An interview with Denyse Schmidt
We are thrilled that the Legacy collection of Flea Market Fancy will be arriving in the shop
early next week very soon! In honour of the occasion we asked Denyse Schmidt if she’d indulge us in a few questions about her fabric collections, her creative process and her new book – and she said yes! Read on for a fascinating peek at how Denyse finds her inspiration, translates that into her designs and brings them to life in the form of stunning quilts and highly-coveted fabric. Plus find out what we can expect to see from her next collection (there will be corduroys!)
When you’re done, click over to the shop to place your pre-order for Flea Market Fancy! Orders will be invoiced and shipped out as soon as the stock hits the shop (
it’s on it’s merry way here as I type! I spoke too soon – Coats just updated me that the dates have changed and the collection is now expected mid to late April. Sad!)
The Village Haberdashery: Why do you think Flea Market Fancy developed such a passionate following? What differences will diehard fans notice in the legacy collection?
Denyse Schmidt: When FMF first came out in 2005/2006, FreeSpirit was in transition with new owners, so understandably the excitement about it was lost in the shuffle. The growth of online crafting and sewing communities continues to change how consumers think about and collect designer fabrics, and manufacturers are doing their best to keep up with the evolution. FMF has had a healthy build-up of anticipation, and I think that accounts for at least some of the apparent frenzy for it.
In designing the collection, I tried to listen to what folks wanted in the reprint. I wanted to remain true to what it was originally, but also felt it should reflect where my – and probably everyone else’s – sensibilities are today. I freshened up the greens a tiny bit – they are slightly less acidy. I also added more grey prints – for instance a grey posie and a grey dot & leaf.
TVH: We are excited to hear rumours there will be a brand new collection for FreeSpirit this spring. Can you tell us anything about it? Colours, patterns, substrates?
DS: I’m excited about my next FreeSpirit collection. It will begin shipping in August-September, but will be shown at the spring Quilt Market this May. It’s called Chicopee, which comes from one of towns near where I grew up in New England (most towns in that area are named after towns in Britain, or their names reflect the heritage of the American Indians who populated the area before the British arrived). The Chicopee collections features prints evocative of my school years there and 1970’s Americana. Like many kids of my era, I watched prodigious amounts of television after school. Some of my favorite shows surely influenced my formative fashion sense – The Partridge Family, Mary Tyler Moore, and The Brady Bunch, and I think these influences are evident in Chicopee. There is a range of small to medium scale geometrics, florals, and tone-on-tone prints. The bright and warm color palette is drawn from the quilts in my new book – lots of turquoise, orange and raspberry reds, and golden relish greens. The collection features 26 quilting cottons, and I’m including 6 super-soft, fine wale corduroys for the first time.
TVH: Where do you find inspiration for your fabric designs? Do you approach the process differently when designing your FreeSpirit collections vs your DS Quilts collections?
DS: The process for me is usually the same, regardless of the client. I have a vast collection of document prints – typically fragments of great prints from old scraps or quilts. These form the basis of my designs, and I start with pulling together a number of ideas to form what feels like a visually interesting, cohesive group. Usually there is a “lead” floral or other print that galvanizes things. Everything gets drawn in Adobe Illustrator, because that’s the software I’m most familiar with from my graphic design days. I have someone now who helps me with the drawing, and good thing or I could never keep up with the volume. (Between both distribution channels I’m producing about 8-10 collections a year!) The coloring is my favorite part. The inspiration for a collection’s palette can come from any of the things I look at – sometimes an old postcard or other vintage ephemera, a painting, the light on a particular day, or a photograph in a magazine (my favorite is World of Interiors).
TVH: You use a lot of solids and subtle prints in your most well-known quilts. How do you choose the fabrics for your quilts? How often do you sew with your own fabrics? Are there any other designers whose fabric you love to sew with?
DS: In my own quilts, I tend to use fabrics that feel anonymous or that aren’t easily attributed to a particular designer (including me), perhaps because the quilts that have influenced me most are less about the individual fabrics and more about an overall feeling. I like my quilts to feel timeless, and it’s easier to do this with solids or fabrics that don’t carry their own personality. I have used some of the reproduction fabrics that Liberty produced in conjunction with the Quilts: 1700-2010 exhibition at the V&A a couple years ago, and there are many fine reproduction fabrics that I love, especially civil war era prints. For non-quilt sewing (which I never have enough time for these days) I love fabrics by friends and colleagues like Heather Ross, Anna Maria Horner, Nani Iro, Kaffe Fassett, and Amy Butler to name a few.
TVH: You’ve mentioned that you use take a lot of photographs, which inspire your quilts. Do you have any advice for translating day-to-day images into quilt designs?
DS: I usually shoot so the image as cropped shows interesting juxtapositions of composition, line, and form. I’ve been doing this for so long that everything takes on the proportion of either a twin or a queen size quilt top. These images are then helpful for me in laying the groundwork for what a quilt top might look like. It can be very literal, as in the case of a project I did for the Philip Johnson Glass House in nearby New Canaan CT. They invited me to visit and design a quilt in response to the house and grounds. One of the images I shot translated pretty directly into the final quilt design. Other times, the photos provide more of a feeling or direction that informs the design direction, such as the images I took at a Shaker village, which resulted in the Mount Lebanon quilt series.
TVH: How about advice for quilters who want to try improvisational piecing for the first time?
DS: In the Improvisational Patchwork workshops I teach, my method is to set up a situation where the students are forced to use fabric they draw blindly out of a paper bag, one piece at a time. My feeling is it helps the student to ‘unlearn’ some of the habits they may have formed over the years – such as always gravitating toward particular colors or only using prints as opposed to solids. It makes the learning a hands-on experience, and I think visceral, tangible learning is more lasting than what you might read in a book (or blog). However uncomfortable it might be initially to give up control over the outcome, the students inevitably make discoveries they would not have necessarily arrived at on their own. It is also really helpful (and freeing) to deal with just one piece at a time, rather than getting caught up in the sometimes overwhelming process of planning, designing, thinking that usually applies to the patchwork process. It helps you focus, be in the moment, and you can notice all the decisions you are making even with so many limitations imposed on you. If you are trying it on your own, I would say to give yourself some time limits so you work quickly (no second-guessing), and also give yourself permission to make blocks that aren’t “perfect” in and of themselves. You need to remember to stand back and look at your work from the perspective of an entire quilt top, and not get hung up on making each block a work of art.
TVH: Can you tell us a bit about your new book, Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspiration?
DS: Everyone thinks of me as a modern quilter, but what many don’t realize is that my work has largely been informed by the antique and vintage quilts that inspired me to start my business over 15 years ago. I wanted to share my love of these traditional patterns, and get people to see them in the way that I do – as very modern, incredibly beautiful designs. When I first became interested in quilts, the pared-down charm of these very old patterns seemed surprisingly new and fresh to me. It felt like the right time to pay homage to my inspirations, and I’m really excited to bring these traditional patterns to light with my point of view. It also feels like the right time to focus on quilt patterns that aren’t necessarily “quick and easy”. No matter how you go about it, a quilt is an investment of time. Though most of us are hard-pressed for any extra time these days, I’m hoping people will embrace the idea of quilting as a “slow craft”, and indulge themselves in going against the grain of instant gratification.