Written with a needle

Quilter mixes art and function, tradition and innovation

photo by Jessica O`toole @ladomestique

As Kerry Larkin has traveled the country with her handmade quilts, she’s discovered that people in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. — just like people in rural Pennsylvania where she grew up and her current home in Colorado — have stories about quilts.

“There’s stories about why a pattern came to be, and then there’s stories about the maker of the quilt and why he or she chose to make it that way and who they’re making it for, so there are so many stories engrained in those patches and patterns,” Larkin says. “So I’m just taking those patches and patterns and colors and reinterpreting them into something else. I just really distill what a quilt is down to its basic form, and then I kind of thoughtfully add back into it, and I think that’s why they’re so minimalist. It’s like, what can I put back in that doesn’t take away from just the basic form of a quilt?”

What she puts back in is up to 800 words of text, often stitched in white thread on white fabric so that the words are what holds the fabric of the quilt together. They’re stories about people in places, casual metaphors for life or at least for the way we live. Her color use is spare, often just timeless charcoal and white, occasionally interrupted by a playful turquoise or cactus green.

The white thread — in the cursive of her handwriting written with a needle — on white fabric makes the text look like just texture at first glance. The words form gradually.

“The idea is, the more you read the quilt, the more you live with it, the more words emerge from the quilt,” Larkin says.

But, should you stare at the quilt long enough to read it (or take a look at the tag enclosed with her quilts), it will relate a story about place, and people, and how the two relate that’s designed to be visually descriptive and decidedly unsentimental.

Of her three, soon to be four, collections of quilts, all but one use Larkin’s original writing.

“My writing is all about place and experience and capturing moments,” she says. “I like to grab a glimpse of a moment in time of a place, whether it’s in rural Alabama or the mountains of Colorado or Wyoming.”

Often, the stories sewn into the quilts were sparked by the memory of a place as captured in haiku she started writing years ago. All of it now is relayed in second person, a device she employs to invite the reader into the scene, she says, so that “even if you’ve never been to an aspen grove in Colorado, you still become part of the story.”

Because the stitching goes all the way through the quilt, one side shows the words in reverse.

“I like that it actually, it holds the layers of the quilt together,” she says. “It’s really an integral part of the quilt.”

The occasional phrase or sentence pops out in colored thread and formal typeface, like this one from writer Jody Jenkins: “Be not afraid to dance like the white-skirted girl with the suntanned face, for joy is surely the greater of our gifts.”

Some of her customers put her quilts on their beds. Some hang them on their walls.

Larkin’s story with quilts starts with a great grandmother who quilted and had a loom in her home that women would gather around to do hand quilting. She came back to what she knew about working with fabric for projects as an artist before making a quilt as a wedding gift. The recipients urged her to pursue it. Within months, the former architect and product designer had the LLC and the website running for Comma Workshop, the name of her quilt-making company. That was 2010. In two years, she says, she has flown by milestones she thought would take five years to achieve. Among them, she has been one of 121 artists, out of 1,500 applicants, to exhibit at the Smithsonian Craft Show earlier this year, released a limited edition line in Anthropologie’s Manhattan stores, been written up in magazines, including Martha Stewart’s Whole Living and Philadelphia, and quit her bartending job to run Comma Workshop full time. Soon, she’ll have a studio space in town where she can work and display her quilts — a welcome change from her cozy north Boulder apartment where the occasional plastic bin of quilt fabric waits in her kitchen for her to haul it to the binder.

She’s still honing Comma Workshop, including the business end — where she borrowed from the cottage industry model and relies on half a dozen quilters to do much of the production work in their own homes — and experimenting. One of the quilts in a recent collection uses gray thread for the text, and a sneak peek at her new fall collection shows cursive in yellow and orange.

“These have just really grown from what I really want to do,” Larkin says. “I thought, you know, for the beginning of a company, what do I have to lose except doing exactly what I want to do? … And, you know, if it works, great. And if it doesn’t, it’ll transition into something else.”

So far, though, it seems to work. And on Aug. 2, Comma Workshop will debut at the first “local launch” party at Factory Made. Factory Made uses its “Factory” portion to nurture creative undertakings and artistic types, and the “Made” portion to showcase ethically made goods. Larkin got connected with the organization through her roommate, who works with Factory Made’s collaborator AIM House, a transitional program for young adults.

“She came in and shared her story and her product with us, and we were just really excited by it and thought it was beautiful and very creative and loved what she was doing,” says Leah Brenner, public relations and marketing manager for Factory Made.

Factory Made will host a one-night pop-up shop designed to celebrate the business and introduce Larkin and her work to Boulder.

“We thought it would be a great time to just present what she’s doing to the Boulder community,” Brenner says, “and honestly that’s kind of our inspiration for our local launch series.”