Jenny Clouston is happiest and most content when she is stitching by hand: crazy quilting, flower embroidery or English Paper Piecing. In embracing the process, she feeds her creativity and teaches others to enjoy it as well. Her flair for pattern and color spring from her upbringing in South Africa and her adopted home in Australia. With several projects going at once, Jenny always has a way to keep her hands, heart and mind busy.
What inspires you to create?
This is an interesting question for me, as I am not motivated by outcomes. I have no desire to create an award winning quilt (I very seldom enter my quilts in quilt shows). My reward is the process; in the actual doing, creating and stitching.
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Planning is not on my agenda either; my philosophy of creating is a “start where you are and use what you have” approach. For this reason, too, I am not sentimental about my finished work. Once it is completed I use it in my daily life or as a workshop sample; I have no need to preserve it.
Both my mother and grandmother sewed. However, their approach to it was very different. My mother was a perfectionist and sewed clothes for the family. My grandmother’s hands were never still. She was always doing something: tatting, darning, playing patience, crocheting. There was no particular reason or person she was creating for, she simply kept busy. Evidently, “idle hands were the devil’s work”!!!!!! Her crochet rugs were quite unfortunate as she used whatever yarn was on hand; not being concerned about the ply or colour. Yet, there was something beautiful about her rugs and I loved them. I believe that my love of simply keeping my hands busy comes from my grandmother, and I thank her for it.
Why textiles? Why crazy quilting? How did you get started?
Crazy quilting is something that I have always done for myself and by myself.
After attending a talk by the inspiring Rosalie Dace in South Africa on crazy quilting, I simply just dived right in. The large Indian markets in Durban, where I was living at the time, were a wonderful source of glorious fabrics and shiny beads and sequins! Heaven!
Being self-taught, there were no preconceived ideas of what crazy quilting should look like, and working in isolation (this word has a different connotation since 2020!) I was able to simply create with no restrictions or influences. The history of crazy quilting I find fascinating too: done by women in a changing world during the Industrial Revolution and the opening up of the world during Queen Victoria’s reign.
How does your childhood in South Africa influence your work? And your current home in Australia?
My life in South Africa definitely influences my work. South Africa is a country of colour, energy and many cultures. The strong lines of Zulu beadwork and the glorious colours of Indian saris are huge sources of inspiration for me.
During the apartheid era, many countries applied sanctions to South Africa; that meant we did not have access to traditional American quilting fabrics. However, that did make South African quilters “look outside the square” when it came to fabric, and we produced quilts quintessentially South African. The great quiltmakers like Rosalie Dace and Odette Tolkstoff in the 90’s led by example. Their quilts to this day are heavily influenced by the fabrics and colours of South Africa.
On the other hand, we are very spoiled living in Australia. Everything I need to create is on hand.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your book, Foolproof Crazy Quilting?
It is a goal of mine as a tutor to make my students feel capable. My first book Foolproof Crazy Quilting was a way of furnishing the readers with all the information they might need to create interesting seam treatments, from the stitch to which needle and thread to use. I think that C&T Publishers were very brave taking me on as an author. After all, I was a nobody living and teaching in faraway Australia.
How would you recommend someone who is interested in crazy quilting get started?
Colour is EVERYTHING – spend time on your colour palette – no amount of glorious stitching can make up for an unfortunate colour palette. Crazy quilting is all about the seam treatments, so try to keep the fabrics plain and not overly patterned.
One of the things I absolutely LOVE about crazy quilting is that it is totally unique to the maker. We all have our own stitch fingerprint, our own interpretation of colour and design, and crazy quilting allows us to be us, really. I do not follow the premise that anything goes in crazy quilting. It is evident in antique crazy quilts that a lot of thought was given to a colour palette and seam treatments. Another reason I love crazy quilting is that it asks something of me – to stay present, to not just add “stuff’ simply because I have it in my stash. I like to keep my seam treatments clear and strong (very similar to Zulu beading: busy but strong).
Also, and this is very important to me as a tutor and creator, create for yourself and not be concerned about what others think of your work. Enjoy, play have fun!
UFOs: taunts from the shadows or lessons learned?
UFOs: I tend to have a lot of them because stitching and creating is a constant source of enjoyment for me. I begin new projects all the time as I am not concerned about what they will be. I actually love my UFOs as they are often a starting point for new projects.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Yes, I am very fortunate to have my own space. My husband is constantly coming up with storage ideas! I have to confess that I work in an absolute mess – which does not concern me in the slightest; I would rather be stitching than winding threads onto bobbins!
Your third book, Foolproof Flower Embroidery, is not on crazy quilting, why the change in topic?
Crazy quilting is not the only form of embroidery I do – creative and freeform embroidery is a passion of mine – so obviously threads and fabrics are what I collect. My new book, Foolproof Flower Embroidery, is an extension of how I like to create and teach. A huge thank you to all of those at C&T Publishing who worked on it.
My classes and workshops have never been as full and I am sure everyone was happy to be out and about after COVID. I also got to see my family from interstate which was wonderful.
My mantra of “start where you are and use what you have” is a strong motivator for me. As embroiderers we often follow a pattern, and when we do not have the prescribed thread on hand, we rush out to buy it or wait days for it to arrive in the post. Creativity simply stops at this point. My goal as an embroiderer and tutor is to promote creativity and not consumerism. By using what we have on hand challenges us and we create work that is unique; it frees us from the assumption that only the “correct” thread will “work”.
This book encompasses the whole process of creating a unique piece of embroidery; from creating backgrounds to designing your own unique floral embroidery. I am very excited about it! The book covers a multitude of stitches done in a variety of threads. It’s my hope that this book will inspire a more organic approach to embroidery, one of creating with the resources that you have in front of you.
What are your favorite embroidery stitch stitches? Why?
Feather stitch is my favorite stitch by far. It is so versatile and creates movement to a crazy quilt block or any form of embroidery. I love the way by adding more stitches, beads, etc., feather stitch can be made unrecognisable. That is predominantly what I enjoy doing – taking a stitch, then adding to it until you cannot see what the original stitch was.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Audio books – I have been listening to them for years. I have to confess that I prefer to listen to “dark” books: murder mysteries and unsolved crimes.
When you travel, do you create while on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
English paper piecing (EPP) is my go to when I travel. In fact, EPP is my yoga, and I am constantly covering paper with fabric. With very little thought as to what the quilt will look like, I simply put all the covered shapes into large glass jars and when the time is right I make them up into quilts. After doing this for over 35 years, I have made many quilts! My love of all things done by hand has been a constant source of enjoyment and relaxation in my life.
How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
This is a question that many people ask me. As previously stated, I prefer my crazy quilts to be strong and clear; that means the “shape” of the pieces in the crazy block can still be seen. When it comes to my flower embroidery, I stop when the garden is full! It’s a very difficult question to answer as it comes down to personal taste.
What tips and advice would you give a beginner for putting together/assembling their crazy quilt or creative embroidery?
Begin with a colour palette and keep it quite contained. Enjoy the process – for me, its all about the process – and relax, breathe!
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
After teaching for so many years I have found that the search for perfection kills creativity. We need to learn that the joy of creating is simply to create, in the here and now, for yourself. The end result is an added bonus – the reward is in the doing; rifling through your stash, changing direction, using what you have, auditioning new threads and stitches. Play!
When you aren’t working on a crazy quilt or an embroidery project, how do you spend your time?
After such a busy time writing the book, I have decided to take it easy and finish off a few UFO’s that have been lurking around for a while! The first of which is this little drawstring bag made up of embroidered pentagons. I find English paper piecing very relaxing. Combined with simple wool embroidered flowers, this project was a joy to work on.
Using a sewing machine is not something that I enjoy doing, so fabric collage is an easy way to create pretty backgrounds for embroidery. Preloved vintage fabric are so beautiful to use – the fibers have relaxed with years of use. My needle and thread glide through these beautiful fabrics that have a story to tell.I do wash the linens and fabrics but the stains and small holes I leave as I find they add dimension and character.
Knitting is a relaxing pastime, too. This little knee rug using up scraps and op shop (thrift shop) finds is for my daughter. Such fun!
Besides English paper piecing, making fabric twine is one of the most relaxing pastimes for me. I always have a basket of 1” strips of fabric in a basket near me and I will often sit at night in front of the TV simply twisting the fabric to make large colorful balls of twine. I absolutely LOVE to see a whole basket of them in my sewing room. Then, when I have time I create bowls, baskets and mats for my family to use.
Last but not least is the strange thing I do with my orts (scraps). Once again, this is for me, is a mindful and meditative practice which I do everyday. The simple action of threading all matter of leftover threads and stitching them in a repetitive pattern is soothing and gratifying in a way I find hard to explain.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
Constance Howard – her profound influence on the embroidery world, both teaching and designing, fascinates me. Her ability to find her style, her signature and to follow it relentlessly but still create work that was diverse is something to be admired.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
What a privilege it is to teach. I am very fortunate to have approximately 15 ongoing classes locally each month. Travelling to teach workshops has allowed me to see more of my adopted country. Not to mention all the amazing people I have met along the way.
Interview posted January 2021, updated July 2021
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