Annette Claxton meets US quilter Bonnie Lyn McCaffery for a lesson in the power of positive thinking
For someone who lives, eats and sleeps quilts, it's surprising to discover that Bonnie McCaffery doesn't come from a family of quilt-makers. While her mother used to sew and knit, and her grandmother made beautiful needlepoint items, the closest that the family came to patchwork were three little yo-yos sewn by her grandmother.
As a result, Bonnie's skills are mainly self-taught - a process that began one Christmas more than 20 years ago, when her husband, Michael, bought her a sewing machine. It was a great gift, one that opened up so many possibilities, such as the fun of making her own clothes. It was the arrival of her first daughter, however, that really gave Bonnie the urge to do some serious stitching. Following in her grandmother's footsteps, she started with cross-stitch, working block designs on gingham fabric, which she then made into a baby quilt. That was where Bonnie's journey into patchwork began - she was hooked, and she hasn't stopped stitching since!
As each daughter came along, Bonnie made bed quilts for them, as well as a sampler quilt for Michael and herself. Although she attended some quilting classes, Bonnie really regards herself as self-taught, having learnt by visiting quilt shows with her patchwork buddy, and studying and discussing the work on display.
During this ongoing learning process, several quilt artists have inspired her work: Maria Mccormick Snyder and Paula Nadelstern were major influences during her starry kaleidoscope phase, for instance, and Marilyn Henrion was instrumental in her study of block integration. One quilt that most influenced Bonnie most, however, was an exhibit at the Dairy Barn Quilt National. At that time, she explains, quiltmaking seemed to be hidebound by too many rules and 'approved' techniques. Raw edges, for example, were unacceptable – appliqué had to be turned in and, when piecing in patchwork, the front had to be smooth with the seams pressed to the back. Yet there at this prestigious exhibition, on show for all to see, was a quilt that broke all the rules. It depicted a cherry blossom branch, and Bonnie was fascinated to see that the blossoms had been made by simply cutting little squares of fabric that were then stitched in place with a small 3 x 2 cross-stitch. What the quilt taught her was that, creatively, it is possible to break the rules and succeed.
About 12 years ago, Bonnie – who belonged to a newly established guild – decided that she'd like to pass on some of her skills by teaching. After approaching the committee, she ran a mini workshop at one of the meetings. Although she recalls being extremely nervous, her worries were unfounded – the group loved her style, and Bonnie enjoyed the experience so much that she enrolled in a class to improve her teaching technique. Bonnie's ambition was to travel and teach like the big-name tutors she admired. When she asked her instructor how to go about getting on the circuit, however, Bonnie was curtly told that she'd have to win a national show or publish a best-selling book.
This rather discouraging response only served to harden Bonnie's resolve: she started teaching locally, sending out mailings, and handing out brochures whenever she taught or exhibited in local quilt shows. She also became active in her guild, using her time on the committee – where she served as president, programme organiser, and editor of the newsletter – to mould and expand the group, as well as to encounter new people and ideas.
This receptiveness to fresh ideas has arguably been one of the other great influences on Bonnie's quilting. When a magazine asked her to make a cross-stitch quilt as a project, for example, the editor so liked the way that Bonnie responded to the challenge, and her work in general, that she invited her to join the team. What followed was a four-year stint producing quilt and general crafts projects for the magazine – work that led her to the USA's two major annual craft shows. There she discovered the huge range of supplies available to craftspeople – materials that subsequently found their way into her Fantasy Fabrics quilts. In these, Bonnie developed a technique that has its roots in shadow quilting, in which all kinds of glittery materials were captured under a layer of sheer organza fabric. The layers are then stitched together, after which the finished fabric can either be cut into shapes for appliqué or piecing, or used as part of a garment.
Bonnie's open-minded approach to the craft and to techniques has led to all sorts of experiments. She's found a way, for example, to work complex designs on paper foundation to create multi-layer quilts in which each element is its own separate quilt as well as free-form appliqué. All of these innovative approaches, of course, have found their way into her workshops to be shared with other quilters.
In 1998, Bonnie entered the Jewel Pearce Patterson Scholarship, which is awarded annually by Quilts Inc, and funds a US teacher to visit the International Quilt Expo and attend classes. Bonnie had a gut feeling that she was going to win, and the feeling was so strong that she told everyone she met that she was going to visit the Expo' in Innsbruck, Austria, all expenses paid. When the news came that she had indeed won the scholarship, Bonnie couldn't be sure whether her certainty of success had been a premonition, or her success the result of positive thinking. Either way, the result was the same: she developed a taste for international travel, and working with quilters from around the world.
One of the terms of the Jewel Pearce Patterson award is that the scholars teach their own students a skill based on what they've learned through the scholarship, and produce a 10 quilt exhibition featuring three quilts of at least 50in from the scholar, and the rest from the students.
An equally important outcome of Bonnie’s visit to Innsbruck was a deal for her first book, Fantasy Fabric. The book was still a work in progress when she approached the US publisher Martingale & Company at the show. When the publisher saw her work, though, Bonnie was encouraged to polish her proposal and submit it along with the samples she'd produced. Once again, positive thinking paid off, and the result was a book deal.
Actually writing Fantasy Fabrics, Bonnie admits, was an intense business, requiring dedication and focus. She spent between five and six months working on it, and was fortunate in being able to organise her teaching schedule in order to devote the necessary time to the project. The challenge didn't put her off, though – she went on to write a second book, Fantasy Floral Quilts, which explores the variety of quilts that can be created by capturing artificial flowers under a layer of tulle.
With two books under her belt and a third in the offing, Bonnie's now busy realising that dream of teaching and travelling. An early riser, she starts work without delay, tackling the paperwork that is part of her commitment to travel and teach all over the world (her visits to Britain and the Continent are becoming so regular that she’ll soon be an honorary European). She works equally hard, however, not to lose sight of the passion that lies at the heart of her work. Bonnie always makes time to play and experiment with fabric, and Sundays are always kept free for creativity. These are the days, she says, when she becomes possessed with her obsession for creating; these are the days when incredible things happen. Bonnie loves to use her sewing-machine to work intuitively with the fabric, adding eccentric shapes, incorporating threads, ribbons, and other textural additions. Drawing on her huge collection of yarns, she delights in unusual effects, and she adores the process of designing; in comparison, the business of quilting, binding and labelling are simply the mechanics of production.
One of the recent outcomes of this creative time has been her series of painted face quilts. Having enjoyed using acrylic paints in high school, she's now interested in rekindling her skills by incorporating portraits into quilts. The technique requires a little more structure than her previous work, and is still in development, but we're sure to see the results in time!
And the future? Well, Bonnie still has a box full of ambitions. She'd really enjoy designing a range of fabric, maybe making a garment for the Bernina fashion show. She'd also like to sell her work in galleries, get a larger studio, hire an assistant, and make an award-winning quilt. Visiting India and learning from the people there how to do Zardosi embroidery is on the wish-list, too. And why not? Bonnie believes in positive thinking as firmly as she believes that you don't have to follow the rules. "Creativity," she maintains, "is critical to good mental health. So don’t be afraid to dream big. You never know where your dreams lead you."
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