Spotlight: Tonya Alexander, Quilter and Pattern Designer
Love scrappy quilts with lots of color and movement? You’ll love Tonya Alexander and her Stash Lab Quilts patterns! We were lucky to meet Tonya at Quilt Market and admired her patterns. She decided very early on to only make what she loves, and love what she makes. She has been very happy with that decision. So are we! Her quilt patterns give you more reasons to build your stash. And, of course, use up those little scraps you just had to save.
How long have you been sewing and quilting? How did you get started?
I’ve been actively quilting for almost 15 years now but my first real exposure to sewing in general was back in Junior High School – yes, I’m old enough to have had Home Ec classes in school! My sewing resume before coming to quilting included a frog bean bag, an apron, and a Christmas stocking (which my mother still has and still hangs every Christmas!) That being said, I’ve always had creators in my orbit, my mother, grandmother, aunts – all very creative and skilled in sewing.
How did you find your creative niche?
My first quilt project was a very scrappy version of the classic “Yellow Brick Road” pattern by Atkinson Designs. I loved shopping for that first project. I picked all of the fabrics and gravitated towards a scrappy, bright mix from day one. My style hasn’t changed all that much – scrappy and bright are still my natural inclination. But I feel like I’ve just become more skilled and experienced with working with scraps as I’ve developed over time as a quilter.
When it came time to bring my projects together for a book project, working with scraps and stash fabrics was a natural fit for me. My first book, Stash Lab: Simple Solutions for Scrap Quilts, was published with Martingale in 2015 and really focuses on the ways that I look at and work with scrap fabrics.
My newest project String Theory Lab Manual, is a good example of how much further down the scrappy continuum I’ve traveled. All of the projects in String Theory are based on skinny 1 ½” -wide strips or “strings”. They are a contemporary take on traditional string quilts.
Do you dabble in other creative endeavors or mediums? If so, tell us more!
Like many quilters, I’m very tactile and inspired by color – in many forms. I love yarn and thread, too, so I typically have at least a couple of knitting, crochet, or needlework projects going in the basket by the couch at any given time. I just dabble in these though, I’m not nearly skilled enough to create those kinds of patterns, quilting is my main gig!
What inspires you to create? What inspires your pattern designs?
Rich, saturated colors inspire me, especially in fabrics and yarns, but also in pottery, woven tapestry, and definitely in nature. I have quite a collection of pottery I’ve collected from around the world during my travels and the motifs, colors, and designs I find, often influence my quilt designs, especially in applique.
As a matter of fact, Hungarian pottery and embroidery motifs almost entirely inspired one of my most recent projects. I named it “Hungarian Picnic” and it’s currently featured in the new issue of Quiltmania’s Simply Vintage, Summer 2018.
Another great example would be one of my wool applique patterns called Bohemia Sunrise. It’s reminiscent of all kinds of traditional motifs commonly found in folklore embroidery in many cultures, which I mixed with my own scrappy aesthetic.
When is your most productive time for creating?
Creative time comes in a lot of different forms, not just sitting at the sewing machine. I often get up in the middle of the night with design ideas popping in my head. I always have a variety of notebooks or sketchbooks scattered around the house, in my purse, in the glove compartment, you name it, for a quick sketch or idea. If I don’t put it down right away, it gets washed over by all of the other things in a busy life so I try to get them out where I can come back to them later and maybe develop them into a full project, or maybe they’ll be the spark for an entirely different project.
I find that most of my actual sewing time happens in the evenings or on weekends. I love quilting retreats with friends and find them to be very productive in terms of dedicated, chain-piecing time with lots of laughter and fun mixed in. While I don’t find retreats to be necessarily conducive to creating/designing, I do find other important things, and probably the most endearing part of quilting for me – friendship and fun!
What is your favorite storage tip for your creative supplies?
I’m very visual and like to see my fabric in my stash, so I store my stash on open shelves, mainly sorted by color family with some special fabric style piles mixed in. Same for my scraps and I find that if I store them in clear or opaque bins where I can see the contents, I’m more likely to use them. I also sort and store my scraps by my favorite, pre-cut sizes. Certainly my go-to favorite is 1 ½” -wide strips! I also have 2 ½”-wide strips, charm squares and a mixed bin of pieces not small enough to toss – yet!
How did you get into pattern making and publishing? Was it a plan, or did you just fall into it?
Not planned, but definitely intentional. I submitted my first quilt project to a magazine mostly out of pure curiosity. I wondered how that process worked and wanted feedback. Fully expecting a rejection, I just wanted to learn. Very happily surprised not only that they accepted it, but that I got a check in return which I immediately took to the quilt shop to spend it on more fabric for my next project! I have found publishing to be very personally rewarding and motivating.
When embarking upon a project, do you pre plan, or do you simply follow where your inspiration takes you?
I would say I fall somewhere in the middle. I probably lean more towards planning now that I’m more active in pattern writing. It’s easier to write as you go than create directions from a finished project. I typically at least sketch out my idea on good old graph paper. Sometimes with colored pencils but not always. I pick fabrics along the way as the design develops.
I do now design some projects intentionally with computer software for my work for fabric companies. That is what they need and I’m working with a limited scope of fabrics. But with most of my scrappy designs, I love and appreciate the serendipity of the fabrics once I’ve decided on a basic design idea. One of my upcoming projects with Free Spirit Fabrics features two lines from Anna Marie Horner, Loominous and Sweet Dreams. It takes one of my string projects featured in String Theory and transitions it to a whole fabric option instead. The new pattern is called “Simply Stars” and will be available later in July on my website.
What is your advice for someone starting out in your field?
Be yourself and believe in your work. I’ve heard the phrase “You, do You. Everyone else is taken.” And it’s so true, especially in a creative industry. Other creative people’s beautiful work will always bombard you. You have to just do your own thing and believe in what you are doing. If it appeals to you, it will appeal to others. It’s all about finding your audience, communicating and sharing with them, and not worrying about what everyone else is doing.
Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?
I think the creative process itself is my biggest motivator. Even though there is a lot of “work” involved with generating patterns, books, projects, teaching materials, etc., I also find the finished projects very rewarding. They are the motivators themselves to continue. There is a feeling of personal accomplishment and growth I experience that I really value.
Here’s where you can find Tonya Alexander and Stash Lab Quilts: