Before Covid, he didn’t know how to sew. Now he sells his designs on Instagram
“I spend 10 hours a day quilting”: before Covid, he did not know how to sew. Now he sells his designs on Instagram
Justin Yong is a Toronto photographer whose work ended when the pandemic struck last spring. With the free time on his hands, he borrowed a sewing machine from his mother and got down to quilting. Now he makes elaborate, one-of-a-kind quilts with fabrics he sources from all over town, and sells them on Instagram. Here he tells Toronto life how he developed his pastoral side.
-As said to Haley Steinberg
I went to school for photography and have worked in the field for the past 10 years doing everything from large commercial productions to creating books and prints. I have always liked the more artistic and analog aspects of the profession: developing my own negatives, printing, exhibiting. But I spent a lot of time in front of a computer screen, working on the digital side of the practice, scanning negatives, or touching up dust spots in a photo. Even before the pandemic, I was looking for a new more practical creative outlet.
I have always loved clothes and felt drawn to the physicality of textiles. Last spring, shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, I came across a book called America’s Glorious Quilts it piqued my interest. It was a retrospective of quilting in the United States, and it was full of images of traditional American quilts from different eras. The use of bright colors and recycled materials – one quilt was made entirely of ties – resonated with me aesthetically. One day I felt like I should try to make one for myself. Quilting requires a lot of time, space and equipment. Suddenly I had all three.
With the studios closed, most of my photography work had dried up, so I spent my days quilting. Looking back, I think the impetus came from my mom – she’s an experienced quilter and was constantly doing things while I was growing up. I still have a baby blanket she made for me. But when I was younger, I just saw the quilt as something my mom made. It only interested me last year.
I don’t have any sewing experience, so I asked my mom for a sewing machine – she’s collected a whole bunch of them over the years. She gave me a little lesson on the basics. I learned how to tie two pieces of cotton fabric with a proper seam, so that they don’t fall apart in five seconds. I started with traditional basic patterns, doing little tops, which are the top layer of a quilt. Then I dove into making my first full quilt. I was going for this traditional American quilt design – a patchwork of different shapes and patterns – but with more of an intentionally flawed, homemade feel. I figured things out on the fly, and whenever I wasn’t sure how to do something, I called or FaceTimed my mom for help. She would come out of the fabric and demonstrate how to do it, or send me links to YouTube tutorials.
When I first started quilting, I thought to myself, “I’m just going to start sewing, to tie things together.” But there are so many steps involved that I didn’t think about how much time I would spend ironing. Every time you tie two pieces together, you need to iron the edges to flatten them. I didn’t even have an iron so I had to go out and buy one.
For my first quilts, there was a steep learning curve. I spent chunks of time – usually several hours at a time – working on it throughout the day, every day. As a non-sewer, I was pretty happy with how my first quilt turned out. The second and third were even better, both in technique and in design. When I think back to those first quilts now, I notice so many imperfections – things that I would like to change or that I would have liked to have done differently. But I learned so much just by doing. Now I spend about 10 hours a day quilting. It has definitely become an obsession. This is how my mind works. I’m not just going to do something a little bit – I’m going to dive right in.
At this point, quilting is a more organic process for me. It takes me about 40 hours to make each quilt, and no two quilts are the same. I usually listen to a basketball podcast while I work. My fabrics come from everywhere. My mom gave me a giant pile of quilted cotton, and I’m still working on it. At first, if I needed specific colors, I bought them from fabric stores.
The design process is the most stressful and time consuming. My creations are mostly quilts. I like to mix and match different styles of quilting, like traditional African and American designs. I’m in a quilting group in the southern United States called Gee’s Bend, named after the small town in Alabama they’re in, that has been making quilts for generations; their designs have recently become very popular. I also tend to be interested in abstract drawings and draw inspiration from painters like Rothko who play with colors and space. My designs are also inspired by sampler quilts, which have a bunch of different traditional styles put together.
I usually start by building a color palette. I go through my fabric stock and shoot anywhere from two to 10 colors. Sometimes I draw a picture first, but not always. Then I lay all the pieces on the floor or on a board and move them around to try to put them together, sometimes cutting pieces into different shapes. I start with a section, or a box, and build on it until I have a complete design.
Each comforter has three layers: the top, the fleece (the padding that goes down the middle), and the bottom sheet. I pin the layers together so they don’t bunch up, then start sewing. The last step is to iron and sew the edges together so that the final product is clean and finished.
Last June, I raffled off one of my first quilts and donated the proceeds – about $ 2,800 – to an organization called Raven, which raises money to protect Indigenous land rights. Around this time, I started posting pictures of my quilts on Instagram. At first my friends were shocked that I was making the transition to something new. But in the end they were very encouraging and united.
Then people started asking me to buy my quilts. I’m selling them now for around $ 900 each, depending on the fabric and size, but at first they were going a lot cheaper. I have sold about 15-20 quilts so far. Lately, I mainly do errands. People reach out and say, “Go crazy,” or they’ll have a specific color scheme in mind. I currently have a backlog of about five to ten commissions. My photography work has resumed, but I still make a few quilts a month. I try to find a balance between the two. Fortunately, since I am freelance, I can plan my work around my quilting projects. I would love to do it full time someday.
My mom loves my new passion. I’ll send her a picture of a part I’m working on and she’ll say, “Oh, I don’t know if that will work.” And then when I get it together, she’ll be fascinated by it all and show it to all her friends.
Now that I’m more comfortable with quilting, I’ve tried to source my fabric in a more durable way. I play with more experimental, less practical designs, like ‘trash’ draperies – quilted cotton, recycled scraps from friends who make clothes, pieces from a local textile factory that make sweats. There is so much waste in the textile industry. I love the idea of using materials that would otherwise be thrown away to create something new. I am interested in exploring the constraints of what a quilt can be.