The day I called to sign up for Oak Park-based company FunQuilt's three day workshop, Idea to Quilt, I was a little taken aback at what I was told. "Sometimes there's tears," said Bill Kerr, one of the two creative forces behind the company.
Tears? I was taking a workshop to learn about a craft I'd been tinkering with for the last six years and I was hoping to have fun.
This would not be the first time the scope of Kerr and wife Weeks Ringle's simple-sounding quilting company would amaze me. On an August weekend, 10 woman hauled in sewing machines, suitcases of fabric and bags of notions at the Priory Campus of Dominican University. Some traveled from nearby suburbs, others from as far away as Boston, bringing an equally wide range of abilities and desires to their patchwork.
Many, like myself, had heard about the company through an image in a magazine they clipped out and couldn't take their eyes off and then, when they finally did, noticed the website printed beside it, funquilts.com and realized the company was nearby.
"We have a quieter local profile than we do a national one," Kerr says.
The whys and hows of quilting have changed dramatically in the last 100 years. No longer are quilts pieced of scraps into patterned blankets for keeping warm on a winter prairie night. Now they're made for fun in free time, and often of fabric bought specifically to cut up and sew back together in different combinations.
"We make quilts that are expressive of the time in which we live," Ringle explained at the workshop. As contemporary quilters, the couple believes that the classic patterns such as the Log Cabin no longer hold meaning to those living in houses, condos and apartments.
Instead they offer patterns they've designed such as Now Boarding (see page 42) which shows red "airplanes" traversing seas of blue and landing on patches of green. Pink Lemonade captures a simple moment of escaping the hustle and bustle of life with a cold glass on the porch in sparkling lines of pink fading into white on a red background.
That is not to say they expected those in attendance to subscribe to their way of thinking. Ringle laid out the class intentions from the get-go: "Each person has their own unique, creative voice and our intention is not to teach you ours, but to find yours."
And then she explained that tears things a little more.
"I think we attract people who are ready for a change in their life," Ringle said. "I think the firewall between creativity and emotion is very thin. They think they're here to make a quilt and then they realize they're sad their dad has Alzheimer's."
The Big Idea
At the workshop, Ringle and Kerr taught their concept of The Big Idea. It's both a starting point and a set of standards that guides every decision in the quilt-making process, from the color palette to the quilting pattern.
We were instructed to have three memories ready, one of which would become the design for our quilt. The resulting ideas ranged from FunQuilts intern and Art Institute of Chicago student Deanna Harris's abstract personal development spreadsheet, to Dolores Joshua's dramatic retelling of her mother's deathbed hallucination of flying donuts.
The concept of The Big Idea also works in application to the FunQuilts company, which was launched in 1999 at a design convention in New York City. Ringle jokes that if the quilts hadn't gone over well, they were going to scrap the whole idea. Of course, the quilts were a hit and the company was started.
But more than a creative choice, starting the company was a lifestyle choice. After a series of jobs in both the corporate and volunteer worlds, the couple was ready for total control of their life, the kind of control only found in owning your own business with your design studio in your basement.
"We eat three meals a day together. How many families can say that?" Kerr says. No boss, no commute, no overhead, no childcareâ€"they tag team the care of their daughter.
"We named the company FunQuilts because it's fun for usâ€"not necessarily because the quilts are fun," Kerr explains. They also wanted a name that could allow the company to grow and shift as they pleased. And thus far opportunities for expansion have come easily.
"If you apply the creativity to your business model that you apply to your product you'll have a lot more fun," Ringle says.
The couple has designed three fabric lines, one of which is featured on the September cover of the Australian magazine, Down Under Quilts. A fourth line will be in stores in October.
Their two books, The Modern Quilt Workshop and Color Harmony for Quilts, have been big sellers in the States, and have been translated into French and German. They're working on a third scheduled to hit the shelves next May.
Of course in between, they make quilts, too. They have so many orders right now that if you called for a quilt today, it would be 2006 before you would see it. Each quilt is handmade by either Ringle or Kerr and that takes time.
Peace by piece
Once each class member had decided on her quilt's theme, it was off to the cutting boards. Rotary blades in hand, everyone began chopping their fabric into the small pieces that, when sewn back together, give their one-of-kind quilt meaning.
My quilt was coming from a memory of dancing in the living room with my mother, sister and brother with the lights out. We may have done it once, or a hundred timesâ€"I can't honestly rememberâ€"but what I do remember is the kind of wild glee I felt. After an arduous night of thinking, I gave up. Saturday morning Ringle walked me through it again and I ended up with an idea I liked. Circles in four colors, one representing each of us in the room, would start in one area of the quilt and then spin off in their own directions on a swirling, black background.
Designing your own quilt is much harder than following a pattern, which is why when it works it can be so much more satisfying. But taking that first step is intimidating.
"I'm living proof that design can be taught and creativity comes and sometimes it's just accessing it," Ringle told the class. She didn't take an art class until she was 30.
Ringle picked up quilting after seeing a quilt show in Japan where she lived in the '80s while working as an investment banker.
"I think when you go abroad you learn a new appreciation for your culture that you don't have when you're in the middle of it," she says. The show helped her think about how quilting imbues fabrics with memory. Similarly, she acquired her appreciation for the American culture of volunteerism that to her was noticeably absent from the Japanese way of life.
While Ringle was jet setting, Kerr was living a radically different life. Raised by a fiber artist and an architect, he learned to sew when he was 7. "The idea of idle time wasn't even on my radar," he says of his childhood.
He moved to Kenya after graduating from college and taught math, in English, sharing a mud hut with another teacher. "I have this deep environmental ethic that was really formed in Kenya," he says, noting that FunQuilts produces less than a bag of trash a week.
The couple's paths converged in the '90s in Knoxville, Tenn. where Kerr was volunteering with VISTA. Now a division of Americorps, VISTA provides full-time employees (and a meager stipend) to agencies that work with low-income communities.
He answered the phone when Ringle rang from the University of Virginia where she was finishing up her master's in landscape architecture. They talked for 45 minutes and he convinced her to move there, take the job, and stop by for dinner when she got there.
"I'd say within two weeks we knew we'd be married," Kerr says.
They ended up in a cosy house on Carpenter Streetâ€"Kerr says they entered their spending limit to an online database and it was the only match in Oak Parkâ€"after Kerr finished grad school at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"I think Oak Park is really a wonderful place as an artist because you have great colleagues here," Kerr says. Their house is also only a short bike ride from Dominican University where Kerr teaches design classes.
Quilting the layers together
The final step in quilting uses carefully stitched thread to meld together the three layers: the top or pieced section, the batting or filling, and the back, which depending on the quilter may be a simpler, pieced section or a solid sheet of fabric.
The last day of design camp found all 10 of us deep into our projects. The whir of sewing machines and the steam of many ironsâ€"each seam has to be ironed open before being sewn to another pieceâ€"filled the room. Some of the big ideas had progressed exactly as proposed, others had changed and adapted as they progressed. What was apparent when we did our last show-and-tell before packing up was that the idea of the Big Idea had taken hold of everyone. And no one had been reduced to tears.
"We really thought we were just making quilts when we started this and it always seems to go in different directions," Ringle says.
That's exactly what happened from a chance meeting Kerr had with another dad at his daughter's summer camp that resulted in their newest project, a FunQuilts collaboration with CARC, a not-for-profit group that provides job training for the developmentally disabled.
Kerr and Ringle are in the preliminary stages of designing a product that can be made with CARC's new industrial quilting machine. It's a project that pulls together all of their business criteria: quilting, charity and working from home.
"We're all optimistic that something wonderful can come out of this," Ringle says.
Charity pops up in their business model too. For every 10 quilts they sell, they make one for a charitable organization. Ringle and Kerr have managed to pull together all of their past experiences and what they've learned from them into a company with no bounds.
"One of the really fun things about FunQuilts is all the possibilities," Kerr says. "I don't even know what comes next."