Susan Beal is absolutely having a moment. One here in Portland and one on a much larger stage. She’s got her hands in all sorts of creative projects–Designer Fat Quarter Bundles at Bolt, Quilts for Quake Survivors with Daniela, and all on the heals of her latest creation, Modern Log Cabin Quilting. This is a stellar compilation of quilts, projects, history, inspiration, and instruction. Certainly a little something for every quilter or sewist with a desire to explore the timeless art of quilting.
I was excited to ask Susan some questions and get to know her life and process a little better.
How did you first learn to sew? Who taught you?
I have always loved hand-sewing and used to cross-stitch, embroider, and make doll clothes as a little girl, but I didn’t learn to sew on a machine until I was 26 years old. I had just found a pretty turquoise 1960s Singer at a thrift store at the coast and got it tuned up, and my best friend Fiona came out to visit me in Portland and taught me how to sew in a week. At the beginning of the visit, I couldn’t imagine how you could possibly thread a machine without help, and at the end of the week, thanks to her, I had made a shift dress with a zipper, a messenger bag, an apron with a pocket with rick-rack on it, and about six different pillows. It was like finding new superpowers overnight!
Being from the south, all of the women in my family were hand quilters. Were your family quilters and sewists? If they were, how has that legacy affected your pursuits?
I’m from the South too, actually! Both my grandmothers sewed beautifully and I wish I had been able to learn from them, but they passed away before I was really old enough to get started. I have a little corduroy bag my MeeMee made in my craft basket, and some very precious wrap skirts and dresses that my other grandmother made for me and my mom (which my daughter Pearl and I wear all the time now) and those are my treasures, but I never got a real lesson until Fiona came to visit and changed my whole life. We do have some antique family quilts that I love, all at my mom’s house. I wish I knew who made each of them, but they’re not signed or labeled, and they’re about two or three generations too far back to know for sure (late 1800s/very early 1900s by the looks of the fabrics – one is a show quilt in silks and velvets that I can totally picture in the front parlor). I do have a baby quilt that one of my grandmother’s friends from church made for me – it’s a sweet Trip Around the World pattern that I love. Growing up with these lovely things, even if I didn’t learn how to make them myself until later, was a huge gift in my life.
I know it’s very subjective but what do YOU consider modern quilting? How has being a part of the Portland Modern Quilt Guild reinforced or altered this idea?
This is such an exciting time for modern quilt-making, with a huge array of new styles and designs, along with amazing fabrics and high-quality materials that are now much easier to find. Modern quilt guilds have sprung up worldwide, and swaps of fabric, blocks, and quilted projects (both online and local) bring the venerable quilting bee beautifully up to date. Being part of the PMQG has been a huge inspiration – just the chance to spend time with other quilters is such a nice pick-me-up creatively! To me, the fresh, accessible sensibility and energetic spirit that defines modern quilting feels especially right for log cabin, which has always been a quilt pattern for the everyman and woman.
How important is community to the craft of quilting?
Oh, it’s amazing. I just love being in the same room with other creative people. I work at home by myself (or with a small child – I have a new baby and an almost three-year-old, and she loves to look at fabric) a LOT and it’s great but very solitary. There is nothing like the energy of a group of friendly, welcoming crafters showing you what they’re making or sharing tips or ideas. I just love the PMQG and am really thankful to be a member, from the very first meeting at a community center a year ago I was just so excited it was starting up in Portland! I missed so many meetings in 2010 I was hoping to make it to – between my toddler, tons of work on the book, and my pregnancy it was hard to get out at night for a few months – but the blog always shares so many fun photos and details that catch you right up, and the Facebook and flickr group are really great too.
Quilting bees are such a beautiful part of quilting culture too – it’s such a time-honored tradition. You can imagine groups of women (although there are some amazing male quilters now and I am sure there always have been!) meeting to make a special quilt together to celebrate a marriage or a new baby in the family. And charity quilting bees and drives are just an amazing focus. Making quilts, for a good cause – to comfort those who are ill or have lost their homes or someone important to them, or auctioning off quilts to raise money for an important cause, is a way to use your talents like none other.
What informs your aesthetic sensibilities? Where do you draw inspiration from?
For me, it’s just such a mix of things! I collect all kinds of vintage treasures, from Enid Collins bags to my little sunshine-yellow kitchen timer, and having cool little things all around my house is a huge inspiration. I love being outside here in Oregon. Mt. Hood is our favorite place, and staying in a cabin on the mountain or hiking always opens my mind up to new things to make. (I designed a lot of the first round of pieces for Button It Up over a really fun weekend there.) Fabric shopping or browsing is a never-fail spark, and flickr, craft blogs (I read about a hundred of them!), Sunset magazine, Pendleton wool, and gorgeous art and craft books with lots of photos are all amazing inspirations.
What is it you love about the log cabin?
Well… first, I love the deep, amazing history of the pattern. The meaning – a lamp or hearth in the heart of the home (the center square) surrounded by the walls of the cabin in sunshine and shadow (the logs) – is so beautiful. The antique log cabin quilts I’ve seen in photographs and museums are just so incredible, from the simplest blocks and arrangements in a workhorse quilt to the dazzling trick of the eye some quilters perfected in their work and the intricate Pineapple variations – the visual effects are stunning. I have a few vintage quilts and tops that I’ve found at estate sales and Knittn Kitten and I adore them. The fabrics showcased in strips and centers – these incredibly simple cuts – are just such partners in the overall design.
Modern log cabin is just like a wonderland these days. People are doing some really awesome things with it, from crazy and wonky piecing to the most precise, traditional arrangements that just glow with new fabrics. It’s just an accessible, comforting, ultra-versatile pattern that empowers anyone to quilt. There’s a whole array of wonderful quilting patterns and styles, but log cabin is one of the special ones to so many of us.
I see you’re teaching a class at PNCA. Do you enjoy teaching? How has being a student informed the way you teach?
I love teaching, and I love taking classes too. I was so fortunate to take Denyse Schmidt’s two-day workshop here at PNCA in 2009, and I’m taking her new one this summer too. I’ve taught jewelry-making, sewing, quilting, collage crafts, and gocco printing, and I have enjoyed all of it, but I’m really looking forward to this summer’s class. It’s a two-day log cabin workshop and there will be so much time to design, piece and plan projects. I can’t wait. PNCA is such a beautiful place and the facilities are amazing. It’s a real treat to get to work on projects there.
I’m also really excited about my block pocket apron class at Modern Domestic. It’s such a nice beginner-friendly project – you get some practice piecing a block out of two favorite fabrics and then turn that into a pocket. I also like that it’s a very efficient project – you just need a pillowcase, small bits of two favorite fabrics, and bias tape to make a super-personalized apron!
What sewing tool could you not live without (machine excluded)? What can you not work without?
I love my tiny Gingher stork scissors on a piece of ribbon around my neck. I can’t work without my long hair pulled back and out of the way – such a good feeling.
I met Daniela two years ago when our daughters went to the same nursery school. Such a lucky coincidence! We just totally clicked and after we went out for coffee and talked crafty stuff, she jumped in to help me with some Modern Log Cabin Quilting book projects and then designed two amazing ones for the book. When the earthquake happened in Haiti in January 2010, we both did some fundraising right away (especially her, donating all the proceeds from her entire Seek yoga line to Mercy Corps) – like me, she felt so motivated to help and spread the word.
And when this earthquake + tsunami devastated Northeast Japan, Daniela called me with this idea she came up with – to make the log cabin quilts we both love so much, and sell them to raise money for relief organizations – but also (hopefully) donate some of them to people in recovering communities there a little later on… to host a real community effort to help. I put up a blog the next day and she designed all the visuals and we made a little video on how to piece a log cabin block and just went for it. The Quilts for Quake Survivors project makes me feel so hopeful – like I can be a little part of something bigger we all do that really makes a difference. People have been so generous already with their time and their fabric stashes and we’re excited to keep sharing photos as the quilting bees keep rolling along and the quilts are pieced! Thank you so much to Modern Domestic for hosting quilting bees and classes, and to everyone who’s gotten in touch or come to a bee or spread the word. We are really hopeful we can turn our collective energy into an awesome donation and support for the relief effort!
Any last guiding words for fellow or future modern quilters?
For people who are interested in quilting, but hesitant – I spent about five years in that state and I totally encourage you to go for it. Cut up some scrap fabrics and try it! And if you don’t like how it turns out, just seam rip it all and mix it up differently. A pillow or pincushion is such a fun, easy instant-gratification project. And log cabin is a great gateway into the whole world of modern quilting. For fellow modern quilters, especially my friends in the MQG – thank you! I am constantly inspired by the beautiful things you make and share with the rest of us.
We here at MD are blessed for a couple of reasons, most recently because Susan is bringing her wonderful talent here. We have a couple of upcoming events–A book signing event! And a class! Susan will be here at MD on Saturday, April 2nd from 5:00-6:00 pm for a signing of her new book Modern Log Cabin Quilting and then will stick around for a special *Saturday Night Sew-cial* from 6:00-9:00 pm, $10. Feel free to bring a project or Susan will have log cabin kits. There will be a chance to quilt them on our classroom BERNINA Aurora 440QEs with lots of ideas of what to turn these versatile blocks into. Be sure to sign up early–this one will be popular. Want a chance to bask in this lovely woman’s presence for a whole afternoon? She’ll be a teaching a project from MLCQ—the Log Cabin Block Pocket Apron, Sunday, April 17th from 2:00-5:00 pm. Play around with piecing a log cabin and use those beautiful but under-used vintage pillowcases you’ve got in your linen closet.
Leave a comment on this post and be entered for a chance to win a copy of Modern Log Cabin Quilting, plus a bonus prize. As mentioned by Susan at March’s PMGQ meeting–a bobbin sidewinder! Winner will be chosen Saturday April 2nd (open to U.S. Postal Addresses only).
Follow Susan on her blog tour…there’s bound to be surprises on the way!
M 3/21 Alyssa + Marie – Cool Cottons (plus a series of posts all week on log cabin!)
T 3/22 Book release day – Susan Beal!
Portland Modern Quilt Guild rock block!
4/18 – Christina – A Few Scraps
4/19 – Christina – Sometimes Crafter
4/20 – Megan – Megs Monkeybeans
4/21 – Jen – Betty Crocker Ass
Also 4/21 – Log Cabin presentation at the PMQG meeting!