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Quilter Tattoos: Just Another Needle Art

I used to think that tattoos were tacky, but my niece and sister wore me down. At the Jersey shore about five years ago, we got matching tattoos that celebrate our tight connection: three arrows tied together at the center but pointed in different directions. Mine is placed at the back of my neck because we have each others’ backs. 

Suddenly, tattoos made perfect sense. Why wouldn’t I want a permanent mark on my body to honor a permanent bond? And then the thought occurred: Why don’t I have a tattoo to mark my life’s most primal bond, the one with my mother? Though she’s been gone for 30 years, my mother feels constantly present in my life because she taught me to quilt. So, in August, I got a needle-and-thread tattoo above my left wrist. It makes me feel grateful and steady. I feel like I’m tied to her by thread.

Meg Cox embroidering her 2023 word of the year quilt, Clarity.

While researching design ideas for that tattoo, I began to sense that I’m part of a growing trend—that many other quilt makers and quilt lovers are finding creative ways to ink their passions onto their persons. So I suggested an article to Breanna Briggs, editor in chief of Quiltfolk, and we put out the word, asking readers to show us their ink. We also started digging into Instagram accounts searching for quilt-themed tats and were staggered by what we found. 

Quilt Celebrities With Tats

I was already aware of some quilt celebrities who are known for heavy ink, especially fabric and quilt designers Tula Pink and Libs Elliott and longarm icon Karen McTavish. But I wasn’t prepared for just how vast the sea of quilty ink has become. The designs are as diverse as the people and life events they celebrate. 

When I talked to Canadian quilter Libs Elliott, she told me she’s been getting tattoos for 35 years, and they now cover most of her body, except her face and feet. She favors a kind of punk rock tattoo style that includes classic motifs like skulls, roses, and fierce animals. More than 20 different tattoo artists have worked on her, partly because she goes out of her way to add tattoos from places she travels to teach, from New York City to Australia.

Photos submitted by Libs Elliot. Follow her on Instagram

Here and there, her quilting and tattoo worlds overlap. Libs designs fabric for Andover and some of her prints have been influenced by tattoo art, including one fabric that includes a little banner with the word HANDMADE written inside. Last year, she had a collection called “Atomic” with some fabrics featuring tiny lightning bolts. In honor of that, she had a small black lightning bolt inked next to her right eye.

Many tattoo roads lead to and from Tula Pink. The intricate swirly black designs on her arms resemble the rococo curves in her fabrics, and her tattoo love has inspired legions of fans. Some fans get their favorite Tula fabric patterns tattooed on their bodies, and she loves sharing the photos on social media of the finished tats they send her. Libs Elliott recalls having a participant of one of her workshops in Australia run up to say, “I had Tula Pink autograph my arm and then had it made into a permanent tattoo. Will you sign my arm too so I can get that inked?” And Libs agreed. 

Tula has shared the fact that one of her favorite tattoo artists, Rachel Hauer, is also a quilter. And bringing things full circle, Tula helped Rachel get a gig designing fabric for FreeSpirit Fabrics

It’s because of a Tula Pink Facebook group that Janet Chapman of Tucson, Arizona, has tattoos. Janet met a bunch of other quilters in the group during the pandemic, and several of them organized an in-person retreat in 2021. This year, the group will meet for the fourth time for what the friends now call Scissors Camp. The dozen women between ages 30 and 65 live all over the country and meet in Kansas. Every year, there is a block swap using all Tula fabrics, and about half the women have chosen to get that block inked on their arms during the retreat. Janet skipped the first year but got tats of the blocks in years two and three. Jen Blom, who instigated the retreat tattoos, also shared photos with Quiltfolk of group members’ tattoos. 

Janet Chapman said of the retreats, “It was my first tattoo, and I did it because I find it meaningful on many levels. But a little bit of why I did it was to shock my children.”

Quilters of the Scissors Camp annual retreat. Photos submitted by Janet Chapman and Jen Blom.

Tattoo Origin Stories as Beautiful as the Designs

Some quilt tattoos copy beloved physical quilts, and sometimes they are stylized versions of particular quilt blocks. Some celebrate quilting by showcasing the tools makers use. Tattoos of sewing machines abound, especially Featherweights and other vintage machines. There are countless spools of thread, scissors, rotary cutters, and more. 

Donna Summers, who is retired from the Navy, moved to Florida in 2019 and lives next door to her sister, who is also a passionate quilter. She’s another Tula Pink fan and got a stunning tattoo of Tula’s big iridescent scissors on one arm in 2020. Before that, she got a bright tattoo of a full-size rotary cutter with the words “Quilters Gonna Quilt” in ribbon-like banners.

Photos submitted by Donna Summers. Follow her on Instagram

Many tattoos are tributes to loved ones, living or dead—especially quilters. Elizabeth Seufert and Micayla Blinzler, sisters living in rural Missouri, have treasured the quilts of their grandmother Livvia Seufert all their lives. Growing up, their grandma would make at least five quilts for the annual “Christmas drawing.” All family members would put their names on a piece of paper, and, in the order of when their name was picked, they each got to choose a quilt.

These days, Elizabeth lives with her grandmother, and Micayla lives nearby, and last year, they cooked up a secret plan to create tattoos about her. The main design element is a Grandmother’s Flower Garden block framed by delicate birth month flowers, but the colorways differ. Micayla chose blues and purples while Elizabeth asked for a yellowish green decorated with blueberries because she goes berry picking with her grandmother every year.

Elizabeth's tattoo. Photo submitted by tattoo artist Lin Doyle. Click the image to view her Instagram.
Pictured with a Log Cabin quilt, Livvia Seufert (from left) Elizabeth Livvia Seufert and Micayla Blinzler.
Micayla's tattoo. Photo submitted by tattoo artist Lin Doyle. Click the image to view her Instagram.

They opted to get the ink on the tops of their feet, Elizabeth said, because “Feet tattoos are personal to me in that you are putting someone in your journey: every step you take, they are walking with you.” The sisters were thrilled with the designs created by tattoo artist Lin Doyle. The day they got the tattoos, the girls went into their grandmother’s house and removed their shoes and socks, waiting for her to notice.

“It took 12 minutes,” Elizabeth said. “When we told her why we picked Grandmother’s Flower Garden and not Log Cabin or anything else, and about the birth month flowers, she cried.” 

Amy Hoard is another quilter who honored a beloved family member in a tattoo, her late Mamaw “who created masterpieces” and was known for her so-called chicken scratch embroidery. Amy found a tattoo artist who mimicked those stitches in the shape of a star on her right upper arm, incorporating “one random X in red. It was Mamaw’s favorite color, and her name was fittingly Ruby.”

Photos submitted by Amy Hoard. 

When Matthew Erwin was contemplating his first tattoo, he said, “I wanted it to represent something that was symbolic of my family history.” So he chose to get a tattoo depicting one square of a quilt that he owns made by his great-great-great grandmother McCroskey shortly after the end of the Civil War. There were a lot of quilters on his mother’s side, Matthew said, and before his grandmother died in 2011, she told the family that any time they saw a cardinal, that would be “her way of visiting us,” so he had a cardinal with thread in its beak added to the tattoo. 

Photo submitted by Matthew Erwin.

Tattoos can celebrate both personal and cultural ties. Camie Jae Goldhammer, who is Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (Dakota), was extremely close to her grandmother, who taught her to quilt starting at age 5. A few years ago, the two were making a traditional Star quilt together and her grandmother, then 85, was struggling a bit. Camie decided to honor her grandmother by getting a large and glorious tattoo on her left shoulder and arm depicting the center of that Star quilt, and her grandmother “loved” it, Camie said. In 2021, her grandmother died, and Camie had a memorial tattoo done that included a poppy flower and a “deconstructed Star quilt.” 

Photos submitted by Camie Jae Goldhammer. 

Tattoos can express love for the art and craft of quilting, and sometimes even the business of quilting. Carrie Hauser owns a longarming business in Raleigh, North Carolina, called Lovebug Longarming, and her logo includes a heart-shaped ladybug. 

Photos submitted by Carrie Hauser. Click the image to view her Instagram.

Her most recent tattoo is a copy of that logo on her left wrist. Now 34, Carrie has been getting tattoos since she was 18 and has more than 10 on her body. One extraordinary tat covers her right upper arm and includes a dress form and the words “My Soul is Fed By Needle and Thread.” She saw a similar image on a piece of fabric but had a tattoo artist “make it more punk.” With a degree in fashion design, Carrie was sewing clothing before she became a quilter. One of her other passions is a video game called Fallout that centers on cartoon-like bobblehead people: Players try to increase the “skill points” of their bobbleheads. 

Carrie said, “I wanted to show that I have maxed out my sewing skills.” So she got a tattoo of a bobblehead in a quilted cape standing on a spool of thread and holding a needle.

Life’s milestones inspire tattoos, and for Sharon Huffstetler, the mother of three sons (one of whom was profiled in the South Carolina issue of Quiltfolk), she wanted a tattoo to mark “the hardest time in my life and how I overcame it.” In 2021, Sharon said she tried to kill herself and wanted a quilt block pattern that symbolized hard times: She found a block called Depression that was featured in the Kansas City Star in 1937, and had it tinted with “suicide awareness colors.” Since then, she has added several more blocks to that one including Churn Dash, a block she loves, and an Ohio Star. “I plan to create a memory quilt right here on my arm as I fill in blocks along the way,” she said. “A friendship star will be next. 

Photos submitted by Sharon Huffstetler. 

Major birthdays can also trigger tattoos. Libs Elliott told me she has often gotten tattoos around birthdays and just recently turned 50. For that milestone, she did something new for her: tattoos of quilt blocks, added under her chin.

Cheryl Breitenfeldt in Eagle River, Wisconsin, sent us a photo of the tattoo she got to celebrate her 60th birthday. It is her first tattoo. She said she loved the simple design, a freeform drawing of a sewing machine. Wrapped around the body of the machine is a black thread that includes three hearts: the big one represents her husband, “an avid supporter of my quilting hobby,” while the two small hearts colored red “belong to my sweet grandsons who have received many of Gram’s quilts.”

Photo submitted by Cheryl Breitenfeldt.

How Tattoo Art Mirrors Quilt Art

Diving into tattoo culture, I began to realize there are certain similarities between these two arts, and it’s not just that tattoos are applied using needles. Chicago-based quilter Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy says tattooing is “surface design. It’s like an appliqué on your arm.” Her first tattoo was one she got in 2021 during a reunion with her college roommate Susan Bookless. They decided on matching Friendship block tattoos but in different colors. 

Photos submitted by Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy. Follow her on Instagram.

Libs Elliott agrees. “I see a lot of common things in tattoos and quilts. Though it is less painful to collect fabric than tattoos, both things have a lot of traditions associated with them. For me, both quilts and tattoos are life markers.” As with quilts, where she starts with traditional blocks but changes their colors and makes them modern, Libs said “every tattoo artist draws a heart or rose or whatever in her own way. Tattooing isn’t for everyone. But sewing isn’t either.”

Photo submitted by Emily Lang. Click the image to view her Instagram.

There are still some segments of the population with negative feelings about tattoos, but in recent years, they’ve become more mainstream. Some people believe the 2015 QuiltCon is partly responsible for the tattoo boom among quilters, because the Modern Quilt Guild invited tattoo artists to do their work right on the show floor.

“At the first QuiltCon in 2013, it wasn’t on my radar that Austin is a city known for great tattoo parlors,” said Emily Lang, a Chicago quilter. “But someone I shared a longarm with in a workshop got one impulsively on the first night.” Emily loved seeing the tattoo artists on the floor in 2015 but has serious skin allergies and wanted to do research to find a tattoo artist who could accommodate her needs. She found one outside the convention center in 2015 and got a tattoo with three quilt blocks in a row “separated by a scant quarter inch.”


Niku Arbabi, who already had a whole “sleeve” of sewing tattoos on one arm in 2015, had one added at QuiltCon partly because the main tattoo artist was Stacey Martin, who had done all her other tattoos. Niku had Stacey add a kewpie doll standing atop an empty bobbin. Niku remembers some women walking by were shocked that actual tattoos were being inked, and a few were “huffy and offended.” Nonetheless, Stacey could hardly keep up with the demand at QuiltCon, as she told a reporter from The Quilt Show who stopped by to tape an interview

Photos submitted by Niku Arbabi. Follow her on Instagram.

Tattoo Etiquette: It’s a No-No to Copy

For those new to tattoos, it’s important to understand that tattoos are a collaboration between the person getting the tat and the tattoo artist. While tattoo parlors usually have books full of licensed designs clients can look at, just as you might view glossy photos of hairstyles at a salon, they’re often just a starting point. Tattoo artists are generally loath to copy an exact photo of another artist’s work and will want to add their own spin. 

Sarah Fielke's needle and thread tattoo, the inspiration for Meg's own. Click the image to view her Instagram.

This was something I had to learn. I first got inspired to get a needle and thread tattoo because I noticed a cool one on the wrist of Australian quilter Sarah Fielke in a Zoom workshop during the pandemic. My first impulse was to ask if I could copy hers. I tried reaching her but got no answer. We’ve had dealings in the past and she’s been responsive so I’m guessing she never got my query. I’ve since learned it was her own design and deeply personal for her and I’m grateful she allowed us to share it here. But because I hadn’t heard from her originally, I started studying tattoo etiquette and learned it’s generally considered a faux pas to copy another’s tattoo. Four years later, when I got mine, it resulted from a back-and-forth exchange between me and the tattoo artist that started with half a dozen needle-and-thread tattoos I liked on Instagram. I like mine so much better because it isn’t a copy of anyone else’s.

Rob Appell is a well-known quilt teacher and fabric designer who loves ink but used to hide his tattoos when taping demos for clients like Missouri Star Quilts. But as the colorful ink began peeking out below his t-shirt sleeves, he realized tattoos don’t have the stigma they used to—even in the baby boomer quilter demographic. In recent years, he has been trained as a tattoo artist himself and loves introducing others to this art form. 

Rob is thrilled that popular quilters like Libs Elliott and Tula Pink are enticing more quilters to consider getting inked. “What I want people to know is that you should have the same experience picking out a tattoo artist as you do picking out fabric for a quilt in a quilt shop. You want someone to embrace your design concept but also enhance it, maybe explain a different way to do it that hadn’t occurred to you.”

When lecturing, Rob likes to shock audiences by saying that tattoos are “just another needle art.” During our interview, he said, “You can use that for the title of your article.” And I did. Thanks, Rob!

Photo submitted by Rob Appell. Click the image above to view his Instagram.

Enjoy this collection of tattoos submitted by Quiltfolk readers.

About the Author

Meg Cox joined the Quiltfolk team in 2018 and has written for the magazine and contributed to many other projects since. Learn more about Meg on her website.

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