Quilter adds personal touch to designs

Experiments with media make her work stand out

Harford Arts & Culture


Jane Johnston pokes her hands with a needle when she quilts.

She jokes that after months of sewing her fingers to the fabric, she had no choice but to replace needles with paint.

The result - painted stitches - has established her in the national quilting arena.

Her multifaceted talents have culminated into teaching projects, awards in national competitions and frequent coverage in a national quilting publication.

"Jane's quilts are definitely the quality of work we put into our magazine," said Patricia Bolton, editor-in-chief of the quarterly Quilting Arts Magazine. "Her work is fun, and I have always loved it."

After nearly a decade, the Bel Air woman's repertoire of self-taught skills include hand-dyeing fabrics, arranging vibrant color schemes, embroidery, thread-sketching and creating three-dimensional embellishments for her fabric creations.

Johnston is a 25-year veteran art teacher at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air. She developed an interest in art at Bel Air High School, where she took a drawing class as a student.

She then attended Harford Community College for two years and transferred to Towson University, where she selected art education as a major.

"When I started in college I wanted to be a potter, but I began painting instead," Johnston said. "From there, my art has evolved."

She had tested her brush in several media until one day, while driving home, she spotted a sign for Bel Air-based Flying Geese Quilt Guild's Harvest of Quilts Show. She stopped to see the quilts and demonstrations and quickly developed an interest.

She began attending national quilt shows and met with guild members weekly to learn how to manipulate material.

"Sewing quilts was tough for me," Johnston said. "I could do it, but not without injury."

She began taking classes from guild members and learned the traditional techniques.

New techniques

She found her niche when Donna Clauer, a fellow guild member, demonstrated a technique using paint on fabric.

"I had painted for years on canvas, wood and paper," Johnston said. "I didn't think painting on fabric would be much different."

Johnston found it was a challenge.

"Painting on fabric is like using a marker on paper; it bleeds into it, and you can't always keep it in the lines," Johnston said.

However, she quickly picked up the technique and decided her quilts needed something more.

Now, after she finishes painting, she outlines her work with Prisma colored pencils and sometimes adds embroidery.

After mastering the outlining skill, she learned what she called the ultimate last step: thread-sketching, a technique in which the sewing machine needle is used to sketch designs.

"It takes a lot of practice to be able to perfect thread-sketching," Johnston said. "You have to look at the needle on the sewing machine [and] manipulate it as though you're drawing with a pen."

According to Clauer, Johnston's work is unique. "She really does such a remarkable job with her quilts," she said. "You have to see it to realize what she puts into it."

Increasing demand

Johnston said that as her skills grow, so does the demand for her work.

"This type of work is becoming more popular," Johnston said. "It entails a different kind of imagery, and it evolved over the years."

To make her quilts unique, Johnston embellishes them with beads and other items. When her mother taught her to sew, she learned to made three-dimensional pieces from fabric.

"The first thing I did was to copy an advertisement in a Vogue magazine," Johnston said.

By combining techniques, she created a product that quickly established her reputation.

She began selling about 20 to 30 quilts a year at prices ranging from $75 to $1,500. She has shown her work in Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey and Kentucky.

Additionally, she entered her work in competitions at the local, state and national levels. Her initial prize was a first place at the International Pfaff Convention.

She's also getting recognition through Quilting Arts magazine.

For the past four years, Johnston has submitted entries into the magazine's calendar contest. Her most recent entry landed her the cover of the 2006 calendar.

"I am the only person who has been featured in the calendar every year since its inception," she said.

The magazine, which has a circulation of more than 110,000, has a contest in which quilters create a small piece depicting a theme. This year's theme was "What's your utopia?"

"I created a piece with sunflowers in it," Johnston said. "I love sunflowers, and my utopia would be walking through a large field of sunflowers."

Standout work

According to Bolton, who views more than 100 submissions for the calendar every year, Johnston's work is selected because of her bright, whimsical designs.

"Her pieces are always inviting, and she has a clever use of embellishments," she said.

"When we judge the entries, we ask ourselves which designs someone can look at for 30 days straight and wake up in the morning and still smile when they see it. Jane's work makes me smile every day."

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