Group Hug Quilts

It’s another beastly day in central New Jersey. Sammi Nguyen pours me a tall ice water, and when I look for a surface on which to set it, she indicates a wood table. I express reservation about condensation forming, but she assures me this is the “craft table.”

We are in the airy open addition to the house she grew up in in Cranbury, accompanied by friendly little dogs with curly blond hair that look like twins but are not. Harry – the one with the pointy ears – is a Cairn terrier, and Hercules – he’s got the floppy ears – is a schnoodle.

Nguyen divides her time between Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband, Nam, and what she calls her “country studio” in Cranbury. This light-filled space is where she creates Group Hug Quilts. She’ll be holding a Group Hug Quilts Summer Trunk Show at 14 Evans Drive, Cranbury, June 25 and 26, 2 to 4 p.m.

Group Hug wedding quilts are collaborative pieces made with the friends and family of the bride and groom, and often initiated by the mother of the bride. Each person who would like to be involved makes a quilt square that helps tell the story of what brought the bride and groom together, including their personal histories.

People of all sewing levels participate, and the squares may include embroidery, lace, beading or photo transfers. For those who are truly sewing phobic, Nguyen offers help.

She takes all the disparate elements – the squares can be all different sizes and shapes – and stitches them together in a way that somehow works. Not only are the fronts artful, but she creates her own design on the back using luminous colors of dupioni silk to create anything from a sunset to a fish pattern. Depending on how it is folded, the fabric shimmers and reflects the light, taking on different colors – orange can be pink, for example.

“A wedding quilt stitches two families together into a festive and unique story in celebration of the couple, the whole of which is unseen until it is unveiled at the wedding reception,” proclaims Nguyen on her website.

Some recipients hang the quilts on the wall, others drape them over furniture to show off both sides, and some even sleep under them. Prices run $1,000 to $3,000, and they require a few months to make.

In addition to wedding quilts, Nguyen makes smaller quilts, often with animals that appeal to both children and adults. Made from prewashed cotton on the front and silk dupioni on the back, they are available both on commission and from a series she has already produced.

Ever since her childhood creating crafts on this very table – everything from drawing and painting to creating jewelry, Halloween costumes and ornaments for the family’s Hanukkah bush – Sammi wanted to be a fashion designer. After graduating from Princeton High School in 2001, she attended Moore College of Art and Design, “but it wasn’t the right fit, so I became interested in fine art,” she says.

Meanwhile, she was working nights and weekends at the Whole Earth Center in Princeton. “It was so much fun, with such a great sense of community and interesting people,” she says. “I met more alternative and intellectual people there. There was a constant stream of people coming in, wanting to know such things as what do you do with kale.”

She met Nam, a coworker at WEC, in 1999 and the couple married in 2005. Nam, who is planting 300 impatiens outside as we speak, is a songwriter and musician who studied fine arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which is where Sammi transferred to from Moore and majored in painting.

During her first two years at PAFA, she worked from a live model or from the cast hall. By the third year, an interest in collage began to take over.

At the same time, in 2003, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend was on view at the Whitney Museum of Art, with the brilliant, bold and dynamic quilts created by a group of women from the isolated, African-American hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Ala. The designs were compared to abstract art by curators and critics.

“They were related to the collages I was doing,” says Nguyen. “Whenever I was frustrated I would do hand-stitching, and by the end of the year I had a quilt.”

After graduating from PAFA in 2006, she continued working in collage, and had a solo show at Small World Coffee in 2007. Sammi and Nam moved to Brooklyn for its vibrant arts scene. She did everything from illustration and working as a nanny to figure modeling and working in chocolate shops to earn a living before starting Group Hug Quilts.

Nam’s father is from Vietnam, but his mother is from Wisconsin, and Sammi became interested in her mother-in-law’s family’s tradition of making wedding quilts in which different people made squares.

With so many of her friends getting married, Nguyen came up with the idea of telling stories in a visual way.

“What I bring to this is a fine art sensibility,” says Nguyen, whose mother, Robbie Tessler, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Princeton Junction. Her father, Nick Tessler, has a background in marketing and logistics and is a business consultant to Sammi. Her brother, Michael, is studying the biology of moss at Fordham University.

Nguyen is influenced by African-American quilting traditions, antique Indian textiles, abstract expressionism and the drawings of children.

We are surrounded by multicolored fabrics and sewing machines. There is a large Shaker quilt hanging from one wall that has been there “forever; it’s part of the landscape of the house,” says Nguyen, who learned to sew from a friend of her mother’s in middle school and when she was 13. She received a Husqvarna sewing machine as a gift that she still uses today for the piecing. “It’s tolerant of bulky stuff,” she says.

There’s also a machine that runs from one end of the room to another, an industrial machine that does free motion stitching. As Nguyen demonstrates how it works – squiggles, flowers and freehand — it looks as if it could be used as an exercise machine as well.

As with any quilter worth her salt, Nguyen is a consummate fabric collector. Fabrics inspire her. She uses all sources, from Jo-Ann Fabrics and Pennington Quilt Works to the fabric district in New York and tablecloths, pillow cases, jeans and old silk blouses that friends and relatives bequeath to her. “It’s fun for me that each fabric has a history,” she says. A good friend’s sweater became the greenery on a baby quilt.

“I was blown away the first time I went to the fabric district,” she says. “Everything was piled everywhere and there were no prices. You could bring in a swatch and they could give you anything you wanted. It’s a culture of bartering, and the shop owners respect you more when you bandy about price.”

Starting with a small sketch in a notebook, she lays out the fabrics and designs by trial and error. “I make a big mess, and then it comes together. A quilt can look naked before the quilting. The texture brings it to life.”

When piecing together the squares made by contributors, she strives to make each and every piece shine, regardless of skill level. She has worked with squares contributed by a 3-year-old and a person who was legally blind, and by her choices of connecting fabrics and positioning, each square has an equal opportunity to make its statement.

“I encourage people to find their inner artist,” she says. “I want them to express their love or caring.”

For Small World Coffee’s 15th anniversary, she worked with customers and employees to make a quilt that hangs at the roasting facility in Rocky Hill. Nguyen’s mother contributed a square. “My mom’s really into making squares,” says Nguyen. There’s even a square based on a painting Nam made that hangs in Small World.

Nguyen equates the DIY movement among her generation to the Slow Food Movement. “It’s a good thing to slow down and use your hands,” she says. “To make something worthwhile and beautiful gives you a psychological break from the pace we’re moving at. And people appreciate it.”

As beautiful as handmade textiles and garments can be, it’s hard to compete with what gets mass produced in China, and that sells in this country at prices that are grotesquely unfair to the maker. “As an artist, it’s about finding your niche and distinguishing yourself,” says Nguyen, whose niche is designing something specific to the gift recipient. “And at the consumer end, people like to know who made their things.”

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