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An Interview with Fabric Designer, Joanna Figueroa of Fig Tree Quilts

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The Sew4Home community (that's you!) has really enjoyed the designer profiles we've done so far with Patty Young and Paula Prass. We love them too. It lets us a peek into some very creative worlds. This time, we turn the tables a bit, and instead of talking with someone whose fabric we've already used in our S4H projects, we introduce you to Joanna Figueroa of Fig Tree Quilts. We have a number of awesome projects upcoming with fabrics from two of her collections, Fresh Cottons and Whimsy. Joanna took time out of her VERY busy schedule to chat with us, and you, about home décor sewing, the inspiration behind her fabric design, her books on quilts and vintage sewing, and how, as a very little girl, she once sewed buttons on the the clothes of all her fellow passengers on an International flight. She'd never get the needle on board today!

S4H: Your recent collection, Whimsy, has such a wonderful retro feel. And, I notice all your fabric lines seem to have a soft, vintage feel. What attracts you to this style?

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JF: Ever since I started creating quilts and then designing fabric, I have been drawn to and inspired by vintage illustrations, old French travel posters, antique postcards and other vintage 'goodies.' There's a certain feel and color to all these old pieces of advertising and art; it's a soft, vintage, color-faded and yet vibrant color palette. I think it's the most amazing color story out there. The color palette they create takes me back to a different time and inspires me to create. My home is filled with those colors. They energize me like no pastels, darks or brights ever could!

A few years ago, no one was using these kinds of colors in fabric, and they were really hard to piece together from this or that collection. I remember scouring fabric shop shelves to find just the right vintage tone to add to my project. Today, these wonderful colors are back in sewing, in fashion and in quilting. Whether in softer, more romantic prints or brighter, contemporary fabrics, these colors: tomato reds, aquas, chartreuse greens, chocolate, tangerine, plum (I could go on forever) are staging a serious comeback.

S4H: Your color pallets are so unique - so ‘you'! Creams set off with soft apple greens, turquoise, salmon, buttercup. Makes me feel like I've opened a drawer of my grandmother's linens. Where do you get your color inspiration?

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JF: I just love the grandmother's linens comparison... that is such a compliment to me since it is exactly what I think of when I play with those same colors! Thank you! Those are the colors that create an immediate 'story' for me. They take me places, and make me want to create. They connect me to the women who have gone before me, and yet still create a freshness in my home that is very 'today.' I know that probably sounds corny, but I think colors communicate so many things to us. As they say in fashion, 'Everything is driven by color.' As humans, we respond to color in a big way. I guess I just have an old soul, which responds to these 'fresh vintage' colors. That is what we call them: Fresh Vintage™. It's actually what we call our entire look and feel. When we first came up with it almost a decade ago, it seemed to be the perfect why to describe what I'm trying to convey with my colors and design; and so Fresh Vintage™ it became.

S4H: I've read articles featuring your home and all your wonderful collections, each in their own vignette. Can you give our readers some hints about how to create home décor displays?

JF: I love to create home 'vignettes' based around either color or kind of item. If I'm creating a display based on color, I will start with a certain color that makes me think of that season. Right now I am decorating with warm Spring tones, like salmon, apple green and buttercream. I pull out my quilts with those tones, bring out pitchers and dishes in those colors, add in a few little colorful decorative items, and am well on my way to making my whole room feel different. One of my favorite ways to redecorate quickly is to stitch up a group of brand new pillow covers. You would be amazed at the huge difference a whole couch of bright, new pillow covers can make!

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If I'm not decorating based around color, I'm creating a display by grouping all of my items of one type; putting the entire collection together in one spot. I've learned over the years that by simply putting all of the same kinds of items together in a pleasing group, you create a focal point and make a statement due to sheer quantity of the same thing. I do this with enamel pitchers, ceramic plates, sugar bowls and creamers, wooden spools, stacks of quilts, cream pottery... oh, once again, the list could go on forever.

S4H: At Sew4Home, our goal is to expose people to sewing for the home. Any encouraging words for beginners who feel intimidated?

JF: Like I said above, pillows are one of the easiest and quickest ways to completely redecorate an entire room. I do it every season!

Another simple way to give a room a completely new look is with a set of café curtains. We are actually going to release a pattern at Spring Quilt Market next month that is a little quilt and café curtain ensemble. It would brighten any kitchen, laundry room or breakfast nook. Café curtains are easy and can be embellished with fun personal touches.

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Another easy way is to decorate with stacks of quilts. It doesn't matter so much if they are all homesewn or if some are store bought; as long as they are the colors you want to use to brighten or freshen your room – use them. Put a stack on a small stool in front of an unused fireplace, inside a large basket, stacked on a vintage stool or piled on your bookshelf. They make an immediate impact and brighten any room.

S4H: Do you remember your first sewing project?

JF: My mom tells a story of when I was flying over to the United States (we emigrated here from Poland when I was just a little girl). To keep me occupied, she gave me a needle and thread and a handful of buttons. As the story goes, I walked up and down the aisles of the plane and sewed buttons on to people's clothing.... anyone who would let me I guess. We should have known then that this is where I was going to end up!

S4H: What would you suggest as a first home décor project for someone brand new to sewing?

JF: Pillows, like I mentioned above.

S4H: You make such gorgeous quilts. Talk to us about how the quilt fits into your thinking as you design a collection.

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JF: My fabric collections always start with color inspiration or a color palette, but the process of choosing the prints themselves is all about the quilting process.

I know my collections will be used primarily by quilters and since I am a quilter first, I look at each print and how the prints in each collection 'play' with each other. I visualize how they will be used and cut up in a quilt. I am always thinking of how each print will look in a quilt and how it will most likely be used. As a result, I am always playing with scale, color and style of prints to try to make sure the quilter has what he or she needs to create a successful project.

S4H: Can you REALLY save money making your own home dec items? What is your favorite comparison of off-the-shelf versus made-it-myself?

JF: For me, it's much more about the satisfaction of decorating my own home with exactly the fabrics I want to use and the accessories I want to make. I love seeing the things around my house I've made, especially what I've made for my kids or with my kids. I don't ever do it with a money comparison in mind.

S4H: Where did you get your interest in sewing and fabric design?

JF: My grandmother was an avid knitter, clothes sewer and did all kinds of handwork when I was growing up. I was the first grandchild in our family, and I loved to spend time with her. I enjoyed being with her more than with anyone else in our family... even my own parents on some occasions! The two of us had a special connection growing up that I can't quite explain. She was never a quilter, because quilting is not a known craft in Poland. But I credit her with the initial inspiration for my desire to sew. I think of her often when I am sewing.

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S4H: What is your background? Did you study design?

JF: I came to fabric design by a very circular route, but have always worked with art in some form. I had a graphic design minor in college, because my parents didn't think art was worthy of a major. I like to periodically remind them that design is now my career. Instead, I took as many art classes as I could get away with, everything from printmaking to papermaking to sculpture to ceramics to photography. You name it, and I have probably done it. More recently, I've studied fabric and surface design to improve my craft. I've also been working a lot to hone my computer skills since I love some of the tools the computer offers fabric designers today.

S4H: How do you take a design from idea to finished product? Do you design using sketch book and/or computer? What software programs do you use? Is there speciality software involved in creating fabric patterns or repeats?

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JF: I'm what I like to call an 'eclectic designer.' Almost every one of my fabric collections has some designs that are computer created, some that are hand drawn or painted, some that are reproduced and re-colored from vintage fabrics, and some that are a combination of all three. I use whatever resources I can find to create the combinations I'm looking for in an entire collection. I love the fact that my groups are not all one look. As far as the computer, I use many different programs, including both Photoshop and Illustrator.

S4H: So often fabric choices are the difference between love it and hate it. Do you have any advice on how to choose and combine fabrics?

JF: Gosh, I could talk about this question forever! In fact, it is one of the things I often get asked to lecture about when I am a speaker for a retreat or a sewing/quilting guild event.

Basically, I recommend people find something with a color combination that really inspires or 'speaks to them.' It can be anything – a unique plate, a piece of clothing, even wrapping paper (all three of these things have inspired fabric collections for me). Once you have that special item or items, use these colors you love to find fabrics for your project. Remember, not only are the colors important, the proportions in which you use them make a difference as well! Stick to the palette from your inspiring object(s), and you'll be well on your way.

S4H: Do you have favorite websites, blogs or magazines?

JF: I don't spend all that much time on the web, although I certainly have my favorite places that inspire me. I love lots of blogs: A Creative Mint, Inside a Black Apple, Jennifer Lanne, Nostalgia Organics, The Farm Chicks, to name just a few. I have a whole list of them on my website along with favorite places to window shop and find more inspiration.

Although a few of my long time favorite magazines have recently ceased to exist (Home Companion and Country Home), I love to look through Country Living, Where Women Create, Real Simple, many of the Stampington bookazines, Marie Claire Idees (a French publication), Japanese quilting magazines such as Quilts Japan and Tsushin, and Selvedge (a British magazine).

S4H: We're drooling over your newest collection, Fresh Cottons, and as you know, we have a series of projects in the works using Fresh Cottons pre-cuts. What's next for you?

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JF: Well, the line I will be showing at Spring Quilt Market in Minneapolis is called Breakfast at Tiffany's. It is perhaps a bit more vibrant than what I normally do, but with my standard colors and feel. I am really excited to be working on some clothing and accessory projects to go with the quilts I'm designing. I think it will be a nice grouping all together... as long as we can get it all done in time!

Visit Joanna's website.

Visit Joanna's blog.

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Comments (1)

Mary on Lake Pulaski said:
Great interview Joanna! I can't wait to see Breakfast at Tiffany!

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