Sewing and Quilting Author Susan Beal | SpotlightSusan Beal's upcoming book features quilting techniques and projects for beginners.
Sewing has been a passion for Susan Beal since she first learned at age 26. Her first project was a 1960s Simplicity pattern for a shift dress. (She asks that you not look too closely at the zipper she put in with a normal presser foot.) From there, she sewed for herself and her husband, eventually making skirts, handbags, and jewelry to sell at craft fairs, stores, and online. Once she transitioned from selling her sewing to writing for magazines and writing books, she rediscovered sewing for herself and for fun. Designing garment and quilt projects that encourage others to sew is more her style than making many items to sell.
Susan has written many books, including Modern Log Cabin Quilting (Potter Craft, 2011), Bead Sparkle (The Taunton Press, 2016), and World of Geekcraft (Chronicle Books, 2011). Her website, West Coast Crafty, has more details about her books and her sewing.
This November, she will be publishing a new book about quilting: sew + quilt: techniques and projects for hand-stitching and patchwork, a beginner’s guide.
Threads reached out to Susan for insider details on sew + quilt and the process behind creating it.
Threads: What is your creative process like?
Susan Beal: I get ideas all the time, and if I’m busy, I write them down quickly with a few details or a sketch or description to come back to later. I always keep a sewing journal with a record of projects I’m making, for work or for fun, and when I fill one up I start a new one. I staple in fabric swatches and write notes of what I changed or updated, or how I altered a pattern. I filled up a whole notebook with all the embroidery projects and quilts I designed for sew + quilt, including all the cutting math, block assembly, and variations. I’ve been keeping these journals for more than 10 years now, and it’s so much fun looking back through them.
I design my more complex quilts in Quilt Canvas online, which gives options to draw blocks, arrange them in settings, and change colors or orientation—basically, visualize a quilt in several ways before you commit to one option and start pulling fabrics and cutting. The finished versions are so useful for teaching the quilt design in a book. You’ll see my Quilt Canvas diagrams with every project I designed in sew + quilt.
TH: What goes into planning a quilting project?
SB: I usually start with colors, or specific fabrics. I love prints, so I often choose a focus fabric and design around that. Or I come up with a color palette and pull fabrics to audition for the right mix. Certain combinations just feel so good to look at, and then I can spin those into a bigger design. And taking photos as I go helps me see what pops and what is too busy or too muted and needs an edit.
TH: With multiple projects going on, how do you keep materials straight?
SB: It’s such a challenge. I keep my projects organized in different ways, mostly depending on size. If I’ve cut all my strips or squares or have small blocks pieced, I put them in a gallon Ziploc bag with a label and write a note on that page in my sewing journal. When I have a larger set of fabric pulls or a growing stack of blocks for a big quilt, I store them in a box or bin, labeled with a sticky note or marker. Keeping a written to-do list is key for me. It’s so motivating to check off the stages of a quilt project on deadline.
TH: How do you find time to craft for yourself in a busy life?
SB: I either have to intentionally plan for it or squeeze it in when
I find a few minutes, but it always helps me refresh and reset. For personal projects like clothes, I prewash my fabrics and fold them with the patterns I’m planning to use pinned to the top. Then, when I have time, I can reach for one of them.
TH: What inspired you to write sew + quilt?
SB: I would have loved to learn to sew growing up but never got the chance, so I vividly remember that amazing feeling of suddenly being able to make anything I wanted and how exciting that was. I was too intimidated to try quilting for a few years, though. I thought it might be hard, I’d do it wrong, or I wouldn’t like how it turned out. Denyse Schmidt Quilts (Chronicle Books, 2005) was the first quilting book I loved, and seeing her work was so inspiring. With sew + quilt, I hope I can encourage someone who’s just getting started to try something new like a beginner-friendly patchwork or quilting project, by keeping it achievable and fun—and then end up with something personal and beautiful you’ll use every day.
TH: How did you choose which techniques and projects to include in this book?
SB: I came up with the idea of teaching the five embroidery stitches and four quilt blocks as sew + quilt Samplers—in the first section, your practice marking lines and stitching on plain fabric becomes a pretty embroidery to display in a hoop, and in the next, your first four patchwork blocks create a colorful mini quilt.
I chose five simple embroidery stitches—running stitch, tiny crosses, Xs, back-stitch, chainstitch, and its spin-off, lazy daisies—and four beginner-friendly, geometric quilt blocks— log cabin, rail fence, string, and half-square triangles—and started dreaming up what to design and teach with these elements. I knew once someone learned the basics and felt comfortable with them, they’d be off and running, so I spent a long time writing the techniques sections, which cover everything from threading a needle to binding a quilt, step by step. Then, mixing and remixing those simple stitches and blocks into dozens of projects was a lot of fun.
TH: What is the biggest challenge of writing this new book?
SB: Fitting everything in. I had so many ideas. Once I settled on my four quilt blocks, it was difficult to narrow it down from a million directions to take them in. These basic geometric designs are so versatile. Lots of my sew + quilt projects evolved, like an everyday throw quilt I originally planned as a randomly pieced, supercolorful string block design, all vivid diagonal lines. Once I chose to work with my friend Elizabeth Hartman’s Terrarium fabrics, the saturated colors were so beautiful I couldn’t stand to separate them. So I reworked the whole idea, created monochromatic blocks instead, and arranged those into vivid crosses scattered across a muted background. The process took three times as long as just piecing randomly would have, but I absolutely love the finished quilt and am so happy with it. It’s funny to look back at my early sewing pages and Quilt Canvas drafts and see the complete and total evolution it went through.
TH: This book is for beginners rather than advanced quilters. How did that change your approach to writing it?
SB: I tried to demystify the instructions for every part of sew + quilt as much as possible. I remember that the first few half-square triangle blocks I tried were challenging to learn from a small series of gray-scale diagrams. I wasn’t really sure if I was trimming them to the right size, so when it came time to teach half-square triangles step-by-step in my book, I added my best tips for pressing and trimming, and illustrated both the two-of-a-kind and four-of-a-kind versions as clearly as I could.
I also designed a few mini quilts to celebrate special things in life like weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, and kids, which I think anyone would enjoy sewing, and I loved mixing handwork into some of my favorites.
TH: Do you have any advice for new quilters?
SB: Try new things, save your scraps, keep a sewing journal, join a friendly quilt guild like Portland Modern Quilt Guild, and always lock your rotary cutter after you use it.