Monday, October 26, 2009

Inspiration or Discouragement?

Last Friday I and about 14 other people got a tour led by Gerald Roy of some of his collection of Amish and Mennonite quilts that are on exhibit at the Binghamton University Art Gallery. Chosen for the exhibit and for the Pilgrim/Roy collection on the basis of color, most of these quilts did vibrate, some so much they were hard to look at for long. The vibration happens, as Roy explained, when two colors of equal value and from opposite sides of the color wheel are put next to each other. Red and green can do this, for example.

Pilgrim, who died recently, and Roy began collecting Amish quilts before they became popular and it was interesting to hear the background story of how they began collecting and just to meet someone who has had the foresight to see the value in something that others are ignoring. His quilting journey began with knowing little or nothing about the techniques involved in quilting but just liking the artistry of the Amish quilts and evolved to actually making impressive quilts himself now.

This show is actually two exhibits plus a display on the various textile fibers and it was perfect for someone like me who has a real split personality when it comes to quilting: I love the historical aspect of quilting and these Amish/Mennonite quilts were all old enough to be called antique, some dating from the end of the nineteenth century. But the other exhibit included quilts done by an impressive list of big name contemporary quilters--an eclectic group that ranged from the traditional to the abstractly innovative.

As usual, I find myself looking at and then returning for a second or even a third look at the abstract quilts. These are the ones that can sometimes make me feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, as Emily Dickinson said about poetry.

I liked Sue Benner's Cellular Structure VIII, and an image of Gerald Roy's quilt, whose name I, of course, did not get clearly in any of my photos, keeps popping up in my mind's eye. It was 8 vertical rows of hand appliqued curved strips. I liked using the hand applique in my journal quilt and it will definitely move up on my list of techniques to use in a larger piece. Can't add any visuals to this post, unfortunately, since I would need permission to do that.

But I didn't hear that usual little voice that shows up sometimes when I look at spectacular quilts, telling me that I can never be that good and that I should probably just give up. Perhaps it was the extreme variety of the show that reminded me of all the paths quilters can take. I can imagine Gerald Roy looking at Caryl Bryer Fallert's phoenix and saying, "I could never do that." But he wouldn't want to, either. Or perhaps it was just that my resolve to learn from quilting and not focus on competition has taken root and begun to bear fruit.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Tree for All Seasons

In August I signed up for a contest that offered a free 8 ½ x 11” sheet of a new product (new to me anyway) to anyone who would use it to create any one of a long list of possibilities and then send in a photo of the project by Sept. 4. It took paint well, did not fray when you cut it, and held its shape better than cotton. But it could also be put through an inkjet printer so that you could print on it from your computer, and this was the use that caught my eye. I had been thinking about doing more experimenting with using photos in my quilts, not as memory quilts, where the entire photo becomes a block, but as a more integral part of the design, and, although I am partial to natural fibers, I thought perhaps this might be a preferred alternative to treated fabric sheets. I also had the idea of slicing the photo up into strips, some narrow (that shape-holding quality would be important here) and I could narrow the seam allowances without any fraying.

So my 8 ½ x 11” sheet arrived and as the deadline approached, I scrambled to clear some time to work on the project. First of all, I needed a photo: an old magnificent sugar maple that everyone sees just before they turn into our driveway would be a great subject. I spent some time taking photos, chose one I liked best, stuck the sheet in the printer, and nothing happened. I tried again, but the sheet was too thick to make it through. After trying a number of other ways and muttering a number of words equally unprintable, I enlisted my husband’s help, who loves a good technical challenge, but he was quickly frustrated. Finally the next morning we discovered a way to get it through—the printer was not damaged either—only to find the print quality to be so faded and blurry as to be totally unacceptable.

After a few deep breaths I chalked this up to experience. Trying new things means learning from the outcome whether it’s positive or negative, and besides, I made some discoveries about our printer that will prove useful at some point. But I still liked the idea I had for the project so I grabbed a sheet of pretreated cotton, printed the photo, and got to work.

Since the tree is like a torch in the fall, glowing either gold or red depending on the weather conditions, I chose an orangey-gold that I had hand-dyed, but thought a one color background might be too static —and besides I only had a small piece of the gold—so I matched it with a strong red that seemed the color that sometimes the whole tree would turn or at least the edges of some of the leaves.

After slicing up a paper version of the photo, I got up the courage to make the cuts on the fabric photo, lined them up, and realized again that a straight horizontal line-up was static and that curving the pieces gave a better feeling of the nurturing, shading presence of this tree. I also lowered the horizon line so that it was not in the center of the picture. And so I cut, measuring carefully, since I knew I had such limited gold that a wrong cut would result in more unprintable words. But the tension kept me accurate and I made it through.

I quilted the seam lines—an easy and obvious choice but spent some days looking at it and thinking about what else to do. Improving my free motion quilting is one of my goals and so I knew I had to force myself to do some here. Finally the maple leaf came to me and I surrounded the photo strips with a red and gold outline of a leaf, then added rays in the gold since the tree glows in autumn as if lit within and did some free motion meanders in the red.

I wanted the binding to integrate the three colors, red, green, and gold and also be a bit off center to move the eye around the quilt. So I added the green that hopefully adds some balanced asymmetry.

Finished Oct. 19, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009


I have been somewhat frustrated that my actual quilting time since I left the library has been limited. I spent a few wonderful days visiting children and grandchildren and being the surprise guest at our daughter's wedding shower and then returned home itching to quilt but needing to straighten the house and prepare a meal for a visiting friend I had not seen in about a year. Today nothing was on the schedule except quilting, but this morning we awoke to trees and bushes bowed--some beyond the breaking point--by an early wet snowstorm. As I started on my walk with Terra, I knew I would have to spend time shaking snow off the trees to keep more branches from breaking or being permanently deformed.

The world we walked through was beautiful as only the first heavy snowfall of the season can be. And as I whacked at the dogwood tree in the back of the house and the snow catapulted off the branches onto my head and down the neck of my coat, I laughed and realized that all this is part of my quilting. I care about these trees and bushes, enough to spend time trying to help them out, and this connection I feel must find its way into the quilts I create.

Besides, with all the huge problems in the world that are so large I feel I can have little impact on them, it was cathartic to be able to make so clear a difference as the branches bounced skyward.

The same is true of my relationship with friends and family: that I care about them, that I interact with them changes the kinds of quilts I make.

And so when I turned on the sewing machine later in the morning and sliced into the dark gray fabric with the rotary cutter, I did not feel that I was finally getting to quilt but that I was just transitioning to another stage of quilting.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Journal Quilt

One of my resolutions has been to try new techniques or to work on mastering a technique I am still not comfortable with. In line with this, after I had decided to quit my job, I began a quilt journal project, working with 8 ½” X 11” sized pieces. My first is still not done but my second is finished. The theme of this series is shadows and so I played with the shadow as a reminder of another state—the green leaf with an autumn red shadow. These are all my own hand-dyed fabrics with a gradation in the background. I had used pearl cotton as a quilting thread on another (unfinished) piece a while ago and had wanted to do more with it and here was the opportunity. I even got the metallic to cooperate after some trial and error. I liked the patterning I could create by offsetting the rows of stitches and by varying the width between rows. I kept thinking that it needed some machine quilting but I liked the simplicity of the design and decided to go with my gut feeling rather than the little voice that says, “But in the shows the quilts are COVERED with quilting.”

Problem: These journal quilts are supposed to be quick projects, and this, while quicker than many of my other ones, still took a couple of weeks to complete. Should I push myself to learn to make quicker decisions or do I really need time to create something worthwhile?

Monday, October 5, 2009


One week ago I said good-bye to working for wages as the assistant director of the local public library and began an experiment to find out what I could learn from making quilting my main priority. I have looked at the world through the eyes of a quilter for many years and have made quilts on commission, quilts to give as gifts or to celebrate special occasions, class assignments, quilts for exhibits, and some quilts just because they needed to be made. But quilting has usually been squeezed into the moments left over from the rest of life.

I will continue to garden, to make healthy meals, to take long walks with our endlessly energetic Golden Doodle, to worry about the environment, to make long trips to visit children and grandchildren, to read, to share my life with my husband, to have lunch with friends, but quilting will be a thread that runs through all those activities and I am privileging my quilting time enough so that dental appointments and car inspections will be scheduled around it. And I will see what quilting can tell me about the world, about myself, and about the relationship between them.

Making the steps of this exploration semi-public (a hard thing for me to do with anything, but particularly with a work in progress) in a blog will hopefully keep me honest and will hopefully keep me recording. It will be a journal of this journey—not to make quilts that sell or win prizes but that teach me something.