BEALS, Maine — Kathleen Watts is comfortable leaning over a sewing machine, her foot pressing the pedal, her fingers guiding the fabric under the needle, working in the circle of light created by a tiny bulb.
So she wasn’t surprised when a friend suggested they both take a quilting class and expand their abilities.
“But oh my, all those tiny little blocks,” she said this week from her Great Wass Island studio. “It was supposed to be a series of classes, but after that first class, I never went back.”
Watts said traditional quilting was too structured for her.
“The messier I am, the better I seem to work,” Watts said. “If it’s total chaos, I’m in heaven.”
Since that first experience in quilting in 2006, Watts has been creating free-form, fantasy quilts — quilts first imagined and then sewn in layers and embellished to tell a story.
In one, Neptune rules over a hundred creatures in a turbulent sea. In another, elves and fairies are cavorting in a garden. In an even more whimsical design, a fox is raiding a henhouse, much to the polka-dot chickens’ surprise.
The quilts are built from fabric but are layered and embellished — both by machine and hand — so they become three-dimensional.
“They aren’t simply flat cloth,” Watts said. “They come alive as they gain more depth.”
Along with the standard quilting cotton fabrics, Watts’ quilts are just as likely to contain dryer lint (“They make fabulous rocks for landscaping.”), beads, dog hair, chicken feathers or rabbit fur.
Watts uses fabrics as other artists use paint. Her fabric palette can lighten or darken the mood of a scene — rough or smooth fabrics also can change the message of a quilt. Cover a section with tulle and it is immediately softened. Add a ribbon of metallic thread and the look is changed even further.
Her studio, in a castle-like stone home overlooking Eastern Bay, contains five specialized sewing machines, hundreds of spools of colorful thread and thousands of yards of cotton, satin, velvet and other fabrics.
“Sometimes a quilt will start with a single piece of yarn,” she said. But that is just the beginning. Watts will add layer upon layer of fabric and embroidery until the design is lifted and thick with texture.
For “Neptune,” one and a half million embroidery stitches were used in a process that took five months. A smaller lap quilt can take 72 hours or more of work.
Although some of the designs in Watts’ quilts are machine embroidered, they are individually hand appliqued.
“The skill here is in the design, in the choice of fabrics and materials, in the layering,” she said. She often hand paints areas that need focus, especially faces.
Watts uses no written patterns.
“I was inspired by a design in the background of an AT&T commercial once,” she said. A plate design sparked another quilt’s theme. Watts has even dreamed entire quilt designs while sleeping. She doesn’t draw out the design, instead preferring to allow the quilt to flow freely.
“The idea is to build as I go,” she said. “It isn’t really dangerous. It is what brings the piece to life. The rules for landscape quilts are to start at the farthest point at the top and work down. I don’t do that. I just keep adding and adding until I sense I’m done.” Watts said she takes no commissions. “I need to feel free to explore and create.”
When she is building a design, Watts said she is exhilarated.
“It’s like a high. The adrenaline kicks in and I absolutely lose track of time.”
Watts’ quilts sell for $80 to $2,300 and are available through her website, www.coqnbullfarmquilts.com, or by calling 497-3046. She also often appears at trunk shows and major art festivals.