Handmade: Quilter keeps cutting edge with ’70s gadget

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Jan Ellen Moskowitz was among quilters all across the country who sharpened their creative skills with the invention of the rotary cutter, a small nifty instrument with a sharp blade that’s used to make precision cuts through several layers of fabric.

“In the late 1970s, a new sewing tool was invented which revolutionized modern quilt-making. The rotary cutter made it possible to cut curves into up to 16 layers of fabric at a time,” recalls the Bloomfield Township resident, who at the time made all of her quilts entirely by hand.

Later, after retiring from 32 years of teaching art in Rochester public schools, Moskowitz decided she wanted to learn to do machine-piecing. She knew it was then time to learn to use the rotary cutter, after years of making her quilts by cutting single pieces of fabric with scissors.

She says, “I took some classes on how to use the rotary cutter and design my quilts using the sewing machine. I now make machine-pieced improvisational quilts. I start with an idea and begin sewing shapes together. After I have many shapes, I start pinning them to a design wall. After the shapes are made, it takes about a week to arrange them. Then all the pieces are sewn together, using 1/4-inch seams. There is no applique, or overlapping of fabric.”

Moskowitz continued to hone her skills, and began quilting more consistently after learning she could produce quilts faster and be more spontaneous with designs using the sewing machine, which she says is “totally different than doing it by hand.”

So, with the rotary cutter in hand and a sewing machine at her fingertips, Moskowitz was well on her way to creating a unique collection of ethnically inspired quilts designed with geometric shapes and deep rich colors, including her favorite – magenta, turquoise and purple. She says, “I like mid-century modern design and indigenous art from anywhere – Native American, African, Moroccan, (etc.).”

She hand-dyes some of the fabric she uses to create her beautifully designed quilts, and says, “My quilts are 100 percent cotton and they’re all pretty big – about 6 by 6 feet. I do the hand-quilting and I do the simple machine quilting. Otherwise, I have a woman do the more complicated quilting. My next step is to get a quilting machine and learn how to do more complicated quilting.”

Moskowitz, has a sewing room with “huge quilt insulation boards” (design walls), where she puts in about four hours a day on her quilts, which she refers to as both decorative and functional. She sometimes works in a series of particular shapes, like leaves and circles. “I just keep working on a series until I’ve exhausted it,” she says. “Then I start on something new.”

Moskowitz, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drawing and painting and a Masters in Art Education specializing in fibers, has yet to sell any of her one-of-a-kind quilts, but says, “I’m working on starting to show my work in local art shows.”

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150 or

Contact Jan Ellen Moskowitz at