Kindred Spirits

Based on notes taken at the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas on Feb. 5, 1998

Kindred Spirits visited with us, setting up two long tables and several garment racks of samples in the middle of the auditorium floor. Alice Strebel, "the talkative one", explained that they felt so far away up there on the stage where presentations are usually given. Instead of a lecture, they’d be presenting us with a show and tell of their work. "Our things are detailed," Sally said, "And it’s the details that make them."

This spring marks the 10th anniversary of their business. Alice said they started without a 5-year plan, and that she feels it was the Lord who led them through it all. She was careful to tell us that their workspace is "not a shop, it’s just where we work". Alice and Sally also meet weekly as part of the Dayton Designers Consortium - a name chosen because it sounded better to them than "craft night".

At their first quilt show in Chicago, the pair looked at many of the displays and said to themselves "We can do this." Being naive enough to get started, they turned their individual home businesses of making and selling clothing into a cooperative effort. It went so well they soon found they could not make and sell enough to meet the demand they had created. Much of the slowdown was due to the painstaking hand detailing on their garments. This was when a friend suggested they make the patterns available for sale.

Their latest book combines a little bit of everything, not just quilting. From crochet and embellished clothing, to dolls and jewelry, Alice and Sally feel that since they are known "for being a little bit different" they can combine a variety of craft ideas. For example, they’ll take an embellishing idea and use it to make 3-dimensional objects as well. Alice noticed that quilters like to do other things. Their main love may be quilting, but they like diversions. She doesn’t find this trait very often in other hobby circles.

One of their recent interests is rug hooking, looping strips of wool onto a backing. Starting out small, with one or two little projects per book, they added more each time. This spring they expect to publish a new book of projects called "Hook and I". Alice and Sally have also taken their hooking patterns and translated them into an applique pattern, to show how the ideas can be used more than once. They pair will take ideas and play with them, changing elements and mixing different techniques until "we get what we think is a good result."

When making a hooked rug you have the option of one of three traditional backings to use on the piece. This made them a little frustrated, since after doing the top you have to finish it -and how many of us have unfinished quilt tops for the same reason? They also did not want to have to spend time filling in the plain backgrounds after the pattern was finished. As a way to meet both creative demands, they experimented with hooking directly into heavy wool. The pattern would go quickly without a background to fill in, and the piece needs no additional finishing work. As examples they passed around a star pillow and a small cabin scene that could be used as a wall hanging. They will also take whatever they are working with and use it to embellish clothing. A little bit of applique, embroidery, or hooking adds a distinctive touch to a garment, and helps pull together disparate items like a purse and coat.

Alice and Sally said they got interested in hooking by buying antique pieces. After a while they started noticing it more, and thought that it was a shame the craft was dead. Of course, it’s not, it’s alive and well, and they will be teaching a class this summer at Sauder Village in Ohio. In addition to hooked rugs, both ladies admire and collect antique sewing bags, sewing kits, pouches, and the like. Often, they’ll be inspired by these pieces of yesteryear and use them as the basis of their own designs.

Alice observed that "any woman in every form of needlearts has special treasures" for keeping scissors, pins, trims, and other accessories. While these can be store-bought tins, pincushions, or items that have been converted to "make do", just as often they are handmade items. One of the Kindred Spirits projects is a small basket made of fabric held in an embroidery hoop, with a wire handle. The bottom of the basket is reinforced with an old plastic placemat. A small pincushion attached with a ribbon loop "makes it charming". In another project, the handle off a thrift-store purse was removed and used to build a new purse using their techniques.

Some of the kits based on their collected treasures include a stuffed kitty with an apron that is designed to unbutton and hold sewing notions; a sewing kit that folds up into a heart shape; and a scissors pocket that hangs on the wall and is decorated with dangling buttons. Sally said they got the idea for one of their chatelaines (a pocket for sewing notions) when her mother, tired of looking for her embroidery scissors, asked her grandmother for something to keep them in. The little crocheted pocket that resulted has appeared in several forms in the Kindred Spirits projects. Alice also warned us that they had recently got their hands on a woodburning kit, and we would be seeing some of those projects in upcoming books.

When they started putting out books, one of the things they wanted to do was to include clothing patterns that did not have to be specially printed on large fold-out sheets. How do you get a garment without a pattern? You start with a purchased shirt or skirt and add to it. This technique is now called "embellishing finished products", and has become quite popular. Alice and Sally started with their folk art jackets. They had seen similar items at retail for $150, what was basically a sweater with some design added on the surface. They both like expensive clothes, but don't like to pay for them. Looking at the boutique selection they quickly realized that it was just a patch here, and a few cute buttons there, and that they could buy plain clothes and sew on their own buttons, yo-yos and embroidery. The first question they asked themselves was "What do we use for our designs?" Sally suggested a sweatshirt. Alice wasn't warm to that idea, since she didn't like the way they fit. Once they discovered the band on the bottom could be removed, they figured why stop there, and cut off the cuffs and neckline as well.

There are three ways to design, we were told. The first is by mistake, when you didn't mean to cut that hole there. The second is to start with a space and design something to fit it. The third method is to take an idea or a thing --for example a yo-yo-- and turn it into a design element. The Kindred Spirits have used all these methods.

When adding embellishments, Alice and Sally use both wool and cotton fabrics and yarns regardless of the item they are working on. For one project they used a commercially available suede elbow patch to cut a horse shape from, covered buttons with coordinating fabric, and edged the sweatshirt's raw sides with a pieced binding. The overall look is very comfortable. When sweatshirts started coming out longer at the waist and wider around the middle, this just gave them more space to embellish. Despite the size, they say it's important to use a quality brand sweatshirt, one that is heavier and will stand up to being cut apart. They prefer the Hanes and Jerzees brands, among others, for their own work.

In order to get a coordinated look, and make the most use of their ideas, Alice and Sally try to use things in more than one way. For example, they will take shapes they love from quilting and put them on a shirt. Then they take that design and incorporate it into the body of a skirt. They also use the same binding on two garments in order to help them match.

At one show where they were asked to lecture the pair found out shortly before the event that they were also expected to teach a class. Stumped for projects --they couldn't do clothing because it would be impossible to match everyone's sizes in advance-- they came up with the idea to do tote bags. Armed with a supply of heavy cotton bags (prewashed, of course) they showed the class how to take items from their stash and cute objects that could be applied, and embellish the bag in the same ways they might embellish a jacket.

Talking about her teaching a little bit, Alice said that the hardest part is convincing people to enjoy whatever they make. "It’s not closest one to the teacher’s wins", she said. As long as you like it nobody else has to. Adds Sally "We have fun with this stuff."

Alice said she learned a lot from teaching. From her classes she has found out that there are three kind of people: those who come to class and do the project, those who have it done before the class even starts, and those who don't begin to start the project during class. She has also fought with the problems of designing patterns for others. "It's hard to publish patterns to fit a lot of people if they're fitted. So ours aren't." Another issue they face is comments from people who say they "don't wear that country stuff." To counter this argument they made up one of their dresses in a black glittery fabric. "It's definitely not country, but it is the same pattern," Alice says.

When asked how they manage to run a business with children both women answered that their families are a priority. They work from 9am to 2pm so they are always there to meet the bus for the school age children. The younger ones they kept on their laps or playing nearby as they worked. Out of that dedicated creativity and willingness to be just a little bit different they have built a successful enterprise that allows us all to be Kindred Spirits.



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