Gail Lawther is an award-winning quilter, textile artist, teacher and author. She travels the length and breadth of the country and further afield to give talks about her quilts and also to run workshops teaching others her skills. Gail also designs and writes patterns and together with her husband Chris they edit, design and publish books, booklets and catalogues for themselves and other quilters.
Gail has very kindly agreed to take some time out of her very busy schedule to take part in one of our interviews…. here goes…!
Who can you remember doing your first sewing with?
My mother was an excellent seamstress – she was a very good dressmaker and stitcher of home furnishings, and she too became a quilter towards the end of her life. I think because she enjoyed sewing, it came across to me as a fun way of spending time. She showed me how to do basic sewing and embroidery when I was very young, and the first ‘serious’ stitching that she encouraged me to do was to make clothes for my Sindy doll – a rather less pneumatic version of her transatlantic cousin, Barbie! I think it was Simplicity who used to produce clothes patterns specially for Sindy garments, and creating those taught me the basic principles of using the flat medium of fabric to create a 3D shape. Very early on my mother gave me an old Singer hand-sewing machine, and that was what I used for years.
What is the first thing you made?
The earliest original textile piece I can remember creating was a fabric portrait of Elizabeth I, to illustrate a junior-school project. I used satin and other exotic fabric scraps and embellished it with lots of lace, stuck-on jewels etc. I kept that for a surprisingly long time (probably about 30 years!), then eventually cannibalised it for the jewels and lace. It wasn’t actually stitched, more stuck, but it definitely started me down the line of using fabric and thread to create my own designs. Almost exactly 50 years after that original Good Queen Bess, I created another portrait of her for my series of quilts called Glimpses of Britain I think that my stitching techniques have come on considerably since then …
What inspired you to take up sewing full-time?
I’d hoped, after school, to move into a career doing something arty such as silversmithing or interior design, but I failed my art A-level first time round, so I needed to head in a different direction. I shifted my focus towards doing something in publishing; I studied English Literature at university, and also took Typography as an extra course during my first year, which is where I met my lovely husband Chris. He’s a typographer and graphic designer, and we now produce and publish our own books, and also produce books for other craftspeople. For the first ten years of my working life I was an editor, particularly working on lots of medical books, so Chris reckons I’m ideally suited to write that niche volume, Decorative Stitches for Surgeons … While I was editing, I was also ‘moonlighting’ by designing and stitching projects for various friends who were working on stitching magazines, and eventually I decided to take the plunge and try writing my own stitching books. The first few commissioned by various publishers were all embroidery books, and then I was asked to do a beginner’s guide to quilting. As I was a complete beginner to quilting, I realised I was the perfect person to write it! That was when I essentially ‘moved over’ to quilting, although like lots of quilters these days I use plenty of embroidery – hand and machine – in my work.
What is your favourite type of stitch?
I have a favourite stitch on my Bernina, which is the automatic wavy stitch. I like the fact that its length and width are fully adjustable, and I use it to quilt with, for embroidery, and to add the bindings on my quilts. I stitch the binding onto the back first, then fold it over and secure it on the front with the wavy stitch in either a toning or a contrasting colour. Berninas also do a really excellent satin stitch, which I also find very useful and versatile. As far as hand stitching goes, for some reason I particularly enjoy working in feather stitch – with all its variations (single, double, triple, random), it can look formal or expressive.
What do you consider your best piece of work?
Wow – what a question! It would probably have to be the set of eight large banners I did for a Catholic primary school in Leeds.
They wanted scenes from the life of Jesus and the Biblical parables, and I also ensured that all the banners had lots of visual interest to capture the children’s attention: the foregrounds contain birds, squirrels, frogs, rabbits, lizards etc. I created the banners in fused appliqué; each design consists of hundreds of bright patches, fused onto a different dark fabric, leaving spaces between the patches to create a kind of stained glass effect.
Making these pushed my creativity and design abilities into whole new worlds … The school hall where they hang is square, and two banners hang on each wall; three of them are 10ft high, and two are 8ft, to fit the particular architecture of the room.
What is your very favourite thing that you have made?
That’s a difficult question too, but I think the answer is my Summer Seaside Sampler
I did it for a challenge many years ago at one of the quilt shows – the theme was Down Memory Lane. I had great fun creating 3D doughnuts, liquorice, a hat and a rubber ring, as well as adding a line of swimming costumes and towels as a fringe at the bottom. I love it when my quilts make people smile, and it’s wonderful seeing people catch sight of this and grin – or even laugh out loud! This quilt was the inspiration for one of our most recent pattern booklets, Seaside Samplers, where people can create their own designs using rows of beach huts, ice cream, bunting, sandcastles etc with simple fusing and machine quilting.
Another favourite quilt is Birds and Blossoms , which also uses fused appliqué; I used lots of hand-dyed and batik fabrics to make the shading on the birds as naturalistic as possible.
What is your favourite tool or gadget?
I’m not a great one for gadgets at all, but I love the extension table I’ve got for my machine, and also the knee lift. For many years I didn’t understand what a knee lift did, or why it was useful; now I wouldn’t be without it, as it means I can keep both hands on the work as I lift the foot and turn it. Rotary cutters/boards/rulers have transformed the world of quilting, and the recent additions of 505™ glue spray and Frixion™ pens to the quilter’s workbox have been equally fantastic. I keep an unpicker next to my sewing machine, not only for the obvious use, but also I use the point to hold down stray bits of fabric while I stitch them in place, which keeps my fingers away from the needle.
Do you have a favourite colour to work in?
I don’t have one specific favourite colour, but I’m always drawn to the peacock part of the spectrum: blue, purple, turquoise, jade greens, bright pinks. I don’t often use what I call sludgy colours (taupe, grey-blue, rusty orange etc), though I do enjoy the challenge of building them into occasional projects.
What type of fabric would you choose to work with?
As I was self-taught, I didn’t learn all the ‘rules’ that quilters occasionally feel restricted by – which was handy, because I simply picked whichever fabric, thread etc worked best for the effect I was looking for. I began by doing a great deal of stained glass patchwork, and if these are decorative pieces – wall-hangings etc – then it doesn’t matter if you mix fabrics, as it’s not a problem if they behave differently. (That’s only really important when you’re seaming the patches, or creating pieces that will be laundered often.) As a result, I’ve used leather, lamés, silk, satin, synthetics, velvets and brocades, sheers and metallics as well as cottons. The kind of work I’m creating these days lends itself more to standard cottons, but I do like my bling, and am still particularly drawn to cottons overprinted with gold or silver. And I love working in silk dupion, too; it has a gorgeous sheen, and is a dream to hand-quilt.
My Seascape quilt is a perfect example of combining lots of different fabrics and techniques: it includes velour, satin, brocade, synthetics, sheers and cottons, and is quilted and embellished by hand and machine.
Do you prefer hand work or machine work?
Another tricky question to answer, as I really enjoy them both. I do most of my work by machine, simply for speed, but I find hand-stitching very soothing; when I’m at quilt shows it’s a great chance to sit and hand-stitch, add embellishments to a design etc, and similarly when I’m sitting watching a film on the television.
What’s your dream sewing machine?
Again, not being very tech-minded, I’m extremely happy with my Bernina Aurora (despite the fact that the stitch regulator hasn’t worked for many years!). I see quite a few people who are tempted to buy very fancy sewing machines, and then are scared to use them because they’re too complex; also, the more complex a machine is, the more things can go wrong. When people ask me to suggest a good machine, I usually advise them to make a list of the things in a machine that they would ideally like, then buy the most substantial and reliable machine at that level that they can afford – but not to be tempted by all the gadgets and gizmos, which they will rarely use (if ever …).
My advice to a newbie would be:
Above all, have fun. Pick a couple of small, easy projects you can make using simple techniques; then you’ll have a massive sense of achievement when they come together quickly. I feel that it can be a mistake to start off with a big sampler quilt, as many beginners do. Yes, you learn loads of different techniques, but it can become a millstone round your neck: I’ve heard lots of people who are new to quilting say things like ‘I’d really love to do something like that, but I can’t/daren’t/mustn’t until I’ve finished my sampler quilt … ,’ which is such a shame. A few weeks ago the eight-year-old daughter of friends came over for a sewing session; by the end of that first time together, she’d made herself a little stuffed cockerel toy, and a pair of felt slippers decorated to look like mice. She was so proud of herself and the finished items, and her mother, who doesn’t stitch, could hardly believe her eyes.
What is the piece of work that has driven you mad/been a disaster/driven you to tears?
There is only one piece of work that has made me cry, and happily it wasn’t a stitching project. I’m not really a knitter, but I’d found a pattern for a very simple jumper that was well within my capabilities – basically just stocking stitch and a bit of ribbing – and decided to make it for Chris for his birthday. I designed the pattern on the front myself, and knitted it into the jumper different colours, working in secret all the time. When it was finished and stitched up, it looked wonderful – though maybe a bit small? I pondered this for a while, then decided to use the method I use for blocking quilts to flatten them: I sprayed it with water, and pinned it out flat on the carpet and allowed it dry in its new shape. Its new, extremely generous, in fact ginormous, shape … When I tried it on, it reached my knees – and Chris is considerably slimmer than I am. When he came home from work that day, I tried to explain what had happened; I just kept pointing at this monstrosity and sobbing with a mixture of frustration and hysterical laughter! Not surprisingly, he never wore it; I wore it as a kind of ‘sloppy joe’ over leggings for a few years, with the sleeves turned up about five times, then it was quietly consigned to the textile recycling …
Do you make things for other people?
I do indeed; particularly I create quite a lot of large church banners.
This photo above shows one I did this time last year for the Church of Christ the King in Cumbria, based on the designs of the church’s very modern stained glass window. It was enormous fun to create, and I used a long-arm quilter for the first time to quilt it, which was also great fun – and surprisingly easy. In a totally different style, Chris enjoys wearing waistcoats that I’ve designed and stitched specially for him; for his 60th I stitched him one featuring oystercatchers, which are some of our favourite birds.
What famous person (alive or historical) would you love to create something for?
I actually thought about this a while ago, when I saw a television programme which involved craftspeople creating works of art for various people in the public eye. Evelyn Glennie, the percussionist, had an amazing hollow ceramic instrument created for her, which she could feel the different vibrations of when she sounded it in various ways; she was so interested in the process, and also delighted with the final result. I would like to design a quilt for her, and also for Nick Crane. I came across Nick Crane many years ago – long before he became well-known as a television presenter – when he used to write for a now-defunct magazine called World. I loved his quirky and humorous but extremely knowledgeable way of looking at the world and the places he explored, and Chris took great pleasure in looking out his books about his travels for me to enjoy. I think that both Evelyn and Nick would be fascinating, intellectually curious people to meet and talk to, and then I’d love to design them each a unique piece inspired by their interests and experiences.
What’s your best sewing background music?
I rarely listen to music while I’m stitching and designing, as Radio 4 is my drug of choice; I’ve learned an astonishing amount about a very diverse range of subjects listening to different documentaries (who knew about the influence of Jim Reeves in Nigeria? Or the Kevin Bacon game in mathematics?), and I also enjoy radio dramas. I spend a lot of time on the road, travelling to various bits of the country to teach and do talks, and when I’m driving I also tend to listen to Radio 4; but if there’s something really boring on, I’ll turn off and just have silence, or put some music on. At those times my listening is an eclectic mix of contemporary folk singers (Cara Dillon, Maddy Prior/Steeleye, Simon Nicol/Fairport, Kate Rusby, Rita Connolly, Celtic Woman etc), and Christian singers (Michael W Smith, Casting Crowns, Laura Story, Sovereign Grace, Robin Mark etc).
Are you an early riser or a night bird – when is the best time for you to sew?
That question’s easy to answer: most definitely not an early riser. A friend of ours has spent years catching the 6.15am train from Worthing to London; as far as I’m concerned, that’s still the middle of the night. When we don’t have to get up early for teaching commitments, Chris and I are both late risers and late workers; if we don’t have anything else planned for an evening, we’re very happy to work till 8 or 9, then stop and have a meal while winding down with a good TV drama or DVD.
What other hobbies or interests do you enjoy?
I love reading, and also walking in the sun – preferably by water. We’re fortunate to live close to the sea, but I’m also happy with rivers, lakes, reservoirs … I’m not proud. When I’m working away from home, my main way of winding down after a busy day is to find somewhere to walk in the evening – which, in urban areas, can end up simply involving walking round the surrounding housing estates! I also enjoy sleeping and sunbathing (I’m very happy to combine the two, and snooze in the sun), and Chris and I love just getting together with friends, in small or large groups, and enjoying food and wine together. We deliberately bought a house that has a large living room, so that we can entertain often. We’re very involved in our local church, and that includes things such as hosting meals and homegroups, cooking for the homeless shelter and various other activities. As I’m typing this, there is a batch of food cooling ready to feed the people coming along to the church’s Alpha course this evening.
Who in the sewing or crafting world do you most admire?
Quite a while ago I came across the work of Jane Sassaman, who creates bright, bold, almost modern-deco quilts. When I taught at the New Zealand Quilt Symposium in Queenstown a few years ago, I was lucky enough to be teaching in the next room to her, and kept popping in to see the quilts she was displaying that particular day! At the same Symposium I came across Hollis Chatelain, whose work is simply breathtaking. Hollis paints exquisite designs, then machine-quilts them very intricately in a wide variety of colours; when you look closely, you see that the stitching is also creating its own images and story. Stunning.
What are you currently working on?
Last year we launched a series of booklets under the series title Gail Lawther’s Quick Quilts, and so far we’ve done four of them: Cottage Gardens, Doodlebugs, Seaside Samplers, and Garlands. All of these use quick fusing methods, and the designs are then very simply quilted by machine. Photo I shows the Showstopper Garden from Cottage Gardens – this one uses what I call scribble-stitching or doodling, when you just doodle round the edges of the shapes using free machining. The great thing about scribble-stitching is that it doesn’t matter whether your free machining is really good or absolute rubbish, as it really doesn’t matter where the lines go! You end up with a really attractive sketchy effect. These booklets have proved wildly popular (so much so that we’ve already had to reprint one of them), and I’m currently working on projects for the next two, to be published in 2019: one is Noah’s Ark, and the other is called Christmas Samplers
Basically, I just have a ball; yes, sure there are days when I just do wall-to-wall admin, or sit in front of a computer writing instructions and drawing diagrams for hours on end, but I can’t imagine a better way to earn a living.
Thank you to both Gail and Chris for their contribution. You can find out more about Gail’s workshops and books at their website
All designs and images are copyright ©Gail Lawther and are not available for re-use