Material girlPublished on February 29, 2008

  • One of Elaine Quehl's quilting masterpieces. Photo by Darren Brown

It's not often one gets to doodle for a living. But for Elaine Quehl, sketching graceful lines and designs with the needle, presser foot and feed dog on her sewing machine adds up to a whole thimbleful of fun.

"I started by making fairly traditional quilts, but I always found that I didn't want to stick to the patterns or rules," explains Elaine, an Ottawa art quilter who runs her own company, Equarelle. After attending a few quilting shows around Ontario, she says she was exposed to what at the time was a genre-busting revelation. "So I moved more and more into that," recalls the 46-year-old. After taking quilting classes with some "big name" art quilters, Elaine says she began producing her own original works. "And I found it really gratifying."

A dedicated machine quilter, Elaine says she uses the piston-like needle as she would a pen, pencil or brush on paper or canvas. "You're moving the fabric, and you're using the needle like a drawing tool. You're doodling all over the quilt with stitching."

Art quilting, as opposed to traditional blanket-making, involves colourful, intricately-woven designs destined for display on interior walls. It's an obscure occupation that, she says, even sometimes makes an impression with the most old-school of quilters. "There are definitely subcultures within quilting," she says with a laugh. "There are the traditional quilters, and then the art quilters, and they don't always see eye-to-eye."

Elaine, who has no formal art training, sells her wisps of aesthetic warmth online and in-person when not exhibiting or teaching prospective quilters around Ontario. Popular themes - including celestial bodies, floral prints, bright and geometric patterns and even artistic metaphors of the human condition - are woven in her own 100-per-cent, self-dyed cotton. "It's basically a painting made from fibre," she explains. "I think about it like a painting, in that I'm painting with bits of fabric . . . and I'm trying to add depth and dimension to my work. I like people to be able to feel they can almost walk right into (the design). "My quilts are very, very heavily stitched. Once you hang them in a room, they almost beg to be touched."

While Elaine focuses most of her efforts on show entries and teaching, her quilts range in price from $25 at the lower end (16-3/4 inches by 16-3/4 inches) up to $1,500 for her largest creative piece, measuring 47 inches by 39 inches. A few quilts, however - like her winning entry at the Canadian Quilters' Association national juried show last year - are even more expensive. "There are some that would be more now, if I chose to sell them," she says. "The piece that won at a national level, the fact that it's won nationally would drive the price up."

And though her winning entry at the national show isn't for sale right now - she's entered it for the International Quilters Association in Chicago this spring - she says the experience gleaned from attending industry shows is near priceless. "To get into the show is great, but you should see the winners," she says. "Oh my God. Such masterpieces."

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