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Is Quilt an “heirloom mandala”?

posted Mar 6, 2013, 1:10 AM by Annalisa Ippolito
Judy Niemeyer is a professional quilt designer with almost 40 years of experience in the quilting industry, 20 years of which she has been designing quilt patterns.  Her techniques are based on a concept called paper piecing, which she has adapted over the years to help even quilters with minimal experience complete intricate and complex quilts.  She has personally trained thousands of people with her methods and has organized a team of instructors and shops to reach out to an even wider audience.  

When I saw the quilts, I realized that they contain a lot of mandala influenced shapes. I was curious about her inspiration and asked Mrs. Niemeyer some questions about her technique and the meanings behind her designs.
Here is our exchange.

Mrs. Niemeyer, first of all, many thank for sharing with all the readers of mandalaweb your experience, then let me say that your quilts are very “mandalic” art work. Can you please answer the following questions for me as you see them?
Annalisa: What is it a "quilt"? 
Judy: A quilt is a form of design that is completed by stitching together (historically by hand, but in the modern world, we have the option of using a machine) fabrics and textiles of various colors, textures, and contrasts to achieve a visually appealing impact but also has a very practical and utilitarian function in that it provides protection, warmth, and security.

A: What is the history of this special handmade cloth?
J: I actually have never really delved into the deep history of quilting, but understand the concept of a three layer blanket (with fabrics on the outsides and an insulating center dating back to Egyptian times.  However, the oldest versions of quilts inspired more so by creative expression than functionality appear to have originated in Europe.  In America, quilting has a strong history as early American settlers relied heavily on handmade quilts to provide bedding for their families.  With the production of printed textiles becoming possible during the Industrial Revolution, the expansion of the art of quilting was inevitable.  Over time, the art of stitching, creating intricate designs, challenging our sense of sight through creative color combinations, and reaching past simple shapes to “out-design” our fellow quilters has pushed creativity and design in quilting to new limits.  
In the last 50 years, the evolution of personal sewing machines and quilting machines, along with technology, have even expanded our abilities to create more intricate designs.  Our specific approach to quilting relies on paper as the foundation of guiding the process of combining difficult shapes, including points and curves, to create heirloom quality designs that even those relatively new to the art of quilting can complete.  

A: How do you choose the shape?
J: We have over 100 quilting designs, but in general, a constant in our designs is the star.  Paper piecing is an extremely effective method of bringing together many, many points in a perfect shape every time.  Other piecing methods just cannot achieve the precision and efficiency that you obtain through paper piecing due to the amount of pieces included in such complicated designs.  As a result, our patterns are designed to provide both large scale and small scale impact related to stars and curves.  
Additionally, because you can create such an organized design, our patterns are extremely geometric, with repetitious elements.  Quilting has historically evolved to provide visually stimulating results, which often are most appealing when geometric organization and repetitious elements are used as a focal point.  
I have always been drawn to the clean, simplicity of a traditional pattern, with many of the same units repeating themselves throughout.  As a result, my patterns continue to carry the common themes and elements to them that resemble mandala or circular design elements.

A:  Does each shape have a meaning or is it an expression of your creative intuition?
J:  I’ve never really considered whether the shapes that I create has meaning to me, but it certainly is an expression of some sort of creative intuition that has been specific to all things that appeal to me.  When I was younger, architecture, tile work, beams, unique textures, and organized spaces were most appealing to me.  Perhaps my strongest inspiration is the flower, to this day.  My garden, to this day, is where I go when I need to disconnect.  The color and the shape of what is in my garden always bring new ideas.  What I’ve learned through the years as well, is that scale, volume, and dimension also appeal to the senses.  If eight of something looks great, then sixteen of something just might look even better!  And usually, this is the case in quilt design.  

A: I saw a lot of stars, circles, knots, flowers, and frames that reminded me of the traditional shapes used in mandala. May we consider the quilt a sort of “heirloom mandala”?
J: Quilts can definitely be considered heirloom mandalas as they are quite often designs that spiral out from a center and envoke emotion in those who see them.  They are also usually inspired by something, whether it be the way someone selects their colors or the actual shapes and designs they choose to repeat in the design.  It really represents what people think and feel about being creative.  Additionally, most quilters find the actual process of making the quilt to be grounding, providing focus, releasing stress, and leading to a stronger connection with whatever inspires them.
A: Do the shapes used for a quilt have a special meaning?
J: In the case of the patterns that I have designed, the special meaning wasn’t necessarily inspired by something specific in my own life, but more so from the tradition that lies in the art of quilting in general.  The patterns I tend to migrate to are those that have lots of points, a central feature, and have also be traditional heirlooms in the quilting industry, accomplished by only the most sophisticated piecers.  I wanted to give everyone the chance to make these designs and do them well.  From there, I have added my own ideas to take the pattern from its traditional roots to something that showcases exactly how useful of a tool the paper is in allowing you to take a quilting project to levels that even the most sophisticated piecers would be seriously challenged to accomplish.

A: How do people create a quilt? It is a long process and how much time do you need?
J: More experienced piecers that use our technique are able to complete many of our designs in a matter of a few days of dedicated quilting.  We have also worked to develop cutting techniques to make cutting out the quilt and organizing it for sewing a very quick process.  We incorporate processes to strip piece quilts (sew multiple papers to one piece of fabric) and speed piece the foundation units (sew the same piece of fabric on to many units at one time).  We also minimize the possibilities of errors by encouraging points to float, providing easy guides and approaches for stabilizing the sewing of curves, and help our students understand strategic approaches for sewing everything together and pressing the fabric on the back (ironing) that result in the optimal construction of the quilt top.  
The process can be a long one if you are new, but most of the time is involved in people trying to choose their colors and planning for the project.  As a result, some people end up taking years to complete one quilt.  

A: Is it a project that you can do alone or is it better to make a quilt in a group?
J: In most cases, it is a project you complete on your own because most people complete them to give to someone special to them or for their own collection.  However, many of our patterns have also been done by a group.  In these cases, it primarily because they are collectively making it for a common goal or for a common person (group of people).  That being said, even if you are making the quilt for yourself, many people do this activity in a group setting, attending workshops and retreats.  Quilting tends to bring people together and create bonds similar to how competing in a team sport or attending an inspirational retreat might.  

A: Where we can find an original quilt? 
J:You can see samples of our quilts on our website at http://www.quiltworx.com or visit us on Pinterest or Facebook. Our Pinterest page is Quiltworx Judy Niemeyer and our Facebook page is Quiltworx.com.  Quiltworx.com is looking forward to continuing the publication of patterns that inspire others for many many years into our future.  For as long as people continue to enjoy and support what we do, we will continue to produce designs that challenge quilters around the world to expand their awareness of what is possible.  We appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about what we do and hope that this interview helps link the art of quilting with mandala design!

A:  Thank you again for all your words

For more info visit the website http://www.quiltworx.com