Leaving the Log Cabin Far Behind

Abstract quilter prefers to work in solitude

Lynne Harrill revolutionized the concept of the quilt.
Photo by Luke Van Hine

One day nearly 45 years ago, Lynne Harrill decided to make a quilt. It was during a summer off from her teaching position in the school system of her native Asheville, and during the national movement that later became tagged as the Great American Quilt Revival. 

“Having a dressmaking and tailoring background, I thought, ‘How hard could it be?’” remembers Harrill, who now lives in Flat Rock. It was also a time when polyester ruled the fabric world, so Harrill ordered a kit that came with pre-cut strips of cotton material, from which she fashioned her first log-cabin quilt with the traditional square, blocked pattern. “It wasn’t the most wonderful quilt, but it got me started,” Harrill says.

Gray-Brown

Since then, her quilts have evolved far beyond heritage patterns and are treasured as artworks every bit as enriching as any abstract painting. Inspired by the patterns and colors of the natural world, a Harrill quilt can evoke the shimmering heat of a day in high summer or the calming susurration of beach surf. “My forte is color, followed closely by shape,” Harrill says, “so it’s not surprising that I was first enamored with the French Impressionist painters. Following that, the abstract painters captured my interest. Even the few representational painted pieces I’ve done are on the abstract side.” 

Her earliest quilt designs were plotted out using graph paper and colored pencils, but her later work became much less rigidly planned and far more intuitive. “I can describe it as sewing some irregular shapes together, putting them up on a design wall, moving them around, seeing where to go from there,” Harrill says. “At various stages, I still use a digital camera and/or computer programs to help clarify the way forward.”

Blue-Brown

But it wasn’t always so, especially at the beginning of her quilting career, when, despite the revival of interest in the form, not much was available in the way of instruction — leaving Harrill to rely on her own instincts to develop her craft. One day, while visiting Hendersonville, she happened on Bonesteel’s Hardware and Quilt Corner, a landmark of downtown for more than 20 years and the nexus of all things Georgia Bonesteel, who had become nationally famous because of her PBS television series on her signature lap quilting, and locally famous for her quilting studio at Connemara in Flat Rock. 

“I had no idea where Georgia lived,” Harrill remembers of that day in 1980, “but naturally I went in to see if it was the same Bonesteel, and it was.” It was there that Harrill bought her first serious quilting tools — a rotary cutter, along with a ruler and mat. The cutter “turned out to be a revolutionary tool, not just for me but for quiltmaking in general.”

Vocal Cords

Despite the standard image of quilting as a collective and social activity, Harrill makes all her quilts herself, even the huge 88” x 102” quilt which remains her largest work to date. (She’s only joined a collaborative project on two occasions in the past 40 years.) Harrill even dyes her own fabrics, starting with large bolts of white unprocessed, unfinished fabric which she dyes using the traditional vat process.

After Rain

“But there are many ways to apply dye which are quite fun and amusing,” Harrill notes. “Dye can be painted on using a brush, or squirted on, drizzled on, or slung on — otherwise known as the Jackson Pollock method. It’s definitely an outdoor activity.” 

Her work hangs in private collections, including a commissioned quilt she just finished for a California couple, remotely designed via e-mails and phone conversations. Duke University Medical Hospital in Raleigh-Durham has also commissioned work from Harrill. 

Sforzando

“Quilted fabric panels lend themselves well as a medium to express abstract ideas,” she says. “I express mine through color and shape.”

Lynne Harrill, Flat Rock. Harrill’s quilts are at the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway) and Southern Highland Craft Guild Biltmore Village (26 Lodge St.), southernhighlandguild.org. For more information and to see the artist’s work online, visit lynneharrill.weebly.com.

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