A couple of years back, when Rhonda and I were batting around the idea of Right Sides Together, we envisioned it primarily as a space to support and promote other quilters and sewists. There are so many talented stitchers out there, only a small fraction of whom receive the praise and fame and Instagram followers worthy of their gifts. We all have so much to learn from one another, and we wanted to be a voice to bring as-yet-unsung talent to the forefront.
When I met Shelby Marie Skumanich (follow her on Instagram at @godshomemovies) a few months ago, I knew right away she was exactly the sort of quilter we created RST around. Shelby is a relatively new transplant to Colorado, and she showed up to our guild with these quilts that were at once everything and nothing I’ve known quilting to be. Her work is geometric and often simple in piecing, and yet she hand-quilts everything to perfection. Shelby’s quilts look vintage and traditional in some ways, but her color palette and play with composition and texture are amazingly modern.
Naturally, I pounced on Shelby almost immediately and asked her to share some of her background and influences. Here’s what she had to say:
What’s your sewing story?
I grew up around women who were seamstresses, home sewists, and all other varieties of craftspeople, so it felt natural for me to pick it up. My paternal grandmother, Carol, was a crafty woman all of her life. She worked as a tailor at a women’s clothing store in my hometown and knitted, sewed, crocheted, made hats, and did various other types of fabric and fiber-related stuff. My maternal grandmother, Mary, while I never knew her, sewed all of her life, largely out of thrift than creativity. My mother, Ora, made a lot of my clothes and the best Halloween costumes while I was growing up and continues to sew to this day. My aunt, Donna, is an accomplished and incredibly talented traditional quilter.
My mom taught me to sew when I was 10 or 11. In a very teenage way, I used all of my creative energy to explore my identity. I made all sorts of stuff, including patchwork bags, refashioned thrift store clothing, and some seriously ugly quilts and pillows. After I left for art school, I put away sewing for other creative mediums, notably photography and bookmaking. I came back to sewing, specifically quilting, after my grandmother died in 2012. I had been doing commercial photographic work that wasn’t going anywhere. I realized that life was too short and I wanted to get back to making useful, physical objects. I threw myself headlong into quilting, both its craft and its history, and it has been all-consuming ever since. I want to note that my husband, Aubrey, has been incredibly supportive and encouraging of this particular endeavor, which I’m super thankful for.
The biggest thing they’ve all taught me was to make everything with love. Make things because you love making them and make them for the people you love. They’ve taught me the value of having fine craftsmanship and using good, familiar tools. They also taught me to to press my seams.
How do you describe your quilting style?
I like to think of my style as being modern traditional, though it’s starting to shift towards stuff that’s a little less structured and more improvisational. That said, I tend towards simple, traditional blocks and very narrow color palettes in solid or very low volume patterns. I’ve recently picked up a few color runs from hand dyers and Fassett shot cottons that I’m looking forward to incorporating into my work. I love vintage, antique, and repurposed fabrics. Their history brings something quite special to a quilt.
Where do you find inspiration for your quilts?
Every quilt I make is fundamentally inspired by 19th- and early-20th-century Amish quilts from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They are in the back of my mind every time I conceive an idea for a quilt. I immediately connected with them when I saw them in the Esprit Collection at the Quilt and Textile Museum in Lancaster. I love their simple piecing and their quiet self-expression in the fine hand quilting. I love what bold quilts they made while living in such a restrictive environment; they feel so defiant. I’m also influenced by minimalist art of the 20th century, particularly Frank Stella, Agnes Martin, and Richard Serra. The focus on physical properties, composition, and materials in their work is something that I always try to bring to the forefront of my quilts. While my quilts are personal and emotional while I’m making them, I want to make quilts that are primarily driven by their aesthetics. Last but not least, I have to give props to the community of brilliant makers and quilters whose lives and work I follow on Instagram; they’ve been a great source of inspiration and community.
What is it about hand quilting that resonates with you? Is it a connection to the past, an appreciation for slowing down, or something else?
It’s a little bit of both of those things. I recognize that I am creating work with a very rich tradition and it’s a nod to that. The slowing down is incredibly important, as I’ve dealt with anxiety my whole life. It’s a soothing and labor-intensive process that forces me to focus on what I am doing in that moment, which takes me away from obsessive, anxious thoughts. Hand quilting also marks time for me. I look at my quilts and it brings back where I was in my life, the season or seasons it spanned and what it felt like to make it.
In addition to hand quilting, I also hand baste my quilts, as I find it keeps things flatter and neater. A quilt will take me probably about 100-300 hours, depending on size of the quilt and density of quilting.
What’s in your hand-quilting toolbox?
My hand-quilting tool box is pretty simple and is based around Japanese sashiko materials. I mark my quilting design by using a bone folder to score the lines into the top before basting. I love the sashiko needles from Tulip, the length of which is dependent on the materials I am sewing through. Their needles are super sharp and are dreamy to sew with. I use a brass thimble from Little House. My favorite thread is a sashiko thread by Hida Thread, which (sadly!) is no longer in business. I use a stick of beeswax to lightly coat the thread before sewing to prevent bearding. For trimming, I use a pair of Gingher Featherweight Thread Snips. When I use a hoop, it’s a 14″ lap hoop that I found in my grandmother’s stash.
What’s the best piece of advice you have for new quilters?
For me, the biggest one is to be patient with yourself and don’t rush through projects. There’s a big learning curve and you’re going to make a bunch of mistakes. A lot of what you make is going to be bad. Just be patient, you’ll get there if you give yourself the time and space to be imperfect.
Also, press your seams.
Which of your quilts makes you the proudest?
My favorite quilt so far has to be Quilt no. 008: White on White Four Patch.
It felt like the first time I really got my goal of bringing very simple, traditional quilt design into the 21st century. I used a bunch of antique feedsack fabric that gives this great texture and is a nod to quilter’s tendencies to use every last piece. For being made of shades of white and off-white, it’s really tactile and has a lot of quiet movement. It was a Christmas gift for my mom last year and it currently lives with her collection of quilts in her living room.