In the Studio with Catherine Butterworth
A life-long involvement in fabric retailing and sewing has given Catherine Butterworth the background for creating award-winning quilts in both traditional and modern styles
Words by Michael O’Neile
Photographs by Peter and Julie Butterworth
Ohioan-born Catherine Butterworth first visited Australia as an exchange secondary student in 1971, returning to Sydney a few years later to take up permanent residency. She enrolled in tertiary studies in the TAFE School of Fashion, a vocational focus reflecting the influence of a family background of quiltmakers and seamstresses.
Subsequently, while shopping at The Fabric Shop in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood, Catherine overheard that the store was short-staffed. She applied for and secured a job, and a few years later married the proprietor’s son. When her parents-in-law retired, she and her husband Peter managed the shop until its closure in 2006.
The shop had first stocked patchwork fabrics during the mid-1980s. To leverage that venture, Catherine enrolled in a quiltmaking class tutored by Elizabeth Burton and made what she calls “the obligatory sampler”. This lead to the making of quilts as store samples to showcase the fabric ranges available, reflecting a variety of quilt styles. Good experience for the road ahead.
Once retired, the prospect beckoned for exploration and experimentation with “quilt layouts, colour palettes and fabric designs”, focusing on those that most excited her. Catherine believes her knowledge of fabric enables her to recognise good-quality base cloth and fabric printing, and how to properly handle the fabric to avoid disappointing outcomes in the finished quilt. She feels challenged to enhance her technical and design skills in every quilt she makes, whether for exhibition or gifts for family and friends.
“I simply love the creative process, playing with different colour palettes, working with the amazing printed fabrics that are on offer, trying out different quilt layouts. I enjoy watching the quilt top come together with my piecing and the way the quilting gives a quilt its unique personality. I get joy from every step in the quiltmaking process — except perhaps the unpicking!
“I am compelled to create, and I love working with textiles, so quiltmaking is a perfect fit for me. I also take pleasure in making quilts for friends and family. As I make the quilt, I am stitching memories into cloth and I get excited knowing that every time that quilt is used, the recipient will think of me and the special bond we have with each other.”
Particular characteristics of Catherine’s style are an attention to detail and commitment to accuracy. She acknowledges that the precision and professionalism evident in her quiltmaking is the outgrowth of her earlier involvement in tailoring and dressmaking in general. These characteristics carry through into her teaching as well, as she organises her classes and strives to impart a high level of knowledge and expertise to her students to achieve quality outcomes.
Catherine considers it “invigorating” to engage in different quiltmaking styles, covering both traditional and modern, though she realises that her particular style has been evolving as distinct and recognisable. When embarking on a new traditional project, it is the fabric print that is the initial attraction, stimulating her to design a framework that will best showcase it in a quilt. Conversely, when making modern quilts, her initial emphasis will be on design, with fabric choices to follow.
Feedback on her achievements in this regard has flowed from her participation in quilt exhibitions in Australia and overseas, where she has been increasingly successful in garnering awards for her quilts. Catherine first exhibited at the Sydney Quilt Show in 2010, gaining “a real buzz” from seeing her quilts on display and receiving two Judges’ Commendations for her work. Fast forward to 2019, and at the same venue she won Best of Show for her quilt Starcrazy, along with another three awards. Along the way there have been many other awards for her works exhibited in Australia and the USA.
In her quiltmaking, Catherine typically, and purposely, chooses prints for their visual texture, adding embellishments to enhance the overall effect, according the quilt a unique “personality”. In Starcrazy (255cm x 255cm/1001/2in x 1001/2in), she used a trapunto technique: the star elements were quilted in high relief through padding from the underside before the patchwork top and backing were layered as a sandwich. This technique adds dimensional surface texture for increased visual appeal.
What is also evident in Starcrazy is the precision detailing of the points and connections with other elements in the design. This is in no small part due to Catherine’s use of Marti Mitchell templates and multi-sized rulers to ensure cutting accuracy as a necessary precursor to precise piecing.
Another of her works from 2016, a finalist in Houston USA (2018) and winner of Best of Show in Adelaide (2016) is Flowering Star (226cm x 226cm/89in x 89in), which started as a fussy cut floral star and developed into the traditional Broken Star using strong and rich colours reminiscent of those used by her mother to decorate their family home.
A somewhat different design, suggestive of the Bargello style of needlework, is Catherine’s 2018 quilt Painted Magnolia (170cm x 170cm/67in x 67in), a ‘cross pollination’ inspired by a woven design from Marguerite Davison’s A Handweaver’s Source Book (1953). Catherine adapted part of the original two-toned Magnolia graph, “painting” it with some of her favourite colours and adding a few circles “just for fun”.
Having a dedicated space for her quilting is a big help to Catherine. Until a few years ago she had a small room in her home to sew in, but once her children left she took over one of the larger bedrooms and furnished it with what she refers to as “a mishmash of purpose-built sewing cabinets and hand-me-down furniture” that works for her. Good-quality lighting was an essential inclusion, and a portable design wall complements the room.
Catherine encourages those interested in pursuing quiltmaking, as well as those long-involved, “to simply make the kind of quilts they like, and make them in the style and colours that they enjoy. If and when the time is right, try stretching your creative horizons. Above all, have fun!”