Spotlight: Paula Steel, Modern Quilter

Mapaches Tale Quilt

Spotlight: Paula Steel, Modern Quilter

Distinct shapes, clean lines and clear colors reflect the modern quilt esthetic in Paula Steel’s designs. Now designing and quilting full time, Paula’s use of line and form to create secondary shapes and patterns hint at her past life as a Project Manager.

Paula Steel profile

Why textiles? Why quilting? How did you get started?

I had a false start with sewing a few years earlier, making a few curtains and Barbie clothes. But I only started sewing “proper” in around 2014. I worked full-time as a Project Manager, my daughter was at High School and I had just finished a part-time Master’s Degree. But, as the demand on my time started to drop, I started to think about sewing again. I decided I really wanted to give it a go.

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So, mostly by stop-starting and rewinding YouTube instructional videos, I got started with simple pieces like pencil cases, and found that I really enjoyed the process. I’ll be honest, buying fabrics was no chore either.

Sometime later (and after making what can only be described as “an unnecessary number of pencil cases”), I concluded that I needed to step outside my comfort zone. Using the internet for inspiration, I stumbled across some amazing quilts and fell in love.

I started with nice and simple patchwork squares. But when I discovered Half Square Triangles, I immediately knew Quilting was for me. There was something about being able to create shapes and designs from building blocks that really spoke to me. I felt like a kid with Lego all over again.

Ombre Compass
Ombre Compass by Paula Steel

At this point I was running a small, online fabric shop. So I began designing quilts so as to put together kits from the fabric I sold. Once I started designing my own quilts, I realised how much the process really fit with what I was looking for creatively. 

I really enjoyed the planning, and the maths fed my logical side. But the creative side of me got to play with colour and obsess over fabric. Win/win.

That brings us to today. My daughter is now 21, and I’ve left my full-time job. I’m designing quilts for myself and magazines. And I’ve celebrated the launch of my first quilting book (which is something I never saw coming). I also work as a Quilting Technical Editor for a well-known magazine.

I couldn’t be happier and I am so pleased I stumbled across that first quilt. 

Cover of Paula's book Modern Rainbow Patchwork Quilts

What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Modern Rainbow Patchwork Quilts?

My number one takeaway is to have fun with Quilting. Do not be scared off by how technical it can appear. Enjoy the process! Quilting has brought so much joy to my life. That is what I really want to share and inspire in others. 

With Modern Rainbow Patchwork Quilts, I’ve tried to make the book I wish I had when I started. It’s bright, modern and everything is achievable for beginners with a bit of determination. Starting out, Quilting can look like magic, but, trust me, it is definitely a trick you can learn.

How Paula plans her quilts

When beginning a project, do you pre-plan your entire endeavour or do you simply follow where your inspiration takes you?

I am a Planner … mostly. I’m pretty sure that my time as a Project Manager has made that so. 

I do struggle with scrappy or random layout quilts because I like to know what a quilt is going to look like before I commit to cutting the fabric. I used to do a lot of work in Business Improvement, so working out the easiest and most time-efficient way to get the job done tends to come quite naturally to me. To be honest, I enjoy the planning stage quite a lot. I remind myself that not everything I do needs to have a purpose and “it’s OK to just play”.

Since we have been in lockdown, I have definitely felt the urge to loosen up and experiment. I have really enjoyed that, and a couple of quilt designs have been born from a more free-form approach.

But, if I had to pin a swatch to the cork-board, I’d say I’m very much of the “Measure Twice, Cut Once” tribe. But never use a pin.

Paula finds inspiration in all kinds of places
Paula finds inspiration in all kinds of places

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

My projects tend to fall into two categories, Work Projects and Personal Projects.

For Work Projects like magazine commissions or patterns, then I obviously have to be a Finisher. I’m quite organised with those because there is a fixed deadline. 

For my Personal Projects, I am reasonably good at finishing unless I lose interest. (Then it ends up in the UFO drawer or broken down and handed to my scrap-loving friends at the quilting club.)

I haven’t the will to look too closely, but I think there’s something like six unfinished quilt tops in the UFO drawer, each with an ever-decreasing likelihood of seeing the light of day. I’m actually feeling guilty just thinking about them in there, wondering what they did to be cast aside so easily. It’s not you, Quilt Top, it’s me.

Anyway, until we can all meet up again, I’ve recently found myself gifting quilts to friends as a kind of ‘fabric hug’. (Delivered from a socially-acceptable distance, of course). Doing this has been a great motivation. And I’ve got a few quilts finished that were in real danger of going UFO. I feel better knowing that they are out there being used and loved, too.

Paula's sewing storage area

Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?

My sewing space is definitely a reflection of my creative side. It’s full of bright colours, rainbows and joy-inducing fabric. It is also quite practical. My large cutting area is the correct height for me and lots of sewing table space accommodates quilting larger projects.

Whilst I obviously miss having her home, I’m shamelessly happy to have what was my daughter’s bedroom as a Sewing Room. It is one of the largest spaces in the house. Its fantastic light throughout the day makes it a great place to work. 

I like to think it is fairly well organised, and I do try hard to have a place for everything. But during projects (especially the fabric choice and cutting stage) it can get very, very messy. 

Hmm … I might owe my daughter an apology for all the times I commented on the state of her bedroom. It appears I’m no Marie Kondo, either.

Paula's sewing room

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

Ooh! I do love good storage and I am always on the lookout for some more; my needs seem to constantly change. 

For fabric, I like to wrap my ½ yards or more around comic boards. That means I can actually see what I have got. I then have separate wire baskets for folded fat quarters and fat eighths, and also separate storage for scraps. 

I regularly have to sit myself down with a cup of tea, go through my scraps and try to be honest with myself. What will I actually use? But, since the ladies at my quilt group “love a good scrap”, I can easily find them new homes. 

My best tip is that, once every few months, take the time to have a good look through your stash; consider what you will and won’t use. It’s not the easiest thing to do at first (and you will find that you have to negotiate with yourself). But, if you know deep down that you’re just not going to use it, then commit to finding it a new home. 

You could sell it, give it away or even make something with it and donate the results. 

Pillow cushion from Paula's book
Pillow Cushion from Paula’s Book, Modern Rainbow Patchwork Quilts

Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned?

If you had asked me ten years ago if I thought I was “creative”, I’m pretty confident I would’ve said “No” and gone back to my spreadsheets. 

Actually, I think I’ve said that it was something like “I wish I was more creatively minded”. I would have thought being creative meant someone with “the ability to draw or paint with skill”. I think I would have completely overlooked the creative thinking that my job demanded from me, the attraction I had to colours or shapes and how I designed the space around me. 

So, I do think that creativity can be found in everyone. However, some people (people like me) just take longer to tune in and see it.

Rainbow of threads

Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your quilts? How does a new work come about?

New patterns often take a variety of approaches. Sometimes I fall in love with a fabric and I have to create a quilt design to show it off. It could be that I’m playing around with shapes and geometric designs in Illustrator when I stumble into an idea that sparks my imagination. Other times there is a specific skill or technique that I don’t yet have and want to develop. Then I create a design for a small quilt so I can practice. 

Mapaches Tale Quilt
Mapaches Tale Quilt by Paula Steel

An example of this is my quilt, Mapache Tale, which was juried into QuiltCon 2020. It should be travelling the world with the “Best in QuiltCon 2020” show. When I designed the Mapache Tale quilt, I was obsessing over stripes. I created additional shapes using the stripes and the quilting lines. It started out in Illustrator and, after many iterations, gradually took shape and evolved into a quiltable design.  

More recently, my ideas include curves, but again playing with the interlocking and secondary shape theme. I’m really excited about my latest design which combines stripes and curves. It’s like a wavy version of Mapaches Tale

Starburst Quilt
Starburst Quilt by Paula Steel

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?

I’m a fan of a podcast; especially one that focuses on Quilting. Working at home (and usually alone), podcasts feel like someone is there with you. But the conversation can be a bit one-sided. 

However, if I need a boost of energy, then Very Loud Music is likely, preferably something from the 90’s. I’m part of the MTV Generation (though I never really had MTV). Anything that feels upbeat, funny and a little bit rebellious gets my vote. 

If my Favourites Playlist is anything to go by, I guess you’d have to conclude that I’m mostly into Skate Punk and Daisy Age Hip-Hop. So the pace of my sewing can change quickly depending on whether it’s De La Soul, NOFX, Blink 182 or Tribe Called Quest that’s playing. 

Can I kick it? Yes. Yes, I can.

Paula Steel Quote

Where can readers find out more about your work or get in contact? 

You can find me on Instagram, @paulasteel.quilts. That’s where my most frequent updates will go. I post about what I’m working on, what I’ve just completed and what’s inspiring me. That is, however, if I’ve not been distracted by cute cat videos.

My website, www.paulasteelquilts.com, has tutorials and a gallery of my work. I’m making some companion videos for my book, so keep your eye out for those, too. 

Interview posted May 2020


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