by Suzanne Labry
Maura Grace Ambrose
“Madder doesn’t like a lot of heat,” whiz kid quilter and natural dyer Maura Grace Ambrose notes. She offers this while removing the lid from one of the many large stainless steel vats full of cloth soaking in dye baths on her wide, covered back porch that overlooks peaceful blackland prairie pasture. Moving to another vat and peering inside, she adds, “I’m working on getting a good black from logwood.”
Visiting Ambrose’s studio at the home she shares with her husband, Chapman, and baby daughter, Ada Mae, on 10 tree-filled acres of rolling hills outside of Bastrop, Texas is rather akin to visiting a chemist’s lab, albeit with a wonderfully pastoral twist.
Bags of neatly labeled powders are stacked in a cupboard and large jars hold concoctions in various stages of science-experiment type decomposition. Containers holding all manner of roots, leaves, onionskins, pecans, acorns, walnut hulls, marigold blossoms, wood shavings, wild indigo, and other dried plant material fill shelves, line a table, and pack baskets on the floor.
While she frequently orders dyestuffs, such as cochineal, from online suppliers, Ambrose also forages her own and neighbors’ properties for materials to use in coloring the fabrics she uses in her quilts.
“One of our neighbors has a whole grove of Osage orange trees,” she says with obvious delight. “The heartwood makes a beautiful yellow-orange.”
A 2013 winner of a Martha Stewart American Made Program award for her Folk Fibers handmade quilts, 32-year old Maura did not grow up around quilters. The North Carolina native is a graduate of the Savannah (Georgia) College of Art and Design with a major in Fibers, and she learned to quilt at school.
She has always had the quilter’s innate appreciation for fabric, however.
“My grandma had some beautiful fabrics in her attic and I used to love looking at them. When I was in high school she let me have them,” she recalls. “I didn’t do anything with them for a long time because they were special, and I wanted them to have a special end use. It took a long time before I was ready to cut them.”
Hand dyeing with organic dyes is also something that Maura learned at school. While her classes covered all types of dyes and different methods of dyeing, it was the study of natural plant dyes that really resonated with her.
Like many quilters, Ambrose finds inspiration in nature. And prior to starting her Folk Fibers business, she apprenticed with a small farmer, managed a greenhouse, and did her own gardening.
Those horticultural experiences were key to her use of natural materials for dyestuffs. “A light bulb went off in my head when I realized that I could at least partially control my sources for dyes by growing my own plants or harvesting plants that grew around me,” she says.
Part of the current maker movement, she is passionate about quality craftsmanship. Her artistic training, her love of fabrics, and her appreciation for natural color combine to produce handmade quilts with a modern twist that have proven highly popular with customers.
Maura’s Folk Fibers brand has more than 50,000 followers on Instagram and Facebook; she has collaborated with Levi’s and Terrain to produce quilts shown and sold at their flagship stores; and her work has been featured in such publications as Martha Stewart Living, American Craft Magazine, and Country Living.
Each of her quilts is quilted by hand and packed in a handmade, screen printed cedar box. Because of the high demand for her products, Ambrose has hired three Austin-based quilters to help her hand quilt. “At first it was weird to see someone else’s quilting on my quilts,” she laughs. “But now I love to see their work and I call them my angels.”
With a steady stream of orders for her quilts; a book on quilting and natural dyes in the works; and being a featured lecturer and workshop leader at the Modern Quilt Guild’s recent QuiltCon held in Austin, Maura Ambrose’s future seems bright indeed, no matter how you color it.