Quiltmaker Leslie Bowman-Friedlander uses leftover fabric pieces to make lively, colorful pillows.
Leslie Bowman-Friedlander creates vibrant colors dyeing the fabrics on her deck at home.
Vaguely Circular.
Pickup Sticks.
Part of the Room For Squares series, this quilt won an award from the Carnegie Center for Art & History.

Painting with Color

Maryland quiltmaker Leslie Bowman-Friedlander applies a modern sensibility to an age-old craft

When Leslie Bowman-Friedlander presents her bold, abstract wall quilts at craft shows, a passerby occasionally comments, “I could do that.” Many others, drawn by the vibrant colors to look close up, admire the expertise and admit, “I tried making a quilt once…”

“It looks simple,” says the self-taught quiltmaker, who has spent more than two decades smoothing out the wrinkles of her minimalist fabric art. She hand-dyes the cottons, designs the patterns and hand-stitches the perfect squares, turning humble cotton into contemporary art that appears effortless.

From her studio overlooking what used to be farmland in Reisterstown, Maryland, it is easy to imagine the early days of this venerable craft form, when women at quilting bees came together over their sewing. “I love taking tradition and giving it a twist,” says Bowman-Friedlander.

Pulsating color brings a modern edge to her work. Early on, she ruled out cute calicoes and familiar florals in favor of solid fabrics. But finding strong colors proved more difficult than expected. Salespeople told her, “We don’t do solids. We do tone-on-tone,” which prompted the artist to start dyeing her own.

For two or three weeks each summer, Bowman-Friedlander can be found outside on the deck of her home, next door to the studio, dipping pima cottons and muslin into tubs of water mixed with procion, a chemical dye. Fabrics are laid out to bake for several hours in the sun while the heat intensifies their hues. It often takes three or four repetitions—dyeing and washing each time to eliminate added fixatives—to achieve the earthy, saturated oranges, ochres, mossy greens, rich reds and blues that she prefers.

“It’s like painting, but painting with color,” the quiltmaker says. “This way, you get wonderful colors all your own.” Careful formulas and record keeping are not part of her routine. “It’s one of the fun parts,” she adds. “I’m not going to get exactly the same color twice.” Happy accidents also happen when she irons and stacks fabrics in random color combinations that later find their way into compositions.

Inspiration may strike anywhere. Abstract artist Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square studies influenced her Windows and Rooms series of small geometrics. Mosaic tiles discovered on a visit to Turkey fired her imagination, while motifs in an American Indian blanket resurfaced with brighter hues in her series, Navajo Steps. “If I like the way the colors work, I’ll think about how I can translate that into fabric, and I’ll just start playing,” she explains.

In her studio, Bowman-Friedlander stands by a wallboard covered in white flannel. Small squares sewn from cut-fabric strips are tacked to the board in a trial composition. She shifts these basic blocks around, assessing the color balance, adjusting one here or there, filling in with additional strips to conform to her standard-sized wall quilts, typically 50-inch squares.

This evaluation is repeated over several days, or however long it takes. Her rule of thumb: “If I haven’t moved anything for a week, then I’ll sew it.” She positions the squares beside one of four sewing machines, then chooses from a stock of hundreds of cotton and silk threads to match or contrast with the fabric. Sewn together in strips, the composite becomes the top of a three-layer quilt sandwich, which also includes a cotton-batting core and backing.

The artisan’s long, nimble fingers, like those of a pianist, are able to produce seven or eight running stitches at a time. Hand-stitching proceeds in straight rows in the time-honored way, but in her recent work, threads bend and sway, shaping their own decorative element. She leaves the traditional grid design behind in Pickup Sticks, for which she sliced through fabric and inserted narrow strips in asymmetrical designs that, she says, “keep people’s eyes moving around.”

Like her quilting predecessors, she exercises economy by recycling leftover fabric into colorful 16-inch pillows and other functional accessories. Her quilts vary in size, starting at six-by-12 inches and reaching up to 90 inches square in commissioned works.

Tall and lanky, wearing jeans and a ready smile, Bowman-Friedlander is surprised by the turn of her career. She started out studying creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. After graduating with a degree in art history, she went with a friend to a papermaking workshop and ended up making paper sculpture and cut-paper quilts for seven years. Her paper quilts evolved to incorporate photos and fiber, until only the fiber remained.

“I was the last person anyone thought would be sitting at a sewing machine,” she reflects. “I was the girl who rode horses and played outside with the dogs.” Gazing out of her studio’s wide windows at picture-perfect views, she talks about the satisfaction of creating work recognized by the public and of having earned a Maryland State Arts Council fellowship.

“If I ever stopped enjoying it, I’d stop doing it,” this fortunate quiltmaker concludes.

Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. For more information, visit bowmanfibers.com, or contact Leslie Bowman-Friedlander at landjbowman@netzero.net or 410-526-0120.