Quilt Artist Finds Solace In Daily Production, Not Overthinking: 'I Just Needed To Sew'

May 29, 2020

A fabric artist in Holyoke, Massachusetts, has been sewing pieces of quilts together almost daily during the COVID-19 pandemic. With no specific project in mind, Timna Tarr said it's needed exercise to sit behind her machine and just sew.

Tarr's quilt designs show meandering rivers and street maps of neighborhoods, including her own. Among the quilts hanging in her 700-square-foot studio is a series of barnyard animals. 

"They're 40-inch squares, so they’re a pretty good size — a close-up, frontal view of the animals," Tarr said. "And I just really like how they're in your face."

"The Hare Apparent," a quilt by Timna Tarr.
Credit Courtesy Timna Tarr / timnatarr.com

The animal designs started as photos. Tarr enlarged them then arranged each image onto a grid of two-inch squares. Each one becomes its own fabric composition, Tarr said, and the construction begins from there. 

"There's a lot of room for error," Tarr said. "You'll see the rabbit’s ear doesn't make a smooth line, but your eye is going to compensate for any of my errors."

A third-generation quilter with an art history background, Tarr said she uses fabric the way a painter uses paint on a canvas.

“You wouldn't want me to paint anything for you," Tarr said. "That's not my skill set. But I can take fabric and manipulate it."

On a warm day in May, Tarr's studio windows were wide open. The city sounds were not as loud as usual. The barnyard animal quilts on the wall — the chicken quilt is called "The Broody Bunch," the rabbit "The Hare Apparent" — were supposed to be at a quilt show in New Hampshire, then on to shows in Texas and California. 

Timna Tarr sews in her Holyoke, Massachusetts, studio. Barnyard animal quilts hang on the wall, scheduled to be in a regional show that got canceled due to COVID-19.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

Because of the pandemic, the shows were postponed. Classes and workshops Tarr was scheduled to teach were canceled.

Since quilting is a tactile medium, Tarr said, it's hard to do on a video chat — though some quilting groups are managing to gather. While sewing may be solitary, people do get together to do it. 

“There is a community of quilters that's really missing each other right now,” she said.

When everything shut down in March, Tarr also stopped going to her studio for a bit. She brought a sewing machine home, along with her scrap bins, and worked out of a spare bedroom in her house.

“I made that quilt on the wall over there with lots of little pieces,” Tarr said, pointing to a quilt that hangs on her studio wall (pictured below). “Because I just needed to sew.” 

She calls the mash-up of colors and patterns "(Un)Comfortable." It's made with bits of fabric collected over the years using a technique called string quilting.

Tarr said it's a method she knows how to do well that gave her comfort — and it also didn’t require too much thinking.

"It was just a way to produce," Tarr said. "Now that I have [the quilt] there and look at it — it's very chaotic. You can tell I made it when I was stressed."

"(Un) Comfortable" by Timna Tarr, a pandemic quilt creation using many scraps of fabric collected over the years. It's made using a technique called string quilting.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

Quilter Timna Tarr has a board on the wall for preparing quilt designs. At the top, felt block letters read, "Do the work."
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

It took a month to make the quilt, and in the last few weeks, Tarr has started making smaller ones, using long strips of fabric. If what she created before was chaos, now she said she’s relaxing her designs.

"I've been calling them by whatever day I’ve been making them — so it’s Wednesday, Sunday, Monday so far," Tarr said, regarding the pieces like sketches. "I think this is busy work. Whatever good comes out of it will be someday in the future."

A design board hangs on the wall near Tarr's sewing machine and iron. On it, she pins up small sections of quilt, then stands back to see how they look. At the top of the board in felt block letters is the phrase "Do the work."

For now, Tarr said she needs working without seeking inspiration, or overthinking what she's making. She'll worry about what to do with all these pieces later.