An Artist’s Perspective: How Judith Reilly Went From Quilt Maker to Thread Painter

“Since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of time, you are incomparable.” -Brenda Ueland

judith-workingFew people know exactly what inspires them and makes them happy from the get go. Sometimes it takes years of focused effort to finally find out who you are and what you love — and it’s that journey that fosters artistic growth. That’s Judith Reilly’s story, the artist who discovered her love of painting with thread on a canvas of cloth, after many years of creative exploration.


When she started, Reilly turned everything she could get her hands on into arts and crafts. She didn’t consider herself an artist at the time, but sewed, tailored, baked, weaved and threw clay, crafted dolls and puppets– and much more. The world became her creative outlet. One avenue of her artistic explorations was traditional style quilt-making, which inspired her love for fabric art. This became her area of focus and passion.

But, as she entered her 30s, it seemed as though Reilly’s work in fabric would come to an end. She became ever more frustrated with traditional quilt making. Making block after block of block quilts was simply too tedious. What at first had stoked her competitive fires was no longer enough. She needed more creativity, but had no inspiration.

It was the birth of her son in 1979 that gave Reilly what she needed. She found that she never had more than 10 minutes alone to herself, and she needed to focus on an art form that was easy to pick up and put down at the drop of a hat. Fabric art fit the bill, so she needed to find a way to make it more fun and interesting. She needed to make it her own. New techniques came from her interest in studying other art forms. “I love to take classes from other artists in a medium not my own. Astounding ideas have happened because of it.” Those ideas also helped her develop a mix of traditional and new techniques in fabric art.

“My pieces are much smaller, many framed behind glass and are totally constructed of layers of fabric and thread. I use numerous techniques, many of which are unique to me and have evolved over the years.” One of the most interesting techniques in Reilly’s arsenal is the “thread painting” or “thread drawing” technique. It’s used to create realistic imagery using thread. “This technique allows me draw, to move the needle, not only back and forth, but side to side and in loops and twists and curves – completely free motion as a pen or pencil would allow.” After more than 6,000 hours of developing her technique in thread painting, Reilly has a style uniquely her own. “I do it in a free-motion way, meaning that I draw with the needle and thread using the sewing machine in the way you would draw on paper.”

Her style is unique as well. “I describe my pieces as catawampus, or lopsided, and a bit quirky; representational without being literal. I do not want to answer to reality, nor I do I enjoy creating abstraction. My work is somewhere in between.”

In 1995, Reilly experienced a turning point in her career that completed her metamorphosis into the artist she is today. One of her large pieces won a “Best in Show” prize at an international competition. Bolstered by her victory, she entered the same piece in another art show a few weeks later, and it received no acknowledgement. She realized then that the judging of art wasn’t only subjective, but that her passion for art needed to come entirely from within. “This is when I think the pure childlike intuitions really started to come alive again.”

Reilly’s work often depicts scenes common to Vermont — wooded farms and small communities. Creating angles in the architecture of the buildings in her pieces gives the pieces a feeling of being in motion, and to her, a feeling of life. She will tell you that it’s that life to which she connects most strongly.

To add a sense of human motion and life to her pieces, Reilly has created a bit of a signature. “And almost every piece I have created since 2005 has at least one small bicycle tucked into it somewhere… I started to add them when I felt that the architectural barns and houses needed the human element somewhere. Pop in a bike and there you have it! Life!”

Finding her voice may have taken some time, but it’s an experience Reilly would trade for nothing. While putting together her first retrospective, she realized that her personal growth as an artist had taught her many valuable lessons. She decided to distill those lessons into her series “Twelve Life Lessons for Creativity.” And armed with her life lessons, Reilly has found her voice, and continues to breath that oh-so-important life into her art.