How Heather Ross Made Me the Quilter I Am

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

it all started with a book cover...
Before I started quilting, I had never heard of Tula Pink. I didn't know who Denise Schmidt was. Or Amy Butler, Joel Dewberry, Anna Maria Horner, or any other fabric designer that most modern quilters can rattle off. The only name I knew was Heather Ross.

The cover of Heather Ross Prints caught my attention as I browsed Amazon for art books. The illustrated unicorn made my finger freeze on the scroll wheel because...unicorn. I'll admit it. I didn't fall in love at first sight. It wasn't some dramatic stroke of lightning that shook me to the core. It was just some peculiar, sketchy unicorn with a head that did not seem to be at the right angle. My pre-quilting exposure to Heather Ross began and ended with that weird little unicorn. The book cover popped up in my Pinterest feed at least once a week, which meant I never had a chance to forget about it for very long. As a result, Heather Ross' name lingered in the back of my mind the way some names do. Just a familiar name with no connections. Except for maybe a funny-looking unicorn.

When I started to get interested in quilting and fabric, I saw her name listed frequently on online fabric stores. They stocked her most recent collection, Briar Rose. When I started choosing fabrics for my first quilt, something made me want to pick a Heather Ross print. This artist was the first fabric designer I knew by name, and I thought that alone deserved a nod in my first quilt. I selected the print with the cricket and clovers. I made the quilt. I paid my due to the first name I knew, and that was that. For a couple of months anyway.

Patty brought a bag of fabric scraps to work to feed the hatchling quilt monster I was becoming. I leafed through the pieces of blenders, dots, florals, and stripes. Then I got to a tiny, pale blue scrap with a gnome on it that made me squeal and stomp my feet. Gnomes have fascinated me since childhood thanks to the books and illustrations of Rien Poortvliet my mom read with me, and further compounded by the movie Amélie I watched a dozen times in high school with my Francophile brother. I asked Patty who the designer was, and she answered Heather Ross.

the little gnome that changed me (and a kitty paw)

"I thought her only collection was Briar Rose," I said. It was the only collection I saw on any fabric store's site. I didn't yet understand that fabric collections have limited runs. She told me about all of the collections she did for Kokka and Free Spirit, her cult following, and how people bought $80 Munki Munki pajamas just to rip them up and sew with them. "I once paid $20 for a piece of a pant leg. It's crazy," she said. As a new quilter who already had a tough time swallowing the $10/yard price tag of high quality quilting cotton, I recognized that Heather Ross would be an expensive person to admire. So I avoided her. I never even did a Google image search to see what I was missing, because I knew that would be the end of it. In my universe Heather Ross was just Briar Rose and a tiny gnome.

It was that little piece of the gnome print that led me to make my first Scatterbrain Quilt. I needed a way to put him to a quilt that didn't make him look out of place. In the end, he may have been lost in the chaos, but I knew he was there. And so did Patty. When she gave me a bin of fabric scraps to make a Scatterbrain Quilt for her, she pulled out her treasured scraps of the nanny bee from Briar Rose, and the VW vans from Lightning Bugs & Other Mysteries, asking me to feature them. I have to explain the significance of this. Patty has a forest of fabric. I'm not exaggerating when I say I daydream about the stacks of gorgeous prints she has in her studio. When Patty, the fabric queen, said she treasured these pieces, they took on a whole new level of meaning.

I can't blame Patty for my affliction though. Instagram put the nail in the coffin, and once I saw a quilt block made with pieces of her Mendocino collection, the coffin was dropped into the hole and buried 15 feet under. I scoured #thegreatfabricdestash for weeks before I was able to snag a Heather Ross scrap bundle that included pieces from Mendocino, Nursery Versery, Far Far Away 1, Munki Munki, and Briar Rose. I used those pieces to make The Treasure Box, which was designed for the purpose of showcasing these scraps.

i love the movement of the underwater sisters 

Since that first scrap bundle, I've been on a constant scavenger hunt for Heather Ross scraps and my collection has grown quickly, but carefully. As a twenty-three year old graphic designer, I'm not exactly making bank. Shocking, I know. That is why I became a *scrap* collector. The problem with scraps is it's hard to use them in patterns. They come in odd shapes and sizes. That's why I started making scrappy improv quilts.

I don't think I would be the quilter I am and am proud to be if it weren't for Heather Ross. Her work pushes me to find creative solutions. I can't objectively explain why her work means so much to me. It’s a far more emotional story.

Heather Ross + Disney = Pure Joy

I think people naturally try to find similarities between themselves and their heroes. They'll look to even the most superficial things to bring them closer, to feel like they could be that hero themselves.

I don't even know that it's possible to do that with Heather Ross.

I purchased How to Catch a Frog shortly after its release. With every page I read, I found that I had less in common with Heather Ross than I did the page before. She grew up in poverty, with a single mother who rejected every norm. I grew up privileged with a stay-at-home father who had a list of rules and expectations that resembles a roll of toilet paper and a working mother who was so loving it’s almost suffocating. Ross loved being outdoors, swimming in ponds and rivers. I drove my swim team coaches crazy when I woudn’t get into the pool because it was littered with floating dead crickets. Ross remembered being hungry and cold. I complained when my dad cooked fish and ate peanut butter sandwiches instead. She was independent at an early age. I'm twenty-three, married, and we live with my parents while we're saving money for a house. She dated bad boys and bearded men who don't find front doors to be a priority. When I was nineteen, I married my husband who is total homebody. She lived in a log cabin with no power for more than a year. I can’t last more than a couple hours without internet, let alone power. She is adventurous and tenacious. I am anxious, calculated, and borderline reclusive.

The only similarities I could find is that we both like animals, drawing, and sewing. How many millions of people could say the same thing? Given this list of overwhelming differences, what is it that made me feel so close to Ross while reading How to Catch a Frog?  

I made a conscious effort to read the book slowly, a chapter per night at max. I've learned that reading too passionately is like drinking out of a hose. You just can't take it all in. I savored every story Ross told. There was something that really spoke to me in those stories that I could relate to. The tone of her writing undulates from nostalgia to a strange sadness. I think it's that feeling of looking at your childhood through the lens of an adult. Looking at who you used to be from a standpoint of who you are.

as a sagittarius, i can attest to this statement

The impression I got from How to Catch a Frog was that Ross felt her mother deprived her of a “normal” life. I think if I had known Ross as a teen or young adult, I would have been completely unable to relate to her because her life wasn’t just was completely off the map from where I was standing. And that has a lot to do with my father. He has a rigid definition of what it means to be “normal.” Had Ross been a classmate of mine, he probably would have branded her family a bunch of eccentric nutjobs who are never going anywhere in life.

While Ross may have felt her mother denied her a “normal” life, I feel that my father denied me a creative life. I learned very young that if I showed him my drawings, he would just remind me, “that won’t get you a job.” He indirectly taught me to be critical of myself. To this day, I feel internally dysfunctional because I need to constantly monitor my negativity to keep it from stifling my creative spirit. Sometimes I wonder if things wouldn’t be this way if my father had been different. Sometimes I blame him for feeding my cynical side. He didn’t try to stamp out my creativity, but he made it clear that I should never expect it to amount to anything. He raised me to see things in black and white. He was an accountant after all. Maybe he couldn’t help himself.

Improv quilting with my treasured Heather Ross scraps is a way for me to let go of the anger over the past and anxiety about the future. I can create without structure or rules, and the artwork reminds me to tune out the self doubt and criticism. While Ross may have longed for something to ground her, I look for something to set me free.

That’s why I can’t hate the unicorn anymore. It’s flawed. It’s rough. It’s something I would have erased a thousand times and eventually given up on. It represents something I am still learning to do: embracing imperfection.

my super-special-awesome scrap bin and Heather Ross FQs


  1. I loved reading this bit about you. (And while you may not blame me for your fabric addiction, I most certainly blame you for your enabling, haha) It's funny how differently we see ourselves than other people do. I think you're one of the most creative, artistically talented people I know... and you're only 23.
    "How to Catch A Frog" definitely had an emotional effect on me as well, in ways I'm not even sure why. She's as vivid a storyteller as she is an artist, and I had to constantly remind myself I wasn't reading a piece of fiction!

    1. I definitely envy HR as a writer in addition to as an artist. She reminds of David Sedaris if he were more stoic.

      Thanks for the sweet words! I have a ton for you, but I'm saving them for an extra special future post ;)

  2. I feel like I can see into your soul now... I promise in a not creepy way :) I love learning this about you.

    So I don't want to feed your habit but I read somewhere that there's going to be a reprint of Mendocino, and they're also reprinting Far Far Away with the unicorns :)

    This is Hilary from HMQG btw, hopefully that make the staring into your soul a little less creepy since I'm not a stranger lol

    1. Lol not creepy at all! I read about the mendocino reprint on HR's blog a couple weeks ago, so I've actually not purchased anymore of those scraps. I'm so going to buy a yard bundle when it comes out in 2016. I'm also getting a FQ bundle of the far far away reprint. :)

  3. Hello! I come from a mutual
    IG friend who directed us here yesterday. You have left me wordless. Let's see. My quilting story starts with HR as well. I reflect on you perfectly. But then, my mom is an
    Accountant and my dad is a lawyer, so I completely and utterly understand you! Something clicked and I don't believe in coincidences. I'm 41, born in Argentina, living in Spain. Teacher by day, quilter and sewist by night, artist even in the kitchen! See you around! You're my new friend! :)

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed my story! I know so many creative people with parents who come from more logical careers. It's funny how that works out!

  4. I found you through IG and have been mesmerized by your scrap improv quilts (and that you keep making them!) Thanks for telling more of their story. This paragraph really got me:
    " Improv quilting with my treasured Heather Ross scraps is a way for me to let go of the anger over the past and anxiety about the future. I can create without structure or rules, and the artwork reminds me to tune out the self doubt and criticism. While Ross may have longed for something to ground her, I look for something to set me free. "

    I also got married young and lost myself to quilting to fill some deep need, but it wasn't til I read your post that I recognized that my inner struggle with anger, resentment, regret is played out and soothed through improv quiltmaking. Maybe I knew on some level, but I just really connected with what you wrote.

    Looking forward to learning more through your quilt journey.

    Jess in NY

    1. I don't think I understood my motivations either until I sat down to write my story! I think my parents' desire to structure every aspect of my life makes me fearful of unexpected changes, but also left me wanting a safe way to be spontaneous. I'll never be the person to go skydiving on a whim, but I have no problem sewing by the seat of my pants.

      I also love the sense of control I have even while making chaotic improv quilts. Maybe "control" isn't the word I'm looking for...I like that I don't have to worry about mistakes, because I get to decide whether or not it's actually a mistake in the first place!

  5. Since I majored in Creative Writing in college (undergrad and MFA) and as someone who wrote a novel but will kill you if you try to find it and read it (it's that bad), I used to joke with my fellow MFA-ers that I was shackled as a writer because I grew up in a happy home with a normal childhood. The girl in my group who was homeless at age 14, used to courier drugs, and was into kinky habits (you know what I mean) had far more interesting stories to tell than I did. But she dropped out and I finished, and as my dad says, it's the obsessive people who get things done, so I try to take that as a compliment and do my work, whatever it is.
    And as a Creative Writer-now-turned-parttime-English-proffie-and-fulltime-quilter, I have to say this confessional you've written is lovely, is brilliant, and has allowed me to spend my last hour savoring how you write and the way you put yours words together. So hats off to Mum and Dad for giving you that base from where to go and where to grow and how to get things done. It will save you lots on money on therapy and lots of time, but sadly, will leave you with no horrific tales with which to beguile your fellow readers. Just keep writing what you do and that will be fine. That will be perfectly fine.
    Your new fan,
    P.S. As I don't often return to posts I've commented on, pls. use an email if you want to reply. (Or not.)

    1. It's true! A crazy life makes for more interesting stories. Being comfortably boring isn't bad though!
      For a brief period of time in my teens, I wanted to be a writer, so it's one of those things that's loomed in the background, but more as a hobby now.