Super crafter Susan Beal is everywhere. With five craft books to her name, contributions in Bust, ReadyMade, Venus, and Craft, as well as many appearances at craft fairs and conventions, Susan has become one of the major craft forces in the Pacific Northwest. From jewelry and beading to quilting and sewing, Susan's talents are a sight to behold. Often using her family, friends, and the beautiful state of Oregon as inspiration, she focuses on making crafts accessible — and fun — for everyone, regardless of skill level. Her two most recent books, Modern Log Cabin Quilting and World of Geekcraft, have been a huge hit with us crafty folk here at Powell's. On top of it all, Susan is quite possibly one of the kindest women I have ever met.
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Rachel Consolo: Did you have a crafty childhood? Was there anyone in particular who you were inspired by?
Susan Beal: My biggest influences craftwise were definitely both my grandmothers. My mom's mother sewed beautifully and made me sundresses and doll clothes, and we had so much fun working on projects together. I still have the sundresses she sewed waiting for my daughter Pearl to grow into them, and now I wear the wrap skirts she made for my mom all the time. My dad's mother cooked the most amazing Southern food and let me play in the kitchen with her to my heart's content, making a crazy mess and trying out all kinds of things. It was such a sweet way to try things like hand-sewing and cooking and just have fun figuring it all out, and that approach was perfect: These things are a huge part of my life now. I loved my art classes all through school, too. I remember making all my favorite projects and what an exciting feeling it was to walk into the art classroom knowing the next hour was all about making things. It's a real gift to get to do things like this for a living, or with my own family.
Rachel: Now that you have a family of your own, how does being a mother influence your work?
Beal: Well, in a lot of ways it's really challenged me to do my best work, on big or small projects, in a much more focused, limited time span. I work from home, and I only have a certain amount of childcare for my three-year-old, and even less for my six-month-old baby, so that's all the time I have to sew or design a project or write on a deadline. It can be overwhelming and some weeks really takes it out of me. But it also gives me some needed balance to spend a good chunk of my time with them instead of taking on a lot of projects at once like I used to. I love doing projects with my daughter, who just turned three and loves fabric and drawing and making things for her baby dolls and animals, and she constantly inspires me.
Both my kids have brought about my favorite book projects, actually. In Modern Log Cabin Quilting, I made the cover quilt, Modern Crosses, for Pearl, celebrating her love of color and vintage buttons. I was designing a 10th quilt for the book right after I found out I was expecting our second baby, Everett, and Bright Furrows was my first gift to him, a throw-size quilt full of color and some of my favorite prints, which he can use from babyhood through preschooler picnics and play dates. In World of Geekcraft, I got to include the costume I made for Pearl's first Halloween, a Harry Potter robe, owl, broom, and scarf. Everett fits into it now, so he'll be wearing it when we go to Maker Faire in a few weeks, which makes me really happy. It's been a roller coaster as a freelance writer with two young children, and I have had to learn to say no to some cool things I would probably have gotten to do a few years ago. But I feel very lucky to work from my house and spend a lot of time with these two, even when it's an overload. Plus, making things for kids is really fun. Sewing baby and toddler pants and birthday pennants and Easter dresses has been awesome.
Rachel: Your first book, Super Crafty, was a collaboration with three other women from the Portland Super Crafty Collective. What was your experience like working with others to write a book?
Beal: Super Crafty was such an amazing experience. Getting to write a book with all of our favorite craft projects and include some extras we'd never seen in other craft books, like craft disasters and our favorite vintage projects from childhood, was so exciting. And working with Cathy Pitters, Torie Nguyen, and Rachel O'Rourke was great. We came up with all kinds of different chapter ideas and divided everything up into fourths so we could each do some of our favorite things. We hired Betsy Walton and J. D. Hooge of Morningcraft to do all the photography and Ryan Berkley to do all the illustrations. It was a whirlwind six months, but we pulled it all off somehow. Now it's so cool to see what everyone is up to: Cathy and Torie organize Crafty Wonderland along with their own craft businesses; Rachel teaches at PNCA and designs; Betsy is painting and illustrating; and Ryan and his wife Lucy run an amazing handmade business, Berkley Illustration. That was a really incredible collaboration. I love that book.
Rachel: Portland is lucky to have such a large craft community. How has being part of that community aided in your success?
Beal: I moved here in 1997 when I was 23 to go to jewelry-making school and fell in love with it. It felt like the part of my life where the movie goes from black-and-white to color. It's such a creative place and such an encouraging, positive community. Things have changed a lot as groups and collaborations shift and shops open and close, but I feel really lucky to have been part of things I love like Seaplane, Church of Craft, Super Crafty, the Organ Review of Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Craft, where my husband Andrew and I got married, Portland Modern Quilt Guild, the Oregon State Button Society, and Quilts for Quake Survivors. The creative people here are really welcoming, and I love seeing how organically things like craft events, websites, and fundraisers come together. And it's pretty remarkable to walk into the Crafty Wonderland Super Colossal Sale now and see 200 vendors selling their handmade work. I still remember the first craft sale I ever did in Portland, right around 2000, which was pretty quiet. Things have come a very long way in just 10 or 11 years!
Rachel: You have written books about quilting, beading, jewelry making, and general crafting. Do you have a favorite craft or a craft that you always revisit after a hiatus?
Beal: I love hand-sewing and button crafts. Those are the ones I like to do for fun, especially when I only have a little time to craft. If I have a whole afternoon, I'd definitely sew, or piece quilt blocks on the machine, or get out my Gocco printer.I think machine sewing and quilting are some of my favorites because you see results and projects unfolding so smoothly — and if they're not, that is what the seam ripper is for!
Rachel: In Modern Log Cabin Quilting, you showcase quilts that you use in your home everyday. What comes first for you, the projects or the book idea?
Beal: I started quilting long after I learned to sew, after wanting to try it for years, and log cabin was the first pattern I ever tried. It's so intuitive and forgiving. I had been intimidated by the thought of intricate cutting and piecing, but joining strips of fabric with straight seams was downright easy. I just pieced a block with some favorite fabrics and old corduroy from a worn-out pair of pants and suddenly I had a pillow cover. I'd made five log cabin projects and had tons of ideas for more, so I was looking for a cool log cabin quilting book to keep learning but just couldn't find one that spoke to me. So the idea of a simple, accessible patchwork plus quilt project book that was totally beginner-friendly but had some bigger projects to jump into came to me. I wrote the proposal while working on a new quilt, and it was really fun to be digging into something I was so excited about on both levels. I also loved researching the history of the pattern — a lot of which I did right at Powell's downtown and on Hawthorne thanks to the amazing books on the shelf, many of which are now on my shelf! It was a very intense six months, with a lot of sewing and quilting, but I loved doing it all and I love having the quilts in my house now.
Rachel: Your newest book, ***World of Geekcraft is chock full of crafts and essays by women. How do you feel about the representation of women in the geek community? What about the dearth of men in the craft community?
Y'know what we love about being geeks? We can be crafty without worrying about whether it's a "girl" crafty thing or a "boy" crafty thing. Hey, if we want a Super Mario cross-stitch, it ain't gonna stitch itself. If we want to recreate the outfit of our favorite anime character, it's not going to sew itself. Whether male or female, we geeks make the stuff we want, no matter what other people say about the techniques involved in making it.
To me, as a female crafter first, geek second — my obsessions are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Coraline, and the few way-way-back video games I was ever any good at — it was really cool to connect with other women who are super impressively geeky. Just to single out a few people who contributed: Bonnie Burton and Chelsea Cain both wrote such awesome essays on life at Star Wars HQ and sci-fi fandom as a young girl, and Julie Ramsey, who designed the Morse code quilt, Shayne Rioux, who made the Buffy perler bead portrait, and Ruth Suehle, who made both the LilyPad Arduino cake and the Drive-In Messenger Bag and wrote an essay on costuming — all made intricate, amazing projects with hardcore geek elements. Then I was totally awed by John Lohman's two video game cross-stitch projects and Paul Overton's Day the Earth Stood Still paper mosaic toolbox. I've done both those craft techniques over the years, and I thought their approach and design and execution rocked. In the grand scheme of things, of course, there are so many female crafters and so many male geeks. But sites like Geekcrafts.com, where I blog every week, has mostly women contributing, like Shayne and Renee Asher, and Spritestitch.com has a male editor, John Lohman. I really enjoy how the lines have blurred and smoothed over, especially where some of us have a foot in both worlds.
Rachel: How do you feel your crafting has matured over the years?
Beal: My techniques have definitely changed a lot with time. I am self-taught in a lot of craft directions, but I have taken some amazing classes that changed the way I work. My metal-smithing jewelry school was a daily focus for six months, but a single weekend of improvisational patchwork taught by Denyse Schmidt at PNCA two years ago also gave me so much inspiration.
The other thing that's been a big shift for me is how much easier high-quality craft materials are to find now, both online and in brick-and-mortar stores. Modern fabric is stunning compared to what I remember seeing on the bolt when I was first learning to sew. Cool Cottons, Bolt, Modern Domestic, Knittn Kitten, and Dava Bead.I've found some amazing resources for beads, buttons, and jewelry, findings I would have loved to come across in high school when I was taking old jewelry apart and restringing it with dental floss and thread. So I feel lucky to have had the time to just practice and design and make mistakes and work, but also because what I get to work with now is so inspiring and great. Portland has some amazing stores. Some of my favorites are
Rachel: The debate of what is art versus what is craft has been ongoing for decades. Do you consider yourself an artist or solely a crafter?
Beal: I really consider myself a crafter, but I have been fortunate to get to show some of my work in art settings. My Anniversary Quilt has been in a Portland Modern Quilt Guild group show at PNCA, and I'm really excited that my Modern Crosses Quilt will be in a PMQG exhibit at the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show in July. I also teach at PNCA, which has been a fantastic experience. I've taught jewelry-making and have a new log cabin quilting class coming up in July. So that has all been pretty thrilling.
Rachel: What are the biggest challenges you face crafting as a profession?
Beal: Honestly, I think craft burnout is a big one. It's hard to make things or, in my case, write about making things for a living sometimes. Inspiration and deadlines and childcare coverage are not always compatible. I am lucky to have an awesome husband who is 100 percent there for me when the big deadlines are looming, but you can only push yourself hard for so long before you need a break. Working for yourself or as a freelancer in general can be exhausting. I got to go out with friends for drinks the other night and abandon my email inbox, and it was great to play hooky from what is often an around-the-clock job.
Rachel: Do you have any advice to offer for those who are looking to make a profession out of their passion?
Beal: My main advice is to keep good organized records and don't undersell yourself. If you're spending time and investing money in your work, be sure to price it accordingly. Give gifts to friends or offer deals when it feels right, but value yourself and your work, too. I love how independent, locally owned shops and online options have made a craft career so much more accessible, and excellent books like The Handmade Marketplace and resources like Etsy and Big Cartel have widened the path a lot. For freelance writing, I'd definitely suggest keeping a blog updated regularly and posting about things you're interested in and pieces you've published so you can have a growing portfolio to pitch with. And if you're interested in writing a craft book, my best advice is to work with an agent and fine-tune a proposal in tandem with him or her to really show your best work. You don't need to write the whole book or design all the projects to get started, so a sample chapter and a couple of finished projects might be a great preview. But show that you can do those things and that you can meet deadlines for good measure.
Rachel: You recently started Quilts for Quake Survivors. Can you tell us more about it and how people can get involved?
Beal: Thank you so much for asking about QfQ! My friend Daniela Caine came up with the idea to make quilts to benefit earthquake relief efforts in Japan, and I teamed up with her on the project. We both love Japan and felt so heartbroken at the terrible aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, so working on quilts for a good cause — both to donate as comfort gifts to survivors and to sell as a Mercy Corps fundraiser — felt like the best way we could help. So many people here in Portland and all over the US and Canada have donated fabric, pieced blocks, sashed, quilted, tied, and bound quilts. It's been a huge community effort from generous, wonderful people. Our biggest supporters here in Portland have been Rachel Kerley and Cherri Langley, my fellow PMQG members, who hosted an amazing two-day bee at Sew On Studio, and our beloved fabric stores Modern Domestic and Cool Cottons, who hosted many evening and weekend community bees. We finished part one for the QfQ mission, which was to send comfort quilts as gifts to those in need. Thanks to a generous partnership with Seven Islands, a Japanese fabric importer, to ship them overseas, and Patchwork Tsushin, a Japanese quilting magazine, to distribute them. Thirty community-made quilts were shipped off late last month, and they are now making their way across the Pacific!
Part two is just underway now. We are selling both finished quilts and some really great kits to piece a 12-block log cabin quilt top thanks to a partnership with Modern Domestic, who is graciously hosting the sale on their shop website. One hundred percent of sales will go directly to Mercy Corps/Peace Winds Japan. We're working on some local quilt raffles at shops, a fun event with I Heart Art PDX at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in June, and then finally a party for everyone who helped, along with the online fundraiser. We'd love help finishing some of our quilts in progress for Mercy Corps. If anyone reading would like to get involved as a crafter, donor, or shopper, we would love to have you join us. Our blog is at: Quiltsforquakesurvivors.wordpress.com. Thank you so much.
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Rachel is a sorting maven at Powell's City of Books. Much of her free time is spent shopping for yarn, befriending all the stray kitties in the neighborhood, and fantasizing about moving to New Zealand. Or Iceland -- that would be fine, too.
Books mentioned in this post