ginny branch stellinginterviewswhat's in your toolbox

what’s in your toolbox: denyse schmidt

by Grace Bonney

This interview is personally so, so thrilling! As a Fibers student at Savannah College of Art and Design, Denyse Schmidt is a hero, legend and all-around icon for young aspiring textile artists. Denyse’s quilts exude modernity in a medium often thought of as archaic and grandmotherly. Her vision transcends traditional Americana and breathes new life into the art of quilt-making. In addition to creating stunning quilts and penning books about them, Denyse is a leader of several workshops (people who live close to Connecticut-please attend one for me!) and also designs fabric/quilt patterns. So, without further ado, here is a peek into the studio and tool box of the overwhelmingly talented Denyse Schmidt! –Ginny Branch Stelling>

1. Design*Sponge: What is in your toolbox?

Denyse: I just got a new iMac. I use the computer a lot. I use Adobe Illustrator to draw my fabric designs, and to create my quilt designs to scale. I always start with pen and paper, and usuallyscan in my sketches as a template. I have to draw on blank paper- never lined or graph paper (I’ve always had an aversion to- and feel totally distracted by- lined paper. I’ve been using Muji sketch books for the last few years. They are affordable and I love the kraft paper cover.

My sketch books have to be spiral bound – I can’t draw in a book that doesn’t lay flat. I prefer fine line drawing pens or markers, preferably in black, though lately I seem to pick up whatever is around. I always seem to lose, or use up, my favorite drawing pens. When it comes to actually making an object, my fabrics are my most precious tool. I love my vintage bits and pieces. Our fabric storage area in in the back, out of the light (to keep it from fading). We have bolts of mostly solid fabrics, and then bins of scrap – lots and lots. Its organized (more or less) by color, and I remember just about every piece of fabric I have or had. It drives everyone crazy, I always know for sure if we still have something, even if they can’t find it.

2. Design*Sponge: Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel….”

CLICK HERE for the rest of Denyse’s interview (how she stays organized and gets through creative blocks) after the jump!

3. Design*Sponge: What are on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?

Denyse: A book about the textile designer Josef Frank, that I picked up in London recently, and the only magazine I subscribe to which is World of Interiors. I’m also looking at a book of lovely plant drawings by a Shaker sister. I’m still not great at looking online for inspiration (other than design*sponge!). It’s too easy to get sucked in – there’s no end to it like a book or magazine. The fact that I don’t have internet at home probably has something to do with it too. At work I don’t really have drifting time. I have a huge stack of quilt books both at home and at work right now as I am working on a new book of traditional quilt patterns with STC.

4. Design*Sponge: How do you keep yourself organized?

Denyse: I have my Muji calendar which I can’t live without. This year I bought my calendar too late and had to settle for the very small one, but I’m making it work. I type up a list every week – it has this week on the left, and next week on the right. I hand write my daily list and clip it to my weekly list. I even re-write my daily list as I mark things off and pressing incoming items need to be added. Overkill perhaps, but the exercise helps me feel like I’m on top of things, and I do a lot of planning, prioritizing, and editing as I make the lists.

5. Design*Sponge: What is your most beloved quilt you own and why?

Denyse: This is a tough question! It’s like asking which child is your favorite. I have a Works Special Edition Tangerine/Poppy quilt on my bed, and I never seem to tire of it.

6. Design*Sponge: How do you combat creative blocks? What tools do you use to keep your creativity flowing?

Denyse: Giving myself the illusion of a day off, of playing hooky, can go a long way. Also, I have a small group of creative friends I get together with once a month. While the group has stayed the same people-wise for the last decade, how we function as a group has morphed a bit over the years. But this regular meeting always helps to serve as a reminder that we all struggle with the process, and with fitting it into busy lives. Knowing this has helped me – as has experience – to just accept the angst, the procrastination, the doubt, the fear as part of it. The recognition of these things as an integral (albeit sometimes painful) part of the process makes them pass more easily, so I get to the fun part more graciously.

7. Design*Sponge: In addition to being a teacher, quilter, fabric-designer, and author, to name a few, what would you like to conquer next?

Denyse: I’d like to be a daily meditator, and take up the fiddle (or guitar) again.

8. Design*Sponge: What is your favorite part of what you do?

Denyse: Designing, dreaming.

9. Design*Sponge: Do you keep sketchbooks/scrapbooks/journals? How integral is it to your creative process?

Denyse: Drawing and writing is an integral part of my process. Nothing happens without it. At work I’ve been trying to get back to the sketchbook, rather than loose sheets which I seem to have moved toward in the last few years. I often like loose sheets so I can tack things up on the wall, but invariably I lose them or they don’t get organized properly when the job is done. I’ve been trying to get back to making a drawing a day at home. I can sketch quilts till the cows come home, but I want to get good at looking and drawing again. It’s hard to have the discipline. I did it pretty consistently right after my mom passed away a few years ago. I love the drawings I did, and while a lot of what I was going through was painful, it is part of my life.

10. Design*Sponge: If you could make a master mix-tape of music that is inspiring you at the moment, what would it be?

Denyse: It’s funny – over the last few years I find I don’t follow or purchase music like I used to. I think it’s another symptom of being too busy. But I do stream radio. I listen to NPR a lot, and NYC has interesting talk programming. There is also an amazing local station that is entirely listener supported – WPKN. All the programmers are volunteer, and the listening is all over the map. I love being surprised, I love interesting mixes of things. Frank Sinatra one minute, then experimental, then old time fiddle music. When I was little I used to set the alarm for the middle of the night so I could listen to Dr. Demento under the covers. I’m kind of in that phase of listening again.


muji A5 kraft calendar [3.95]
A5 muji spiral bound sketchbooks [$3.50]
adobe illustrator CS5 [$599]
josef frank: life and work [$86.00]
denyse schmidt fabric [$12-$75]
purl soho [quilt fabrics, prices vary]
world of interiors [$102.95 for 12 month subscription]

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  • What an inspiring read! I’m currently recovering from my studio art degree and trying to get back into creating again! THis makes me want to be back at the drawing table again! Thanks for the interview Denyse!

  • Wonderful article!! I have no idea why, but I had it in my head that Denise was older! Guess I’d never seen her picture & sadly thought, quilts=old. Haha! Funny, because (among other things) I make quilts, too.
    Truly inspired by her process & encourages me to believe in my ideas and keep pushing!!

  • I’m currently working on my seventh quilt based on DS patterns. Her designs and fabric are lovely and are rewarding to have in my home.

    Thank you for featuring a tremendously talented artist!

  • I was lucky enough to participate in a sewing workshop last year lead by Heather Ross, hosted by Denyse in her studio. It was a wonderful day creating with some very talented women. Thank you Denyse! You have contributed so much to the sewing world!

  • I follow Denise’s website and fell in Love with her fabrics and designs a while back. She puts a modern twist on all of our old time favs. She has a way of inspiring us newbie quilters to push our limits, color choices, imaginations and just go for it.

  • These are some of my favorite features on D*S; I love getting a sneak peak into the studios and minds of artists like Denyse. Her work is such a fresh, hip take on such a historic American craft; just adored this post. Thanks Ginny!

  • I’m a huge fan of Denyse (I thought she was older too). I loved this interview, especially the part about having the discipline to draw every day. This is something I plan to work on as well.

  • Thank you for this interview. I’m a huge fan of Denyse’s work after seeing an article about her work in MS years ago. I pulled it out and tacked in on my bulletin board for inspiration. One of the biggest compliments I got from a former employer (a former RISD classmate of Denyse) was that I reminded him of her. I love seeing her new projects and learning a bit more about her process.

  • I went to her site to see more quilts. I LOVE THEM! So glad you posted this, I had no idea what amazing work is out there in the textile world. thanks.

  • I love Denyse’s quilts! I was so happy when I recently went to New York and saw one in person at Ralph Pucci Studio.
    It was amazing!

  • I was so thrilled to see this post! As a fashion student back in college I dabbled in quilting and had the opportunity to visit Denyse’s studio in Connecticut. So inspiring!

  • Love Denise Schmit. I’ve taken two workshops with her, both through MAKE workshop in NY. One in the city and one in CT. In addition to being an incredibly talented original, she is very nice and a very patient and generous teacher.

  • What a a great interview — all the right questions and wonderful answers! Always a pleasure to hear from such an inspiring artist. Best of luck with the fiddle (or guitar), Denyse and good luck with your studies, Ginny!

  • To join the chorus, great interview with a great subject! Lovely photos to illustrate her answers. Excellence again at d*s!

  • Denyse is so cool. I really think she is really a modern pioneer in making sewing “cool”. I also love her fun fabrics and whimsy.I dont know a lot about the role of quilts in history, but i know that they have had an important role for instance in the underground railroad. and as a few years ago, the “Quilts of Gee’s Bend” was on display i feel in love with them as a practical art form. I can definitely see a connection between those and Denyse’s quilts which i think is so cool. Well Done Denyse!

  • I love Denyse’s quilts. They are so fresh, traditional and modern all at the same time! I appreciate that she has them hand quilted. Hand quilting is becoming a lost art but makes the best bed quilt.

  • wow, i am starting on a denyse schmidt hills n hollars baby quilt today, and it was a very pleasant suprise when i checked my email and she popped up right there on the screen! how coincidental…..or is it?

  • oooh, I’m heading over to Denyse’s site right now to check out her gorgeous quilts. I strive to have a business like hers – thanks for the inspiration & showing that it IS possible

  • i love her work, especially the newest minimalist quilts featured on her site (i check her website monthly for news).

    i seem to remember that she worked on ecclesiastical garments at one time, prior to the quilts.

    there’s another interview, and beautiful photos of her work, in the august/sept 2008 american craft magazine.

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