Maggie Barber shares her quilts, old and new, with Marion Haslam
Even if the name Maggie Barber is not instantly recognisable, one of her quilts certainly is. Cymbidium Fantasy was one of the magazine’s dramatic cover quilts in 2002 and was also seen by thousands of visitors to the Quilt 2001 exhibition which toured London, Dublin and Harrogate. And Maggie has now made the cover again with her glorious crazy quilt, Tutti Frutti. Sewn for her daughter, Holly, it explodes with colour and glorious embellishment.
Meeting this talented quilter in order to learn more about her work, I was struck by her modesty plus her love of fabric and pattern. Maggie’s quilts show an interesting mix - beautiful workmanship combined with a glorious pot pourri of fabrics and patterns.
Whilst her Quilt 2001 entry included silks, velvets and satins that she dyed specially in subtle pinks, corals and greens, many of her other quilts show a real mix of fabrics - some fabulous, some bizarre and some downright challenging (as Maggie admits ‘I love hideous fabrics’). Yet Maggie has developed that quilter’s knack of being able to see the possibilities in even the most outlandish fabrics. Her quilts include furnishing florals, wild tropical prints, tiny quilt patterns, plaids and plains. So how did Maggie develop these pattern and colour skills?
Maggie has always sewn - to start with it was dressmaking. Soft furnishings followed as she and her husband, Peter, set up home. She trained as a nurse (and still works part-time in nursing), but also studied for a tailoring course which has obviously instilled in her standards of fine workmanship. In 1989, a friend, Sue Halifax, finally persuaded Maggie to join her patchwork workshops, albeit reluctantly at first. Membership of a local group in south west London followed and Maggie’s quilt sewing started in earnest.
Her early quilts such as her Dresden Plate show her love of combining colours - a raspberry pink adds some zing to the pastel yellows and blues. Maggie’s attendance at workshops has resulted in a number of finished quilts, including Pointing in the Right Direction for her husband. This was the result of a Sizzling Strips workshop and is made from two groups of graduated fabrics, strip pieced, before being cut into triangles and rearranged. The colours are bolder and more varied than the Dresden Plate quilt, yet the black sashing and circular black quilting provide a cohesive frame for this lively quilt. Nine blocks provide an extra surprise on the reverse of the quilt. At a local exhibition Maggie overheard a visitor commenting ‘That’s the wackiest quilt I’ve ever seen’ whilst looking at her work.
Another bold design, sewn in 1995, is Who’s Looking at You? This includes some of Maggie’s favourite accent fabrics - large florals and lively stripes in yellow and bright pink. Incredibly, this was only her second attempt at small vermicelli machine quilting. Her proficiency is clearly evident on the light background triangles. And the title? Well close study of the vibrant patches reveals creatures and eyes looking back at the viewer.
Maggie admits she is passionate about colour and big, bold designs. Her use of large scale prints in her quilts demonstrates that it is possible to incorporate such designs successfully in smallish patches, when one has confidence. A look through her meticulously folded fabrics in a large chest of drawers reveals an inspirational collection - wild prints cheek-by-jowl with more usual quilt fabrics. Maggie loves using a touch of yellow in her quilts to pep up the designs and her favourite colours are reds and pinks. There is only colour with which she struggles. As she says, ‘I don’t do green’.
No longer a reluctant quilter, Maggie started the City & Guilds in Patchwork and Quilting. Studying at Windsor College with Jenni Last as a tutor, Maggie completed her Part I in 1998 and Part II in 2001. For her major project at the end of the Part I course, Maggie designed her quilt, A Village Affair, based on Myan Hieroglyphics and a pair of ceremonial trousers from Santiago, which she saw at a local shop and information centre, the Myan Centre in Wandsworth Bridge Road.
The trousers were embroidered by a sixteen year old boy to be worn during the Easter celebrations in his village. Maggie says that they were unique in that the embroidered motifs are usually flowers or bird wings. Maggie combined the traditional images of birds with possible characters from the village such as the cook and medicine man. This quilt really does demand a closer look in order to fully appreciate the complex appliqué and the precise piecing in the sashing and border designs. The icing on the cake was a second merit award at the 1998 National Quilt Championships (the first was in 1997 for a quilt made using a Barbara Barber design, sewn to feature in one of Barbara’s books).
So coming back to the beginning and Cymbidium Fantasy, designed for her Part II assessment. Maggie loves growing orchids, evident from the healthy plants romping away in her conservatory. She admits that she doesn’t pamper them - it’s survival of the fittest. They are supposed not to like immediate heat and bright sunshine, but seemed quite happy growing on windowsills above radiators! The delicacy of the patterns and colours in the flowers inspired the quilt colour scheme, which incorporates hand dyed and painted fabrics, another newly learnt skill. The quilt has also convinced Maggie that green is not such a terrible colour after all and the subtle leafy-khaki shade provides an excellent foil for the pinks and oranges.
When I visited Maggie this spring, she was delighted to learn that she had just been awarded the Bronze medal for her part II City and Guilds work. I cannot think of a more deserving recipient. Maggie Barber’s quilts combine excellent design and workmanship, plus a zest for colour and fabric that is infectious. I came away wanting to embrace bold fabrics in my own work and a desire to have a go at growing orchids!
Photographs by Marion Haslam except Cymbidium Fantasy courtesy of Creative Exhibitions Ltd
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