Updated: March 1, 2014 at 8:42 am
Kathy J. Gaul tells homey stories about idyllic summers on Cape Cod, village festivals, a robin stealing just ripened strawberries in the garden, making gingerbread cookies with her niece.
But instead of using words to capture these moments in her life, she uses hand-felted fabric to create wool applique art.
Each piece has a story behind it, often inspired by growing up in New England.
She creates three-dimensional design elements not often found in wool applique. The Pine Creek's artist's work has become so popular that she started an applique pattern and kit business called Meetinghouse Hill Designs.
Kathy Read, owner of Needleworks by Holly Berry, notes that Gaul is becoming well-known nationally. "Her art is astounding. She has poured her heart and soul into it. Her work is so precise that they are masterpieces."
One of her patterns appears this month in Rug Hook Magazine, and she was a Martha Stewart American Made entrepreneur nominee. She teaches applique classes locally.
Stepping into Gaul's home and studio is like entering a folk art wonderland with her memories displayed on wall hangings, pillows, pins and rugs. The rooms are bursting with birds and bunnies and blooms, creating bygone-days country ambiance with a touch of Grandma Moses thrown in.
"A leap of faith"
Applique is typically small pieces of cotton material sewn onto larger pieces of fabric, a technique most often seen in quilt designs.
But Gaul, 49, became fascinated with traditional penny rugs, which were fashionable in the 1800s, when women used scraps of wool or felt to create designs on bedspreads, dresser covers and pillows.
She found that using felt gave her art a raised, lively look.
When she first started felting, she used wool skirts found in thrift stores, and she machine washed and dried the material to create the felted fabric. Now she purchases wool yardage, searching widely for just the right look, some of it hand-dyed.
She grew up in Leominster, Mass.., birthplace of Johnny Appleseed, and that New England ambiance has inspired her folksy harvest and garden scenes.
She started sewing when she was 6 years old. Her Auntie Von helped her create doll clothes and quilt blocks, which eventually led to tailoring, sewing clothes, rug hooking, embroidery, quilt making and cross stitching.
She graduated from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona with a degree in home economics with emphasis on textiles and clothing.
Gaul has clerked in fabric stores, taught quilting classes and for more than 10 years was a professional quilt restorer. Her husband, Jerry, an accountant, built a frame in their backyard so she could wash the old quilts, including one that was sewn in 1850.
But she was never fully satisfied with her own work. "When I sewed it was always someone else's pattern. I'd never believed that I could draw or design my own. But I took a leap of faith."
Seeing the results of her artistic efforts, her husband and friends encouraged her to sell her patterns. She spent most of 2008 drawing and stitching the first 13 patterns.
A legacy of craft
The company name Meetinghouse Hill Designs is a story in itself. Gaul and Jerry were married in a meeting house in New England on Meeting House Road. She explained that meeting houses are usually built in the middle of New England villages and are used as both as churches and social halls. "Art gathers people together, and creativity is a gift from God."
She focused on expressing her life stories in her art.
"It's the people and experiences of my life that I want to share - the joy that comes from the simple things in life, family and friendships, the beauty of God's creation all around me."
Her first pattern was "Of One Heart." She traced her mother's hand and her own holding a heart. "It illustrates how much I treasure her," she says.
The second was "Hydrangeas for Brennie," which has almost 300 raw edged petal pieces and a woven basket. The flower is the favorite of her sister-in-law, a prolific gardener.
The whimsical "Sew Crazy for Ewe," which was introduced last June at the Vermont Quilt Festival, has become one of her signature pieces. It was inspired by a Lincoln longwool sheep that she photographed at an Estes Park festival. Twenty-two different threads are used to create the face and fleece.
Another significant work is "Mom's Dogwood in Bloom," which uses floral wire, which is unusual in such patterns, to shape the petals. It will be featured in Rug Hooking Magazine in March. For her, the design brings back the memory of the tree her father gave her mother for her 40th birthday. It became a symbol of home, a backdrop of many family photos.
She exhibits at several shows each year, including the renowned American Quilt Society's Quilt Week in Paducah, Ky. She will be at the Quilt and Stitch Expo in Pueblo on April 4 and 5. Her patterns are in 100 shops in the U.S. and Canada as well as on her website, meetinghousehill designs.com.
Having experienced how some sewing patterns on the market are bare bones, Gaul wanted to make sure hers had all the information needed.
Each of her patterns include a full-scale drawing of the design as well as individually drawn pattern pieces, multiple pages of step-by-step instructions, a page on how to felt wool, a page of hand-drawn images of all the stitches used, a supply list, plus resources for purchasing items.
Needless to say, putting all this together is very time consuming. It takes her about a week to create a sketch, then 60 to 90 hours to select fabric and threads, cut and sew and frame it. She creates the ink-drawn pattern by hand, then has it printed professionally. Then she has to write the instructions for the pattern, copy and collate the stitching primer, resource list, felting instructions, and then, of course, there's packaging and marketing it.
But, she says, "It's a labor of love. If it was work and not fun I wouldn't be doing it.
"It's creating handcrafted heirlooms for generations to come."