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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”