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Meet Elza McKenna of Rippey Street Quilts!

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

Elza McKenna is one of Arrow Creative's newest quilting studio artists in Residence. Elza is a quilting artist currently based here in Memphis, TN. Elza’s quilts are modern and colorful. She finds a way to bring her personality to an art form practiced for centuries. I had the chance to sit down with Elza and learn a little more about her practice.

Tell us about yourself and what you love to do and how you got started on your art journey!

I grew up sewing in our basement on my mom’s old sewing machine. I have so many memories of putting the pedal to the metal on her old Singer and the thread getting so tangled and the fabric getting bunched. I figured it out somehow, though, and my love of sewing stayed with me. I started quilting after I had my first children (a set of twins) in 2012. It’s easy to fall in love with quilts. They represent so much of what we crave in the human experience: community, warmth, love, tenderness, comfort, solace, multigenerational connections, physical touch, and the list goes on.

Being able to bring these intangible feelings, desires, and experiences into the world in a tangible way is why I love making quilts. Fabric and textiles are a super accessible medium. We can all relate to the physical and emotional reactions that arise when we touch fabric. I love this human bond and this communal experience that quilts provide.

After my first children were born, I wanted to sew for them. But they grew out of clothing faster than I could make it, so I started experimenting with quilting. And it stuck.

Can you describe your creative process?

I am a modern quilter. So most of my designs have a bold, clean, modern aesthetic. Usually, I am inspired by something I see, feel, or experience and I transform it into a simple, geometric pattern on my computer using Adobe Illustrator (AI). I use AI to plan out almost all of my quilt patterns. I’m a little too anxious for improv quilting!

I source most of my fabric from small businesses around the country. I like purchasing fabric designed by local artists and sold by a small business. I also choose to use only natural fibers, like cotton, bamboo, and wool, for all my fabric, thread, and batting.

What inspired you to use upcycled materials?

As a creator, I am constantly weighed down by how wasteful my craft is (I’m sure many of you out there can relate!). I am constantly consuming. Buying more fabric, more thread, more colors. Every time I trim a perfect piece of fabric, the excess goes into the trash. And then I think about how much water went into the plants that grew my fibers? How much carbon was spewed shipping these materials to me? I get overwhelmed by the giant footprint my craft leaves behind. And yet, I do believe life must be creative and beautiful.

Upcycling is new to me. I very much feel as though my quilts are defined by clean, bold design, and for a long time, I was hung up on the idea that an upcycled quilt would look too “hodgepodge” for my particular brand. But I’m just stubborn enough that I wanted to find a way to repurpose materials without sacrificing my aesthetic. Enter my current denim quilt project for which I’ve collected dozens of pairs of unused denim for a very modern, very clean, very large quilt.

What is your experience working with Arrow?

I have loved working at Arrow. The space is incredibly inspiring. Working alongside other creatives and sharing their energy has been an amazing experience.

What is your favorite thing about being a part of the Arrow community?

My favorite thing about being at Arrow is feeling seen and valued. As a creative, I often feel like I owe people an explanation for my work. I love being in a space where creating is so normalized and so valued.

What are you currently working on that excites you?

I’m currently working on a giant upcycled denim quilt and I’m pretty stoked about it! It measures about 70”x90” and is pieced together using foundation paper piecing (FPP). FPP is a method of piecing a quilt where the design is printed on paper and then the fabric is sewn directly onto the paper. The paper is torn away after all the pieces are sewn together. FPP provides extreme accuracy. Instead of cutting pieces and hoping they fit together, FPP allows you to sew your fabric right onto the paper exactly as you had planned it in your template. Of course, tearing the paper away is an additional, time-consuming step, but I think it’s worth it.

My upcycled denim quilt is the largest quilt I’ve ever worked on. It’s a modern take on a herringbone pattern, made almost entirely of strips of fabric that are either ½” or ¼” in width. It’s a slow project, but I have loved the meditative state I fall into when I get going. I’m halfway finished with the quilt top now and it’s taken about 35 hours. Sometimes I think it’s not worth the time to finish it, but then I step back and look at it and think, here I am using repurposed material in a way that is SUPER modern. I’m doing it!

I have also *loved* working with other people’s denim. When I press my hot iron on their jeans, it brings out their smells. I just love it. I imagine how they do laundry, how they fold, what places they went to, and on and on. Sometimes I find the tiniest little stains or holes and wonder how they got there. And all of these things are sewn up together in a quilt.

When I initially asked my social media followers for denim donations, I was blown away by how many people gave me denim to cut up! I promised myself, in an effort to stick to true upcycling, I did not want to *buy* any denim for this project. And it worked! Quilting is, at its core, such a community led art form and I love that so, so much.

What inspires you in your daily life?

Hm. I’m inspired by such random things at random times! One of my most recent submissions to the largest modern quilt show, QuiltCon, was inspired by candy dots on paper!

Outside of art, what are you passionate about?

I am definitely passionate about sustainability and simple living. I enjoy learning about native plant life and how to grow organic vegetables. I love my backyard chickens. And most recently, I took on a hive of backyard bees!

What is something people don't know about you that you'd like to share?

When people ask me to share something that others don’t know about me, I always tell the story of the time I was on Mr. Rogers! In person, he was just like you would imagine.

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