Julia Icenogle in her home studio.
One afternoon in 2008, while mingling at the opening reception of an art show where her work was displayed, illustrator Julia Icenogle was approached by the editors of the Kansas City Star. The newspaper was looking to create a blog and they’d decided a web comic would keep readers coming back each week. “I had a cartoony style and they thought it kinda looked like the Far Side comics by Gary Larson,” Icenogle recalls. The paper had a popular column on quilting and wanted that to be the focus of the comic.
“The artwork I had at the show wasn’t about quilting,” says Icenogle, who is 30. “I’m not a quilter. I’m a knitter and I’m very into knitting and other crafts, but I’ve actually never tried quilting.” She was a caught off guard, but gave the opportunity further consideration when the editors called a week later. “I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m the right person for this. Yes, I can draw funny cartoons, but I don’t know a thing about quilting,’” she said, but despite her protestations they handed her a stack of quilting magazines and sent her home to see what she could come up with.
“I went to the library and checked out all the books on quilting so I could get all the plays on words about different names of quilt blocks,” Icenogle says. “And then I started studying my aunt.”
On the left, Julia Icenogle, the artist behind Mrs. Bobbins. On the right, her Aunt Camille, about whom the character is based.
Her aunt Camille is an avid quilter who was living in Lawrence, Kansas at the time. Iceonogle describes her as “really blunt about some things, and really opinionated and passionate about quilting.” With her aunt as her muse she came up with the character for the comic, Mrs. Bobbins.
Stocky with a shock of gray hair and round green glasses, Mrs. Bobbins leads a quilt-focused life with attitude. “She’s a young 60. Mrs. Bobbins is a lady who is going to have an opinion about every single thing and she’s going to be very vocal about that, standing with her hands on her hips the whole time, loud and complaining about most things,” says Icenogle of her character who has since become something of an icon in the quilting world. “She’s very excited about stocking up on fabrics and quilting is her entire life. She doesn’t really do many other things besides quilting.”
Needless to say the editors were pleased and the comic ran on Pickle Dish, the Kansas City Star blog, weekly for five years from 2008-2013. In total Icenogle drew 500 comics featuring Mrs. Bobbins. Often Mr. Bobbins, her soft-spoken husband who secretly would like to try quilting himself, makes an appearance along with several middle-aged girlfriends.
When her contract with the newspaper ended the rights to Mrs. Bobbins reverted entirely to Icenogle who, after a taking a break for a few years, is now revamping and republishing them on her blog. In a recent one Mr. Bobbins is talking with a friend while he has giant butterfly-shaped holes in his pants. “The wife’s been into quilting with wool lately,” he says.
The comics have been shared widely in quilting circles online. Icenogle says the jokes in which Mrs. Bobbins shows a glint of self-awareness about the amount of fabric she’s amassed seem to resonate the most with readers. A strip in which Mrs. Bobbins is standing in front of her closet saying, “Oh this fabric stash,” sold well as a print.
Many quilters see themselves and their friends in Mrs. Bobbins. Designer and teacher Cheryl Sleboda understands well why the cartoons have become so popular. “What I see is brilliant branding towards the largest segment of the quilting market. Every quilter has said most of these things,” Sleboda remarks. “The ladies in the two very traditional quilt guilds I belong to certainly have said everything in these cartoons.”
Others are bothered by the gender roles depicted in some of the Mrs. Bobbins cartoons that can feel outdated. “She is definitely based on the stereotypical old school quilter,” says Icenogle of her character. “It’s kind of what I observed in most of the quilters I talked to from the Midwest. That’s kind of what people were joking about.”
Icenogle has considered creating a character foil for Mrs. Bobbins, a friend who is different and modern, but until now hasn’t pursued it. “To be honest I just don’t think I’m immersed enough into the more feminist quilter culture to even know that is a thing. My knowledge of quilting is limited to just what I see and most of what I see is the stereotypical older lady quilter.”
Mrs. Bobbins has become a driving force in Icenogle’s illustration career. The web comic helped her pay her way through a masters degree program in occupational therapy. It led to a book, The Big Book of Bobbins: Fun, Quilty Cartoons, published by C&T in 2010, as well as a 2012 wall calendar. Last year Northcott, a major manufacturer of quilting cotton, licensed Mrs. Bobbins for fabric that will be released soon. A selection of the cartoons is also available as machine embroidery designs.
“Looking back and looking at all the things I’ve drawn in the past I don’t think I ever expected that it would take off more than just a very local crowd, like here is our Kansas City blog and I think we’re going to maybe reach people within a 200 mile radius of here,” laughs Icenogle. “But here’s somebody in Australia and here’s somebody in England who wants to buy something with Mrs. Bobbins on it and so that was kind of like, ‘oh my goodness.’ And now with Facebook I’m pretty much getting interest all over the place which I never expected that to happen.”