What’s in Your Toolbox: Maura Ambrose


I had the pleasure of knowing our lovely interviewee, Maura Ambrose of Folk Fibers, from the fibers department at Savannah College of Art and Design. She was a radiant soul and an inspired artist then, and she has continued to evolve into a master quilter who harvests her natural dyes from her very own dye garden. Oh, and she recently caught the eye of Levi’s, teaming up with them to create one of a kind quilts from their recycled jeans. Yes, she really is that amazing. Continue reading for a glimpse into this talented lady’s life. — Ginny Branch

1. Design Sponge: What is in your toolbox?

Maura Ambrose: I have many toolboxes and there is a considerable diversity in forms and locations. I grow natural dyes, and dye small batches of fabric for my quilts. My work is process-oriented, and the natural dying aspect of my work is seasonal. When I don’t save my own seeds, I buy them online. I have found that Fedco Seeds has a good selection of medicinal herbs and dye plants. For dye-ready fabric and a fun selection of prepared natural dyes, my top shops are Dharma Trading, Earth Guild, and Earthhues. I collect an abundant amount of onion skins from the organic farm I used to work at, Johnson’s Backyard Garden; it’s always a good thing to be friends with a farm. In the making of my quilts, I patchwork my dyed fabrics with other fabrics from my shelves, both vintage and new. I’m always searching for fabrics, but I am very picky and only use all-natural fibers. I usually find my favorite fabrics at yard sales and flea market-type shops. I collect most of my dyeing materials like pots, measuring cups, and spoons at thrift stores. I have found the best place to buy an iron is at a hardware store such as Home Depot or Lowe’s. At the hardware store you will find the classic metal irons, instead of fancy plastic irons. Another trick of the trade is buying a cutting mat online; it’s a much better deal and [there are] better color options than buying it from a sewing supply shop. I sourced mine from www.alvinco.com. I couldn’t live without my “Bernina” sewing machine and “Nimble” leather thimble. I use cotton Japanese sashiko thread and sashiko needles for hand quilting. I recently asked my local sewing shop to order it and keep it in stock; this is helpful because I never found an online source that I was happy with, and because it is a supply that I use consistently, the cost of shipping was adding up.

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

Maura Ambrose: When I’m in my studio, I feel like I am working my dream job.

Read the full interview after the jump!

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

Maura Ambrose: The progress of my dye plants and watching the seasons to forage for new dyes is always a driving inspiration for me. I find inspiration all around me in both urban and rural settings. I am always looking or extraordinary relationships in color; for example, I am very drawn to the patchwork paint jobs that cover up walls of graffiti. When designing my quilts, I look to abstract design in early American quilts and Native American weavings. My two main guide books for natural dyeing are Eco Color by India Flint and Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess.

4. Design*Sponge: How do you keep yourself organized? Time management is often one of the biggest obstacles for creative minds. Do you have an agenda book, and do you make to-do lists?

Maura Ambrose: As trite as this may sound, my iPhone is the biggest help to keeping organized. It’s most useful for communicating through email and social media platforms, as well as appointments and sharing photos. My favorite to-do list app is TeuxDeux, but in all honesty I don’t use it on a regular basis. I write down to-do lists anywhere and everywhere in the morning. The act of organizing my thoughts and writing a list is what sets me up for a successful day. Once it has been written down, I’m good to go, and I hardly need to refer to it. For every quilt and large order, I use a physical calendar that marks the start and end to each project and deadline; I keep this calendar on my desk as a source for visual perception.

5. Design*Sponge: If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?

Maura Ambrose: If I had the power to fly, I’d take to the air with the birds!

6. Design*Sponge: What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist/designer?

Maura Ambrose: My husband and I have formed the motto to “follow your passions.” We have chosen to work jobs that we love over other jobs with higher pay. We have found that when we follow our passions, we are proactive in shaping our lives and simply happier. My advice is for starting a small business as an artisan: Making the work matters the most. When starting your own business, there is a lot to do, and it’s easy to spend a lot of time tweaking websites, logos, business cards, and all things to do with self-promotion. The business side of things is important, but it should not take precedence over making the work. If you make great work, it will speak for itself, and the rest will eventually fall into place. Always be open to asking for a little help from your friends.

7. Design*Sponge: How do you combat creative blocks?

Maura Ambrose: Listen to my impulses

8. Design*Sponge: Where do you like to shop for inspiration?

Maura Ambrose: Garage sales, flea markets, antique shops, estate sales, quaint hardware stores, and garden supply shops.

9. Design*Sponge: If you could peek inside the studio/toolbox of any designer/artist/craftsperson, whose would it be, and why?

Maura Ambrose: I would love to observe Wes Anderson’s process. I want to know more about his gift for telling a story through the making of movies. All his movies share a great aesthetic beauty, and it would be a dream come true to observe, learn, or participate in his craft.

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

Maura Ambrose: I am in love with Joe Pug’s Nation of Heat EP, as well as many other country-folk artists, old and new. I love to listen to podcasts like This American Life and Radio Lab; I listen to NPR’s Fresh Air daily.

  1. Natalie says:

    This is really wonderful reading, It’s a creative process i’d never thought about but am so interested to find out more about, not to do myself but just to appreciate someone doing something outside the norm.

  2. Lindsey says:

    what beautiful work and what a beautiful process. I am so inspired. Which sewing shop do you go to in Austin? I would love to take a quilting class from you!

  3. Tara says:

    Her work is beautiful. I am in love with those quilts. What a great interview – these are my favorite – I love learning more about the creative process. Thanks!

  4. kyra says:

    The “quaint hardware store” is truly a dying a breed. :( I hope that the current resurgence of small entrepreneurial businesses includes more of these! Preferably on the main streets of towns where it seems like revitalization mostly includes restaurants and clothing stores.
    This post is beautiful and inspiring; thank you!!

  5. sarah says:

    wonderful!! thank you so much for featuring such an amazing and lovely artist!

  6. I am so lucky to have been able to go to college and work with this lady, she’s super talented and I’m so happy to see all her dedication to her art pay off. She never settled for something she didn’t love!

  7. Sarah says:

    Love this interview! Very inspiring, and such beautiful work. I would love to have a quilt of hers!

  8. Igor says:

    I really love her work, especially the last blue and white quilt. I want one!!

  9. Katie Meyer says:

    Way to go Maura! I too had the privilege of attending SCAD with Maura (and Jenn), she has always been an amazing artist that liked to get her hands dirty with new creativity. Her work definitely speaks huge volumes for itself.

  10. db says:

    this is the best thing i have read on your website to date. most of the time i can’t identify, but as a weaver and natural dyer this really resonates. she is awesome! and i really appreciate her advice to artisans starting their own businesses. exactly what i needed to hear right now. thanks for featuring her. would love to see more like this :)

  11. r.shelly says:

    I am a gardener, artist and seamstress. For some reason, I never thought of growing my own dyes. This is a very inspirational post for me. Your work is lovely!

  12. Jesse Bowley Schlabach says:

    Killin’ it, Maura!!! xo

  13. Maura says:

    I’m blown away with love! Thank you for all the wonderful comments. I love sharing my passion with others and your kind words mean so much to my heart.

    Thank you Ginny for contacting me and making the time to interview me!

    Thank you Grace for creating the ever so wonderful Design Sponge, it has proven to be a strong platform for sharing the love of art and design. I am SO proud to be a little part of it.

    Lindsey, I shop at “The Quilt Shop” in Austin, really that’s the name, simply The Quilt Shop!

  14. Sarah says:

    I have an 8 year old who spent the spring running after all the “cotton” falling from trees and raiding my kitchen for things to dye it with. For several weeks, I lived with many jars and cups by my front door. If you ever decide to teach a class to the younger set, it would be well received by my girl and some of her friends, all of whom live in the general neighborhood of the quilt shop you frequent. In the meantime, I will be checking out the books you mentioned — thank you!

  15. Linda says:

    The jeans quilt remind me very much of the “Britches” quilts from the amazing African-American Quilter Arbie Williams, pity she wasn’t recognized by Levis. Interesting post and all the best to you, Maura!

  16. Alyssa says:

    Hooray! I follow Maura on Twitter and it’s been such a treat to see her vision turning into a reality, and to see her gorgeous photos of the natural materials she uses. Lovely to see it all put together over here. Sharing this!

  17. Laura says:

    Beautiful interview, beautiful pictures and a wonderful, inspiring personality! Thank you for this interview!

  18. Jenny Hill says:

    I like this interview a lot, its different and not your usual set of questions. More exciting to read and more engaging i find. I like that picture above Q.2 as well, the picture depicts a true designer – organised clutter :)

  19. Ann Howard says:

    Thank you for sharing Design*Sponge and Maura Ambrose! Maura is so authentic, hurray! So often authenticity is so missing in the design world and I appreciate reading the details of Maura’s process in making such beautiful quilts.

  20. Becca says:

    Wow! Her work is absolutely beautiful. I loved learning more about Maura. I love that she is really doing something she believes in.

  21. Mom says:

    What a blessing! Maura, you have taught our family refreshing ways to view the beauty in this world. It is wonderful to see you doing what you love.

  22. Aunt Peggy says:

    You are a beautiful young woman with a awesome talent for seeing the creativity of God in everything you encounter and touch. I am deeply moved by your sensitivity to the simple beauty of life. To God be the glory!

  23. Alethea says:

    I have been working on a denim quilt myself for the past several months, stitched together from worn-out jeans I’ve been collecting for ten years! I am so excited to be introduced to your inspiring and gorgeous work. Quilts from well-worn fabrics have such soul.

  24. Linda says:

    I love the quilts! Question: thought hand quilting stitches were supposed to be very, very tiny and close together. . . .

  25. Amanda says:

    This post has inspired me so much! I’m definitely going to attempt to make my own dyes this summer. *dreams*

  26. Alice says:

    Maura is the best! Can’t wait to someday make one of her incredible quilts my own.

  27. Lynn says:

    Please stop posting in pink. I don’t know how anyone is reading this as it is completely illegible. I’d love to learn more, but this is third article I’m NOT reading on DS today because I can’t see it.

    1. Amy Azzarito says:

      Hi Lynn –
      I’m not sure as to what you’re referring. The hyperlinks appear in pink to indicate that there’s a link there, but other than that, the text is all black and white. Can you clarify?
      -Amy

  28. Jessica says:

    Oh, Maura, you’re amazing and I Love, Love, Love you!

  29. maura,

    we still talk about you all the time!

    your work is looking amazing.

    sending you all best from savannah,

    katherine

    p.s. thank you, ginny, for bringing us more maura!

  30. Christine says:

    This was just wonderfully inspiring and I’m so happy to see Maura’s Folk Fibers growing. Maura, I can’t wait to see the baby quilt you create for your little one!

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