By Patricia Belyea
As a middle-school student in Ottawa, I was required to take Home Economics. This class taught me a little about cooking and a little about sewing. I remember, as a 12-year old know-it-all, relaying the correct way to boil an egg to my mother. She was not impressed with my newfound knowledge that conflicted with her own.
Our sewing class projects included a drawstring bag and an apron. The shapes of the fabric pieces were simple. Running the sewing machine was rudimentary. Voila! This limited education encouraged me to believe I was a sewing expert.
Zig Zag reigned as our neighborhood fabric emporium. The store was packed with every kind of fabric, huge pattern books, and all the fixings for making clothes—an absolute wonderland for a young seamstress.
My mother had a vintage Singer machine that she let me use. I started small with mini skirts for school. Within a year I had made myself a winter coat—interlined and lined, with bound buttonholes and top stitching. I found that Vogue patterns included the best instructions for the finicky details of fine sewing.
One day my dad, a commander in the Navy, returned from Europe with an impressive Pfaff sewing machine for my mom. It was huge and covered with push buttons that produced all sorts of fancy stitches. My mother trusted me enough to let me use her new sweetheart.
I challenged myself with more and more complex projects. In high school, my tour de force was a peacock blue satin prom dress with metallic silver trim. The confection was ringed in ruffles with a matching triangular shawl also finished with ruffles.
My obsession with sewing motivated me to apply to Macdonald Institute at University of Guelph, the premier home economics college in Canada at that time. My goal was to study pattern making and clothing construction to ultimately become a fashion designer.
A newly coined 18-year old, I moved six hours from my home to a group apartment on campus. In my first semester, I signed up for a full regime of freshman fare including Introduction To Tailoring.
Was it the freedom with no parental guidance or the collective energy of so many young people that distracted me from my studies? I managed to keep up with all my classes except Tailoring—which had a brutal load of homework each week. By the fifth week in, I was doomed to failure. So I dropped out of Tailoring just in time to receive an I (Incomplete) instead of an F.
After my major misstep at university, I did not sew again for 35 years. I let life sweep me in other directions, far away from sewing machines, fabrics, threads and all the things I had once loved mightily.
Joining a creativity club sparked me to sew again. What’s a creativity club, you ask? It’s like a book club, only much more interactive. The brainchild of photographer Rosanne Olson, Art Chix was formed to push its petite cadre of women members to engage in creative endeavors.
Rosanne limited the group to eight—the number of chairs that could easily fit around a dining table. The enchanting meetings were spaced about six weeks apart, depending on everyone’s schedules.
Hosted by a rotation of the members, the evenings started with appetizers and dinner for personal catch-up conversations. Then onto the real reason for the meeting—to share our recently completed creative projects. We’d individually discuss our inspiration, process, and feelings about our work. A sweet swirl of encouragement would finish up each person’s presentation.
A different theme was chosen at the end of every night for the following meeting. Over the five years I was a member, themes ranged from Swimming Badly, Insects As Weapons, and Self Portrait.
Most members brought projects in their expected medium, such as photography, oil painting, or songwriting. I was a free agent who dabbled in everything. I made a mobile, a wooden puzzle, a Prismacolor drawing, and a Pandora’s Box filled with paper fortunes—to name just a few.
At the June 2007 meeting, our assigned theme was Blue. Taking a summer sojourn, we scheduled an early September meeting to get back in gear.
With a generous two-month deadline, I decided to make a baby quilt using only blue fabrics—for an infant girl. My concept was to break today’s popular convention of color coding baby items in pink or blue to “match” the sexes of the babies.
I borrowed a sewing machine from a friend and placed it on one corner of our dining room table. At a Goodwill thrift store, I bought old blue clothes and a striped sheet as I assumed that quilts were made with castaway fabrics.
The only quilters I knew about were members at my church. Called Plymouth Piecemakers, these ladies made quilts for graduating high school seniors of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle. I contacted the church office and got the phone number for Maurine Noble, the quilting group’s founder and leader,
My timing was perfect. The next meeting of the Piecemakers was just four days away! I would soon know all about how to make a quilt from seasoned sewists.
I trekked to Edmonds, a half-hour drive north of my home to attend a Monday night meeting. The members talked about their personal lives and showed progress on their latest quilt projects. I was no further ahead in understanding how to make a quilt at the end of the gathering!
The next day I called Maurine to ask if I could visit her on the upcoming Saturday. Maurine graciously agreed to give me a few pointers for making my first quilt.
That Saturday morning I learned about rotary cutters and gridded rulers. Maurine lent me a book filled with traditional quilt blocks and handed me a spool of mid-gray 50-wt cotton thread for piecing. For my first quilt, she suggested I use the simple Broken Rail pattern.
This personal time with Maurine was pivotal. She gave me just enough info to get started on my project plus a few coupons for Joann’s Fabrics. I was off and running in a direction that would change my life forever. At the age of 53, I reconnected with my passion for sewing.
(Maurine was to become my quilting confidante and best friend. I would visit Maurine almost weekly to share the joys and challenges of my quilt projects. If I had not met Maurine, I doubt I would be a quilter today.)
After I made my first quilt, I made another. Then another. Then another. I was absolutely intrigued by cutting fabric apart and sewing it back together.
I would collect cottons from any source—giveaways from Maurine who had a bursting stash of fabrics from around the world, free boxes at guild meetings, and donated fabrics in thrift shops.
I chose to work as fast as possible—calling my projects Quilt Sketches. My goal was to see what I liked to make, and what color and pattern combinations interested me.
To follow is a smattering of projects I made in my first two years of quilt making. I had not yet discovered yukata cottons from Japan so the fabrics are found treasures that inspired me.
They might not be masterpieces but taking those first steps got me to where I am today—an enraptured professional quilter.
ABOUT US: Okan Arts, a petite family business, is co-owned by mother-daughter duo Patricia Belyea and Victoria Stone. Patricia and Victoria sell Japanese textiles online, host creative quilting experiences, and lead quilting & textile tours to Japan.
FOLLOW OKAN ARTS ON INSTAGRAM @okanarts