Judy B. Dales | Spirit Flight
Judy B. Dales

born 1945
Resides in Boonton, New Jersey

Biography         Statement         Ask the Artist         How To
Judy Dales began quilting in 1970 while living in England. When she returned to the United States in 1977, she helped form Crossroad Artisans, a group of craft people based in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. She says an early experience in a life drawing class, with a particularly inspirational model, helped shape her style.

Dales has in the past few decades, taught quilting in more than half of the fifty states, as well as in Germany, New Zealand and Australia. In 1994, she was awarded First Place in the Vermont Quilt Festival, Northfield, Vermont. She has shown her work in, among other places, the Wild Goose Chase Quilt Gallery, in Evanston, Illinois.

AUDIO (RA:24)   I was born to be a quilter...


My career as a professional quiltmaker parallels the progress of quiltmaking as an art form. Begun as a hobby in 1970, the making of quilts has evolved into a compelling life's work. Over the years, as my committment to quilts as an art form has grown, so too has my ability to express myself in fabric. My early facility with color and pattern has matured into a very distinctive style. I combine a multitude of printed fabrics in soft, subtle hues to create a painterly flow of color. The unmistakably feminine aspect of my palette is a subconscious celebration of femaleness, as well as a very conscious expression of feminism.

AUDIO (RA:23) Right from the beginning I've been attracted to curves ...

My recent works address the issues of aging, death and loss, all of which I have faced recently in my private life. These experiences have infiltrated my creativity and found expression in my quilts. I have discovered that it is this marriage of life and art that gives vitality to the art and deeper meaning to one's life.

VIDEO (1.8 MB) || AUDIO (RA:21)

Ask the Artist

Where do you get the ideas for your work?

Ideas of quilt designs are everywhere--nature, geometry, tile floors, traditional quilts. For me, as for most quilters, the problem is not finding a design. Rather, it is finding the time to turn all the designs in my head into quilts. Lately, my quilts have become more personal, often beginning life as a simple doodle or sketch. Drawings produced in church (during the sermon) or during long, boring telephone conversations often are the most interesting! These designs almost seem to have a life of their own, and my role often seems to be more facilitator than creator. I like to think this means that they are coming from the heart, rather than from the brain, and therefore are more expressive and emotionally charges.

Do you work alone on your craft, or with others?

Quilting is a very time-consuming craft. Many long hours are spent in the studio drawing, marking, cutting and stitching. So, in that respect, I work alone. But I spend a great deal of time traveling around the country to teach color and design to other quiltmakers. The contrast between solitary studio time and intense, people-oriented teaching days was difficult to adjust to in the beginning, but I now find that it creates an interesting rhythm in my creative life. I enjoy working with people and return from teaching trips exhausted, but highly motivated, creativity charged and ready for some intense work time. After a week or two of solitary days in the studio, I look forward to the next teaching trip with anticipation. I have also discovered that having such a busy schedule forces me to utilize every second. When the schedule eases up, I seem to accomplish much less each day.

I meet on a semi-regular basis with a small design group consisting of six quiltmakers. We critique each others work, exchange ideas and information, and generally enjoy each other's company. I think that it is important to meet with one's peers. Not only does it provide valuable information and stimulation, but I have discovered that creative interaction between people who share the passion for the fabric medium is vital to me as an artist.

Do you ever teach, or take on apprentices?

I have been teaching quiltmaking for more than fifteen years. I no longer teach basic quiltmaking, but concentrate on more advanced techniques such as curve-seam and precision piecing, pattern drafting, color theory and design. Sharing has always been an integral part of our quilting tradition and it continues today in many different ways. Conferences and seminars allow quilters to view and evaluate each other's work, national quilting publications keep up-to-date on technical advances and artistic trends, and the thousands of quilt guilds around the country allow every quilter an oppotunity to meet other quilters, share information and enjoy monthly programs. I am one of a number of teachers who are "on the circuit", traveling constantly to various guilds and conferences to teach and lecture. We enjoy a certain amount of prestige in the quilt world and have had the pleasure of visiting fabulous places and working with wonderful students.

What's the most exciting part of creating your works?

Without a doubt, the most exciting part of quiltmaking is choosing the fabrics. I usually work from a full-size pattern, and there are thousands of different templates, or pattern pieces. This initial preparation of the pattern and templates is tedious and time consuming, but an essential chore that must be accomplished before the actual design process begins. My quilts are made from humdreds of different printed fabrics already purchased and stored in my studio. I think of these fabrics as my palette. As each piece is chosen, marked and cut, it goes up on the design wall and the quilt begins to come alive. There is a lot of experimentation at this stage, and many different fabrics may be auditioned for one specific piece, but it is thrilling to see the image that was once only in my head take shape before my eyes. This is the stage where the artist transforms a simple line drawing into a varying pattern of colors, values and textures, and it is definitely the most creative and exciting part of quiltmaking.

Once all the pieces are cut, sewing (piecing) begins. While this stage is not as exciting as the design process, it is satisfying to see the crisp interlocking of the different shapes as they are sewn together and gratifying when everything lies smooth and flat!

What's the most difficult part of creating your works?

Pattern preparation is one of the more tedious parts of the quiltmaking process, but enlarging, refining and tracing the design for templates all leads up to the fabric-cutting stage, so it is accompanied by a redeeming sense of anticipation. The actual quilting stage, however, comes after the quilt top has been sewn, when I already know how the design looks. Whether the quilting is done by hand or machine, it is one of the most time-consuming parts of the process, and my least favorite. Many quilters hire others to do the quilting for them, but I continue to quilt my own work. I have come to understand that the quilting adds yet another personal signature to my work. I do this final stitching in a free-from manner, deciding as I go along where to stitch. This final stage may be long and tedious, but it does provide me with time for contemplation, evaluation and the rebuilding of creative energy to be applied to the next project.

What sort of technology do you use in your work? Has the technology of your craft changed dramatically over the past 100 years?

When I started quilting in 1970, quilters thought everything had to be done by hand, including the drafting, piecing, appliqué and quilting. Now, we quilters use computers for designing, sewing machines for all the various forms of stitching, and we embellish the surface with paints, beads, fancy threads, trinkets and anything else that appeals to us. We use freezer paper for templates, plastic wrap as fabric stabilizer and a pizza cutter-type tool to cut fabric!

Initially the new technology created controversy, but we have come to realize our fore-mothers would have used the new technology had it been available to them. They did, in fact, begin using the sewing machine as soon as it was readily available. Nevertheless, the heart of quilting is still the same. Love of fabric still drives every quilter I know, and it is the touching, feeling, and manipulating of fabric that is a great part of the quilter's satisfaction. Whether you are sitching by hand or machine, you are still joining two pieces of fabric and can still appreciate the effect created by the interaction of those two fabrics. The quilting, whether done by machine or hand, continues to secure the three layers and to embellish the surface, giving the quilt that unmistakable, soft, "quilted" look.

Although many things have changed dramatically in the world of quilts, the quilters and the reasons for making quilts are essentially the same as they have always been.

Do you have any advice for somebody just starting out?

Learn the basics, take classes, read books, and network with others, but realize that there is a time when you must do your learning alone. Discovering your unique style, finding your own voice, creating a body of work, discovering innovations, and becoming an artist are things that are achieved by long hours of working hard at your craft. These things cannot be given to you. They can only be earned.

Can you share a "secret of the trade" with us--something nobody else knows or that you found out only after years of experience? Put another way--what do you wish somebody had told you when you were just starting out that might have saved you hours of wasted effort?

I really have no exclusive "secrets of the trade", and the things I wish I had been told when I first started out wouldn't have meant anything to me back then. It is only with growth, experience and maturity that many of these things become obvious, and learning them for oneself is what makes them valuable. We must all take our own creative journey. Although a little directional help along the way can be helpful, we basically have to find our own way.

What are we missing by experiencing your work through the Internet and not seeing/hearing/feeling/smelling/touching it in person?

A quilt needs to be seen "in the fabric" to be truly appreciated. Quilts convey strong emotional messages because we associate them with family, comfort, home and nurturing. The desire to touch quilts is very strong, also very valid. The feel of fine fabric, the softness of the batting, the warmth we associate with a quilt, both actual and figurative, need to be experienced first-hand to be truly appreciated. Imagine running your hand over the quilt to feel the textures of the different fabrics, notice the ridges where two pieces are seamed together, the valleys where the quilting stitch runs.

Visualize crunching up a corner of the quilt to feel how soft it is, flip it over so that you can admire the tiny stitches forming a separate pattern on the back. Move right in close so that you can identify the different printed fabrics and inspect the quilting stitch. You might even feel the urge to pick at the stitches to see if they were done by hand or machine, but please don't. Finally, imagine taking the quilt and wrapping it around yourself. Close your eyes. How do you feel? Safe, warm, snug? Now, fold it up neatly and hold it in your arms. It's a little heavy, very soft, a bit bulky. It has a presence. It's a quilt.

John Cummings Virginia Dotson