When quilter Cinzia White designs a quilt with thousands of pieces made with many different fabrics, she somehow brings order to chaos. You can revisit one of her quilts time and time again and notice something new each time. Her highly-detailed designs look daunting, but Cinzia wants her students to pursue design elements and fabric combinations that delight them, not her.
How did you get started designing quilts? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
After making a two-block quilt with a secondary design, I felt this would be a perfect area to explore and played with several blocks and designs. I read avidly and made quilts galore.
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Eight years later, I needed a hand-piecing project that would take a long time to finish, being at the stage many mothers hit of taking children places and waiting to drive them home. In this role, at least one hour a day and some days up to three had time to fill.
Never being a person who could finish something just because it was started, I will work tirelessly on a project as long as it maintains my interest. I enjoy making scrap quilts for the fabric variety, and sampler quilts provide a block variety I enjoy. Saying that I enjoy sampler quilts, though, does not mean that I retain the style of the original sampler quilts where each block is an individual entity. Two-block quilts let me meld the quilt parts into something that is more than just lots of separate bits.
My style now melds scraps for colour, sampler for design variety and another factor that makes your eyes travel around the quilt. Moving from one element to another keeps the viewer always finding more.
In short, there was no “ah ha” moment; it was a gradual process as more skills were learned and fine tuned, allowing me the chance to explore further and add more to my quilts.
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
Primarily in architecture and geometric design books. About 10 years ago I discovered and fell in love with Islamic design. They take simple geometric shapes and combine them to produce astounding designs. Having a mathematical background I love drawing more complicated shapes. Studying books of geometric dissections provides tools to add further details to the quilt designs.
When first trying this, I added so much detail that it couldn’t all fit in one bed size quilt; I needed to think through at least sizewise to the final product.
The result is a sampler quilt of 349 different original miniature hexagons, Raconteur – The Storyteller’s Collection, subject of The Storyteller’s Sampler Quilt by C&T Publishing. The final quilt has over 16,000 pieces in it and looks amazing. Unfortunately, there is more fabric in the seams than the top of the quilt, making it a heavy quilt. Numerous quilts hang on the walls of our home, but the weight of this quilt makes that impossible. So it resides on my bed. One block has 147 pieces, all in a block the size of the palm of your hand.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
More detail. Lots of points with a love of curves. A design that makes your eye travel across the quilt looking for something more.
“Trails” was supposed to be just one continuous path, but I made an error with cutting the fabric. Being fed up and totally exasperated at the time, I decided to use what I had already prepared, even though the complete circle breaks the continuous path.
Interestingly, making this was how I learnt to hide a common error by designing for it. The arrows in the path float; if they are not pieced exactly right it doesn’t matter as sharp points still result. The arrows are the most striking feature, so that small tweak resulted in an easier design, allowing people to make the quilt successfully.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially your new title, Dazzling New York Beauty Sampler?
It is your quilt not mine. Use the fabric in your stash first and mix and match that. Don’t just go out and buy fabric to make a replica of my quilt. There is just so much variety in my quilts it is impossible to copy them. The more that people play with colour and try things, the better their choices will be in the future. Plus everyone has a style, colour, design they like. Adding that to the quilt will enhance it — not detract from it.
In my mind fabrics like Tula Pink and Kaffe Fassett are too strong for my designs. They seem to dominate the quilts in which they are used. However one of the hosts in the Dazzling NYB Sampler blog hop used Tula’s fabrics and her blocks looked great. That reinforces the point of being yourself with colour selection.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I now design on a computer and have a sometimes-clear huge table around that. Unfortunately my husband has taken up scanning all of our photos, so it is quite cluttered at times. But when designing I like it clear.
Once I’m making the blocks I need to clean my sewing room every few days. Otherwise, everything is lost. I use many fabrics in each block/quilt and so need to put all the fabrics and tools away after a day or two. Otherwise after a short time nothing can be found. The bed and cutting table become hidden under the ever-growing piles.
At the start of a project, there is a lot of cutting, followed by days of sewing. I don’t like to cut and sew as I go. Often everything that I have planned is cut in one hit; this could be the entire centre of a quilt if I have designed that far. With “The Wedding Quilt”, subject of Dazzling NYB Sampler, I would design two or three blocks, cut these at one sitting and then start to sew them. After completing all of the arcs I would then lay them together. If they looked good I would join the arcs and complete the block. If something didn’t gel in the blocks I would swap them around or make a new arc for the block.
I used to have a design wall, but found it, too, became covered in half-finished projects. So it wasn’t really usable when the next project began. And if it wasn’t covered in projects it looked boring. Now there are two quilts hanging on the walls of the sewing room. On one hangs the ribbons I have won and things my grandson has made for me. The other has half finished projects, patterns I’m working on or planning and all of my to-do stuff.
To see how quilts in progress look, they are placed on the lounge room floor and checked from the level above; we are fortunate to have a split level house. This gives me perspective.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Clean and tidy desk, bed (this is where fabric and half finished things end up), cutting table and sewing cabinet. A floor that can be found. These really are important to me. Only recently have I started to persist with cleaning my workspace as I go. This improves my mood when I’m working in there and so improves my work.
Previously I would work in a space cluttered with things “I had to have” or that I would need soon. Then the only clear space was the bed of my sewing machine. Half sewn bits would be lost all of the time.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
No, I can’t draw with pen or pencil. All of my drawing is completed on the computer. When travelling I photograph architecture, images or interesting floor patterns and cull these when I return home, storing the best until I plan a new quilt. The photos provide the inspiration and feature for the quilt. The same kinds of things are common in my photos: geometric based designs that I can hopefully incorporate in a future design.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Nothing. Natural sounds: kids playing in neighbouring backyards, wind, the sea, birds in the backyard or just the quiet of night are perfect for concentration rather than distraction.
When you travel, do you create while on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
Hand piecing is a must. Numerous projects are always on the go and have all of the fabrics marked and cut and packed in separate bags with threads, needles, scissors and thimble.
If I need to go out suddenly, I can grab a bag, knowing there will be plenty there to do for as long as is need it. It is sometimes a surprise to open the bag to discover what is in there; I may not have checked it for over a year.
Once or twice a year, I check all of the bags to make sure that everything I need is in the bag. There is seldom anything missing.
How many projects do you have going at once? Or do you focus on one creative project at a time?
I focus on one project at a time, but have many other projects as take-anywhere projects. About 12 on-the-go projects are fully kitted — knitting, sewing, felt book making, crocheting. Another 20+ projects that everything planned so far is finished, but still more is needed. Projects that have become boring are in the cupboard until I can decide what to add to them.
The focus projects remain the main target until interest wanes. Or, as in the “Wedding Quilt” (Dazzling NYB Sampler), there is a deadline.
There are 8 finished quilt tops laying on a spare bed with batting and backing. When there is a recipient for one, it will be quilted and gifted.
The above list shows just what a short attention span I have, especially for a hobby I love.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Planner for the design, but improviser for the details such as fabric design and colour.
Also, if a plan doesn’t work, improvising with the pieces already made helps to minimise leftover unwanted blocks. When it is machine made, a number of blocks that didn’t work may be stacked one on the other and slashed to make a whack and stack quilt from the result, improvising to make it work.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
A friend visited the British Quilt Museum a few years ago and returned with a postcard of a quilt. She wanted to make it, but there was no pattern available. From the postcard it was possible to draw up the design. Then it was modified to suit the block size and quilt size she wanted and a few further changes were made. The original quilt was hand pieced, but she wanted a quick machine-pieced version.
The original design was interesting. The hand piecing element drew me to it, and so I decided to make one for myself. After completing the centre, the hexagonal corner blocks were extended to fill the entire border.
Unfortunately, this border was too dark for the centre, so was set aside. The hexagonal border showed that a lighter border was needed. But the centre called for a border with a lot of colour and variety. So a plain border would not carry it. The diamonds alternating dark with a predominantly light background appears to be working. I am working on the last side of that border now.
The quilt needs at least one more border to carry the 1/2’’ blue sashing out to the edge. The original design’s plain squares are possibly too large and plain for the centre parts that are already made; but the idea of just plain strips isn’t interesting. It needs to be simple, so as to not overpower what is already done. It should also have minimal seams because too many seams on the outer edges of quilts can create problems with stretching. At this stage, I will retain the 8 point star corners from the original quilt.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
Once when all of my on-the-go projects were finished at the same time proved a very difficult time. I had nothing planned for the next project and could not focus. After flitting from one thought to the next, I decided to start on something small hoping to settle mentally and then plan ahead. Thus began what eventually became Raconteur: The Storyteller’s Collection, subject of The Storyteller’s Sampler Quilt by C&T.
It is not necessary to have everything planned before starting another quilt. I only need to have planned one section or the centre or the next border — or just the basic layout. This is less daunting, planning a small part rather than an entire quilt.
The next major quilt will be based on the floor of the Westminster Abbey. The layout is planned and am now planning the mosaic designs that will fill the centre. I hope to finish designing the centre by mid year, and then will work on the next section. This quilt will most likely be professionally quilted and I plan to discuss with the quilter designs that will work with her quilting ideas. This will be the first time I have collaborated with another on a project and I’m looking forward to it. I am not a quilter, I am a designer and a piecer. Collaborating with the quilter from the early stages will hopefully showcase two people’s very different skills.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
Robbi Joy Ecklow: I love her encouragement of her students and the confidence in her own skills. She takes students in a direction they wish to go rather than make a copy/version of her quilts. She shares not only her patterns in the class but the skills she has acquired to get there. So she helps her students improve their designing skills.
I enrolled in what I thought was a design class with her. But it was a class where you used her common quilt components and made your own quilt using those components.
When I explained that I wanted to learn how she designs and drafts, she happily shared those skills with me. At the end of a 3-day class all of the other students had quilts which looked great but still looked like a Robbi Joy Ecklow quilt. But I left that class with design skills that I have applied to a whole variety of quilts. I also had the computer skills to be able to draw up the patterns for it. So I can produce any pattern that is in my head and vary it as much as I need/want.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Very hard question – what is creativity?
I have never thought of myself as creative. Others do but I don’t.
I see myself as someone who can combine lots of skills to make a new design. I understand what can and can’t be pieced; I’m not a fan of appliqué.
My designs incorporate this knowledge. I have the skills to be able to draw quite intricate geometric designs. I can’t draw freehand items, but then I also don’t piece quilts using freehand shapes. So I’m not lacking a skill I want.
I think the more skills a person has, the more they are able to create their own version of something they see.
Both my piecing skills and technical drawing skills are quite high and I work within these confines.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
Try to make things and don’t rely on others; ask your friends what they think but at the end go with what you like.
Choose your own fabrics rather than rely on what the shop assistant tells you will look good together. Money was very tight when I began quilting, so I only purchased small amounts of fabric that was on special or in clearance sales. These were all fabrics that I liked and I worked at making something that combined them. Sometimes it looked good. Sometimes not. But my selection has improved.
I still wouldn’t choose the fabrics for an entire quilt if I was making a quilt of limited fabrics. I suppose “scrap” or multi-fabric quilts are good for this reason.
Make smaller things when trying to learn.
A sample doesn’t need to be made into a quilt when learning a technique.
Decide what you want from a class, and if you achieve that, then great. It doesn’t need to be the finished quilt.
The more skills you have the easier it is to experiment.
Join a local quilt group that makes charity quilts. Many such groups can always use extra workers. You can practise the skills you want to improve; then some lucky person will receive a quilt that taught you something and that you made with love.
What piece of work makes you most proud? Why?
Before upskilling myself on Adobe Illustrator, I would draw all of my designs on paper. I would get an idea, draw up what I had in my head and go with it. I never worked out the whole design — just the bit I needed at the time. There were some major headaches when later I reached a stage that needed more planning than I had done.
My first major prize-winning quilt was the result of such a process. I loved Flying Geese and had made a few quilts using them but wanted a curved version plus something that travelled across the entire surface. I designed and made the paths in this quilt and then hit a standstill.
My first attempt for the centre, in my mind, looked horrid. The fabrics of the two seemed to clash. So I designed a different circle filler, made them and cut them 1/4’’ too small. I then had the makings for 3 king-sized quilts, none of which I was happy with. I had worked on this for a few years by this time and really didn’t want 3 king-sized quilts. So I returned to my first circles. I thought I would just put them together, finish the quilt and get rid of it. The circles were inserted, but I still didn’t like it.
I then needed to find a border to hopefully bring the quilt parts together. Chose a dark purple and black batik which looked OK. I then hand quilted the entire quilt. I had hand pieced it as this is my preferred technique. Hand quilting the batik border was really difficult and steered me away from batiks for many years. Many people by this stage thought the quilt looked great. I still didn’t. It took me almost two years to find a binding for it. When that was added it was perfect and the entire quilt seemed to come together.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is quiet and I don’t promote it as it is a one-way set up. There is little opportunity for interaction.
I prefer my Facebook groups as they allow continual conversations with others. People can share what they have made using my books. People can see you don’t have to use my colours, fabrics or even designs as I presented them.
I can also answer questions and clear up any misunderstanding in a timely manner.
I can provide extra material that couldn’t be included in the patterns. Some of these are scaling sheets for The Storyteller’s Sampler Quilt or seam allowance sheets for Dazzling NYB Sampler.
Also I provide people with extra projects that they can make using blocks from my books. There is a bonus for people who have posted photos of 20 blocks from the book on either Facebook group. I offer to design a runner using their block of choice in the size they want. There is a choice of 4 basic layouts that can be varied to suit the particular request.
Interview posted January 2021
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