Talking Shop and Watercolor Quilting with Ashley Nickels

I’ve recently come across a life-changing concept called multi-passionate creativity.

Basically, it says: we don’t all have to have ONE THING that we love, are good at, and make a career out of. We can be passionate about lots of things, and we don’t have to feel bad about it.

Forget about Your Brand for a minute. If you desire to dive into multiple creative outlets, DO IT! You don’t have to be identified as a [insert profession here] period. Let your life be full of commas, of ampersands. Let yourself be a dreamer, a writer, an artist, a dancer, and a mom — or whatever titles you claim. Explore everything you’re interested in and celebrate your varied interests and skills. It’s not a bad thing or something we have to feel guilty about. In fact, embracing multi-passionate creativity and honoring our many callings helps us fulfill our whole selves and find completeness and joy.

Ashley Nickels is a multi-passionate creative who I look up to in a big way. Ashley has many inspiring talents that have created the foundation for her flourishing career, and her true passion for them shines through in the way she talks and works.

Not only is Ashley a writer and teacher, but she’s an artist, creating the most gorgeous watercolor quilts that are simply…well, jaw-dropping.

Today on Talking Shop, Ashley talks with us about her journey to free-motion and watercolor quilting, how she embraces each step in her life as a success, and the importance of answering your calling…NOW.

Everyone, meet Ashley!

About You:

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Ashley! I grew up in Michigan, and used to be a softball player and an ice cream scooper. In college, I studied Spanish and History of Art, and my study abroad year in Sevilla, Spain changed my life. I went back to Spain after graduating, did an M.A in Madrid, and lived in Spain for seven years. I moved to San Francisco about 10 years ago for a job teaching middle school Spanish, and fell in love with the Bay Area! I began quilting about 15 years ago, and my first book, Free-Motion Quilting 101, came out in October of this year.

Describe your journey into quilting.

I grew up around quilting, and I remember when my mom Sue and aunt Patty won the top award in Paducah KY in 1998. I always loved sewing, but usually stuck to making handbags and other accessories. I didn’t start quilting until I lived in Spain, which was hard because my mom was so far away to ask questions. I became familiar with the basics of quilting and realized I love the medium because it can be extremely versatile.

What drew you to watercolor quilting?

I came up with Watercolor Quilting after realizing that the thin pen outlines I was drawing around my watercolor paintings on paper looked an awful lot like free-motion quilting. I went to the art shop and found a fabric paint, and the rest is history! I was able to re-create the process on the soft textile surface, and then quilt with black thread to create even more luscious textures than I could on paper. It was heaven!

What do you love most about handmade crafting?

I love the personal experience of creating a quilt from start to finish. With my watercolor quilts, the painting process is so fun and improvisational, and then the free-motion quilting is extremely meditative. I get so much from the process, it’s like therapy!

What were some of the most meaningful experiences you had while teaching in the US and abroad?

I am extremely honored to be able to lead an artistic classroom. Watching my students discover the process of free-motion quilting is so rewarding for me. That they can gain confidence in using the sewing machine for something soul-fulfilling like making a quilt is such a wonderful metaphor for other areas of our lives. If they can take on this type of creative challenge, what else might they be capable of?! Now that my book is out, I’m excited to see what people can do with the skills in their own homes!

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as you’ve started and grown your business?

I have learned to measure progress differently than I thought. I am inspired by anyone who is labeled “an overnight success,” because I know there is probably at least 10 years of extremely hard work that has lead up to their seemingly easy success. I know that each little step, like a connection with an Instagram follower, or getting one new newsletter subscriber, are all important moments in the process, and to value all of it.

What has been the biggest learning curve in your business?

For me, it has been finding the balance between job/business. I have gone through several iterations of full-time job, then full-time art business, and then 50/50 (job/biz), then 70/30 (job/biz), and I can honestly say I still have not figured out my formula of success.

What do you enjoy most about teaching sewing and quilting classes?

My favorite part is always at the end when we do a show and tell, and all of my students feel pride in what they made. It fills my heart up, and gives me all the feels!

What advice would you give to others looking to start their own passion projects or small business?

If you feel the calling… you must answer! Life is too damn short and you never know what will happen. That being said, speaking from experience, I don’t recommend diving in headfirst with no plan. Answer that call, but also set yourself up for success!

How would you describe your creative process? What inspires you?

My creative process requires a lot of space, both physical and mental. If I want to make a quilt, I often need to spend time doing something unrelated to quilting (writing, or tarot cards, or even a different type of sewing project) in order to get inspiration. I am also extremely inspired by music and movies.

What have been some of the best experiences you’ve had within your creative community?

I always enjoy connecting with fellow creative women, either online through creative programs like Tiffany Han‘s Inner Circle, or meeting up locally with my creative friends. In addition, the process of writing the book with my editor Carolyn was so fun and fulfilling.

How do you stay motivated and avoid burnout?

Take breaks. Like full-on breaks from creative work where you just read and watch movies. Then, get your butt back in the chair, because avoidance can be addictive! Also, reach out to people if you need help with motivation… like me, for example! Always feel free to contact me if you have any questions!

The Fun Qs:

The best movie or show you’ve watched recently?

Barry, or Fleabag.

Your favorite San Francisco spot?

Probably eating at Arizmendi bakery, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, or perusing Green Apple Books.

The book you always recommend to others?

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, or for a lighter read, The Library Book by Susan Orlean.

The song that’s currently stuck in your head?

Anything by Lizzo.

Visit Ashley’s website here and on Instagram @alphabetashley. Shop her book, Free-Motion Quilting 101, here and sign up for her newsletter here. Read her writing on her Medium page here. Visit Tiffany Han’s site here.

Leave a Reply