Your Modern Heritage: Debbie Grifka

Three projects by Debbie Grifka which showcase her personal styler

Quilting Inside the Lines

In this feature, “Your Modern Heritage”, we talk about quilts that we believe deserve a longer look. It’s a fairly broad direction, and that’s deliberate. Perhaps we’ll cover a quilt that was a game changer, affecting how we think about color or design, or maybe we’ll highlight a technique or approach that, for whatever reason, sparks a conversation among modern quilters. Debbie Grifka’s work is the result of conversations like these, whether sharing photos and ideas with others in one of the original modern quilting Flickr groups, or asking herself, “What do I like?” while working through daily challenges with self-imposed limitations.

Canterbury #2 by Debbie Grifka won first place in the appliqué category at the 2018 QuiltCon.

Canterbury #2 won first place in the appliqué category at the 2018 QuiltCon. Photo courtesy of Debbie Grifka.

Finding What She Liked

“I like working within rules,” Debbie Grifka says. A lifelong sewist who began quilting in 2002, Debbie knows that the most important rules in quilting are the ones she sets for herself.

“I consider my journey to modern quilting as more of an evolution than a shift,” Debbie says. “Right from the beginning, I was trying to figure out what ‘my style’ would be. Early on, I took lots of classes and made those quilts. Going through that process helped me learn more about what kinds of quilts I wanted to make and what I didn’t enjoy.” Things she didn’t enjoy: complicated blocks with many pieces, painting on quilts, too much pattern and color. Things she enjoyed: working with simple shapes and a limited color palette.

Forever was featured in Debbie’s book, Lines By Design Quilts.

Forever was featured in Debbie’s book, Lines By Design Quilts.

“It is interesting to me that during my many years of garment sewing, I did not enjoy the tailoring side of garments,” she says. “I preferred making simpler tops, skirts and dresses and avoided jackets or shirts with plackets and collars.”

“In quilting, that translates into preferring simpler shapes and techniques. (My ego requires me to add that it wasn’t that doing the more complicated things was too hard. I could have done them well, but I did not enjoy the process, so I chose not to.)”

Discovering Her Signature Style

Debbie was almost the last to know she’d developed a signature quilt style. As an active member of the Fresh Modern Quilts Flickr group, she’d been sharing her work and enjoying being able to see “a quilt show every day” when she posted a photo of a pillow she’d made for an anonymous swap.

Linked pillow. Photo courtesy of Debbie Grifka.

Linked pillow. Photo courtesy of Debbie Grifka.

“The pillow was my Linked pillow that prompted a couple of people to say something like ‘I knew that was yours right away—you have such a distinctive style.’ Those comments stuck with me all these years because, at the time, I didn’t know what my style was. I knew I was working toward figuring it out, but I was nowhere near able to describe it at all. It surprised and delighted me that others could see it when I couldn’t yet. It confirmed that I was heading in a good direction.”

That was 2012. In the years since, Debbie’s “good direction” has led to a busy teaching schedule, a number of published patterns, and her book Lines by Design Quilts (2016, Fons & Porter). Her aesthetic is marked by an almost classical emphasis on the harmony and restraint found in simple forms and negative space, with less emphasis on the fabric itself. “Learning about the concept of negative space was very important to me,” she says. “It gave a name to something I didn’t quite know how to explain. I knew I liked quilts that had what I thought of as ‘breathing room,’ usually between blocks. Once I understood the idea, I was able to use it more freely.”

10 Prompts for 100 Days Challenge

In 2017 Debbie launched a personal 100 Days Challenge, in which she pledged to make a finished 10″ × 10” quilt each day for 100 days from January to April. She worked from 10 different prompts describing different shapes, such as lines, ovals, triangles, and so on, including a wildcard prompt to allow herself some flexibility within her own parameters. After its first appearance in the rotation, though, Debbie started using it as an improv category. About midway through the challenge, she made the quilt that got her hooked on improv appliqué.

Lines #1 by Debbie Grifka

Lines #1. Photo courtesy of Debbie Grifka.

“It was #52 and was black lines on a white background,” she says. “I had some black fabric with fusible already on it, and I cut some ¼”-wide strips and played around with them on the background. It was really fun and so direct. If I had wanted to piece the design, it would have required a lot of math and taken much longer. I later enlarged the design from 10″ × 10″ to 40″ × 40″ and pieced it. That quilt, Lines #1, was displayed in the Modern Quilt Guild Showcase at Quilt Festival in Houston and at 2018 QuiltCon.” Another black-on-white quilt, Canterbury #2, won first place in appliqué at QuiltCon.

Improvising for 100 Days Challenge

For this year’s 100 Days Challenge, which she was in the middle of at the time of this interview, Debbie used the high contrast and simple shapes of Lines #1 as her prompt. “I’m excited by the directness of it,” she says. “I love cutting out some lines or shapes and playing with them on my background until I get the composition right and then I can just fuse them down. In the past, I have not worked improvisationally very often. I usually know exactly what my quilts will look like before I start making them. So, with this project, I decided to exercise my improv muscles.”

Daily Challenge 2018 quilt #8 by Debbie Grifka

Daily Challenge 2018 quilt #8. Photo courtesy of Debbie Grifka.

Her parameters for this challenge are simple: black and white, 4″ × 6″, and improv appliqué. Beyond those guidelines, she’s allowing herself a lot of flexibility. “For a daily project like this, it helps me to have lots of details fixed so I can focus on the creativity each day,” she says. “I love the strength of a straight line and so am using them a lot. But I left myself room to use other shapes and curves since I know I’ll be making 100 of these. I also purposely did not specify solid fabrics, leaving myself room to use prints if I want to do that. Another facet of the challenge that is not one of the ‘rules’ is that I’m trying to keep these designs abstract. I’m avoiding making recognizable images— so far anyway!”

Debbie loves the challenge of making 100 similar quilts despite, and maybe because of, wondering if she’ll actually be able to do it. Each daily project represents a mini-conversation with herself. “I’ve learned that I enjoy this kind of challenge and that it is okay that some are better than others,” she says. “I learn a bit more about what I like and what I don’t like.”

This article appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Quilty. Visit Debbie Grifka’s Instagram to see her completed 2018 100 Days Challenge, which is on display at the Common Cup Cafe in Ann Arbor, Michigan, through August 24, 2018.

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