When we first dove into our interview with Aurifil Designer Allie McCathren (@exhaustedoctopus) we were amazed to learn that she just started quilting 5 years ago. Her breadth of work would suggest that she has been quilting, sewing, and creating for far longer.
She is an incredibly humble, but highly skilled maker, working through a myriad of techniques, never shying from a challenge. A quick scroll of her IG will reveal tiny piecing, hand quilting, sashiko stitching, thread painting, improv portraiture, indigo dyeing, EPP, embroidery, and of course her signature seaglass appliqué.
You could get lost in the beauty of it all, but a big part what Allie does goes far beyond the visual. One of the elements that draws us in on an emotional level is the rawness of her text. She has a strong voice in this wild world and she uses it for awareness, focus, and activism. It’s sometimes difficult, in the way that we need it to be– thought provoking and intelligent and necessary. We’d encourage you to check out her account (click through any of the links shared with images in this post) because it would be impossible to convey all context here. Allie’s work is worth a closer look.
We first started working with Allie as an Aurifil Artisan in 2020. We were immediately blown away with her creativity and with each and every challenge project she shared, something uniquely beautiful surfaced. When she came to us with the idea for a thread collection, we couldn’t resist.
Seaglass is Allie’s Aurifil collection debut and it is the perfect array of hues in our versatile 50wt. Five small spools… this is the box you need if you’ll take Allie’s Seaglass Quilting class. Snag it via the button below, sign up for a new course, join Allie’s Octopod Squad, and get ready to make an impact.
Hi Allie! We’re so thrilled to welcome you to the Aurifil family and share your new collection with the world today! Before we get started, we know that some of our readers may be meeting you for the first time… can you share more about your background and how you got started with quilting?
Hi Erin! Thank you so much! I love being a part of the Aurifil family. I started quilting a little over five years ago, when my youngest son was an infant. He was born with a condition that meant he needed major surgery on his skull at 9 weeks old. He’s fine now, but it was a very traumatic time for our family. One night when I was up late feeding him, I stumbled across The Midnight Quilt Show with Angela Walters on YouTube. I didn’t have any experience with sewing or quilting before that, but it looked like so much fun. I went out the next day and bought some fabric and started putting it together.
I didn’t have any clue of what I was doing, and that first quilt looked horrible. I took it apart immediately and don’t have any photos of it, but from that moment I knew it felt really good to make order out of the chaos of fabric. That was it for me. Having three children, so much of my life is chaos that I can’t predict or control. But I can control the fabric.
Would you tell us the story behind your business name, Exhausted Octopus?
I chose the name because it sounded funny. I didn’t think too much about it, to be honest. I started my instagram account to be a personal photo journal just for me, about my quilting journey. I specifically chose a name that had nothing to do with quilting because I thought I would be over it in a few months. Throughout my life I’ve gone through phases of trying out every hobby, every craft, and my attention span for each one doesn’t typically last that long. I thought quilting would be the same. I think the name is fitting though – I have a degree in marine biology and love science and the ocean. I’m always creating something, and I don’t get enough sleep.
There is a remarkable uniqueness to your creative journey– we’ve spent hours scrolling your IG feed, admiring everything from your seaglass quilts & tiny piecing to big stitch hand quilting & sashiko to oil painting & portraiture. What inspires you to keep moving forward, trying new things, sharing these pieces of yourself with the world?
I want to learn everything. If I see something, I want to know how it works. Everything feels like a puzzle to be solved, and I love learning how. Each time I’ve seen a technique that I’m unfamiliar with, I want to try it and see if I can do it, see how it works for me. My favorite part of learning these things is incorporating them into each other and seeing how that works to make something new. There’s always more to learn.
Within all of that, one of the things we love most is how much of yourself you pour into your posts – we’ve followed along with you through a lot of turmoil these past few years and have often felt comforted by your words. Do you feel it’s important that we use our creative outlets for education and activism?
My instagram page is not curated at all. I’m not concerned about how the posts look next to each other, I don’t use the same color scheme for them. It’s mostly what’s on my brain and/or happening in my studio at any given moment. It can appear chaotic, but it feels right to me. I think people should feel free to use their creative spaces to express themselves however it feels right to them.
I feel called to speak about social justice issues, human rights, Black Lives Matter, support of the LGBTQIA+ community, mental health issues… All of those things are important to me. Some of them affect me directly, some indirectly. I think it’s very important to speak up about all of them.
I think it’s important for everyone to be able to tell their own story, to express themselves. Some people do that by writing or speaking. Some people do that by painting or dancing, or with the clothes they wear. I’ve been so incredibly lucky to have this platform that I never intended to have. People are listening to me. At first I shied away from that, but now I’ve embraced it. The fact is, I do have this platform. I want to use it for good.
Do you have a favored technique?
Usually my favorite thing is whatever I’m working on at the moment – but overall, I’m a huge fan of texture. The way it looks, the way it feels, the combination of different ones coming together. There’s so much richness there. For that reason, hand quilting is one of my all time favorite techniques. I enjoy the process and the result.
Editor’s Note: Allie shared this story when she was working with us as an Aurifil Artisan and we had to share!
Here’s the story of how I fell in love with Aurifil thread and never looked back: When I first started making my seaglass quilts, I decided I needed a range of colors to create the effect I wanted. I went the cheaper route and purchased from brands that were lower quality thread.
I instantly regretted it. The thread was constantly snagging, breaking, tangling, and skipping stitches. I changed the needle, played with the tension, my quilting speed, everything. Nothing worked. Skipped stitches meant I had to keep doubling back on my work, the lines became thicker than I wanted, and by the time I was done I was so frustrated that I didn’t want to finish it.
I did have one spool of Aurifil in a white, and I quickly found that when I quilted my neutral seaglass pieces, it was smooth sailing. I started to “cheat” and use the white all over the quilt, even though it didn’t match, because I wanted that easy experience of not having to think about anything but my own quilting design. I had an “aha” moment when I realized I just needed to purchase some corresponding colors of Aurifil and my entire problem would be solved. Aurifil has a wide range of gorgeous, rich colors, and all of them share that high quality. They’re truly the only thread I completely trust on my quilts now.
The 50wt cotton is my go-to: it’s ideal for both quilting and piecing, and allows for a great amount of detail and easy movement in machine quilting. If you’re wondering where to start, I recommend a good neutral color Aurifil 50wt thread. (editor: read the original here)
Do you have a favorite weight? What is the one thread weight you haven’t yet tried any why?
I’ve tried all of the weights Aurifil has! I use 50wt the most, as it’s my go to for piecing and quilting. But my favorite is 12wt, for sure. That’s what I use for hand quilting, and it has such a lovely texture.
The one I have the least experience with is 80wt. I did make a wholecloth quilt with it, using it to draw in the quilting. It was very fun and I’d love to do it again, I’m just distracted with all the other projects I have going on.
Your debut Aurifil collection, Seaglass, was curated in honor of your Seaglass quilt. We’d love to hear more about that and where we can go to learn more about your classes.
My seaglass quilts were what really took off for me in the quilting community. I published my online class at the end of 2020, and after that things changed so much for me. Seaglass quilts are my favorite way to scrap bust as they use any and all fabrics, including very small pieces, to make these small art quilts. I love seeing how unexpected fabrics can make beautiful finished quilts, and I love hearing all the stories from people as they make theirs. It’s a technique rather than a pattern, so every single quilt is different and every artist brings their own look to it.
Having my own Aurifil collection is something I never thought I could dream of – it seemed too much to ask for – but when the opportunity came, I knew I wanted to start with honoring the quilts that really got me there. My classes are all online and structured to go through at your own pace. You can find more details via my website.
What did you love most about the process of putting this collection together and what excites you most about seeing it out in the world?
I had a hard time choosing just a few blues! I have several favorite Aurifil thread colors, and the ones in this collection are the ones I keep coming back to. I don’t think many people would consider these darker colors to be neutrals, but to me they are. They make me so happy. I’m still a bit in shock to see my collection out there. It’s incredible.
If you could offer some words of advice to a maker just getting started on their own creative journey, what would you say?
My best advice is to follow what delights you, what makes you curious, what makes you wonder, even if it’s a little scary. Seriously, try it out. Know that you won’t like everything you make, but you’ll always learn something. I go into projects thinking “what if?” What if I tried doing it this way, what if I try to make something traditional into something modern, what if I made a quilt with half the seams on the outside, what if I made a self portrait out of only colors I don’t like?
Try going into projects with a mindset of “what If I try this, what will I learn?” and things become a lot more fun with a lot less pressure.
What’s coming for you in 2023? Where can our readers find you?
2023 is an exciting year! I taught at QuiltCon for the first time, which is huge for me. I’ll be releasing a new online class about making Improv Self Portraits.
I have an online membership called the Octopod Squad, where members get access to tutorials and patterns, and I’ll be running some sew alongs for them this year. I also have a collaboration project planned with Kitty Wilkin @nightquilter for the summer, which I’m very excited about. We’ll be announcing that soon!