A Visit With Anne Colvin

From notes taken at the Quilter's Guild of Dallas meeting January 8, 1998.

Anne grew up in a quilting family, she told us. As a result, she not only has quilts and quilted garments spread throughout her home, but loves to collect antique quilts as well. "Grandma did hand applique and quilted beautifully", Anne said, and though she likes to quilt by hand, she doesn't feel she measures up to those standards. Because of this, Anne uses her sewing machine, saying that not only does she like the look it gives, but that this kind of work meets her standards.

Over the years Anne has produced everything from simple vests to show garments while selling patterns and teaching. In the shop where she was working, Anne would teach a class only to have her students demand "Where's the pattern?" So she started developing her own line.

During the evening Anne showed us many of her garments, modeled by guild members who walked through the room so we could see and touch everything in person. Some of the patterns were made up in different fabrics, giving them a completely new look. With each garment came a story.

A vest with woven panels has some raw edges that don't fray, and is made from a number of different fabrics --including silks, cotton and drapery fabrics. Anne stresses that you don't have to stick to quilting cottons for these patterns, that she uses wool, rayon and linen in her garments (and cat hair, especially on the linings). One fabric she does not use is polyester. She says she doesn't like the way it stretches when she machine quilts it. When it's quilted it is too hot, since it's made from plastic, and she just doesn't find it comfortable to wear. In addition, Anne is really particular about the way her stitches look. They will sink into cotton fabrics, but with the polyester they "just sit there."

When she gets an idea for a garment Anne goes to her stash and pulls out all of the fabric in a particular color range, and looks for complimentary or contrasting fabrics to go with it. When she is ready to finish the garment she "quilts it to death" with a freeform pattern that doesn't require marking out. Anne says she likes to use all sorts of threads in combination with her fabrics: silk, rayon, cotton, etc.

For batting in her projects Anne prefers "the old standby" Cotton Classic. She says she has used it for ten years, and because it is very thin it is probably her first choice. She says you can wash it first if you want to, and outlines how she does it:

  1. put it in the washer in cold water and nothing else
  2. turn the washer off and push the batting down into the water
  3. let it soak for ten minutes
  4. run the spin cycle
  5. peel the batting out carefully, but know that it's stronger than you think it is
  6. put it in the dryer

Not all of Anne's garments are from her own patterns. One commercial pattern that she has used is the "8 hour jacket from McCalls that takes you three days to make". Deciding that it was too plain and it just wasn't going to cut it in the runway fashion show, Anne added a vest to go over the jacket. At the time she was into bead jewelry, which she applied with silk ribbon. Since she didn't want to do a binding, she left enough of the silk dupioni fabric lining to be made into fringe which she finished with a zig-zag stitch. Anne said she did the whole thing not knowing what it would look like when she was done.

When working with a bright salmon fabric she came to the conclusion that she didn't like the color: it was too red and she couldn't find any thread to match. Experimenting with a hot pink she found that it really stood out. "Boy did it work", she says. If you want to show off your quilting, then clash a little bit with your thread. For example, when sewing on black try using a silvery grey or navy, or something just a little bit less than black. On white use an off white or cream thread, just to make it show up a little bit. Changing the type of background stitching you do will also change the look of the piece. For example, Anne compared a jacket with channel stitching and one with a meandering stitch. The straight channel stitching sets off the curves of the accompanying feather pattern better, but takes three times as long to complete as the random pattern.

Anne talked about thread, too. Her favorite silk is called Silk Stitch and comes in a #50 weight, but is imported from Japan. She says that thread weight varies a lot from company to company, but in general as the number gets smaller the thread gets thicker. She uses a #50 weight for normal sewing, and a #10 when doing top stitching. She also advises using a light embroidery thread in the bobbin so you don't add a lot of weight on the back of your work. At times Anne has had to use either two threads, or a heavy thread in order to get her stitching to show up.

For one outfit in purple and teal, Anne described her creative process. She started with the purple microfiber, and didn't know what to do with it. She had bought a couple of yards at $25/yard and felt terrible about it. Then one day she knew she had to make the blouse.

From that she developed the teal jacket, where she had trouble matching the thread color. So she used a bright teal color "and it just lit up" requiring her to go over each and every stitch with a pigma pen to tone it down.

From scraps left from the blouse she tore 3/8 inch strips and couched them onto the yoke area of the jacket in order to pull the two pieces together. Finding nothing else in her fabric stash that would match, she bought some decorative yarns and threads and stiched them onto the fabric as well. While watching the Olympics on television, she found enough time to do the beading, saying it was the only time she could "sit down and just do it." Finally, because the quilting pattern on the jacket did not show up enough, she went over parts of it with couched threads to bring out the design elements.

Anne described this as "a Harry Hines jacket", (after the fashion fabrics outlets that can be found in Dallas along Harry Hines Boulevard), "You don't know what you're buying half the time, or if it is going to fall apart on you or not."

Another of Anne's jackets was inspired by a fabric dyeing workshop given by Barbara Hartman. She was told that turquoise is one of the easiest colors to do, that it always comes out the same consistent shade. Anne took her class project fabric and manipulated it with pleating and crinkling, more threads couched onto the surface, and created a vest-over-jacket combination. The rose quilting pattern that she used became one of her first published quilting designs, one based on an original pattern of her grandmother's.

When designing her garments Anne starts with a pencil and some paper. She likes to work most of the time with a 1" gridded easel pad, and begin by deciding her quilting design. She feels the finish quilting is the most important part of the garment and needs to be planned in advance. From there, she works full size, saying "miniatures don't do me any good unless I'm in store or I see something on TV, then I have to draw it or it's gone." Anne also designs all her garments for herself, in her size, not for a model. For those of us who would like to design our own clothing, she says "If you find something in the pattern books that's simple it will work. The fewer pattern pieces the better."

Since she machine quilts her garments, she begins each line with tiny stitches, trims the thread real close, and does not backstitch. She also uses tailors chalk and a washable chalk marker (not the liquid ones) to place her quilting designs on fabric. "You have to wash them, and I always do. That never failed for me." She marks on the surface of the fabric, on the top, and with a chalk pencil remarks "you have to keep sharpening them, you can use a whole one on a quilt."

To care for her garments, Anne uses a machine handwash technique. She puts the item in the washer with soap and runs the spin cycle. Since she pre-washes all her fabrics --or, in the case of the hand dyed silks, they've been exposed to hot water in the dye process-- she runs very little risk of ruining something after it's been made. She says she does not usually put her garments in the dryer, but she does rinse and spin them several times. By using high quality fabrics and heavy quilting, Anne has found that she does not need to press her garments, and that they can be packed tightly when travelling and will come out looking great anyway.

Anne mentioned that she and her husband both sew on a Pfaff. She stresses, though, that you don't need a fancy top of the line model to make her patterns, just a good one you can get along with. The machine must make a beautiful stitch. She feels the best machines are made in Europe, but since none of them are made in the US right now anyway, it's not such an extravagance. She also says she would steal the knee lift off a Bernina if she could. Most importantly, she says, "You need to use your machine and not let anyone tell you what to do. Just use yours and learn to use it."

When finishing her quilts, Anne does not use a quilt frame. She uses tables and chairs and whatever she has to pull the quilt up off the floor. When sewing the quilting she reminded us that we need a heavy duty machine, not a lightweight one. "It just slows you down too much." She also quilts with lots of light and lots of music. "It's a physical thing."

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