In a craft dominated by women, Suzan and Mark deSerres make an unusual quilting team.
Their studio, much of which Mark built, sits beside their Chapel Hill home. It whirs with the sound of two longarm quilting machines, about 10 feet across, one of which is stitching an antler pattern into a deer-themed quilt top.
A longarm quilting machine is between 10 and 14 feet long, with a metal “arm” that extends over the frame, similar to the arm of a sewing machine. The arm can be programmed to stitch any sort of design into a piece of fabric – or a quilt – laid over the frame. The machine also stitches together the three layers of a quilt: the top, the batting, and the backing.
The deSerreses’ business, Singing Stitches, has been operating since 2009. It takes in quilt tops – the part of a quilt that has been pieced or appliquéd – and creates designs over the top of them with a longarm machine before the quilt is assembled. The business typically charges based on the number of square inches in the quilt and the complexity of the design. Prices can range from $0.0075 to $0.09 per square inch.
Generally, a customer will bring in a quilt and decide on a design with the help of the deSerreses. The design will then be programmed into the longarm machine and the stitching will begin.
“I’ve been sewing since I was a little kid,” Suzan said. “A friend of mine was really into quilting, so because I love fabric and design and color, I just started quilting – that was back in 1996 – and it just grew from there.”
Mark worked for GlaxoSmithKline until 2012, when he retired and began to quilt alongside Suzan. That year they bought a second machine (Suzan’s originally stood in their bedroom) and built their studio.
“I decided, well, I better know something about this,” Mark said.
His knowledge has been key to the business. “I worked with a lot of technical instrumentation as a scientist at Glaxo,” he said. “This is just a different machine.”
Suzan and Mark have each found their niche in longarm quilting.
“I bring a lot of the creative part. I have the history of quilting,” said Suzan. “Mark brings in a whole new viewpoint… When we’re looking at designs, I’ll suggest something, and then Mark comes in and says, ‘Well, why don’t you try this?’ And it’s the perfect solution.”
Quilting has been a women’s pastime for hundreds of years. Suzan thinks this may sometimes limit her perspective.
“We’ve got the quilt police telling us what to do and what not to do,” she said and laughed. “(Mark’s) got no baggage.”
Beyond their partnership, the deSerreses also work closely with Thimble Pleasures, a fabric store in Chapel Hill. Customers will drop off their quilts at the store, and the deSerreses will come by and pick them up.
“Many quilters, even though they are not longarm quilters, have relationships with wonderful longarmers like Suzan and Mark deSerres,” said Lori College, who has been the manager of Thimble Pleasures since February.
Since many of the quilters who frequent Thimble Pleasures do not own longarm machines, they look to the deSerreses to finish their quilts. In this way, quilting is truly a community. Thimble Pleasures acts as a sort of nexus, a “diverse community of artisans who really love quilting,” as College put it.
But like all art forms, quilting is continually evolving. “We have a very vibrant quilting community in this area… We have quilters of all ages, all sizes, all creeds and colors.”
As quilting evolves, so do the people interested in the craft. The modern quilt movement, focused on simple quilt design and more blank background space, finds followers in both young women and men.
“I think more men are getting interested all the time,” said Suzan.
“We have a few male quilters that come in,” added Mark. “But by far, there are many more women than there are men. The (husband-wife) combination is pretty rare.”
Despite these differences, however, Singing Stitches has one main goal – perfection – which the deSerreses strive for every day.
“It’s a lot of responsibility bestowed to us when somebody brings us a quilt,” said Mark. “Some people have spent years working on them, so it’s our job to make it special.”
In fact, one of their current projects is hand-stitched, the product of six years’ work. It is beautiful, made with a precise eye and almost invisible needlework.
“(We’re) always on a mission,” said Suzan. “We enjoy getting things finished for people, quickly and beautifully.”