Susan Stewart is a designer, author and teacher with an emphasis on heirloom machine sewing and machine embroidery. She creates prize-winning quilts with her own techniques and specializes in free-standing lace borders.
Where do your ideas originate?
My quilts have a traditional look, but are done with techniques and materials that are not usually used in quilts. I'm not really sure where my ideas originate; I just see pictures in my mind, then figure out how to bring them to life. Sometimes I want to highlight a particular technique, and build a quilt around that. Sometimes I find a set of machine embroidery designs that spark my imagination, and I design the quilt to highlight them. Looking at lots of quilts at shows, in books and magazines, and online keeps my brain swirling. And doing something in a totally different medium seems to bring ideas to my sewing, too. I've done workshops in glass fusing, enameling, and woodworking, and come back to sewing with fresh ideas. And, of course, I love lace. Almost all of my quilts incorporate lace, whether it's the delicate lace used for heirloom sewing, or machine embroidered free-standing lace like the border on Chrysanthemum Cameo. I have lots of ideas for quilts with FSL!
How did you become a machine embroidery enthusiast?
I started doing machine embroidery sometime around 1994, soon after the time the first home sewing/embroidery machines were introduced. I remember the first time I used it...I thought, "Oh my gosh, I can sew on two machines at once!" I was designing, sewing, and writing for an heirloom sewing magazine then, so I focused almost exclusively on using machine embroidery on heirloom sewn garments, such as Christening gowns and girls' dresses. When I started quilting six years ago, it was just natural for me to incorporate machine embroidery in my quilts. In my garments as well as my quilts, I try to use the embroidery as an integral part of the design, not just single motifs plopped in the centers of blocks or skirts.
What was the inspiration for Chrysanthemum Cameo?
When I began this little quilt, I was planning on using it as a "thank you" gift highlighting Zundt machine embroidery designs. But I liked it so much that I decided to keep it, and made a different gift instead! I had previously used the single chrysanthemum motifs in another project. The central motif seemed to coordinate well with those, and it just developed from there.
What were the special challenges?
I made this quilt mostly from leftovers from other quilts. The fabrics were from a couple of different projects, as were the embroidery designs and threads. I live in a small Kansas town, and I can't go out and find supplies without driving about 100 miles. Shopping online is great, but it can be difficult to match colors. With this small project I just made do with what I had. So one challenge was getting my leftovers to blend, to look like they were meant to go together. And, of course, an ongoing challenge is to keep my projects as free of cat fur as possible!
How did you get started making FSL and FSL borders?
I started making FSL for heirloom garments and small projects, like linen towels and pillows. The first quilt on which I used a FSL border was made in 2006. I loved the look, and so have continued using the technique on some of my quilts.
How does it feel to win a prize in a prestigious quilt show?
It's wonderful! I love winning prizes! When I won with It’s All Thread, I had won a ribbon in the Computer-Aided Machine Embroidery category at Houston twice before, a 1st place in 2004 and a 2nd place in 2005. They call the makers of the winning quilts before the show, telling you that you've won a cash prize, but not which prize. The contest calender specifies which week winners will be notified. So when that week comes, I jump each time the phone rings, and when I see "Quilts Inc" on caller ID, I know. That phone call is almost as good as the awards ceremony!
Any estimate of how much thread or how much time that quilt required?
I saved my spools, so I know that I used over 32,000 yards of Isacord thread. My embroidery machine's stitch counter registered over 6,000,000 stitches for that quilt. I worked on it, although not full time, for about six months.
I just finished another heavily machine embroidered quilt. "Gloria's Garden" is a collaboration with my mother. She has made simple pieced quilts for years, and I wanted to do something with her that, hopefully, will get her name into a major show. She would be so excited! She chose the fabrics and pieced the top, then I did the machine embroidery and quilting. The flowers are all 3-D FSL, as is the border. The stitching time for each border segment was about 80 minutes! The quilt incorporates almost 7,000,000 embroidery stitches and over 60,000 yards of thread.
Please check out my new book, Heirloom Machine Sewing for Quilters, published by AQS, and go to my website, susanstewartdesigns.com to see more of my work.