Updated: Mar 9, 2021
By Elizabeth Harris
Sewing used to be a skill that everyone had. Quilting was a household activity. Now, for many, sewing is a lost skill or only an occasional pastime. For more, quilting is akin to something reminiscent of pioneer days and Little House on the Prairie episodes. For Lucia Vigil Francis, quilting is more than a hobby. For her, it’s a family tradition, a livelihood, and a passion that courses through her from past generations onto the next.
Lucia is a quilter based in the LA area. She specializes in making one-of-a-kind quilted bags that have been showcased at some of the biggest museums in the area, such as the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Huntington Botanical Gardens and Library, the Museum of Latin America Art, and the Craft and Folk Art Museum (just to name a few!).
Lucia and her family are a beautiful product of LA. With Latino family roots from New Mexico on her paternal side, Hungarian ancestry on her maternal side, and her own American experiences, Lucia’s style shows her Angeleno colors, blending multiple cultures and influences to create a unique look. Her bags are full of color, patterns, and prints from cute animal designs to Latin American symbols. This creativity and love for quilting began in childhood.
“We didn’t go out and buy a ton of clothes. If we wanted something, we made it. So, it was just a real way to foster creativity, and I could escape into my own world. I had this whole world in my head, and I could make it come to life through whatever medium; whether it was embroidery, sewing by machine, sewing by hand, knitting, or macrame. I could ask my grandmother for help or advice. I was trying to remember who even taught me to sew, but it was just there in our house all the time. My mom sewed, my sister sewed, my grandmother sewed,” Lucia recalls.
It wasn’t just quilting and sewing that her family passed onto her. Her grandmother passed down an appreciation for fabrics. Ofelia “Faye” Gallegos, moved to LA in the 1940s from New Mexico and worked in the garment industry. Over the years, she collected fabric scraps slowly building a multi-generational quilt.
“She started this quilt in the 1950s, but she never finished it. Once my sister and I were young adults, we were looking through my grandma’s things. We were like ‘Grandma, what’s this?!’ So, we started working on it. My sister set it aside and I kept working on it. I finished that quilt right before my grandmother died. After she died, I took that quilt and quilts made from her other fabric scraps to a quilt show. The quilt appraiser, who knows all the background of fabrics, said some of the fabrics that I used were from the 1800s. My grandma had been saving these fabrics from her mom and her grandmother,” Lucia tells me.
As Lucia grew up and traveled the world, this passion for sewing, quilting, and fabrics followed her. “Anywhere I moved I would make the curtains, I would make the bedspread, I would make everything just because I loved it. Also, after college, I backpacked around Asia and Europe for like a year. Textiles are my thing, so I was out observing methods and collecting fabrics. I also spent a semester in Nicaragua and Guatemala, which has an incredible textile tradition,” she tells me.
After the birth of her daughter, she would make purses, making a practical bag for all the kid supplies. “I would be out with my daughter and boutique owners would say, ‘Oh my god. I love your purse!’ I would tell them thank you and that I made it, and they would start asking me for samples. That’s how I started selling to boutiques,” she explains.
As her business base grew, so did its reach. “One of the boutique owners said you should take these to the museums because of your fabrics. My thing is high-end, high-quality, latest fabrics. So, I cold-called the LACMA. They had a show coming up and needed bags like mine. It ended up being the largest order I ever had, and it just went from there,” Lucia recounts.
From museum orders to boutique shops, Lucia’s business and the popularity of her purses grew. Despite the increased demand forcing Lucia to work with local manufacturers, she still tried to incorporate aspects of her Latin culture from the times sewing with her grandmother. “The dominant culture in the quilting world is Anglo, but what I learned from my grandmother was different because she’s Latina. So, I just incorporated that into my quilts, like our Lady of Guadalupe and Dia de Los Muertos and all of those things,” she explains.
Finding a home for her identity, both with clients and within the quilting community, was a challenge for Lucia, “I’m of Latina heritage, and I’m white-passing. When in the dominant culture, people would say this or that about my culture in front of me, not knowing what I am. If I said something about my art quilts relating to my Latino culture, like Our Lady Guadalupe, it’s like I’m speaking Greek to them.”
Integrating her identity into her work, Lucia created two different lines for her purses, “I have my secular line and my Folklorico line because I had Our lady Guadalupe purses, backpacks, everything our lady Guadalupe and everything dia de Los Muertos, but people in the dominant culture would look at it almost they don’t see it or like they’re scared of it. Certain stores will feature that kind of look or cultural aesthetic and others just would not.”
It wasn’t until Lucia reconnected with an old colleague and friend that she found a home for her bicultural identity and heritage - Telas de la Vida. “Telas de la Vida is a Latinx flair to quilting. I’m Latina, but I’m also Anglo. Am I gonna fit in? Are they gonna accept me? So, I just emailed them, and they welcomed me with open arms. Now, I’m really happy to be a part of them. It’s like ‘Yay! I’ve found my home,’” she happily recalls.
From that home with Telas de la Vida, Lucia freely expresses her cultural heritage and her Angelena roots. Through Telas, Lucia has designed quilt squares for a community project with USC County Hospital as part of their reparation initiative for past forced and nonconsensual sterilization of women of color. With Telas members, Lucia has sown thousands of masks and fundraised for the community during the pandemic.
Despite the pandemic halting her workshops and preventing her from searching for fabrics in person, Lucia continues selling to shops and connecting with her community in Telas de la Vida. Quilting remains an important part of her life, as she says, “It’s how I express my outrage of things, and my growth, my hopes, and my dreams.” It also continues to be a family affair with her own daughter taking up the mantle by sewing and crafting her own designs and clothes and continuing another generation of passionate quilters and sewers.