Spotlight: Sylvia Pippen, Sashiko & Applique Quilt Designer


Spotlight: Sylvia Pippen, Sashiko & Applique Quilt Designer

Enter the world of Sylvia Pippen to discover intricate nature-inspired designs of rich color formed with appliqué and sashiko. She learned from the best, her mother Kitty Pippen, who encouraged her to develop her own style and do what drives her creative passion.

Sylvia Pippen

Your mother, Kitty Pippen, was an icon in the stitching world. How did she
(and probably still does) influence your approach to your art?

I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area into a family of artists and musicians who influenced me at an early age. I am a classical flutist, and my other enduring passion is gardening. And I was a landscape designer and perennial grower for many years in a small rural town in New England where we raised our two children.

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I have loved cloth and sewn from a very early age alongside my mother, Kitty Pippen, a well known quilter who works with Japanese fabrics and sashiko. Always involved in needle arts, Kitty started her quilting career at age 70, wrote a bestselling book at 80, and was still going strong, quilting up a storm at 96. So she is a great role model for regenerative creativity that spans a life time.

Kitty had an exuberant yet precise approach to quilt designing. She would
experiment until she got it right and did not waste any time doubting herself. She was very experimental, trying different techniques and styles from Art Nouveau silk appliqué, exquisite mini quilts, mathematical quilts, as well as her famous quilts using Japanese fabrics. Her enthusiasm and encouragement touched many quilters and instilled in her children a love of working with our hands.

Salish 2020 Block-of-the-Month Quilt

More About Salish from Sylvia: Salish was inspired by the indigenous art of the Pacific NW and the McKenna Ryan Hoffman digital print of ocean and Aurora Borealis used as both the quilt background and the background for each block.

High quality 100% Merino Wool from Europe form all the wool images. Because it is nonwoven, it cuts easily and there are no fraying edges. Simply glue baste and whip stitch in place. 

Abalone buttons, traditionally used in wool blanket art, are the eye embellishments. White sashiko thread outlines each wool image and becomes the stitches in the top and bottom borders and four circle images.

Sashiko is gaining a broader fan base. For those who have not yet encountered it, can you tell us a bit about it?

Sashiko or “little stabs” in Japanese, is a simple running stitch traditionally used to work intricate designs with white thread on indigo fabric.

Sashiko has been a compelling and practical art form for centuries and has strengthened and sandwiched layers of cloth for warmth in Northern Japan. Traditional sashiko designs abound. Kamon or family crests of natural objects such as cherry blossoms, water wheels, or cranes are stylized into dozens of variations. Geometric designs, all with ancient historical meaning are also well suited to sashiko. Traditional geometric sashiko designs of basket weaves, fretwork, intersecting circles or curved waves become wonderful background fillers behind flowing natural shapes rendered in appliqué. Sashiko designs can also sandwich quilts using quilting thread instead of Sashiko thread.

How would you describe the difference between contemporary and traditional Sashiko?

Today sashiko has evolved from a practical art form into decorative surface embellishment pulled through one layer only instead of a quilt sandwich. Sashiko can stand alone or dramatically complement pieced or appliquéd quilts. The beauty of sashiko is in its simplicity because a humble running stitch can outline the most intricate design. I use traditional Japanese geometrics and Kamon in my quilts, but am continually discovering new twists to this old art form.

Sashiko lines can be stitched by machine but the continuous stitching line does not give the soft look of hand sashiko where stitches are spaced apart to show the background. If you are a machine quilter, I encourage you to try hand sashiko. You might be surprised how fast it goes and how calming it is to sit down and stitch a beautiful sashiko design.

Flight 2019 Block of the Month Quilt

Which came first for you – appliqué or Sashiko? Is one medium more impactful on your work than the other?

I am a hand quilter and my niche is appliqué combined with sashiko. Sashiko attracted me because my mother uses it in her Japanese quilts. I decided to try using it to outline nontraditional designs, especially foliage that is hard to capture in appliqué. The effect was captivating. I cannot say which is more impactful; they both complement one another. Sashiko is easier to execute; while appliqué more technically challenging.

What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?

Everywhere I go I find inspiration, especially when traveling, experiencing new flora, fauna and indigenous art. The natural environment around me influences me, so my designs reflect images from the Pacific Northwest where I currently live.

Because I am an avid gardener, most of my quilts center on flowers, foliage, and birds. While living and snorkeling in Hawaii, the underwater coral gardens and fish transfixed me. My quilting career started in Hawaii while working as a gardener at the National Tropical Botanical garden on Kauai. My color palette exploded while working among the outrageous colors and shapes of tropical exotics.

Making Waves
Making Waves is a cyanotype and sashiko quilt. Sylvia printed all the panels.

Tell us about your most recent work. Is it an extension of what you have been doing or a departure from it?

My most recent quilt is Salish, my 2020 Block of the Month. It combines wool appliqué with sashiko and is inspired by the indigenous art of the Pacific Northwest. Since moving to Washington, I have been drawn to wool appliqué; it must have something to do with the colder weather! I love the button wool blankets of the coastal tribes, so my new BOM uses Abalone buttons for eyes. The monthly blocks are in circles and depict the land and sea animals of the Salish Sea that extends from the Pacific NW to Alaska.

Technique(s)? What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?

I have cornered a niche combining sashiko with appliqué. My more contemporary use of sashiko is pretty unique.

Shell Border Close Up by Sylvia Pippen
Shell Border Close Up

Are you a planner or an improviser when it comes to creating?

My design process is very “mysterious”; it is called trial and error. 1% inspiration and 99% struggle to get it down on paper and translated into cloth. I study photos of the images I want to work with and do many drawings on real paper, not on the computer. Often starting with the appliqué elements, flowers, fish, etc. then I design the complementary sashiko design around them. I usually start with a rough thumbnail sketch of the design that comes to me from the ethers. I never start a quilt from a finished work on paper; it is definitely design as I go.

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

I have a studio on the third floor of our home in La Conner. It is not a huge space but there is lots of storage under the eaves. Because I have a fabric shop, I don’t need to hoard very much fabric! Also as a hand appliquer, I need a broad range of fabrics in small quantities.

How does your studio setup contribute to your work process?

I have a big design wall that is indispensable. I keep my current projects pinned on it so I can continually audition the designs.

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

I am by nature a disorganized person, but from time living on boats, I like every bin labeled and stacked so I can source supplies and fabrics easily. So I make an effort to clean up often to find a surface to work on.

Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

Good light, design wall, micro serrated scissors for cutting wool, starch-based glue pens for appliqué.

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?

I like to listen to the birds outside, so work in silence sometimes. Also, I am a radio news junkie for the last 3 years . I like to listen to Hawaiian music, classical, folk. When I do my “night job” which is handwork, I watch bad Turner Classic movies.

How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time? Do you finish every project?

I design a BOM every year; that takes up about 6 months. But I do many smaller projects that are marketable in between. I have a box of UFO’s, but can’t afford to go down too many dead ends as my living depends on cranking out marketable designs.

How do you make time for creating? Do you try to create daily?

I go in creative spurts when we need new designs to market, but I work on executing designs daily as hand work takes a huge amount of time. Many of my ideas come to me while hiking and working in the garden.

When you have time to create just for yourself, what kinds of projects do
you make?

I make gifts for family and grandkids.

Sylvia Pippen Quote

Which current fiber artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?

I admire the work of Kathy MacNeil, a superb appliqué artist who depicts scenes of nature. Kathy introduced me to one of my favorite appliqué techniques, Apliquick. I love the work of Ruth McDowell, her interpretation of nature in piecing.

Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?

I do lecture and give workshops. I can be reach at:
808 443-8420

Interview posted November, 2020

Sylvia Pippen Sashiko Kits

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