Deb Messina has been sewing and quilting most of her life. She’s a former quilt shop owner and designs patterns for her QuiltBlox line. Her quilt patterns are designed especially for beginner quilters and are inspired by traditional blocks and simple appliqué.
How long have you been sewing and quilting? How did you get started?
I’ve been sewing since I was 10 or 11 and started quilting when I was 14 or 15. My grandmother taught me to mend and to press/iron (not the same thing), but it was my grandfather who taught me how to draft patterns and use the sewing machine. He also taught me to mix concrete, build roof trusses and fill dents in a fender with “bondo” – but that’s another story.
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I fell in love with the traditional patterns found in the many quilts that my great grandmother’s sister had made during her lifetime. Our house was filled with these quilts. I decided to replicate those designs and have been quilting and designing my own patterns (many based on traditional blocks) ever since. I still own some of her beautiful quilts.
How did you find your creative niche?
Like many people I know, I played around with lots of different crafts from the time I was very young. In the end, I always found myself coming back to the needle and thread. Working with beautiful fabrics and turning them from raw materials into a finished useful item is what I’m drawn to over and over again.
What inspires you to create?
The world needs more people that create with their hearts, their minds and their hands. Like learning something about another culture – by learning about and enjoying their cuisine, I learn something about a person by the things they choose to make.
I choose to express myself with fabric and by writing and illustrating the patterns for the quilts, pillows and other functional, useful items I make because I want to help others learn to make them, too.
Nothing gets my “joy juice” going quite like having an excited beginning sewer show me something they’ve made using one of my Quiltblox patterns. It doesn’t get any better than that!
When is your most productive time for creating?
Mornings are my favorite time of day – I’m definitely a morning person. I need to get right to it as early as I possibly can each day. By dinner time I’m more focused on a great glass of zin and a tasty meal. I find early morning so much quieter and that quiet helps me concentrate. I love to see the sun rise while I’m working on something fun.
What is your favorite storage tip for your creative supplies?
I’m a huge fan of slat wall and hooks (like that used in lots of retail shops). I hang my thread, bobbins in rings (love those too!), rulers and hand tools on the wall. I have a fairly small space and I want things at hand – but out of the way. I’ve got some slat wall hanging by the sewing machine and more by the ironing station. I can rearrange things as I need to – just by moving the hooks.
I also use a small round table top office supplies organizer next to the machine and it holds multiple pairs of scissors and other small tools as well as my product labels and lots of paperclips. It spins around, has lots of compartments and doesn’t take up much space.
Most of my fabric is on bolts that I like to store on some custom fabric carts that my crafty husband designed for fabric storage in my shop. Each one holds 20 – 25 bolts of fabric. They are on casters and store easily under a counter.
Smaller pieces and scraps are normally stored in totes. But I have a long way to go before I could ever consider them “organized”.
How did you get into pattern making and publishing? Was it a plan, or did you just fall into it?
I’ve wanted to design and publish my own patterns for about twenty years. It wasn’t until I left “Corporate America” and started my own company that I have been able to pursue that dream.
Publishing my own patterns brings together many of the skill sets I developed over my career. I published a business directory for several years, I’ve managed quality systems, documentation and technical training for a couple of multi-national companies, and I’ve been a quilter/sewer for most of my life. Those professional experiences and the quilt shop I opened in 2011 gave me the perfect platform for writing and illustrating my own quilting patterns.
What inspires your pattern designs?
The secondary patterns created by stacking and repeating traditional blocks without sashing is something I find very interesting. It can create a very complex looking design – while the block itself may be very simple to construct.
Inspiration for my “banner” series (Welcome, or Savor the Journey) comes from playing with a word or short phrase that has meaning for me. I love to change up a letter or two with some other graphic element that helps to convey a thought. I have a long list of words that I’m playing with.
When embarking upon a project, do you pre plan your entire endeavor or do you simply follow where your inspiration takes you?
I’m a planner. I enjoy the planning process as much as I do the “making” of a new design – I find it to be just as creative. Because I’m designing patterns for beginning sewers/quilters, I want to make sure that every part of the design (from the way the pattern is written and illustrated to the final project itself) is created in a way that they can follow along.
For my multi-size patterns (like Over and Under, Bouquet or City Streets), I include instructions for 5 different sizes in the same project – from a pillow up to a twin size quilt. I have some fun with changing the size of traditional blocks, combining two different blocks or by choosing fun color combinations. I don’t imagine that I’ll never run out of ideas.
Are there indispensable tools in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Aside from my sewing machines, two of the most important tools in my studio are my iPhone and my computer. I use my phone to help me choose (or eliminate) fabrics for a project. Changing the image to black and white shows me if I have enough (or too much) contrast. I find that I can be more objective about fabric choices by looking at a picture.
Moving back and forth between sewing a sample and documenting the changes I want to make to the pattern instructions is much easier when I have both my computer and my sewing machine in the same place.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
I learn something from every project I create and every pattern I publish. That always has me looking forward to the next one. Beautiful fabrics put together in interesting ways – that’s pretty inspiring to me.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Never stop learning – but take what you’ve learned and do your own thing.
What is your advice for someone starting out in your field?
The same advice I received – Never stop learning – but take what you’ve learned and do your own thing. This has served me well over my career and it can be applied to so many creative endeavors. It implies being open to other ideas, points of view and approaches. Then I can use that information to make positive creative choices.
Look for and join some groups of people doing similar things. It makes you part of a community with a shared interest and there is so much to learn from others who are further along the path. I joined a couple of private groups on Facebook – other pattern designers from all over the world. The lessons I learn are invaluable to me and I love to be able to share my experiences with them. I know they get it – and that matters when you spend most of your time working alone.
Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?
It never occurred to me that quitting was an option. Nope, it’s not an option.
What trends are you seeing in quilting?
Truthfully, I notice what’s going on in the quilting world. I try to take in as much information as I can from as many sources as I can.
The reality is that I can get completely sidetracked if I try to chase (or predict) trends. I think that a great design is going to be a great design regardless of what’s “trending”. I prefer to be aware – but keep my focus on the new/beginning sewer who needs a well-designed pattern and a helping hand to get started in creating a project they can be excited about. That’s always going to be in style.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us today?
I’d love for your readers to connect with me on my Facebook page and on Instagram. I’m introducing new patterns all the time at Quiltblox.com and I’d love to see pictures of any projects anyone makes using one of my patterns.
Catching Up with Deb
Since we last visited, you have made some changes to your business model. What drove that decision?
Several things came together to make the decision to close the shop and focus on my pattern line – Quiltblox.com. My husband retired at the end of 2019, and I found that I’d rather have work I can do from my home studio instead of leaving to work at the shop all day. I also had a wonderful, long-time employee decide to retire about that time. The tea leaves came together in a decision to close the shop the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 2019.
It turned out to be great timing. Covid 19 became a world-wide pandemic in February, 2020. Like so many others, I spent the next few months sewing and donating masks.
How does your new approach fulfill you creatively?
I have always loved working on my own. Having a great space to work from makes that even better. To tell the truth however, the past year and a half saw me stepping back from designing and sewing. Quarantines and lockdowns and the political fallout really got to me. My husband and I (like everyone else) canceled all our travel plans and we spent that time working on our house and gardens. Sometimes taking a break is exactly the right thing to do. Now that things are a little easier, I’ve been busy jumping back into my pattern line and changing up how I’m making them available. It’s a lot of fun for me and I can’t wait to make some of the fun things I have in mind a reality.
Do you design your quilts with a sketchbook, computer software or a combination of the two?
It’s (definitely) a combination of the two. I love to play around with graph paper and colored pencils and once I have the concept worked out in my head – I move to the computer and finalize the design there.
Closing your brick-and-mortar store undoubtedly changes your creative space. Can you describe your current studio and how its organization works for you?
I have always had a studio space at home and once I closed the shop, my home studio space was overhauled to work better for my needs going forward. I was able to install some of the cabinetry from the shop for more storage and we made a small design board for over one of the worktables.
It’s a small room (8 x 13) so everything must do double and triple duty. As you’ll see from the pictures, I put everything behind closed doors as much as possible. Too much clutter is overwhelming, so I avoid it as much as possible. I do have my TV, my music, computer, printer and all my shipping supplies right where I need them as well as plenty of storage for my books, patterns and fabric. I also have a large picture window that overlooks our gardens. It’s my happy place.
What are the go-to quilting tools you reach for most often?
There are a few tools that I use for every project I do. I like a rotary cutter that I can switch from right to left hand (I use both hands for cutting), I also use two rulers for most of my projects – a 5” x 24” with a lip edge for stability and a 6.5” x 13” ruler with large markings that are easy to read.
Building a website can be daunting. What are some of the “I wish I had known that before” experiences of shifting to an online focus? What do you hope people will gain by visiting your new site?
Oh, my goodness, the list of what I wish I had known is long. I’ve had a website for years. It always looked good, and it did help get people in the door to the shop. Once the shop was closed I needed to completely reimagine my website in order for it to perform effectively for this new iteration of my business. I’ve been taking classes and learning much more about the “back end” of the website. Still a long way to go but making progress every day, I’m working my plan to improve it over time.
I hope that guests to my online store will have a great user experience and will find a reason to come back time and again.
Interview published July 2018, updated November 2021
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