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"Behind the Stitches: A Close Look at Laura Graham's Work on the Mr. Levy Quilt"

By Alex Holt

To mark the company’s 75th Birthday, we commissioned a special portrait Quilt by the very talented Laura Graham. The quilt immortalises the founder of Visage Textiles, Mr. Levy, in Make + Believe premium solids. Not only is the late Mr. Levy the founder of Visage Textiles but he was also the grandfather of the current owner, Aarran. To make the quilt even more personal, he is positioned in front of our original premises with a map depicting our current location in the top right corner.

Woman stood by hanging portrait quilt
Laura Graham stood with her finished portrait quilt of Mr Levy

I was fortunate enough to visit Laura Graham at her beautiful home in Perth, Scotland, where she gave me a tour around her fascinating quilting studio.

I then sat down with Laura and had a chat about the process of creating the quilt, as well as her artistic journey so far.

'I typically start by taking an image and converting it to black and white'

I asked Laura about the process of making a portrait quilt.

I typically start by taking an image and converting it to black and white. This makes the change in tone easier to see, which is very important when you start adding colours later. On the black and white sketch, I draw around these tonal sections to map out the placement of the different colours. I also printed off a new image of Mr. Levy and painted the portrait to plan potential colour placements.

Black and white and colour sketches of Mr Levy
Sketches of Mr Levy to plan the quilt

Before proceeding I cut out swatches of all the Make + Believe solid colours and created a colour palette like a traditional painter would use. The colours were ordered from light to dark to create a tonal colour palette, these tones could then be used to replicate the tones in the black and white image.

When constructing the portrait, I used a large foam board and mounted a thin piece of fabric, such as a bed sheet, on top. You want a thin layer of fabric to pin the coloured fabric to, so the finished portrait isn’t too thick to stitch together once you are finished. Beginning from the most intricate areas first such as the eyes, I slowly worked my way outwards checking the colours I selected were the correct tones by using my phone camera in a black and white setting. The wrong tone could throw off the whole face, so it was important to check that the colours blended correctly as I went.

Cork board with swatches of fabric pinned on, in front of a black foam board
Foam board and swatches of Make + Believe fabric

I normally use a lot of patterned fabrics in my work, which is an advantage when blending the tones and colours. This piece however used plain dyed fabrics so the emphasis on getting the tones right was higher, as there is no pattern to help blend the highlights and shadows. Also patterned fabrics typically encourage you to cut out more interesting shapes, as you can use the pattern repeat as a guide. You want to avoid straight lines in portrait quilts as the eye is drawn to them. When creating a face, you want the eye to see the image as a whole, rather than be drawn to one area.

How long did the quilt take to make?

In total, the piece took four months. The portrait alone took three months and the remaining background elements and quilting one month. This wasn’t just the first adult I had created but the first mature adult, so it was a challenge to create an accurate representation of Mr. Levy’s face and age. It was also the first time I had worked from a sketch of a person. Certain features like hair colour couldn’t be discerned from the sketch so I based my colour selections on the tones in the hair. That is why Mr. Levy has blue eyebrows in this quilt!

How did you get into Quilting and the speciality of Portrait Quilts?

I started by creating and selling children’s costumes on Etsy. I really enjoyed working on custom orders which included requests such as a 4ft beard that could be rolled up. I also enjoyed going against traditional rules when creating my own patterns for costumes. That same enjoyment for problem solving has transferred to my work with collage.

The first quilts I made in 2020 and 2021 were of my daughters. I completed the City & Guilds Diploma in Patchwork and Quilting where I was encouraged to try lots of different styles and techniques. I don’t like to pigeonhole my work, there are many sides to me that I would like to show.

What equipment and machines do you use?

I have a Pfaff Powerquilter machine which I used to stitch all the layers together. It’s great for these types of portraits, as you can stitch through a high number of layers. I like to use Aleene’s Tacky glue and Karen Kay Buckley scissors. A tip for the glue is to smear it straight away to avoid it seeping through the fabric. I also used a non-woven plastic net that acts like paper to draw the sketch of the original building. This was then cut out and applied as a separate layer in the background. The material doesn’t tear and isn’t noticeable on the final quilt. I then built up the background with dense stitching to add texture and keep the portrait together.

Quilt reverse showing black threads on a white background in the shape of the portrait.
The neat back of the quilt.

Where do you get inspiration for your designs?

I was largely inspired by the experiences I had while completing the City and Guilds diploma, where I now teach new students. I have a great interest in architectural urban environments and decay. I find landscapes with evidence of human influence really interesting, and I would like to delve into that idea more with my work. I want to create quilts that you don’t normally see. The juxtaposition of using the soft medium of quilting to depict hard landscapes through collage is a topic I want to explore

What were your favourite and least favourite parts in this process?

My favourite part is when the quilt starts to come together. I find it a very mindful and zen process where I forget everything else and focus on nailing the shapes and tones in the piece.

My least favourite part was quilting the map section, as there are no feed dogs on my long arm machine so creating the straight lines was very tricky!

'Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or make things up as you go along'

I asked Laura if she had any tips for beginner quilters.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or make things up as you go along. Combine mediums and experiment. There’s no need to limit yourself to certain styles or rules. When it comes to creating portraits, I am very precise but the same cannot be said for traditional quilt patterns.

If you would like to keep up to date with Laura and her work, you can find her on Instagram @LauraGrahamQuilts or on Facebook at Laura Graham Art Quilts and Textiles.

Be sure to keep up to date with Laura to find out about her Exhibition in February 2025!

If you're feeling inspired to dive into a new sewing project, you can shop the Make + Believe Solids range at Hobby Craft plus all the extras and accessories you may need to continue your quilting journey.

You can shop wholesale all the Make + Believe solid colours here at Visage Textiles

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