Creative Genius: Whitney Crispell of Local Color Quilts
Embracing the rainbow and inspiring her community with a refreshing take on heritage quilting.
A community advocate wearing many hats in her hometown of Buffalo, NY, Whitney Crispell’s many ambitions and talents attracted me to follow her on Instagram. While she documents her personal adventures and creative challenges, she inspires me (and many others) to persevere and to continue learning new things. Her newest venture, Local Color Quilts, is a quilting and home textile studio where she modernizes the art of making custom, handmade heirloom quilts.
”I love what my quilting work brings to my life: intention, patience, and color.”
You used the quote on your website, and it really resonated with me. How did you discover this passion?
When I got married in 2011, a large group of friends got together and secretly made a quilt for my husband and me. Most of them had never quilted before and they still managed to pull off this incredible feat. Their quilt for us kick-started a tradition of making quilts for others in the same circle as they got married. I was so green when I started quilting with these friends, and although I had a machine, I barely knew how to use it. Putting together a quilt with them taught me how to use my machine, solve common issues that come up when sewing, and some basic methods for piecing. Still, I was so daunted by the quilts we made (queen sized, some hand-quilted) that more than once I declared I would never make a quilt on my own. I have always been an artistic person but my style of creativity seemed totally at odds with the endurance and precision I assumed quilting required. Once I felt more comfortable around my machine, I started collecting fabric and making cloth napkins, bunting, pillow cases, easy baby blankets. I basically made everything you make with fabric if you’re trying to avoid learning garment sewing or quilting. Finally, in the winter of 2016 when I was not doing much besides nursing my second baby, I started watching classes on Creativebug about quilt making. I realized that my aversion towards certain basic techniques (like cutting with a rotary blade and using rulers) was holding me back. Watching quilters like Anna Maria Horner and Heather Jones piece together quilts totally demystified the process for me, and I became instantly obsessed. All these possibilities opened up, and–no joke–I walked around in a daze for about six months seeing quilt designs everywhere I went. It was a slow courtship but once I figured out that quilting and I were a good match, I fell very hard and very fast.
You’re a visionary for color! Tell me more about your love of the rainbow. Do you have a favorite color?
You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I am a total sucker for rainbows and ombre. Sometimes I find myself trying to reign that in because minimal, neutral design is (and has been) very trendy. Without fail though, I always come back to and enjoy most my work exploring the full spectrum of color. That being said, I have made custom quilts for people whose style does tend toward that more neutral palette and I have really enjoy exploring color with restraint. One of my favorite quilts I’ve made to date was a wall hanging for my friend and designer Caroline Corrigan. We actually traded her logo and branding work for my quilt work. Most of the fabric in her piece is a variation of white or ivory but there are these small pops of rust and ochre that just shine in a way they wouldn’t surrounded by other colors.
As far as colors go, blue has always been my favorite but don’t ask me to narrow it down to a particular shade--I can’t and won’t!
I’ve been a cerulean girl for longer than I could pronounce the word, Whitney. But the full rainbow often steals the show in my heart, too!
I resonate heavily with the idea of repurposing and recycling, taking efforts where possible to offset the throwaway culture we’re living in. Much of my own fabric stash is from yard sales and a huge box found in my Grandma’s attic. What are your favorite sources for fabric (or are they secret)?
First, no secrets! In my experience, finding quality fabric at estate and yard sales is a rare but potentially incredible windfall. Thrift stores are a great, reliable resource. Look in the sections where bedsheets, comforters, and other household linens are displayed. Often you can find multiple yards of fabric for sale as well as things like tablecloths, sheets, and cloth napkins which you can incorporate into patchwork. I’ve started using repurposed dress shirts, and am currently making a flannel quilt out of–you guessed it–flannel shirts from the thrift store. And actually, here is a secret: when you start quilting and people in your life find out, they begin giving you fabric. It’s amazing! I’ve had several people drop off bags or boxes on my porch or bring me piles of fabric scraps from projects they finished long ago.
And I’m glad you brought up throwaway culture and conspicuous consumption. My quilting work has brought much more awareness about my habits on both of those fronts. Like any industry, there is a huge push to buy and consume in the quilting world. I’m totally (and happily) guilty of hoarding fabric myself but I am trying to work with what I’ve got and get creative before purchasing new. There are a couple fabric designers (hello, Heather Ross, I love you) whose lines I will almost always buy but otherwise, I’ve been able to chill out.
When I purchase new fabric, I try to hit up some of the local fabric shops here in Western New York, like Elmwood Village Fabrics. I also purchase online at Hawthorne Threads, and when I’m in the area, I love visiting SewGreen in Ithaca, NY. SewGreen offers all used and upcycled fabric, and it is amazing.
Spectral Locus at Richmond Ferry Church [in Buffalo, NY] was an amazing public art installation in your neighborhood. What was that like?
If you asked me to come up with a public art project perfectly aligned with my interests, I’m not sure I’d even be able to dream up something as perfect as Spectral Locus. It was, in short, a large scale community quilt project displayed on various public buildings throughout the City of Buffalo. Giant pieces of colorful patchwork were stretched across the buildings, highlighting their architecture and scale in new ways. The artist who came up with it, Amanda Browder, is a genius and Buffalo’s modern art gallery, the Albright Knox, gets major props for bringing her to town. One of the buildings featured is an enormous vacant church just a few blocks up from my home. My family and I visited the installation numerous times over the month it was up, and one night I organized a collaborative family photo session with several friends. We all showed up at the same time, brought cameras, and took turns taking photos. It was fun to see the kids marvel at the art, and even play behind or right next to the patchwork panels. I think of that installation every time I drive by the church, which is at least daily, and I’m so glad we took the time to capture our family’s joy at its existence.
In what other ways are you inspired by the female art scene in Buffalo, especially as the mother of young girls?
I’m inspired to be confident, and to hustle. There are so many hard-working female artists and makers in this city, and they’ve supported and nurtured me both directly as friends and mentors, and indirectly as examples. My friends Caroline Corrigan and Erica Eichelkraut Zilbauer both traded their branding services which was incredible for me as a fledgling business. I made them quilts for their logos and photos, respectively. They and other business friends have given me advice about pricing, working with other shops, and maintaining balance. I also learn a lot from local female artists by watching them on Instagram! I love that community. I'd say the only thing I regret right now about the local scene is that I feel we are a bit siloed, either by our artistic mediums, age, geography or race. One of my goals over the next few months is to create space for the artists, makers, and creative types in my life to come together, and one of my longer term goals is to create an actual, physical space for the textile arts community complete with classes, resource sharing, and more. There are lots of ways that longer term goal could come to fruition, and I’m enjoying exploring the possibilities. Being a mother has no doubt given me a greater sense of urgency around these personal and community goals. I know now, more than ever, that life is full and fast and if you don’t prioritize what feeds your soul, it won’t happen.
Tell me more about exploring dying/shibori, and what inspired you to try it. Was it easy? Will you continue to do it?
I signed up for an indigo dyeing and shibori class at Makers Buffalo, which is a local business offering introductory level classes to tons of different crafts. They taught us how to do shibori folds, set up a quick indigo vat, and the ins and outs of dipping your textiles. I was immediately hooked and dyed a ton of fabric, thrifted clothing, and table linens in the weeks following that class. It’s easy and if you are the type of person who loves relatively quick crafts with a lot of impact, it’s for you. Just be warned: it is messy. I have incorporated a lot of the hand-dyed fabric into my quilts, and will absolutely continue to do so. I love the contrast of the shibori indigo with deep, saturated solid cottons. One of my hopes is to set up a more permanent indigo vat but I don’t currently have a good space for it. I fear one of my children will find it and cover my house in indigo handprints.
Dye + children is a challenging combination, and I can relate to that! But it is wonderful to think that someday they’ll learn to appreciate the process, having seen parents create with their own hands. How long does it take you to make a quilt? Do you have a tried-and-true process for creating?
It’s rare for me to be able to make a quilt in less than 8 hours, and it typically takes me 10-15 hours for a quilt in the crib-to-throw size. So much depends on the materials I’m working with (Do they need to be pre-washed? Ironed? Stabilized?), the cutting and piecing for the overall pattern, and of course, the quilting design and density. It’s very hard to rush a quilt and get the level of quality I want, and for me, this has been one of the great lessons of this medium. I have always struggled with attention and focus, and with quilting, you have to give in to the long, slow process. There’s no choice if you want quality.
That being said, there’s more flexibility in quilting than I first thought and I think that’s why it works for me. This is related to my creative process too. I always have multiple projects going on at once. Some are in the first phase, which is a combination of collecting inspiring images and palettes, pulling fabric, and sketching designs. I rarely follow patterns and when I do, I usually find myself making changes on the fly. While these new projects are germinating, I’ll have anywhere from 2-5 actual quilt tops in the work. This is the loosest phase. Sometimes I’ll whip up a quilt top in an afternoon in a frenzy, and sometimes I’ll spend six months letting it come together. However once my quilt tops are basted, which is when you bring all the layers together with thread or pins, I tend to get really focused on quilting and finishing them up. Having multiple projects going at multiple phases helps me with that attention issue I mentioned. When I need a break of where I’m at, I can jump into something that’s at the other end of the process. This is the flexibility I love, and it’s what keeps quilting both fresh and satisfying to me.
What's your favorite piece to-date?
I think overall I am most proud of my Rainbow Prism Quilt and Caroline’s Patchwork Peaks Quilt. They have totally different vibes but in the middle of creating both, I threw my original plans out the window and went with where my gut was telling to go. In both cases, it worked. As far as sentimental value goes, I’d have to say that my favorite is the quilt I made for my daughter Vivienne’s 3rd birthday. We snuggle under it every day, and say goodnight to the frogs, bees, and crickets that are hidden in the fabric. If I was running out of the house and had to save one of my quilts, I’d probably pick that one.
I'm looking forward to seeing what other projects you're up to in-studio.