Lake Michigan In Denim Quilt


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Using denim as a longtime quilter was a new and, to be honest, scary thing for me to try. I was taught that to be a good little quilter, you must always use lightweight 100% cotton. That cotton also should probably be purchased from a bona fide quilting shop. And for the most part, I still do that (at 30, I’m pretty crotchety and stuck in my ways). If you were to take a peek in my ever-growing stash closet, that is mostly what you would find.

My views on what fabrics were kosher for quilters began to wobble when I was handed a book – Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt. Are you familiar with Gee’s Bend? Well, I definitely wasn’t and after flipping through the pages of that book my mind began to slowing explode. Like, veeeeerrry slowly. It took DAYS (ok ok, we’re being honest here, MONTHS) for the reality to set in that quilts could be made from fabrics outside my little framework of what was appropriate. Whaaaaa?


So I’m flipping through this beautiful book for the 20th time, I’ve dog-eared pages, spilled wine on pages, gotten greasy fingers on pages and then all of a sudden it hit me – DENIM! Why not? These Gee’s ladies were making entire quilts from old jean pants. Surely I could make a few half square triangles from some store-bought denim (See. I told you I was stuck in my ways. I was most definitely not going to raid my husband’s closet and find some old jeans. I needed this denim to come from a quilt shop. I needed the validation.) Lucky for me, Robert Kaufman was having the same ideas about denim and came out with a line for quilters (that last bit about it being for quilters is not a fact. But, since I know Robert Kaufman makes great fabric for quilting, I’ve allowed myself to be gently pushed into denim by his trusted hand. For quilters or not.).

Here we go. I have purchased my denim. I have designed my pattern. Now, it was time to cut and sew.

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If I was really do’n it Gee’s Bend style, I would have dove in with a pair of shears and just wonky-do hacked those squares out. But, like I said, this mind explosion has been a slow burn and I still wanted the safety net of my rotary cutter and ruler. So. Like a very good little quilter I neatly stacked my fabric, cut out my squares and proceeded to make loads of half square triangles. And you know what? It went just fine. The denim was a little bit stretchier than the typical cotton I use, but nothing a few pins couldn't fix. I chose to snip the dog ears and not mess with squaring up the sides of each block. I guess I am get’n pretty funky these days. If only those Gee’ ladies could see how far I’ve come…


The Process Behind This Quilt

Before becoming a full-time freelance graphic designer, I taught a Design 101 class as an adjunct professor at Stephens College in Columbia, MO. Through many discussions with students I realized that if I could quantify the design process, more of them could relate without getting overwhelmed. In an attempt to bring my right-brained and my left-brained peeps together, I came up with this formula.

Design = 33% Research, 33% Planning, 33% Execution

I stick to that formula with all of my design work. The best pieces I have designed did not come from clicking around in Illustrator or throwing text into InDesign and hoping it will come together. My best work, and I believe most designers would agree, has come from researching other creatives and various sources of inspiration, sketching out a plan (whether it be mentally, on paper or on a computer) and then executing that plan.

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Previously I described how much the denim quilts by Gee’s Bend influenced the making of this quilt. Below are some examples of those quilts.

Gees Bend Denim Quilt

Anni Mae Young, 1976
Denim, Corduroy, Synthetic Blend
108" x 77"
The Quilts of Gee's Bend by Tinwood Books

Gees Bend Chambray Quilt

Anni Bendolph, 1930
Cotton Sacking and Chambray
83" x 70"
Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts by Tinwood Books

I then sketched out exactly what I wanted, figured out the quilty math (if you would like to see some half square triangle shortcuts, check this post out) and went to work. If you are looking at my sketch, and then at the picture of my finished quilt, you will notice there is a difference...and THAT is because half way into making 500 half square triangles I said, “SCREW THAT!” and stopped 🙂 And that’s when borders came into play. I scrapped together some thicker borders than previously planned and everything turned out fine. Moral of the story? It’s not laziness if it’s your own plan you’re ignoring.

Denim Quilt

10 thoughts on “Lake Michigan In Denim Quilt

  1. Shasta says:

    It is a gorgeous quilt, and you have photographed it so well. I understand about only wanting to use quilt shop fabric, but unfortunately my budget doesn’t allow it. You should try some old jeans – they definitely take some of the scariness away – “it is just old jeans I was going to throw away, it is okay if I make a mistake. Or a million”

  2. Joan Elkins says:

    Love this quilt, can’t tell you how many times I have ended up back here, admiring your work. (Maybe partly because I miss my Michigan, lol) It has a peace about it, restful. Am trying to design my own stained glass window quilt using batik fabric. I followed Jenny Doan on her suggestions, but couldn’t bear cutting and wasting the material as she showed in the video. Thanks for your inspiration, we can design our own!!

  3. Jan D. says:

    Hi Suzy-Enjoyed seeing your work. Looks like you live in or near Chicago. Too bad, because I’d like to share my Gee’s Bend quilts with you. I have acquired 12 of them and will be presenting a program about the quilters on 1/17 to a group of 275. I have traveled to the Bend 50 times and have sent them over a ton of fabric and now working on the second ton. My next trip will be in 6 weeks and I’ll stay there about a week. Can hardly wait. I live north of Detroit so stop by and take a look.

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