Margo Yang has not always been a modern quilter, (not much need for quilts in Thailand where she grew up) but when she found that community of makers something clicked for her. She blends the precision of her math and engineering background with the creative freedom of improvisation to create fiber art that is both intentional and playful.
What did you do BQ (Before Quilting)? Do you still use some of those skills in your current creative work?
I always loved arts growing up in Bangkok, Thailand. I graduated as a Mathematics major with a Mechanical Engineering minor from the King Mongkut Institute of Technology (KMIT), now known as King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT). In the US, I worked in Information Technology for a while as a Programmer/System Analyst where I met my husband. I quit when we had our first child. With my Math/Engineering background, I find the bold geometric shapes are attractive to me. Math calculations are very helpful when it’s time to figure out the amount of fabric needed for a project.
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Before quilting, I was a housewife taking care of two young children. After my younger child started school, I went back to school part time. I wanted to take a class where I could learn new skills and would allow me to go pick up my children from school.
I took Auto Upholstery classes at the local occupational center. Initially, I was interested only in furniture upholstery but there were no classes available. The auto upholstery teacher said that the skills I learned there would be enough to take care of furniture as well, so I took the class and learned to sew on industrial machines. These machines are much faster and more powerful than my tiny sewing machine at home.
Every day for three weeks, I practiced and sewed on paper without thread. I was frustrated and almost quit many times, but I persisted. I’m grateful for a teacher who insisted that I do the most perfect job. He said, many times, that he could not let crooked seams go out to customers from his classroom. Once, I had to redo a piece 5 times until it was done right.
My sewing skills improved tremendously and in that class I learned to focus on the area of 3-4 inches between me and the needle. I called it precision sewing and that has helped me in my quilting years later.
I enjoy many crafts like jewelry making, bag making, and wood painting. After finishing my first quilt I developed a love for sewing and fabric.
Thailand is a tropical country and has a very mild cold season. Quilting isn’t part of the culture over there. I never knew what a quilt was nor had I ever seen one while living there.
It wasn’t until I came to the US that I saw quilting magazines in a library. I was fascinated with all the quilts that I saw and had a desire to make one. After I got married, I bought a simple home sewing machine and taught myself to sew.
When our young family moved into our first home, I wanted to make a table cover for our dining table. I chose to make a 9-patch design which was above my ability. The blocks came out uneven and in different sizes because I didn’t follow the ¼” seam allowance rule. I didn’t know what to do with them so they ended up in the closet.
Fast forward 15 years, I found those blocks again and decided to take an adult sewing class at a local high school. There I learned to use a rotary cutter to trim the blocks to a uniform size and put them into a quilt top. That was my first quilt and no, I didn’t use it for a table cover. I worked too hard on it. I still use it as a lap quilt to this day. Unfortunately, I made very few traditional design quilts.
Now I look at quilts as art which not only lay on top of beds, but ornate the walls as well. I found the modern quilt movement around 2015 and immediately fell in love with it. I love the new fresh ideas of modern quilts. The minimalist and improvisational ways of thinking inspire me. I do have grid-paper note books, but they serve more for record keeping.
When I have an idea, I will jump right into it with minimal planning. I tried to do more planning but I found my thoughts flow better without it. My final product often looks different than the original idea anyway.
My First Book
When I first started making quilts, my friend taught me to make rag quilts. We made baby quilts for every expecting mother at church. We picked rag quilts because they finish fast and there is no ¼” seam allowance. After making about a dozen or so of those rag quilts, I got tired of sewing flannel squares together.
The traditional rag quilts depend largely on fabric colors and prints. There’s not much you can do as far as design goes. I started to think, “there must be a better way to make a rag quilt”. That’s when I came up with a technique called “Faux Rag Quilting”.
To be sure that there was no one making this technique before, I waited and searched for almost two years before pitching this idea to magazines. In 2013, my Faux Rag Quilting was born. The Quilting Life magazine by Alex Anderson was the first to publish my works. In 2016, the AQS published my first book called Soft & Cozy Keepsakes – Faux Rag Quilting. There are a variety of 16 projects in that book for all kinds of sewing skill levels. When I design something, the beginner sewers always come to my mind. I love the fact that there are resources available for people who want to learn new skills.
The technique in this book is completely different from the way rag quilts were made before. With this book, anyone can make a uniquely beautiful rag quilt with less fabric and time. You can finish a quilt for a baby gift in one day. You’ll be amazed at how little fabric goes a long way with this technique.
What inspires you to create?
My inspirations come mostly from arts, places, things and people around me. One time, during the lockdown, my husband and I were having lunch at a local restaurant in the outdoor dining area. I saw hand rails on the steps leading up to the entrance and I thought, “that looks cool”. That’s how “Autumn 21” came to be.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think it’s both. Creativity is a talent and I believe everyone is born with one or more talents. We just have to find out what they are and nurture them.
I also believe that the more you use your talents, your talent will grow. Some are lucky enough to have parents, family members and friends to encourage and give guidance.
I am blessed to be born to Chinese immigrant parents who worked hard for their children. My mother didn’t have any education because she was a girl. She couldn’t even sign her own name, but she knew that education was very important, especially for girls. She worked really hard to send all her five girls to school. My dad was more traditional so he only paid for my two brothers. We all graduated from top colleges in Thailand and two of my sisters got advance degrees overseas. My mom is my hero.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I sew in our dining room. After our children moved out, we tried to convert one of the bedrooms to be my studio but we still can’t. There are so many memories there that we didn’t want to throw anything away. So for now, I still sew in my dining room. I have a movable design wall that I can’t live without. It leans against one wall while I sew.
When I sew, I love to have music playing in the background. It depends on my mood. I may have opera, instrumental, classical or classic soft rock playing. My children play piano, guitar and cello, so those instruments are my favorites. I’m of the hippie generation so I like all classic rock songs. Audio books and TV are too much distraction for me. I keep those for hand work like binding and such.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
The biggest challenge to creativity is self-doubt. I have learned not to beat myself up too much.
The only way I know how to overcome it is to keep doing what feels right. If yellow doesn’t look good there, try red, and so on and so forth.
I believe half of the battle is won by just showing up. I try to sew every day and it may not always be quilts. Whatever it may be, just do something. I like to sew things for gifts. Some years, I start sewing Christmas gifts in May or June.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I often start off with two questions: what technique do I want to use and what colors? I love buying solid color fabrics and I store them in a closet to protect them from sunlight. When I open the door, I can look at all the beautiful colors. Sometimes I’d pull some out and asked myself, “What can I make out of these colors?” And that’s a starting point for a new project.
For example, when I made a house warming gift for a dear friend, I wanted to do curve piecing. I pulled some fabric out and picked Drunkard’s Path as a jumping off point and started sewing. I put those pieces on the design wall and went from there. That’s how “Coming Together” was created. I let the pieces dictate what the final project would look like.
Another example is “Candy Box 2” quilt. I love chocolate covered candies, and my family knows it! My son often gives me chocolat-dipped fruity truffles. My husband often buys me a box of chocolate nougats. When I open those boxes filled with candies, I see love.
I have pretty much the same approach for every project, whether or not I will enter it into juried shows. I like to use the technique that interests me. Sometimes projects are the way that I learn a new sewing technique.
My Blog: ‘MY Quilts and Crafts’
I started blogging in 2014 because the AQS strongly suggested that I participate in social media before my book came out. I’m an introverted person who had a hard time talking about myself and my work. Growing up in my family, I was taught not to brag or be too proud of myself. Now, I’ve learned that talking about myself and my work is okay.
Writing a blog put me out of my comfort zone. It was really difficult for me to write about myself, but I persisted. Now I’m having fun writing it. I challenge myself to write something and post it 2-3 times a month. It’s been working well so far. I don’t have a huge number of followers yet, but the ones who read my blog are really supportive and I appreciate that very much. So I look forward to conversing with them. I love this new interaction and hope to build a relationship with my readers by posting content that benefits them.
Right now, my blog is where I chronicle my works and some parts of my life. I love bouncing ideas off of friends in quilting guilds and sewing groups. I love my quilting communities. My quilting friends, who have been making quilts much longer than I have, have a wealth of knowledge and freely share with me and I really appreciate that. I want to do the same for the next generation. So I hope in the future I will have more content on my blog. I plan to have tutorials to share my works and knowledge.
Interview published March 2022
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