Creating Lifelike Quilts: An interview with Barbara McKie

14 Dec 2009

I’m sure many of you did a double take when you saw the cover of the December 2009/January 2010 issue of Quilting Arts. The quilt, “My Buddy and Me,” by Barbara McKie (featured in the exhibit “SAQA@20: Art and Excellence”), is so vivid and lifelike, it’s easy to imagine those adorable little sea lions leaping right off the page. Luckily, I had the chance to chat with Barbara about her art, the unexpected path that led her to art quilting, and how exactly she creates her amazing quilts. Read on to learn more, and check out the latest Quilting Arts to see additional work from this exhibit.


Your quilt, “My Buddy and Me,” was inspired by sea lions that you saw on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Do you often use quilts as a way to record memories from your travels?

Absolutely. Yes. I just finished one that’s a fantastic looking bird that I saw in Africa. My husband and I try to travel, but even when I was a little kid, I traveled a lot. We’re looking forward to Australia and New Zealand some day. My inspiration either comes from my flowers that I grow myself (or orchids from somewhere else) or things that I’ve seen on my travels. We’ve been to about fifty national parks!

One of my latest quilts, “The Hare’s Version,” is a combination of a tortoise from the Galapagos, a hare from Michigan, and sky from California.

How did you become interested in quilting?

I was always interested photography, and then I went into science where a lot of my work was nature based. And then I went into computer science—but just before that I taught myself quilting. It was in 1971 when there weren’t any books or magazines to teach you how. My grandmother was a member of a very traditional quilting bee. I had been designing and making all of my clothes so it was a natural next step. Than I had a bridal gown manufacturing business, went back to school—in other words, I’m fearless and I like to learn new things. In fact, in 1980, we built our own solar house. I did all the tile work, made stained glass, did all the painting and staining of the wood. Anything I could do, I did.

At one point, I had a job evaluating software for personal computers and became a computer consultant, so I’ve always sort of been on the leading edge of things. But in 1991 I was fired, and at that age where I would downsize my job. So I decided I wanted to go back to quilting which I had sort of started earlier. At that time, I was also into genealogy, so I thought I’d do imaging of personal stories or people on quilts and make money—but it didn’t exactly work out that way!

How do you achieve such photographic precision in your work?

When I started up quilting again, I researched different ways of printing and turned to the experts—screen printers. I even went to a convention in 1995 or 1994 and came up with a machine printer but the software at the time couldn’t really control the dyes so I was ending up with stiff fabrics. Eventually I started using disperse dyes which left the fabric how it was initially.

I’m probably one of few people who still uses this method because it’s very pricey. I manipulate the photos and sometimes I combine more than one. I print them out in multiple steps since my printer isn’t large enough to print the entire quilt at once, then appliqué together the different pieces of cloth using fusible web. Initially, I used polyester satin, but I found that polyester crepe creates an even sharper image. Not only do you still get the nice hand, but the colors are brighter.

For “The Hare’s Version,” I put a shadow under the hare it to make it look like it was actually riding the tortoise, so in a sense I paint with the Photoshop® as well. But all of my pieces start as just white fabric.

And then it looks like there’s quite a bit of free-motion stitching.

Yes, there is. One of my earlier quilts, “Mommy and Me,” was based on a picture I took in South Africa of a mother baboon and her baby. For this quilt, I did a lot more stitching to give the illusion of the hair and that kind of got me started on this thread sketching technique. Then I made “My New Buddy,” which is a companion to “My Buddy and Me.” That’s when I started doing the really tight free-motion stitching to give the effect of hair.

A lot of your latest work depicts animals. I take it you’re an animal lover?

I’ve become more of one. We have some resident squirrels that have inspired a few of my recent quilts. I saw the most amazing thing the other day; this one squirrel was going up and down a tree with leaves in his mouth. My husband said he must have been building a nest.

What are you working on these days? Any new techniques or projects?

I’m still working in the printing thread painting technique since I’ve had such success with it! I’ve been speaking with some quilt guilds in Philadelphia, and I stayed with one woman there for a couple of nights who had this dog that was very friendly. He liked to lie on the couch and put his head on it and look out the window. I got this cool picture of it so that’s what I’m doing now. I think I’m going to call it “I’m Watching You.”

To see more of Barbara's work, check out her website.

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