Anna Boenish of Quilting Queerly is taking the modern quilting world by storm — and that’s a very good thing. I first discovered her amazing work in my Instagram feed from QuiltCon earlier this year; since then, she’s led an MQG monthly webinar and is slated to teach at QuiltCon 2017. She’s doing incredible things with English Paper Piecing, and her backstory and business name are super interesting, so I wanted to ask her to share here. Thanks, Anna!
What’s your sewing story?
When I was ten years old, Marla Varner, a family friend, taught me how to make a quilt. My parents were both public school teachers at the time (they just retired last month after teaching for 39 years!) and needed to go to a conference over a three-day weekend, so they dropped me and my brother off at Marla’s house. Over the course of those three days, Marla and I made my first quilt from start to finish. Looking back, I’m amazed at how much patience she had to show me how to sew on one of her old Singers, press seams with an iron, and tie off the quilt with yarn. That’s one of my favorite things about quilt community: the willingness to so openly pass on the tradition and share skills and knowledge.
Smiling in front of one of my first quilts with Marla Varner, who taught me how to quilt. Marla’s quilt won First Prize in hand quilting at the second QuiltCon in Austin, TX. She goes by the name Penny Lane Quilts on her website and @pennylanequilts on Instagram. I’m incredibly grateful for the role she’s played in my quilting journey.
When I was in seventh grade, Marla called up my parents and said she was at a garage sale and found a 1953 Singer sewing machine in great shape for $50. She said it’d make an excellent gift for me. My parents bought it and gave it to me as a Christmas present. That’s the sewing machine that I got tattooed on my arm a few years ago.
In high school I made one duvet cover with my mom and threw together a dress, but that was about it with me and a sewing machine.
Fast forward to 2010. I had graduated from college and was working mostly swing and grave shifts for a non-profit in Downtown Seattle that housed people who have been chronically homeless. I was signing guests in and out, calling the medics when there was a medical emergency, checking in on how the 110 tenants who lived there were doing, de-escalating fights before they got out of control, and cleaning four kitchens and thirteen bathrooms every shift. I was having trouble falling asleep after oftentimes having witnessed a lot during an eight hour shift. I needed a release.
My childhood best friend and her sister recently bought matching Brother sewing machines. I started sewing at the end of my shifts and absolutely fell in love with the creative, meditative outlet it provided. I made one basic quilt with pieced squares for my parents. After that I wanted to try sewing hexagons, since it’s a shape I’m aesthetically drawn to. That’s when Marla came back in the picture in a sewing sense. She showed me multiple examples of quilts and works in progress she made using a style of hand sewing called English Paper Piecing, which is great for constructing shapes with y-seams like hexagons. It’s the technique that really made me fall in love with quilting again.
My early inspirations are people who I still admire: folks like Season Evans, Ara Jane Olufson, and Blair Stocker – all Seattle based quilters whose work I saw online. I thought when I first started quilting, “One day maybe I can sew like them, or maybe even sew with them.” Now they are people who I consider friends and I regularly see at Seattle Modern Quilt Guild get-togethers.
What project of yours is your favorite? Why?
My favorite project so far is the top section of Diane’s quilt. You can see the full quilt above, along with a zoomed in picture on my favorite part of it below. I want to make a quilt someday just based on that zoomed in section of it.
I’m also a big fan of embellishing clothing with quilting techniques. Here’s a picture of my favorite embellished hoodie:
Interestingly enough, I think my favorite quilt is one I’m about to start making soon. My cousin Amanda asked me to make a quilt for her youngest daughter. Her eldest daughter was given a star quilt by my grandmother, who was an avid quilter and is the person I’m named after. Grandma Boenish just passed away last year at the age of 99. I’m excited to make a quilt for my cousin’s younger daughter that draws from some of the design elements that my grandma used on the quilt for her eldest daughter.
You are an EPP ninja! Any tips or favorite tools you love to use?
Oh thank you! English Paper Piecing (EPP) is hands down my favorite method of sewing. Here are some of my go-to tips:
- Pack a simple bag of English Paper Piecing supplies and carry it with you everywhere you go.
- Experience the wonders of sewing outside or in public. I’m consistently fascinated by the number of interesting conversations I have with people while English Paper Piecing outside. Its portable nature is what keeps me coming back. Suddenly waiting at the airport, chilling out on a front porch, or sitting beside a lake while your buddies fish can get transformed into a moment to sew.
- Experiment with English Paper Piecing different shapes together. Rather than just sticking to sewing hexagons together with hexagons, mix it up. Attach hexagons to triangles to diamonds. As long as the edges match up, you’re good to go. The possibilities are endless.
- For a long time I tried to save money by tracing English Paper Piecing shapes on cardstock and then cutting them out. At least for me, it’s not worth the time and energy that goes into making my own anymore. Plus, when I buy the pre-cut paper shapes online, they’re crisp and exactly the same size, unlike when I cut them out on my own. I buy pre-cut paper shapes from Paper Pieces LLC. I’ve found it to be absolutely worth the money and their paper shapes can be used over and over again.
If you’d like to learn more from me about English Paper Piecing, I recently gave a webinar for the Modern Quilt Guild called “English Paper Piecing with Anna Boenish” which can be viewed online.
The name “Quilting Queerly”: is it simply an expression of identity or do you feel you’re engaging in LGBTQI activism in your quilting life? And as a follow up to that, has the quilting community been accepting of you as a queer woman?
My friends frequently said I was “quilting queerly”, so I picked up that name and ran with it. I figured I’d go by Quilting Queerly online, since I’m a queer person who quilts, it’s easy to say and spell, I like the alliteration, and (much like queer people do in everyday life) I’m oftentimes crossing boundaries and binaries in my quiltmaking.
I think some of the most important queer and trans activism currently happening involves housing LGBTQ youth (40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ); working toward gaining more gender-inclusive bathrooms; increasing the visibility of queer and trans people of color and people of all body shapes and sizes; recognizing how a person’s race/class/gender/disability/immigration status impacts their experience as a queer or trans person; and eliminating hate crimes, which are at an astronomical amount for trans women of color in particular. Some people who I think are the true movers and shakers in queer and trans communities are: Kim Katrin Milan (@theladymilan), Adaku Utah (@soularbliss), Naima Penniman (@naimainfinity), Climbing Poetree (@climbingpoetree), Favianna Rodriguez (@favianna1), Janet Mock (@janetmock), Queer Feelings (@queerfeelings), and Julio Salgado (@juliosalgado83). I encourage people who are interested in learning more about queer and trans activism to check out their work.
So while I don’t think making quilts is doing much for queer community, there is an element of being out which allows for some queer people to feel more comfortable reaching out and connecting. For me, it’s also a way I actively practice self-care. The majority of people I know who quilt are straight, white women. I’ve had a number of people reach out to me and say, “You’re a queer quilter! I thought I was the only one!” By being out as a queer person who quilts, there’s an opportunity and avenue for connection.
In response to the second part of your question, I would say a huge yes. Part of that is due to how I’m a white woman, so there are fewer areas of difference between me as a queer white woman, than say a queer black woman finding space in the predominantly white, straight quilting community of the Modern Quilt Guild. One of the beauties of quilting in community is it provides an opportunity to work on something with your hands, while chatting with another person. I’ve had an endless number of fascinating conversations with people at quilt retreats and Seattle Modern Quilt Guild sew-in about infidelity, how they’ve navigating the school system with a son who is bipolar, and how to can jam – just about every subject you can imagine. I love that quilting next to someone provides the time and opportunity to open up and share. Up until very recently, I identified as a queer woman specifically because I only dated women and transmen. About two years ago, I started dating cismen, and for the last year and a half I’ve had a boyfriend who is a total gem. Along with dating men came the question for me, “What does this mean for my identity as a queer woman?” The people at the Seattle Modern Quilt Guild who I’ve talked with about dating women and men and people at fascinating places on the gender spectrum have been very open to hearing about my experiences. They’re a lovable bunch. I think quilting together has the potential to provide the space for in-depth conversations.
What’s next for you?
Up until June 2015, I only made quilts and embellished articles of clothing for friends and family. I hit a point where I was burnt out with my job and wanted to try something new. For the following ten months, I made commissioned quilts and taught youth to sew. It was an amazing experience and one I wouldn’t trade in. At the same time, it illuminated for me what really brings me alive through quilting, which isn’t quilting attached to money. By diving headfirst into quilting as a profession, I learned that I love to sew, but the pull for doing more social justice based work was stronger. I wanted to go back to having quilting as a hobby.
I recently returned to full-time work with the same amazing non-profit that I worked for since 2010 housing people who have been chronically homeless in Downtown Seattle. I have a handful of different commissioned quilts and wall hangings to finish and then I want to dive back into exploration: learning how to make more clothing from scratch and experimenting with more ideas I have for embellishing clothing. I’m excited to take the money out of it and go back to quilting simply for the fun of it.
I’m also giving three lectures at QuiltCon East in Savannah, Georgia, which is happening February 23-27, 2017. The dates and titles of the lectures are:
- Friday, February 24: Wing It! Letting a Quilt Evolve
- Saturday, February 25: What Quilters Can Learn from Artists in Different Disciplines
- Sunday, February 26: I’m Stuck! Tips for Getting out of a Creative Rut
You can read a description of each of my lectures by going to the QuiltCon East Catalog organized by speaker name and clicking on my name.
Thanks so much for reaching out! Happy sewing and quilting everyone,
http://www.quiltingueerly.com // @quiltingqueerly on Instagram