Spotlight: Kate Colleran, Quilt Pattern Designer
Kate Colleran’s “hobby business” has blossomed into a full-time enterprise designing quilts, quilting tools and classes. Her complex-looking patterns are surprisingly easy to construct using the tools and techniques she shares with the quilting community.
Why textiles? Why quilting? How did you get started?
As a kid, I went from loving to color doll clothes to learning to sew doll dresses and then to sew clothing for myself. I learned in Girl Scouts how to embroider. I learned how to knit from my Grandma. Working with different mediums and with different textiles has always been something I was drawn to. But quilting, well that was when it all came together. Making my first quilt was when I knew this was the one; the medium I really wanted to pursue and stick with. Something about the mix of fabric and stitching, the tactile nature of the finished quilt and as I got more involved, the process of designing, it just spoke to me.
When you decided to take a break from nursing to focus on designing quilt patterns, did you plan for a brief interruption or a full-scale change in direction?
When I started the business, it was a part-time hobby business. I started with a friend and we saw it as a way to play with quilting, provide patterns for beginners that were well written and maybe someday, be a real source of income. That is how the business got the name – Seams Like a Dream.
The dream for me was to leave nursing behind and do something creative. But it was a hobby business for quite a few years as both my friend and I worked full time, had kids to deal with and could not devote the time needed to really grow the business. Plus, to be honest, I did not always believe in myself and my designs. I thought I was a fraud. What did I know about designing? I was a nurse!
The business did not really start to take off until 2 things happened. First my husband lost his job and a year later found a job in Colorado – across the country from our home in Connecticut. Second, when we moved, I stopped working as a nurse. We downsized our living situation as our kids were settled on the east coast and I suddenly had the time to see if I could make this business a real business.
If we asked a good friend of yours to describe your design style, what would they say?
Clean lines, contemporary, a blend of traditional with modern colors and feel.
What is the most important takeaway you want quilters to gain from your patterns?
They can make it. I want them to feel empowered to try anything and to expand their skills. On the back of some of my patterns is a little saying – Yes! You can make this quilt!
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
This is a hard one to answer! I like designing quilts for beginners and intermediates that use lots of traditional shapes that end up looking a little modern. In my quilts, I use lots of squares and rectangles, HST (half-square triangle) units and I am not much with the intricate piecing.
My real signature work is probably braids. I designed a quilt for the book, Smash Your Precut Stash that I co-wrote with my business partner. The quilt used a jelly roll to create a braid look. After the book came out, I created my own template that allows one to make braids using strips of different widths, cut to different lengths so the braids can be different sizes. I called it the Braid Template. So prosaic! After creating the template, I came up with some new patterns to use it with.
Then I made a Mini Braid Template because who doesn’t love a mini!
And my best selling pattern is now the Pack it Up! bag that uses the Mini Braid Template. The braids are so much fun to do, a great way to use up scraps and, as I like to say, almost goof-proof!
When you travel to teach workshops, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I usually don’t stitch! Isn’t that funny? My creative travel kit is either knitting or drawing. Or both. I have a decided fear of downtime so I always travel with books on my iPad, colored pencils and a small book to draw in and my latest knitting project. I also use the time on planes to write patterns.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I do! I have a small loft in our townhouse that is my sewing space. It overlooks the living room and has good light from a large, west facing window. With a lovely view of the mountains in the distance!
I have a wonderful kitchen island from Ikea that I use as my cutting table and storage, a table for my sewing machine and a large ironing surface that we made using a small kitchen island and a large piece of wood. It is pretty tight in there as there are also bookcases stuffed with projects, books and magazines and an open closet with shelves for fabrics and more stuff!
All my ‘business’ stuff is in other places of the townhouse – which basically means my business is in just about every room! We have a second bedroom upstairs that was to be my husband’s office but all my patterns, shipping and printing equipment also live in there.
Then the quilts are stored in the basement on the guest room bed. If we have a guest over, it takes me at least an hour to find the bed. More fabric is stored in the loft, in the basement, under the bed…wherever I find a spot. My computer and much of the current paperwork live on the dining room table. Which is why hubby and I often eat on the couch in front of the TV!
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
Growing up, my father used to say ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. I know the general thought is that creatives are messy and that the more messy they are, the more creative they are. But I find that does not work for me.
I am messy. I can be very messy! But as the mess takes over, my creativity plummets. For me, my creativity needs space and time to grow and the messier my space is, the less it can bloom into the next project. So in my space, I have a place to hang my rotary cutter, a space to hang some of my rulers that I use a lot and spaces for fabrics and projects. The more organized I am, the more I get done. But organization takes work and that means I am often in a disorganized mess!
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Light is the number one tool in my space. When we were looking for a place to live, my main requirement was a room with good natural light. The tool that really helped my piecing improve was the table insert around my sewing machine. Such a huge difference as I can now really lay my pieces flat as they approach the needle, they wobble less and my seam allowances are more consistent. Not perfect, but so much better! And, of course, I must have my seam ripper, “Jack”. I have several scattered about the studio.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? What kind?
It depends on my mood and what I am doing. I have it quiet when I work on the computer writing patterns. I am too easily distracted otherwise. If music is playing, I may be dancing in my chair!
When I am cutting out a pattern, I usually keep it quiet as well. Again, I am so easily distracted that it is easy for me to make mistakes. I make them without external distraction since sometimes my mind wanders (AKA internal distraction!).
But when I am sewing I sometimes put on a TV show or movie. The TV shows are usually home renovation shows. Occasionally I put on music. I have ‘heard’ many movies and I can watch the same one multiple times and suddenly I see a scene that I had never seen before; I had only heard it. When sewing, I don’t do audiobooks since I have to concentrate on what I am sewing – I lose track of the story and then I have no idea what is going on in the book! It is easier with movies.
Do you focus on one piece from start to finish or work actively on more than one project at a time?
I usually have many projects going at once. Right now, I have at least 10. Maybe more. Hmmm.. I think I better make a list! Due to the nature of this business, I will have projects in various stages, all going at once. I have ones that I am designing, ones that are designed but are in the pattern writing stage, ones that are in the testing/making stage and some that are in the final production stage. It can be hard to keep everything organized and on track!
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
I start each quilt differently. It really depends on what comes first- the fabric or the design. If I am designing for myself and thinking about what I want to design next, I often look thru my sketchbooks or pictures I took when traveling. I once had my husband take a picture of a clump of seaweed because I thought it might someday inspire a quilt!
Sometimes I go right to EQ (Electric Quilt – a computer program that helps you design quilts) and start drawing there. Other times, it starts on paper to get the idea roughed out and then I head over the the computer to refine it.
Fabric usually comes last in this process. If I am designing for a specific fabric line, I usually go right to the computer, stare forever at the fabric and try to imagine how it might be used. Sometimes an idea comes to me right away and other times I stare for quite a while! Then I may have to pull out the sketchpad or graph paper to get a rough idea down and then it is off to EQ. Once in EQ, I usually have a ton of options that I made for each idea. Sometimes it takes 100 tries to get one quilt to come together.
Sometimes I just sit and play with graph paper, a sketchpad or in EQ and try to make the ideas that are floating around in my head into something. Just to see if they will work or not. Some eventually become a quilt, and some don’t. Just because I can dream it, doesn’t mean it can work! But I like that part, playing around with design, seeing what happens when I put shapes together, turn a block, color a quilt a specific way… it is all part of the process. Allowing myself to try, to fail and to try again. And if I have played so much that I can no longer tell if it looks good or not, I either walk away for a while or ask for an opinion.
My favorite color and design guru is my daughter Alyssa. She is very creative; an organic farmer who quilts, crochets and embroiders and has a great sense of color. She is also honest. And because she has not been staring at the design for hours (or for days), she comes at it with a fresh perspective.
What obstacles (if any) do you experience when you are creating? If you do face obstacles, how do you get past them?
My biggest obstacle is time. Right now, I am pretty much a one woman show. My husband is a huge help with shipping orders and bookkeeping – thank goodness as I am terrible at bookkeeping – but I do all of the designing, pattern writing, most of the pattern printing, folding and stuffing, and sample making. I recently had help with sample making for a couple of quilts. It was great. So I think I am going to try to get more help with that this year.
My other big obstacle is me. Believing in myself and believing I can do this. I think that makes me relatable to other quilters; how often does a quilter tell herself (or himself) that a certain technique is beyond them, that they are not good at putting color together, that they are not good at doing a certain technique? So I try to remember what I say when I teach a class, you won’t be perfect the first time, just try again. It is OK to try and fail. Just try again!
OH- and naming quilts! When you are designing quilts, you have to name all the patterns. Yikes! Sometimes a name just comes to me, but other times it is a struggle. I have a series of quilts that we ended up naming after cats! Daisy Mae, Huey Louie, Tiger Lily and Sgt Stanley. We called that group of patterns the Cat Nap series. Now that I have some new kittens and a pup in the house, I have new names for when I need them!
Tell us about your very first quilt. And do you still have it?
My first quilt was made for a cousin who was having a baby. I made it when I was a teenager. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but I knew how to sew from taking Home Ec. So you know that first quilt had 5/8” seams!
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed?
I think the need to create is innate. For some people, their talent at creating is innate, but for many of us, it is like reading or playing the piano, the more we do, the better we get. I get better with time, practice and by taking classes. I tell quilters all the time, if I can learn to do this, learn to design and mix colors and pattern, they can too! And I love to learn. I take quilting classes when I can so I can learn a few things. First I want to learn what I can do to be a better teacher. Then I want to learn all I can about color, new techniques and expanding my creativity.
What trends do you see in quilting today?
I am a terrible person to ask about trends! I only notice them as they are on their way out. That being said, lately it seems that overall, quilters want smaller projects, something quick and easy. And every year there are projects with a specific animal that is big that year. I don’t know if there is a list somewhere called “animal of the year” that designers refer to but this year there seemed to be a lot of butterflies at Quilt Market!
Tell us about your blog and website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
The first thing I want them to get is inspiration. My job as a pattern designer is to inspire them. Whether that means to inspire them to try a new pattern, to try a new technique or maybe to try a new color palette, well that is up to the quilter. I hope they see beyond the colors I chose for each quilt and start to imagine how they would make the quilt.
On the blog, I try to mix up the posts. Sometimes they are more information/education, sometimes inspirational, and sometimes the post is designed to showcase a new pattern – which means a little “salesy” but still, I hope, inspirational.
What are your classes like? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule a lecture or workshop?
My classes. Well what I hope they are like is a stress-free environment, without judgement where you can learn to make a block, a bag or try a new technique and decide if that technique works for you. When I first started quilting, I just jumped in and figured things out. Which is funny, because in other areas of my life, I am much less adventurous. I want a plan! Once I started learning more about quilting, there were rules to learn. And some quilters were very adamant about the rules. It made me want to be more flexible, to meet people where they are and to provide options as I teach because we all respond to different things and in a different way. When teaching a technique, I show different ways to get to the same place and explain why they might like each one.
Take Half Square Triangles – I have a couple of favorite methods but a quilter may like a different method. I never teach that ‘my way’ is the only way; I want to help them explore and find the way that works for them. And, as much as I love designing and making my quits, I LOVE going to quilt guilds and doing a lecture and teaching a class. It is so much fun to speak to quilters, hear their ideas and then to share my quilts.
Classes are a great way to really interact with quilters and share tips and encouragement. I have some online classes thru Bluprint and on The Quilting Company website. Now that is a different experience! Online classes are such a great way to learn for those that don’t have the means to take classes in person. But taping a class is so different from actually teaching a class. Scary, fun and sometimes awkward, but I found I like doing that!
If quilters would like me to come to their guild or local shop to teach, lecture or do a trunk show, they can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. My patterns, blog and schedule can all be found on my website: seamslikeadream.shop.
Browse through more quilt inspiration and projects on Create Whimsy.