By Sarah Sharp
Every stitch tells a story for Sharon Tucker, the owner of Grass Roots Quilt Studio in Blaine.
“We stitch a lot of life into our pieces when we’re making our own quilts, and a lot of memories go into them,” she said.
Sharon made a business out of her craft, but the reality of quiltonomics – the steep cost of fabric, spools of thread and her $15,500 Nolting Pro Series 24 longarm quilting machine – coupled with the high demand for her nationally renowned work keeps her quilting beyond “work hours.” She quilts to relax, to grieve, to excite and to keep herself and her hands always moving through new patterns.
Together, those stitches form the fabric of her life. And she remembers – sometimes painstakingly – each and every one.
“I know what blocks I made sitting at the doctor’s office [awaiting breast cancer treatment]. I know what blocks I made traveling to New York City to go to a quilt show with my girlfriends. I know what quilt I stitched on when my dad was in the hospital having his cancer surgery. I know what quilt I was stitching on when I was with my mom as she was dying.”
Sometimes, a single quilt will witness several ups and downs in Sharon’s life. She has spent the past six years and 1,200 yards of thread stitching her favorite 100- by 100-inch quilt. Sharon has no plans to sell this one – she’s already gifted it in her will, though it’s not yet complete.
“It’s my legacy. When I go, it’s going to be what’s left of me: my quilts,” she said, laughing. “I’ll have something to show for my time on Earth.”
Sharon’s mother taught her to sew as soon as her legs were long enough to pump the foot pedal of a Singer sewing machine. When she decided to try quilting at age 40, Sharon figured it would be simple.
At the time, she had a narrow vision of the craft, believing hand quilting was the only way to go. Toiling with her first quilt convinced her to take classes at a local shop. Now, she considers herself the “longarm quilter who hand-quilts, too.”
Sharon teaches multiple classes, operates her own quilting studio out of the basement of her home and routinely collects the highest awards and honors from quilting shows around the country. In 2013, she was named the Best Longarm Quilter at the Northwest Washington Fair. Sharon’s quilt designs also grace the pages of national magazines such as American Patchwork & Quilting and Trendy Triangles.
The exposure attracts more customers to Grass Roots Quilt Studio, though most of Sharon’s business emerges from word of mouth, an especially potent force in the quilting world.
Customers come to Sharon for her skilled hands and machinery. Unlike hand quilting, in which a quilter’s tools consist of a single needle, thread and thimble, longarm quilting employs a machine to sew the top, batting and backing together. The machine’s 14-foot frame makes it easier to stitch larger quilts, though the technology is no substitute for Sharon’s handiwork.
Clutching the machine’s handle, she guides the needle to form flowers, feathers, stars and other shapes. As the needle strikes the fabric, it emanates a rapid stitch-stitch-stitch-stitch noise that characterizes the ambience of Sharon’s two-room studio. The manufacturer calls the phenomenon “firing stitch.”
Sharon’s turnaround time varies from two to three weeks. Customers mail or deliver their pieced quilt top to Grass Roots Quilt Studio (people who design the quilt but pay for professional quilting are called “piecers”). Then, Sharon collaborates with the piecer to come up with stitching designs, and as their quilts evolve, she ensures the finished products remain “their own.”
“If you pieced it, it’s your quilt,” she said. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Wow, what a great quilting job.’ I want them to say, ‘Wow, what a great quilt.’”
Since opening Grass Roots Quilt Studio, Sharon has created more than a thousand quilts for customers around the country, and sometimes across the globe. She often works on four or five customer quilts at a time, in addition to stitching quilts for all her family, friends and neighbors. Occasionally, she quilts for herself, too.
One personal quilt allowed Sharon to express herself after her breast cancer diagnosis. While taking a class on liberated Amish quilting – a form of quilting that defies the traditional neat and tidy style of Amish quilts with imperfect shapes and letters – Sharon liberated herself from a label that cancer left in its wake.
“I could not stomach the word ‘survivor.’ I just didn’t like how it made me feel,” she said. “I just felt that people living in the Congo, trying to find water every day – they’re surviving. I’m living. I’m thriving. I’m going. I’m happy.”
So in sprawling letters she stitched the word “THRIVE” on the top of her quilt.
“I said, ‘I’m a thriver, not a survivor.’ I’m not scraping by. I’m living my life.”
Now, the word “THRIVE” adorns the wall adjacent to the stairs bridging her home to her business.
Sharon’s a firm believer in the saying, “If you quilt, no matter where you go, you will have friends.”
She stays in seam with the quilting community by participating in local quilting guilds, classes, shows, blogs and Facebook groups. She’s competed in the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show, Innovations, the Long Arm Show and Convention, the Northwest Washington Fair, Stevenson Quilt Show and the Quilt Fest in La Conner. She also belongs to Running with Scissors, a quilting guild in Ferndale.
Quilters commonly donate their quilts to charity, and Sharon is no exception. Most recently, she stitched a maple leaf quilt to donate to Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees in Alberta, Canada.
Giving a quilt to someone is like wrapping that person in love, she said. When disasters hit, tragedy occurs, babies are born or someone passes away, quilters band together to form the fabric of lives.
“It’s a common bond that brings people of all walks together,” Sharon said.
Of all the ribbons Sharon has taken home from quilting shows, it’s not the blue that makes her beam. She’s most proud of the third place ribbon she won at Innovations quilting show in 2010 before she donated her entry to Crossroads Hospice and Palliative Care, the hospice that cared for mother before she passed away.
Those moments, as she says, “keep [her] stitching.”
Sharon is currently accepting new customers to Grass Roots Quilt Studio. You can contact her at 360/543-3027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.