Interview with Denyse Schmidt
Denyse Schmidt has inspired a transformation in quilting. Her subtle collaborations of modern with traditional have wide appeal. Denyse’s designs have a graphic simplicity in the most thoughtful, artistic and beautifully involved sense of good design. She shared her design approach and skill in her book Denyse Schmidt Quilts and shares her quilts, fabrics, patterns, paper goods and more with the world. Denyse recently talked with us to share some of her thoughts for our Quilting Month.
A diverse background & studies in design
Denyse had a diverse foundation in sewing and design prior to starting her company, Denyse Schmidt Quilts, more than ten years ago. She spent her childhood making things, and was influenced by the skill and pride her parents exhibited as they made things too. Later Denyse worked in a variety of positions from seamstress for a ballet to sewing ecclesiastical garments. In her late twenties she returned to school for more formal design studies. Denyse says, “I really just wanted to go back to school and study design, and I kind-of randomly chose graphic design… I knew that I wanted to be in the supportive environment of education and be learning.” Denyse enjoyed her experience at RISD and says, “I came out of there with skills. The design industry was undergoing one of its major revolutions that had to do with technology…” Companies were struggling to make changes to computer-based design and in this transitioning design environment Denyse’s skills as a recent graduate opened up opportunities for well-paying jobs. This, in turn, supported the start of Denyse’s company.
Developing a business
After Denyse graduated she moved to Connecticut and had a series of design jobs. She ended up working for a mass-market children’s book publisher where the work was fairly easy but not wholly satisfying. The ephemeral nature of graphic design with hours of work devoted to something almost intangible (that many people don’t even notice) was frustrating. It didn’t take long for Denyse to feel her work wasn’t taking full advantage of her skills. Denyse had taken some summer art courses before RISD, working with fabrics and collage, and she had become interested in quilts even though she hadn’t made one yet. With a combination of dissatisfaction with her job and “wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” Denyse made her first quilt for someone. It was a 9-patch and she says, “There was something about working on that quilt that would last forever and I had a tangible record of doing the hand quilting… That felt really important to me.” At the same time Denyse was falling in love with so many of the “beautiful, simple, quirky old quilts” she was finding in books that weren’t popularly known. This was before the Gee’s Bend quilts gained renown and Denyse says, “I was looking at quilts like that, that really got me fired up.” At the time Denyse started her business, the various quilting worlds were steeped in their own traditions and department stores were referencing a type of “country aesthetic.” Quilting traditions with clean lines, bold colors and graphic simplicity were not a focus. “I thought there was this whole wealth of sophisticated design… I wanted to make people realize that quilts could be really cool.”
A quilt from the Denyse Schmidt Works Cotton Collection.
The beginning of Denyse Schmidt Quilts
Denyse made some really good decisions when she started her company. Intellectually and aesthetically she had clear ideas about how she wanted the business to develop but as Denyse says, “There weren’t a lot of people I could model myself after.” She figured out pricing based on how many quilts she could make and thinks she made a good choice in starting out at the high end of the market. Early on Denyse made another good decision when she exhibited at a contemporary home furnishings trade show. “There wasn’t anybody doing anything in bedding at the time and the quilts are really graphic so they really stood out.” Denyse kept her graphic design job for the first four years, funding her company’s development and gradually tapering off hours at her old job as her company grew.
Balance and creativity
Denyse Schmidt Quilts has a wide variety of products and designs. The company offers Couture and Works quilt lines and Denyse has also designed quilts for Sarita Handa Exports and Crate & Barrel. In addition to her popular Katie Jump Rope and Flea Market Fancy fabric lines and patterns, Denyse Schmidt Quilts offers a large assortment of paper goods in association with Chronicle Books. Denyse enjoys all of the facets of her company’s work but her favorite part is, “Making things… Creating things.” Working with partnerships, licensing and the more “management” aspects of the company are all things she enjoys though it takes some juggling. “I have been longing for awhile now to get back to making things… Actually to work in a series format. I have these bins of wool and I keep pulling them out and then I get too busy and I have to put them back. And I really just want to get them up on a wall and sew stuff together and kind of explore, mostly in artwork form and then put them out there…” Denyse laughs when asked if she ever gets to do “recreational sewing.” “Absolutely not!” she replies. She learned how to knit a year and a half ago and takes a lot of pleasure in that (she’s kept it to scarves so far), and she has a project in mind incorporating embroidery and typography. Denyse says in a way it’s like when she started her business, “Coming home at the end of a long day and trying to make time for creative work is really hard. And I know that so many people out there, especially all of you guys who have creative, crafty blogs… A lot of you are working other jobs and it’s hard to make that time, but it’s also really important.” Denyse hopes to gradually shift the focus of her daily work a bit more to the creative, making side she loves.
What a Bunch of Squares couture quilt, shown in twin size.
Denyse Schmidt Quilts, 30 Colorful Quilt and Patchwork Projects brought Denyse’s designs and quilting wisdom to an ever-broadening and appreciative audience. After working in book design it was fun for Denyse to be on the author side of book creation; she put a lot of heart and effort into sharing her love of quilting through the project. The book includes many of Denyse’s popular designs including What a Bunch of Squares and Drunk Love 2-Tone, and is full of tips and inspiration for quilters of all skill levels. Denyse says it’s a lot of work to do how-to books and she’s, “grateful people are using it and appreciating it… It was really fun to be able to put stuff out there and the most rewarding aspect for me is to see photographs of people’s versions of the projects or to hear ‘I looked at the pictures and I made my own…’” Denyse says it gives her a thrill when someone shares their work inspired by her designs. “It’s a springboard… Everyone brings their own perspective to it and I love that.”
Denyse teaches hands-on, improvisational quilting workshops in her studio. The advice she shares with her students echoes her words the book and resonates for all quilters, whether you’re just starting out with sewing or have a life-long love of quilting.
Denyse elaborates, “It can be overwhelming and I think any of those things you want to undertake to break it down into small steps is really a great idea. I find the improvisational way of working really liberating. I teach a workshop on that and I didn’t invent the process but it’s more like a process of collage. In my workshop I sort-of relieve everybody of the burden of all the decision-making about what colors you’re going to put together next… by making them draw blindly out of a paper bag and I put time limits on it. It’s a really great process because I really push people to stop editing. I think so much of what makes it overwhelming is wondering, ‘Is it going to look OK? Which color should I do…’ Just sort-of the deliberating process. And then to do a whole quilt of pattern is fine but it’s so big that after awhile you might loose interest in it… To just sew the fabric together and not think about it so much is really liberating… The cool thing about quilts is that mostly they’re going together in block form so you have that sense of accomplishment in each block you make and that’s a good feeling.” Denyse suggests breaking things down, “not putting pressure on yourself to complete it… tomorrow” and giving yourself the opportunity to just sew fabric together without feeling like the fabric is too precious. She says there are so many great books that share the history of quilting and can provide a wealth of inspiration in the designs and stories. She suggests you take a look around, go one step at a time and “Trust that it’s going to look great!”
You’ll likely be enticed to cut into some of Denyse’s new fabrics this spring. Her County Fair collection is a home dec weight cotton canvas with a bit of texture and tooth. There are many designs from Flea Market Fancy and Katie Jump Rope (pictured here to the left) lines recolored in a pear and ginger colorway, a rose and berry colorway and a lagoon and porch blue colorway. Denyse loves the weight of the cloth which is heavy enough to use for slipcovers but appropriate for quilting too.
She’s most excited about the Patchwork Promenade cheater cloth she designed to go with the collection. Denyse says, “I’m always interested in historical or vintagy precedents and there used to be a lot more of this stuff called cheater cloth which is printed to look like it’s pieced. You could go into Woolworth’s and buy a cut of it and make a skirt out of it or make a quilt out of it but not have to do all of the piecing. It was really a time-saver for a lot of women that were starting to enter the workforce and had less and less time to do that kind of thing.” Denyse’s Patchwork Promenade cheater cloth utilizes her Drunk Love in a Log Cabin design and is printed as blocks, with six blocks on a repeat the full width of the 64”. Each block is about the size of a pillow. The full collection will debut at Quilt Market in April in Oregon and in stores shortly thereafter. There are also plans to release more patterns in the future.
The future for Denyse and Denyse Schmidt Quilts
Denyse says as life progresses and the business grows she finds herself taking stock of what she wants her future to look like. With the various components of her company and a desire for some simplicity and focus, finding a new balance is a goal. Denyse would love to focus more on the creative aspects of her art, to find time for wool sewn together on the wall and a bit more improvisation to her days. Wherever her art takes her we can’t wait to see what Denyse does next.
- Visit Denyse Schmidt Quilts for more information about Denyse and her company, her workshops, and the bounty of her creativity including Denyse’s fabric and patterns, quilts and paper goods.
- Find Katie Jump Rope and the Single Girl Quilt & Sham sewing pattern in the Sew,Mama,Sew! shop.
- All images used with permission from Denyse Schmidt Quilts. The image on our main page is a detail of several quilts from Denyse’s couture line.
Check back tomorrow for a project from Denyse Schmidt Quilts, 30 Colorful Quilt and Patchwork Projects!
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