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                                             A Quilter's Life

How did you become interested in quilting?

Well, I was in high school at the time. I wanted a quilt and I didn't have one. It was as innocent as that. Even at that age handmade things appealed to me. My mother was an excellent seamstress but she didn't know how to quilt. She suggested I talk to my grandmother to whom my first book is dedicated. Grandma used to quilt as a girl but she couldn't remember the steps. She did have a scrap bag of fabrics she gave me before sending me off to her neighbor who did quilt. I got a little bit of information from the kindly neighbor but I was pretty much on my own.

The only book at the library was the Standard Book of Quiltmaking. I went to the fabric store to supplement Grandma's stash but it was back in 1975 and there weren't any quilting cottons available. I ended up depending completely on Grandma's stash that consisted of thin and thick fabrics from the fifties.

Now the saga of my first quiltmaking attempt. First, there was the inconsistency of the fabric thickness. Then no one told me that I needed to iron the fabric before I started cutting. I chose to make a Broken Dishes pattern using a template I laid out like I was used to doing for dresses. The finished blocks measured anywhere between eight and ten inches. The batting I used was so thick the finished quilt practically stood up on its own. Still, I loved that quilt! I kept it around for years until it got moldy while being stored in the basement and I had to throw it away.

I didn't quilt again until I had children. But, I did keep up my subscription to Quilter's
Newsletter Magazine so I learned a lot through reading the articles. When my daughter,
Angela, was two years old I was pregnant with my son, Josh. I had to take it easy during the pregnancy so I signed up for a Quilt As You Go class because I could quilt as I lay down on the couch. When the kids were little I was working part time as a librarian. My husband, Rick, worked the night shift so once I got the kids off to bed I would stay up until one or two in the morning working on a project. I always wanted to sew one more block. Quilting is so addictive!

Because I was rather strapped for time, I didn't take a lot of classes. But, being a librarian meant I had access to many good books. I tried everything and made a lot of mistakes. I think that learning process has proven to be very helpful in my own teaching experience. I know what it feels like to be nervous about trying something new and then having the thrill of success or agony of making a mess.

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Royal Star from Combing Through Your Scraps


How did you decide to start teaching?
The more I quilted, the more I wanted to share the joy I had discovered with other people. I had some experience through teaching reading skills in the library where I worked and at the Sunday school program at my church. After actively quilting for
about six years, I decided I could handle a beginning class. I went to the school district and asked if they wanted to add a quilting class to their adult education program. I had thirty people in my first class! They were so enthusiastic and, because of their energy, I became as hooked on teaching as I was on quilting.

What path did you follow from teaching to publishing?
I have always like illusion quilts. But, there weren't many books out there with ideas for making illusion quilts. I went to the college library and started checking out every fine art book I could find. I studied design and began to see how certain patterns of light and dark worked to form the illusion of depth that artists use when portraying things like fruit, landscapes and people's faces. I've also studied works by artists known for geometric work such as M.C. Escher and Victor Vasarely.

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Barn Raising from Combing Through Your Scraps


After all of my studying, I decided to write a book applying the fine art concepts I had learned to designing illusion quilts. I have always enjoyed writing and journaling so I was looking forward to combining my two loves into a book. Unfortunately, no one else seemed interested in the concept. After receiving several rejection notices I felt like giving up. That's when my grandmother came to the rescue again. While I was visiting her in Ohio, she told me I had to keep trying. "You are good at this," she said. Six weeks later she passed away. I knew I had to keep going until I found a publisher. It was a long six months before American Quilter's Society accepted my manuscript. That is why Optical Illusion for Quilters is dedicated to my grandmother.

After all of the rejection notices, I had trouble believing I was really going to be writing my book. I was reading the acceptance letter as I was walking up the stairs and literally
stopped and sat down on the stairs. I was absolutely overwhelmed. It took a year's worth of eight-hour days to write Optical Illusion for Quilters. Writing books has become easier. I
like to feature a new concept in each of my books so they continue to be interesting.

When we moved to Tennessee in 1990, I stopped working as a librarian. Rick suggested I teach quilting full time because I could work the schedule around our kids needs. So, that's what I did. I mostly taught at shops in the area for five years until Angela got her driver's license. Since she was able to get to places on her own, I had extra time to do some travel teaching. The last few years I have moved up to two or three trips a month.

I'm surprised at how much things have snowballed. It has all been a great learning experience in terms of how much I can do and how quickly I can do it. I know that I will always teach because I get so much input, energy and inspiration from my students. I also find it stimulating to get out and see different parts of the country and observe the regional influences in color combinations in quilts. I never realized there was such a difference until I started traveling.

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               My Cutting area                                                   Sewing area


Where do you work when you are home?
I have a studio room just off the family room. The most important element is that it has a door that can be closed to hide my work in progress. Rick and I share a home office space for the business stuff like computer work, e-mails and travel arrangements.

Is there a certain routine you like to follow during the day?
I find that I am working on some portion of quiltmaking from the moment I get up in the
morning until I go to bed at night. I use household chores like laundry, taking the dog for a walk and cooking dinner as a way to get up and stretch. I am so involved with quiltmaking that I literally have to block out time to do something else like reading. Between things I want to do and things I need to do I stay very busy.

What sort of environment do you like when you are working?
I am kind of a news junky. As long as I am not actually writing text for a book or lesson, I like to have the cable news or a talk radio station playing. When I need a break I play classical music or New Age. Angela plays the piano and flute. I am having a hard time adjusting to not having her music in the house now that she is in college.

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Slanted Diamonds from Combing Through Your Scraps


When do you think you are the most creative?
I'm not really a morning person in that I don't leap out of bed early every day although I am usually up by 6:30. However, I do find the morning to be my most creative
time. By the afternoon I just don't have that much juice left. I write and design in the morning. In the afternoon I like to sew.

How do you work out your designs?
I use Electric Quilt or QuiltPro if the project is more traditional. I use graph paper when I am working on my optical illusion quilts. I work with white, black and a middle gray so that I have a clear sense of the values needed to accomplish the illusion. I really like designing this way because when I finally start working with color, I can try different things and sometimes the colorwork gives me new ideas.

I just want to make something very clear. I do not have a math background. I never took geometry and I hated algebra. I just work along with my graph paper until I get something I like. One time I received a call from a group of professors from Vanderbilt University. They wanted to include me in a math video talking about the "theorems" I used in making my quilts. I laughed and explained my design method. They said I am probably an intuitive math person which is an interesting concept. Anyway, they changed their minds about having me in the video.

What do you find creatively inspiring?
I don't read a lot of quilting books because I don't want to be influenced by other people's designs. I like to thumb through books on art, architecture, history and cultural studies. In those books I find a lot of seeds of designs that I let simmer in my mind for awhile. Then a design pops out when I least expect it. It is very important for an artist in any medium to keep a notebook or paper and pencil around at all times. Those creative images are very transient so even a rough draft needs to be sketched as quickly as possible. Then, when I have settled down for some design time, I can go through those notes and start working.




What has been your most memorable quilt project?

I actually have two. The first is the quilt I made while I was pregnant with Josh. Because it was a tough pregnancy I relate that quilt to my healthy son who is now eighteen years old.

The other is the one I made for the AQS show in Nashville this last year. "Extendus" was the hardest quilt I ever made. The quilt looks like it is bowing outward. It took me about a month to design it and seven more months to actually get it made.

If you could make a quilt for anyone, who would you make a quilt for?
My parents and my brother would each love to have a quilt. And, I would like to have the opportunity to make a quilt for my grandmother. One of the optical illusion ones would have tickled her fancy.

What advice would you like to give other quilters?
Understand the difference between the learning phase and the "perfectionist" phase. When you are learning something new, let yourself absorb the lesson. Don't obsess about the quilt. Keep practicing that new technique and at some point it's all right to expect more from yourself. Then you can start striving for "perfection" as long as you know it doesn't really exist. You will always want to do better. All I'm saying is there is a difference between focusing on the technique and focusing on the finished product. They each have their place.

If you could spend time with anyone from the past, who would you choose?
From the 9th to the 11th century, the Cosmati family worked at designing and laying the
intricate marble mosaics that decorate the floors of the dozens of Italian cathedrals. The
patterns they have winding around columns are actually quilt patterns any modern day quilter would recognize. I would love to be able to spend time with them and watch how they developed their designs.

What three words best describe you?
Organized, patient and tender-hearted.

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Sunrise Star from Combing Through Your Scraps


What are some of your favorite books?
I love reading murder mysteries. Some of my favorite authors are James Patterson, Sue Grafton and Thomas Harris. I also like to read biographies because it is so inspiring to learn how people achieve greatness. Even as a child I enjoyed reading biographies.

What is your favorite movie?
To Kill A Mockingbird

What about comfort food?
Easy -- chocolate

What is your favorite smell?
Lavender because it is so calming. I just put in an herb garden so I often go out and smell the lavender growing there.

What would be your idea of a perfect quilting vacation?
I have to be near water so the best thing would be a house on the beach. No telephone and no computer. I would want to be there alone and sew all day long. After a few days I would love to have a "quilting buddy" join me!

What is it that you like about quilting?
I love taking bits of fabric and putting them together to make something as appealing and comforting as a quilt. That is why I particularly love Combing Through Your Scraps. The blocks are simple so you get to let yourself go crazy with your fabric stash. I like to call this technique "Calgon Quilting."  Putting the blocks together is perfect for when you just want to sit and sew. Then, when you are ready to concentrate, you can think up fantastic patterns for the finished quilt top.

Hot Fudge Pie
contributed by Karen Combs

4-5 Tbl. baking cocoa
1 stick butter
2 eggs
1 cup white sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. vanilla
pinch of salt
unbaked pie shell

Over low heat, melt butter. Add cocoa and stir until blended. Cool slightly. Add eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla and salt, beating until smooth. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream. This recipe can be doubled.


NOTE:  This interview was originally run on the Connecting Threads website on April 2001 and has been placed here with their permission.  To read other interviews or to visit their marvelous website, go to

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