Dickinson quilter takes Best of Show at international festival
Within the confines of Cynthia England’s Dickinson quilting studio, more than 1,200 bolts of material in various shades — vibrant reds, brilliant purples, deep blues and forest greens – are shelved accordion style.
There’s also a collection of smaller landscape fabrics England uses for flowers, rocks, sky, clouds and grass scenes. Whether she’s searching for batiks, plaids or screen prints, she knows where she can get her hands on any bolt or scrap of material she needs.
England, who in November won Best of Show with her “Reflections of Cape Town” quilt at the International Quilt Festival at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, feels fortunate, she said. The technique she used to make the winning quilt is known as “picture piecing,” which differs from the traditional quilting method.
“Traditional quilting involves using geometric shapes, whereas with picture piecing, each piece is a different shape, allowing quilters to achieve detailed imagery,” said England, who invented the technique quite by accident in 1993.
“I messed something up on a traditional quilt and it just happened to come out better,” she said. “So, I found out I could just move things around, giving the pieces shape while sewing a straight line.”
Since that time, England has won Best of Show on three separate occasions at the International Quilt Festival. Along with her recent win, she won in 2000 for “Open Season,” and in 1993 for “Piece And Quiet,” which was also chosen as one of the best 100 quilts featured in “The Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts” published by Primedia Special Interest Publications in 2000. That quilt took six months to complete and contains more than 8,000 pieces.
Growing up in the Houston Heights area, England began quilting at age 13 after she inherited a box of scraps from her grandmother. She went on to study commercial art at the Art Institute of Houston, and continued traditional quilting until she made that fortuitous mistake back in 1993.
Today, the majority of her business is structured around picture piecing, and she has a small part-time staff to help her keep up with the demands of orders that come in via her website, teaching engagements and competitions.
She sells art quilts and table runner patterns — assembled by her 83-year-old mother — that also are offered with optional material kits, provides free tutorials on her website and travels near and far teaching her craft.
She has written two how-to books — “Picture Piecing: Creating Dramatic Pictorial Quilts” and “Picture Piecing Traditional Quilts” — that are easy to follow.
England uses a traditional quilting machine as well as a Bernina Artiste 170 sewing machine and two antique Singers she uses frequently.
Her coastal-themed quilts include “Sailing Away,” “Lighthouse” and “Life’s A Beach.” And there are many others that include animals, mountains, farm scenes, flowers, home interiors and various landscapes.
A very special quilt — “The Power of Houston,” created by England, Libby Lehman and Vicki Mangum — is on permanent exhibit in the George R. Brown Convention Center.
“I love the bright colors and the reflections that I’m able to recreate in fabric,” England said. “I am constantly amazed at the beautiful places where quilting takes me.”
England has made television appearances, been published in magazines, calendars, books and shown in museums. Her travel schedule in 2017 is filling up, and she knows that fame comes with a price, including time away from home. The Best of Show win in Houston came with a $12,500 cash prize.
The money is nice, but that’s not why England quilts.
“I love what I do.” she said. “Plus, my technique is not hard to learn. I’ve even taught the Boy Scouts.”