Even though she grew up in the midst of textiles, decorative quilt artist Deborah Louie found her creative passion quite by accident. It didn’t take long, however, to turn her focus to quilt making when she saw an ad for a beginning class and thought she might give this quilting thing a go. She hasn’t stopped since. Deborah is passionate about machine stitching and has developed signature techniques for free motion machine quilting and using decorative sewing machine stitches.
How did you get started on your creative path? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
When I was a young girl my father owned a company called Luton Dye Works. There he dyed beautiful guipure laces and fabrics for the Australian fashion industry. It was a very hands-on manual factory where he worked so hard, but the smell of the wet fabrics, the multitude of coloured hot dye baths enthralled me as a little girl. He would bring home samples for me to play with and dress my dolls in.
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This was my very beginning of loving textiles. Touching the coloured fabrics, the texture of the beautiful cotton laces with their intricate designs and the joy of the strong bright colours.
I taught myself to make my clothes at a very young age. My mother was often away from home in hospital, so I helped myself to her old Singer sewing machine to make clothes for myself and matching outfits for my dolls.
These were certainly not masterpieces, but they gave me the passion to sew and create. Sewing felt natural – it was so comfortable and easy for me to do. I was very shy at school and didn’t achieve as well as my older sisters but on the sewing machine or on the sports fields were where my talents and confidence shined through.
What inspires you to create?
Creating made me feel special. It was what I needed to do, and still now today, it’s what I need or just must do. I sew and create beautiful quilts because it soothes the soul.
Why textiles? Why quilting? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
After leaving school I attended The School of Textiles where I graduated from Textile Design and Colour as well as Design courses. I then took the path of textile printing and worked very hard to make my way to Production Manager. Working with textile inks to mix the perfect hue for a fashion client was my specialty. Understanding why colours work together was such a valuable skill to learn. Little did I know then that those skills would really come in handy a little later when making contemporary hand painted quilts.
Quilting came only after the birth of my first-born child, Sam. An ad in the local paper to learn quilt making on a Friday evening in a small local patchwork shop to make a 12-block sampler quilt caught my eye. I devoured this information and stitched up a fury to finish this first quilt in weeks.
I loved every single process. This was for me. This is what I have been learning and accumulating these skills for. So it all jjust clicked into place. I had found my thing!!!!
I spent the next few years learning the craft of quilt making. Very early on I realised that stitching and quilting on the sewing machine was the way forward for me because my hand stitching skills were appalling. I made the traditional log cabins, samplers, star quilts etc.
Machine quilting came very easily to me. Then the day I learnt how to start free motion quilting I was ecstatic. Wow, lets go, there was no stopping me now. I loved the texture that domestic machine quilting gave to my quilts.
I started taking on domestic quilting as a living while the kids were at school with quilting over 100 quilts a year for 6 years. Great skills were gained, but after a while I needed a new challenge.
I started to teach domestic machine quilting and still do 20+ years later. Being a Bernina Ambassador has given me the scope to travel all over teaching my efficient techniques of machine quilting.
I was booked to feature on The Quilt Show with Alex Anderson and teach at Houston and Birmingham in 2020, and then Covid struck the world and everything was cancelled. These are still major goals of mine and hope in the future to bring my style of teaching and quilt making to these countries.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Machine Magic: Get the Most from the Decorative Stitches on Your Sewing Machine: 22 Fun Flowers to Sew?
I love exploring the decorative stitches on the sewing machine, so now this is my latest passion. To spend time teaching lovely quilters to get the very best from their sewing machine is thrilling and so satisfying. Machine Magic is me in a book. How I teach gaining trust and confidence with the student. Yes, you can make stunning, textural, interesting appliqué work on your sewing machine. Because if I can, you can….
This is my aim: give it a go, and you can make magic on your sewing machine and become best of friends.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
This textural appliqué floral work is unique to me. My signature look is achieved by using heavy 12 weight threads for raised texture off the fabric and flat shiny polyester threads for dense satin stitches. It really does work – you just want to stroke it and wonder how it was not hand stitched.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have a small, dedicated, well-organised sewing space with the most stunning light and views. We live by the Georges River in Sydney, and I watch the boats, planes and wildlife drift by. My home is elevated off the street so no one can see me, but I can watch the world go about their day. This is my happy place where I spent all of Sydney’s Covid lockdown time creating new work and writing Machine Magic.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I love my design wall and huge sewing table which my husband made over 20 years ago for me. The sewing machines are dropped into a box in the table making for flat bed stitching. Yes, machines plural – I do have a few like so many of us.
You know I even had three (3) machines stitching on the table while making Machine Magic. I would slide from one to the other. Funny I know, but they all have different stitches and I like to work efficiently and fast so this works for me.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I work old school when it comes to designing my quilts. I hand draw everything, making full size pattern sheets for all quilts. This is my favourite part of the quilt making process. Drawing with pencil and paper new shapes, using very simple plastic template tools like circles, ovals etc. I draw shapes over and over refining them until I am happy with the final composition.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I do plan all my quilts, that is even down to the quilting, before I even purchase a piece of fabric. Then I don’t over buy as I know how much meterage I need of fabrics. I take colour snippets of the fabric I have from my very generous stash and place them on paper in order of hue and value. Then I can see if I need more colours, and I take this paper with me when shopping at a quilt store.
I group my fabrics at home in draws in two (2) categories.
The first are pantry fabrics. These are everyday staple fabrics like solids, colour on colour, grunge, spots and stripes. Fabrics that can go into all quilts and help support the main ingredient or hero fabric. These I purchase 2-4 metres at a time as I like to keep the pantry well stocked. Just like your kitchen pantry, we like to keep the flour, sugar, salt, etc., well stocked for everyday cooking.
The second category are Hero fabrics. These are very strong prints which are easily identified by designer. These I mainly use in only one quilt at a time, and I purchase only what I need for the project.
My favourite fabric is a solid, as these fabrics come in hundreds of spectacular colours, and they detail my decorative stitches and show off beautifully my machine free motion quilting. Busy prints do not highlight what I do best, so I use them very sparingly.
All boxes of fabrics are organised into their individual colour groups like pinks, oranges, blue-greens, etc. I do like to be organised.
Are you like me, after a certain stage of the quilt making process, say the fusing of the applique, I tidy up, vacuum , put away all excess fabric before the machine stitching starts? I can’t help myself… I listen to pod casts, watch movies, have a good old sing along to my favourite bands while stitching in my happy place.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
I truly believe that to get better at a skill you must put in the time. I teach free motion quilting and people want my level of skill in a day. Well, it took me years. Years of doing, years of quilting. Do the work and you will be rewarded. Every time you free motion quilt you will get better. To see your progress don’t toss away your early sample pieces or your class pieces no matter how awful they may be.
Comparing today’s work to yesterday’s stitching is rewarding and you will notice the growth which is so exciting and encouraging. The same with decorative stitch appliqué – give it a go and enjoy yourself.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
My other love in quilt making is free form contemporary quilts. With these I do not plan, they just evolve. One of my quilting idols is the late Gwen Marston. I had the great pleasure to spend time with Gwen several years ago when we both taught at Quilt Symposium in Taupo, New Zealand. Gwen had a wonderful eye for shape, line and colour that I adore and so wish I could have had the opportunity to do workshops with her. These types of quilts I will make more of when I have decided to leave teaching and dedicate my stitching time to free form design contemporary quilts.
To have a book by C& T Publishing truly is a dream come true. To have my style of appliqué and quilting shared with a wider audience than I could ever do personally is so thrilling.
I write and self-publish my own skill building books which are on my website. These are incredibly popular with quilters from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, mainly. Some lovely quilt stores in the US stock them, too. Just as in Machine Magic, I share how to produce the whole project from design, fabric colour choices, preparation, stitching and quilting – all on a domestic sewing machine. My most popular book is Glamorous Clams. There are two versions of this popular book. A generic all brands of machines book and templates and a Bernina Special Edition version. In this Bernina edition I walk owners through the features of their sewing machines while making the decorative stitched clam shell cushion or wall hanging. This truly is a skill building project.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I have also 3 online courses if you cannot get to a face-to-face class of mine. These classes are designed to get you using your machine and quilting your own quilts in no time with efficiency and ease. A common sense, you can do it way. The Deborah Louie way.
I really get so much satisfaction from teaching others my techniques and sharing my passion of the sewing machine. Because once you are one with your sewing machine the creativity can start to flow. Using the tools of the trade well can make a difference to all quilters enjoying this wonderful art form.
Interview posted March 2022
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