Quilts larger than life


Heidelberg’s Mar­i­lyn Far­quhar is a mod­ern and contemporary quil­ter with ‘rock star’ sta­tus

It’s a wind­ing road to a quilt show when “rock star” quil­ter Mar­i­lyn Far­quhar leads the charge. “For a trip that takes six hours, with Mar­i­lyn it takes you two days and you make 14 or 15 stops at quilt­ing shops,” says fel­low quil­ter Au­drey Vrooman with a laugh.

“She’s got her quilt­ing shops re­searched be­fore a trip. In ad­di­tion we go to mu­se­ums and in­ter­est­ing ex­hibits. It’s all about know­ing what’s out there in the wide world.”

Far­quhar lives large – in her life, in her friend­ships and in her pas­sion, quilt­ing.

She’s known for her thor­oughly orig­i­nal, large-scale, mod­ern quilts that are a blaze of colour­ful fab­rics, cre­ative stitch­ing and de­signs, as well as for her in­fec­tious laugh­ter and those fun-filled road trips.

She’s known for her fo­cus on stitch­ing; for hid­ing a “sur­prise” in a de­sign; and for her cre­ative use of tech­nol­ogy, par­tic­u­larly her Handi Quil­ter Fu­sion lon­garm ma­chine, likened to a “sewing ma­chine on steroids.”

“She her­self is in a lot of ways larger than life. She has a ro­bust laugh and a lot of zest for life,” Vrooman says. “I think she brings her per­sonal style to her quilt­ing – ‘Go big or go home.’ ”

“She does en­tirely orig­i­nal de­signs and she’s al­ways push­ing the en­ve­lope,” says an­other quilt­ing friend, Mar­sha Clarke, who trav­els to shops and shows with Far­quhar and Vrooman.

“I don’t think her mind stops churn­ing. You want to grow and ex­pand your skills. Mar­i­lyn goes beyond what most peo­ple do. She’s al­ways trying to grow and be dif­fer­ent.”

Now, Far­quhar’s rep­u­ta­tion as an imag­i­na­tive, ad­ven­tur­ous and gifted artist is spread­ing na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. She has re­cent awards be­hind her name and an op­por­tu­nity to en­cour­age other quil­ters as the sole Cana­dian in a 12-mem­ber “in- spi­ra­tion squad” for Handi Quil­ter, a leader in the high-tech ma­chine quilt­ing mar­ket. Early this year, she at­tended an ex­pens­e­s­paid ed­u­ca­tional re­treat at the com­pany’s head­quar­ters in Salt Lake City, Utah, to learn more about the com­pany’s high-tech, lon­garm ma­chine.

Still, Far­quhar is hum­ble, down-to-earth and joy­ful, and those who know quilt­ing are in awe of her creativ­ity and skills.

“In the con­text of the quilt­ing world, she is a rock star,” Vrooman says.

Far­quhar calls her­self a com­bi­na­tion of a mod­ern and contemporary quil­ter. She loves fab­rics in bold colours and uses both tra­di­tional tech­niques and tech­nol­ogy to give her the freedom she likes to cre­ate orig­i­nal pieces, most of which hang on walls as art.

Tech­nique is im­por­tant to her. She uses no pat­terns. Each de­sign is hers. Big, bold flow­ers – her favourite sub­ject – are fea­tured in many of her quilts; so many that her hus­band, Doug, and adult son, Mitchell, once jok­ingly chal­lenged her to for­get about flow­ers and de­sign an os­trich quilt in­stead. Doug left pic­tures of os­triches all over the house.

Far­quhar did in­deed cre­ate a quilt with an al­most-life-size os­trich on it, but she had the last laugh. She in­cor­po­rated bright, flo­ral fab­rics in the funky os­trich de­sign, us­ing tra­di­tional tech­niques with col­lage and edges that she turned un­der and hand stitched. She called the os­trich “Ophe­lia.”

Ideas flow out of that “over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion,” says Vrooman, who does mod­ern and tra­di­tional quilt­ing.

“I be­gin with a pat­tern and I sort of tweak it to suit my­self,” Vrooman says. “But she be­gins in her mind with an idea and then the idea per­co­lates.”

Far­quhar’s ranch-style bun­ga­low in Heidelberg is where those ideas come to life.

The liv­ing and din­ing rooms have been

swal­lowed up by a quilt­ing stu­dio with shelves full of bright fab­rics and the large, fu­tur­is­tic-look­ing lon­garm ma­chine in front of the pic­ture win­dow.

On this day, there’s a gor­geous quilt on the frame called “Five Roses,” a swirl of large, mostly pink blooms in­ter­spersed with orange, red, yel­low and bur­gundy colours.

Un­der­neath Far­quhar’s sunny per­son­al­ity is a serious artist – metic­u­lous, de­mand­ing of her skills and al­ways push­ing her­self to do some­thing new.

Far­quhar moved her stu­dio from the base­ment in or­der to spend more time near her hus­band af­ter she came home from a day’s work. She took a sec­tion out of the Fu­sion model’s 3.5-me­tre frame to make it fit in the room.

A touch­screen com­puter, the “Pro-Stitcher,” is mounted on the quilt­ing ma­chine that runs on a track sys­tem. It al­lows her, among other things, to switch be­tween com­puter-guided and hand-guided quilt­ing.

Doug made the large cut­ting ta­ble in the room to try to con­tain Far­quhar’s big ideas. He also made the fab­ric shelves and thread racks.

“This is the fun part, pulling fab­ric from the shelves,” Far­quhar says, mov­ing around the room where fab­rics, vivid quilts on the walls and the large ma­chine vie for a vis­i­tor’s at­ten­tion. “This is a fu­ture quilt,” she says, point­ing to a col­lec­tion of fab­rics on the shelves. “And over here, it’s sorted by colour. Busy fab­rics are down here.”

The house is like an art gallery. Large, eye­catch­ing quilts are on the wall of the pi­ano room, stacked on top of a mu­sic cab­i­net, piled on an old tele­vi­sion stand.

In the guest bed­room, there’s a quilt that she made when her hus­band was bat­tling cancer six years ago. She took the work with her to the hos­pi­tal while he was get­ting treat­ment. Now cancer-free, Doug is a big fan and a big help. He helps solve any com­puter prob­lems.

“I like hav­ing the quilts all over the house,” Doug says. “It has an artsy touch.”

Though the lon­garm ma­chine can make the process speedy, Far­quhar is not in it for speed. “One of my quilts will take me months and months.” Her hus­band teases her about the num­ber of quilts she has on the go at the same time.

“The real fun is de­sign­ing, se­lect­ing fab­ric, get­ting started,” she says. “Fin­ish­ing is al­ways harder be­cause there are more pat­terns on the brain.

“I started a new quilt a cou­ple of days ago and I was draw­ing an­other last night. It’s kind of em­bar­rass­ing,” she says, laugh­ing.

Far­quhar uses a draw­ing app on her iPad to help her draw her own de­signs – a prac­tice that is not the norm. The tool in­creases the smooth­ness of the lines that she draws. She then im­ports the de­sign into “Art and Stitch” soft­ware to mod­ify and dig­i­tize it (cre­ate the stitch­ing line). Then, us­ing a flash drive, she trans­fers the de­sign to the “Pro-Stitcher” that in­structs the

lon­garm ma­chine where to move.

She might take a pic­ture of the quilt af­ter she has ap­pliqued five roses, for ex­am­ple, which she takes to the draw­ing app so she can ex­per­i­ment with how she might quilt.

“Most quil­ters with a com­put­er­ized sys­tem would pur­chase com­put­er­ized de­signs, where I draw and dig­i­tize my own,” she says. “This makes my whole quilt orig­i­nal and all my own.”

She prefers not to have the quilt­ing con­form to the size of a block. One quilt, which she is en­ter­ing in an in­ter­na­tional show, fea­tures a full-length tree with a frac­tured look. It in­cludes fab­ric with a tree mo­tif and other branch fab­rics. Birds in red thread add colour. She de­signed 12 dif­fer­ent, styl­ized leaves, dig­i­tized them and then used the “Art and Stitch” soft­ware.

Some peo­ple think that us­ing a com­puter is “cheat­ing,” but that same crit­i­cism was heard years ago when ma­chines were in­tro­duced to quilt­ing, Far­quhar says. Now, the ma­chine has taken quilt­ing “to a whole new level.

“It’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent skill set. . . . There are a whole bunch of steps, but they’re all yours.”

In an in­ter­view from Utah, Brenda Groelz, Handi Quil­ter’s di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing and ed­u­ca­tion, noted: “There aren’t as many artists who work with a lon­garm ma­chine.”

“She is very dif­fer­ent. In Mar­i­lyn’s case, she shows orig­i­nal work, orig­i­nal draw­ings that she trans­lates in fab­ric and thread. . . . Her sense of colour and fab­ric se­lec­tion is phe­nom­e­nal,” says Groelz, a quilt­ing books au­thor and for­mer edi­tor-in-chief of Quilt­maker magazine.

“You look at Mar­i­lyn’s quilts and you smile.”

Through Handi Quil­ter, Far­quhar and the rest of the “in­spi­ra­tion squad” are be­com­ing fa­mil­iar faces to more quil­ters. They’re mak­ing videos at home de­scrib­ing their tech­niques and pas­sion for quilt­ing that are posted on Handi Quil­ter’s web­site. They’re fea­tured in an ad cam­paign in quilt­ing pub­li­ca­tions.

And if all that isn’t cool enough, “I have

a photo on a truck,” Far­quhar says with a laugh. “A family friend said: ‘You know you’re at the pin­na­cle of your ca­reer when you’re on the side of a truck.’ ”

Far­quhar has re­ceived ma­jor awards for her orig­i­nal quilts. She has earned more than a dozen rib­bons since she started quilt­ing 35 years ago.

At QuiltCon 2017, an in­ter­na­tional mod­ern quilt­ing show in Sa­van­nah, Ge­or­gia, in Fe­bru­ary, she won first place in the piec­ing cat­e­gory for her work, “Ode de Yoshiko.” She made the in­tri­cate quilt, min­i­mal­ist in colour, af­ter a friend pur­chased some of de­signer Yoshiko Jinzenji’s signed, hand-stamped fab­ric that Far­quhar ad­mired. The quilt is now part of an ex­hibit trav­el­ling to coun­tries around the world.

Last year, a quilt called “Slices of Mar­ket Life” won the “Ex­cel­lence for a Group Quilt” award at the Cana­dian Quil­ters’ As­so­ci­a­tion’s Na­tional Juried Show. It was also a fi­nal­ist at the Amer­i­can Quil­ter’s So­ci­ety spring show and the In­ter­na­tional Quilt Fes­ti­val in Texas.

Far­quhar co-or­di­nated a quilt­ing group made up of Vrooman, Clarke, Natalie Dudy­cha, Nancy McCracken, Mar­garet No­tar, El­iz­a­beth Sch­nei­der and her­self in or­der to cre­ate a trib­ute to the St. Ja­cobs Farm­ers’ Mar­ket af­ter the struc­ture burnt down.

Us­ing orig­i­nal de­signs, pho­tos and mul­ti­ple tech­niques, the group made pan­els show­ing a Men­non­ite wagon, ven­dor stalls and other mar­ket fea­tures, with a “ghost layer” that gave a glimpse of burnt tim­bers and downed hy­dro wires.

It’s not easy or­ga­niz­ing a group of quil­ters to do a project. “That’s like herd­ing cats,” Vrooman says. “Ev­ery­one has a dif­fer­ent idea of how long 44-and-one-half inches is.”

But Far­quhar en­cour­aged each quil­ter to ex­press her­self freely in her work.

In ad­di­tion to chal­leng­ing her creatively, quilt­ing has been Far­quhar’s stress­re­liever. She is pres­i­dent of Prov­i­dent Prop­erty Man­age­ment Inc., which she owns with her hus­band. By day, and some­times at odd hours, she leased units, col­lected rent, man­aged ten­ant is­sues, did ac­count­ing and met on-site con­trac­tors for her clients.

When a fur­nace broke down on a cold win­ter’s night, it was Far­quhar’s job to make sure it was fixed.

“You’re trying to make so many peo­ple happy,” Far­quhar says. “They’re im­por­tant when they’re call­ing.”

The drive from her Water­loo of­fice to her home in Heidelberg helped her re­lax. Stress washed away as soon as she stepped in­side the front door and saw her quilt­ing room.

“I find the en­tire process of quilt­ing has a calm­ing ef­fect. Quilt­ing is a dif­fer­ent realm. I de­ter­mine my own rules,” she says.

Re­cently, the 57-year-old de­cided to be­come semi-re­tired, re­duc­ing the busi­ness as of September 2017 to a cou­ple of clients.

Now she’ll have more time to ex­plore the di­rec­tions that quilt­ing might take her – whether it’s cre­at­ing more show

quilts, teach­ing, do­ing pat­tern de­sign, be­ing avail­able to con­trib­ute more to Handi Quil­ter, pro­duc­ing more YouTube videos, or pos­si­bly do­ing com­mis­sioned work.

“I want to be able to par­tic­i­pate in the aspects of quilt­ing that give me joy.”

Far­quhar’s pas­sion for quilt­ing re­sem­bles her car­pen­ter fa­ther’s keen interest in lum­ber.

“What­ever he does, he throws him­self into it. What­ever we do, we’re in 100 per cent. That’s who we are.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Con­estoga Col­lege’s le­gal sec­re­tary pro­gram, Far­quhar worked lo­cally be­fore mov­ing to Toronto at 22. There, she was ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant to Sharon, Lois and Bram, a flam­boy­ant musical trio who became well­known performers on CBC’s “The Ele­phant Show.”

Far­quhar stayed a cou­ple of years with the group be­fore en­ter­ing the prop­erty man­age­ment field where she ex­celled. She moved up to be­come a se­nior main­te­nance su­per­vi­sor for the Metro Toronto Hous­ing Author­ity, over­see­ing 12 large, sub­si­dized apart­ment build­ings. She was the youngest fe­male man­ager lead­ing a male-dom­i­nated, union­ized staff who of­ten faced risky ten­ant sit­u­a­tions.

She and Doug, who had worked as a sys­tems an­a­lyst for the Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, moved to Kitch­ener af­ter their son was born.

Far­quhar was largely self-taught when she started quilt­ing in her early 20s. “I didn’t even know there were quilt stores. I quilted for years not know­ing there was a quilt­ing com­mu­nity.”

Now, aided by so­cial me­dia, she has quilt­ing friends all over the world. She’s a mem­ber of sev­eral quilt guilds and or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing Grand River Mod­ern Quilt Guild and the Amer­i­can Quil­ter’s So­ci­ety, where mem­bers share their knowl­edge and in­spi­ra­tion.

“We share our work on In­sta­gram and re­ceive sup­port or sug­ges­tions, or help us search for the fab­ric we may be miss­ing from our stash,” she says. “I’m drawn to peo­ple who are re­ally pas­sion­ate about it. You share that pas­sion.”

She loves the quilt­ing trips with friends and trav­els to two ma­jor quilt shows a year in Ken­tucky and Texas.

“When I go, my first pri­or­ity is fab­ric. I look for a spe­cial fab­ric, some­thing that will evolve into a quilt.” When she finds it, “my friends make fun of me and they say, ‘I have no idea what she’ll do with that.’”

Some­times, she’s even able to per­suade some­one to sell her some­thing from their “se­cret stash” of hand-dyed fab­ric.

Far­quhar likes that peo­ple ex­pect the un­ex­pected in her quilt­ing.

“I don’t want to do what ev­ery­body is do­ing,” she says. “I want to keep push­ing to do some­thing dif­fer­ent from ev­ery­body else. If there’s a tech­nique or colour or style I haven’t worked with, I want to play with it and achieve it.”

TOP: Far­quhar works on her Handi Quil­ter Fu­sion lon­garm ma­chine, likened to a “sewing ma­chine on steroids.”

BOT­TOM: Far­quhar and the Handi Quil­ter ‘in­spi­ra­tion squad’ have their photo on the side of a truck. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF MAR­I­LYN FAR­QUHAR

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