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Sunday, July 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Quilts surprising fit for engineer

John Flynn sets up one of his quilt frames at his workshop in Billings last month. (Associated Press)
John Flynn sets up one of his quilt frames at his workshop in Billings last month. (Associated Press)
Mary Pickett Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – John Flynn’s quilting started with a few innocent stitches.

Flynn, who grew up in Billings, was a civil engineer working with his father building bridges and other concrete structures around Eastern Montana.

After his wife, Brooke, took up quilting, John built a quilt frame for her. When she said the frame didn’t work exactly right, he sat down and sewed a few stitches to see what the problem was.

Something clicked and he was hooked on quilting.

He found that the repetitive, eye-hand motion of sewing was relaxing and took him away from the stress of his job.

He began sewing quilts every spare moment he had. At first, he quilted quilt tops pieced by Brooke. Then, he began piecing quilt tops himself.

It wasn’t easy being a man in a traditionally women’s craft. A sense of humor helped him through those first few years.

Flynn chronicles his first visit to a fabric store in an account on his website.

When Flynn, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall, went to the store to look for material, “a lady with rhinestone-encrusted cat-eyes hanging around her neck on a logging chain followed me everywhere to make certain I didn’t break any of the fabric,” Flynn writes.

After he hesitated when she asked if she could help him, she demanded “Didn’t she give you a list?”

After that experience, Brooke bought fabric for him, leaving him feeling “like a teenager hanging around the convenience store trying to get someone to buy me a beer.”

He began taking parts of a 1,700-piece quilt when he traveled for his job, secretly sewing at night in his motel room.

“Next, I blacked out the windows of my trailer at the Colstrip power plant construction site and pieced most of the rest of it in the midst of 5,000 ironworkers.”

Although Flynn started hand-sewing quilts, he, along with most other quilters, later switched to stitching quilts with a machine. Not only did it help him make a bigger dent in his ever-growing pile of fabric, he could make a lot more quilts.

His exacting engineering skills carried over into his quilting. Just as he rose to difficult challenges in his day job, he tackled the most difficult quilt patterns.

“A lot of people want things to be easy,” he said. “I want things to be hard.”

One stunning result is Flynn’s Buffalo Robe quilt, a design with several concentric circles with hundreds of points radiating off of each circle.

As much as he enjoyed quilting, he came up with ideas to help others be better, faster quilters.

When the construction business slowed, he became a full-time quilting instructor, writer, fabric designer and quilting frame manufacturer.

His first frames were made from wood.

When machine quilting became more popular, he created a fiberglass-and-molded- plastic model that he says was the first frame designed for home machine quilting.

It also can be used for hand quilting.

The frame holds the quilt top and bottom layers as well as the batting in place with the right tension so the fabric doesn’t pucker when sewn.

The frame, which Flynn assembles at his shop near the Shiloh Overpass, has molded plastic pieces made in Missoula and fiberglass rods.

He estimates he’s sold more than 56,000 of the frames since 1996.

Flynn, amiable and easygoing, also has taught quilting workshops in several foreign countries and every state except Delaware.

He also attends many quilt shows during the year.

His business, the Flynn Quilt Frame Co., also laser cuts quilt pieces that sell as packaged quilting kits, to alleviate the tedium of cutting out hundreds of parts for a quilt.

His daughter, Kate Nichols, who has joined him in the family business, also can custom cut pieces for quilters.

Nichols finished her first quilt block at age 5 and has shown her quilts at national shows.

Although quilting is an old craft, Flynn has kept up with the times. Not only does he and Nichols have a web page and blog, they have an app for Androids and iPods that is a calculator. Among its features, the app figures how to cut a piece of fabric on the diagonal so it can be efficiently pieced together for a quilt back.

The days of buying fabric with trepidation are gone for Flynn. He can’t walk into a quilt store without being recognized. And there are now other male quilters and quilting entrepreneurs.

He still makes a quilt a week. Most are samples for the business or his workshops. He also donates quilts to raise money for nonprofits.

With Nichols more than capable of taking over the business, Flynn, 66, is considering retirement. But not just yet.

“I don’t want to retire until I teach in Delaware,” he said with a laugh.

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