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Meet the Most Famous Quilter in Texas

Aug 20, 2023Aug 20, 2023

With temperatures still trending above 100 degrees, cozy quilts may not be top of mind for most Texans. But perhaps they should be. “Every summer I switch my duvet cover out for a quilt,” says Laura Preston, founder and chief creative officer of the quilt company Vacilando Studios, from her home in San Marcos. We could attribute her take to bias: she makes quilts, after all. But as a Texan enduring record heat alongside the rest of us, as well as an expert uniquely suited to speak to the merits of hand-stitched coverings, she makes a valid case for the quilt as a seasonally appropriate alternative to warm, downy bedspreads. “It breathes but is still heavy, so it’s still very comforting and cozy,” she says.

Quilt aficionado or not, you may have stumbled on Vacilando Studios’ modern designs—which also include quilted coats, pillows, and wall hangings in a minimalist style—in recent years. They’re up for grabs at West Elm, were on view at last fall’s Round Top antiques fair, and have been featured in national outlets from New York Magazine to Food52.

Though the brand has been around since 2015, its not-your-grandmother’s-style quilts became even more visible during the early pandemic. “In 2020, our business totally exploded,” Preston says. “It was just three of us at the beginning of 2020. By 2021, there were eight of us total. We were up to our heads in orders and getting lots of attention. A lot of people were ordering things online for their home that would bring them comfort.”

Quilts were well on their way to becoming a fashionable accessory even before the lockdown. In 2018, it became popular to dress for the prairie, not unlike a Laura Ingalls Wilder character would. Americana quilts made waves on designer runways, inspiring designers to create new collections and repurpose them into coveted clothing. By the time the cottagecore trend of cozy, comforting clothing took off in 2020, old-school quilts were coveted as high design. A handful of modern makers, including Vacilando Studios, were especially sought after for their creations.

As it became popular for its heirloom-quality wares, Vacilando Studios also earned accolades for its unconventional organization: each production quilter and seamstress works from her own home studio. They’re located in various states, from Maine to Minneapolis, Ohio to Illinois. Preston’s decision to lead a remote-based team came naturally to the Dallas-born creative. She got her own start making quilts in an Airstream during a nomadic life on the road.

Eight months into what was meant to be a yearlong road trip “to see as much as we could,” Preston says that she and her then-boyfriend (now husband) John Ellis asked themselves “Why would we stop living this way?” “We were both working remotely at the time, so we could support ourselves, and we just totally fell in love with it.” They drove to a new destination every couple weeks for four years. And when they settled in San Marcos, they continued to call a travel trailer home while renovating the house they live in now.

The idea to begin stitching fabric together into contemporary compositions was born out of necessity during her roaming days. “I was a painter at the time, and so I brought all my oil painting supplies with me,” she says, recalling how dreamy it sounded to create art outdoors, with a changing landscape to look out on. “I quickly realized: when you’re traveling, large-scale oil painting doesn’t really work. There’s nowhere to store them, and the paint takes forever to dry.” But she still wanted an artistic outlet and soon discovered modern quilting on Pinterest. Now she’s a leading name in the growing field.

Her patterns prize clean lines alongside on-trend softer shapes like circles and half moons, pieced together in the kinds of abstract schemes you’d expect to spy in a style influencer’s home. In lieu of traditional designs assembled with colorful, patterned squares, Preston’s calming, Zen-like works feature solid swaths of color in eye-catching arrangements. From a distance, it would be easy to mistake one of her wall quilts for a painting, which tracks not only with her background in oils but also her education: Preston studied art history and studio art at New York University.

Her palettes and shapes tell the stories of her excursions. From the beginning, Preston has been inspired by new places, fueled by her love of travel. And her patterns are snapshots of the most captivating details from the diverse landscapes she’s visited. “I would see a sunset and fall in love with the colors of it. Or we’d drive past an interesting-shaped door, and I’m like, ‘Circle around the block! I need to take a photo of that door because it’s definitely a quilt!’ ”

Her practice evolved into designing distinct collections inspired by specific places: vibrantly colored Thailand offerings and water-influenced Pacific Northwest pieces; a Lowlands set that draws on the classic architecture of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Her creations include decidedly Texan iterations, too, like the popular Chisos Quilt, which echoes the feeling of being surrounded by the mountains of the same name while camping in Big Bend. There’s also her collaboration with Austin-based artist Mercedez Rex, made up of limited-edition vests and throw pillows sewn from Rex’s high-design, marble-dyed linen cottons.

Preston’s diverse offerings expanded to meet growing demand. As recently as early June, customers could choose from over 60 designs, each of which would then be made-to-order. Today, just 16 remain. “Last year, things really slowed down a lot for us and a lot of other small businesses,” she says, referring to the diminishing demand for luxury home goods after the peak of the pandemic. She was also beginning to feel burned out, strongly tethered to the operations side of running her business, and far away from the creative process. By the time she returned from maternity leave in April, she began noticing “signs from the universe saying ‘maybe scale it down and slow down a bit.’ ” She heeded the call to make a change; last month, she retired 70 percent of her made-to-order offerings. The remaining designs—four quilts, two coats, four wall designs, and six pillows—comprise her newly dubbed Core Collection.

Later this month, she’ll release the brand’s new Scrap Collection. “Every summer, we do a scrap collection: our production quilters take the scraps that they have been accumulating over the year and make whatever they want with it.” After this year’s launch, Preston’s business goals are modest. She’ll focus on the streamlined offerings as well as custom work and commissioned pieces—and “get back to creating and experimenting more—and just making more.”

Before Vacilando Studios’ recent period of rapid growth, while Preston was still traveling around in the Airstream and making quilts in 2018, she wrote a book: Simple Geometric Quilting. It details for home crafters how to make the kinds of throws, pillows, and wall decor she’s known for. She dedicated it to “the brave and creative in all of us.” And in the introduction, Preston wrote, “I believe that to keep this craft alive, it has to evolve to stay relevant in the modern home.” She was right and went on to become a celebrated name in the contemporary quilting and interior design space. And she’s only just getting started—again.