Judy Martin’s name is synonymous with quilts, and with good reason. Judy is the designer of more quilts than most of us can only dream of. With an eye toward the classic quilt patterns that make up our general knowledge of the medium, Judy adds her own sensibilities to design quilts that nod to the past while winking at the future with innovative block settings and construction techniques.
Let’s start with your newest book, Red, White & Blue Star Quilts. What excited you about that subject?
I wanted to make a red and white Shakespeare in the Park quilt for myself, and I needed to reprint that pattern in my next book, so that got me thinking about high contrast two-color quilts in red and white as well as blue and white.
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When I searched my files of design germs, I found plenty of patriotic quilts as well, so I decided to include those. Many of my books have featured one or two patriotic quilts. The hard part at first was narrowing my focus so I wouldn’t have a 200-page book! I keyed in on the designs with simple Evening Stars and Rising Stars, and that pulled everything together.
I designed several new quilts meeting these parameters as well. One of these, Military Band, was made to honor my dad. He was in the Navy from 1935 to 1959. Much of that time he played the trumpet or trombone or led the band. This quilt makes me think of horns blaring!
How did you find yourself on a creative path?
I first thought of myself as creative or artistic in first grade when my teacher sent me to the principal’s office to show the drawing I had made on the back of my reading worksheet. That was the beginning of my being singled out for my artistic ability. While in elementary school, I had the opportunity to go to some special art classes for youngsters at San Diego State University. I got out of required speech and typing classes in junior high in order to make room in my schedule for art classes.
What prompted you to write your first quilting book?
I started writing my first book in 1974 when I was in Edinburgh visiting a friend who was in grad school there. I had time to spare but no sewing machine, so I wrote. When I returned home, I put the book aside because I thought the quilting craze would be over before I finished the book. I had no idea that the Bicentennial would make quilting ever so much more popular two years later. The first book that I had published, Log Cabin Quilts, coauthored with Bonnie Leman in 1980, was my first assignment as an editor at Quilter’s Newsletter. The book that I started in Scotland, Patchworkbook, ended up being my third book, published, in 1983.
When and how did quilting become a full-time endeavor for you?
I tried off and on to make my living from quilting at the Saturday Market weekly crafts fair in Eugene, Oregon, in 1974 and again at an antiques mall in San Diego in 1977. I have been at it full time now since 1979.
When I was 29, I started wondering whether my parents were disappointed in me for my history of taking boring jobs and quitting them. I read What Color is Your Parachute?, and figured out what I was good at and interested in: writing and designing quilts. I realized I wanted to be published before I died. The book also opened my eyes about asking for the job you want rather than settling for a job listed in the classified ads. So I dashed off a resume to Quilter’s Newsletter and got the job I asked for. Eight years later, I quit to work from home and start a family. My husband and I have worked together ever since.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
It was a challenge to make enough money to support myself by selling quilts alone. I learned that making quilts and writing books about them allowed me to reach many more people as well as make a steady income.
You are a prolific designer. How many quilts have you designed? What keeps you going?
Between blocks and quilts, I have published 1259 original designs to date. I know this because I recently gathered them all into my eBook, Encyclopedia of Judy Martin Blocks & Quilts, and my computer counted them for me. Several hundred more design germs in my file drawers and computer folders await publication.
I keep going because every idea gives me several more. It’s kind of like a nuclear chain reaction, only without the potentially disastrous consequences!
What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I create original blocks and quilts in the traditional style. Frequently I use asymmetry or combine several types and sizes of blocks in a quilt as seen in Shakespeare in the Park, my most popular pattern ever.
I am best known for original block designs, settings that make secondary patterns, scrap usage and finishing my quilts with custom pieced borders.
Are your creative and logical sides friends? Enemies? Frenemies?
My artistic and logical sides are best of friends. They talk to and text each other all the time! When I wrote Judy Martin’s Ultimate Rotary Cutting Reference, which included charts for rotary cutting shapes beyond the common squares and triangles, I had to figure out the finished dimensions of all sides of each shape. The same numbers kept turning up, suggesting that the patches would fit together. These calculations actually led to a raft of original block designs for The Block Book the next year.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser? Can you share a bit of your process of bringing a new idea from glimmer to reality?
Planning and improvising are both integral to my design work. When I have a quilt idea, I draw it in the computer. I call these files “design germs,” and I look at them for inspiration when I start a new project. I always start with an existing drawing and “save as” in order to have an ever-growing swatch library. Usually, I try a lot of variations on my idea before I am satisfied that I have found the best version of it. This trial period is very logical, almost mathematical. What if I try this? What if I switch this up? I work through the possibilities.
Next, I go to my stash and see what fabrics inspire me. These may or may not match the colors in the drawing. I go to my boxes of leftover patches of specific sizes and shapes to see if I have enough of the right colors to make a test block or two. Then I start right in with the cutting and sewing. I like to be open to making changes at this stage. So I might change the scale of the patches after the first block or change the quilt layout after making a few blocks.
After testing a block or two, I will either give up in despair or go on to cut out the entire quilt before stitching more. I used to start all of the quilts for a new book before finishing any of them. This is kind of like eating dessert first. The sweet part for me is designing the quilts, picking the fabric, and starting to see the quilt come to life. The rest is like eating your vegetables: It needs to be done.
Starting all of the quilts before finishing any caused logjams for my long arm quilter, so I reined in my natural inclinations, and now I start a new quilt only after I finish the previous one.
I don’t figure the yardage or write the pattern until after I have made the quilt.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I sometimes work in silence, and when the children were small, I had a TV/VCR unit that they watched in my sewing room. My favorite music to listen to when I work is Will Bennett & the Tells, my son’s alt country/Americana band. My son lives in Chicago now, and it is always comforting to hear his voice.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Ah, there’s creativity or logic again. It’s the old right brain/left brain thing, which makes me think of a line from one of my son’s songs, Somewhere Down in Texas:
My left brain knows you left last night.
My right brain knows it’s just not right
To leave like that without a reason why.
I think everyone is probably creative in some way, though it needs to be nurtured to flourish. I was lucky in that I had people in my life helping to nurture my creativity.
Do you have a go-to quilt block that you make when you want to relax while sewing?
I have been sewing for so long that I can do it on autopilot. I am more interested in staying engaged than relaxing. Seeing new designs come to life and using scraps does that for me. I stack up my scrap patches and try the top scrap from one stack alongside the top one from the stack of neighboring patches. Judging the suitability of the pair is just a quick yes or no, but it keeps me on my toes. Sometimes the pairing is awful, so I reject it; sometimes it is just as good as I expected; and sometimes I am surprised and delighted to see how the patches work with each other. It is these moments that hone your skills and keep you learning even after 50 years!
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have a dedicated sewing space above a detached garage and office. When we moved to Iowa in 1993, we needed a new garage. I had a sewing room and office in the house, but it became immediately clear that if we ever wanted to get any work done with a 1-1/2 year old and 3-1/2 year old that we would need to create a space separate from the house and take shifts overseeing the children. As the children got older, I would have preferred a workspace in the house, but we made it work.
I had been making quilts for 24 years when I built this sewing room. It had to be big enough to accommodate the fabric stash that will likely make me the one who dies with the most fabric.
I used wire shelving to make myself a rolling quilt storage rack and an oversized ironing table with storage below. A portable design wall hides a quilt closet that has rods at ceiling height for hanging quilts with skirt hangers. A large cutting table takes advantage of the overhead lighting. Here is a link to additional sewing room pictures and narrative on my web site: http://www.judymartin.com/judys-sewing-room-circa-2016.cfm
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I have a Juki sewing machine that has only one type of stitch and does it very well. I use basic rotary rulers plus my Point Trimmer to trim off the points to help me align patches perfectly for stitching. In addition I have a big, square ruler for the background patches of Lone Stars. I use an 18” plywood square covered in flannel as a pressing aid. I use it to cover the patches I just pressed, leaving it there until the fabric has cooled. This results in the flattest patchwork.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
Hands down I would interview Doreen Speckmann, a quilt maker, author, and friend who died 22 years ago. What I liked about her was that she was so full of energy and ideas and humor. She had such a life force. We were part of a small group of quilting professionals who got together for an annual slumber party. We could stay up all night talking about quilts!
What do vintage quilts say to you? What message do you want your quilts to convey to future generations?
Vintage quilts speak of time passing and makers remembered. I find it amazing that we can understand the shared motivation to create across generations. I just want my quilts to say that I was here.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially your new title, Red, White & Blue Star Quilts?
I want readers to be inspired to make quilts. I want them to gain the confidence to stray from the pattern and make the quilt their own with new colors or other changes.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is judymartin.com. Quilt makers can go there to buy my books, download helpful information, or get inspired by seeing photos of quilts readers have made from my books. Here is one of the helpful downloads from my site: http://www.judymartin.com/pdfs/ABCs_of_Point_Trimming.pdf
I also have a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/QuiltingWithJudyMartin/
My Pinterest page has more than 20,000 followers. I don’t know if that’s a lot, but it sounds like a lot to me! https://www.pinterest.com/judymartinquilt/_saved
Interview posted April 2022
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