Working It: Leah Day

by megan on August 22, 2011

Leah Day

I met Leah over a year ago when she reached out to me on my blog after reading one of my magazine articles. Nearly everyone who comments on my blog writes one of their own, and I do try to check them out, so I dutifully headed over to Leah’s and my life promptly changed.

Leah’s blog is called The Free Motion Quilting Project, but it started as 365 Days of Free Motion Filler Designs (www.freemotionquilting.blogspot.com). In August 2009, Leah challenged herself to create a new free motion quilting design every day for one year. This was, in itself, incredible, but when I began to explore her online store, Day Style Designs (www.daystyledesigns.com), I began to realize just what Leah was up to.

Leah’s goal is to convince quilters they can quilt their own quilts (say that three times fast) on a home sewing machine, and go way beyond stitch-in-the-ditch and stippling. She will tell you everything you need to know, even provide helpful videos, all for free. And out of this, she will grow a business that will provide for her family and allow her husband to work with her full time. Not only is she succeeding in these goals, she is doing so on her own terms, at her own pace, determined to preserve her sanity and her time with her family while she conquers the world of free-motion quilting.

To date, Leah has completed 312 designs.

I learned to successfully free-motion on my little Brother PC-420 sewing machine, and I watched Leah’s business grow. Now, whenever I write on my own blog about some trepidation I feel when I need to figure out how to quilt something, somebody always writes to me to say, “You should go check out Leah Day’s blog. She’s amazing!” I take great satisfaction in replying, “Yes, I know!”

So, how did a young woman in her 20s become America’s Next Top Quilting Star? Leah says she was quite young, “around 5 or 6,” when she first started sewing. “My mom had a raggedy scrap basket and I was always wanting to dig into it and drive her crazy. I did a lot of hand sewing through elementary and middle school, ripping open my jeans and inserting triangles of material to make my own bell-bottoms.” The desire to make her own clothes led her to learn machine sewing, and as her skills increased, she decided to make clothes for a living.

A biology major in college, she spent most of her free time sewing, and dropped out in her junior year to make specialty garments for children: christening gowns and princess dresses and such. “It was all a whole bunch of crap I’d never put on my own kid in a million years, but I thought that’s where the money was in sewing.” As she discovered, it is nearly impossible to make a decent living that way. “One garment would take me a week to make, so even if I sold it for $300, I wouldn’t make more than $0.50 an hour.”

Split-Petal Flower

Then she got a call from a woman who needed help sewing clothes for her own custom garment line. She cut the pieces and Leah sewed them, making “$6.50 for a pair of pants with pockets and $4.50 for the average knit shirt. When I first started it took me 2 hours to make a pair of pants. Do the math—I was making $3.25 per hour on a good day.”

Though her skills improved, it was backbreaking and soul-sucking. “I’ve worked a lot of hard jobs in my life, but nothing, absolutely nothing, compares with sewing garments on commission. My whole life changed. I would wake up super early and sew all day long, stopping only to eat lunch and dinner. After dinner I would sew at least two to five garments. If I worked hard the whole weekend and three days of the week, I might get half of Thursday off, but usually I would sew straight through Thursday evening to get up and drop everything off Friday morning.

“And during this time, guess what I was doing for fun? Quilting!” Leah had dabbled in a lot of different crafts, but it was quilting that truly spoke to her. “There’s just something about quilting and playing with fabric—it just works for me. Designs and ideas flow naturally, and I’m able to work in a large scale that just feels right.” She pushed herself to learn free motion quilting after taking a class on machine quilting. “We spent half the class on the walking foot, but as soon as I put on the free motion foot, I knew that was what I wanted to do all the time.”

Leah says the time she spent sewing garments taught her an important lesson that still affects how she runs her business today: “Time is more valuable than money can ever pay.” She focuses on making work that pays over the long term. “A single quilt could be sold once, or I can keep it and sell the pattern a million times, or I can use it to drive traffic on my site or blog and that will pay me a small amount forever because it’s a cool idea and people want to see and learn about cool ideas and share them with their friends.”

Release Your Light

She started a website, Day Style Designs, as a side project, with articles about quilting, but it received very little traffic. At the same time, she was frustrated by the lack of filler patterns to use in her quilts. Working on a quilt of her own design called Release Your Light, she felt there were only a few design options to choose from: micro-stippling, McTavishing (named for Karen McTavish), paisley and pebbling, none of which fit with the theme of her quilt. Though she acknowledges others may have pushed those boundaries before her, “I had never been to a big show or even a medium-sized show, so I had no idea how many different filler designs had been created by other quilters.” By changing a paisley stitch into a flame design, she made a pattern that matched her quilt and got her thinking about how many other designs were possible.

“I started thinking about focusing just on designing filler designs for a whole year. Could I really make 365 designs? The reason 365 really appealed to me was because it was big enough to be something I would have to really work for. If I’d set the goal for 100 or 50, I wouldn’t have pushed myself down so many paths and to try so many crazy ideas.

“I also knew that all 365 designs wouldn’t be perfect or all awesome.  Some designs frankly stink and looking back at a few of them makes me cringe a bit.  But sometimes these bad designs have inspired really awesome designs, so it’s good to stitch out every idea, even if it doesn’t end up looking great on fabric.”

And on August 14, 2009, her blog was born.

Leah knew videos would be an essential part of the project if anyone was to come away with a good idea of how to re-create her designs, and she has faithfully filmed and posted a video for every design. Within two weeks of posting designs, she began getting emails and comments “out the wazoo!” Quilters wanted to know everything about what she was doing: her setup, her machine and her tools. “And with those questions came demands. They wanted books; they wanted DVDs; they wanted all the designs, even though they hadn’t been created yet!”

Day Style Designs became an online shop where readers could purchase some of the tools she used in her videos.  She started with nine products and only stocked five of everything, so the initial investment was less than $300. By October, she had launched the first book and DVD, both self-designed and produced, showcasing the first 20 designs from the blog project. By November 2009, the blog was fueling the store, and the book and DVD sales were enough to warrant subsequent volumes. Though the first books and DVDs have been discontinued as Leah has improved her production and the organization, each version has been a lesson in how to self-publish affordably and efficiently.

Desert Sand

Leah is determined to remain independent in her business. Wanting to maintain control over the finished product and to set her own deadlines, Leah has already refused the overtures of at least one large publishing house. “I know for a fact that self publishing the way I am now might make me slightly obscure in the short run, but in the long run, we will make more money, retain more control, and be a little less crazy than we would be if we went with a publisher.”

And she is very determined to keep the crazy at bay. Though she has received several offers to lecture and teach, and loves doing both, she and her husband Josh have a young son, and Leah wasn’t willing to sacrifice time with him to travel around the country. “Ultimately, my family comes first, the project second, and traveling comes in around 15.” She has scaled back the 365-in-a-year goal, lifting the burden of having to create a new design every day while she produces DVDs and publishes books. Josh now works with her full time, handling order fulfillment, working on the website, and occasionally posting a recipe or a design of his own. She creates her own deadlines and moves at her own pace, and while her success now supports her family, she refuses to let it come at a price that would compromise her family.

Is Leah a bona fide Q-celeb? Nope, not yet. She’s not yet a brand unto herself, like Eleanor Burns or Fons & Porter, but she has laid the foundation for a kind of success many quilters dream of but few pursue, much less attain. And she has done it all on her own terms.

So, the next time you’re sitting in your sewing room, thinking, “I can’t,” be it about quilting or piecing or blogging or starting a business, visit Leah’s websites. I can guarantee you’ll come away thinking, “You know, maybe I can.”

-Megan Dougherty

 

Leave a Comment

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah Craig Identicon Icon Sarah Craig August 22, 2011 at 4:13 am

Thanks for the heads-up on this quilter, Megan! I had heard of her throughout the blogosphere, but had not checked her out myself yet. Now I will!!

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megan Identicon Icon megan August 22, 2011 at 5:25 am

You’re very welcome! Leah’s long been one of my favorite quilters out there in blogland and it’s very gratifying to be able to introduce her to even more people.

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Jean Identicon Icon Jean August 22, 2011 at 5:49 am

LD is a rock star! What I appreciate most that she offers to quilters are the confidence and inspiration that anyone can bring out the inner artist in themselves, quilting their own quilts on their own home machines.

That is a true gift to the quilting community.

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Jill Tafoya Identicon Icon Jill Tafoya August 22, 2011 at 5:51 am

I love Leah’s sight, I discovered it over a year ago… I go there often when I need inspiration… :)

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Mary Identicon Icon Mary August 22, 2011 at 5:52 am

So glad you wrote this article! I have been a devotee of Leah’s from the day,nearly one year ago, that I bought my sewing machine. I have learned all of the basics from Leah, from how to properly prepare fabric for cutting to how to bind a finished quilt, and everything in between. And those designs! Whenever I have a finished quilt top, I usually spend at least an hour or two looking at all those fabulous designs until I find just the right one.
I can’t say that I will never have a quilt top that I make professionally quilted, but at this point I feel like if I did, it would no longer be something that I made myself. Thankfully, because of Leah, I have the resources at hand to do it all, all by myself!

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Kit Lang Identicon Icon Kit Lang August 22, 2011 at 6:20 am

Here’s a funny thing.

I know about Leah, and I went to her website once and was amazed by what she’s doing. But since I have always been batsh*t crazy about being “original” wanted to be sure that what I was making was my own and not influenced by someone else, I’ve actually not gone back since.

I’m glad to read that she’s doing so well and is becoming so successful though. Hurry for Leah!

Kit <=== freely admits she's cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

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Teresa Identicon Icon Teresa August 22, 2011 at 7:02 am

I started following Leah Day’s blog about a year ago and haven’t looked back. She truly gave me the inspiration to try. I thought quilting had to be straight lines, and in the ditch. How far we’ve come. I look forward to every post. I bought my last machine after reading her review. I love reading about her trials and triumphs in life and see myself in a lot of them. Thanks for featuring such a great artist!

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Marlene @ KISSed Quilts Identicon Icon Marlene @ KISSed Quilts August 22, 2011 at 7:03 am

Megan…thanks for writing this insightful look at Leah. I was so excited to speak with her via phone from AQS Knoxville this summer when she had won a best of show in the domestic machine quilting category. I got out my smart phone, found her # on her website, announced myself, and reached her to tell her she had won! An exciting moment!!

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Marcy Identicon Icon Marcy August 22, 2011 at 7:57 am

Wow! Super impressive. Maybe I CAN quilt more of my own projects. Thank you Leah.

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Tsigeyusv Identicon Icon Tsigeyusv August 22, 2011 at 3:51 pm

I am so inspired by what Leah has done. I’ve been a follower of hers for about a year now. She’s done amazing work, both on her business and personally. She’s a great role model.

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Marie Coady Identicon Icon Marie Coady August 23, 2011 at 3:35 am

I stumbled on Leah’s free motion blog last week and was amazed. I just got a longarm this past December and I could not believe she’s been doing these amazing designs on a traditional machine.

The internet can be used for a lot of silly things and a big time waster sometimes…but people like Leah and the rest of the quilt community who share works and ideas make the internet a valuable and inspiring resource. Thanks !

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Char B Identicon Icon Char B August 23, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Wonderful article on Leah. She’s amazing, down-to-earth, and I am now quilting my own quilts (happily) because of her and her techniques. Yes, I can … so can you! Thanks Leah!

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Jessi Identicon Icon Jessi August 23, 2011 at 7:00 pm

As a new quilter, I find Leah completely inspiring. I tried her filler designs before I even tried stippling- they just seemed so much more fun.

I find I lack the control to copy many of her designs (sometimes the “beginning” ones are even more disastrous than the intermediate ones I try) so she has really inspired me to design my own- most based on something she came up with.

This week is my quilting week, and every night I’m trying to blog about a design I did based on her website. I’m sure anyone who reads my blog thinks I’m a stalker, but really, I’m just a new quilter who has found the most amazing resource on the internet.

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Kelly Identicon Icon Kelly August 23, 2011 at 7:41 pm

I have been a fan and follower of Leah’s since (near) the beginning of her project. I learn so much from her, and am so very proud of her, even though we have never met! Thank you for this profile. She really deserves her success.

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Mary C in WA Identicon Icon Mary C in WA August 23, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Nice article! I came over here from Leah’s Blog. So fun to open up and see her videos. Whenever they come, I have to watch them and wonder—where can I use this design??? I wanted to join in her challenge but ran out of days and quilt time this year. Keep on Encouraging us Leah Day!

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Han Identicon Icon Han August 24, 2011 at 1:06 am

Megan, I’ve been following Leah from early on, and I would say she is most definitely a brand unto herself!!
And also young and beautiful and gifted -I wish!!
An inspiration to all quilters and I am so pleased you have written about her.
Han in the UK

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Dana Identicon Icon Dana August 24, 2011 at 4:29 am

Wonderful article Megan. I love Leah. Whenever I’m stuck on how to quilt something, I head over to her blog. You will always find something perfect there. Thanks for introducing her to so many more people.

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Jan Identicon Icon Jan August 24, 2011 at 5:10 am

Love Leah’s blog – I have been a follower for a long time now – at least a year or a little more. I love hearing more about her. She is such an amazing quilter and such an amazing and beautiful lady. I love that she uses quilting as a kind of therapy and that she has her priorities straight. Thanks for an amazing article.

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Estelle Identicon Icon Estelle August 24, 2011 at 6:54 am

What a nice article on Leah! She’s a very talented quilter, and I was honored to have met her in person at the AQS Show in Knoxville where she won best in home machine quilting. She had two beautiful quilts in the show.

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Kate Identicon Icon Kate August 24, 2011 at 11:24 am

I love Leah too. Im rubbish at thinking things up and thats where she has great talent. The more I do and learn of quilting I find I love doing micro quilting and her designs are perfect for that. I also love how she shares of herself and her process on a deeper level. Makes for very interesting reading, knowing that even the talented people struggle to create sometimes! I do wish she traveled and taught, maybe when her kids are older as I’d love to have her come to our large guild. But good for her for creating her life the way she wants to live it and not letting the ‘industry’ tell her how she has to do it. Carry on Leah!

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Dianne Identicon Icon Dianne August 24, 2011 at 2:49 pm

I have followed Leah for quite some time. I love her designs and am awed by her commitment to her business. But what I really love about HER is that she is willing to share not only her design process ,but her life process and how it affects her art. My introduction to her was watching the recordings made as she created “The Duchess”, an incredibly beautiful quilt. Her masterpiece complete, she laundered the quilt only to find that the marking tool that she used did not completely wash away. Most people would have, after having a major hissy fit, thrown in the towel. But Leah perservered and went on to do so much more. We are the beneficiaries of her stick to it attitude. Thanks for the great article Meghan!

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Mary Beth Ticknor Identicon Icon Mary Beth Ticknor August 24, 2011 at 5:17 pm

I love Leah Day and her project and her products!!! Leah’s design and instructions has changed my sewing life and gives me great pleasure everyday! Thank you for featuring Leah

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Yvonne Identicon Icon Yvonne August 24, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Let’s get Leah Days name out there – She is incredibly helpful and deserves to be a success.

I have just discovered her and think her videos and blog-shop and site are great.

Yvonne

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Corinne Identicon Icon Corinne August 25, 2011 at 6:15 am

I heard about Leah from a quilting friend a couple months ago. Her tutorials have given me the incentive to work on my free-motion skills. I just finished a quilt that I call a practice quilt because I just practiced different stitching in each block…just to see if I could do it. Thanks for sharing the bio, she is a talented and resourceful you woman, I wish her all the best.

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Susan Identicon Icon Susan August 25, 2011 at 8:31 am

I have enjoyed Leah’s blog for a long time. And so often when I am finished reading and watching and reading some more I think…”yes — I can” machine quilt some quilts ! Great motivator and takes apart the process and puts it back together in ways that add depth to the process of sewing any design.

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Donna Stewart Identicon Icon Donna Stewart August 25, 2011 at 10:51 am

Thanks for this article. I have been following Leah for five or six months now. I was in the “stippling” funk and thought I had to have a long arm sewing machine to create the type of quilting I love. Leah has changed all of that. I have used several of her designs in my quilts. I have a pile of “practise” pieces. She has changed my quilting life. Here’s to you Leah!
Thanks again Megan!
Donna
Nova Scotia

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Sheila Identicon Icon Sheila August 30, 2011 at 8:39 am

Well said! I’ve been a fan of Leah’s for a long time, and we’re all so lucky to have her on the blogosphere!

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Carmen James-Poulin Identicon Icon Carmen James-Poulin April 22, 2012 at 10:09 pm

What an amazing artist. I discovered her about 2 months ago on you tube and I am in awe! What a gifted artist! I can’t believe that she does all these fantastic tutorials for free!
I can stipple and write on my quilts but she is inspiring me to try so many more things. My problem is that I am not very good at drawing but once I have finished the quilt I am currently working on, I wll definitely try to do some of her gorgeous patterns.
Another thing that really impressed me with this young amazin quilter is that we share the same sewing machine. How cool is that? When I watch her videos, I can actually learn how to better use this wonderful sewing machine.
I found your article by searching for more info. on Leah Day. Great article! I am definitely a follower. I have ordered books and stuff and I have joined her newsletter. Thank you, Carmen

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