Up Close Quilting with Karen McTavish

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.

For this installment we sat down with Karen McTavish, a renowned quilter who uses APQS longarm quilting machines to replicate traditional hand-quilted effects. She has been featured on PBS’s Quilt Central and HGTV’s Simply Quilts with Alex Anderson. She recently published Whitework Quilting and Mastering the Art of McTavishing.

Q: What got you interested in quilting?

A: I was thrown into the quilting world by mistake. God has a sick sense of humor. As a former drug addict, he gave me the gift of quilting for staying sober. He recommended the Amish lifestyle; however, since machine quilting requires electricity I decided the best I could do was to come as close to the “hand-quilting” life as possible.

From the second I started quilting in 1997, I became obsessed with the history and style of hand-quilted quilts. Back then, machine quilting was somewhat looked down upon because it wasn’t done by hand. I decided the only way to make it as a machine quilter was to trick everyone into thinking that my quilts were done by hand.

Q: What did the first quilt you made look like?

A: My very first quilt was the class quilt at a local quilt shop. I had purchased my machine about 24 hours earlier, and my quilt was to be my “best work.” I had never pieced a quilt in my life and had never “practiced” on a quilt on a longarm yet. I didn’t understand tension, stitch length or basic quilting fundamentals. It was awful. I stitched in the ditch without rulers and just held my breath. Luckily, the quilt shop had never seen a custom heirloom quilt before – so they loved it. I just got lucky.

Q: What made you want to purchase a longarm?

A: My mother talked me into it. She told me, “Only single mothers buy these longarm quilting machines to make a living in their homes while they stay home with their kids. You can quilt eight quilts a day. You don’t need to get married if you buy one. And don’t worry; you will be good at it.” I quickly realized that mothers sometimes just want you to get into a longarm so they can get their quilts done for free.

Q: What were the challenges you ran into when you started to quilt?

A: I didn’t talk to another longarm machine quilter for the first 2 years of my career, because no one would talk to me. I was desperate for a friend and completely isolated and alone. That is the main reason why I share so much with training and teaching. I believe in networking with quilters and supporting one another. It’s critical to help each other out.

I love the APQS quilting forum. It’s one of the few forums out there where you can lurk or chat and not “log in.” We need that type of support without feeling monitored. We need the help! The hardest thing about this quilting world is not learning how to quilt.

Q: Do you have any tips for people who are starting to quilt professionally? What are the most important things to consider?

A: The hardest part about building your own quilting business is confidence and handing someone a bill.
Someone once asked me when you gain confidence as a quilter. I looked at her and said “never.” The day will never come. But, you do have a better “idea” of what looks best on a quilt. You can rely on that.

The other big issue is becoming comfortable with the idea of charging enough money for your quilts so that you can support yourself. I’ve handed my customers huge bills, and I’ve had to educate every single one of them about the time it takes to make quilts. It’s not just 4 hours – it’s 40 hours.

Think about how much you are willing to be paid for 40 hours of work. That is how much you should charge for your quilting services. If you can’t do that, then you have to figure out why. Is it fear? Are you afraid your customers won’t pay for it? Trust me when I tell you that this is a myth. You either have the wrong customers, or they are trying to run your business.

Q: You specialize in longarm techniques that replicate traditional hand-quilted effects. How are you able to achieve this?

A: All my quilts are done on my Millennium or Freedom APQS longarm machines; however, I use hand-quilting stencils – and the result is a “hand-quilted” look.

Back in 1997, most quilters offered pantographs, and I was making quilts look like a hand-quilted quilt. I didn’t know how to do a pantograph. I only knew how to mark a quilt top using stencils. Pantographs were a fast way to make money for customer quilts. I only wish someone would have told me that, and I wouldn’t have been so poor back when I started.

Q: If you had to describe your quilts in one word, what would it be?

A: QuiltXCore. QuiltXCore means you listen to hardcore metal music while you quilt, you might have dread locks, you have lost your shoe in a mosh pit and you are extremely independent.

Q: You recently published Mastering the Art of McTavishing. What is McTavishing?

A: It’s a background filler, an alternative to stippling. The original name was “Cartoon Wonder Woman Hair” but that didn’t stick.

The background filler works well in appliqué, whole cloth, plain fabric as well as busy fabric. It creates movement and flow in the quilt and provides coverage to the quilt sandwich to keep the quilt together.

The book comes with a 90 minute DVD, which demonstrates how to achieve this filler on the domestic machine, on the hoop and on the longarm.

Learn more APQS longarm machines

Once Karen McTavish started using the APQS longarm quilting machines, she never looked back.

“The things I love about APQS? Where do I begin?” she said. “I love the customer service. I love the control I have of the machine. I love that the machine is easy to maintain. I love that the machine is easy to use and makes me look like a better quilter than I actually am.”