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Quilter Profile: Ami Simms

Ami Simms is a stitch.

She also takes a stitch. And will teach you how to take one, too.

Ami (whose name rhymes, as she famously states, with salami), is a largely self-taught quilter, teacher, and book publisher, who approaches quilting with something missing from many of her peers -- a sense of humor.

Inventor of "The WORST Quilt in the World Contest" (c) and author of a new book, How NOT to Make A Prize-Winning Quilt, Ami brings humor to a creative process that all too often becomes a self-berating and frustrating exercise for many quilters. "I like to enjoy myself," Ami says. "I found early on, as a student, that laughing and learning is a good combination. If I can entertain my students, they're more relaxed and the teaching is easier. Besides, it's more fun -- for everybody."

A picture of Ami Simms. Asked if quilters take themselves too seriously, Ami replies: "Sure, there are some who take themselves too seriously. They think they're God's gift to cloth. But for most, the opposite is true. Most quilters don't take themselves seriously enough. They don't value the work that they do as much as they should. They are forever berating themselves for not in some way 'measuring up' to this absurd notion of perfection. How many times have you seen a quilter receive a compliment during show & tell only to respond, 'Yes, but, the points don't match over here.' This attitude is way too pervasive. We should be proud of what we do. The ultimate goal here is to enjoy the process as well as the product. Sure, it's great to try and improve, to strive for goals, but when the activity itself ceases to be fun because you're not 'perfect' what's the point?"

Ami's own exposure to quilting began in college in 1975, while she was doing anthropological research among the Old Order Amish in northern Indiana. "I'm the first quilter in my family. In fact, I'm the second quilter I ever met, the first ones being the Amish women who showed me how," she says.

Asked about her quilting style, Ami replies, with characteristic directness, "I don't think I have one. I remember reading somewhere that an artist wasn't an artist unless and until they had a recognizable style. For some reason that really irritated me. I enjoy making lots of different kinds of quilts.

"I started with traditional (Lone Star, Log Cabin, Irish Chain, Trip Around The World) dabbled in pictorial, got excited about quilts based on ancient Roman mosaic floors, and then turned to photo-transfer quilts. In between, I found myself making humorous quilts, like my quilted shower curtain and my Ocean Waves that really waves. (I hand dyed gloves and sewed them on in the big empty parts.)

"The only thing I don't do much of are quilts from patterns or books. I don't get the same thrill as inventing something myself. The exception, of course, would be traditional quilts, but basically, when someone asks me, 'Did you make that?' I like to be able to say that it's ALL mine. (I think that might be the artist part of me.)

"My quilts probably fall into two categories: slow and fast. Slow quilts are the ones I do by hand. I follow all the 'rules.' Fast quilts are usually machined and the ones that I learn the most from. Since the time is reduced because of the method I've chosen, I feel freer to take chances. Whenever you take risks (combining colors differently, working with different assembly strategies, etc.) there is a greater potential for discovery. Since my time investment is much less on a quilt made entirely on the machine, I'm willing to try different things. I learn from the slow quilts, too. It just takes longer."

Ami doesn't make quilts just to accommodate her teaching. In fact, the quilts drive the teaching, rather than the other way around. "I ONLY make quilts for myself. I don't ever make quilts as workshop samples. The quilt always comes first, then if I can turn it into a workshop, I've got my 'sample.' This tends to be fairly simple as I usually only teach process, not product classes. I only make quilts that I am passionate about making. I can think of nothing worse than making a quilt that didn't inspire me, even commission pieces. I always quilt for me."

If her introduction to quilting was somewhat serendipitous, Ami's decision to teach and lecture grew, at least initially, out of economic necessity. "I was learning to become a teacher at the same time I was learning to quilt. I took my first quilting stitches in college while I was taking courses to become an elementary school teacher. I had no intention of ever teaching quilting.

"I taught second graders for three and a half years and then got laid off. Out of panic, I started a small craft business (Patchwork Pleasures) and did home parties like Tupperware, selling casserole cozies, placemats, and stuffed animals made out of pre-quilted fabric that I would stitch up, to order, from fabric I bought at the local fabric shop. I made quilts for myself. Sometime in the early 80s I went to my first quilting symposium and took a class on hand quilting. When I asked the teacher how to make smaller stitches, she said, 'Just make 'em smaller.' At that point I figured I could do at least that good of a job teaching quilting, and hung out my shingle.

"After several years on the circuit I ran into Barbara Caron at an NQA symposium in Ohio. They had a teacher's night where you could bring stuff to sell and Barbara had written several books which she literally made herself on the binding machine at the library. She sold them for $5 each and they went like hot cakes. I thought that was very cool. Shortly after that I decided the world needed a humorous quilt book. I had been doing a lecture on funny quilts and tried to peddle the idea to various publishers, all of whom turned me down. The last two rejections had been after face-to-face meetings in their offices.

"My mom and I had traveled to the Great American Quilt Festival in New York, the first year they ran that. I had just come back from talking to the last publisher and I knew it hadn't gone well. (He was wearing a three-piece suit with sock suspenders; there was no way he was going to laugh at funny quilts.) We talked things over and I started brainstorming about other books I could write. What else did I know about besides humorous quilts? I had been teaching a workshop on hand quilting almost from day one, so I started thinking about a book on the quilting stitch. Once I found the topic, I had second thoughts about jumping through the 'find a publisher' hoops and decided that I would publish it myself. That was the beginning of Mallery Press, named after Mallery Street, where we lived. I never looked back. I didn't know a thing about publishing, and like most of the best things in my life, plunged in anyway."

Mallery Press has now published six books by Ami, on a wide variety of subjects, including How to Improve Your Quilting Stitch, Classic Quilts: Patchwork Designs from Ancient Rome, and Creating Scrapbook Quilts.

"I am Mallery Press," Ami says. "Not only do I write the books, and make most of the quilts for the books, but I do the photography, the typesetting, the paste-up, the marketing, and the advertising. I hire out the printing, the illustrating, and the color separating. My publishing firm is in my home; I have close to 35,000 books on shelves in my basement. The semi truck comes to the house and the books come in the basement window. I hired an assistant after book #4 who works part time. Before that I also did shipping and receiving, processed book orders, and drove them to the post office! The hard part is finding time to quilt! This just reinforces my desire to make only quilts that I find worthwhile."

Ami may be best known, at least on the 'net, for her "WORST Quilt" contest. Begun last year, the contest recently announced its second winner. Ami describes how she came up with the idea: "'The WORST Quilt In The World Contest' was born about half-way through the writing of How NOT To Make A Prize-Winning Quilt. I was having so much fun exposing myself that I figured other quilters might enjoy it too. They just needed a way to do it.

"The book's message is pretty basic: you can make quilts that aren't 'perfect' and still have a really good time. I started writing a parody of the typical contest entry form and as I wrote I realized that this contest idea had great potential as both a 'feel good' thing and as a promotion for the book. I could actually make the contest real. On the simplest level of involvement, the entry form was funny and people would enjoy reading it. If they never got beyond reading it, that was OK. It was a piece of 'throw-away' writing---my little gift to them. I'd make them smile. If they actually entered, then I'd make them happier. Think about it: most quilt shows have a handful of winners and tons of losers. No matter what anyone says, if you enter and don't win, it's a downer.

"We live in a competitive society and everybody who enters a quilt show or buys a lottery ticket secretly hopes they win. BUT, what if the tables were turned and losing was a good thing? You dig up your worst quilt and enter it. You lose. You've learned that your quilt wasn't as bad as you thought it was. You feel good about your quilting skills. You make more quilts. And, if you DO win, you get some really cool things that will soften the blow. It's a win/win situation."

Ami was one of the earliest of the "name" quilters to not only go online, but be active there. She describes her experience, and the role of computers in her work: "I work with my computer to write my books and take care of Mallery Press. We're on very friendly terms.

"I spend way more time at the keyboard than I do at the frame or on the sewing machine. I had tried Prodigy years ago but didn't like the advertising messages you had to wade through and so gave it up. About two years ago I tried America Online. By that time the technology had changed a lot. I found the quilters immediately and got hooked. E-mail is the most incredible thing. I love it. And I get a lot of it. I belong to a publishers marketing news group, a professional quilters news group, and a racewalking news group. Among the three of them and personal e-mails, I get about 60 pieces of mail a day. Since I also try to have a life, I delete most of the news group stuff and try to find the personal e-mails. (If you ever write to me, please put something quilty in the subject part, or I might delete it accidentally.)

"I try to stay away from the bulletin boards, and I stay out of the chat room unless I'm hosting my once-monthly chat, (4th Thursday of the month 9 to 10 p.m. EST in the quilters' chat room on AOL), and I only get on the 'net to find people's phone numbers or addresses of newspapers or other useful things. I have no desire to watch how students at MIT cook hot dogs with nuclear fusion. It can be a colossal time waster.

"I'm also fairly stupid when it comes to computers. I have two design programs with which to design quilts and haven't mastered either one of them. (I'm still drafting with paper and pencil.) I'm great on my word processor and data base, but can't do much else. I'm working at it . . . .

"My first edition of How To Improve Your Quilting Stitch was written on an a pre-Windows AceWriter and printed with a 12-pin dot matrix Okidata printer. I hand wrote all the invoices, and then entered them by hand in a ledger every month. What a pain! I now have two 486s and three and a half printers. (My good laser printer just bit the dust. I figure I'm safe until I have to spit out another book.) Teresa, my assistant, and I kept fighting over who got to use the computer, so I took my laptop and bolted it to her desk. I couldn't imagine my life without computers. Actually I can. While I was writing the answers to these questions, the power went out for 45 minutes. All I could do was pace and whine."

If Ami seems to have a busy life, she does, and says she couldn't do it without her DH's support: "I am married to a wonderful man who is incredibly supportive of what I do. He's not involved at all in Mallery Press, does not participate in my quiltmaking, and wouldn't know a Nine Patch if it bit him, but I couldn't do what I do without him.

"Life as a traveling quilt teacher is a difficult balancing act. I'm on the road about 12 times a year. When I'm gone (and sometimes when I'm here) Steve does my job too. He's the most easy-going person I've ever encountered. He'll eat anything I cook without complaining, has never lost his temper, and doesn't mind living in a padded house (all those quilts on the walls) with a work-a-holic. He knows how to operate every major appliance (stove, washing machine), irons his own shirts, and doesn't complain that it may take over a year for me to hem his pants.

"We have a 12-year-old daughter and he is by far the better parent. Jennie will be going into the 7th grade this fall and attends the same school at which Steve teaches. For the past two years she's had her father for one or two classes. All three of us enjoy being together, but I understand as one of us gets a little older, things may change."

However far her lecturing may take her from her home in Flint, Michigan, Ami takes with her one unfaltering companion, her sense of humor. Through her books, her teaching, and her web page she graciously shares it, along with her quilting wisdom, with all of us.

Ami can be reached at amisimms@aol.com

To inquire about or order her books, Mallery Press can be reached at 4206 Sheraton Drive, Flint, MI 48532-3557.

Telephone: 800-A-STITCH or (810) 733-8743, Fax (810) 733-7357.


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