‘Snarky Quilter’ Joanna Mack on textiles and improvisation

 interview by Rosalie Murphy

Joanna Mack wears her grandmother’s thimble as a necklace charm.

She grew up in a household surrounded by textiles, though sewing was mostly a utilitarian skill. Decades later, she began quilting again. Then she discovered the art quilt movement: A group of textile artists using quilting techniques to create pieces designed for walls and museums.

Joanna launched her blog, The Snarky Quilter, as a retirement project. She posts regular updates about works in-progress and on exhibit.

RM: What is an art quilt? 

JM: The quilts that most people know are what are called “functional quilts.” They’re quilts that you put on beds. You use them in some fashion around your house. Art quilts, they’re for decoration. They are for the wall. A lot of them, there’s no way you could put them in a washing machine because they would just fall apart. They are meant to be works of art. 

They do reference quilts in that they are typically made of fabric or fabric-like materials. Traditional quilts are three layers. You have the top part; you have the middle part, which is the batting, that gives it that puffiness; and then you have the bottom. Art quilts sometimes only have two of those layers, where they won’t bother with the bottom layer, they’ll just have the batting and the top. They will be held together in some fashion with stitching, though the stitching may actually be stapling. Most art quilts will have your typical three layers, and they will be made of fabric, and they will be held together with stitches.

RM: How did you become an art quilter? 

JM: My granny was a seamstress; that’s how she supported the family. I grew up in a family where talk about sewing and fabrics was all around me. There was no conscious effort to teach me to sew, but by osmosis I absorbed it. And then when I got into my teenage years, I did the kind of sewing where we threw together an outfit on Saturday morning to wear on Saturday night. After college, I just stopped sewing totally for a long time. And then finally I was at a point in my life where I needed a bunch of presents for the holidays, and I had no money, but I did have a sewing machine and I did have some scraps of fabric. So I figured, “oh, I’ll make pillows!” 

About eight years after that, they developed technological breakthroughs with the rotary cutter and acrylic rulers. So you had this special mat and you’d put your fabric down and put your ruler down and shoop! Cut cut cut. And it was so much faster. And I was like, “OK, I can do this”. 

I started out making traditional quilts. Traditional quilts oftentimes have patterns: “I want my quilt to look just like that one on the wall.” I kind of got bored with that. The fun part for me was putting together the fabrics and working out my colors, and I was always starting to change up the designs. Finally, around 2011, I said, “nuts with this, no more traditional quilts, I’m just going to make all original designs”. I went off for a week for a seminar with a woman from South Africa on a wing and a prayer, and from there on in, made my own designs.

RM: What is your process?

JM: People have been trying to instill in me, “Work it out as a sketch, refine your design, and then you choose your fabrics and put it all together”. I love working with fabric, so there are times when I just, I love this fabric, and I love this fabric, and I love this fabric, and I want to use them together, so I’ll just play around with them to figure out a way to maximize how those fabrics look together, and that’s a very improvisational process. You get a thrill each time you work on it: “Oh wow, I’m making something new and different here”, and I’m all about the new and different.

I like the [improvisational] process better. I like the result of a planned quilt better. 

In the process of doing all this, I’ve developed a love of doing what’s called surface design. That’s dyeing, printing, embellishing, distorting fabric in some fashion or another so that you’re making your own fabric. 

RM: What’s the story behind “Hazy Shade of Winter” [pictured at top]?

JM: I live fairly close to the Towpath, and part of my trying to fend off the effects of old age is to try to get regular exercise, and so I walk on the Towpath a lot. I get on the Towpath at Big Bend, and when you walk north, there’s a path that cuts off that crosses the Cuyahoga River. And right before then, I began to notice this whole big swarm of bittersweet vine clambering on the trees, so I ended up taking a lot of pictures of it with my phone. There were some mornings I would go out and walk and it would still be real misty, so you’d have the brightness of those bittersweet berries through this mistiness. 

RM: What does quilting mean to you?

JM: I see it as a passion. By that I mean, I will put aside other things because I have an idea, and I will go up to my studio, AKA the spare bedroom, and just have to mess around. I feel very strongly that I need to work daily at it, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes and I’m doing nothing but sorting my scraps — in doing that sorting, I’m getting ideas and working things through.

To learn more about Joanna and follow her work, visit SnarkyQuilter.wordpress.com

Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.