A stitcher for all seasons, Martha Steinborn is a quilter, embroiderer, crazy quilter and font of information on stitches and threads. Her crazy quilting is lush and keeps the viewer busy with her imaginative use of stitch and thread combinations. And her skilled piecing and appliqué result in pieces that are as beautiful as they are precisely executed.
Tell us a little about you and what you do. What different creative mediums do you play around with?
These days I mostly do what I call crazy quilting. It’s a combination of traditional crazy quilting, beading, silk ribbon embroidery and Brazilian embroidery. I’m learning to throw a few other things in the mix as well – a bit of painting on fabric, a bit of silk screening for individual motifs. I love it because it’s a size I can work on in my lap or on a small table and each part of the project is its own complete design.
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How long have you been creating with fabric and thread? How did you get started?
I sewed as a child/young adult, could never get anything to fit and didn’t have the patience for it, the space or the time, so I stopped about the time I went away to college. After my mother died, I inherited all her sewing equipment and fabric; she took tailoring classes and made beautiful clothing.
So, with more time on my hands and a friend who was a quilter, I started small: pillows, etc. and then you know what happens. I’ve made tons of quilts and wall hangings and taught classes for several years. Once I got my hands on EQ (Electric Quilt), the software made it so very easy to modify patterns and/or create my own quilt patterns.
Do you plan your work out all ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing? Do you visualize your finished product before you start it?
Depends on what I’m doing. If it’s a quilt, I plan it ahead to a certain extent, size of blocks, size of center, etc. I rarely do a quilt with the same block repetitively in the same fabrics; I may do the same block for the entire quilt, but use 15 or 20 different fabric combinations. Once I’ve made a bunch of blocks, arranging them is done on a design wall, and I just keep moving things around until I have some type of balance I can live with.
With crazy quilting, I do some planning ahead as well as some designing as I go. I plan the spaces, and an idea of what will go into each space. Then as I work on each space, it becomes its own design piece, and I embellish and change as I go along, making visual decisions about what to add or subtract.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it (or will it) look like?
I don’t think I would do this if I had to be constantly putting things away and getting things out, too much hassle for me.
We’re in the process of building a new house: my studio will be about 15′ x 20′ (the biggest one I’ve had!) with two walls of windows looking out to the pasture/trees/bay view on our 3 acres (natural light is very important to me.) The room will include a sink and gas oven with storage for supplies for my candle making, dyeing silk ribbon, fabric painting, etc. On the back wall there is a large closet, about 6′ wide, that will have storage for fabric, floor to ceiling with closing doors so the fabric won’t be damaged by sunlight.
Lots of bookshelves on the walls, a nice table and chair as well as an easy chair by the front windows where I can sit and do my handwork. Sewing machine and serger in custom made cabinets (a present to myself when I retired). For a large work surface, years ago my husband built me a really sturdy cutting table with two shelves of storage underneath, perfect for those 12-1/2″ project boxes that are so handy.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? If so, how do they improve your work?
- Good scissors (Kai for short, and Gingher for full sized).
- I love the Cling-On wearable magnetic scissor holder. It’s the absolute best I’ve found for me. I’ve tried the ones that you hang around your neck and they are always in my way.
- Fabric folding pen – I use this constantly to avoid burning my fingers when trying to iron in a 1/4″ or smaller fold.
- Creative Grids 6″ ruler, I have a half dozen: cutting table, sewing table, car, purse, embroidery bag, etc. I use this a lot; for my eyes Creative Grids work better than Omnigrid because the yellow hurts my eyes.
- That Purple Thang for poking and turning.
- Dritz curved blade seam ripper; it’s sharp so you don’t want it around children but it’s the only style seam ripper that really lets you cut the threads without tearing at the fabric.
- Pilot Frixion Erasable Gel Pens for marking, especially for my crazy quilting projects. Just hit the fabric with a hot hair dryer when finished, and the lines disappear.
- Back Porch Design Sew Easy tweezers. Just the right shape and they grab like crazy!
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?
12-1/2″ project boxes in a variety of colors work great for me.
I don’t think Costco has them any more, but years ago I purchased three “bookcases”. They are dark wood, open shelving that can sit either horizontally or vertically, and they came with fabric bins that fit into each of the 8 square openings that are 13″ x 13″. I’ve always used this to store my yardage, batting, lining, interfacing, etc. (these are what I will put in my new closet.)
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
Sometimes a book on tape or a TV program, but only if I’m doing something repetitive where I don’t have to concentrate. Mostly, it’s music. I’m a rock and roller with a lot of blues and some bluegrass mixed in: Springsteen, Melissa, Heart, Eagles, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, The Steel Wheels, The Talbott Brothers, The Dixie Chicks, Steve Forbert, Keb Mo, Claire Lynch, Tracey Chapman, ZZ Top, Zac Brown Band, Susan Tedeschi, Tedeschi Trucks, Clapton, Aaron Neville especially with Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty, Big Maybelle, Tina Turner, John Mellencamp, Rickie Lee Jones. We put it all on a thumb drive and it shuffles and plays continuously all day with speakers in the living room and my studio.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
Sometimes dozens; I lose interest in something or get stuck, go on to something else; it may be months or years before I return and get unstuck.
What is creativity to you? Do you consider yourself to be creative? Why or why not?
I don’t think of myself as being creative in the sense of developing something from nothing. I tend to need a skeleton idea to work with. Books inspire me to get me started. They give me a structure for either a project or a design motif that is part of a project. Then I edit, add, subtract and change like crazy.
I was the same way in my speaking career; some of my colleagues could develop a story out of their heads, which I could never do. I was always on the lookout for experiences that I could turn into stories, and was very good at using what I saw to develop a story that would bring a teaching or talking point to life for the audience.
Do you create your works for yourself or to share with others?
Both. I love making things for friends and family. But unless I start with a specific person in mind, I’m making it for myself. I’ve taken lots of quilt classes just to learn a technique or for the fun of it with friends.
A few years ago I started pulling those quilts out (that I’ve never used) and donating them. I gave some to the nursing home my father was in because some people arrive there with nothing but the clothes they are wearing. I also donated fundraisers for the volunteer fire department where I lived until recently. What was fun about that was how many people I knew who won my quilts through raffle or bidding; they were thrilled to have a piece of my work and I liked knowing it was going to a home where it would be appreciated.
I will admit it is difficult for me to give my creations away at times. That’s especially true of crazy quilting projects as all the little pieces of them continue to speak to me.
Browse through Martha’s works.
Here are some of Martha’s favorites:
Thread Needlestreet in Issaquah, WA, on Front Street is the best I’ve found in the area if you want to go see, touch, etc. I love this small shop packed to the rafters with all types of thread. The owner (at least I think she is) is very knowledgeable and helpful in terms of knowing what type of thread to use for what. When you first walk in you don’t realize how much thread she has. Then you see the stacks of small bins holding hundreds and hundreds of spools and skeins of thread. (Definitely worth a road trip, and then there is Gossypium Quilt Shop just very close by in Gilman Village; Macky’s Dim Sum is also in the Village and a great place for lunch.)
Brazilian embroidery thread is a bit more challenging to work with than cotton floss, but the results are gorgeous. The reason it’s a bit more challenging is that it isn’t single ply, but you do not separate the strands to sew. After having been pulled through the fabric enough times, the strands start to untwist at the ends, which means it’s time to abandon that length of thread and start with a new one.
I would recommend it for a garment if you want some shimmer and luster like an evening dress or shawl. I don’t know if anyone other than EdMar makes it because I’ve only used their brand and love it. According to the info on the website it is washable, colorfast and retains its luster after washing.
It really needs to hang, rather than folded or rolled on a card; I don’t know how well I can explain it in writing but will try and then include some photos: cut the skein open, cut through the skein so it is not a continuous loop, gather the thread in a paperclip, then run the paperclip through the opening in the label, pulling the thread through so that there is a loop of thread around the label with the threads of the skein hanging down either side of the label.
Wetting the skein with a spray bottle or even running it under the faucet is the best way to straighten threads that have got a kink in them. First, I the skeins slightly to straighten the threads before I run the thread back through the label with the paperclip.
Bouclé is the most interesting (challenging) in this line, because it is nubby. It is wonderful for texture and dimension and it makes great flowers. The challenging part is that because it is nubby, it is very difficult to use in a closely woven fabric; it can be difficult (sometimes impossible) to pull the nubby thread through the cloth. Here are a couple of photos of flowers made with boucle thread.
I love Kreinek metallic threads. I use the very fine braid and it’s not too hard to work with and provides some great shimmer.
Wonderfil makes threads that are great for hand (or machine) embroidery.
Dazzle 100% rayon/metallic mix comparable to a perle 8 is very fun, adding just a bit of bling but not too much.
Razzle is 100% rayon comparable to a perle 8.
Tutti (12W) and Fruitti (50W) cotton are fabulous variegated threads in yummy color combinations.
Seta Bozzolo Reale is a beautiful silk thread made in Italy; I don’t even remember where I bought mine.
I really like RiverSilks, but they are hard to find except on Amazon.
There are so many! Here are my favorites, all available on Amazon:
Judith Baker Montano is one of the leaders in crazy quilting. Her books are a wonderful place to look for stitches and motifs. Some of her books offer a bunch of stitch combination ideas for borders that would be perfect for cuffs, collars, hem lines or center front embellishment.
Embroidery and Crazy Quilt Stitch Tool is a great binder type booklet that you can take with you that demonstrates tons of stitches.
Elegant Stitches and Floral Stitches probably have the same stitches as the tool book, but they also have all the combination stitch ideas.
The Embroidery Stitch Bible is a great comprehensive book on stitches.
The Silk Ribbon Embroidery Bible is the same for silk ribbon stitches. It has a good variety of motifs and small projects at the back.
Ann Cox has some great books on silk ribbon embroidery — easy to understand:
Beginner’s Guide to Silk Ribbon Embroidery
The Handbook of Silk Ribbon Embroidery
For those interested in making ribbon flowers, Christen Brown has some good books, with easy to follow instructions:
Beading books I refer to often for beading on my projects:
First Time Beading on Fabric by Liz Kettle
Beading Artistry for Quilts Thom Atkins
Interview posted November, 2018.
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