Spotlight: Kelly Ashton, Math Geek Turned Quilt Designer and Teacher
Inspired by a Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt that her grandmother made for her before she was a twinkle in anyone’s eye and her love of all things math-related, Kelly Ashton became a quilter with a fascination for the geometry of quilt design. Her quilts capitalize on the interplay of angles and color to create a visual playground. Through her classes, Kelly teaches others how to use easy techniques to achieve complex construction.
Why textiles? Why quilting? How did you get started?
I have loved textiles and quilts for as long as I can remember.
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One of my earliest quilt-related recollections is from when I was around 3 years old. My parents had a quilt on their bed that was covered with butterflies. I can remember crawling around the bed examining and touching all the butterflies.
I later learned that my “Mamo” – my paternal grandmother made this quilt. It’s a wonderful butterfly appliqué quilt from the 1930’s, and I am now the proud owner of this quilt, and others, made by my Mamo.
Another significant Mamo-related quilt story is about a fabulous Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt that Mamo made. My dad was my Mamo and Granddad’s only child. He was tending to farm chores on December 7, 1941. When he returned from his chores, he learned of the bombing at Pearl Harbor. The next day, he enlisted in the US Navy, spending the bulk of the next four years on a ship in the South Pacific.
My dad, at that time, was a 28-year-old “bachelor farmer”. My Mamo’s greatest desire was for her son to return safely from the war, and a close second and third were the desires that she wanted her son to find a nice woman to marry and for them to give her grandchildren. While her son served in the South Pacific, my Mamo made two quilts supporting her fervent desires: a Double Wedding Ring and a Grandmother’s Flower Garden. At some point during the war, my dad met my mother while on shore leave in San Francisco. They corresponded throughout the remainder of the war, and they married in October, 1945. Though it took nearly a decade and a half, they did, indeed, produce a grandchild for my Mamo: me!
When I was a little girl of 8 or 9 years old, my Mamo showed me the Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt that she had made for her grandchild – me – WAY before she knew she would have one! I was fascinated by all the little hexagons (more than 1000!) and by how she had “fussy-cut” flowers for so many of the Grandmother’s Flower blocks. This quilt was my inspiration to be a quilt maker AND the impetus for my fascination for hexagons and 60-degree shapes! The gift of the Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt has given me SO much more than the quilt, itself! So, if there’s such a thing as “quilter’s DNA”, I would say it came to me through Mamo. That, and the fact that I’m a “math geek” and love geometry, made quilt-making a natural progression for me.
What is your favorite part of quilt making? Why do you enjoy it?
There really isn’t any part of the quilt making process that I don’t like (though binding is my least favorite part). I do truly love designing. I enjoy the spark of an idea, cultivating the idea, bringing it to life in visual form and tweaking it until I’m satisfied with what I see.
Once my idea is mature enough to involve fabric, I love finding fabrics for the quilt. I am crazy about color! Though I have my “favorite colors/palettes”, I like to stretch myself beyond my “go to” colors and play with colors and color combinations that are outside my typical “color box”.
Cutting patchwork falls fairly close to binding in my hierarchy of “favorite parts of quilt making”, however, since cutting must precede piecing, I cut with vigor because I LOVE piecing patchwork! Knowing that piecing can immediately follow cutting really helps me embrace cutting!
Even though I have a sense of the quilt’s direction at this point, the design continues to evolve as I sew and put up pieces and units on the design wall. I keep sewing and moving pieces around until I get a feeling of “that’s it!” Then I maniacally stitch all the pieces and parts together.
Then, there’s the quilting. My Mamo was an exquisite hand-quilter. It didn’t take me long into my quilt making journey to come to the recognition that if ever I were going to have a finished quilt, I must do something other than hand quilt. So, I learned to machine quilt, first on my domestic machine and then on a longarm. I enjoy the creativity of free-hand free-motion machine quilting, along with using stencil designs and doing ruler-work.
The bottom line is: I love making quilts!! I’m so appreciative to have found a craft that has become a passion!
What do you believe is a key element in creating a successful quilt?
I know I have made a successful quilt when it makes my soul sing. I simply love working with fabric, color, and shapes and bringing them together in a way that is satisfying and interesting to me.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
Inspiration arrives through so many avenues! Architecture, tile floors, nature, antique quilts, conversation, fabrics that I find intriguing. I love working with “60-degree patchwork” as evidenced by my book, Hexagons, Diamonds, Triangles, and More: Skill-Building Techniques for Sixty-Degree Patchwork (Martingale, 2014), so creating with those shapes is definitely a recurring theme, and I never tire of playing with those shapes!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
The best piece of advice I’ve received is “perfect doesn’t exist”. I do my best to impart this philosophy to my students, as well. Doing quality work is important and valuable in terms of decreasing frustration during the quilt-making process and in achieving a desired outcome. Yet, the process of making quilts should be enjoyable and fun.
And, like most anything: “The more you do it, the better you get!” So, in addition to “perfect doesn’t exist”, I would add: enjoy the process, allow the process to assist you in developing and honing your craft and be kind to yourself.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or improviser?
I laughed when I read this question! The answer is “yes”!
I’m not sure whether I’m a plan-making improviser or an improvisational planner!
When an idea is brewing, I generally get on my computer and make an initial illustration. Sometimes that illustration is a block, sometimes a portion of a block, and sometimes it comes out as a rough draft of an entire quilt. As my vision expands, the initial idea morphs and changes – sometimes a little, sometimes substantially. So, I generally start with some sort of loose plan and then see where it takes me.
How many projects do you have going on at once? Or do you focus on one creative project at a time?
Oh, my! It’s not uncommon for me to have 6-8 active projects going on at one time with portions of several of those up on the design wall. And, I have many, many “inactive” projects.
I may be sewing on one project while simultaneously doing “brain work” on one or more other projects. I always keep a note pad close by so that I can make notes or drawings when an idea coalesces. Sometimes, an idea is so exciting to me that I temporarily stop sewing on one and pull out some fabric and immediately dive into another.
Not all of my projects will become completed quilts. Some are experiments that allow me to work out an idea that I later transfer into another project that does grow into a quilt. I don’t ever “guilt myself” for not finishing a project. Every single project, whether “finished” or not, contributes to my process and evolution as a quiltmaker. Therefore, every project is valuable and appreciated.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
The biggest challenge I encountered on my creative journey – and in life in general – is experiencing (and often succumbing to) the pressure of trying to please others.
In terms of quilt-making, this translated to designing and creating quilts attempting to anticipate what someone else wants to see and/or to make. My trying to do so sucked the life and joy out of doing what I love to do.
Now, I design and create quilts that make my soul sing. Of course, it’s great when a quilt that I’ve designed and made sparks singing in someone else’s soul, too! Yet, if I never again made a quilt that someone else wanted me to share with them through presentation or workshop, I would still continue to make quilts for my own joy and satisfaction – for my own soul-singing experience.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
To others, I’m sure my studio often looks like the Tasmanian Devil passed through! However, to me, it is an “organized mess”.
I know where things are, I know how I have project portions organized and divided. I “stack” things, and I know exactly where they are in my mind’s eye. Heaven help me if someone moves one of my stacks, though!! LOL!
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?
I love clear, plastic storage bins! I use them to store class components (one class per box) so that each class is easy to transport.
- They store projects in progress that aren’t up on the design wall.
- I use them to store curated fabrics for “projects to be”.
- I use them to store fabrics that aren’t yet ear-marked for a specific project – sometimes by color; sometimes by collection.
I label each box using painters’ tape, and I organize my plastic boxes by category (class, projects in progress, curated fabrics/future projects, fabric stash).
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My indispensable tools are: a good quality sewing machine, my rotary cutter, mat, and rulers, the acrylic templates that I designed for 60-degree shapes, and a good, sharp seam ripper.
I am a BERNINA Ambassador, and BERNINAs are my sewing machine of choice for many reasons, mostly because I have found them to be dependable partners in my quilt-making. My rotary cutter, mat, and rulers coupled with my acrylic templates ensure accurate cutting, and that is so important to achieving successful results. I don’t enjoy unstitching, yet when I must, I want a high-quality, sharp ripper at the ready. I like a seam ripper that feels substantial in my hand, and I recently purchased a beautiful, hand-made tool that I really like with a ripper at one end and a stiletto at the other.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
I LOVE pool noodles! I often use a pool noodle, or a portion of a pool noodle, to pack small finished quilts or class step-outs for travel or to store a work-in-progress. Most pool noodles are 54-64” long. I use long, straight pins to hold quilts or quilt components in place on the noodle then roll the quilt or components onto the noodle and pin again. Sometimes I will cut a pool noodle into smaller pieces if I’m transporting step-outs for classes.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music?, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
It totally depends on what part of the process I’m working on.
When I am doing design work on the computer, writing, or doing calculations, I enjoy background music or silence.
When I’m piecing or machine quilting, I will often listen to podcasts or watch something that doesn’t require a lot of direct attention such as the Food Network or a movie whose story I know. Though I know many love listening to audiobooks while they work, I simply can’t keep track of the story line while quilt-making! 😊
What is your most requested class to teach? Why do you think it appeals to so many?
My most requested classes to teach are Painted Mountains (a study in working with proportionately sized equilateral triangles; no set-in seams) and Tumbling Blocks (learning to sew set-in “Y-seams” by machine).
I think Painted Mountains appeals to many because it is a beautiful, interesting quilt. Equilateral triangles are visually appealing, and the setting and construction are intriguing.
Tumbling Blocks are appealing, I believe, because the depth and dimension created by color value placement is very attractive. The visual interest created by the blocks overshadows the concern many have regarding the “dreaded Y-seam” (which students in my classes quickly discover is truly nothing to dread!)
What do you most enjoy about teaching? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I truly love to teach!! There are so many aspects that I enjoy.
Being a part of a student’s “lightbulb moment” is very gratifying! I teach a variety of techniques, many of which some quilters consider “challenging”.
I enjoy taking a challenging technique down to its basics and assisting my students in being successful. One such technique is sewing set-in seams (“Y-seams”) by machine. Y-seams have gotten such a bad rap! Learning this one technique opens up a whole new world of block and quilt possibilities for a quilt-maker. When shown how to approach the Y-seam process in a systematic way, the process becomes easy. I have never had a student “fail” sewing set-in seams. Seeing their excitement when their block comes together is a thrill: satisfying for me and for them!
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