Cathy Perlmutter is a passionate quilter and designer who stumbled upon a local quilt show that completely changed her life. Since then, she has explored a diverse range of themes and techniques in her work. She is all about having fun, finding inspiration everywhere, and diving into her projects with an experimental spirit, allowing each piece to evolve through multiple drafts and iterations.
How long have you been quilting and designing? How did you get started?
As a kid I loved all “arts and crafts,” – from crochet to candle making to spray painting pasta glued onto boxes — but never had a gift for drawing.
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I became a writer and editor. In 1991, I was living in Ithaca, NY, working for a health publisher. I saw a sign outside the high school, advertising the local guild’s quilt show. On impulse, I braked and went in. The quilts enchanted me — and so did the technology. I had always believed that “quilting” meant: Use a ruler and pencil to draw a square on the inside of a cereal box; cut out the square with scissors; trace around it onto different fabrics a million times; and so forth.
At the show, I learned about rotary cutters and mats! I picked up Eleanor Burns’ “An Amish Quilt in a Day.” Eleanor’s approach is brilliant and foolproof. Even if you can’t sew a consistent ¼” seam allowance (and I’m still struggling with that), if you use a square-up ruler and a rotary cutter, everything will fit together in the end! This allowed me to make interesting stuff! I will always be grateful to Eleanor for putting me on a forgiving pathway towards making art.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
My Jewish heritage has always been a source of inspiration.
Judaism is loaded with textiles: Challah (braided Sabbath bread) covers; prayer shawls; yarmulkes (caps); and my favorite, wedding canopies. I especially love working with an about-to-be-married couple, and their family, to make a meaningful quilted chuppah that will be part of the ceremony, and that they can use or display afterwards.
I think every quilter who creates something new from their tradition – or from a heritage they’ve learned about—has felt this same kind of excitement. Right now, the quilt world is obsessed with Kawandi quilts, from Northern India, which turns everything we’ve learned about piecing order up-side down—offshoots and classes are popping up everywhere (I have my own variation—the photo shows my map of California in pseudo-Kawandi.)
The quilt world has also benefited immeasurably from African American quilts, some from stunning traditional wax prints, and some –like the transcendent Gee’s Bend quilts – made from worn clothing . American quilters are so lucky to be able to learn techniques that spring from our diversity – whether it’s any of the above, or Korean pojagi, Celtic knots, Hawaiian appliqué, etc. Diversity literally makes our quilts more colorful.
More of my passions include:
Geometric quilts, especially in recent years those based on improvisational pieced triangles.
I love working 3-D: Stuffed animals, denim sculptures (like the denim faces in the photo). polyhedron-based gifts and accessories, like the truncated cuboctahedron pincushion in the photo.
Since 2018, I’ve been enthralled with quilted cityscapes.
I’m also an avid crocheter, especially tapestry crochet baskets, small people and animals, and freeform and improvisational crochet.
Because my background is in publishing, I am compelled to write up many of these and other obsessions in patterns and books. I have books on many of the topics mentioned above, including stuffies, polyhedrons, and two cityscape quilt books. Writing and publishing quilting books and patterns has not been a fast (or even a slow) path to a living wage. I feel compelled to pay forward the gift that Eleanor gave me — bringing people into a form of art making that’s thrilling, forgiving, therapeutic, spiritual, a source of great friendships, and a way to grow artistically regardless of your starting point!
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
One, I am all about having fun. If you don’t enjoy the process, what’s the point? I’ll do almost anything to avoid “y” seams or pressing seams open.
Second, I recently learned the word “maximalism” is trending in the modern quilt world. That’s me.
I want visitors to have as much fun looking at my quilts as I had making them. ‘Nonsense Town’, combines my love of cityscapes and fun novelty fabrics. Most buildings are pieced with edges turned under during piecing, a technique I developed specifically for architectural appliqués that have odd overhangs and setbacks. The small embellishments— King Kong, the Beatles, the dog and cat, etc.—are raw edge-fused in place.
The goal was to recreate the clutter and surprises of real cities. My techniques are explained in my two most recent books, “Quilted New York, Celebrate the City with Fabric and Color,” and “Scrap Cities; Joyful Modern Architecture-Inspired Quilts.”
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Everywhere. Starting in 2018, I realized that every intriguing building presents an enthralling challenge: How to represent it in fabric, while having a very good time. For example, the Hearst Tower in New York (my photo is below) is a fascinating stack of isosceles triangles.
I’ve come up with a bunch of different ways to represent the idea, from improvisational paper piecing, to sew-on-the-line foundation paper piecing (FFP), to just sorta cutting and sewing as you go along. The purple example below is FPP; the blue examples are cut and sewn more improvisationally.
There’s a photo of page from “Scrap Cities,” which offers two different ways to use the pattern.
Hearst Tower versions 3+, “Scrap Cities; Joyful Modern Architecture-Inspired Quilts.” This pattern can serve as a foundation paper piecing pattern, or it can be used to create templates, or it can guide improv piecing.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
The latter. I’ve always had a verbal mind; I come up with ideas that sound good in words, like “cityscape with funny animals,” but then I have to put things on the wall and audition them.
One of the most difficult art lessons I’ve learned from quilting is to accept the fact that even my cleverest ideas look really terrible in fabric for the first, second, third, 12th draft, and beyond. I’ve gotten better at thinking visually, but I still must do many drafts and experiments to see what REALLY works, instead of what I desperately WANT to work!
With complicated challenges, I go back and forth between the design wall and CorelDraw—a relatively intuitive drawing program that I find much easier than Adobe Illustrator. It helps me figure out piecing, construction, and even quilting ideas, and I use it to write and illustrate all my books and patterns, because it does multi-page documents.
For example, I made the odd-shaped quilt below from improv-pieced equilateral triangles (I have a book and online on-demand class about how I do it.) This is how I originally finished it, as a six-sided quilt (there’s a dark grey binding all the way around it.) I wasn’t sure which end was up or how to hang it. Every time I looked at it, all I could see was a pool ball rack, and I didn’t want this to be a quilt about billiards or pool (which I don’t play). I spun it round and round in CorelDraw.
Rotated to put a wide side flat along the bottom, below, it became a mountain. (As you can see, there was no hope of me rendering a convincing skier for the slope).
I kept turning it, until it came to me:
With one more kaleidoscope on bottom, (a separate quilt, stitched in place), it became an exclamation point! It hangs nice and straight from one sole rod along the top! To drive the point home (literally), I named this quilt “She Exclaimed!”
(Upside down, it’s “Snowflake on a mountain.”)
Below is another complicated piece—made from improv pieced 45 degree triangles—with which CorelDraw was also an enormous help in designing and simplifying.
Find more images and information on my website, https://cathyperlmutter.com. I teach and do guild presentations online. Most patterns and books are in my etsy shop, at https://cathypstudio.etsy.com. On Instagram, I’m at https://www.instagram.com/cathy.perlmutter/, and I blog at https://gefiltequilt.com/.
Interview posted October 2023
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