Interview: Darlene Zimmerman on Betty Dear, Feedsacks, and More

Most people know Darlene Zimmerman from her enormously popular, feedsack-inspired collections for Robert Kaufman, but this tour de force (and very lovely lady) also happens to be a designer of patterns and quilting tools, a published textile historian, an in-demand leader of quilting workshops, and a very accomplished quilter. We are grateful that she found time in her busy schedule to chat with us about her latest collection, Betty Dear, feedsacks, and more!

When did you first begin collecting vintage fabric?

About 18-20 years ago, shortly after I started quilting. I was interested in vintage quilts, which lead to a study on the history of textiles and quilting in America. At that point I began collecting vintage quilts, tops and blocks. In order to finish the vintage tops or blocks, I looked for vintage fabric.

How did collecting vintage fabric segue for you into designing vintage-inspired fabric?

I never thought I would have the opportunity to design fabric. How fantastic it is to find wonderful vintage fabric, then have it manufactured in the colorations you like and have as much available as you need for projects! I had been collecting vintage fabric and learning as much as I could on textile and quilt history for approximately five years before I had a chance to work with Chanteclaire Fabrics designing my own collections based on my vintage fabrics. The knowledge gained from my study of vintage textiles and quilts was invaluable when designing fabrics and colors typical of the 1930s era.

How much of your creative muse is the vintage fabric and, with four children and three grandchildren, how much of it is daily life itself?

The fabrics from the 30s era (or any era) definitely inspire me, but I also study what life was like back in that time period. The 1930s fabrics and quilt patterns we use today are a nostalgic look back in time, to what we perceive as a simpler time. For some of us, this is a fond rememberance of our grandmothers or mother’s time. For the younger generation (such as my children or grandchildren), it’s a bit of a history lesson, but they also perceive the fabrics and quilts as fresh and cheerful.

In my heart I “live” back in the 1930s era — where the washing was always done on Monday, clothes were hung on the wash line, pies and breads were baked at home, and you wore gloves and hats to church on Sunday. Working with these cheerful 1930s prints takes me back to my happy childhood.

Can you provide a little insight into your design process, from initial concepts to completion?

Usually I like to start with a theme such as “Happy Housewives” or “Betty Dear” which is just a concept of how I want the finished collection to look. Once I have a concept in mind, I find vintage fabrics that fit that theme and put them up on my design wall. I will switch out fabrics, change them (enlarge, reduce, remove or add elements, or even create new designs) until I feel that the fabrics play well together. This may take weeks, or sometimes it just falls together quickly. Once the designs are decided upon, then the various colorways have to be imagined. This is where it’s very helpful knowing which colors are typical of a time period, and which colors were commonly placed together.

Robert Kaufman designers create the various colorways as well as the layout of the designs on paper, then send back for my approval. At that point we decide what needs to be tweaked, which colorways should be deleted. When we are finally satisfied with the designs and colors on paper, strike-offs are printed on fabric (small amounts of printed fabrics). Changes can still be made at that point, and they are usually printed again for approval. Finally, the collection needs to be narrowed down, so some colorways are discarded at this point. Then the collection is ready to go to print! The whole process can take a year or longer.

During the design process and while waiting for finished fabric, much thought is given to quilt or projects that will best enhance that particular collection, and patterns are at least partially designed. When the fabric is available, then I am ready to start sewing with it immediately.

{Betty Dear, Darlene Zimmerman’s latest collection for Robert Kaufman.}

There is a growing awareness of feedsack history today, and feedsack collecting itself has become quite popular across several continents. Do you think that this a natural byproduct of the re-emergence of home sewing as a hobby, or the result of fabric historians like yourself producing feedsack-inspired lines?

I believe it is a result of fabric designers and quilt historians educating the public about the history of printed feedsacks; something that was unique to our country. (If you want to read more about feedsack history, check out my “Chicken Linen” booklet, available in quilt shops or online at feedsacklady.com.) Beware! Collecting feedsacks can become an addiction called “sackitus,” and there is no known cure! There were thousands of wide-ranging designs printed, and it’s fun to see and collect the different designs.

As almost any collector can tell from merely glancing at their personal stash or by perusing a pile of vintage textiles at an antiques fair, many of the fabric lines on the market today are feedsack-inspired. As someone who has proudly acknowledged her various sources of inspiration, how do you feel when you see fabric lines produced by designers that are clearly reproduction yet not marketed as such?

Fabric designers have always borrowed from the past, but rarely acknowledged it before recent times. You’ve heard the old saying “There’s nothing new under the sun”? That’s very true for fabric design.

Personally, I believe that if you are using vintage designs for reproduction fabrics, a designer should acknowledge that someone else created the design, or your fabrics are based on vintage fabrics.

I love your latest collection, Betty Dear! It is a bit of a departure in that many of the patterns are larger-scale, and that the attitude is more sophisticated than what one usually associates with a Darlene Zimmerman collection. I feel that instead of peeking into Betty’s kitchen and her child’s nursery, we’ve been invited into her living room, filled with beautiful draperies and elegant, full-skirted day dresses. What inspired this shift?

You are so right about being invited into Betty’s living room, where women are sipping tea in their Sunday best dresses, hats, and gloves. The Betty Dear fabrics are inspired by dresses from the 1940s and 50s which were larger scale, bolder prints. The popular trend right now, as in that earlier era, is large-scale prints. I showed some of my vintage dress prints (yardage as well as vintage dresses) to the young women I work with at Robert Kaufman Co., and they loved them! The retro look is very popular with young people, but also for women who remember that era.

{ Darlene’s Betty Dear quilt, handmade from her very own Easy Does It! quilt pattern. }

My initial response to seeing Betty Dear was that it felt very retro 40s-and-50s, whereas previous collections are 30s-inspired. Is this chronological progression intentional, or intuitive?

I’m interested in fabric design from all time periods. Right now I believe the Betty Dear collection appeals to young people because it has a great retro look, and also for the nostalgic appeal for others. It’s a different look from the 1930s prints because it was a different era, but right now the 40s-50s look fits into the current trends.

You are an avid, accomplished quilter and sewer, with a wonderful eye for color and placement, so I just have to ask: What projects have you made for yourself using Betty Dear?

It is the perfect collection for sewing retro-look garments, especially aprons! But it also works in quiltmaking. I made a large pillow with some of the giant rick-rack and a quilt using my Easy Does It! pattern. You can also mix the Betty Dear fabrics with your 30s fabrics when making quilts, as women used their sewing scraps (which were sometimes saved for years) in making scrap quilts, and frequently mixed large and small scale prints.

Can we look forward to more collections similar in maturity and sophistication to Betty Dear? And, on the flip side, can we continue to expect still more Clothesline Club?

As mentioned before, I like fabric from all eras, so I would like to continue to surprise quilters and sewers with collections other than only 1930s prints. And, for those of you that are 1930s fans, I plan to continue to release new 30s collections in the future. I have three collections coming out in 2011; one of which is the 40s kitchen look. I’m currently working on collections for 2012 with a few more surprised incorporated in those collections.

What else is in store for Darlene Zimmerman, and the legions of Darlene Zimmerman fans?

Who knows! In this economy the decisions on what designs to print are driven by you —the customer. You vote with your dollars! I hope to continue designing fabric for a long time to come, and just like you, I don’t find enough time to sew all the quilts and ideas that are in my head!

2 Comments

  1. Allison says:

    Thank you so much for this interview. I am a big fan of 1930s prints and I’m so glad to learn more about Darlene Zimmerman, her knowledge of vintage fabric and her inspirations.

  2. Vanessa Lyman says:

    I love this lady, and I love this fabric!