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Getting to Know Meissner Sewing: Angelina McKenna

Emily Achondo
Angelina McKenna practices free-motion quilting on a long-arm machine at the Pacific International Quilt Festival in October 2016. McKenna compares long-arm quilting to drawing with a big pencil.

Don’t put a set of rules in front of Angelina McKenna.

Don’t put a label on her.

And when it comes to quilting, don’t tell her that she can’t follow her own inspiration.

Born in Bremerton, Washington, McKenna was raised in a family of seamstresses and quilters. She is a fifth-generation quilter, but she didn’t initially love the craft.

“When I was younger I didn’t care for it so much because my grandmother was really rigid,” she said. “So I thought quilting had to be really stressful and perfect.”

She continued to do it, though, and she would eventually find herself in “a right place at the right time kind of situation,” which would ultimately lead her right to Meissner Sewing and Vacuum Centers.

After moving from Washington state to Las Vegas, McKenna and her husband would eventually land in Sacramento, where he had previously lived, she said.

Prior to moving and working at Meissner’s, McKenna was laid off from her job as a bakery manager. She had taken a few years away from quilting, but, in order to fill her free time as she searched for work, she had been drawn back to it. She bought a new sewing machine, which was the first machine she had purchased on her own; previously she only sewed on hand-me-down machines passed by her mom and grandmother, she said.

Then, she enrolled in Tonja McCarthy’s Long-Arm Rental Certification class at Meissner’s in Sacramento. Because of her performance in the course, she was offered an interview to be McCarthy’s assistant and then a job at Meissner’s.

Even though she had been unemployed for about a year and was no longer looking for a job, McKenna said it really was a right time and place scenario.

“I was like, ‘They’re going to hire me at this big sewing center where they’re going to pay me to sew, which I love doing, they’re going to pay me to teach people to sew, and I am going to get paid to learn how to be a long-arm quilter? Uh duh,” she said.

The rest is practically history.

From the Beginning

In her early life, throughout school and beyond, McKenna had always been a creative person, she said. So, now, she reflects on her art education, her inherent craftiness and her determination to learn in order to hone her skills as a seamstress and quilter.

“I have always been really artistic and crafty,” she said. “And always loved drawing and jewelry making and sculpture and any art class that I could take, whether or not I was good at any of it.”

She attended Central Washington University for one year, pursuing an Art major. Then, several years later she would return to school at Olympic College where she received a degree in Digital Media Design with the goal of transferring to the University of Washington to study Graphic Design.

It is this history of learning and studying art that has been influential on McKenna’s current approach to the needle and fiber arts.

“I always had an art education, and I apply that to my sewing and my quilting as far as using design concepts and color theory and structure that I’ve learned,” she said. “I apply those theories to my quilting and my sewing, so (I’m) thinking about lines and secondary patterns, color theories. I apply that into my quilting, and that makes it, to me, an outlet for my art as well as something that I can take it just above and beyond cut and paste quilting.”

“Rebel Quilter”

For McKenna, there's no room for rules or a “paint-by-the-numbers” approach to quilting or teaching.

“I like to challenge my students to think beyond those paint by numbers themselves (and) to at least be aware that there are options out there besides following the ‘rules’ that we’ve always had to follow. Those rules were made by someone. Why can’t you be the person making the rules, right? So I like to encourage people to think about their style and their likes and what’s going to work for them, what isn’t going to work for them, even if it means defying the conventions that we’ve been taught as quilters. So maybe you’re going to mix colors, maybe you’re going to mix patterns, maybe you’re going to make a quilt out of corduroy? Try it. See what happens. We learn more from our failures than we do from our successes, and that helps us grow and evolve our own personal style. And so I just like to encourage people to think outside the box with their quilting,” she said. “I like to make my rules. As I go usually.”

Even though she is a member of the Sacramento Modern Quilt Guild and was featured as Week #17 on in 2015, McKenna won’t even categorize herself as a certain style of quilter because then she would feel compelled to defy the standards associated with this title, she said.

“I would consider myself more of a modern-traditionalist than a fully modern quilter,” she said. “I don’t like having a label though, because again that makes me want to do something and rebel against it.”

But in describing her own style, she said it is traditional with a modern twist.

“I like the old-fashion quilting patterns that have been out there for years, but I like to put a twist on them,” she said. “So if I see a pattern that I like that’s more of a classic pattern, I’ll try to put a modern spin on it by using a modern novelty fabric or making it entirely out of solids or all one color and thinking about creating secondary patterns through using a monochromatic color scheme.”

With inspiration coming from various sources, McKenna sees potential quilt patterns develop from everyday objects and themes, including clothes, attitudes and times of year, she said.

“I see inspiration around me everywhere,” she said. “I’ve been known to sketch out a pattern that I saw on a window sill or an awning.”

Angelina McKenna finds inspiration from various sources, including clothes, times of year, and attitudes, she said. She constructed a fall-themed quilt inspired by Sacramento sunsets. She said this quilt was created from cotton and denim and through a combination of domestic machine quilting and hand quilting techniques. (Photo courtesy of Angelina McKenna).

McKenna constructed a fall quilt for her home that brought together her defiant nature and inspiration from everyday sources. Navy blue and pink, McKenna’s finished quilt was influenced by the Sacramento sunsets.

“I made a fall-themed quilt for my house this year that’s pink and navy blue and green because fall here is a little different than fall back home, where everything turns gold and all the leaves fall off the trees," she said. "Here we still have green grass, and we have these beautiful pink sunsets. So I was pulling colors from fall in the Sacramento area to make this quilt."

She encourages her students to take a similar approach to quilting, calling on them to embrace their own sources of inspiration, even if it might produce a quilt that might not be considered conventional.

Her message to her students is “to like what you like.”

“Whether it is entirely conventional and traditional or if it’s super out of the box, own up to it, accept it, and don’t be afraid to try new things and do what you think you’re going to like,” she said. “If the pattern that you want to quilt or the style of quilt you want to make hasn’t been seen before, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means that you’re an innovator."

Long-arm Quilter and More

Prior to taking the Long-arm Rental Certification class at Meissner’s, McKenna was quilting her quilt on her own Janome sewing machine, which gave her only six inches of throat space to work with.

“I had these crazy clips I bought at the dollar store to clamp it all together to be able to manage it over my shoulder and hold it in one tube,” she said. “And it would always make my shoulders hurt, but it was still kind of fun to do it.”

That’s what prompted McKenna to take the class, and now the student has become the teacher.

“Long-arm quilting is where you have a machine head that rolls over a frame and your quilt stays stationary and you move the machine head. What I love about it is that it’s like drawing,” she said. “And it’s fun to try to challenge yourself to try to figure out how to draw things in as few lines as possible, so it’s like a little brain puzzle.”

McKenna has now been long-arm quilting for about 18 months, she said.

While McKenna frequently can be found practicing her own free-motion techniques on a long-arm machine, she also might be sewing hand bags or studying embroidery.

"I sew a lot of bags also," she said. "I really love making bags, and I want to learn more about sewing apparel. And I’ve been getting into embroidery in the last few months, so I’m learning more about embroidery and hoping to learn more about apparel."

Looking Forward

As for what is to come from McKenna in 2017?

Well, she'll continue to show people that rules weren't designed to be followed.

“I want to work on more machine quilting methods on my home sewing machine so that I can prove to people that it is possible to quilt on your home sewing machine and still get beautiful results, not just long arms, and that they can supplement each other just like hand quilting can,” she said. “I suppose you can look forward to more collaborative quilting styles where I try to fuse different types together.”

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