Spotlight: Mary Blythe, Author and Designer of Heirloom Handwork

Wool applique table runner by Mary Blythe

Spotlight: Mary Blythe, Author and Designer of Heirloom Handwork

With a love of antiques, creating with warm, rich wool is a natural artistic outlet for Mary Blythe. She designs heirloom projects with the future in mind, encouraging others to create timeless pieces for their own homes.

Mary Blythe headshot

Your designs work so well together. What inspires you to create?

Often times it is out of necessity for decoration or to celebrate a certain occasion. My Counting the Days Advent calendar was designed to replace a commercially made one my sons had growing up. Often times a concept will just come to me, I will mull it over in my head and it can change before it becomes an actual pattern.

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Finished wool applique by Mary Blythe

To keep my designs cohesive, I use textured wools in similar colorways. Warm color tones have always been a mainstay of my designs and the way I decorate. Old, worn and dark are what I like, so I use that palette throughout my pieces.

There are so many fibers available to work with. What is it about working with wool that appeals to you?

I was first introduced to wool when I walked in on a primitive rug hooking class in Liberty, Missouri. Luckily, I was able to join the class of the now late Emma Lou Lais. She was a master designer, color planner and teacher. Thanks to her, I fell in love with the look and feel of wool. Because rug hooking and wool blend well with the antiques I love, they gave me the look I wanted. Wool applique became another way to create with wool. Designing with plaids, textures and over dyes is so much fun. I am not an avid sewer or quilt maker, so cotton, while I love the look, it is not my first choice of fabric to work with. Just ask my stitching friends – the sewing machine and I very seldom get along.

What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Wool Applique Heirlooms?

Our projects are treasures and deserve to be considered heirlooms, then passed down through the generations. We are lucky enough to own heirlooms from my grandparents and my husband’s. Some are well worn, well used and all are considered works of art. They are a connection to our past and the memories we have of those who made them. Because I know the time I put into my work, I can appreciate them even more. Imagine making the projects they did with the limited supplies they had available. What could they have made with the tools we have today?

Wool Applique table toppers by Mary Blythe

When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?

I’d like to think of myself as a planner but when working with wool you sometimes have to improvise. There are not many companies producing wool anymore, so you have to be able to work with what colors and textures you have available.

Sometimes using wool in an unconventional way leads to surprising results. Often times I will have a plan in mind for a certain project but the right wools are just not at hand, and that’s when your design can go in a completely different direction.

It’s not uncommon for me to finish a sample and realize it needs to have something different added, a change in size or color way. I tend to get into trouble when that happens. Scrappy Pinwheel Fields and Vintage Garden Mats are great examples of how I wasn’t satisfied with just one version of a design. Until I have all versions complete, I have a hard time saying a design is ready to pattern.

Wool applique table runner by Mary Blythe

How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?

I don’t manage it very well because my family comes first and always will. When writing the book, I had set deadlines and that really helped me to stay on track. My goal is to work every afternoon during the week, unless a grandchild needs me.

When I have a new design in my head, it is hard to concentrate on anything else. My mind is in my studio thinking of what wool to use and what part of the project can I pull together first. My husband and I travel a lot to see our children so I usually have a project in hand or sketching something up. I am a bit of a control freak, so I do all the stitching myself just in case I decide to change any elements, stitches or if the colors just don’t work.

Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?

That is a totally funny question! I am the worst at getting distracted by new projects or designs. UFOs are a big part of my design process. I will often times be working on a new design when I am inspired by part of it to branch off to another. There are times I will be color planning or stitching a project and I will see it in another colorway. That pattern will not be finished in my mind until it is completed in all the ways I see it. I know it is crazy but my mind will not rest until it is fused and part of that new pattern.

What does your studio look like? Where does the magic happen?

My husband and family would say it is usually a disaster. I am one of those messy creative people that knows exactly where everything is. Repurposed antiques store all of my supplies and I have my wool readily available. I cover every square inch of my studio is with what I need to design, stitch and create.

What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?

I touch upon this in my book. I store my threads and pre-cut circles in used antique spool cabinets. Dividers cut for each drawer have been essential for me to keep them in control. Knowing what you have is half the battle when working on a new or old project.

Mary Blythe organizes her precut pieces for her wool applique in an old thread chest

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

I love my light table – it is an AGPtek table. All of my projects use Heat-N-Bond Lite and I am constantly tracing pieces for them. It comes in many sizes but I love the large one I have in my studio. When using it, I can see my entire project all at once.

Sketching a pattern

Valdani Size 8 Perle Cottons are the threads I use in all of my projects. I love the old and worn look the variegated threads add to my designs, plus they look wonderful just sitting in bowls around my studio.

Thread storage in an old cabinet

When you travel, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?

My children and grandchildren are all over the country so we are on the road a lot. There is always a project in my bag and I never leave home without my essentials. To keep them all together I use a key chain that is loaded down. I attach my small TSA compliant scissors, needle holder, and small knitting accessories to it to make sure I can make progress on all projects. If I have it with me I know I am good to go.

Mary's travel kit

Because we travel so much, my designs usually include a part that can easily be prepared ahead of time to be done while on the road. Circle penny stacks or border tongues can easily be fused together and done independently from the bigger project.

Old wool yarn on spools

When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?

My projects are always living in my head and often times work out as I see them but many do not. As I construct a project I leave myself open to change. Often times as you put something together your mind takes you in different directions. My frames have evolved with each one I design. The Frame It Up scrappy scalloped frames led to the fall and baby patterns. As I started designing the Frame It Fall frames, the 3 dimensional aspect just happened. Any future seasonal frames I design will have those elements in them. Totally not how I first saw them in my head but I think they are a fun and unexpected detail.

Wool table runner by Mary

What kinds of creative projects are your favorites?

The unexpected ones! I first designed Counting the Days Advent Calendar in Wool Applique Heirlooms in cotton and never anticipated making a wool version. I am not in love with my sewing machine and I know that I am not alone in feeling that way. Limiting that project to only quilters was not what I wanted at all so I then designed it to be primarily done in wool. I want my projects to be ones that everyone can make and enjoy.

Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?

Old, warm and dark seem to be what I stay with in my design process. The scalloped mats in the book are a series that I have enjoyed designing. There are 6 patterns in the book and I also have 6 more waiting in the wings. Those are designed for different seasons as well and will be out soon as independent patterns. Seasons, 4 tone-on-tone patterns, are also available as a pattern with the use of the scalloped mat design introduced in my book.

What do you do differently? What is your signature makes your work stand out as yours?

Again, my designs and patterns are different from other designers because I use primarily textured wools. I let the wool do a lot of the design work for me. I love the look of embroidery stitches but with my use of plaids and textured wools I don’t need to accent my designs that much. When using plaids in my designs, if I were to use a lot of decorative stitches they would be lost in the wool or just be too much for the design.

Wool & thread that Mary uses for her work

How many projects do you have going at once? Or do you focus on one creative project at a time?

Honestly, I have at least 6 projects that are designed and stitched but haven’t written the patterns yet. I also have another 6 to 8 projects that are fused and ready to be stitched. Designs are constantly living in my head and waiting for the time to be drawn out. It is a problem but a good one. My life is busy with my family and I know they will eventually see the light of day.

What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?

The lack of time to do it all. I have always said if there were another productive 8 hours in my day I might get everything done in my head. My goal is to share what I love, design and still have the time I want with my family. Grandkids and time with my husband come first!

Mary Blythe Quote

What’s next for you?

Who knows, I certainly have no idea where my return to designing will take me. I love sharing what I do and seeing others enjoy what I have come up with. Designing will always be a part of my life and I hope I can continue to come up with projects that inspire others to create. The excitement that the book has created for wool has been wonderful to see. Having people love what you do has only inspired me to design even more. I guess we’ll see what comes next!

Interview posted December, 2019.

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