Part of an occasional series in which a MPQG member, chosen at random, is interviewed about her quilting journey. You can find all of the series interviews on our Member Interviews page.
One in an occasional series in which an MPQG member, chosen at random, is interviewed about her quilting journey.
In the age of #MeToo, we know that gender inequality affects women all around the world, across the generations, and in every corner of our lives. The subject matter is far from humorous. Yet it’s difficult not to smile when Kris Brown describes the day she walked into her workplace only to have her boss bark out the order:
“’Kris! Take off your pants!’”
“It was the early 70s,” she relates. “I worked for the Federal Government, and we had a dress code. Women had to wear dresses or skirts. They were looking at changing that policy—I knew the change was coming.
“I sewed my own work wardrobe, and pantsuits were popular at the time,” she continues. “So I made a pantsuit that was a little bit darker than pea green, if you can imagine. I made a long, below-the-knees jumper, and the pants to match. Then I made a coordinating print blouse. I wore that to work one day.”
That’s when her boss took one look and commanded that the pants come off.
“So I took them off. No one said a word, but everyone could see how foolish it was. After all, my legs went from covered to uncovered. And it was just a couple of weeks later that the dress code changed. I made all kinds of pantsuits after that. And, yes, I wore the pea green pantsuit many times.”
Like so many quilters, Kris began by sewing clothing. “I started when I was 13, maybe 14. My mother sewed clothes, and she taught me how to use her machine. When I was small, she used a treadle. Then she got an Italian zig zag machine. You know how temperamental Italian cars are? The sewing machine was the same way. That thing was temperamental, oh my goodness.”
Kris used the Italian machine, despite its temper, to make all her own clothing in high school. And although she watched her mother ply an array of needlecrafts, she did not pursue any of those—yet. Her mom knitted, crocheted, hooked rugs (“she bought a gadget to cut wool into little strips, and she made her own designs for the rugs”), braided rugs, and created entire wardrobes of doll clothes.
And Kris’ mom quilted. “My mother made beautiful, beautiful applique quilts: water lilies and morning glories and things like that. She made little cardboard cutouts and drew around them, then cut a scant quarter-inch around each piece, individually. She folded them under and pinched them—she didn’t use an iron. And then she did needle-turn applique. She had a big oval hoop, and she would sit in the evening and applique and quilt, all by hand.
“Her quilts were marvelous. I loved the outcome, but I was never really interested in spending entire hours just…” Kris gestures: stitch, stitch, stitch. “I think I did not start quilting because of that.”
Instead, Kris’ passion for fabric fed her pursuit of clothing construction and tailoring. “I made my own clothes because I love fabric: wool and silk and all the varieties,” says Kris. “Fabric is tactile, that’s the first thing. How many times have you gone to a fabric store and walked up and petted the fabric? And seen everyone else in the store doing the same thing?” In fact, Kris continues, “When I did start quilting, I was kind of disappointed that all they used was just plain old cotton. Not that I have anything against cotton, but there’s so much more than that.”
When Kris arrived in Monterey in the early 1970s, after her family’s trajectory from Alabama to Ohio to southern California, fabric was an astonishingly common commodity. “Macy’s sold fabric back then. There was a fabric store on Alvarado Street, [and] Beverly’s was here. [She had a huge store] on Forest Avenue in Pacific Grove, on the corner opposite City Hall. They had tables full of fabric, and skylights, and big, open-beamed ceilings. I just loved going in there.
“Then across from them on 17th Street, there was a place called Stone Mountain Fabrics. His shop was really fun; it was a little house with all kinds of cupboards, so you had to hunt for the fabric. And in the Barnyard there was a place called the Cotton Bale. It was more toward home decor, but I did buy some things and made clothing from them. It was just a fun store.”
It was soon after retiring that Kris turned from clothing construction to other fabric arts, including quilting. “I went to my first quilt class and I thought, well, I can sew, so quilting will be easy. Wrong! Quilting is so different from making clothing, it was a shock. The one skill I brought with me was that I knew how to use a sewing machine. And that’s about it!”
Kris unfolds a bed-sized quilt made of dozens of flowered fabrics, set off and muted by black and white sashing. “I love all the colors. I just bought flowered fabrics I liked, mostly on sale at Beverly’s.” Referring to the wild profusion, she continues, “I didn’t sweat the mix of patterns. I cut them in squares, put them in a bag, and pulled them out. If there were two of the same fabric or same color next to each other, I’d choose again. But otherwise, the placement was random.”
The quilt is the product of the afore-mentioned first quilting class, when the teacher at the Monterey Peninsula College showed her how to cut, piece and baste. Kris made a commitment of sorts with this quilt: “I actually had to buy a second machine to make this, because the one I had would not feed properly.” To this day she relies on her two-machine combo: the newer Brother for piecing (“It is called a quilting machine: it matches corners and it feeds beautifully”) and the original Husqvarna for quilting (“It’s a big, heavy machine that can run for hours and won’t even get warm”).
Speaking of machine quilting, Kris says, “I really love this quilt, but I do not love the quilting. I worked on quilting it free-motion, but it was terrible, terrible sewing. Do you remember in Jackie Gering’s book, she has a picture of the first quilt she quilted? That’s what mine looks like.”
Frustrated in her struggles to free-motion, Kris let her first quilt sit unfinished for several years until the Monterey Peninsula Quilt Guild invited Jackie Gering to teach a class. “[That] was a huge, huge awakening for me. Huge. I have not been able to free motion quilt. It just doesn’t work for me; I’ve tried and tried. Jackie gave me permission to not have to do that. She’s a genius as far as I’m concerned, and that day with her was just astonishing.” Kris finished the flowered quilt using her walking foot, and it is now a treasured addition to her and husband Steve’s home in Del Rey Oaks.
That first quilting course, and the Gering workshop, are but two of several classes that Kris has taken. “I have found that I do like to go to workshops. Now that I’m not making clothing, and don’t have pattern instructions to follow, workshops are really fun because I always pick up new things.” And second only in influence to the Gering workshop was a class Kris took at Empty Spools that introduced her to art quilting.
“You had to bring a photograph,” she recalls, and she chose one of a vintage pickup truck that used to sit under an apple tree at the home she and Steve once rented in the Oak Grove neighborhood of Monterey. “I traced the truck, then chose all the fabrics. It was great fun.”
Art quilting, Kris says, “is the direction in which I want to go.” To that end, she signed up for the MPQG’s recent workshops with Melinda Bula and Sue Brenner. Although the two women’s techniques were similar, she notes, their processes were not. “With Bula, you were using her pattern: a big hibiscus. With Benner, you made it up yourself: it was a case of getting thrown in and doing it, rather than thinking about it in advance. That was a nice progression.
“On Facebook, I follow some art quilt pages, and those just astonish me,” Kris says about where she finds inspiration. “Usually it’s looking at a photograph of some quilt and saying to myself, ‘oh my gosh, I really like the colors in that.’ Color is particularly the thing that draws my attention.
“My favorite color is deep red. I actually have a quilt top that some quilting friends of mine, they all made blocks—it’s kind of a modern twist on a drunkard’s path—out of deep red on a light background. I sewed it together when I was on chemo.” Here Kris refers to a bout with breast cancer several years ago, from which she walked away the victor. “I thought I was doing such a great job. But afterwards, I looked at it and saw that none of the seams matched! Slowly, I’m taking it apart, little bits at a time, across the rows. It’s a beautiful piece, and I know that once it is done it’s going to be astonishing to me, because of those deep colors.”
Kris notes that her entry for the 2017 guild challenge (A Touch of Red) allowed her to incorporate both passions—art quilting and deep reds—into what she calls her ‘exploding flower.’ That little quilt also includes a third passion: “Bling! I guess I’ve become kind of a bling freak, because shine attracts me so.” She hastens to acknowledge that her interest in bling was not operational back when she was creating her own wardrobe: the pea green pantsuit, for example, lacked sequins, beads or rhinestones. But in art quilts, Kris lets herself go. “I’m excited because I just purchased [a bag of] sari scraps. They’re silk, and their shine is just wonderful. I’m already envisioning the places I can use them in small quilts, like reflections in water. They’ll be a really nice addition.”
Kris shifts focus, from inspiration to process. Having been inspired by a quilt, a color, or even a scrap of silk, how does she translate inspiration into actuality? “If I’m going to create something from scratch,” she explains, differentiating between fabricating a piece of her own design and imitating or using a pattern, “I think about it a long time. I do it mentally a thousand times before doing it physically once.
“I gather up the materials I need, and I look at them, the fabrics in particular, and consider how they’re going to fit together. Like the little exploding flower: I thought about it for weeks, and when I finally sat down I finished in three days.
Kris draws a connection between her quilting process and her career in information technology and computer networking, over a technological span that began with room-sized processing units and ended with cloud computing. For 30 years at the Naval Post Graduate School and the Defense Language Institute, Kris says, “much of what I did was looking ahead, planning, and drawing diagrams about how a program was going to flow. It’s linear thinking.”
“The downside of that kind of thinking,” Kris continues, “is if I’ve been thinking of something a long time and I sit down to do it and it doesn’t work, I often don’t continue with it.” More accurately, she often sets the quilt aside and restarts the mental work until she achieves a breakthrough. Such was the case with the first art quilt she made: the pickup truck under the apple tree. “That piece sat for a while, because I got stuck on making the tree. If I’d made it as dense [in fabric] as it really was, it would have dominated the whole quilt. In the end, I thought of doing a modern tree,” using tiny triangles to suggest the dense leaves. “And it ended up working just fine.”
Kris takes a moment to reminisce about that old tree (“It was a wonderful tree, a Red Delicious from before that variety was commercialized”) in the old Oak Grove neighborhood (“We walked downtown, and I walked one block to work at NPS”). Nowadays, in her sewing studio in Del Rey Oaks, Kris finds joy in her passions for color and art quilting and bling. And, of course, she gets to keep her pants on.
Cat, Communications Team