Sheila Christensen got so hooked on quilting that she bought a quilt shop! She started designing quilts for her customers to make, specializing in bold geometric shapes that make her popular Mystery Puzzle Quilts. After all, who doesn’t love a creative surprise?
How long have you been quilting, and how did you get started? How did you go from being a quilt shop customer to shop owner?
I started quilting in 2008. I saw a sign for a table runner class and ended up making four to take home to the UK as Christmas gifts. After that I took every class I could find, from art quilting to Mariners Compass to bag making. It was when I was in a class that I overheard the owners talking about selling the shop. After a few months I was the owner of my favourite quilt shop, and that was in January, 2011.
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Were you a geometry whiz in school? How did you come up with the triangular grid concept for designing with geometric shapes? Was it an “aha moment”, or did the concept evolve over time?
Although my Mum was a maths teacher, I was a variable maths student at school. I was good with things that were visual but once it got into algebra, calculus and proofs I struggled. I have since realised of course that I am a visual learner – if I can explain something with graphs or diagrams I am fine.
The idea for the triangle grid came about from playing with designs for new quilts. I had made a jelly roll quilt based on equilateral triangles, and I had drawn it up by hand. Then I remembered that you can get triangle (isometric) graph paper. I started playing with different blocks and drawing them with felt tip pens. Then I had to figure out how to cut the pieces.
It is this process of problem solving that I love. Once I had some blocks drawn I went ahead and started making them, working out the best way to cut pieces as I went. After a few months I had my Modern Triangle Sampler quilt done, and lots of ideas for more designs.
You are known for your mystery quilts. How did that get started, and what makes your mysteries stand out?
I needed a project that I could offer to my customers to get them coming back to the shop regularly. When I heard of Mystery quilts, I thought it was a fun idea. I always want to do things a little differently so I decided to make the Mystery a puzzle, rather than a sampler, to keep the Mystery element going. So the Mystery became known as the Puzzle Mystery Quilt.
I also decided that my customers would love to have the pieces cut for them, and that is what makes them really popular. They receive a package with pieces that they can just sit down and sew, even if they only have half an hour to themselves. Now the Puzzle Mystery Quilt is being run in the USA, Australia and the UK, and I design two of them each year. This year I have also started the Trendsetters Mystery, which uses the triangle patchwork technique.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, A Field Guide to Quilts with an Angle?
This is a brand new technique that quilters can learn to produce exciting and different shaped blocks – anyone can do it, even first time quilters.
When you get a bunch of blocks made, how many layout variations do you try before doing the final piecing? Or do you plan the quilt design from start to finish and just start sewing?
I usually plan my quilts on graph paper first, then draw them up on the computer. Then I start sewing, but I often make changes as I am sewing and then have to remember to put them back in the computer before I write the pattern. I really enjoy making ‘scrappy’ quilts, so I might have a plan for the colouring but I will be picking fabrics while I am sewing.
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed? Can anyone learn to be creative?
I have always loved messing around with things, starting with making mud pies and then ‘mixtures’ in the bathroom with all the products. However my technical abilities and patience did not match my creative curiosity. Once I found quilting, I realised that I could learn from people who were much more skilled than me. I still needed lots and lots of practice to become competent in the technical aspects – neatness and precision have never been my natural inclination. I still love to take classes to extend my knowledge, and I think it is really important to keep learning.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
The Bejewelled quilt was a challenge to draw, with the sashing being on an angle, and there being a different number of sashings in each row, so the design wasn’t coming together. I pondered it and tried all sorts of solutions, then realised I had to make one narrower. Luckily I was in England at the time and was able to talk the design over with my niece, who is an architect. With her help I was able to make it work.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? If so, how does that practice help your work develop?
I have piles of graph paper and sketchbooks all over the place. Sketching ideas as they come into my head, I am always thinking about the next Mystery, or I might get an idea for a block that can be built into a quilt. I often sketch before going to sleep at night.
When you have time to create for yourself, what kinds of projects do you make?
I like making a whole variety of projects. This Christmas my treat was to make a Social Tote from Carolyn Friedlander’s pattern. It is really useful for carrying projects around. I also love hand quilting and stitchery for relaxation.
How do you balance your personal life, work and creative endeavors?
Haha! I don’t! Now that I am an empty nester I get to be more or less completely selfish about how I spend my time. I work four days a week in the shop, and the other three days sewing or writing patterns. My social life is mainly with quilting friends. Luckily, I have a golf-mad husband who puts up with me. I do enjoy going for walks in the mountains near my home when I have time.
With an entire quilt shop at your disposal, do you have a dedicated space for creating? How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
People think that when you own a quilt shop you get to sew all the time, but nothing could be further from the truth – I hardly ever sew in the shop. I have a bedroom as my sewing room, and a big design wall in the living room. It’s great to have the space where I can make my creative mess and then shut the door on it at the end of the day. My sewing room has a view over my front garden, and I love watching the birds hopping in and out of the bushes.
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?
My fabric is organised by colour, and I recently went through my whole stash to separate out the older fabrics that I’m not likely to use for samples. These are great for trying out ideas, and sometimes I start my day by making a small charity quilt top to get ‘warmed up’, especially if I haven’t sewn for a while.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I love my Janome 9400 sewing machine. It sits in its dedicated table and makes my sewing so much easier than when I first started on a cheap little machine. I love that my machine is set lower down in the table. I no longer get aching muscles or pins and needles when I spend all day sewing. My Creative Grids rulers are essential, especially the 60 degree triangles, and I am now experimenting with new ones.
I have lots of indispensable items – Aurifil thread for my piecing and most of my quilting, glass head extra fine pins and my Clover Roll and Press, as well as plenty of cutting mat space and a sharp blade in my cutter.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
Often I listen to audiobooks, Ken Follett’s sagas last a long time so they are very useful. Also podcasts and sometimes Netflix. But I lose concentration on what I’m listening to so I often miss important parts of the story. The BBC iplayer is great as I can listen to radio from my home country. My favourites are dramas on Radio 4 and the proms on Radio 3.
What is the one thing you wish someone had told you about quilting before you started?
That it existed! – I had never heard of this hobby until I took my first class.
What trends do you see in quilting today? Which current fiber artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
I love work that is original and explores different areas of quilting. Jacquie Gering came to teach in New Zealand last year and I am inspired by her dramatic and graphic style. One of my first inspirations was Kathy Doughty. With her bold mix of colours and patterns, she gave me the freedom to break away from playing it safe with colours and prints.
What’s next for you?
I am working on some exciting new patterns using different rulers, and enjoying creating my Mystery quilts. I love problem solving, so new challenges are always in the pipeline. To help with my pattern design I am teaching myself to use Illustrator. I would like to develop my skills more.
Interview posted March 2019
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