Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Interview: Debra Gabel of Zebra Designs

A few weeks ago, I had a give-away of Debra Gabel’s new book, Quilt Blocks Across America. I always enjoy reading interviews with artists and designers, and I thought you might find a chat with Debra insightful.

Debra, I’d like to start by getting a little background information on you. Can you tell me about yourself? Born in New York, I started sewing as a child, and quilting as a teen. After several professional moves around the U.S. in adulthood, we finally settled in Maryland. Armed with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Graphic Design, I worked for many years as an Art Director in the packaging industry. My independent graphic design business, Mixed Media, has operated since 1988. After rediscovering quilting in the late 1990's, I started teaching quilting locally in 2000.

I have steadily built up my own pattern line that includes 30+ beautiful florals,  24 birds, 12 butterflies, 12 Bible stories, 12+ Holiday Houses, over 70 signature stamps, several baby quilts, and many unique quilted projects and art quilts. I now teach and lecture nationally at guilds and quilt shops in the U.S. I enjoy and have had success entering and showing in national shows, and have had quilts published in calendars, quilt books and on web sites. My intentions are to continue lecturing and teaching, to evolve into an international quilter/speaker/author and to travel the world through quilting.
Prairie Point Stocking
What was your very first quilting pattern, and how did it come about? My first pattern was my Prairie Point Stocking pattern. I designed this pattern in 1999 for our new house. It was just for personal use. I could not find a nice affordable pre made stocking so I decided to make my own. I made 5 stockings for my family and brought them to my local quilt shop for show and tell. Well, that show and tell ended up providing my first teaching opportunity. The owner asked if I had a pattern and would teach a class. I had to make a "real" pattern with directions for my class. That was the beginning of Zebra Patterns even though I did not know it at the time. Being a graphic designer the layout, photography and pattern making was very natural and easy. However - writing out those directions was not on my “favorite things to do” list for sure. And guess what … It has NOT moved up on the charts in my life to this day! I love everything about patterning, except all the written copy! UGH!

Baltimore stamp design by Debra Gabel

How do you think your background as a graphic designer has influenced your style?
Being a graphic designer is the reason so many of my patterns include type. I LOVE LOVE LOVE typography. I love bold graphic messaging. My signature stripes are included in most of my work. I tend to use bold jewel tones and design my patterns with “simplified reality” as my main intention. Being a graphic designer I pay close attention to line and composition. I design with an artist’s eye in a quilter’s world. I have been using computers and design software since 1984. I used the original Illustrator software. It was AMAZING to be able to draw perfect circles and lines without a radiograph back then!

Debra’s new book

What was your very first job? your worst/most unpleasant job?  My first job was babysitting at 12 years old. Funny, but that is where I learned to do raw edge appliqué. I was and still am a high strung individual. I would always need something to do when the children were napping while babysitting. I worked for a lady who was a quilter. She found out that I was artistic and asked if I wanted to help her with her professional craft business. She made pillows and totes with Raw Edge Appliqué way back in 1974 and sold them on the ACC circuit! No fusible — just limited calico fabrics and pins. When the children were resting I would cut out appliqués from cotton. That is how far back I go with raw edge appliqué. I worked with her though out high school and college.

My most unpleasant job … hmmm … that is an interesting question. I usually find something fun and interesting in everything I do and have done. That said, I do recall an unpleasant experience that was a bit bizarre. I was around 16-17 years old and I worked in a sporting goods store part time. I sold sports equipment and restrung tennis rackets. I made good money doing the stringing but I was required to cover the floor if we got busy. One day a large woman walked in looking for a pair of tennis shoes. She told me she was size 8. She picked a pair of sneakers and I sat down to help her try on the shoes. I put on the first shoe and she said gruffly “I will do the other one!” I thought hmm that is strange because I do not think this woman can even reach her feet ~ Well she bent over and started twisting her knee. A few brisk turns and her leg came off below the knee! Oh MY! I was not expecting that! I just sat with my mouth open. I think the lady enjoyed my reaction as she looked at me and gave a half smile smirk. The good news is that she did buy the shoes and I did get my commission. That was not too much fun at the time - but is quite comical now! 

You produce an amazing number of designs. You just put out Quilt Blocks Across America, and Quilt Blocks Around the World is coming out soon. How do you get so much done so fast? I used to be a designer of handled paper shopping bags, gift wrap and gift boxes. I worked as art director for a few large paper and packaging companies. I had the pleasure of designing several national lines of gift packaging. I got quite quick at designing on a computer as early as 1984. As mentioned earlier I designed art with Adobe Illustrator on a little Macintosh! I have been using computers since then to do design layout and production art. The computer make things go so much faster than hand drawing and if you know how to do it, you can design and be creating almost camera ready art at the same time. 

I am also a self diagnosed ADD and OCD person. I just try to harness all the energy and obssession into design. I really think about designs all the time. That is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that I look at the world a bit more scrupulously that the average Joe. I get an idea, might write it down, but have that idea in my head. Once a clear direction is worked out in my head I go right to design. When I sit down to actually create a pattern I get it done quickly because the whole thing was already “baked” in my head. It becomes a simple task to translate the idea digitally. All of that saves a bunch of time. 

So the answer is “with focused obsession and 25 years of experience it comes naturally to me.” I also work fast and confidently. I am a production junkie. If I am producing and creating I just get more and more fired up. 

If you weren’t doing what you do now as a career, what would you like to do? Tell me five jobs that you might consider (setting aside things like your age, need for training, etc.)  Hmm....I am doing exactly what I want to be doing and should be doing but to answer the hypothetical question here goes…
I could picture myself as:
  • a psychologist - love all that head shrinking analysis and I like to help people figure out problems.
  • a teacher of smart highly motivated students
  • quilt shop owner - I would love to make the most inspirational quilt shop in the world!
  • interior designer for really rich people (LOL)
  • a costume designer for Cirque du Soleil – and if talent does not count I would be one of those little bendy Asian girls in Cirque who puts her feet on her head like a pretzel.
What was the last movie you went to see? Book read?
The Help. Great movie!
Last book.... The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. I read and re read that book often.

What would you most like to accomplish – on a professional or personal level – in the next 5 years? Professionally, I would like to continue to grow my business to be able to hire several employees. I have always wanted a business where people LOVED to come to work, a place where creativity, sharing and personal/professional growth are premier. I would like to get out my fabric lines and continue to author books and patterns. I would like to be traveling internationally lecturing and teaching.
Personally, I would like to continue to learn, grow, and create every possible minute.
“It’s a New Day” by Debra Gabel
Everyone, make sure you check out Debra’s gallery of art quilts on her website here. And if you want more information, visit:

Facebook: Debra Ogden Gabel
Facebook Page: Zebra Patterns

NOTE: Debra is giving away a copy of my book, Point, Click, Quilt! on her blog here.