Check out our tutorial for a hanging sleeve and facing a quilt.