Spotlight: Katja Marek, Quilter and Shop Owner
Having filled her life with creative endeavors since childhood, it’s no surprise that Katja Marek creates with fabric for both business and pleasure. Owner of a busy brick-and-mortar quilt shop, Katja also somehow finds time to design and make quilts with English Paper Piecing, develop and run Quilt-Along programs and write books that have converted many stitchers into EPP believers.
How did you get started sewing? What activities led you to the work you do today?
I’ve always sewn, by that I mean that I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t sew. My mom was a tailor, and by the time we had moved from Germany to Canada (I was not quite 8 when we moved here), she took in alterations so she could stay home with my sister and me. In order to visit with my mom we visited the sewing room. We were allowed to use fabric scraps, which in the early days often turned into doll clothes, but by the time I was a teenager, I was sewing a lot of my own clothes. I was never really “taught” to sew, I just watched and did.
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Along with sewing, I grew up crocheting, crafting, knitting, and doing needlework, cross-stitch and drawing. I won the art award in high school, and at the same time developed a passion for architectural drafting. This was long before autocad, the days of old-fashioned perspective drawing. I once drafted my own house plans for a house we built, using my high school drafting experience along with reading the building code, and had it approved by the local building department.
There was very little time to be bored growing up, as my hours were filled with all the things that I loved. I’ve often wondered what people without hobbies do. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have the ability to quilt, sew, draw, design….etc.
What inspires you to create?
Literally everything around me inspires me: the colors in a landscape, the patterns in a flower, a concept. I feel like my brain never really stops thinking about possibilities.
In the big game of life, I’m pretty much a rule follower. I believe we should live a good, moral life, and treat others the way we’d want them to treat us. But when it comes to design, I break the rules and challenge convention.
Since I was little, I have redrawn house plans to make them “more workable” in my eyes. When it comes to quilting, I challenge the concept of square blocks – why can’t they be hexagonal? Why do Dresden plates need 20 18-degree petals? Why do quilts need borders, need to be square and rectangular, have even edges? I have always felt a need to go beyond the preconceived notions and do things “my way”.
I believe that in quilting, rules don’t exist, after all someone had to make the rule. Who’s to decide whether their way or your way is the right one?
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Both – I work very well under deadline, when given one, meaning I have to plan, but definitely allow myself to improvise. I think that improvisation is, by definition, the artist part within the designer. I think it would be hard to design if I were not able to allow myself to improvise along the way.
What was your first encounter with English Paper Piecing? Was it love at first sight, or did you have to warm up to it?
EPP for me was NOT love at first sight; there were things I loved about it, things I didn’t. I didn’t love thread basting, for example. When I discovered glue, my world changed; it was an “Ah-ha” moment. This made things so much more doable. I also find when glue basting is done correctly, it is much more precise than thread basting. I did, however, love the hand sewing aspect of EPP; the slowing down to savour the process, and all it entails.
How did you get hooked on hexagons?
Long before my first book The New Hexagon came out in 2014, I had spent several years dreaming in Hexagons. I had been hand-sketching ideas since 2007, but needed a more professional way to present those ideas. I tasked myself with learning how to use EQ to design my blocks.
In 2012 I ran a ‘Block-a-week’ pattern-only program through my shop. My customers paid a commitment fee of $20.00 to cover my costs. After that everything was free, IF they came in the week the pattern was offered; otherwise they paid a $.50 penalty to collect the pattern. No exceptions.
By the end of the year we donated $1,350.00 to our local hospice, just based on those small $.50 penalties. To say the program was more popular than expected is an understatement. During that year, a friend urged me to submit a book proposal based on this program, which I balked at initially, but once planted, the seed of that idea grew and grew. Once submitted, my proposal was quickly accepted with great enthusiasm by my publisher, Martingale. Due to that first online quilt-along, my first book, The New Hexagon became Martingales #1 selling title for 2015, and remained at #6 for 2016.
When you begin to design a hexagon-based quilt, how do you visualize how you will divide that shape into smaller units to form a visual puzzle?
I’ve always had an easy time visualizing a finished design. Before the quilts, there were the blocks. I dreamed of creating hexagon shaped quilt blocks, long before I dreamed about how they would fit into quilts. The creation of the quilts comes by playing with the blocks I’ve created to get the flow I want within a quilt and choosing the appropriate blocks to do so. I often visualize first, and then figure out how to make it work.
Which attributes of the EPP technique do you most enjoy?
In everything, I think I love the design process the most, but I also love the precision of the technique and the ability to savour each stitch. The slow stitching aspect of EPP makes it doable anywhere, pretty much any time you want; so I can enjoy company, TV, or Netflix while at the same time creating.
Basting: thread or glue? Why?
Glue, GLUE, GLUE, I am all about the glue. I am often heard to say that “Glue revolutionized my life”. By expediting the basting process, I can get to the enjoyable sewing part of the process faster.
What are the 5 most important items in your EPP project bag?
Glue, glue refills, Clover Black Gold Appliqué size 10 needles, Wonderfil’s Invisafil 100wt Cottonized Polyester thread and binder clips to hold my pieces together.
Tell us about your Quilt-Alongs. Why did you start them, and how do they work?
My first Quilt-Along “The New Hexagon Millefiore Quilt-Along” was my way to thank all those that had purchased my book. I was a first time author at that time, and felt a real responsibility to store owners and quilters who had purchased the book, and I wanted to give them something else they could do with the book.
After that first quilt-along, it just sort of kept going with a new one each year. In order to quilt along, a participant must own their own copy of the book or calendar that the quilt-along is based on, the rest of the instructions, including a set a guidelines and a wind-up at the end are posted to my website each month, and available to download for free, under the “Quilt-Alongs” tab.
There are also two Facebook groups for photo and information sharing, these are: The New Hexagon – Millefiore Quilt-Along and Katja Marek’s ‘Quilt With Me’. I also share under @katja_marek on Instagram.
|Year||Quilt Along||Based On:|
|2015||The New Hexagon – Millefiore Quilt-Along||The New Hexagon|
|2016||Block on the Go, for Quilts on the Grow||The New Hexagon|
|2017||Perpetually Hexie||The New Hexagon Pepetual Calendar|
|2017 (Aug-Dec)||Hex-plosion||The New Hexagon|
|2018||Rainy Days and Sun Days (set of 2 quilts)||Distinctive Dresdens|
|2019||Millie Stars||The New Hexagon and TNH Perpetual Calendar|
|2020||Reflections||The New Hexagon 2|
|2021||Millie Morsels||The New Hexagon 2|
There are also several ideas for using blocks from The New Hexagon Perpetual Calendar
The information for each of these Quilt-Alongs continues to be available on the website.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
My house and my shop. Lol! I really use the entire house and a large portion of my shop as my personal design and work space.
Yes, I do actually have a sewing room, which houses my longarm, amongst many other things, but most of my hand sewing is done in the living room, on the couch, in front of the TV. I’ve pulled one of my sewing machines upstairs, where I can keep my mom company, and look out at the garden. It is set up next to the dining room table, and this is where most of my machine sewing happens. I also keep a duplicate machine at my shop, to take advantage of any free-time to sew on my own projects, or sew on store samples.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
Although I don’t use a formal journal or sketchbook, I keep paper and pencil by the bed, so that when I wake in the night with an idea, I can quickly sketch it out or make brief notes, lest I forget by morning.
I use graph paper and triangle grid paper the most, and I make lists, many lists. I also work best with hard copies over digital images. Once an idea is developed it gets printed for further review, editing, and notes. I firmly believe creative minds thrive amidst their inspiration (called clutter by many). I have a lot of clutter in the form of sketches, post-its, and reams and reams of paper hard copies.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
TV, or NETFLIX but definitely nothing with sub-titles or I wouldn’t be able to sew. I love a good drama, murder mystery, some sci-fi or period film.
When you travel, do you create while on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
Inspiration is ever present, even when travelling, so I sketch ideas on whatever I have available to me. But I do try to keep graph paper, triangle grid, a pencil, Electric Quilt on my laptop always with me.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
My challenges rarely come with the quilts themselves, but with the presentation or drawing thereof. I’m a bit tech challenged as far as drawing programs. I did have to learn enough about Adobe Illustrator, when I took part in the original Splendid Sampler, to create my drawings, but it was not without a great deal of help from a friend.
Only EPP or do you use other techniques?
Because I have become known for EPP, many don’t realize that I design and sew in other techniques as well. I recently designed and created samples for AccuQuilt’s new GO! Qube English Paper Piecing set. The idea is to be able to sew these by hand OR machine, and due to some tight time-lines all the samples were sewn by machine. In 2019 during Millie Stars, after many questions about sewing by machine, I presented a monthly photo step-out showing followers how to sew these English Paper Piecing blocks by machine.
Paper Pieces who I have worked with right from the beginning, and the only company I have authorized to create product under my name, creates all things ‘Katja Marek Designs’, from my template papers, to laser-cut acrylics for both EPP and for machine sewing.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is mainly a landing page for my shop and a place to host my Quilt-Alongs. I have never installed a shopping cart and do not foresee that changing. I believe that quilters are largely tactile people and would prefer touching and seeing the fabric, and also getting the experience of great, knowledgeable customer service.
Interview posted November 2020
Browse through more English Paper Piecing projects and inspiration on Create Whimsy.