Ellen sees sewing as a vital skill for women fighting inequality. Sandi Sawa Hazlewood finds out what gets her fired up...
Ellen Luckett Baker is inspiring us with her views on quilting as a form of craftivism. Sandi Sawa Hazlewood discovers how this leads Ellen to create fabric collections
How would you describe your creative journey?
Although I’ve always been interested in art and design, for many years I lacked the confidence to declare myself creative. At home with my two young daughters, we began crafting, sewing, and baking, while documenting it all on my blog, The Long Thread. Time and space led me back to creativity and these new pursuits reminded me of the perils of perfection. Learning to make things by hand forced me to overcome mistakes, accept imperfection, and expand my creativity.
The digital world moves quickly and so much has changed since I started my blog thelongthread.com in 2007. During the heyday of craft blogging, I discovered a connected and encouraging community. Makers were writing about their process and personal lives while painting a portrait of a whole person. Today, it seems craft social media has become a veneer of life glimpsed through glowing Instagram photos. Everything I learned in those years was gathered from blogs and books.
Around the same time, I started a business selling embroidered linens and baby items. Once that work became too repetitive, I began designing digital embroidery files to sell online. As sewing became my primary focus, I wrote my first book, 1, 2, 3 Sew, which was an exciting adventure and a true labour of love. What had started as a pastime was becoming a career.
In 2011, I tried my hand at textile design with a collection for a major fabric company but it wasn’t the right creative fit. I was lucky to begin working with KOKKA the following year. I then followed up with a second book, 1, 2, 3 Quilt. Textile design has allowed me a tremendous amount of creative freedom and it’s been exciting to watch the industry change over the years. With designs created by painting and stamping, Paint is my ninth collection with KOKKA, and one of my favourites. I’m feeling more contemplative about my work these days. As my kids get older, I’ve learned creativity evolves with each new season of life.
How do you describe your work? I’ve realised that my quilts need to be less functional and more meaningful. I recently sorted through my children’s baby
WHEN I PUT ASIDE PERFECTION AND ALLOW SPACE FOR FAILURE, I FIND TREMENDOUS CREATIVE GROWTH
clothes and cut squares to make a quilt. It's the next project on my list.
I’ve also become increasingly interested in the creative process and its utility in our everyday lives. Learning to use creativity as a hobby or career can set you on a positive trajectory for life, which can increase confidence, mindfulness, and personal satisfaction. With the distractions of our fast-paced world, I often forget to carve out time for creativity. For me, the meditative and reflective benefits of making are essential to good mental health.
You once wrote about having a ‘growth mindset’ versus a ‘fixed mindset’. How do you apply this? In her 2007 book Mindset: The New Psychology for Success, Carol Dweck writes about how we limit ourselves when we view our abilities as predetermined, or finite, but when we accept new challenges and open ourselves up to failure as a growth experience, we can expand our skill set. When we apply growth mindset from a creative perspective, it reminds us to take risks and experiment with new techniques and materials. As I’ve gotten older, I now reject the romanticised notion of creativity as a lightning bolt and understand that daily work and diligence reap greater rewards.
In terms of creative careers, a growth mindset allows us to embrace new opportunities, even when we don’t yet have complete confidence. For instance, when I’m asked to teach a class or give a talk that may be out of my comfort zone, I force myself to prepare, learn, and meet the challenge. A growth mindset doesn’t come naturally for me, but when I put aside perfection and actually allow space for failure, I find tremendous creative growth.
Take me through your design process. Do you use digital tools? Pattern ideas start floating around in my head months before they hit paper. Most of my recent collections have involved physical making, such as painting, printing, or paper cutting. I then sit down at the computer to scan, digitise, and put the designs into repeat. Over the years, I taught myself how to use Illustrator and Photoshop.
As I formulate a collection, I often think of the colourways during the process, but I make all of the hand drawings and digital renderings in black and white before adding colour. I find that developing one element at a time helps the designs stay focused and minimalistic. Once everything is digitised and in repeat, I begin experimenting with scale and colour. Visualisation of the finished product is an important part of my process. I print out the designs and think of what people might make with them, imagine them shelved vertically on bolts at fabric shops, and how they'll look as a collection.
DURING THE HEYDAY OF CRAFT BLOGGING, I DISCOVERED A CONNECTED AND ENCOURAGING COMMUNITY
For your fabric collections, do you design differently based on the print’s fabric substrate?
Since I sew, I consider the tactile experience of the fabric and how people will use it. For linen blends, I imagine bags, pillows, and accessories as the end-use items with designs that are larger scale and higher contrast. Double gauze is most commonly sewn into apparel, so I make these patterns smaller scale with more negative space and solid backgrounds. Simplicity always
rules when I ask the essential question, ‘Would I buy that?’
Did the election of Donald Trump change your artistic perspective? It’s changed my perspective on everything and profoundly affected my creative life. Suddenly, fabric design seems superficial when there’s such important work to be done. This creative paralysis has left me immobile for months.
My creative work is intrinsically connected to who I am as a person, so I haven’t hesitated to speak out when I feel that people are being trampled by a sweeping wave of hatred and inequality in the United States of America and growing nationalism around the globe. As a parent, it’s difficult to raise children with optimism right now, but the compassion and open-mindedness I see in their generation gives me hope for the future. Ultimately my work is personal and not political, but sometimes it’s impossible to separate the two.
You recently wrote that 'crafting is feminist.' Can you explain why you feel strongly about this?
There’s an inherent and unavoidable contradiction in crafting as a feminist. When sewing has been ‘women’s work’ for centuries, how do we embrace it as a liberated choice? As we defend our rights as women in
I’VE REALISED THAT MY QUILTS NEED TO BE LESS FUNCTIONAL AND MORE MEANINGFUL
a world spinning backwards, I think we should carefully examine our decisions. I’ve always felt defensive when justifying the importance of crafts in contemporary society.
In the year 2017, making can be both an exercise of creative expression and a fundamental rejection of consumerism. Apparel sewing allows us to take control of the process while owning our bodies, rejecting society’s negative messages about body image. The creativity of crafting is empowering for women. Quilting can be a cathartic process with meditative repetition and unlimited choices.
The simple steps of choosing fabric, planning a layout, then cutting, sewing, and neatly squaring up blocks can help us hone new skills and accept imperfections. In addition to sewing and quilting, craftivism has become an integral part of feminist crafting with a new wave of craftivists proving once again that craft has power beyond functionality. The current political reality in the United States has caused an explosion of reactionary art, which has carved a new space for both the loud and quiet voices of the craftivist movement. In January, I was busy knitting pink hats and ended up making almost 50 of them. When we arrived at the March in DC and saw a sea of pink hats, their collective power was overwhelming. When we raise our voices together, we can make a difference.
But still, the fabric shops and craft stores are populated mostly by women, reminding us of the continued gender distinctions. Unfortunately, I don’t see much effort to flip this paradigm for the next generation. I’d love to see all boys and girls improve their visual-spatial and motor skills by learning to knit and sew. Women can continue to exercise their creativity through craft while also achieving equal representation in Congress!
Ellen's sewing room is giving us a touch of crafter's envy… we'd love a wall of sunshine Dresdens!
Ellen's Star Duffel Bag is a masterclass in perfectly matched diagonal seams
The vibrant Triangle's Quilt from Ellen's 1,2,3 Quilt book uses four different triangle types!