Happy Sunday! We are beyond thrilled today to share a special feature detailing the process — the love and the passion that went into making Roaming Free, a collaborative textile masterpiece by Aurifil Designer & Textile Artist Sophie Standing and Shop Owner, Designer, and Quilter Michelle Pearson. The two artists live in Nanyuki, Kenya and Perth, Western Australia (respectively) and despite the distance, managed to not just plan and talk about the piece, but to send it back and forth so that each could make her own mark… Sophie with thread painting and Michelle with piecing and quilting. The result is a total show-stopper, gorgeous on screen, but amazingly even more so in person. We had a chance to see this piece hanging in the quilt show at Houston Quilt Market, just before it won 2nd Place in the Animal Kingdom category at International Quilt Festival. What an absolute treat!
While Sophie was unable to make it to Houston, Michelle traveled there all the way from Perth. Huge thanks to Helen Godden for capturing this moment with Michelle, standing in front of Roaming Free.
Sophie and Michelle are both such incredible artists — we’re thrilled to share some of their thoughts on the process along with an amazing range of images captured throughout. Enjoy!
How did you two first meet?
Michelle: I had been following Sophie for some time on social media and had asked her if she would like to come out to Perth, Western Australia, and teach. Initially she turned me down due to her very young family… but about 18 months after my initial request, I asked again and that time she said yes! I was so excited. Sophie is so easy going we really hit it off.
What drew you to want to create a collaborative project?
Michelle: I am a quilter and Sophie is a textile artist. Sophie’s work had never been on 3 layers before and she was relatively unknown in the quilting world. So we decided that I would make the background and quilt the piece and Sophie would make the rhino using her awesome thread painting/fabric collage technique. Actually, I think there is more to just those words I have used for what Sophie does… I think she stitches magic into her work, because the end result is always so amazing. I have not seen anyone else in our industry do what she does… and I’ve been around a long time!
Sophie: Too modest Michelle! You are an exceptional quilter and very talented gal, with the most amazing array of handiquilter machines at your finger tips in your shop to use! Plus you are the type of person like me who says ‘yer, no worries, let’s work through the night and every hour we have in between all the other 10 jobs we have this week and do this thing!’
I think we are a good combo, we both always have too much going on but we have positive personalities, who smile, laugh and just give it a go with all of our gears in motion.
How did the idea for the actual project begin and what was the initial planning like?
Michelle: Sophie had already wanted to use the photo by Renaud Falconis (who gave us permission to make the quilt) for the inspiration of the quilt and of course, I liked the photo as well, so it was not difficult to find the inspiration to do the background. We discussed ideas for backgrounds and how Sophie wanted to create the rhino and the overall “feel” of the quilt. There wasn’t a lot of planning initially… it was like, “hey let’s make a quilt based on this photo”. All the planning and discussions were really had during the process of making the quilt.
I gather that there was a lot of measuring, detailed communication, and shipping involved in putting this all together. How did it all work for you and what were your greatest challenges?
Michelle: Before I could even start Sophie needed to determine how big she was going to do the rhino. But before we could even do that, Sophie had to get all her commission work out of the way and completed – after all, that is her income! So from planning what we do in March 2017 to actually getting started was about 9 months later. In December 2017 Sophie drew up the rhino to the size she wanted then posted it to me so that I could use it to make the background the right size. Only it did not arrive from Kenya before the time I allocated to get started (which was the quieter time in my shop, just after New Year 2018), so I had to enlarge the rhino at the copy shop myself and work from that with input from Sophie as to how big to go.
When I had made the background we decided NOT to use normal post and only a courier and I also posted off some of the fabrics I used in the background so Sophie could bring them into the rhino later. The courier worked a treat and everything arrived in time both in Kenya and Perth when needed for each of us to work our magic. I guess the biggest challenges, aside from making the quilt over 2 continents, was time. Time was elusive for both of us as we each have work commitments, me with my business and Sophie with her commissions and young family.
Michelle, what was the process of putting the background together like? The colors are so perfectly chosen and artfully arranged to represent a sprawling landscape! What fabrics did you use?
Michelle:Together, when Sophie was in Perth at my shop in March 2017, we selected a STACK of fabrics… ok, it was more like a huge box of fabric, that represented the different sections of the landscape. But of course it is not just one fabric allocated to one section, I used multiple fabrics for each colour/section. Then I had to find the right mix of using commercial fabrics that blended well with each other and Sophie wanted to use Liberty fabrics in her rhino, so I used them in the background. I don’t have a huge Liberty stash, so I raided Alex’s (one of my close friends who Sophiealso knows) stash for what I needed. I think she has literally every Liberty print on the face of the planet from the dawn of time – so it was easy to find what I needed. I enlarged the original photo and marked a diagonal grid on top of it, forming horizontal diamonds. Sophie had put in her suggestions of background styles, but I really felt that diamonds were the way to go. I did not want the background to compete with the rhino, he really need to be the star of the quilt. So with all the fabrics chosen, I set out, cutting hundreds of 1.5 inch diamonds from loads of fabrics that I had chosen to use, and then started meticulously placing fabric on the design wall in the same grid that represented the photo, making sure that the selection of fabric blended well together on the wall. Of course, with all the fabrics we chose initially, I need MORE fabrics – the bane of every quilter – and in the end I had nearly 2000 diamonds on the wall. This literally took weeks. Once I had all the diamonds arranged on the wall, I sewed them together, matching every point. I used the large printed rhino pattern as reference to size and landscape layout as well as placing the shadow section under him in the right place. The original background measure 2.1m x 1.3m.
Sophie, is there a story behind this magnificent rhino?
Sophie: I wanted it to be a meaningful animal. For me the rhino is a very important mammal that humans are not looking out for enough. The black rhino in particular.
The white rhino is a grazer, they large and have a huge head, a flat wide mouth. They are normally together in a small group or a couple and spend their time out on the plains grazing the grass much like a cow does.
The black rhino is smaller and shy. They live more in the shrub and bush. They have a pointed elongated lip for twisting and pulling off leaves from bushes.
In Renaud Falconis’ photo his black rhino is running out across the plains of the Masai Mara. I thought it was a beautiful site. Roaming free in Africa with no worries, a few tick birds on his back.
What threads were selected to represent the rhino and what fabrics were used?
Sophie: First I start with the fabric… I don’t think too much about the colour of the threads until the fabrics are chosen and appliquéd on. I wanted the rhino to go with the background in style but also to stand out. So it was a juggle of push and pull. I used so many different fabrics! Liberty and Kaffe Fassett Collective and with that I mixed in quilting fabrics from Michelle’s shop.
Once I had completed all the appliqué and was ready to thread paint him I realised that I couldn’t make him too lurid. He needed to look realistic. So to begin with I selected a range of greys and blues and decided to go with those first so that the folds and creases and facial details of him were in his natural colours with the vibrant fabric showing through for his flesh. Due to the high number of colours in the Aurifil spectrum I could grade these greys and blues and even navy and black so seamlessly and carefully. Then of course I had to add some brights too! Colours that were taken from the fabrics I chose. I used all 50 weight thread.
So my work will always have the neutrals….or rather the mammals natural colours…depicted in thread work….and then the brights too to merge the fabrics and add highlights.
What was the greatest challenge and the greatest joy in bringing the rhino to life?
Sophie: Doing it well! Under pressure! I have never entered a completion before. My work is normally for one client. So this piece for mine and Michelle’s first entry to Houston put a little bit of pressure on!
Once I had told myself that it’s one of my rhinos and to do it for me then it was ok.
It was really fun working with some of Michelle’s chosen fabric she sent me form Perth along with the patchwork background. It added a new twist and was exciting for me to add these in.
Who appliqued the Rhino onto the quilt and what was that process like?
Michelle: That would be Sophie! She did ALL the rhino work… and when appliquing onto those diamonds I knew she would need a boatload of stabiliser, which I sent to her with the background… then we needed to remove it all… LOL it was a job shared between us. Sophie can tell you the rest.
Sophie: Cutting him out carefully form the canvas was a tad stressful. I don’t normally spend over a 100hrs sewing a mammal of 1.2m to then cut him out! So that was a tad stressful!
Once he was cut out he looked so small to him, was so strange.
Cricky, I don’t use stabiliser! Ever! I’m a back to basics girl. But the rhino was super thick by now. Canvas, appliquéd fabric in many layers, 1000’s of meters of Aurifil 50wt. He needed stabilising. So layering him up on the background and adding the stabiliser to the back took some time and patience. We didn’t want any puckers or pulls obviously, so this was a delicate operation…
I know realised I couldn’t just sew around him. He would become simply a patch. It would look embossed and raised.
So off I went thread painting him for the second time! But seeing him in the background for the first time was magical. It looked awesome. There were a few areas that I now wanted to add to and change so this was the time.
I sent my husband and two boys off for a 5day fishing trip to Seychelles and I took over the dining table in peace!
Michelle, what was it like to quilt everything once the rhino was attached? I’d imagine that it was both emotional and exhilarating? How did you select the motifs?
Michelle: Omigosh… I thought I had a plan on how to quilt it… until the rhino came back to me. Then I was all over the place with indecision. So I thought I would make large diamond areas in varying sizes, like motifs, across the background and within those areas quilt African symbols. I marked all the sections, loaded the quilt on my Handi Quilter Amara and ditch stitch around the rhino and on the rhino to secure him without being too puffy and stiff with all the thread and fabric Sophie used to create him. I marked the quilt with varying diamonds to quilt back into. I quilted two diamonds and really didn’t like it at all. You couldn’t even see the quilting. So disheartened. Off the frame it came and onto my lap where it took me 36 hours to unpick those two intricately quilted sections! Argh! I had to go away on a trip to Thailand for a family event, when I got home I was fast running out of time and so therefore I thought I won’t try to get too clever with my quilting, I would instead use quilting designs that represent the landscape. It was a no brainer in the end, but of course it was for Quilt Festival and our first entry so I wanted to make the quilting spectacular… but the quilt just didn’t need it! Once the quilt was completed, I felt the background overpowered the rhino and there was too much ‘space’ around him, So I trimmed it down to 68x38inches, and he once again became the centre of attention.
Once the large scale planning was complete, were you able to just have fun with it all?
Michelle: I wouldn’t say I was having ‘fun’, but I enjoyed the process. After it was all finished and the deadlines were met and the quilt was accepted and finally on its way to Houston, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Even filling out the application form was stressful. Who’s name do I put it in? Even though we worked on it equally, in the end I chose to put it in Sophie’s name because I felt the rhino was the star of the quilt and her work is amazing.
How many times did the piece go back and forth?
Michelle: I sent the background to Sophie, she sent it back to me and then I posted the finished quilt to Houston. I guess it was shipped 3 times.
Do you think you’ll work together on another project?
Michelle: Not sure… we haven’t really spoken about it. In fact we have each been so busy with our lives since Quilt Festival that we have hardly chatted about it. I think we are saving all our chatting for when we get together again in March 2019, when Sophie comes back for the last time to teach in Australia.
Sophie: Why not! Maybe! We’ll chat next year and see what ideas we have…
What can we look forward to from you, both collaboratively and individually?
Michelle: Haha… I love that you think I will have time to make a quilt. Running my exceptionally busy store, Handcrafters House in Perth, literally takes up so much of my time that I rarely have time to sew. I would like to make another show quilt…so who knows, maybe I will find a magic wand that will give me more time to sew and create! Either that, or when Sophie and I catch up next year we could get up to mischief and shenanigans and come up with a bright idea of doing another quilt that neither of us really have time to do!
Sophie: I want to do an exhibition next year. It’s been a while since I’ve created a body of work for a solo show. This will be on the African apes. Bonobos, chimpanzee and gorillas.
This is a really exciting project and one that I have wanted to get stuck into for some time. I’m very fortunate to know some very special people who work in this field of African apes who are allowing me to use their extensive photo library.
If I can’t actually have the exhibit next year I will certainly create many pieces for it.
Thank you SO much to Sophie & Michelle for sharing this all with us. It’s not often we get to see the process that went into creating an award-winning show quilt. We are head over heels in love with Roaming Free and can’t wait to see what these two amazing get up to next year! <3
Working from the Seychelles, Sophie Standing is a British born artist who has lived in Africa for 15 years. She produces her art by combining applique and free motion embroidery. The details of the animals are created by sewing with different coloured threads only.
For the applique, Sophie mostly uses cotton fabrics from Liberty Tana Lawn and the Kaffe Fassett Collective (Philip Jacobs, Kaffe Fassett and Brandon Mably). Her sewing threads are 100% cotton and made by Aurifil of Italy. Sophie produces work up to 1.5 meters long, and a single piece of art this size can contain 3000 meters of thread.
(Note from Sophie: It says Seychelles because this where I am a resident! Kenya we are based right now due to building our house. But Seychelles is where my work permit is and printers and the gallery I exhibit at all the time and all that jazz. I’m here on Mahe as I write this!)
I am the heart and soul of one of Australia’s leading patchwork, quilting and sewing machine stores, Handcrafters House. I have been in the quilting/craft industry for the better part of 25 years and there is not much that I haven’t turned my hand at over the years. I started Handcrafters House in 2003 and wanted to create a store where quilters and crafters could come, be inspired and enjoy the company of like-minded people in the classes, retreats and other events that we offer. I love that my store is a hub for a thriving quilting community here in Western Australia! I have designed patterns, taught and mentored people in our industry as well as facilitate bringing quilters from all around the world to our remote state and host them in my store so that quilters here can access some of the best quilters and textile artists in our industry.
As the largest retailer of the Handi Quilter brand in the southern hemisphere my passion is for quilting, however I do enjoy all aspects of making a quilt– including binding them by hand. I don’t really compete in quilt show competitions, especially here at home, as I feel I would be competing against the people who support my business. It is my job to encourage quilters to showcase their creations and reap the rewards of their hard work.
I guess you could call me an “enabler”. My purpose is to teach, encourage, inspire and help grow others to be the best they can be at what they do and to love the work they create.