Member Spotlight: Kelly Spell

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At the height of the Me Too movement, when families across America were tuned in to the confirmation hearings of now Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a high school administrator in a district just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee announced over the intercom system, “the girls have ruined everything.” Athletic shorts would no longer be allowed to be worn at school by anyone, and the girls were to blame because they had been wearing their shorts far too short. At the time, it felt extremely raw and emotional to be a woman in America, remembered Kelly Spell, a Tennessee-based quilter. I was really angry, and so were other women in our local community when we found out what had been said, especially to a group of impressionable young people. With that, Spell emerged from a creative rest, and she began cutting out the letters to spell girls ruin everythingIt was the first social justice quilt I'd made, and I didn't anticipate how big the quilt would become—I set it aside for months at first. It wasn't until the women's U.S. soccer team went through their inspiring 2019 World Cup run that Spell began to work on the quilt again. Humans have a long history of channeling their emotions into tactile objects; the repetitive construction of this patchwork quilt helped me clarify my thoughts around what happened.

Girls Ruin Everything quilt by Kelly Spell. Photos courtesy of Kelly Spell.

Spell first came to quilting in 2014, after a few years of feeling as though she didn't have much activity in her life. She would work her full-time job, then come home only to lounge around and watch reality television, like Project Runway. Her mother, a longtime sewer, suggested Spell might enjoy the hobby. When Spell’s sister was expecting a daughter, it felt like the perfect time to purchase a sewing machine. I bought the same machine as my Mom. She still had the same sewing machine she'd saved to buy a year before I was born, and it felt easier to get her help over FaceTime if we had the same machine. When Spell looks back at the first quilt she made for her baby niece, “none of the triangles have points, she notes, but she continued to quilt.

Girls Ruin Everything quilt on Kelly’s longarm machine.

Spell and her husband then moved to Tennessee, and after a couple of sewing projects, she joined her local quilt guild. The group was a comfortable size of thirty to forty people, which made it easy to gain familiarity with everyone quickly. No one tells you how hard it is to make friends after college, but I found my place. Over time, she discovered her voice and gained confidence in her sewing style.

Stay in Your Log Cabin, 27” x 27” by Kelly Spell

During the summer of 2020, her guild began having difficult conversations about the future of modern quilting. We want this to be a space where everyone is comfortable—we can't achieve that without inviting a diverse group of people to the table and giving them leadership opportunities. It’s encouraging that our local community is dedicated to that work. Globally, Spell describes a desire for new voices—speakers, instructors, and featured creators. These are the quilters who will get new business opportunities at large events like conventions or seminars. Small groups of leadership create a narrow field of vision, and it's important that as members, we continue asking for better accommodations.

Blocks showing the tiny piecing from Stay in Your Log Cabin by Kelly Spell.

Spell's mother jokes that she is patient only when it comes to quilting. When Spell sits at the machine, she does feel a sense of calm, even when she runs into a mechanical issue. In our society, so much of our self-worth is tied up in our jobs, comments Spell. It feels freeing to have a hobby that helps me to define my value instead of waiting for someone else to tell me what is worthwhile and what needs to be done next." She also takes it easy on herself when it comes to productivity. For Spell, it has been beneficial to not dwell on a lack of inspiration. As a creator, she has accepted that there will be periods of inspiration, that sometimes the inspiration will fade, but eventually, it will come back.

Felicitous Pickle by Kelly Spell.

In 2017 her guild, the Chattanooga MQG, hosted a lecture and workshop with Mary Kerr. Mary encourages quilting with vintage fragments and showcasing them in new contemporary quilts. Afterward, the guild created the Cut It Up Challenge. Using one member’s donated quilt tops they collaboratively refashioned it into a new modern quilt. “I had no idea how much I would love working with someone else’s unfinished work,” recalled Spell. The next year they relaunched the challenge with a twist. This time each member would take home another member’s orphan block, cut it up and use it in a new modern quilt. Spell received a discarded kaleidoscope quilt block from Anne Hurley, a fellow guild member and friend. “I wanted the final quilt to convey the same kaleidoscope feeling, so I drew a long oval shape with spikes out of it, like light radiating out from a source,” explained Spell. She immediately started cutting and listening to what the fabric wanted to do. “It was completely organic. In the end, I had what looked like a pickle dish block, which was special given how much I had admired them, and how flexible the entire process had been.” The resulting quilt, Felicitous Pickle, was chosen to be part of the Best of QuiltCon 2019 exhibit.

Kelly at the Best of QuiltCon 2019 Traveling Exhibit.

At the core of Spell's work, and in her approach to quilting, is a quote she heard from another Chattanooga MQG member, Cotton is alive, it has a personality and an opinion. When she isn't working on a quilt, she is gardening, kayaking across lakes, hiking through forests, or rummaging estate sales.

Editor’s note: This conversation was recorded in August 2020. Since that time, Spell has launched two new series of work exploring curves and precision piecing.