Quilting is an old practice — one that may have started as early as 3400 BCE. Some connect it with the Crusaders in 12th century Europe, but it became especially common in the United States in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Over hundreds of years, some quilters have applied traditional designs and techniques while others, such as Kaitlin Esche-Lyon, are putting their own stamp on the ancient art by establishing modern patterns, incorporating bright colors and developing new approaches in design.
Esche-Lyon picked up quilting at the start of the pandemic. She had sewing experience but was sick of making cloth masks, so she decided one day to take a box of fabric and make a quilt.
“I just dove into quilting during quarantine,” she says. “It was my mental health break.”
Prior to starting quilting business Quarter Life Leap in December 2020, Esche-Lyon was an architect. For about five years she worked in her intended field, architecture and engineering, after graduating from college. She says that around the time she changed architect jobs she started to suspect that being an architect wasn’t exactly what she wanted to do, and she wanted to pursue something creative.
Esche-Lyon decided that she would give herself a year to choose what business to launch. This was in February 2020 — just before the pandemic hit. She started making her first quilt in May and ended up losing her job in July. After that, quilting out of a small bedroom in her home became Esche-Lyon’s full-time career.
As she taught herself to sew quilts, she found it came easily. “I’m pretty good at math and can just put geometry and shapes together, so it wasn’t too tricky,” Esche-Lyon says.
A single quilt can take anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to make depending on the size, but Esche-Lyon loves being able to blend the technical and precise practice of quilting with the beauty of fabric choices and colors.
For every quilt, Esche-Lyon creates a sketch and designs a quilt pattern that she thinks will result in an interesting final product. From there, she cuts her materials and starts to piece everything together.
Sometimes she’ll take a blank wall or use the floor to experiment with her blocks of fabric and see what might work within the design.
While Esche-Lyon is no longer working as an architect, she still incorporates the “fun part of architecture” — design and the history of buildings — into some of her quilts.
“I had the idea to do the buildings in quilts, and that’s a different process that I kind of have made up on my own, but also have learned from other quilters,” Esche-Lyon says.
She employs a technique called “foundation paper piecing” to take images of buildings, digitize the structures and make a pattern. She’s made quilts incorporating the Milwaukee Art Museum and Monona Terrace, along with some other famous edifices.
Esche-Lyon says she’s seen different objects stitched into quilts, but never buildings by notable architects, so it’s something unique to her style. The architecture-inspired quilts represent some of the work she’s most proud of, and they’ve been especially successful in her estimation. Other favorite designs include rainbows, especially gradients.
“It always impresses me how well the gradient works,” she says. “I’m never expecting it to work, but somehow it just magically happens.”
Quilts are her favorites, but Esche-Lyon also sews little quilted bags, scrunchies, keychains and coats.
Quilts can be a bigger investment, especially when accounting for the hours it takes to make a single piece, so the smaller items are for people who want something quilted besides a blanket or wall art.
In everything Esche-Lyon creates, she tries to produce things that she loves in order to make it personal. She defines herself as a modern quilter in a category of her own.
“Every time I look at a quilting magazine or someone from my quilting community posts something, I’m like, ‘I don’t make that. That doesn’t look like my work. Where am I coming from?’ ” she says. “It just feels like another offshoot of modern quilting.”
After feeling stuck in a 9-to-5 job, Esche-Lyon established Quarter Life Leap as a new creative outlet and business — something that has brought joy back into her work life.
Maija Inveiss is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.
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