Uncommon Threads: Cathy Favreau’s Colorful Quilts

For those who make them, for those who sleep under them, and for those who cherish them, hand-made quilts are more than just blankets.

“Quilts are a piece of art,” says Latin teacher Cathy Favreau. “But a piece of art you can use.”
For Favreau, that confluence of beauty and utility is part of what drew her to take up quiltmaking, about 12 years ago. Her quilts—often created as gifts for friends and family members—are a riot of color and pattern, both hewing to tradition and displaying her own distinctive style.

Quilting was a natural outgrowth of Favreau’s lifelong interest in sewing, costume-making, and fiber arts. Favreau has been sewing since childhood. “I learned to sew for my Girl Scout badge, making a pair of gauchos,” she says. Her mother and grandmother were skilled at sewing, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that Favreau also, as she puts it, “married into this family of fiber artists. My husband’s grandmother was a master weaver and knitter, and my husband’s aunt is one of those crazy quilters who’s been doing it for years.”

Favreau drew inspiration from these role models, but her own style also grew out of her lengthy experience working with textiles. Her sewing skills landed her a college job making costumes for the theater department. “Vassar had a great theater program,” she says. “The main stage did four shows a semester, so I made a lot of costumes. I wasn’t a theater major, but it was awesome.”

That gig in turn led to her first post-college job: making costumes for a summer-stock theater in Vermont. Although she says that working as a theatrical costumer was never a professional ambition, the experiences positioned her well to step into the role as a sideline when she began teaching. This past school year, she created the outfits worn on stage for Zombie Prom and The Tempest, dressing students for both a ’50s-style sock hop and a sojourn on an enchanted island. She welcomes the opportunity to engage with students in a non-academic setting: “I get to interact with Upper and Middle School kids in a way that’s out of the classroom and super-creative.”

Favreau turned her attention to quilting some years ago, as another outlet for her creativity. “I like saturated color, and I like to sew, and I like giving things to people,” she says, and quilting satisfied all three urges. Quilting also appealed to her, she says, because it was something relatively easy to pick up: “It’s just like following a recipe, and quilters are sort of generous in their craft, so you can learn pretty quickly.” Largely self-taught, she says she also benefited tremendously from two learning experiences funded by Rivers’s faculty enrichment grants: A workshop with Denyse Schmidt, a leading figure in the modern quilting movement, and a two-week residency at the renowned Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, in Maine.

Even the most casual glance at Favreau’s quilts reveals the primacy of color in her work. The combinations are intriguing, surprising, eye-catching—and, says Favreau, difficult to achieve. “The biggest challenge for me is color theory—what colors go together, lighter versus darker, putting them together so the pattern comes out,” she says. The precision required by quilting is also pushes her in new directions, she says. “I’m a big ‘wing it’ person, but in quilting, you can’t just wing it. If your triangle isn’t exactly 6 ¾ inches, everything is off. You can be playful in color, but the design has to be precise.” Favreau likens it to Latin: “Latin is very precise in its rules, but there’s never just one way to translate something. There might be several ways to translate a sentence or understand a passage or story. You can be precise, but you also have to intuit what the author is trying to communicate.”

It isn’t always easy to find time to quilt amid the demands of work and family. Favreau says, jokingly, that her husband calls her practice “binge crafting,” as it takes place in high-intensity sessions over weekends and vacations. She recently made a baby quilt for faculty member Susanna Donahue’s newest grandchild; the 45-by-55-inch quilt, big enough for a toddler bed, was completed in two days. But hard as it is to fit quilting into her life, Favreau is committed to it. “It’s good to explore a different side of you,” she says. “At school, I’m very much a Latin teacher. This is what I do outside the classroom.”