I first interviewed award-winning quilter Tim Latimer for a profile in the December/January 2014 issue of Quilters Newsletter. I had come to know his work by reading his blog, TimQuilts.com, where he showed his progress hand quilting vintage quilt tops that he would buy from eBay or Etsy sellers, along with frequent photos of his dog, Teddy “the Quilt Inspector.”
After that point Tim and I became Facebook friends, which allowed me a closer look at his work and how it’s evolved from hand quilting “time span” quilts to gorgeous free-motion quilting (FMQ) using antique treadle machines. I thought now might be a good time to catch up with him on a professional level, so we chatted online earlier this week. Here’s our conversation, which should be of interest to any quilter who’s ever looked at beautiful quilting, whether by hand or machine, and wondered, “How’d they do that?”
Mary Kate: Hi Tim, thanks for speaking with me today!
Tim Latimer: Thank you!
MK: When last we spoke, were you doing any machine quilting at all or was it still all hand quilting?
TL: At that time it was all hand quilting. I did some machine piecing but all the quilting I was doing was by hand.
MK: And you were spending about 4 hours a day at least on hand quilting, right?
TL: At least, and even as much as 6 or 8.
MK: That’s … a lot of time quilting.
TL: I was up to 16 hand-quilted quilts per year
MK: Which, again, is very prolific for a hand quilter. When did you start machine quilting, and what did you use?
TL: I think it has been 2 years now since I started machine quilting. I purchased an antique treadle sewing machine and didn’t know anything about it. I found a manual for it and on one page it talked about machine quilting (basic straight lines) but that got me thinking about the possibility of doing FMQ on it.
MK: What inspired you to buy that antique treadle machine? Was it just for the object itself, or were you thinking of moving into machine quilting?
TL: When I bought it I was just buying it for the beauty of it. I really didn’t have any idea where it would lead me; I just thought it was a pretty machine and I loved the oak parlor cabinet it was in.
MK: What was it about FMQ that appealed to you at that time?
TL: I had been having increasing pain in my joints (shoulders, elbows, hands) and hand quilting was painful and I was getting less and less done, and FMQ seemed like a good way to give my hands and shoulders a break but still be able to quilt. So when I started with it it was a bit of a compromise. But learning what I can do with it, and how much it opens new possibilities for me creatively, it is no longer a compromise at all.
MK: Anyone who’s seen your work on Facebook or your blog will agree with that — your work is beautiful. Have you only done FMQ on the treadle or have you tried modern machines?
TL: I just recently won a Handi Quilter Stitch 510 machine from the Quilt Alliance “Voices” contest where my quilt came in second place; the quilts will be auctioned off in November for a fundraiser. I have done a few small things with it. It is a learning curve getting adjusted to the motor and foot control but basically the same. I think I like the old machines (I have something like 45) because of the nostalgia factor and because I can do any repair and maintenance myself, but the new machine sure sews great.
MK: Can you describe your initial learning curve with the treadle when you started FMQ? How big were the pieces you were quilting? How long did it take you to feel like you were getting the hang of it?
TL: I started by piecing a full sized top on the treadle, just to get the feel of it and learn the rhythm with the foot and get comfortable, then I did the quilting of that top on the treadle. I got the feel for it pretty quickly. I was slow to be sure, but I felt pretty confident after that quilt was finished.
MK: When did you start making your quilted bags and selling them?
TL: That was about December. I made one for a gift exchange and posted about it on Facebook and saw there was interest so I started selling. My friend Sandy got that first bag and she says she is proud to have the original.
MK: Wow, so it’s been less than a year! How many bags have you sold since then?
TL: I have lost track of how many… I can check my Etsy records to see.
MK: In addition to the bags, what else have you been FMQ with your treadle?
TL: I have been doing quilts: full-sized quilts, wall quilts (art quilts); book covers; I also did upholstery for a chair in quilted leather.
MK: Oh, that’s right! So, you’ve been keeping busy to say the least. Has switching to quilting by machine helped alleviate any of the symptoms you were experiencing?
TL: It has made me able to quilt. I still have a hard time doing more than an hour at a time of hand quilting but I can do a full day on the machine if I take breaks. Every time I change the bobbin I get up and stretch.
MK: Do you find it as satisfying as hand quilting, or more so? Or just different?
TL: It is different … really for me they are two totally different things. The whole experience is different: sitting and hand quilting is a slow and quiet thing; sitting at the machine is different. It took a while of doing it to get the feeling that I was actually quilting — that came when I got to the point of being able to do it without needing to think really hard while I was doing it. I have had several people say that they are amazed when they watch one of my videos that I can talk and FMQ at the same time.
MK: Yes, I’m still at the point in my FMQ journey where I have to remind myself to breathe. I aspire to being able to talk and stitch at the same time. Speaking of feedback from other people, what sort of reactions have you gotten overall? I first learned of you via your blog, so you’ve had a public quilting persona for a few years now and have more than a few “fans.” I also know that there are hand quilters who look to you for inspiration. What sort of reaction have you gotten to shifting from hand quilting to FMQ?
TL: Well … It is a mixed bag. I would equate it with Dylan going electric: half of the crowd booed and half of the crowd cheered. Those that were booing were those that didn’t want him to change. Lots of people got to know my work as a hand quilter and they expect me to only hand quilt, and only do traditional hand quilting. I had been doing a lot of big stitch quilting because it was easier on my hands and many people expressed that they thought that was cheating … they really thought that machine quilting was cheating! I have had many negative comments about machine quilting. One sticks out: “I am very disappointed. I followed you to see your beautiful award-winning hand quilting and all you ever post is quilting on a treadle machine … no one even has one of those.” So many say “I sure miss your hand quilting.” On the other side many people appreciate the work on the machine and can relate to it because they also FMQ … I guess I can’t make everyone happy.
But really I have been able to do so many more things since I got to work on the machine. I can quilt on leather, I can make those handbags, I can do more than I could before. I must admit I was a bit of a hand quilting snob when I was only doing hand quilting. I had no idea how much skill and practice it takes to do good FMQ … it is different than hand quilting but every bit as much skill is needed. For a long time I felt like I was letting down the hand quilters. It really did cause a lot of internal struggle, but I decided I need to move forward.
MK: Your admission about having been a bit of a snob made me chuckle in self-recognition. I’ll be honest, I feel like FMQ takes a lot more skill than hand quilting does, if only because there are so many more variables to take into consideration and troubleshoot. With hand quilting, it’s just you, a quilt sandwich, and needle and thread. It’s taken me a lot longer to be able to FMQ even passably well than it took me to start hand quilting. This is not to say that one is better or more valuable than the other.
TL: I can agree with that. There is a lot more to keep track of in FMQ: the speed, tension, bobbin, etc. … and it does take longer to be proficient at than hand quilting. But yes, one is not better than the other; they are very different.
MK: So, when we profiled you in Quilters Newsletter about four years ago, you said you planned to live to 100 because you had a lot of quilts to finish based on all the vintage tops you’d acquired. What are your current plans for those tops — are you still quilting them by machine?
TL: I have done a few of them by machine (those that were newer or not anything “special”). I do still plan to hand quilt a number of those I have collected (about 400) and some will get machine quilted and some will stay as tops because I think they are best kept in as-made condition.
MK: I love that you started FMQ with what I call “not-precious” tops. Are you currently doing any hand quilting or are you waiting until you get some relief from your health challenges to take it back up again?
TL: I have a few quilts in the hoops right now and I put in some stitches every day. They have been in progress for 2 or more years now … but I hope that I can finish them up soon.
MK: If nothing else, hand quilting is all about time, isn’t it?
TL: It is … hand quilting is not for the impatient.
MK: Nope. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today about your process and your continuing growth as a quilter. Maybe we can do this again to see where you are in another couple of years?
TL: That would be great! I love to talk quilting!!
All photos copyright Tim Latimer and used by permission.