Passion is priceless. When you live cherishing your passion, it becomes an invaluable journey. Such is the inspiring story of Sarah Fielke, the author of 14 priceless books on quilting and applique, fabric designer and quilting teacher. Her journey stands as a testament to the magic that unfolds when talent meets unwavering dedication.
Imagine a life where you can work on things you love and leave a lasting and meaningful legacy for generations to cherish – I wanted to know more about what worked for her, and she gracefully agreed to answer my questions.
In this article I will cover:
- How did you first get into quilting and appliqué? What is it about this art form that made you passionate about it?
- Can you describe your style in a few words? Do you use traditional appliqué methods, or do you use any alternative method that you like better?
- Can you describe your creative process from start to finish for writing your books? How do you decide on the themes or subjects of your quilts and appliqués for your books?
- What was the first award you ever won for your art?; Can you list the most important wins you have had?
- Which of the books that you have authored are your favorites?
- Do you have any go-to sewing tools that you can’t live without – favorite types of thread, needles, or sewing machine?
- What’s the most ambitious project you’ve taken on, and how did it turn out?
- How do you balance the creative and business aspects of your work? Is it easy? And the challenges in running a business that you have seen. How do you manage the time, writing, sewing, ….
- Any advice for those who want to turn their creative passion into a full-time career?
How did you first get into quilting and appliqué? What is it about this art form that made you passionate about it?
My mother was a stitcher of all kinds; she not only made all my clothes when I was a child, but she embroidered, knitted, did tapestry, and all kinds of other crafts. She taught me to sew when I was very small, and I have sewn all my life.
Sewing is an extension of who I am, and I can’t imagine life without it. I’ve always done a bit of fusible applique and bits and pieces, but I came to needle-turn appliqué many years ago when I owned a patchwork shop.
I have always loved to draw, and I wanted to put my drawings on quilts. There was such an attitude of “Oh no, I don’t applique; it’s too hard and time-consuming” from my customers that I decided I had to find a more user-friendly way of teaching needle turn.
I love to stitch appliqué because, to me, it feels like magic – I draw a picture, and then it comes to life under my needle. I still design a lot of quilts that have NO appliqué, but my appliqué designs are quite recognizable, and so they have become what I’m best known for.
Can you describe your style in a few words? Do you use traditional appliqué methods, or do you use any alternative method that you like better?
The method of needle turn I use is traditional but also not 🙂 I developed it to take the prep and the angst out of hand appliqué to find a simple and user-friendly method of hand stitching.
Some of the methods and tools I use are traditional, and some are not.
Can you describe your creative process from start to finish for writing your books? How do you decide on the themes or subjects of your quilts and appliqués for your books?
My creative process can only be described as “suck it and see”! I would love to say I’m one of those incredibly organized people who plan everything, make lists and, work methodically, and design all their quilts in some kind of amazing computer program. I am not.
I work very organically. I am usually working on four or five quilts or designs at once, and everything has always come together in my head way way before it is ever down on paper or cut from fabric.
I work best when I have a lot going on, and I have to juggle. It’s just who I am!
What was the first award you ever won for your art?; Can you list the most important wins you have had?
The first award I ever won was at the Sydney Quilt Show, in about 2007 I think. It was for a wool applique and embroidery quilt I made that was very unusual.
I hadn’t ever entered a quilt in a show before that, so I was pretty excited to have won something… to be honest I don’t remember what the category even was, but it was a first prize for something!!
I’m not someone who cares a lot about awards, really. It’s hard to say what an “important” win is; its only important if it matters to you 🙂
Probably the most important win to me was for my quilt ‘A Wing and a Prayer’, which is one of my favorite quilts I’ve ever made and has a lot of personal meaning behind it. It’s won quite a few awards but it was juried into the Best of Australia show, and that meant a lot to me.
Ah, the old line about not being able to choose because they’re all like my children….. If I had to pick, I would choose either Quilting, From Little Things because it was my first solo book and I love each and every quilt in it.
Another favorite is ‘Old Quilts, New Life’ because it was a book I wanted to write for a long, long time and I finally got to do it exactly as I wanted to, with no constraints.
Do you have any go-to sewing tools that you can’t live without – favorite types of thread, needles, or sewing machine?
I cannot live without my applique needles and some good sharp scissors.
Aurifil 80 weight thread is my favorite, favourite thread for hand sewing; it’s an absolute must for me. I have my own brand of needles for applique and big stitch hand quilting that I absolutely adore; I don’t use anything but those anymore!
And I collect scissors like a magpie (shiny!!), but the ones I recommend most would be either Sohmo embroidery scissors for snipping into your little applique points or Karen Kay Buckley for cutting out applique shapes.
I have a Janome Quilters Companion; her name is Helga. Helga is 16 years old and has written 14 books. And she is in very bad need of retirement, so I’m currently on the prowl for a new girlfriend.
What’s the most ambitious project you’ve taken on, and how did it turn out?
Honestly, I think the most ambitious thing I ever did was open my patchwork shop.
At the time, I was a quilting teacher, just doing some classes here and there, and I was 30 years old. The owner of a shop I was teaching at was retiring and asked if I would like to buy the business. We had a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old and a big mortgage!!
I went home, cooked my husband a lovely dinner and poured him a big glass of wine and took a deep breath and proposed I buy a patchwork shop…. and he immediately said, absolutely you should totally do that, you will be amazing at it. Let’s work out how we can do it. He’s a keeper.
I was going to take the shop over after the Christmas break, at the end of January 2003. Our family went away for the holidays and drove interstate to visit my in-laws. On the way back, driving down the freeway, a woman fell asleep coming the other direction and ran head-on into us at 110km/ hour. I was in hospital for four months, fed by a tube.
When I got out, I was in a wheelchair.
Sally, the shop owner, had kept the shop for me, not quite knowing what to do. There was no way I could have opened it by myself. I didn’t know what to do either, and I had no idea how long it would take me to recover, but I didn’t want to give up my dream.
A friend from my quilt group came to me and asked if I would be interested in going halves in the shop together. That way, she could do the physical work in the shop until I was better, and I could sit and teach and do the admin. I agreed, we bought the shop together and my husband named it Material Obsession.
At the time it felt like the most enormous thing I had ever done in my life, and I’m pretty sure that it 100% was.
It turned out pretty well 🙂
We had the store for 7 years and wrote two books together that are two of the longest and best-selling patchwork books out there.
I sold my half of the business in 2010 and went out on my own, and I’d have to say that’s worked out pretty well, too!
How do you balance the creative and business aspects of your work? Is it easy? And the challenges in running a business that you have seen. How do you manage the time, writing, sewing, ….
Nope, it’s not easy! I don’t have any staff; it’s just me, and my husband helps run my website and does all the tech back end and holds the cameras.
But all the sewing, pattern writing, packing of orders, social media, answering emails, teaching, filming classes, running my BOM programs and StitchyMites club, and the wholesale side of the business… its all me.
It can be very difficult to find the time for the creative parts amongst all the admin work. Often, I am up very late, stitching to meet deadlines.
I do schedule days or weeks off, so that I can design and sew, and also so that I can make things that aren’t work. If I don’t sew for the joy of it and simply sew to a deadline, it becomes very difficult to want to sew anymore after all these years. So I carve out little bits of time here and there for personal quilts, or for embroidery or tapestry.
I am taking a whole month off over Christmas and New Year, and I can’t wait! I have a big pile of fun fabric waiting for me 🙂
Any advice for those who want to turn their creative passion into a full-time career?
Don’t expect to make any money for a long time.
There is a very common misconception out there that you’ll start your business, miraculously get a hundred thousand social media followers, and immediately sell a bucket load of patterns, teach at all the big shows, write a book, design some fabric, and make heaps of money. And then you can just play with fabric all day and have a lovely time.
In reality, Material Obsession was one of the best-known patchwork shops in the world, and we didn’t pay ourselves a cent for the first 5 years.
I’ve been doing this professionally for 25 years; I’ve written 14 books and designed 8 fabric collections, I’ve taught at all the big shows – and it’s only really in the last 5 or 10 that I can say it pays like a proper full-time job.
It’s a tiny percentage of people who hit that immediate sweet spot – most of the people doing really well in the industry right now have been working at it for a long, long time, even if it seems like they’re fairly new on the scene.
I know it’s not what people want to hear, but it’s the truth! It’s a 20 hour a day, 7-day-a-week slog, but it’s also an incredible gift to do something you are passionate about and believe in.
Do something different, do something that is totally yours and not like anyone else, do something that comes from your heart.
And make sure you really know what you’re letting yourself in for before you launch yourself into the void!
In spite of her life threatening health setback and the challenges of running a creative business, Sarah Fielke is leading a fulfilling life, creating, and inspiring. Even with many advantages, a lot of us are not fully utilizing our true potential. Stories like hers can be a great source of inspiration for those of us who have diverse interests and talents. They remind us to go out there and pursue our passions with dedication and enthusiasm, just as Sarah has done. After all, you never know till you try.