“I spend 10 hours every day quilting”: Before Covid, he couldn’t sew. Now he sells his designs on Instagram

“I spend 10 hours every day quilting”: Before Covid, he couldn’t sew. Now he sells his designs on Instagram

Justin Yong is a Toronto-based photographer whose work dried up when the pandemic hit last spring. With idle time on his hands, he borrowed a sewing machine from his mother and took up quilting. Now he makes elaborate, one-of-a-kind quilts with fabrics that he sources from across the city, and sells them on Instagram. Here, he tells Toronto Life how he developed his pastoral side hustle.

—As told to Haley Steinberg

I went to school for photography and have been working in the field for the past 10 years, doing everything from big commercial productions to book- and print-making. I’ve always enjoyed the more artistic, analog aspects of the profession: developing my own negatives, printing, displaying. But I was spending a lot of my time in front of a computer screen, working on the digital side of the practice, scanning negatives or editing out specks of dust in a photograph. Even before the pandemic, I was looking for a new creative outlet that was more hands-on.

I’ve always loved clothing and felt drawn to the physicality of textiles. Last spring, soon after the pandemic hit, I came across a book called America’s Glorious Quilts that piqued my interest. It was a retrospective of quilting in the U.S., and it was full of pictures of traditional American quilts from different eras. The use of bright colours and upcycled materials—one quilt was made entirely from ties—resonated with me aesthetically. One day, it hit me that I should try making one for myself. Quilting requires a lot of time, space and equipment. Suddenly, I had all three.

With studios closed, the bulk of my photography work had dried up, so I dedicated my days to quilting. In retrospect, I think the impulse came from my mother—she’s an experienced quilter and was constantly making things while I was growing up. I still have a baby blanket that she made for me. But when I was younger, I just saw quilting as something my mom did. It didn’t interest me until this past year.

I have no background in sewing, so I asked my mom for a sewing machine—she’s collected a whole bunch over the years. She gave me a quick lesson on the basics. I learned how to attach two pieces of cotton fabric together with a proper seam, so that they wouldn’t fall apart in five seconds. I started off with basic traditional designs, making small tops, which is the top layer of a quilt. Then I dove into making my first full quilt. I was going for that traditional American quilt design—a patchwork of different shapes and patterns—but with more of an intentionally imperfect, homemade feel. I figured things out on the fly, and whenever I didn’t know how to do something, I called or FaceTimed my mom for help. She would pull out some fabric and demonstrate how to do it, or send me links to YouTube tutorials.

When I first started quilting, I thought, “I’m just going to start sewing, attaching things together.” But there are so many steps involved that I didn’t think about, like how much time I would spend ironing. Every time you attach two pieces together, you have to iron the edges to flatten them out. I didn’t even own an iron, so I had to go out and buy one.

For my first few quilts, there was a steep learning curve. I spent chunks of time—usually several hours at once—working on them throughout the day, every day. As a non-sewer, I was pretty happy with how my first quilt turned out. The second and third were even better, both in technique and design. When I look back at those early quilts now, I notice so many imperfections—things that I would like to change or wish I’d done differently. But I’ve learned so much just by doing. Now I spend about 10 hours every day quilting. It’s definitely become a bit of an obsession. That’s how my mind works. I’m not just going to do a little bit of something—I’m going to dive right in.

At this point, quilting is a more organic process for me. It takes me about 40 hours to make each quilt, and no two quilts are the same. I usually listen to a basketball podcast while I’m working. My fabrics come from all over. My mom gave me a giant pile of quilting cotton, and I’m still working through it. In the early days, if I needed specific colours, I’d buy them from fabric stores.

Quilt photos courtesy of Justin Yong

The design process is the most stressful and time-consuming. My designs are mostly patchworks. I like to mix and match different quilting styles, like traditional African and American designs. I’m into a group of quilters in the American South called Gee’s Bend, named after the small town in Alabama where they’re located, who have been making quilts for generations; their designs have recently become very popular. I also tend to gravitate towards abstract designs and take inspiration from painters like Rothko who play around with colours and space. My designs are also inspired by sampler quilts, which contain a bunch of different traditional styles jammed together.

I usually start by building a colour palette. I go through my stockpile of fabric and pull anywhere from two to 10 colours. Sometimes I sketch out a design first, but not always. Then I lay out all the pieces on the floor or a board and move them around to try to fit them together, sometimes cutting pieces into different shapes. I start with one section, or box, and build on that until I have a complete design.

Each quilt has three layers: the top, the batting (the filling that goes in the middle) and the bottom sheet. I pin the layers together so they don’t bunch up, and then I start sewing. The last step is to iron and sew up the edges, so the end product looks clean and finished.

Last June, I raffled off one of my early quilts and donated the proceeds—about $2,800—to an organization called Raven, which raises funds to protect Indigenous land rights. Around that time, I started posting pictures of my quilts on Instagram. At first, my friends were shocked that I was transitioning into something new. But they were ultimately very encouraging and supportive.

Then people started reaching out asking to buy my quilts. I’m now selling them for about $900 each, depending on fabric and size, but in the beginning, they were going for much less. I’ve sold about 15 to 20 quilts so far. Lately, I’ve mostly been doing commissions. People reach out and say, “Go crazy,” or they’ll have a specific colour palette in mind. I’ve got a backlog of about five to 10 commissions right now. My photography work has picked up again, but I’m still making a couple of quilts a month. I’m trying to find a balance between the two. Luckily, since I’m a freelancer, I can schedule my work around my quilting projects. I’d love to do it full time one day.

My mom loves my new passion. I’ll send her a picture of a piece I’m working on, and she’ll say, “Oh, I don’t know if that’ll work.” And then when I manage to pull it together, she’ll be fascinated by the whole thing and show it to all her friends.

Now that I’m more comfortable with quilting, I’ve been trying to source my fabric more sustainably. I’m playing around with more experimental, less practical designs, like hangings made from “garbage”—leftover quilting cotton, upcycled scraps from friends who make clothes, pieces from a local textile factory that makes sweats. There’s so much waste in the textile industry. I like the idea of using materials that would otherwise get thrown out to create something new. I’m interested in exploring the constraints of what a quilt can be.