Sewing and Reaping

T he geometric pattern in shades of red appears at first to be random. Sewn on a white field, bars of differing heights are aligned in vertical parallels across the fabric. The design is pleasing. But there’s more to it: the bars approximate the waveform produced by speaking the word “love.”

This is not your grandmother’s quilt.

It’s Sheri Cifaldi-Morrill’s, and her home studio in Woodbridge is filled with unique, whimsical, bold creations like this one in cotton and thread. Since 2015, Cifaldi-Morrill has been putting her training as a graphic designer to work in the medium she discovered relatively late and somewhat by accident. Today she’s an award-winning quilt artist who exhibits both internationally and close to home.

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A work table in the middle of the studio is covered with a gridded mat used for cutting fabric. On top of that Cifaldi-Morrill lays samples of her work: a pink, gray and green floral design appliquéd in the Hawaiian style; a new take on the classic Drunkard’s Path pattern using oversized orange and green segments quilted with colored thread; a series of circular designs inspired by insects—bees, dragonflies, butterflies, ladybugs. One quilt literally showcases thread: on a white background, 270 tiny fabric pieces cut to look like spools of thread demonstrate every color in the Aurifil thread line, a quilt commissioned to celebrate the Italian company’s 10th anniversary in the United States. Closer to home, Cifaldi-Morrill has just completed a quilt titled Lift Up that was commissioned by the Arts Council of Greater New Haven for its 38th annual Arts Awards, this year themed “Phenomenal Women.”

Cifaldi-Morrill took a somewhat circuitous route to the passion projects that now sustain her full-time business, Whole Circle Studio. She loved her graphic design work—most recently, 13 years at Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk—but not the long hours in front of a computer monitor. When challenges in her personal life drove her to look for a distraction, she was inspired by a colleague to try quilting. Though she had grown up “crafty,” she’d never sewn before, so she picked up an instruction book and some inexpensive fabric and gave it a try. Her first quilt, she says, was “ug-ly.”

But something else came of that first sewing project. “It was just really cathartic,” she says. “Especially if you’re trying to work through something in your brain, just having that distraction, just the physical process of cutting or using a rotary [cutter] or sewing two things together and then having something to see for it at the end, that’s the part I really love.”

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She also loves the fact that quilts do what she calls “dual duty.” “Quilts can comfort you and literally keep you warm,” she says, “or they can be objects as art.” Then there’s the fabric, made to be touched. Shelves in Cifaldi-Morrill’s small studio hold bins large and small and even glass canning jars full of fabric scraps sorted by color. “Having fabric as a medium was something that I never really played with, and I completely love it,” she says.

In hindsight, Cifaldi-Morrill says, it’s surprising she didn’t connect her first quilting projects to her design skills. But once she did, she broke past traditional patterns and started creating her own. Her inspirations often come from the most ordinary of sources. A quilt she titled Road Work is striped down the center with a double line crossed by a horizontal crosswalk and warning arrows, inspired by a back road intersection where she used to get stuck on her way to work. She dreamed up her Bzzzzzz quilt, a hexagonal black and white-striped design interrupted by yellow and black geometric bees, with a quilted honeycomb design in the background, in the winter of 2015. “I remember sitting here looking out and… there was literally three feet of snow, and it kept snowing and snowing and snowing,” she says. Her husband is a backyard beekeeper, and his hives caught her attention. It was hard to imagine spring and bees buzzing—but she could quilt them.

When she entered Bzzzzzz into a competition, the design caught the attention of other quilters, who started asking for the pattern. So she learned how to create one. Then a fellowship from Craftsy, a community of 10 million hobbyists, designers, bloggers and craft instructors, sent Cifaldi-Morrill to the International Quilt Market in Houston, the industry’s major trade show. She pulled together some more patterns to bring to her booth, and things took off. Today pattern sales for some of her most popular designs are part of the Whole Circle Studio business.

Commissions also make up a large part of her work. Some are professional, like the quilts she designed for Aurifil and the Arts Council. Others are personal, including the oddest assignment she’s had thus far: a wedding quilt depicting Sasquatch in the woods. She shrugs. “They said that this had a lot of meaning to them… It was a lot fun.”

Cifaldi-Morrill’s work has become so popular that her patterns and quilts are circling the globe. “My quilts travel more than I do,” she says, noting they’ve been exhibited in places she’s never set foot, including Australia and Japan. Quilters in the US, Canada, South America, Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East have purchased her patterns and often share photos of their creations, some of them following instructions to the letter, others stitching in their own ideas. Locally, Cifaldi-Morrill’s work will be out and about not only at the Arts Council’s awards luncheon on December 7 but also in a pop-up show of “functional art” at Kehler Liddell Gallery in Westville on December 8 and 9. It’s also out and about in the form of leggings printed from two of her favorite quilt designs, which can be purchased via Whole Circle’s website.

For the most part, Cifaldi-Morrill herself stays close to home, often sewing late into the night. As cold weather arrives, she says, she’s even more inclined to stay in, where she’ll keep on sewing beautiful quilts to keep warm in body and in spirit.

Whole Circle Studio
by Sheri Cifaldi-Morrill
sheri@wholecirclestudio.com
www.wholecirclestudio.com

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1, 4 and 7 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2 and 6 (detail) photographed by Dan Mims. Images 3 and 5 (detail) provided courtesy of Whole Circle Studio.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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