Fiber artist Jo Avery began creating with needle and thread as a child when she sewed alongside her big sister. That lit the spark for Jo, and she takes a deep dive whenever she explores a new medium. From sewing to needlepoint to embroidery to quilting, Jo learns everything she can and practices, practices and practices, building a large body of work that she shares through patterns, books and teaching. Living her best creative life in Scotland, Jo quilts by machine and embroiders by hand (especially with soft wool thread these days), inspired by the lush landscape she inhabits.
How did you find yourself on a creative path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Definitely always there! I spent a lot of my childhood sewing with my big sister Jane, especially soft toys. When I was ten years old Jane showed me how to sew hexagons together (what we would now call EPP). Much later when I started living with my husband, I remembered how much I had enjoyed stitching those hexagons and so I bought some templates and fabric and started making my first quilt. Looking back now I can recognise this as a strong nesting instinct!
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How did you become interested in so many different needle arts? Does one tend to stand out from the others? Why does that one appeal to you?
For our first Christmas together, my husband, Jonathan, bought me a needlepoint kit and this inspired me to start my first business, designing and producing my own needlepoint kits. We ended up running “Cleopatra’s Needle” together for a number of years before selling it as we were both going in different creative directions, Jonathan to furniture making and myself to quilting. I had always knitted since being a small child and I still love knitting socks, then in my Forties I became obsessed by crocheting, too. In 2009 I discovered craft blogs and immediately started myBearpaw blog (now renamed Jo Avery blog). I was desperate to communicate my passions and connect with others! This led to a whole new career as a designer and teacher. I began embroidery as there was a demand for classes at my studio. It soon became a new obsession.
My favourite needle craft is whatever I’m doing at the time! I’m very fickle, jumping from one craft to the next. Not only does this keep my interest, but I think it’s better for my poor abused hands! What I love most about embroidery is the way I can recreate my designs in beautiful colours with the added thread texture. It’s like very slow colouring in but with thread instead of pens. Using wool for embroidery adds an extra soft raised aspect to the texture. The word ‘crewel’ simply means embroidery with wool, and since I started using my favourite Aurifil 12wt wool for embroidery I can’t go back to cottons or anything else. I just love the feel and look of the wool so much. I wrote my Modern Crewel Embroidery book to explore stitching with wool in more depth and inspire others to give it a try.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially your new title, Modern Crewel Embroidery?
I want crafters to know we are all on a journey and that the journey itself is more important than the destination. It’s all about the process, not the finished item. Enjoy the process and don’t always be in a rush to finish things. One of the things I love about embroidery and hand stitching in general is it forces me to slow done and spend some mindful meditation with my needle and thread. You never get to the end of crafts like embroidery and quilting; there is always more to learn and new things to discover. The other important thing is not to get so hooked up on perfection – it is very overrated!
What inspires you to create? Does your home in Scotland inspire aspects of your work?
My home here at Shangri la Farm, just outside Edinburgh, inspires my work more than anything else! We bought this seven acre field with a bungalow and barn attached 11 years ago and set about planting thousands of trees and re-wilding it. Now I have the daily delight of walking through my birch and hazel woods and observing every minute change in nature and the seasons. Every day I am inspired by what I see and come back with a new idea!
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’m an improviser for sure! I really hate planning ahead. I need to work organically, especially when it comes to making quilts. Part of the joy in creating is feeling your way through all those little decisions that have to be made during any project. There’s just no way I can do this at the start.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I am very lucky to have two separate spaces (it pays to have your children early in life!).
My old sewing room inside our house is now filled with my Handi Quilter Moxie long arm machine. This has revolutionised my quilting life to the point that I prefer the quilting to the patchwork now! The reason I could give up this room to the long arm is that my husband (who builds Tiny Houses for a living) built me a Tiny House for my sewing studio. The Schoolhouse sits in our field and is an amazingly light, warm and welcoming space. I do all my sewing and creating here and also run my website. I had originally intended it as a small teaching studio but then covid happened and I began teaching virtually. By the time I could think about teaching there physically again, I had re-thought my priorities and decided to keep it just for me (and my virtual students!).
What is your favorite storage tip for your creative supplies, especially since you enjoy so many different things?
I’m probably not the best person to ask about this as organising isn’t one of my strengths. I tend to make loads of pouches and project bags for fun and then I store all my different projects in these. I store all my fabric in stacking plastic boxes with lids (from IKEA) on wheeled trolleys that my husband made me. They sit under my cutting and packing table and can be wheeled in and out when I need them. I also have a wonderful “Girl Friday”, Jane, who comes to help me with the website orders once a week. She is the tidiest person I know and keeps the schoolhouse spick and span. So my best tip is find yourself a Jane!
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Probably the most important things are the threads and needles/pins that I use for all my sewing, whether that is embroidery, appliqué, or piecing and quilting. I am a huge fan of Aurifil thread and have been one of their designers since 2017. Last year I became a certified Aurifilosopher which means I can give the Aurifilosophy presentation to groups and guilds. It also means I know a lot about Aurifil thread! Within their wide range is the perfect thread for each of my craft pursuits. I am also very fussy about the needles I like to use (Millwards) and the pins (Clover).
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
It depends what I am doing. If I am sewing at the machine I tend to listen to music radio. If I am quilting on my longarm or hand sewing I tend to listen to podcasts or radio drama on my headphones, but if I really have to concentrate (like answering these questions!) it has to be silence. I find I am more content with silence the older I get.
How do you balance the traditional and the modern in your work?
I used to consider myself a “classic quilter” with a style pitched somewhere between the two. I used to say that traditional quilters saw me as modern but modern quilters saw me as more traditional, and I was happy with this “best of both worlds” approach. However, things have shifted in the last year. I have really taken against making traditional quilts, or even modern quilts made with traditional piecing. I really can’t be bothered to accurately cut and piece fabric anymore!! This means I am concentrating my quiltmaking on improv designs and using up all my class samples and orphan blocks (which is a kind of improv, too). So now I consider myself as just a modern quilter. This is also the first time I have really admitted to this new feeling publicly – an exclusive scoop for you!
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
The initial spark will arrive from my subconscious or from something beautiful that captures my attention. This is usually from nature, but it can also be another artwork, or a shape or colour from anywhere. I will then mull over what I could do with this inspiration: could it become an applique design, a quilt or an embroidery? I will think about it for a good while and if it seems to have potential I will note it down in my day book. If it’s a really good idea it will be developed through more sketches or even software like EQ7 (for quilt patterns) before I start to make it. I spend a lot of my time on walks thinking about these different ideas and developing them in my imagination.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think it can absolutely be learnt. I think that you get better at everything with practice; you have to put the hours in. If I had not led a life being creative (I could easily have had a different career path), creativity wouldn’t come so easily to me now. I am sure that I would still have creative hobbies, but they might be more of a struggle as I wouldn’t have put all the time in that I have.
How do you get unstuck creatively?
I used to say that this never happens to me but in the summer I did find myself struggling with quilting. I didn’t even want to do improv quilting and that was quite shocking. So I thought about what sort of thing I did want to make and settled on papier maché. I made a start with this over a weekend and had such fun. It seemed to unblock something for all my other craft pursuits, and I’ve not actually managed to get back to the papier maché since! I will do some more soon, though.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
Until summer 2020 I had my own shop and teaching studio, myBearpaw, and all my own products like books, patterns and thread boxes would have been sold through this. When I sold the business, I took over an existing website I had (for the Stitch Gathering Retreat which I used to organise) and made that into a dedicated space for Jo Avery. It’s really a space to purchase my own products plus items like notions and fabric that I recommend for my classes and patterns. I still write my blog with new posts coming out most weeks and you can get to my blog through the website too. stitchgathering.co.uk
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Yes, I give virtual lectures and workshops and some physical ones to local groups or at events like Festival of Quilts. I don’t really travel much to teach, preferring to stay at home as much as possible! The best thing is to email me at [email protected]
Tell us about the Thread House?
This is a UK based quilting collective with myself and my two quilting besties, Karen Lewis and Lynne Goldsworthy. We organise both physical and virtual retreats plus an annual BOM club. The second year of the club just started and you can still sign up and join in at any time to make the Free Bird quilt along with us. Head to thethreadhouse.co.uk for more info.
Interview posted October 2021