Debra Gabel, author of Quilt Blocks Across America, started quilting as a teenager. When she had a family of her own, she started designing patterns for stockings, then baby quilts. But it wasn’t until 2003 that she seriously thought of making a career of it.
One day, while bedridden with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, she turned on the Oprah show. Oprah said, “To live your best life, you have to seek after and define your passion, then make your passion your life’s work”.
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That hit a chord with Debra. From that moment on she set out to make the most of her life, by creating and selling quilting patterns and handcrafted quilts.
Alyice: When you first started quilting, what was the most difficult aspect and how did you overcome it?
Debra: The most difficult part of quilting was stitch quality and accuracy.
When I would sit down to sew, I would sew for a little bit then fight with the machine for most of the sewing session. I did not know that a good machine makes a HUGE difference. I did not know that you had to clean your machine regularly.
I really thought the first time I stitched it would be perfect. I had no idea that sewing accurately requires hours of practice. I eventually bought a good sewing machine—a Pfaff. What a difference between a Kenmore and a Pfaff!
I just practiced and practiced until I got the feel of the machine and the fabric and how to move it steadily and evenly. I learned to respect the skill of sewing well.
Alyice: When did you know your designs were good enough to share with others?
Debra: I learned that by living 3 or 4 miles from a quilt shop. I would design baby blankets for friends and I would bring the tops to the store to match and purchase backing. The shop owners and employees would ask “Where did you get that lovely pattern?”
I would reply “No pattern, I just created it.”
The shop owner asked me to teach a class and make a pattern for my Christmas stockings and a few baby quilts. The next thing I knew, I was teaching and selling patterns for the class.
Alyice: Do you remember the day you created your first original pattern? What prompted you to tackle your own design? (How did it come about? What was going through your head? How did you feel?)
Debra: I do remember the very first pattern. As previously mentioned it was a Christmas stocking. It came about because I wanted to make big roomy stockings for my family of five.
I designed the pattern and sewed them up in muslin to check for size. Once I did that, I made cardboard patterns from cereal boxes and made 5 stockings. What was going through my head was “I need stockings” and how can I do that? I really did not feel unusual. I felt a need and just set down and figured out how to solve the problem.
Funny thing, I knew I wanted it a certain way, so I did not even go looking for a pattern. In fact I do not even think I knew there were quilt patterns for stockings and baby quilts with images rather than just squares sewn together.
Alyice: Over the years you’ve designed and created hundreds of patterns for individual purchase, retail shops, and publishers of quilting books. Any lessons learned you can share in regards to designing a quilt pattern?
Debra: Hmmmm, lessons learned? There are many! The first lesson is that you must know very specifically what your goal for your pattern company will be. My goal is to create interesting realistic pictorial images that can translate well to fabric.
My second goal is to create patterns that are timeless, not faddy. I have lines of butterflies, flowers and landscapes of destinations—none of which will ever be considered faddy. It is important to know what is on the market. There are many flowers on the market—so what is my angle? My angle is that I offer the largest selection of flowers from one designer.
I have also learned that when writing a pattern you must write it for two different types of quilters. It must have diagrams for the visual learners and it must have concise written words for the reader.
Alyice: I understand that you keep a sketchbook. How has sketching helped you with your designs and quilting?
Debra: A sketch book is a great way to transfer the ideas in my head to paper so that I can remember to develop that idea later. The freedom of drawing with a pencil and paper can quickly capture the idea.
Often in my sketch book I will have quick scribbly sketches and a whole bunch of ideas written out. It is not pretty. Later, I research the topic with visual images in books and on the internet. If I can, I shoot my own picture.
Then I sit and make a composite of all the images and that becomes my own interpretation of the subject. I scan the image into my computer and make even line drawings atop the scanned image to make individual pattern pieces.
Alyice: One thing that makes your designs stand out is the fact that they look like fine art pieces. How does one go about creating a “fine art” design?
Debra: I am a fine artist. I use the principles of composition and design throughout. I use color theory to choose colors. I define my color palette and stay within the parameters of that theme. I have studied art history and visit museums as often as I can. For example, in my stamp collection of patterns, I really like for the scene to set a tone or be the beginning of a place the viewer can go. That is the same process that I use when I do a painting.
Alyice: Aside from selling your patterns and quilts, you also lecture, host quilting workshops, and offer private quilting lessons. Any tips on balancing it all?
Debra: Yes I do have some great tips.
Number one: Make lists.
I have a dry erase board and write out the “things I need/want to do”. Every day when I go to my studio I see the list and it helps to keep me balanced.
I have learned that I have different times when I am creative and other times when I am basically brain dead! During the brain dead times I do mundane tasks like folding and stuffing patterns. During the creative times I design and brainstorm.
Usually during the mornings are when I do the best technical work, like writing out patterns or composing copy for a book.
Number two: Listen to others.
I make a very conscious effort to listen to feedback from customers and fellow quilters. I do not mean “hear them” I mean “listen”. I often reflect upon their comments and questions and that is the compass that helps to make me grow.
Number three: Find a balance.
Overall, balancing my life, family, and business comes down to being aware of what is going on. By that I mean I do a self-assessment often. I think about how my thoughts are flowing that day and I direct myself to do whatever may be the most productive for that day. I know there will be days when I am tired and not able to sit in front of a computer. Those days I might draw or create.
There are days when I really cannot do much of anything productive. Those are the days when my well is getting dry. Those are the days I will go to a museum or out to a nice lunch. I will go to my favorite art stores or a gallery and replenish the well.
I have learned that most of us live in cycles. I have decided to go with the cycles rather than fight them. Since I was ill and I have lived more in the moment I am getting more things accomplished that I ever dreamed. I often set up for a show or lecture and see over 100 quilts displayed and think to myself “who did all this?”
Number four: Let go.
I really feel that if we let go and let God we can achieve things that we cannot even possibly conceive.
I learned laying in a bed for close to a year that we are really not in control. There is a greater being (or source or whatever you may want to refer to it as) that is WAY beyond our intellectual grasp.
That said, I do not mean to infer we have no input in our lives, but I have learned that giving is the ONLY way to serve others and serve ourselves.
I try to get up each day and if I can get to the bathroom by myself I know it is going to be a good day! I put in hard work each and every day whether I am tired, disinterested, or not physically feeling 100%. By the end of the day (on most days) the productivity has chased away any aches or pains, has stirred my interest and has left me feeling satisfied. Now, that is a good day!
To order Debra Gabel’s latest quilting book, Quilt Blocks Across America, or to learn more about her patterns and quilts, visit her atwww.zebrapatterns.com.