Is it really hip to be square?
Yes, if the squares are the colorful and patterned pieces of fabric — which could be anything from heirloom gingham to repurposed punk rock T-shirts to cut-up “Star Wars” sheets — that form the fun quilts championed by Memphians Andria Lisle and Amie Petronis Plumley in “Sewing School Quilts,” the latest in their best-selling series of sewing books for kids.
Longtime sewing enthusiasts whose rock-and-roll bona fides (you’ll still find the two friends at many a live music show) are one sign that they are not the schoolmarmish quilters or squint-eyed seamstresses of old-time cliche, Lisle and Plumley found unexpected success a decade ago when they decided to share their love of stitching with the public.
Their first collaboration was “Sewing School: 21 Sewing Projects Kids Will Love to Make,” a fully illustrated and practical guide to the art of stitchery, seamery and so on that was — dare we say it? — tailor-made for budding needle wizards.
“When we started, there were no new sewing books for kids on the market,” explained Plumley, 44, a teacher at Grace-St. Luke’s Elementary School in Midtown. But “Sewing School” was a hit, and “now, there’s a riot of kids’ sewing books,” she said.
For a non-stitcher, it’s hard to believe there’s room to riot: “Sewing School” has sold 153,000 copies since its debut, according to Alee Moncy of Storey Publishing. That’s a rather astonishing amount, considering that the average commercially published book in the U.S. sells less than 3,000 copies in its “lifetime,” according to Nielsen BookScan, a company — owned by the same data provider that measures television ratings — that tracks online and in-store retail sales of books.
A 35-year-old Massachusetts-based company that specializes (according to its website) in books for “doers” who enjoy “hands-on activities,” from “keeping chickens” to “making paper” to “brewing beer” to “making backyard furniture” to “knitting scarves,” Storey Publishing wanted more from the Memphis seamstresses. So in 2013 Lisle and Plumley followed “Sewing School” with — what else? — “Sewing School 2,” which introduced another 20 projects for kids.
While the first book concentrated on hand-sewing, the sequel introduced what the book jacket copy calls “the exciting possibilities of machine-sewing.” Meanwhile, the third book adds another layer to the story, in more ways than one. Released this month, “Sewing School Quilts: 15 Projects Kids Will Love to Make” focuses on quilts, a form of crafting and sewing that requires “makers” to master a three-layered creation.
The book will be introduced by the authors at a hands-on get-together at 2 p.m. Sunday at Novel, 387 Perkins Extended. According to Lisle, the event won’t be a book-signing as much as a family-friendly party and crafts class, for sewing veterans and neophytes alike.
The renewed interest in sewing and quilting can be measured by the rise of such organizations as the Modern Quilt Guild, which has a Memphis Area chapter. The Guild, like similar sewing-related groups, makes use of the modern art of the internet to stitch together a national and international patchwork of enthusiasts committed to the preservation and expansion of one of humankind’s older crafts.
According to a 2017 “Quilting in America” survey sponsored by a network of commercial quilting companies, quilting is now a $3.7 billion industry in the U.S., supported by some 7 million to 10 million active quilters. The growth is largely attributable to social media, which enables enthusiasts to share not just sewing tips but photographs of their sometimes classic, sometimes funky designs.
“There’s definitely a trend of hipster sewing,” said Lisle, who stitched together a “scary clown” quilt for singer Harlan T. Bobo’s baby. “Sewing has moved beyond just the home-ec market. There are parents and children who do it together.”
Plumley — whose pre-marriage family name, Petronis, is a homonym of “Patronis,” a magical term in the “Harry Potter” books, “so I’m pretty cool with some kids because of that,” she said — traces her lifelong interest in sewing to her childhood in small-town Lampasas, Texas, where her mother was an enthusiastic and talented seamstress.
“My mom made my prom dress,” said Plumley, recalling the halcyon days of 1991. “It was a bubble dress. Taffeta. Big pink bow.”
Meanwhile, “I was one of those kids who loved craft books,” said Lisle, 49, a longtime Memphis music writer and former curator of film and public engagement at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. “Every year for Easter my mom would buy me a new craft book, and I would become obsessed with making the things that were in my head that I couldn’t find in stores. Like, I would want a stuffed-animal horse that had spots and patches, so I would learn how to make it myself.”
Plumley and Lisle had hosted “Sewing School” camps at Grace-St. Luke’s for several years before writing their first book. It was these experiences — the camps were always packed with eager kids — that convinced them to bring what they had learned to a wider audience.
“We wanted to make the sewing book we couldn’t find when were were kids,” Lisle said. This meant a book with “doable” projects that “doesn’t talk down to kids, or use baby talk,” she said.
The lack of “baby talk” is appropriate because kids essentially function as the authors’ collaborators. Many of the projects in the books are inspired by desires students expressed in sewing camps, and all the projects have been tested, tackled and accomplished by actual young people.
“I think that kids like to make things, and this is just another way for them to ‘make,'” Plumley said.
Although most sewing camp participants have been girls, “we always have a good, strong handful of boys,” Plumley said. She said some boys are attracted to sewing by a desire to make Batman capes and other costume parts.
Said Plumley: “When you give a boy a sharp needle and say, ‘You can use this,’ they say, ‘Really??'”
Lisle added that some people’s interest increases when they realize sewing is about more than clothes. “We tell people to look at all the things in life that require some form of sewing. Look at a baseball — it has stitches.”
The authors decided to explore quilting in their third book in answer to popular demand, they said.
“We could see kids at camp trying to put together patchworks,” Plumley said. “They were cutting up pieces, sewing them together, and it was just a big mess.”
“Sewing School Quilts” took about a year and a half to finish, Plumley said. Like its predecessors, the book is illustrated with colorful step-by-step photographs by Memphis’ Justin Fox Burks, and it features a spiral binding, so it can be laid flat as a kid works from its pages.
Also like the previous books, “Sewing School Quilts” is ostensibly aimed at “ages 8 and up,” although “for anyone who’s interested in getting into quilting, but a little intimidated by it, this book really breaks it down,” Plumley said. For example, the book explains the process of creating and assembling the three layers that generally make up a quilt: The top; the soft interior “batting” (what Lisle calls “the marshmallow cream of your quilt”); and the backing.
As much a work of expressive art as a practical household object that provides warmth and comfort, quilts enable their makers to be particularly imaginative. “Quilts are great because kids don’t want to settle on one fabric,” Lisle said. “So if they can quilt, they can sample every kind of fabric they can find.”
According to the authors, some kids want to make quilts from outgrown T-shirts, which often feature band logos, cartoon characters or other weird and colorful designs. Other ideas include quilts made from old soccer jerseys, or “selfie” quilts with self-portraits drawn onto the squares.
Whatever the ideas, “We aren’t about turning out cookie-cutter quilts,” Plumley said. “Every time a kid makes a quilt from the book, it’s going to look different.”
Another plus is that “quilting” doesn’t refer only to bedspreads. Bringing a new twist to a timeless art, the book demonstrates how to make quilted cases for laptops and Nintendo devices.
Parents, meanwhile, may be happy to hear that kids who take up quilting get a lesson in arithmetic. “Beyond just having fun, there’s a lot of learning going on,” Plumley said. “You’re measuring, you’re using math. The whole layout of the quilt, what we call an array, is a multiplication problem.”