Use & Ornament

We’ve been in love with Nicholas Ball‘s quilty improvisation from the moment we laid eyes on his Instagram account. Colorful, unique, artistic, creative… we seriously can’t get enough.

We made our adoration official back in 2018 when Nicholas became an Aurifil Artisan. In 2019 we collaborated on his debut Aurifil thread collection, Inspiring Improv. Twelve large spools of our 50wt thread were the perfect companion to his debut book with Lucky Spool Media. It was the creative trifecta (Nicholas, Aurifil, & Lucky Spool) and we were delighted! And… in 2020, Nicholas joined our incredible team of Aurifilosophers, our thread education experts.

When Nicholas came to us with a new opportunity, we couldn’t resist. He was working on an epic quilt project that led a new book with Lucky Spool. Use & Ornament is due for release this year and Nick’s coordinating threads are once again the perfect companion. Highlighting his versatility and keen eye for color and texture, the Use & Ornament collection features 3 different Aurifil Cotton thread weights: 50wt, 40wt, & 12wt.

We love seeing them all in action and are particularly enamored with Nick’s use of color when negotiating a large scale appliqué quilt project. We’d invite you to meet him, learn more about his creative endeavors, and get lost in his latest epic quilty adventure via our interview below. HUGE thanks to Nicholas for humoring us once again — we so adore our chats!!

We know that some of our readers may be meeting you for the first time, so to get started, we’d love to introduce you! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in this wild industry?
Hello everyone! My name is Nicholas and I’m an improvised quilter from South Wales. My creativity stems from an early age, when I was often inspired by both my father and my grandmother. I loved to watch as they created with their hands; my father in wood and my grandmother in wool, fabric, and thread. She wasn’t a quilter, but I was keen to learn all about the cross stitch and embroidery she enjoyed so much. After graduating from art school, my creative direction switched from photography to textiles thanks to an impromptu sewing machine purchase. After discovering improvised quilt making in 2014, I’ve found myself fully immersed in this wonderful world.

What brings you the most joy with stitching & quilting?
I love the tactile quality of stitch and seams. I adore colour too and it is perhaps that aspect of the quilt-making process, the curating of fabric, that is most joyous to me. Combining textures and tones is such fun experimentation and I love to happen upon the unexpected when creating without a firm plan.  Whilst my quilts do have some forethought put into them, the twist and turns of a more liberated path are always exciting and welcomed.

Describe your ideal space for creating a new quilt– is there music playing? Daylight or dim lighting?
If I have a deadline approaching then I find music helps to spur me on to reach it. Depending on the playlist, I find myself sewing faster and flooring the foot pedal! Light is important, though perhaps surprisingly for a quilter, I’m not a fan of harsh, direct sunlight. My favourite time to sew is the early morning, when the light is soft and hazy.

Throughout your artistic career, have you ever had one of those ‘aha’ moments in quilting and if so, what was it?
Absolutely! Many, in fact, yet the most significant was when I discovered how freeing improvised quilting could be. I credit my Vegetable Patch quilt as being the quilt which solidified my love of improv. Once I realised I could create without limits and a quilt could be inspired by so many things, that really was the biggest of ‘aha’ moments. That quilt led me further down the improvised path, which in turn led to teaching, writing, and creating wonderful thread collections with you lovely people!

It has been a wild 2 years, for sure. How did the changes in the world affect your day-to-day? Now that we’re starting to see bits of normalcy creeping back in, what are you most looking forward to both professionally and personally? 
The pandemic was a terrible situation, yet I try to see the positive in things. Personally, I welcomed the forced change of pace. People across the world re-connected and re-discovered. Simple things like baking bread and handcraft abounded as people were given the chance to slow down. For me, I was able to try new creative  things. Needing a distraction during the long periods of lockdown gave me the opportunity to make a temperature quilt, something which I’d wanted to do for a long time. More time meant slow stitching, so it was wonderful to discover age-old techniques like trapunto.

As the world slowly opens up, it’s been great to get back out on the road and teach in person. Whilst online Zoom classes have been wonderful at keeping people connected, the joy of being in a classroom and seeing people learning to love the techniques you are teaching them is hard to beat. 

We’re so excited about your new book, Use & Ornament. We’d love to hear more about it! What did you love most about the process of putting it together?
Thank you! I’m equally excited and nervous to share it with everyone. I always said I wouldn’t write a second book, yet my love of improv was a driving force too strong to resist. There was definitely that ‘second album’ feeling though, since people had been so complimentary about Inspiring Improv. The new book is a little different and I wasn’t sure how people would take it.

Use & Ornament is my love letter to improv quilting.  Part history book, part technique book, it is an exploration of the improv quilt through historical and contemporary examples. Quilts have long been more than objects of utility. Their uses are varied and many past examples now merit elevation to works of art. The quilt can give voice to political protest; can memorialise a loved one; can be a cathartic outlet and still hold its own against works realised in more recognised fine art media. They are historical documents and family keepsakes, having long existed within a duality of use and ornament. To showcase this, the techniques included arm quilters with many ways to tell their own stories. I loved the research element of writing the book and encountering the many varied examples of improvisation in quilt making. There weren’t enough pages to show all the inspiring work I saw!

The cover quilt had a great story with a wonderful collaborative angle. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
The cover features the temperature quilt I made during the UK’s first lockdown and beyond. Titled ‘Viral Temperature’, it started as a way to distract me from the goings-on of the pandemic. I sought out a project that would provide a few moments of escapism.

I created organic stuffed appliqué shapes using a traditional trapunto technique. Each Shape represents one day, from April 15th 2020 to April 14th 2021. The range of fabrics show the temperature in Cardiff during that period. The shapes were inspired by found objects, such as stones and leaves, as well as significant events, my mood, and by what was happening around the world at the time. People who had contributed to the quilt’s creation in some way also drew shapes. Aurifil’s own Alex Veronelli and Erin Sampson each drew a shape to be included.

L: Alex – Feb 16, 2021, high temp 12°C | R: Erin – Feb 18, 2021 high temp 11°C

The dense quilting by my close longarmer friend Trudi Wood helps to elevate the shapes further. The quilting also tells the viewer what the weather was like on a particular day.

When did you first start using Aurifil threads and do you find that they add something in particularly to the finished versions of your quilts?
I was given my first spool at a quilting retreat in 2014 and I’ve never looked back. I could spend the whole interview waxing lyrical about why I love Aurifil, yet if I only had a few seconds to convince someone to try it, I would say the quality and versatility of the product is what sold it for me. We invest so much time in our quiltmaking, why would you want to comprise that by using an inferior thread? More recently, as I’ve explored the other weights within the Aurifil range, the multitude of uses makes Aurifil perfect. I love giving the Aurifilosophy presentation, especially to people who have not heard of or used Aurifil before. When they see all the wonderful examples, their smiles say it all!

How do Aurifil threads factor into the projects in Use & Ornament
Owing to the range of quilts in Use & Ornament, along with the various techniques I wanted to include, I was able to use a much wider range of Aurifil threads. Throughout my quilting career, I’ve used the 50wt most often. I love its strength and wide range of colours, yet some of the quilts in the new book required something more ornamental.

There are quilts which have been hand quilted with 12wt; one quilt is made from Welsh wool flannel, so I used the 12wt wool; the fineness of 50wt was perfect for quilting down the background of the temperature quilt without distracting from the piercing. It really was wonderful to use these quilts to showcase the wonderful variety of Aurifil threads.

You included a wonderful range of thread weights in your coordinating collection. How do you use each in the creation and finishing of your quilts? 
I wanted this small collection to show that thread, like our quilts, can exist for both function and form. Thread can simply be a supporting act, securing our seams and blending into the background of our quilting. Alternatively, they can be front and centre, surpassing the piecing as the star of the show. I took inspiration for the colours in the collection from my temperature quilt. 

I see my Use & Ornament collection first and foremost as the perfect set to get started with the stuffed appliqué technique from the book. I used the heavier 12wt to define the appliqué shapes with machine blanket stitch. It’s surprising how many people don’t realise you can use heavier weight thread in your sewing machine. Alongside the seven spools of 12wt, there is a 40wt to use in the bobbin with the 12wt, as well as two neutral spools of 50wt. I used this weight to quilt the temperature quilt, amongst others, stitch the appliqués closed, and attached the facing.

That being said, the 12wt threads included in the collection have so many more uses that just machine appliqué. They are perfect for folksy, big-stitch hand quilting, embroidery, the list goes on!

The book is slated for release in a few months time, where can readers find it? 
All the usual places you find quilting books! It will be available directly from the publisher, Lucky Spool, too, as well as from global distributors if you are a shop looking to stock it. If you want to support the smaller quilting stores, ask them about getting the book in. They can reach out to Lucky Spool to find out who the distributor is for their market.

We’re fishing for sneak peeks! What are your plans for this year – where can we find you?
Next up for me is The Festival of Quilts here in the UK. It’s Europe’s largest quilting show and is always so much fun! You can find me on the Bernina stand for most of the show. I’m also looking forward to hanging out on the Aurifil stand and demoing some techniques from the book and talking about Use & Ornament. After that, lots of teaching and book promotion. As well as in-person teaching, I’ll be delivering classes through Zoom with Crafty Monkies. My workshop dates are always mentioned on my instagram, so if you’re not already, head over and follow me so you can know about all my upcoming teaching dates.

Many thanks to Nicholas for hanging out with us today! Make sure to follow along with him via @quiltsfromtheattic on Instagram to keep up with all of his quilty and crafty adventures!

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