'Stitches to savor': New book covers quilt designer's international inspiration

By Masaki Sugimoto

AKRON, Ohio — The terrain Sue Spargo has walked in life is stitched into her quilts.

There are the zebras and giraffes that delighted her as a child growing up in southern Africa, the antique tiles she saw in Italy, the house on a hill she used to drive by in the village of Magnolia, Ohio.

Her experiences, her emotions, all are fodder for the vibrant folk art that has earned her an international reputation as a quilt designer and teacher.

Spargo’s art is the subject of a new book, “Stitches to Savor: A Celebration of Designs” by Sue Spargo, due out this week from the craft-book publishing company Martingale. The publisher also has created a 2016 wall-art calendar showcasing her designs.

Her quilts are joyful, energetic and exquisitely detailed. Appliques made from hand-dyed wool are embellished with beads, ribbons and the embroidery stitches she taught herself, adding depth and making each tiny element its own work of art.

Born in Zambia, Spargo grew up in South Africa and lived in England as a young adult before moving to the United States in 1989.

She credits her artistry to her father, who encouraged her creative pursuits and allowed her to explore many mediums, and her love of fabric to her mother, who got her interested in sewing as a child. Her African background, she said, inspired her use of simple folk-art motifs.

Spargo landed in the Akron area about 15 years ago because of her ex-husband’s job, and she decided to stay after her marriage ended rather than move her family again.

Becoming a single parent pushed her to turn her quilting passion into a business. She needed to earn a living, she said, so she figured she could either go back to her previous career of nursing or find a way to make money pursuing the art form she loved. She chose the latter.

Her business, which bears her name, started in her basement with 10 quilt patterns. Today it has a website, retail and wholesale clienteles and a headquarters in an industrial park in Green, Ohio.

Spargo’s company sells the quilt kits and patterns she designs, books that teach her techniques and supplies, including fabric, embroidery thread and embellishments. It employs three of her four children, Kelly, Jason and Aimee. Son Andrew is a fashion designer who co-founded the clothing company Grei.Spargo is surprisingly little known in Ohio but in demand around the world for her workshops. The schedule on her website shows upcoming appearances across the United States as well as in Costa Rica, Italy, Spain and France.

Those travels are among the rich experiences that influence Spargo’s quilt designs. Her quilts tell stories, she said – stories of cultures she has tasted, images she has seen and feelings she has experienced.Many of Spargo’s quilts are designed for her block-of-the-month club, which allows subscribers to re-create her works one block at a time.

As with all of her designs, they can follow her instructions exactly or use her example as a starting place for their own creativity, she said.

Her quilt titled Bird Dance, for instance, was influenced by an antique tile floor she saw in Sicily. The quilt is decorated with 30 birds of all sorts and colors, each simple in shape but elaborately embellished with fabric and decorative stitches.

African Days, one of her first quilts to incorporate embroidery, shows images from her childhood. The quilt features a Cape Dutch house _ a common architectural style in South Africa _ surrounded by a cheerful garden and the animals she used to see in parks as a child. Woven through the quilt is a fabric ribbon stitched with proverbs.

Spargo’s exuberant My Tree of Life was created in 2009 to mark her 50th birthday. It pictures 50 birds alighting on or near a tree, surrounded by butterflies representing her four children. Interspersed with the colorful images are copper tags her son Jason stamped with words representative of her life, words such as “love,” “faith,” “challenge” and “determination.”

Her designs have evolved since she started quilting, using traditional piecing and applique techniques. She created her first wool quilt about 14 years ago, and “I just fell in love with the texture,” she said. Wool, she believes, makes the stitching stand out more and gives a quilt more depth.

Embroidery is a more recent addition, adding yet another layer of texture and interest.

Each of Spargo’s designs evolves from a simple black-and-white drawing. She sketches the basic concept, chooses a background fabric and then builds the quilt block by block and layer by layer, sometimes tweaking the original design as she goes.

She doesn’t do the machine quilting that finishes the pieces, however. That she leaves to quilter Jan Joehlin, whose freewheeling style complements the playful nature of Spargo’s designs. “She’s sort of a doodler,” Spargo said.

Many of Spargo’s quilts are designed for her block-of-the-month club, which allows subscribers to re-create her works one block at a time. As with all of her designs, they can follow her instructions exactly or use her example as a starting place for their own creativity, she said.

She prefers that quilters choose their own fabrics to make her quilts, but she likes that her kits make it possible for people to turn out something beautiful even if they don’t consider themselves creative.

“They don’t have to think,” she said. “They can just make it.”

Spargo is happy to do the creative thinking for them.