Friday, February 10, 2012

From passion to profession

Louise Coombes’ studio room accommodates
 her bulky longarm quilting machine—an
 expensive investment that enables her to quilt
 all the layers together in a variety of patterns.
 She uses EQ7 software to help design quilts
 and to show her clients what the final piece
 will look like before she begins sewing.
Working from home, doing what you love, and getting paid for it
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Feb. 4, 2012

Although I tend to be more of a speed dater when it comes to crafts, lately I just want to move in and try living with Mr. Right—who, for the moment seems to be quilting. For me, quilting has all the attributes of the ideal partner: it’s challenging and complex, not afraid of bold patterns and colors, and warm and cozy at night. Although I’ve dabbled with quilting in the past, I decided it was time to get more serious and make a commitment.

To that end, I decided my quilting skills needed some work. So I took a beginning quilting class at Judy’s Sewing Center in Capitola; I learned to use the longarm quilting machine at the TechShop in San Jose (as a member you have access to all their specialized sewing machines); I read books on quilting history and studied images of quilts in big picture books; and I got some helpful advice from one of the best quilters I know, Louise Coombes, whom I met through Aromas Hills Artisans.

Not only is Coombes a highly inventive and accomplished quilter, she actually makes a living at quilting through commissioned work—a testament to the high quality of her quilts and her willingness to tackle challenging assignments. She works two days a week at a local quilt shop, and the rest of the time quilts for her clients. It can be tough for anyone to turn a hobby into a living, and although Coombes attributes the creation and growth of her business more to happenstance than any great effort on her part, there’s really much more to it than that.

Quilting for Fun
"Carp-e Diem" features fish throughout.

In 2005 Louise Coombes’ life was radically altered in just about every way possible. That was the year she gave up her chiropractic practice in England, said goodbye to her friends and family, and moved to America to get married. She also made her first completed quilt in 2005—a birthday gift for her new husband, David.

Coombes had already been an avid seamstress, making a lot of her own clothes as a teenager. When she left her sewing machine behind in England, she said, “I felt like my right arm was missing without it.” As a wedding present, David bought her a top of the line embroidery machine. “I was blown away,” she said. “I didn’t have a clue how this machine worked.” But she figured it out quickly since she had five bridesmaid dresses to alter.

Coombes uses a flannel quilt design wall to preview of the finished
 quilt top. On the right is her nearly completed “Ribbon Quilt” which
 features 180 fair ribbons earned by an avid 4Her who showed
  rabbits, pigs, sheep and horses at county fairs while growing up.
She was introduced to quilting when she and David attended a quilt show in Morgan Hill, where they first lived. “That was my first wee spin around a quilt show and I was just like agog,” she said. She bought a how-to book on quilting and read it cover to cover. “I went down to the quilt shop finally and bought some little fat quarters not knowing any better at the time and just started cutting them up and making my own thing.” Coombes took classes at the shop, Quilts and Things in Morgan Hill, where she would later be hired as a clerk and instructor by the owner, Laurie Perez. “They couldn’t believe how prolific I was.  Laurie couldn’t believe I was designing stuff before I even knew what I was doing,” she said.

Quilting for Clients

Perez gave Coombes one of her first referrals when a woman came to the shop looking for someone to make a quilt from tee shirts. “I seem to be the kind of person that is not afraid to take on a challenge,” said Coombes. “I’ll look at something and go ‘Oh okay, I can do that’ and most people seem shocked and say ‘You will?’ I take what a lot of other people are too cautious about,” she said.

Coombes’ willingness to take on demanding projects and her ability to magically transform just about anything made from fabric into a gorgeous family heirloom, make her unique among quilters. “The average age of a quilter is 59,” said Coombes.  “They don’t want the hassle of making quilts for other people, while I’m young enough and stupid enough to take it on I suppose.” The tee shirt quilt was a success and the commissions kept on coming. She is now referred by five or six local quilt shops, and has a steady stream of commission work.

David describes his wife as a ‘perennial over-achiever.’ “You’d win the gold medal in over-achieving,” he said. Amazingly, she completed seven commissioned quilts in the two months prior to Christmas, including three made from cut up pieces of one woman’s clothing, intended as memorial gifts for her children. “I’ve got more work than I know what to do with,” she said.

A client brought Coombes a large box of her
 father’s clothing—everything from casual
 Hawaiian shirts to silk ties to flannel bathrobes
 to suit pants—to use in making a memorial quilt.
  The challenge was to work this wide variety of
  fabrics, colors and patterns into one cohesive design.
Coombes describes herself as fastidious. “I am very much detail orientated,” she said. “I’m always emailing the client keeping them in touch with what I’m doing and to ask them different questions, ‘Do you want it this way or that way?’ you know.” 

Clients become Friends

In the process, Coombes has developed a personal relationship with many of her clients, often keeping in touch with them long after their quilts are finished. “’Memories of Grandpa’ was one of my earliest commissions, and it’s one of my fondest memories,” she said. A woman came to Coombes with her deceased father’s clothing in a big box. “Well I looked through all this stuff, and there was just this random array of clothing—there’s handkerchiefs, neckties, work shirts, work pants, Hawaiian shirts, all sorts of different colors of shirts from the wild and whacky to the tame and boring, you know. And she said ‘can you do anything with this?’  She spent some time with me talking about her dad. She was obviously very, very close because she was almost in tears talking about him.”

Fair Ribbon Quilt

In 2012 Coombes plans to continue her commission work—including a quilt made from a huge collection of ties—but also hopes to have time to do some personal projects and teach. “I want to teach what I’m creating, my own thing, a new slant,” she said. She’d also like to introduce a new gadget or pattern, “something that will revolutionize the industry.”

For photos of all Louise Coombes quilts, items for sale, helpful tips for quilters, and contact information go to her website,