Michelle Bartholomew put ‘make a quilt’ on a list of things to do before she turned 30 and is now an award-winning quilter. Using bright and saturated colors, she doesn’t start cutting into fabric until her design is 100% planned out on the computer.
How did you get started designing quilts? Was there a “moment”?
When I first started quilting, I was working as a graphic designer and technical writer, so it felt natural to combine those skills into designing quilts.
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After getting comfortable with how to make a quilt, I started creating my own designs and writing out my process. I didn’t start with the intention of selling patterns to other quilters, but it made sense to me since I was already writing all the steps down for my own personal satisfaction.
Do you feel that you chose your “passion,” or did it choose you?
No one in my extended family is a quilter or sewist, so it definitely wasn’t on my radar growing up. However, my dad is a cartoonist and worked daily on his art, so I always had that example.
When I was approaching my 30th birthday I decided to make a list of 30 things I wanted to do before I turned 30. I put “make a quilt” on the list. I had always been curious about them and they seemed like such an accomplishment (and they are!!), so I thought it would be a fun goal.
I had no idea that I would totally fall in love with it! As I researched making my first quilt, I discovered the modern quilting movement and was drawn to the bold, colorful designs.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I feel I’m still working towards finding my own signature style and making art that is recognizable as my own. But I do notice similarities in my pieces and the inspirations that speak to me. First of all, I use a lot of colors, mostly saturated colors, very few pastels. I really enjoy creating my own shapes and my own interpretations of traditional blocks.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
100% a planner. Improvising scares me, haha!
I do not even start on a quilt until the idea is completely designed on my computer. I have all the colors decided on, the pieces planned and measured, etc. Sometimes, it will be years before I’ve flushed out an idea well enough to get started. I definitely have days where I wish I could just pick up fabric and start creating, but it just doesn’t work in my brain.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I use Adobe Illustrator to sketch out my ideas. I think of it as my digital sketchbook. It is easy for me to move, manipulate, erase and add color to ideas.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
I try my best to be a finisher, but I do have a few lingering projects.
I have a block of the month UFO that still needs 3 blocks made. And I have a couple quilt tops that need to be quilted. But I think that’s not too bad! I’d love to get those out of my sewing room though. I sew in a very small space, so I don’t have room to work if I have a lot of unfinished projects hanging out. I am not a very fast finisher either, so I have a lot more ideas in my head than projects coming out of my studio.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
At my house, we have a loft area that acts as my kids playroom, homework area, and tv space. I took over a corner of that room for my studio. My space is about 6 feet x 8 feet. I wouldn’t call it organized, but I have everything I need around me and can reach all my fabric and supplies without leaving my chair.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Since my space is so small, everything needs to serve a purpose. I have especially been appreciating my portable ironing surface that goes on and off of my desk many times during the day. A surprising tool is my Silhouette cutting machine. I use it to cut EPP templates or appliqué shapes. I have used it way more than I thought I would.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Anything but silence! If I’m doing repetitive sewing, I love rewatching my favorite shows. I currently have Arrested Development playing. If I need my brain to do some of the heavy lifting, I’ll listen to music. I mostly gravitate to folk music but I will also jam out to some 90s hits.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I usually have 2 projects going at once. One English Paper Piecing (EPP) project that I can take with me while on the go and one project I keep up in my sewing studio and work on. My EPP projects tend to be very ambitious and take about 6 months each. I usually get about 4 traditionally pieced quilts done a year, start to finish. I have small children at home so I don’t have a lot of sewing time each day. But I try to make the most of it!
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
My quilt “Outbound”, an award winner at QuiltCon this year, was started from a sketch I created in 2014 in hopes of making it for the 2015 QuiltCon. I wanted to show a progression of flying geese, from almost a full square all the way to a thin quilted line outlining a flying geese unit.
Flying geese were my favorite block when I started quilting. I loved thinking about all of the possibilities of what they could create. I was too nervous at that time to enter the show, so I never made it. I kept it in my design folder and I revisited the design in 2020 when covid hit and I had a little extra computer time while monitoring my kids’ online schooling. I expanded the rows in the design and made a mirror image to make a cool reflective design.
Then I tried adding half in black, half in white, with the opposite background. I really liked the direction it was going, but it didn’t feel quite right. But I couldn’t figure it out. I think it was the lack of color that was bugging me because when I revisited it again in 2022, I tried adding color and everything fell into place. From recoloring to final quilt, it only took a couple of months!
What kinds of creative projects are your favorites?
I really love any creative project that involves some kind of hand work. Either hand piecing or hand quilting. That extra little attention makes things feel so special to me.
When I first started quilting, I tried so hard to have everything perfect and line up just right. But I find now that I’m actually more drawn to and interested in the imperfect parts. I think hand work plays into that imperfect feeling as well. When we can easily buy machine made things, having those details that can’t be replicated are my favorite parts of creating.
Do you enter juried shows? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?
I just started entering juried quilt shows. I have only entered QuiltCon so far, but my goal this year is to try a few others that aren’t just modern shows and see how my work does there.
For QuiltCon 2023, I made 2 quilts especially with entering that show in mind. I didn’t approach things differently, but I was definitely more careful when I was creating. I usually don’t fix mistakes but I was much more picky with those 2 quilts.
I had attended several QuiltCons before deciding to enter, so I had a good understanding of what they typically look for and felt like my designs were in line with that. Of course, every year the jury is different, so you never know! I’m a sensitive person in general, but for some reason, rejection or criticism of my quilts doesn’t affect me personally, thankfully! I’ve learned so much already from entering a few shows, so I’m excited to continue on that journey.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Yes! I have a really fun lecture on photography and one on modern English Paper piecing (EPP). I also love teaching EPP in person and spreading the love of hand work! I have all my lectures and workshops listed on my website.
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is a work in progress and is shifting to be a portfolio of my work rather than a blog or online journal. I found that I would rather spend my time creating than blogging about my projects. I also have my quilt patterns for sale there and hope to add some EPP kits and mini projects there in the future too.
Interview posted April 2023
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