Lake Gaston quilter Cathy Wiggins, who single-handedly turned the quilting world on its head by doing something unheard of—making quilts out of leather—will be among featured artists and crafters at Craft Day at the Old Cotton Gin on Saturday, May 18. The event will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 201 S. Hall Street in Warrenton.
A self-taught quilter, Wiggins and her twin sister grew up in eastern North Carolina. In college, she wanted to follow her passion to create and study art, but her mom said she couldn’t make a living at art, so instead, she majored in math and software engineering.
For 25 years, Wiggins worked in the telecommunications industry helping build cellphone infrastructure, while painting acrylics on paper and gaining recognition, winning awards, and magazine covers.
In 2002, she left her high tech job, moved to the Pasture Gate subdivision on Lake Gaston and discovered quilting.
Before long, her traditional works were being selected to appear in the prestigious American Quilter’s Society Quilt Show & Contest, and she was exhibiting, and winning awards, in other shows as well.
In 2014, Wiggins produced her Oscar the dragon quilt, the last in her “Just for Fun” series of quilts. This marked the turning point in her quilting design, as she wanted her dragon quilt to look like a book cover with leather binding. A friend suggested using real leather.
“That started my whole journey in leather,” Wiggins said in a 2016 interview with The Warren Record. “When I started working with leather, a whole world opened up. There were endless possibilities of fabrics and embellishments.”
She began crafting designs with peace symbols and hearts. Wiggins also found inspiration in memories of family horses to produce quilts that depicted them. An art collector ordered one of her leather creations.
As Wiggins moved forward in the art of leather quilting, she began to see her early leather works, such as peace signs, as part of the process of moving away from quilting fabric. She sold her complete stash of cotton fabric, marking the end of the transition.
Wiggins began to introduce the medium of leather quilting to the fine art world.
She displayed 17 western-inspired quilts in a solo exhibition in 2016 at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. The International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb., purchased a competition quilt from Wiggins from this exhibit to document the turning point in the industry from fabric quilting to leather.
That same year, Wiggins made her first saddle, a small one to fit a horse statue named Bentley, which lives in her studio, just to see how it would turn out.
In 2017, Wiggins started making quilted saddles in earnest and exhibited a couple of pieces in the International Quilt Festival in Houston. Her first full-sized saddle was a traditional Western style. But being an artist means you don’t have to follow the rules, and that saddles don’t have to be brown or black.
Assisted by daughter Olivia Wiggins, who has worked with her for the past two years, Wiggins created a theme for each of the saddles. A red saddle is embellished with close to 1,000 Swarovski crystals, and a side saddle has 35 bright yellow 3D leather roses. A purple and silver saddle is designed with a whimsical dragon theme, and another, named Harley, is styled with the famous motorcycle company in mind, with black leather, silver studs and chains.
In February 2018, Wiggins was asked to have 10 quilted saddles ready to show just eight months later for the October International Quilt Festival in Houston.
The artist released a book, “Quilted Leather,” last year, available for purchase from major retailers; has discussed leather quilting on television, in YouTube videos and in workshops and lectures; has won awards and been featured in numerous magazines, exhibitions and solo shows, including “Against the Grain,” a solo exhibition at the Lincoln, Neb. Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2016-17; and she was the featured artist at the 2016 Road to California Quilt show.
Also, in 2016 Wiggins was honored by having the Machine Quilting Expo’s New Traditions in Textiles Category titled as The Cathy Wiggins Award. She has launched her own leather line, which is available for purchase from her retail business, Gypsy Wood Leathers at gypsywoodleathers.com, which offers leather available for sewing on any type of sewing machine.
“It’s really humbling to me what I’ve been able to accomplish,” Wiggins said of her journey from traditional quilting to groundbreaking quilted leatherwork, and now full-sized quilted saddles.
Wiggins credits the support she has had from her daughter and husband for her success and freeing her up to focus on her creativity.
Her advice to others who want to follow their dreams is that it’s never too late to follow your passion.
At Craft Day at the Old Cotton Gin, Wiggins will have western wall art and a couple of art saddles on display. She will also have some handmade purses, kits for sale so people can try their hands at quilting with leather, and be demonstrating for members of the public what she does in following her own passion.