As I walk through my quilt journey, I have always been inspired by other quilters and their quilts. This year, it’s my goal to introduce you to some of the quilters that inspire me, challenge me, and love me despite all my flaws. Two of these quilters are Karen and Sarah Tooley. I met Karen before I met Sarah and I was drawn to Karen for a several reasons. First, she was an awesome hand piecer and hand quilter; second, every time we got together the fellowship was warm and supportive; and third, she was retired from the field of education – we talk “shop” a lot.
After a couple of years, I was introduced the Karen’s children. She and her husband, John, have two daughters and a son. Pete, the youngest, lives in the DC area, but her two daughters were local – at least at that time. I met Elaine, who can knit just about anything she looks at, and Sarah, who is the other quilter in the family. I can honestly say at this point, I’m a little envious of Karen having a daughter that quilts. I can only hope…
I wanted to introduce you folks to these two, because it seems that there are fewer and fewer mother/daughter teams that quilt.
–“She (Karen) can make something out of absolutely nothing and does not need patterns or instructions. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve asked about how she did something and her answer has been, ‘I don’t know, I just tried something new and it worked out…’”
–Sarah Tooley speaking about her mother, Karen
Karen Tooley lives in a neat house, tucked away in a subdivision of Jamestown, North Carolina. A retired special education teacher, Karen has sewed for 54 years, starting at age nine. Before that, she watched and helped her mother while she sewed.
During the time that Karen grew up, she had the wonderful opportunity to see her great-grandmother’s quilts on the beds as well as everywhere else all over her house and her grandmother’s house. At age 25, she decided that she wanted to learn to quilt. Her goal? Quilt as well as her great-grandmother. “Her stitches were tiny, close, and uniform in size,” Karen states. “Also, the large amount of quilting on each of her quilts was phenomenal. She has been my sole role model.”
Armed with one of her great-grandmother’s quilts as her “teacher” and a McCall’s basic beginning quilting booklet, Karen taught herself machine piecing and hand quilting.
Miles away in an equally neat apartment in New York City, Sarah Tooley, a social worker and Karen’s oldest daughter, resides. Sarah quilts and like her mother, she hand pieces and hand quilts. Why does she quilt? “My mom always believed I would enjoy quilting and told me that throughout childhood and young adult hood. I had always admired her work and the beautiful quilts she regularly entered in our county’s fair each year.”
However, the “quilting bug” didn’t bite Sarah until later. “I did not have a desire to engage in quilting until she (Karen) presented her antique quilt program informally at her house one summer.”
Moved by the presentation, the meticulous nature of construction, and the story behind each quilt, Sarah asked Karen to teach her to quilt. The only stipulation that Sarah had was that she wanted to start with handwork – something that not a lot of beginner quilters want to undertake. “I had not gotten along with a sewing machine in the past,” Sarah explained. With Sarah having no desire to machine piece at that point, Karen immediately started Sarah on a whole quilt project and Sarah fell in love with quilting.
Karen and Sarah Tooley
And the mother/daughter quilting fellowship began. For Karen, it’s a chance to be creative. For Sarah, it allows her to decompress, de-stress, and recharge after a long day at work. Both women enjoy hand piecing, hand quilting, and hand applique. However, there are other similarities and a few differences between the two. When asked what their favorite tricks, tools, and tips, both of them like the Cindy Blackberg’s hand piecing stamps. Introduced to them in 2012, Karen admits at that point, she became a dedicated hand piecer due to the stamps’ preciseness and easy instructions. When Sarah asked to learn to hand piece, Karen pulled out these stamps to teach her daughter the process.
“I love the Cindy Blackberg stamps,” Sarah said. Because Sarah’s background in sewing was limited, she had to start at the absolute bottom in terms of learning basics, vocabulary, and techniques. “The stamps hooked me right away because they offer a certain simplicity,” she explained. Since that time, neither woman has stopped hand piecing. Both carry a “stamp project” with them just about wherever they go.
Similarities can also be found in their project boxes. Size 10 quilting needles are found in both, as well as thimbles, although Sarah prefers a leather thimble and Karen likes the “Cheap, plastic ones – the ones that were used for advertising stores or passed out with election candidate’s names on them,” Karen explained. Karen also makes sure beeswax is in her project box and Sarah likes Gutterman thread in hers. Karen also favors a 24” x 6 ½” ruler with a rotary cutter attached to one side of it for cutting accuracy.
From there the similarities between the two disappear. Karen is a relaxed quilter and tolerant of mistakes. “It may be because of my age or stage in life,” she said, but she works through trial and error and doesn’t get flustered if the project doesn’t work out. “If I don’t like it, I change it,” she admits, “and my biggest challenge is speed. I do not produce a product very quickly. Even when I do machine work, it takes me a long time. I get stuck on details.”
For Sarah, the challenge is a bit different. A perfectionist by nature, she wants an exact formula for her quilt blocks. “I am extremely structured and do best when I can follow exact instructions. I’ve had to learn that every stitch does not need to be perfect.” This realization has offered Sarah some growth opportunities in “letting go” of the self-imposed pressure to be perfect.
Both of these attitudes have been the biggest challenge each faced when quilting together, too. When Sarah began quilting, she wanted to rip everything out all the time and start over. “Mom patiently handled this by telling me, ‘People will not be able to tell,’ or ‘If you start everything over all the time, you’ll never complete anything.’ I must drive her nuts when I get frustrated over the lack of perfection.”
For Karen it was equally challenging.
“The biggest challenge (for me) is convincing Sarah that every stitch, seam, etc., does not have to be perfect. It should be an enjoyable activity, not a perfect specimen,” Karen said.
Their shopping habits are also dissimilar. Karen faithfully shops her stash, and leans towards the more traditional florals, patterned, and colored fabrics. Her current favorite colorways are blues combined with greens or strong yellows. However, because she is steadily using up her stash, she admits, “Scrappy may be my favorite colorway!”
Realizing that putting colors together is her greatest weakness at the moment, Sarah looks at what other quilters are using and tries to emulate those. She seeks her mother’s opinion, but leans towards the bold/contemporary look. Her current favorite colorway is rustic orange and dark gray. “And I collect all supplies, fabric, and instructions (before starting). I must have everything in order before I will even complete one stitch. Once my plan is established, fabric cut, and materials prepped, then the true fun can begin!” Very, very different from Karen’s trial and error, relaxed method.
There is another challenge these two are facing now. Recently Sarah moved to New York City from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Winston and Jamestown are only about 20 minutes apart. Now separated by hundreds of miles, do they still carve out a way to quilt together? The answer to this question is “Yes.”
“We talk on the phone about projects, and last year we both participated in an on-line ‘Block of the Week.’ We discussed problems and progress over the phone,” said Karen.
“I FaceTime my mom with questions,” said Sarah. “And I really enjoy showing off something I’ve finally finished. Also, when Mom helps me with a new skill or technique, I video tape her narrating the steps while doing it, so I can refer to it at any time,” Sarah told me. As a result of this, Sarah has many teaching videos of Karen she can refer back to when she gets “stuck” on a project.
In the future, both Karen and Sarah see themselves becoming more skilled in machine piecing and quilting. Karen just recently machine quilted a Modern Quilt she made for her son, Pete. “There’s a lesser amount of time involved (in machine quilting),” said Karen.
Sarah desires more of a “quilting routine.”
“My hope is that I will be able to quilt more often and regularly. Work and life can sometimes get in the way. I also want to have a more regular routine of taking classes.”
Time…distance…challenges…it’s nice to know that none of those hinder this mother/daughter quilty fellowship. Both of these women are wonderful humans on top of being talented quilters. I count myself fortunate to know both of them and value their friendships.
A little background on Karen’s quilting heritage…
Evidence that we can hold in our hands of my family’s quilt history goes back to my great, great grandmother, Ellen Jenkins Willis (1847-1938) of Jackson, Ohio. Our family still has at least two quilts she made in our possession.
Her daughter, my great grandmother, Mary Matilda “Birdie” Willis Banker (1877-1970), made the majority of our family’s quilt collection of almost 30 quilts, now classified as antiques. Some were from kits. Some were scrappy from family members’ clothing, and some were just utilitarian, made from what was handy at the time. She was a master quilter.
I remember my great grandmother well, but she had stopped quilting by the time I was born. We don’t have any quilts made by her after 1950. I did know as a child, though, that she was the one who had made the treasures that were spread on practically every family member’s bed!
My grandmother, Bernice Banker Myers (1906-2003), was not a quilter, but sewed, knit, and did many crafty things. She can be credited with caring for the family quilts.
My mother, Barbara Myers Conner (b.1931), did not quilt either, but is a very good seamstress, knitter and dabbled in art. I remember her drawing paper dolls for my sister and I and we would cut them out and spend hours creating clothes for them. She taught me to sew, knit, crochet…anything that came along.
My aunt, Kathleen Myers Coe (b.1941), is a musician, artist, knitter, sewed and has done some quilting. She has made a variety of quilts, mostly made by machine.
I, Karen Tooley (b.1954) loved the quilts we grew up with and after I was married I decided to try hand quilting. I learned from a basic book on quilting, McCall’s How To Quilt It! (1953) and by studying several of my great grandmother’s quilts.
My daughter, Sarah Jane Tooley (b.1980), has taken up hand piecing, hand appliqué and hand quilting, inspired by the quilt legacy left by our great grandmothers.
If this has peaked some interest in hand piecing, and you’d like to know more about the Cindy Blackberg Stamps mentioned in this interview, please visit her website at http://cindyblackberg.com/. I use her stamps, as well as other items offered on her website and have always been very pleased with the quality and longevity of the products. And her customer service is about the best out there.
Please note, I am not employed in anyway by Cindy Blackberg. This recommendation is free of influence and provided strictly by my own experience with the product.
Until next week — Quilt with Excellence!
Sherri and Sam