Ann Harwell — Quilter
Small Pieces Create Big Art
Ann Harwell can’t remember a time when she wasn’t sewing. She began collecting small pieces of fabric when she was four, and her interest did not go unnoticed. “Santa Claus gave me [a] little sewing machine,” Harwell says. That same sewing machine still holds a place of honor in Harwell’s in-home studio. Her mother taught her sew, cut patterns, and make clothes. “I made doll clothes and everything Barbie and Ken could have wanted with that sewing machine.” As Harwell grew, so did her passion for sewing, and like many others in her family, she started making quilts. When she went to college, she studied primary education and went on to become a preschool teacher for several years, but she says, “The thing I’ve always done is sew little pieces of fabric together.” So she began to harness that more and more and set out to create something different from what anyone else had ever done before.
Harwell’s quilts go beyond the traditional style quilts that rest at the foot of our beds. Instead, her quilts are mosaic pieces of art. She spends between 8 and 9 hours a day everyday quilting, and each quilt takes over a month to complete. To create these unique quilts, she uses a complex process which combines sketching a basic idea, transferring that idea to graph paper, tracing patterns, marking sew lines, choosing the perfect fabric, and, of course, sewing. “It’s a crazy process,” Harwell admits, “but it works for me.”
She does much of her sewing on her 1940s sewing machine. “This one is my very favorite [sewing machine] in the world,” Harwell says. She only uses the old fashioned straight stitch sewing machines because she says, “I can clean them, oil them, and take them apart…and if I’m spending this much time on something, I don’t really trust a computerized machine to not suddenly have a problem and make a big hole in something I’ve spent many hours working on.”
The back wall of Harwell’s studio is lined with cabinets filled with stacks of fabric. She has been collecting the fabric for most of her life. Each stack is organized by major color, but there is not a lot of any one pattern. “When I go to a fabric store, I’m going to pick everything I have not seen before, and just get a little piece. I only need a little piece,” Harwell says. With fabric and patterns that span over forty years, she has an immense amount of color and variety that a person cannot find even in a large fabric store. All of her fabric is light weight and 100 percent cotton, so it will iron and hold together well.
With these small pieces of fabric, she is able to create big stories on a different kind of canvas—one you can either cuddle up in or hang on your wall. “This is the only art that’s machine washable,” Harwell says.
Her quilt, “Falls at Graveyard Fields,” which hangs in her studio, has a very personal connection to her. The quilt depicts a scene from a family hike in which her two youngest sons (then middle school aged) darted ahead of the rest of the family to climb on what Harwell describes as a “very dangerous, rocky waterfall with sharp rocks that go way up—almost straight up.” The small pieces of fabric in the quilt are full of sharp angles, and wild animals lurk around two boys who proudly stand half way up the quilt.
Harwell has also done a series of quilts with astronomy as its focus. This started in 1999 when she decided to make a quilt about the Hale-Bopp comet. From there, she has created a collection of quilts with different astrological constellations and astronomical depictions.
The Sunbrella factory in Greensboro contacted Harwell to make a quilt that could illustrate all of the things the Sunbrella fabric could do. This fabric, although thick and sometimes difficult to work with, will never fade, and the fabric glows when sunlight comes through. This opens up possibilities for the quilt to become not only an indoor but also an outdoor art form. Since creating her first quilt with the Sunbrella fabric, Harwell has trademarked the name “Sunquilt.”
Because of the quality and the uniqueness of Harwell’s work, she has earned a lot of praise and recognition. Her art is all over the world, including two quilts in Peru in the American Embassy and two in New York at the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center. She enters her work in all of the major quilt shows, and she has been in several magazines and publications, including National Geographic. She also displays her quilts at the Piedmont Craftsmen in Winston-Salem and Artspace in Raleigh. And while these are impressive accomplishments, Harwell feels like she hasn’t had her greatest accomplishment yet. She says, “I think that’s what keeps me going—the things I haven’t done…It sees like the more I do, the more I need to do. The older I get, the more things occur to me that I have to make.”
Each of her quilts is for sale for $2.25 a square inch, with the exception of her astrology pieces, which she sells for $500 each.