There are fabrics that scream “look at me, but just for a season”, and there are fabrics that the fiber artist uses as a palette to create lasting work that demands to be noticed. Jennifer Sampou designs the latter. Her striking textiles embrace the color wheel with fabrics loved by traditional, modern and art quilters.
How long have you been quilting and designing? How did you get started?
I knew I wanted to be a designer by the time I was 19. Having grown up in a creative household and studying design at Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC, it was clear to me I would be a surface designer.
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Exactly “what” surfaces, I did not know. Leaving Massachusetts, where I grew up, and moving to San Francisco at age 22 was a wanderlust thing – no job, no prospects or family. Just a borrowed car and a best friend who said, “Sure, I’ll go with you, why not?” Armed with Bonnie Raitt, Beach Boys, Marshall Tucker, Rolling Stones, CSN&Young, etc. – tape cassettes – we drove west. That was the beginning of my adventure. I love wondering, not knowing, then discovering.
Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to the work you do today?
Tons of gateway crafts: Shall I name them all?
Began with creating beautiful environments like Terrariums made of moss, acorns, woodsy plants, salamanders and bugs. Mom teaching me to stitch Christmas ornaments, sew clothes for my elaborate family of stuffed toy animals (because I was never a “doll” girl).
Knitting learned from Gramma Lou, crochet from Grandma Signy. Embroidery on jeans from my older sisters. Leather work from my Dad – everything from belts, bracelets to suede painted vests (it was the groovy 70’s). Macramé bracelets, plant hangers from Mom, too.
Art class was my favorite high school class as well as Fashion Construction and Sewing, so making prom dresses to tailored pants and jackets was how my fashion sense and skills grew.
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have learned?
It’s both. Being surrounded by older siblings and parents who created everyday, creating was what we did in our free time.
I firmly believe everyone is creative. It’s an innate ingredient to all humans. How we nurture it, believe in it and practice it determines the distance we go with our creative endeavors, whether it’s in music, art, athletics, writing or problem solving. Creativity is Intelligence Having Fun! I read that on a bumper sticker and it stuck with me. 🙂
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Ombré Quilts?
1. DELIGHTFUL EASE: Working with my SKY Ombrés is the most inspiring fabric that makes you feel like a color pro because I have already done the color work in all 30 fabrics in the collection. Each print has 35+ colors blended which gives you a 1000 colors at your fingertips. Working with SKY is liberating as color blends in its full range across WOF, representing the sky at different times of the day and different places in the world. No matter how you cut them up and sew them back together, you will be successful, with ease. I only see possibilities as all prints go together. The options are limitless and well worth investing at least half yard of the entire line. (PS: I am working on more colors now! Concentrating on the Ocean and Earth hues!! Heard it first here! :))
2. BUILD VALUE/COLOR/TECHNIQUE SKILLS with CONFIDENCE: The 6 projects in OMBRÉ QUILTS begin with two simple, easy projects: Modern Madras Reversible Table Runner (just 6 fabrics) and Yellow Bars (rollup/jelly roll quilt). As you progress through the book, you build your confidence and skills. Making Dawn Star is the final quilt that is the most challenging because in order to achieve the look I have, you need to be aware of value, play with changing hues and experiment with placement as the ombré fabrics actually ombré from block to block to create an overall graceful movement of colors.
3. FABRIC AND BOOK AVAILABLE AT SAME TIME: This is extremely difficult to make happen from a manufacturer’s point of view. Because of my unique position as a designer for Robert Kaufman for 20+ years and part owner of C&T Publishing, we have the capability to coordinate amazing teams from each company that made a collaborative effort to get all the pieces to come together and bring the fabric and book to market at the same time. Both will continue to be available as well, so people can buy the book and fabric with confidence.
Here’s the quilter’s chicken and egg question: Which comes first when you make a quilt? Do you select a pattern, then choose fabrics to highlight the pattern? Or do you gather a fabric palette, and then find/design a pattern that shows off the fabric?
I do both. And enjoy when the fabric is the inspiration or the quilt design.
Every quilt I designed in this book came about as a piece of the whole pie. The first quilt I made was the Dawn Star – out of strike offs. Realizing this was complicated regarding value, even though based on a simple block, the double sawtooth star, I began to create other projects that were perfect for beginners.
I break down different aspects of color, hue and piecing. In the Hearth Quilt, the fabrics do most of the work with an appliqué technique for center star. The Whale and I uses just two fabrics for the background but adds new skills to learn with a paper piecing element. I wanted people who buy the book to want to make ALL the quilts, not just one or two. Then they really get great value and varied skills to master.
Who or what inspires you to create?
It’s my way of expressing myself to the world. Creatives are a perceptive group and very mindful of our surroundings – what makes us joyous, remorseful, calm, giddy etc…
To use light, color and fabric fills my soul, and I love sharing it with the world. I make simple yet artful quilts that bring joy and peace to the viewer, then create these into quilt patterns that others can make and share, too. They add their own twists and concepts which expand the idea.
I also am becoming more vocal about causes I support, injustices I see and the path forward to a more balanced world for all. But to do so in a creative, visual and loving way. How can we wake up the world and encourage humans to make it a better place? I can only do my small part, but it’s a part I value immensely.
How have your travels influenced your designs?
Travel has always been and continues to be my most inspired method to create fresh, exciting work. I have traveled far and wide, big cities to complete wilderness. It occupies my dream world.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Improviser. I start with an idea, and then it becomes something else (Pablo Picasso also said that. :)) So I borrowed it, as it’s true!
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I see my work as timeless, artistic, casual yet elegant, colors on the color wheel that excite me, have bits of dirt in them, blurred greys, tints, tones etc. For 30 years I have been in this industry and my trademark is that you can’t box me in.
My brand is sophisticated and I stay current because I don’t do just one look. I am inspired by art, nature and travel which is always changing. I don’t usually do “look at me” kind of prints. My fabrics are more understated. Like my long running Shimmer Collections. I want the maker to to shine because of her work, her choices. And then maybe an, “Oh, that’s a Jennifer Sampou print.”
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?
I don’t. But then I have to. So then I am.
To be a good designer you have to take the time to be organized, otherwise there are too many undone threads, so to speak. Discipline is an extremely important part of the creative process. I can’t work in chaos for more than a few weeks.
Clean, Dream, Create, Expand, Explore, Curate, Tidy up, Eliminate, Finalize. Then I start over again. But not necessarily in that order. 🙂 I definitely flow and am drawn to improvisation within structure. I don’t really like rules. Rebellious by nature, but that can bite me back, so I do have sacred rules.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Natural light from windows, then more natural light from skylights. Large, sturdy work tables, 4’x 8’ at least.
Excellent tools, but I am not a gadget person. Rotary cutter, good mats (I hate the green ones as they mess with my visual beauty goals). Various rulers, extensive color libraries: Pantone, Scotdic, Kona and other solid programs. Sewing and art supplies organized, flat files filled with papers and inspiration.
Large design wall and calm visual surroundings. I like natural wood and white walls. So I don’t hang my work in my studio unless I am currently working on it. I have two cloud-like, gold-edged paper pendants (all lighting is on dimmers) in my studio. It feels like I am walking into heaven and that makes me very happy and ready to create or ponder.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
I up cycled 7’ metal railings, cleaned them, sealed and painted them, then put them on end so they are fantastic quilt racks. $25 each at San Francisco flea market! They each hold 10-15 quilts (technically in the entry of my studio because I don’t have space for them in studio proper).
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I don’t do sketchbooks. Or journals. I write on scraps of paper and they float around. The good ones eventually get put in a folder. I populate Pinterest boards, have thousands of photos on my iPhone, save Instagram folders.
I hold a lot of ideas in my mind…. Lots fall out too. I mostly create with deadlines – best when focused and just do the work. Last week, I went through old inspiration folders and recycled about 90% of it. I am in the purge mode presently as I expand my work space and create an art barn. I am not a pack rat. Too much stuff weighs me down and as a designer who needs reference, can you see the amusing paradox here?
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Silence mostly. I think better with the windows open and just hearing the nature around me. When I do set piecing, organizing or cleaning up, I put music, books on tape, podcasts, brief chats with family and friends – never watching movies. That’s way too distracting!
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
In my late 30’s I was overworked (self inflicted and inexperienced), raising 3 small boys, redesigning a new home and had ramped up my professional output to over 300 new fabrics a year. I felt as if I was doing nothing well and the joy was dwindling. Then it all came to a head as I felt graceless and overwhelmed. It crushed me. So I stopped, crashed more like it… and I took what turned into a 7 year sabbatical from professional design.
I wanted to be the mother I had intended to be, to watch and listen more and less “doing” and fill up my creative cup again. I wanted to experience a different way of life, with a new language to learn. So with research and planning, we left California for two years and raised our boys in the artist community of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for two blissful years.
There I learned to pay attention to the road signs in my life. So I learned to listen to my dreams and not the Naysayers or Youshouldhaves. Being bold empowers me, so I learned to take chances. I learned to always try new things no matter my age or situation. I learned to continue to follow my curiosity and encourage my family to do the same. Buck the norms, pursue the path less taken. Always.
Tell us about your blog and website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I communicate mostly with my fans via Instagram. Live stories, IGTV, and also been populating my YouTube channel with more How To which is a fantastic way to communicate and share my ideas. Jennifersampou.com is my website and blog where I post 5 times a year more or less.
My store sells precuts and patterns. I am ramping up my teaching especially with my new book and SKY fabrics. I hope people will be inspired, find something they want to work with, visit my YouTube to learn more and even take a class with me if they can. Currently I am revamping my website to be better integrated and easier to navigate. (It’s way overdue!)
With the the project of my art barn, I intend to expand my online store as many stores don’t carry my complete collections or able to communicate my ideas as there is so much noise out there. I want to empower people to take chances, expand their skills and find excitement and pride in making things. I will also be offering classes in my art barn that will be small, colorful and fun. When you know what you are good at, it’s something you must share with others. So that’s what I am gonna do more of.
When you have time to create for yourself, what kinds of projects do you make?
I am working on a beautiful cover for my mediation pillow right now. Stitched on one side, pieced on the other. My spiritual life is deepening. It also takes discipline which isn’t easy as I spend too much time on my screens, but It gives me strength in these times. Makes the important things crystal clear.
What is on your design wall right now?
I am working on a new quilt with a brand new line called Spring Shimmer due out in July 2020. It’s sunny, yummy and my first time to put so much vibrant color in a Shimmer line so I am so excited to present it to the world. Gonna mix it with SKY too. 🙂 Stay tuned! Instagram is the best way to see my latest as I am posting multiple times a week.
Learn more about Jennifer on her website.
Interview with Jennifer Sampou posted May 2020
Browse through more inspiring quilt projects and stories on Create Whimsy.