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Quilter Profile: Jodie Davis

Jodie Davis has quietly been making a reputation for herself as a quilter and author whose books are admired and used by quilters everywhere. I say "quietly," because Jodie is essentially a private person, uncomfortable with the promotional aspects of book publishing. She would rather be in her studio designing and making quilts, or writing, or in her garden, than on the road teaching or lecturing. She realizes that this may limit her opportunities for wider exposure, but she prefers being true to herself and nurturing the true sources of her creativity.

Lynn and I met her first through the QuiltBiz list, and then briefly at Houston last year (one of her rare public appearances, at the Martingale booth). We learned then that she lives in North Georgia, within about 40 miles of us, and after reviewing her newest book, "Paper Piece a Flower Garden," we decided to see if we could pay her a visit. We wanted to do it during the summer, while her garden was in its full glory.

Jodie and her husband Bill (and her Dalmatian, Domino!) welcomed us warmly when we arrived at their house in the foothills of the Appalachians on a Sunday morning. We got a tour of her studio, her garden, and her rubber ducky collection, which has been gaining her more and more notoriety in its own right. And we got a chance to talk with her about all the things that are important to her, especially her quilting and her garden.

Like many quilters, Jodie has a family tradition of needlework, with several key women influencing and encouraging her creativity. "My Dad's mother did all sorts of needlework, tole painting, etc.," she says. "Unfortunately she died when I was four, so her proclivity for such things and talent were passed on to me, but I didn't have the opportunity to learn from her directly. My Mom supported and encouraged me in my interests. I took classes from Rhode Island School of Design professors when in junior high. My sister got me started sewing. My first project was a yellow gingham skirt. I was turned onto quilting by a friend of my Mom's, Ann Hanscom, who had made a quilt. All I can remember of it is the back, which had a maze with a kitty at one end and a mouse in the center. I found a few books in the library and subscribed to Quilter's Newsletter Magazine. I knew no other quilters, so learned by reading and doing. My Mom still has my first quilt. We sure didn't have much to choose from fabric-wise in those days. And the rotary cutter didn't come along for a few years."

The path to a quilting career wasn't a straight line, however, as Jodie took several detours as she explored what she wanted to do. "I went off to engineering school and didn't sew for three or four years until I got a job at Walden Pond in interpretive education and made a dress from period patterns," she says. "After moving to Virginia, finishing college and deciding not to go into the family business, I started making teddy bears. In true build-a-better-mousetrap fashion, I decided I could write a better book on the subject. I researched writing a proposal, possible publishers and all and sent off a proposal. I got what everything I read said wouldn't happen: a call from a publisher wanting the book. We did a dozen books." 

Jodie eventually turned her attention again to quilting, and was introduced to the foundation paper piecing technique. "At the time I was involved in a publishing partnership with Friedman out of New York," Jodie says. "My friend Kathy Semone introduced me to Linda Schiffer who had been doing lovely things with foundation piecing. We collaborated on three books. She did almost all of the designs for those books while I was working on the other half-dozen books in the series. Linda and Kathy now co-own a wonderful quilt shop in Catonsville, Maryland, the Seminole Sampler. [They are] two very talented women." 

Jodie has stretched the limits of foundation piecing, through both her creative block designs and her development of new techniques. Her "Paper-Pieced Curves," from Martingale Press, details a much quicker and easier way to sew curved pieces using foundation techniques. Project-oriented, it provides means for both novice and experienced quilters to extend their paper-piecing repertoire. "Paper-Piece a Merry Christmas," and especially her newest "Paper-Piece a Flower Garden," have added dozens of wonderful, whimsical new patterns to the world's library of paper-pieced blocks.  

She is not allowing herself to get caught in a rut, however. She is expanding her creative horizons by developing new ideas for innovative quilting -- her latest effort being something called "raw edge applique." She describes how this idea evolved over a rather long period: "Before getting into paper piecing I did two books with Chilton: 'Three-Dimensional Applique' and 'Three-Dimensional Pieced Quilts,'" she says. "One of the quilts in the former book was a log cabin using a raw edge applique technique. Essentially I stitched the 'logs' to the top in quilt-as-you-go fashion. Since the logs were 1" larger than the spaces allotted to them I sewed 1/2" inside the raw edges, leaving the seam allowances free. Well, friends reported back that the quilting community thought I had a lot of nerve letting my seam allowances show. Guess I was a bit ahead of my time. Fast forward eight years later. What with the popularity of the Bulls Eye quilts and the shaggy flannel quilt, I see the time has come, so 'Raw Edge Applique' will be out in spring 2002. I have included both pieced and appliqued designs in the book, some traditional including Dresden Plate, Drunkard's Path, Orange Peel and Log Cabin. It's fun, very easy, and requires very little precision since those loose seam allowances cover up any joins. Sounds like a dream, doesn't it?!"

As prolific and innovative as she is, Jodie obviously puts a lot of time and energy into her work. When asked how she disciplines herself, she replied with some surprise, "Discipline? That's not a problem. I can't get myself OUT of the studio!" 

Indeed, she must discipline herself to take care of the ordinary requirements of living: "I'm so internally motivated and excited about my work, I have to carefully balance life. My husband has been very helpful in that respect. He's so organized and that has rubbed off on me. It's easy for me to forget the rest of the world exists and for my car to sit in the garage for three days straight until there's nothing to eat. Which wouldn't matter to me but the animals are rather persuasive." (Besides Domino, the Dalmatian, Jodie and Bill own several cats and a green parrot named Indy.)

"A typical day begins when I pop my eyes open to see a cat or two on the bed in their Mommy vigil. As soon as Domino sees me move it's 'Arrooooo!' I brush my teeth and try not to trip down the stairs carrying Indy in his cage with cats fleeing from the swirling Dalmatian. First up is email with Indy on my shoulder sharing cereal and fruit. I encourage quilters to write to me, and thoroughly enjoy the contact email has provided. I try to balance sewing with computer work, though where I am on a book may not provide much time for sewing. I usually work until six, taking time during the day to run errands. Then it's the Nordic Track, housecleaning, gardening and cooking. In the winter Domino and I walk about two miles in the woods. In the summer it's simply too hot, so about 9 p.m. the three of us go about a mile.  Some nights I head back to my studio after putting Bill to bed. Tonight's a good example. I told him I was just going to power down my computer. See, I can't help myself.

"The most fun is the beginning and end of books. Coming up with the ideas, putting together samples, and writing a proposal is oodles of fun. Finishing up is always crazy and you'd think I'd want to take a break. Nope. Invariably when I send a manuscript off with boxes of quilts all I can think about is starting another quilt! Getting the advance copy is magic, even after a dozen books. 

"Being a creative type, the hardest task is getting that manuscript perfect. The little details of fabric yardage, making sure numbers and measurements of things are just right . . . the possibility of errors scares me into buckling down and addressing all of this head on, but it doesn't quite suit my mentality. Honestly, though, being a writer has been very good for me. I'd have a gazillion UFO's lying around if I didn't have to finish what I start because of that looming deadline."

Asked about her sources of inspiration, Jodie says she has no worries about running out of ideas for quilts, or books. She does, however, have a keen sense about what ideas may be better than others. She says, "When developing a book idea--and deciding to present it to a publisher--I have to think about a lot of things: Is it worthy of a book-length treatment? Do I have a cohesive idea? Is it timely? Does it fit the publisher's list? Will it sell? 

"Some book ideas start from a single quilt, like 'Raw Edge Applique'. I made that log cabin and thought of other ways the idea could be used. Others start with the technique. Paper Pieced Curves came about like that. I got thinking one day, 'If instead of sewing on a straight line, you paper pieced a curve and folded back the fabric....' I was on a deadline for another book at the time and went over and over it in my mind certain it would work. But if it worked, why hadn't someone else thought of it? When I finally got my Bernina humming on a sample I was ecstatic that it worked and then the possibilities started dancing in my head."

Despite her fondness for the studio over airplanes and hotels, Jodie understands the importance of promotion to the success of a book. She observes, "Authors who have won at big shows have name recognition. And those who travel to teach a lot nurture a dedicated following. Not to mention that they sell a lot of their own books. Of course, being on Simply Quilts gives a book a huge boost. And believe me, I'm working on that one."

Jodie has been a computer and internet jockey for as long as these capabilities have been available. She says they have opened up a world that was inaccessible to her or anyone  else before. "I remember when  a 2400 baud modem was hot stuff," she says. "I first got connected, before there was an internet, as a GEnie onliner. It was amazing to be suddenly connected to a world-wide guild of quilters. What's even more amazing is that I made a number of friends through GEnie, quilters who lived close by. And they are still dear friends, like Linda Schiffer and Kathy Semone.

"We GEnie quilters would meet at big quilt shows and have great fun putting faces to names. It was a much more intimate experience then, because that's all we had online. And for me it was a great boon as I was living quite the hermit life at the time in the country in Virginia. I didn't even belong to a guild. Talking about getting connected!"

For Jodie, the computer has been a great deal more than a connection to friends, however. It has become a major tool of her work. She says, "I've been using Corel Draw to design my patterns since version 3. Before that I had to hand draw my patterns for publication. Ick. Now email has become the method of choice for communication. I have sent and received manuscripts and graphics files back and forth for editing. I can also email my illustrator, Barbara Hennig, sketches or finished patterns or photos, and vice versa. [That was] quite convenient when she moved to Germany for three years!

"And then there's fabric shopping. With the volume of books I write, I go through a lot of fabric. I'm sure Cindy of Tiny Stitches in Marietta [a wonderful quilt store in this Atlanta suburb] would say I'm a good customer, but so will eQuilter and Big Horn. Without the Internet I simply wouldn't have access to the variety of fabrics I do now. Finding info is a breeze with the Internet. Just last week I was choosing thread for a quilt and found I had one spool of a wonderful variegated thread from YLI, but it was a few years old and I'd need more for the quilt I was working on. A Google.com search brought me to YLI and I called and they kindly sent me some.

"For me, being connected to the quilters who read my books and use the designs has been a delight. Before widespread email, I rarely received a letter unless there was a mistake in a book. (The nightmare of every author!) Email makes it easy to take three minutes to send someone a note. Through my web site and email lists such as Foundation Piecers I have also had access to quilters’ opinions. For instance, I posted a picture of my frayed log cabin on my web site and asked quilters to email and tell me if the idea was something to pursue in a book."

When we reviewed Jodie's latest book, "Paper Piece a Flower Garden," earlier this year, our main disappointment was that the book contained no photographs of Jodie's own garden. The reason was simple: Jodie and her husband had recently moved into a new house in North Georgia, and their garden was still a work in progress. So one of the pleasures of our visit was a tour of her gorgeous grounds. (See  our photo gallery of Jodie's garden).

When asked how her gardening and her quilting related to one another, Jodie has some interesting observations: "You just have to look at 'Paper Piece a Flower Garden' and you know quilting and gardening are one and the same to me. It's like cooking and decorating; all creative endeavors cross-pollinate. I am very much aware that the time I spend working on ceramics, decorating the house, and even making light as air dinner rolls benefits my quilting. Stretching creatively affects all facets of what I do.

"The garden though is a different type of nurturing. I can't will plants like I can fabric. They aren't static and have a habit of doing what they want. Thus a gardener has to be a diligent watcher and coaxer. But in many ways they are the same: envisioning ultimate sizes of plants, colors, textures, scale is much like designing a quilt, choosing fabrics. The mix is a good one: getting outside after a day in the studio is restorative. Besides, I just read that women who garden fare better than runners as far as osteoporosis goes!

"That last question gave me pause. I know I need to quilt and to garden, but why? As far as cooking goes I can say that I prefer to eat whole foods and find my body much prefers my own unadulterated cooking. But quilting and gardening? It as close to spiritual as I get. Like today, when I see the Katy Road Pink rose setting hips and the Melapodium looking not quite so succulent I know fall is on the way long before the first leaf thinks of turning. The spent flowers of the cosmos are ripening seed for next year and the cukes that got too big cause no fret--next year's compost. It's a cycle, larger than us, and comforts me. Or  is it just that I LOVE plants!?"

For Jodie, quilting is a much simpler proposition: "As for quilting, oh, I just love everything about quilts. The creativity has to come out and it has worked out that quilting is the perfect vehicle. There's something about fabric and what happens when it's layered with batting and  quilted that is simply irresistible, comforting and right. And the fact that quilts keep loved ones warm, well, it's like wrapping someone in a hug of yourself."

For more pictures of Jodie's studio and garden, click here!

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