I grew up sewing. My mother sewed, my grandmothers sewed, and by the time I started school I was making things with old socks, scraps of fabric, needle and thread. But even more than sewing I liked to draw and, at the age of seven, knew I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books. Encouraged by my parents and teachers I pursued my dream. I was in my late twenties when I began submitting my stories and drawings to publishing companies. By the time my first story was accepted for publication, more than seven years later, I had collected over one hundred rejection letters.
Meanwhile I had married and had three daughters for whom I sewed clothes, countless stuffed toys and dolls, and even a quilt for each of them. These were very simple quilts, made of large pieces of fabric, and little real quilting.
My publishing career grew along with my children. Each year I produced two or three new books. Most of my stories, which I usually illustrated with colored pencil or watercolor, are about ordinary events in the lives of children; making dinner with Daddy, spending the night with Grandma, or sleeping in a big bed for the first time.
I enjoy seeing life through the fresh eyes of a child, and over the years wrote a number of poems about the natural world. In 1993 I read through my poems and found most of what I needed for a book. Unfortunately collections of nature poems are fairly common. Unless I came up with an idea to make my book stand out, it would most likely get little notice and soon go out of print. I wanted my illustrations to be special.
Meanwhile, my mother, Ruth Grossnickle, had started quilting. She began by finishing a top pieced by my great-grandmother, but soon moved on to create her own quilts. She did beautiful, award-winning work and was soon immersed in a world of quilters and quilting. I enjoyed seeing her work and looking through her books and magazines at the beautiful designs. Many of them depicted scenes from nature—like my poems. An idea started to grow, but it seemed too impossible to think about seriously.
In 1995 we decided to give Mom a special gift and a quilt seemed the perfect thing. Her siblings, children, grandchildren and friends were all invited to make squares. As I worked on the pieces I was to contribute, I found myself needing to ask Mom lots of questions. To divert her suspicions, I told her I was thinking about illustrating my poems with quilts. She reacted with surprise, but didn’t seem to think the idea totally crazy. She cheerfully collected fabric scraps from her friends and brought out more books for me to look at. I was struck by the way the abstractness of the quilts complimented the abstractness of the poetry. Maybe it wasn’t such an impossible idea after all.
The next summer, sitting at Mom’s dining room table I drew a design for “Good Heavens”, colored it with crayons, traced it onto freezer paper and started to sew. Strip by strip the golden suns and white moons and stars emerged on a field that changed from deep green to dark blue, all within the twelve by fifteen inch size I’d set for myself. I chose that size because a good-sized children’s book is eight by ten inches. Most illustrations are executed somewhere between actual size and fifty-percent larger.
Pleased with the results of my first attempt, I sketched several more designs, pasted them into a “dummy” book along with the poems and took them to Susan Hirschman, my editor at Greenwillow Books. She thought the quilt was lovely, but too much work as an illustration for a book of poetry. I knew she couldn’t see my vision of the book. I’d have to show her.
Over the next two years, working between contracted deadlines on other books, I purchased dozens of little pieces of fabric and created more designs. I used a variety of techniques, selecting whatever best suited each poem. I did the winter tree pair using color wash and applique, the crow with paper-piecing, the wrens with applique, and the spring greening quilt using strip piecing.
The pieces of fabric were tiny. Each little square on the winter trees quilts starts out nine eighths inches and ends up five eighths after it’s sewn. My excitement grew with each quilt. Now I had something to show my editor.
I took my bundle back to Greenwillow Books. This time Susan said, “I still think you are crazy to go to so much work, but I’m going to publish the book.” A few poems were thrown out, a couple replaced with brand new ones. Virginia Duncan, another editor at Greenwillow suggested that on some pages, the parts of the quilts be separated so that children could see how the quilts were made with “pieces,” carrying through on the title and theme of the book. She also suggested using a couple pages at the back to explain a bit about what quilting is and how I made the quilts in the book. I thought both were great ideas and set to work to design the book and create the rest of the quilts.
Pieces became my priority project in April of 1999. From then until December first I made thirteen more quilts. As I worked I got acquainted with the quilting world, visiting quilt shops, my mother’s Santa Clarita Valley Quilt Guild, and joining the Milford Valley Quilter’s in my own Pennsylvania community. Mom, her friends, three aunts, and an uncle were always ready to do fabric searches for me. I bought and collected bits and pieces of fabric from everywhere, and I kept designing, piecing and quilting.
I found my computer helpful on early versions of some designs. Using only the very rudimentary features of Photoshop I drew lines and filled in various colors before cutting all those little squares and triangles. But working with the fabric was by far the most fun. My studio was strewn with fabrics from one end to the other and stray threads were as plentiful in our house as dog hairs in some homes.
When it came to the quilting I did several by hand, but for others, I wanted to do machine quilting. Time for another lesson from Mom. That summer she got me started using her nice Husqvarna machine. I stippled the winter trees quilts in no time. When it came to quilting the leaves on the autumn pair, Mom showed me how to draw the quilt lines on tracing paper and stitch through that. It’s so great to have an expert in the family!
Back home I tried quilting on my twenty-five-year-old hundred-dollar Singer. Impossible! Already frustrated with the way the machine tended to eat the corners of the tiny pieces of fabric, I was delighted to have a no-getting-around-it reason to buy a new machine. I bought a brand new Husqvarna Lily and completed piecing and quilting the remaining illustrations.
On December 2, 1999 I delivered all nineteen quilts to my editors and art director, Ava Weiss. They responded with great enthusiasm. To determine whether or not we needed to have the quilts photographed Ava sent one out for a test scan. It came out beautifully when scanned directly with the laser scanner, the same way regular illustrations are done. Great news!
Ava worked with designer Sylvie Le Floc’h to layout the book. Being only two and half-hours away by train I was able to go into New York to work with Sylvie, cutting and pasting parts of the print outs of the quilts for the pages that show the “pieces” as editor Virginia Duncan had suggested.
The book still needed a cover. We tried to put something together from the interior quilts, but nothing seemed quite right. In early March I spent three days creating the cover design and eight days sewing it. Everyone was very pleased.
The process of designing, printing, binding, and advance marketing of a book is a long one. My book was scheduled for release on February 28th, 2001 more than a year after I delivered the interior quilts, but it was worth the wait. I couldn’t be more pleased with the results and am very grateful for all the people who took such care with editing, designing and producing the book, as well as all the quilters who encouraged me along the way, especially my mother. The idea may have been a crazy one, but I loved every minute of creating this book, and I’ve already started on the next one.