Up Close Quilting with Dawn Cavanaugh

July 5, 2012

There are few days that pass when we aren’t inspired by the beautiful works of art quilters all around the country create using our APQS longarm machines.

To pay tribute, we are highlighting some of our favorite quilting artists to learn more about their passion for quilting and the tools they use to make their visions a reality.

We sat down with Dawn Cavanaugh, the owner of Rockin’ Bobbin Quilting, Inc. Dawn is an accomplished quilter whose works have appeared in publications such as, A Century of Quilts, Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine, American Patchwork & Quilting, Leisure Arts, House of White Birches, and Fons and Porter books and magazines.

Q: Thanks for taking time to talk with us today, Dawn. You were bit by the quilting bug in 1994. What got you interested in quilting?

A: Ever since I was young, arts and crafts have interested me. Growing up on a farm in Northwest Iowa meant creating your own fun, since trips into town were rare. My parents endured gifts of painted rocks, soybeans and corn glued onto cardboard and potholders woven from elastic bands on a square loom, remember them?

As I got older and earned some spending money, I chose to spend my allowance on items like knitting needles, paint, glitter and even a quilt kit. As I explored other crafts, I put the quilting aside, figuring I had “mastered” that. But in 1991, my mother-in-law coaxed me into revisiting quilting through a piecing class at a local quilt shop. I really enjoyed manipulating the fabric, choosing colors and learning the techniques. That started my love affair.

Q: Do you remember the first quilt you made?

A: Yes. It has a sheet for the back, and since I had no instruction, I finished the edges by folding them over a few times and then pulling them around to the back, where I stitched them down in a not-so-straight fashion.

Q: What is your all-time favorite quilt? Why?

A: As a professional quilter, I have quilted over 3,000 quilts through the years. It’s difficult to pick out one favorite amongst them. One of my favorite personal quilts is a smaller rendition of a quilt I designed and completed for the Habitat for Humanity fundraiser in my community.

Its design represents several aspects of the project. The center star represents the house built by all the loving hands in the organization. Four larger corner stars represent the four churches involved, and the twelve smallest stars symbolize the love of one strong woman who took in her sister’s six children and added them to their own six to build a family of 12 in this new home.

Q: How did you make the transition from a casual hobby quilter to someone who quilts professionally?

A: As I became more interested in quilting, I soon realized that I’d never get all of the quilts dancing in my head finished in my lifetime unless I found a faster way to quilt them. That’s when I discovered that a company in my own hometown of Carroll manufactured something called a “longarm” quilting machine.

Fate is a funny thing –  that longarm company, APQS, was located right across the highway from where I grew up. Who knew? I purchased my longarm machine, an APQS Ultimate, in 1994, and began quilting for others as “Rockin’ Bobbin Quilting.”

This machine is still going strong, but after 17 years I think it’s time for me to upgrade. The Millennium from APQS has the best stitch regulator on the market, and since stitch regulators were only a “dream” back in 1994, my current machine doesn’t have one. I think I deserve it!

Q: It’s a big decision to purchase your first quilting machine. What tips do you have for people who are about to take the plunge?

A: Buying a quilting machine is an investment in your passion. While more men are discovering the joy that quilting can bring, we still are a hobby dominated by women. As such, it’s often hard to overcome that mental block about treating ourselves to things we love. So my first suggestion is to decide that you are actually worth it!

Secondly, look for a company and a machine that have the right “fit” for you. When I shopped for my longarm almost two decades ago, I wanted a company that I felt I could trust, that provided superior customer service and one that produced a top quality product. The fact that I still own and use that same quilting machine all these years later is a testament to the kind of company APQS is.

Since this investment can last a lifetime, also investigate “comfort” features. Are the handles adjustable to suit your changing needs? Are the controls at your fingertips? Can you comfortably sit to quilt? As for customer service, you want that company to be there for you for the life of your machine. What is the machine’s warranty? Is it easy to maintain? How are repairs handled? Does the company care about you and your success?

Q: There is a seemingly endless number of quilting tools on the market these days that it can almost be intimidating. What are your go-to quilting tools and why?

A: This question is hard, because tools proliferate the market for both piecing and machine quilting. For piecing, nothing beats a sharp rotary cutting blade, ruler and mat! For my longarm quilting, I can’t live without an extended base for my machine and a thick straight-edge template. These two tools allow me to guide my machine along seam lines and create straight lines without effort.

Q: At the 2009 Machine Quilters Exposition you were named the “2008 Machine Quilter of the Year.” What an honor! What is the main thing about quilting that you try to teach your students?

A: Actually, I have two things that I try to teach my students. First, quilting is an art, not a science. There is no one right way to accomplish a technique. Your feathers do not have to look like mine, and my swirls do not have to look like yours – that personal injection into quilting is what makes each and every quilt unique.

Second, I firmly believe in a phrase attributed to Henry Ford: “If you think you can or you think you can’t, either way you are right.” Students will come in with self-imposed doubts about their abilities without giving themselves a chance to find their own quilting voice. They are too worried about following someone else’s design or style. That leads to self-imposed rules, too. If a quilter says to herself, “I can’t cross that line with my stitching to get to a new place,” then she just made up a rule for herself.

But that same quilter could approach it from a different view and say, “Hmmm. I could cross over that line with my stitching to get to a new place.” Allowing yourself to “break the rules,” especially when there really aren’t any to begin with, invites creativity, passion and fun!