Designer Profile: Judy Martin

Judy Martin along with two quilts she's designed

Tradition Meets Innovation

For someone who has been so strongly associated with traditional scrap quilting for nearly four decades, it’s a little surprising to learn that Judy Martin is a first generation quilter. The resident of Grinnell, Iowa, says that although her mother was a garment sewer, no one in her family quilted. Science and math were the focus in her home when she was growing up: her father was an engineer, her sister went on to a career as a NASA scientist, and her brother ended up working at Boeing. A doll quilt she made at the age of 9 was her sole exposure to quilting during her childhood.

Judy made her first real quilt after coming home from the University of California at Santa Barbara (where she was studying animal behavior) for Thanksgiving in 1969. Her parents had recently moved to a new house and she no longer had a room of her own to stay in. While looking around the house, she found a box of scraps from her mother’s sewing and decided to make a quilt. “I’d never seen a quilt, but I knew my mother always gave our sewing scraps to the people at church who made quilts, so I decided to make one,” she says.

Father’s Fancy was published in the September 1992 issue of Quilter’s Newsletter

Beginner & Innovator

From the beginning, Judy thought of herself as an innovator. “I thought quilts were all uniform squares, and I thought I would be really revolutionary and use squares and rectangles,” she remembers. She limited her colors to red, white and blue even though she was certain that quilts were supposed to be completely scrappy—another indication, she thought, of her innovative approach to quiltmaking.

Like many quilters, Judy was immediately hooked by that first experience. “After that, whenever I went to the fabric store—I’d sewn for years, so I was always going to the fabric store—whenever I went to the fabric store, all I could see was quilts,” she says. “And I just had to buy the fabric to make the quilts, and then I had to make the quilts.” She continued to quilt throughout the rest of her college career, using techniques she devised on her own.

Designs to Explore

Her illusions of having discovered new ways of quiltmaking disappeared when her sister gave her a copy of Ruby Short McKim’s classic book 101 Patchwork Patterns, which was originally published in 1931. This was Judy’s first introduction to traditional patterns, and she took it hard. “I was kind of devastated,” she says. “I thought, Oh, it’s all been done before! There’s nothing new in the world.”

She kept quilting, though, and made traditional quilts for a number of years before she started to see that there were things that hadn’t already been done and there were, in fact, new designs to explore.

Starlight Log Cabin from Judy Martin’s book Pieced Borders (1994)

A New Direction

As she approached her 30th birthday, she was ready for a change in her life. She’d been working odd jobs since graduating from college to supplement her income from selling quilts at farmers’ markets, and was feeling that maybe she was disappointing her parents for not having more to show for herself. In search of a new direction, she read the career book What Color Is Your Parachute? and it changed her whole outlook.

“It would never have occurred to me to look for a job that I wanted; I thought you had to look for a job that was available,” she says. “And so I asked for a job at Quilter’s Newsletter magazine. They weren’t looking to hire particularly, but I asked for a job. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” Her newfound sense of purpose paid off: she started working for Quilter’s Newsletter in 1979.

During the eight years she worked as an editor for QN and its new “little sister” magazine, Quiltmaker, Judy became one of the principal pattern designers on staff in addition to writing features. She also co-wrote books with Bonnie Leman, founder and editor-in-chief of both magazines, which were published by the Lemans’ own imprint Moon Over the Mountain Publishing; in fact, one of Judy’s first assignments was to write Log Cabin Quilts with Bonnie. Within a few years, Judy was the sole author of books such as Scrap Quilts (1985) and Shining Star Quilts (1987).

Judy Martin with husband Steve and daughter Kate at the Iowa Quilt Museum, Winterset, Iowa

Life After Leaving the Magazine Business

When she left the magazine business, it was to start a publishing company with her husband, Steve, so she could work from home and start a family. “I did a book, a baby, a book, a baby, and then we thought that was enough of the baby part,” she says. All of her books have been published by their company, Crossley-Griffith Publishing, including her latest, Singular Stars.

Despite not going into a scientific field like her siblings, Judy inherited an engineer’s sensibility from her father. Her patterns are marked by a keen attention to the underlying math of her designs for a high level of precision and accuracy when being made by home quilters.

Her artistic inspiration, though, is one all quilters can relate to. “My designs are all rooted in tradition,” she says. “They’re getting further from traditional as the years go by, but they’re rooted there. People still mistake my designs for traditional patterns a lot.” She shows no signs of slowing down as one of the quilt world’s most prolific designers, with one idea tending to lead to another. As Judy sees it, there’s always a new design “waiting in the wings.”

This feature appears in the September/October 2018 issue of Quiltmaker.

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