To find an enthusiastic quilting ambassador, look no further than quilt pattern designer and author, Sarah Ashford. Sarah fell in love with quilting when she made her first quilt and is on a mission to make the craft easy and accessible for beginners, as well as rewarding for experienced fabric lovers. There is no limit to the design possibilities with fabric and thread, and Sarah’s books and creative community provide instruction and inspiration.
How did you get started designing quilts? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
I’ve always been interested in creating my own designs. There are so many wonderful quilt patterns out there. I’ve made several, but nothing beats designing a quilt from scratch, one that’s never been made before and is completely new. I was first asked by a quilting magazine if I’d be interested in designing a quilt for them. From then on I’ve never looked back.
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Tell us about your first quilt. Why did you make it? What did you learn?
I’ve been sewing all my life but my first quilt, like for many quilters, came about when I was expecting my first daughter. That was over 13 years ago now. It was a big learning curve! I didn’t have any of the proper equipment, so I used scissors instead of a rotary cutter to cut the squares. I had no idea about a 1/4” seam or nesting the seams. As for a walking foot, I didn’t have one. I also quilted it in the ditch, which is definitely something I wouldn’t do now. Actually I think it’s a pretty hard thing for a beginner to do! And I didn’t know how to miter the binding at the corners. But the fabric was beautiful, it was made with love and it will be treasured for many years to come.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’m definitely a planner. I usually have an idea in my head to start with and then I just go with it. It could be a technique that I want to try, a fabric collection that I want to use or a quilt design that I have an idea for. I generally know the outcome I want to achieve before I get started. Sometimes I figure out how to get there as I go along.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new books, Jump Into Patchwork and Quilting and Rotary Cutting Basics: A Beginner’s Guide?
I want readers to have fun with fabric! It’s about giving something a try, learning new skills, enjoying the process and having something that you’re proud of at the end of it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and if you’re a beginner it’s unlikely to be! In Jump into Patchwork and Quilting I’ve imparted as much information as I can, with lots of step photos, clear instructions and guidance. I want it to be accessible to everyone and give the reader the knowledge and the confidence to get started. Rotary Cutting Basics is the perfect companion. It details all the things that I wish I knew when I started on my quilting journey about the tools and equipment needed to get going.
Tell us about the “Great British Quilter”. How is quilting different in Britain than it is elsewhere?
The “Great British Quilter” started as an Instagram challenge back in 2017. Hundreds of British (and British loving) quilters responded to prompts every day for a month. It was a way of raising the profile of British quilters, designers, retailers and industry professionals, shining a light on all that is wonderful about the British Quilting community. It was a huge success and from there I started the “Great British Quilter” Podcast where I interviewed quilt pattern designers, magazine editors, fabric designers and quilting organisations.
There are now 2 seasons of the podcast, and all my guests have been fascinating. All have a different story to tell, but we have this wonderful community in common. There are now a dedicated website, Instagram page and Facebook group. Quilters can connect with each other all year round. Most recently I curated the Great British Quilter Hope Mini Quilt Challenge. Entrants from around the world submitted mini quilts to an online gallery. 50 quilts were shortlisted and exhibited at the Festival of Quilts at the NEC in Birmingham. It was a magical moment returning to in-person events after the pandemic, and the Hope Exhibition was incredibly moving.
I would say the British quilting scene is very eclectic. We are influenced by techniques, fabrics and designers from all over the world. I don’t think that collectively we have a singular style. It’s certainly a community I’m very proud to be a part of and to champion.
Was there a turning point when the business side of your art really took off, or was the process more gradual?
Back in 2017 I left my career as a primary school teacher to focus on quilting full time. A lot of magazine commissions definitely helped raise my profile, and I started teaching locally. I also started teaching further afield and working with companies such as Aurifil, Oakshott Fabrics and Dashwood Studio. I was lucky to have a fabric collection with Dashwood Studio, the Great British Quilter Back to Basics Collection. It has 20 blender prints to coordinate with other fabrics in your stash.
I’ve also released several patterns under my own brand, Sarah Ashford Studio, as well as selling glitter vinyl project pouches. I also sell threads, kits and I’m a writer for Today’s Quilter Magazine. It’s been a gradual process, slowly growing different elements of my business, and of course the pandemic has been a big curve ball! Writing the books during lockdown was actually such a blessing. I did some online teaching, too – not something I had ever expected to do.
How do you store your fabric and tools? Why does this system work for you?
I’m very excited about this topic as I love a storage solution! With fabrics it really depends on the size. I fold anything over ½ meter onto a comic book board and store on my shelf. It looks a bit like my own personal fabric shop! Fat quarters are roughly in colour order in a trolley, and I tie fabric bundles/collections together with a ribbon. I also have metal trunks; I keep all my lovely Oakshott solid fabrics in one and pre-cuts such as jelly rolls, charm packs and layer cakes in the other. A basket on my cutting table holds scissors, rotary cutters, needle book and seam ripper so that they are on hand for me to grab as I’m working. I have an extra pair of scissors next to my sewing machine – this is a great tip – I was constantly hunting for that one pair of scissors!
I make and sell glitter project pouches on my website, which are great to keep WIPs (works in progress) organised. They are translucent so you can see what’s inside. I like to keep everything for one project all together in a pouch so that I can just grab it and go, knowing that everything I need is inside. They are great for travelling too. I sell a selection of small, medium and large sizes. I think they are brilliant, not to mention super sparkly, and I’ve no idea how I’d organise my sewing projects without them!
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I really love my 28mm rotary cutter for cutting small pieces and small blocks. Because it’s smaller you have more control and precision, which ultimately means it’s safer. too. I actually use this rotary cutter more than my 45mm rotary cutter now. I also can’t be without my seam ripper! It’s good of course for taking out stitches when things don’t go to plan, but it’s also really useful for tasks such as taking out basting stitches. Finally, I love my Aurifil threads and they help my work shine. I use Dove 2600 for the majority of my piecing because it just blends so well with everything. I have a large selection of colours and thread weights to choose from though, as I love the 12 weight for hand quilting and the 80 weight for English paper piecing and appliqué.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I usually have music or the radio on if I’m doing something where I need to concentrate. If I’m working on something such as quilting or hand work, I often listen to audiobooks or podcasts with my headphones. I’m currently listening to Threads of Life by Clare Hunter, which is fascinating, and I’m about to start listening to the “Somerset Stories” Podcast, which I was interviewed for last month. It’s all about local people in Somerset, UK, where I live, who have an interesting story to tell. I am looking forward to finding out more about the inspiring people who live near me!
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
This is a very tricky question but the first person that comes to mind is Olympic gold medalist Tom Daley. I’ve been following Tom on Instagram for a while now, not just because he’s an incredible diver and athlete, but because he has taken up knitting! I just loved seeing him in Tokyo working on his creations, including a little pouch for his gold medal featuring both the Japanese and Great British flags! I’d been following his knitting journey long before it made newspaper headlines and I would love to chat to him to find out more about how he got into knitting and how it helped him while he trained. I would also ask him if he’d like to come and learn to quilt with me!
When you have time to create for yourself, what kinds of projects do you make?
Creating for myself doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. I find that I can only manage it little and often. I’ve recently started an embroidery that’s really simple, filling screen printed tulips with seed stitches. This is great because I can just pick it up and put it down and stitch while I’m chatting or watching TV. I also have a large quilt on the go that features needle turn appliqué, foundation paper piecing and regular piecing. It’s an epic quilt and progress has been over several years so far, but I enjoy working on it when I get the chance. I also like to make things for my friends and family as gifts sometimes. This doesn’t happen as nearly as often as I’d like but a few of my friends have “big” birthdays coming up so I’m going to make the time to make them something handmade.
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 50/50. You can definitely learn how to quilt, learn which colours work together, and learn different techniques and processes. It upsets me when people say “I’m not creative” because I just don’t believe that’s true! I certainly think some people find creativity comes more easily to them than others. I find the best way to get creative is to experiment, have no expectations and don’t take things too seriously. Go with fabrics that sing to you, try new things and see what happens!
What do vintage quilts say to you? What message do you want your quilts to convey to future generations?
I love looking at old vintage and antique quilts. Going to museums and exhibitions and seeing quilts on display is one of my favourite things to do. They can give us an insight into the makers, the time and society that they were living in through the design, the fabrics used and often the messages hidden within them. They are often a source of inspiration for my own work: a great starting point for considering how to make similar quilts, but with a modern twist, something that represents the here and the now.
There are so many quilts in my head that I’m yet to make, but ultimately I want my quilts to say that there are no rules. You can use whatever design you want, use the techniques you want, convey any message you want. Be inspired by the past, be inspired by the now, be inspired by whatever calls to you. Make quilts that you want to make that unleash your creativity and bring you joy.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
Thank you so much for asking! I’ve recently re-built my website and I’m really proud of how it looks. I want people to learn more about me and for a little bit of my passion for quilting to be rubbed off on every single person who lands on my page. Whether you’re new to quilting or an experienced quilter, I’d like people to give one of my patterns a go, purchase my book and accompanying thread box and give a new project a try!
I’m also really proud of the Great British Quilter website. It’s great to finally have a “home” for this wonderful community where you can listen to the podcast, purchase products from British designers and share more about all the fabulous happenings in the GBQ community.
Where will your quilting journey take you next?
I have so many plans! I want to add more quilting and sewing PDF patterns to my repertoire. And I am so excited to get back to in person teaching. I taught my first in-person class since the pandemic began at the Festival of Quilts this summer, and it reminded me just how important it is for us all to connect with one another face to face, and not just behind a screen. So definitely more of that, along with more travel! I am crossing everything and hoping restrictions will be lifted and that I’ll be able to go to Quilt Con in 2022. I’m also keen to continue growing the Great British Quilter community with more collaborations, more patterns and another mini quilt challenge in 2022 as well.
Interview posted August 2021
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