A Stitch in Time

Tessa Layzelle talks to about her ‘modern quilts’: what they are, how she makes them, and why they matter

Image: Tessa Layzelle

Image: Tessa Layzelle

For Tessa Layzelle, making something with a practical application is just as important as making it beautiful. Her quilts feel like the product of an artistic life lived; the layers of thought, skill and in influences coalescing to form, well, something like a quilt! With a strong mid-century aesthetic, combined with techniques cherry-picked from different cultures and traditions, it was interesting to talk to her and unpick all the pieces that have come together to form a unique yet familiar approach.

As Layzelle puts it, quilting provides “a pursuit with the ability to combine so many of my interests… painting, illustration (or story telling) and textiles in a practical, usable object that was possible to make at home. Quilts tick a lot of boxes for me!” Approached from a ne art background, but fused with the enticing roughness of traditional crafts, Layzelle’s quilts thrum with a wealth of in uences and techniques. Her fundamental ethos centres on “singing old songs for a new world”, and her modern quilts are testament to this century-straddling sentiment.

Layzelle’s quilts do sing. Her palette is greatly informed by an early to mid-20th century aesthetic, from Lygia Pape’s strong and scratchy woodcuts to Breon O’Casey’s graphic yet soft paintings. Although one often finds a murkiness in much British art of this period, partly elicited by the aftershock of two world wars and the country’s adaption to a post-industrial landscape, Layzelle has eschewed the dour qualities and taken the contemporary abstraction and graphic approach, along with a thoughtful understanding of colour, both muted and bright. Her quilts meld vibrant charcoals, blues, and milky whites, tempered with a citric pop of yellow, rich orange or an emerald gleam. As the lines of stitching race across the fabric, oscillating among strong patches of colour and shape, her quilts wrap up wide-reaching influences in a considered piece of practical, aesthetic design.

It’s all the more impressive given the fact that Layzelle only started making quilts a few years ago. She grew up in York, in the lap of crafts, with every member of the family turning their hand to some form of craft – textiles have always been in her life. She did a diploma in Fine Art at York College and then studied in Brighton, where she got up to “lots of abstract painting”.

Image: Tessa Layzelle

Image: Tessa Layzelle

However, quilting was never the great plan. As a primarily American craft tradition, quilting grew as the frontier stretched further west, and imported fabric became ever-more expensive so the need to use up every scrap going was paramount. Layzelle’s impetus was sparked after a friend showed her the hand made quilts of Folk Fibres in Texas. “I knew nothing of the American tradition, but the ‘use of non-patterned fabric for timeless quality’ ignited my imagination, I guess it was an epiphanic moment: in my head, quilts would be the answer!”

Indeed, while it’s thrilling to explore the bounds of creativity, Layzelle observes that “making quilts comes with an appealing set of rules and restrictions”. You’ve always got three layers, which are stitched together, and then you need to encase all the edges. Since the top is patchwork, your design is reduced to straight lines, triangles and curves.

Yet the appeal of Layzelle’s work lies in the fact that it doesn’t feel as if these guidelines have stymied her work; rather she sees the boundaries as a spring board, pushing against them to see what surprises they can elicit. Yet since the larger quilts can take up to 30 hours, you need to plan accordingly. Her preliminary design process demands an overarching approach; she sketches out shapes and considers how they’ll mingle and overlap: consistently moving things about and seeing how they work. Yet, she mentions that “in the process of sewing the pieces together, the design shrinks and warps and sometimes unexpected interesting things happen! I always start with the materials I have (it’s the survivalist in me).”

This ‘survivalism’ principle resonates powerfully through Layzelle’s work and clarifies her need to provide it with a practical application. After having her first child, quilts seemed to provide not only the perfect foil for her various in uences, but also ful lled the need to create something functional. Rather than allowing situation to limit her, Layzelle has seized it to create something that is very much her own.

Layzelle similarly picks and chooses when it comes to technique. Take decorative Japanese Sashiko stitching, which consists of white, even stitches on a dark base. The stitches flood the fabric, tessellating outwards. This technique is evident in Layzelle’s first collection, ‘I Never Had No Climbing Structures’ and one can see the way she’s developed it in ‘More News From Neptune’, which looks like a cosmic balancing act. Here the little white stitches are less linear and structural, instead standing out on the dark background like the lines of trickling constellations. She used “the natural creases found in the linen as a guideline” to create this sprawling pattern – an indication that making a quilt is about the way in which you respond to and work with the materials. The orbiting planets are circles of colour, and a comforting sense of cosmic wonder pervades.

Image: Tessa Layzelle

Image: Tessa Layzelle

Layzelle lived for a while in St Ives, a town which became something of an artistic heartland in the 20th century, with many having been drawn in by the celestial quality of light and close proximity to the sea. It’s natural that Layzelle’s own fascination with mid-century art and design would have anchored itself here. Her collection ‘And Waves Us Loose’ is inspired by John Piper, who also lived in St Ives and created moody, offbeat collages. It’s unusual to see quilts that so distinctly depict a landscape.

The textural depth of Layzelle’s sea is realised through appliqué triangles, owing brush strokes and delicate stitching. The sea and waves have gured strongly in recent collections, as Layzelle notes: “some of the first quilts I made were based on Louise Borgoise’s insomnia drawings, scratchy repeated lines that swelled in points, looking like waves. The lines translated in stitch made great graphic sea portraits.”

Layzelle fizzes with an enthusiasm; a tuned in, artistic eye that penetrates beyond the initial impression of a piece of art and finds the detail. This is indicated by her current project which is a series of small colour study quilts based on 1940s portraits by Willem De Kooning. This artistic scope, alongside all the textures, the spark in the jumble of colours and lines, makes her quilts something special.


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