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Laura Heine: Painter In Fabric
Montana Senior News, Feb. 2016/March 2016
Is the age-old craft of quilting dwindling or attracting a new generation of enthusiasts? Since quilting remains part of the state’s cultural heritage, Montanans might assume it is almost as widespread now as when people had to sew their own blankets to keep warm.

In one sense, that assumption would be correct. Quilting is still popular, though not necessarily as familiar stitched Flying Geese or Flower Basket designs. Instead, many of today’s quilters, especially those under the age of 40, are enjoying a form of fabric art known as fused appliqué. And they have Laura Heine, a Yellowstone County quilter with some 80 awards to her credit, to thank for that.

“Making a quilt makes people feel good,” explains Laura, owner of Fiberworks in Billings. “You can touch fabric; it’s tactile. And people like the idea of accomplishing something creative.”

Appliqué is not a new technique in the fabric world. But it has received an inspired new twist through Laura, who designs fused appliqué kits that rely on an iron rather than a sewing machine as a primary tool. The kits are mainly wall hangings based on her own patterns and global fabric choices. However, unlike traditional quilting which requires precision sewing skills honed through patience and practice, her kits do not require anyone to stitch a straight seam.

“These are collage quilts which look like a paper collage but are made with fabric. You fuse the fabric by ironing it onto fusable material and cut out the motif which you then fuse to your foundation. You don’t have to be a seamstress to make one. This is the furthest thing from traditional quilting,” says Laura. “Modern is the new wave in quilting. In the modern quilt movement, the simpler the design the more modern it is.”

Laura opened Fiberworks 24 years ago and has watched the quilting landscape transform along with changes in the economy. Initially, she drew customers from Canada to Wyoming making traditional-type Log Cabin and Texas Star quilts. But by Laura’s estimate, 75 percent of her business vanished after 9/11 and with the advent of the worldwide web. People held onto their disposable income more tightly after 9/11 while the internet offered fabric-lovers a cornucopia of buying options.

“The only way I could survive was to specialize. So I had to go back to the creative part of me to design patterns and make something people love so much they feel they have to buy it. I came up with the idea of limited edition kits with hundreds of different fabrics in each one. I think of it as painting with fabric,” says Laura, whose easy-to-master kits appeal to young adults cautious with their pennies as well as to pre-teens.

Gradually, Fiberworks morphed from being a regional quilt shop selling fabric off the bolt to being mostly a quilt-kit business with a nationwide clientele. It was a natural transition given this former nurse’s affinity for drawing and color coordination.

“I work with and love all colors of the rainbow,” says Laura, who has studied the canvases of artists such as Renoir and Monet. “You need to work with all the colors because they play well together. Every color is represented in every Fiberworks quilt.”

Consequently, Laura’s textile compositions resemble paintings rather than geometrically appealing designs. When assembled together, her variously hued fabrics mimic how the impressionists portrayed scenes depending on the dance of light for color to merge into form.

“I’ve never been a real traditional quilter. I always did my own thing. If there was a rule, I broke it,” admits Laura, who has written six books on quilting and designed fabric and thread lines for major corporations. “My fabric choices have always been different than most. My quilts tend to be soft and free-flowing, not bright or the expected blues and browns.”

One of the advantages of using a kit is the time factor involved. As Laura says, “After all the pieces are cut out, they can be arranged in two or three hours. You could finish in a day. You only need an iron, some sharp scissors, the ability to cut accurately, and your imagination if you want your quilt to look different than mine.”

Unsurprisingly, Fiberworks has not only survived but thrived in the competitive quilting marketplace. Laura travels around the country several months of the year attending quilt shows, teaching classes, and selling her collage kits. Sales are so strong she hires a team of eight to ten people to hand-cut fabric to meet the demand for her kits.

“In this business, you have to keep changing like a chameleon or your audience gets bored with you. They always want to see what you’re doing next,” says Laura. “I do the things that I love and what I think will sell. Though sometimes I don’t care if anyone will buy it. I have to do it because I want to. Just for the fun of it.”
 
For more information: visit http://fiberworks-heine.com or call 406-656.6663.
 
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