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Portrait of a Seamster: Olan Reeves


Let me be clear, Olan Reeves quilts are not folksy fabric scraps thrown together. He is a real artist with an impressive background who pursued a traditional, non-sartorial handicraft on his on terms. Based in South Philadelphia, he has me rethinking the classic coverlet and coveting one for myself. Not interested in dressing the human body, he creates beautiful pieces that dress the home. While fashion is thought to make one feel better, Olan believes that making your surroundings can have an equally profound impact, maybe even more.

I am originally from Bryant, Arkansas, and spent my summers as a child on my grandmother’s farm. We constantly had an abundance of feed sacks, and I used them to make my first quilts. I became more experimental later on – implementing cornhusk and other “fabrics” into my designs. I continued quilting throughout high school, but started diving into painting. I attended Savannah College of Art and Design first as a painting major, then as a photography major, and finally settling on a degree in fibers. I studied abroad my senior year in Berlin. My senior thesis was a juxtaposition of European graffiti merging with traditional quilting. Creating traditional quilts, I explored different distressing techniques by spray-painting and even dragging one behind a car!

Directly after college I moved to Philadelphia. For the first year, I designed and sewed for a leather handbag company. After, I worked at a sewing and knitting studio in Rittenhouse Square called Spool & Loop. I taught several classes covering a variety of quilting techniques. During this time, I lived and made work in an artist residency in Center city called Goldilocks Gallery. We conducted a variety of shows and were involved in several community art-related organizations.

I’ve taken a full circle and currently work part time at a paint center called Painting with a Twist. It’s a really silly non-traditional job which I needed. It’s silly in that its a BYO (bring your own alcohol) paint studio. The paintings are never too serious, but getting to make people laugh/paint at the same time and seeing how proud of themselves everyone gets is really rewarding. No matter what kind of instruction it is, I’ll always have a soft spot for teaching. I spend my free time experimenting and making work for my next show.

My most recent body of work was exhibited at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in Rittenhouse Square in December. I showed a few quilts, but my main focus was knitwear. I love experimenting with different yarns and found objects. I’m currently formulating a body of work for a show in February in the Italian Market at a cafe called Gleaners Cafe. In this show you’ll find a further venture in tubular knit pieces I’ve been developing for several months. Alongside will be some quilts and some paint studies I’ve been exploring of cactuses and succulents.

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I have a lot of machines – it’s bad! For the most part, I have two main go-to’s. A Bernina Activa 210 and a Singer Confidence. Between the two, I’d have to say I use my Bernina the most. It’s my baby. In my work, I use a really diverse range of materials – from plastic to denim to silk. I don’t feel restrained with my Activa. It can handle almost anything with the exception of heavy leather. I also have a Brother, White and several vintage sewing machines as well.

The first step is my favorite – collecting. I gather old t-shirts, handkerchiefs, leaves, vintage calendars, tea towels, metal scraps or literally whatever I can get my hands on during an adventurous expedition. Whether it be a thrift-store or a junkyard, I’ll find something. I then cut/assemble the materials into pieces and lay them out until I come up with a design. The process is similar to a puzzle. I strive to figure out how to put the pieces together correctly and in a way where it is pleasing aesthetically, but still respects its conceptual integrity. The art of quilting isn’t really about the final result, that’s just a bonus. It’s more about the variety of processes it takes to get there.

I did this small body of work titled “From the Streets, To the Sheets” where I explored the geometric designs of the Man-hole covers in Philadelphia. I began doing “rubbings” (like a tombstone rubbing) with newsprint and charcoal. I then transferred those rubbings into screen-printable images and created larger-than-life pillows out of a variety of natural textiles. I used natural dyes and “rust dyeing”, which is a process of chemically dying cloth with a variety of old rusty objects – saw blades, screws, scrap metal. I then screen-printed the man-hole designs atop the rust dyed fabrics. I really enjoyed the process of creating that body of work.

I make both quilts to use and quilts to hang. The one in my hallway is constructed of fortunes from fortune cookies. Since a child, I’ve always been infatuated with fortune cookies, so I’ve held onto them. Appliquéd onto denim, I used a transparent layer of nylon tulle on top of it all. I then used channel stitching to bring it all together. Obviously. it’s not washable, but a piece you adorn your space with. I’m a big believer in luck and this piece consisting of 75+ fortunes definately vibes a lucky impression.

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I’d have to say that my most impactful mentor would be Karen McManus. She’s an eccentric woman from Colorado who cared for her students self-expression/self-exploration more than any teacher I’ve encountered. She was my after-school art teacher in elementary school before I was old enough to take actual art classes. When I graduated to middle school, she transitioned to a middle school art instructor which was fantastic because I was able to take her classes during school hours, and I still continued to learn from her during our after school classes. She showed me that it was ok to explore materials from sewing with with cornhusk to weaving a tapestry out of pine-needles. When I advanced to high-school, Karen un-coincidentally did the same. I worked under her for over 7 years resulting her in her advising my parents that I should probably go to art School. I wouldn’t be the artist I am if it wasn’t for her.

Another artist I find really inspiring would have to be Andy Goldsworthy. He is a site specific artist living and working out of Scotland. He specifically works with natural objects like an installation completely constructed from leaves and thorns or a beautiful design from rocks and snow.

It’s a personal preference – I like making things look good as opposed to making people look good by creating a comfy yet harmonious space via quilts, duvets, pillows and more. It affects and can improve the way you feel. If our environment feels good and gratified, we will too.
However, I did recently come around to the idea of adorning people with different knitwear pieces. It can still have the same impression as a quilt or blanket, it’s just around your neck while your out and about.

I want to learn it all, which is my biggest downfall! I want to paint, knit, quilt, weave, make jewelry, the list goes on! I have a hard time focusing on one specific craft, but I believe that all my skills will combine to make me a unique artist that is contributing something to the art community. That’s why I feel that a textile designer really is the best job. I relish in not being restricted to one specific thing and I can wake up and make whatever I want.



  1. Reply


    the implication of your intro is that quilting is a worthless, “folksy” waste of time when women do it but real ART when done by a young man. seriously. read it again. is that really what you wanted to say?

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    My first thought, was all the people, mostly women, who came before him creating quilts were truly creating ART, and they weren’t “old biddies” … I’m shocked you wrote that – it says that when we get old we have no value. 🙁 boo. I have to agree with Ciara’s comment above.

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    I’m a long-time Loop customer and I remember when they were just teaching Olan to knit. He picked up everything so quickly! Not just the stitches, but everything they taught him – hats, cables, colorwork. He’s so talented and I’m so happy to see him doing well. And still knitting!

    • Reply


      Still knitting he is! And making fabulous work too.

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    Yikes, that intro is cringeworthy indeed. If this is to go into your book, I recommend doing some research and re-writing that first paragraph. Quilts are not “thrown together” just by “biddies”. Take an afternoon to browse the quilting blogosphere and you will see that it is full of real artists with real art educations and real art backgrounds expressing themselves through quilting today.

    Olan’s design space is beautiful and it would be nice to see some of his actual art work. I’d also love to know what brand of tubular knitting machine that is… anyone have any ideas?

    • Reply


      The black and white image is his fortune cookie quilt and you can view his portfolio in the URL above.

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    Yeah, that intro… my mom is a quilter and I went with her to a few meetings at her local guild in her backwoods desert town. At each meeting there is a show and tell segment where the makers showed their recently finished projects. There were some spectacular art quilts along with simple first projects and wounded warrior quilts made with the intention of trying new techniques while making something lovely to give to a veteran. And my goodness, they were all SO beautiful. As my mom has learned more and more I have really come to appreciate the artistic skills that even hobby quilters develop. We talk about color theory, print mixing, and balance with clothing, but it’s nothing compared to what quilters do, even quilters who don’t make art quilts (which is a whole topic unto itself!). I get why you wrote that, that scene is a common assumption among those who don’t know quilting, but Olan is far, far from unique. His space looks awesome, though, and I wish we could see more of his work!

    • Reply


      Kelly, I think its great that you went with your mom to some of her local quilt guild meetings. I wish more people could/would learn the fascinating aspects of quilting. I’ve been to a few meetings at a local quilt guild here that didn’t even touch on the design elements like balance, color theory and so on.. so props to your mother’s guild for that as well!! However, to say that me as an artist is “far, far from unique” is unnecessarily impolite. Then saying in the next sentence that you’d like to see my work is really counteractive. I have learned the traditional aspects of quilting and I really appreciate and respect it for what it is. I’ve learned, studied, and worked with some of the leaders in the modern quilt world… Jean Wells, Mickey Lawler, Katie Pasquini and even Fassett. I try really really hard to perfect my craft and take it very seriously. I just encourage you to think who it may affect the next time you leave a rude comment.

      • Reply


        Whoa! I meant you are not the only one approaching quilting from a fine arts background and that many so-called traditional quilters do too! I actually thought your work was beautiful.

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        Hi Olan, I didn’t get the sense that the you personally have a sexist, ageist or arrogant attitude toward the tradition of quilting. It’s clear from the description of your mentor that is not the case. I did think that the original and current version of the intro sound ignorant of the very people who you have learned from, but it is clear to me that you didn’t write that paragraph.

      • Reply


        Olan, you can see Kelly’s explanation below your comment. Do you not see that the intro to this piece, where it says “Let me be clear, Olan Reeves quilts are not folksy fabric scraps thrown together. He is a real artist with an impressive background who pursued a traditional, non-sartorial handicraft on his on terms.”, is offensive to a large group of quilters? It is implying that as an artist who quilts, you are a rarity. This completely discounts and denigrates the artistic efforts of everyone else. You are of course unique, as most people are. You have your own wonderful style. However, the intro implies that other quilters are NOT artists. Whilst obviously not at all true, it is extremely rude. Also, as a quilter, you should know very well that most quilters are not “throwing scraps together”. That statement is also extremely rude to quilters in general. I am disappointed that you do not see (or care to see) the position of privilege you are in and the grievous disservice the person who wrote the intro to this article did to every other quilter in the world.

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    Your ageist comments are the height of ignorance.

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    …. just in case that sounded a bit harsh can I add that you would find it helpful and educational to do some research on quilting from America and Europe. You will find that lots of “old biddies” are producing some stunning work despite the fact that in your eyes they do not appear to be ” cool .”

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    I’m getting some people trawling the internet looking for reasons to be offended. Let’s face it we all are going to be old one day but that meant we also got the chance to be young. So if you don’t want to be insulted for being old or “ageist” then don’t attack someone because in their youth they do appreciate all the things you think OUGHT to be appreciated. My mother makes the most horrible fuddy duddy quilts you’ve ever seen.

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    Kelsey Goding

    I love you! This is great, and so are you

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    Aisha Maryam

    looove his work room style. hope I`ll have it too someday 🙂

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    Olan, it is nice to see your workspace in Maddie’s article. I think it is unfortunate that she only showed one of your pieces in the article. Having typed the URL for your portfolio into my browser, I can see that you have a good start going. I think some of your work is beautiful, and some is thought-provoking, and some is really unique; I’ve enjoyed looking at your portfolio.
    You may take the following suggestion or leave it. It would be good for your career if you retain more control over articles written about you. This way, you can have more of your work featured. You would be able to ensure that your motivation is communicated, rather than leaving it up to the writer to interpret (misinterpret).
    I look forward to seeing more work from you in years to come.
    Best of luck to you!

  12. Reply


    Yeah… I thought the intro was terrible. The quilts are beautiful, however. Yet, there are many unique, gifted artists who are doing quilts these days. I’m of the mindset that you don’t have to be the ONLY person doing something for it to be worthwhile. However, implying that folksy quilts aren’t “real” art, is just… I don’t get it. Art is art. Just because YOU don’t love something doesn’t make it not art. I think Picasso’s works look like something a child cobbled together, but that doesn’t make him less of an artist.

    I wish that, Maddie, you would have apologized for your rudeness rather than simply ignore the comments above. Obviously, these people are your readers and you’ve offended them. I don’t think anyone is “trolling” for a reason to be offended. I think they were genuinely offended. I would think that, as a social media specialist, you would have recognized the faux pas and made amends.

    • Reply


      Agree. My blog is linked in my comment above; I’m not commenting anonymously. I am a quilter, sewer, knitter, and have been a reader of this blog for a while. One of the most important things I learned in art school was to give a thoughtful and honest critique and take criticism with some humility. The bias intro is incredibly naive at best. When I read it I immediately wondered if the writer had ever heard of Gees Bend or Art Brut.

  13. Reply


    this intro is still really insulting. the implication remains that quilters who do not have academic art backgrounds are just folksy hobbyists stitching scraps together. nice try with the editing, maddie, but this remains very disappointing. it might also be worth featuring your subjects’ work & not just their workspaces in your next interview. i have jars of thread too, big whoop.

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    I agree with Elizabeth’s comments above. While I appreciate and recognize Maddie as the talented seamstress, artist, journalist, photographer, and businesswoman that she is, I believe she missed the mark with Olan’s interview. If she does decide to include Olan’s piece in her book (which I can’t wait to be published) I trust she will carefully consider editing the intro and switching out some photos to showcase more of his work rather than the workspace.

    A picture or two of the workspace are fine, but what the reader really wants to see are relevant photos of a collection that compliment a story….a story of an artist/seamstress who has evolved over time. As readers, we hope to be inspired to learn and grow as artists/seamstresses in our own right. Maddie has the talent to do this so lets hope she reads everyones comments and doesn’t disappoint her faithful followers.

    After looking at Olan’s portfolio I was impressed (and amazed) at how multi-talented he is. Although young, I believe his talent is “book-worthy”. His quilts, scarfs, hats, purses, paintings, photographs, etc. are very professional looking and inspire me to want to shed my one-dimensional approach to sewing. Olan, keep up the good work and keep on inspiring!

    PS- Maddie- if you would create an actual link to Olan’s portfolio rather than requiring the reader to type in the URL address, more people would likely take the time to dig deeper into your feature artist/seamster.

  15. Reply

    Kitty Ann

    To answer the question re the tubular knitter, it is a Barbie brand knitter, still have my daughters from 20 yrs ago.

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