Thursday, December 17, 2009

Going paperless

These are some of the packages that will be under our tree this Christmas.  For the past three years I have been making bags for Christmas gifts, instead of using yet more trees and producing yet more waste during the season.  The first year I just got a couple done, the next year a few more, and this year I may make enough for just about all the presents.  It's a reason to use up some of my stash and Christmas fabrics are a great buy, if you stock up after Christmas or during July sales.  I will see how many bags return this year, but my youngest daughter, who is very creative on the sewing machine, caught the bug and made some last year as well.  We will see if she does it again this year with a nine-month old to keep happy. 

If you look closely, you may notice that there are no decorations on the tree yet, only lights.  But the bags are made.  I'm kind of liking this minimalist look of the tree . . . .

Sunday, December 6, 2009


So have you identified what is wrong with this picture?  In the midst of all my other projects, I took a break to work on the Christmas stocking I had promised to make for my granddaughter and that had begun to cast a larger shadow in my mind.  It was going to be a relatively (in my standards) quick project.  Since I couldn't decide between a stripey multi-colored stocking or a more elegant appliqued one, I decided to do one side of each so she could choose, although I envisioned the candle on the front.  I began late morning and by 3 PM even with interruptions I had the back done and the other ready to be quickly appliqued-- a good project for that Coen brothers movie Tom and I had been watching.  I congratulated myself on how quickly the project was coming together. But then the Irish god of So-You-Think-Things-Are-Going-Well-Do-You? started laughing and I saw before me not a front and a back but two fronts.

It's a shame I don't get into assembly line quilting because, after some moments of expressing my utter frustration, I got to work, and  faster than our dog can eat a Kleenex I dropped, I had finished another striped back pointing the right way.  Well, probably not as fast as Terra can eat that Kleenex but repeating something I've already done instead of puzzling it out and making color decisions from scratch really improves my speed, if speed is what I want.

Ah, but that omnipresent Irish god was not done with me yet for the day.  I finally settled into doing some quilting on my major project of the month only to be interrupted by a phone call--I was having a  problem with my laptop and was doing my part to keep the populace of India employed--and a dog needing to be walked.  I left the quilt under the presser foot with the machine on and when I returned there, as if standing on a stage under a spotlight, was a Western Conifer Seed Bug reared up right on the quilt next to the presser foot.  Now I am not squeamish about most bugs, as a matter of fact like many of them, but this one invades even the most sealed up houses, particularly those near pine trees (part of our acreage is covered with pines) as it seeks to escape the falling temperatures of fall.  It is one ugly beast.  And it stinks to boot (a member of the what is familiarly called the Stinkbug family).  And, even more frightening in the present circumstance, it poops.

I grabbed a Kleenex (seems to be a recurrent image in this blog) and quickly swooped it off the quilt, only to see with horror that as I had swooped, it had pooped.  On my beautiful quilt that I had been working on since June a small brown blob sat on a piece of light gray fabric with a circle of brown stain slowly oozing out around it.  No four letter word was appropriate here; only a primal scream would do.  But even as I screamed I grabbed yet another Kleenex and swiped the blob away.  No good.   The oozing stain was still there and now Terra was convinced I was beset by something she must defend me against and so was leaping and barking as I wailed.  Luckily no one else was home--or walking by, for that matter.

After imagining for a while months of work being ruined, I turned to problem solving and decided to try the easiest solution and I made a discovery:  a paper towel dampened with plain cold water takes out a Western Conifer Seed Bug poop stain on a quilt!  Maybe that will come in handy some time again.  But I hope not.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Festina Lente

I just discovered the Slow Art Movement.  Inspired by the Slow Food Movement, an attempt to return to well prepared, wholesome local foods eaten with attention and appreciation, the term "Slow Art" may have first been used by Grayson Perry, a Turner-award winning potter in his column for the London Times in 2005, where he says:
Art-world acceleration I put down to various forces. First, we are just as prone to being sucked into the idea that fast is somehow central to modernity. To be relevant is to be broadband-quick and dressed for next season. . . . As a producer of art I feel an increasing pressure to keep in step with our 24/7 culture-on-demand society, and as a consumer I am overwhelmed by a tyranny of choice. I hereby declare the launch of the Slow Art Movement (I have not hired a PR).

Well said!  Here, here! or, to be obnoxiously current, a FB "I like this."  Obviously, Slow Art has not triumphed over the mad rush for more and for more immediately, but here and there the idea has been picked up--by a museum that had attendees sign up to spend at least ten minutes looking at each work of art or by artists anxious to let their art lead rather than being driven by outside demands, including competition with other artists to produce quickly.

In the quilting world "slow" often has negative connotations that range from "uptight" and "obsessive" to "no fun."   Freedom is equated with speed. A small rush of creative optimism comes when a piece is finished, and, in pursuit of that momentary high, the process, where the furnace of creativity is stoked and made to glow, where the deep enjoyment that comes from understanding and connecting with your work can be discovered, is ignored in the rush to completion.

Part of the reasoning behind this year's experiment is to slow down, to savor, to give myself time to understand. It is not a pursuit that lends itself easily to crowds, is probably downright inimical to them, but finding a kindred spirit here and there can be reassuring when you begin to worry you might be lost in the wilderness instead of pursuing some noble path.

On the other hand--and due to my mildly dyslexic tendencies, I am always aware that there  is another hand--there is a slowness that, I almost said becomes glacial, although even the glaciers seem to have been speeded up by our cultural demands.  But there is a slowness that is a drag on the process, like a river that is being strangled by silt.   When I cannot bring myself to make that first cut in a beautiful fabric, when I put off sandwiching a piece because I don't want to have to square it up--or see how out of square my innovations have made the piece,  when I check e-mail or read just one more QuiltArt digest instead of tackling the next challenge, I am not doing Slow Quilting; I am not quilting at all.  Sometimes my dithering is indeed a sign that as in yoga, I am rocking back and forth on my toes, trying to find my balance point from which I will launch into the next phase and the more securely I am in that balance the easier that next step will be.   But  often my dithering points to a fear of failure, a fear of messing up something that I have spent a portion of my life working on.  

Balance may indeed be crucial here, as it seems to be whenever a question of importance comes up.  I think I am more comfortable with a Latin motto that became my son's favorite Latin phrase years ago when he was in his teenage trough and looking for wise excuses to avoid doing something I wanted him to: Festina lente.  It translates as "hurry slowly."   It captures my need to keep myself moving but at the same time work with attention and care, in all the senses of that word. 

I have often been quilting the last couple of weeks to the music of Arvo Part, whose music can rise to sublime heights.  I bought one of his CDs because of a piece called "When Bach Kept Bees"--his titles can be as intriguing as his music--and I discovered that another of his pieces is called "Festina Lente."   One of those validating coincidences.

I cannot picture any movement called Festina Lente so Slow Art may have to do.  It does give hope that alternatives still exist to the McArt available at a drive-through window.  And now back to quilting.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Weddings Present. . . .

A major life event took place in our family last weekend--Emily, our oldest child, got married. And quilting is a part of this story. She and her fiance had decided on an eighteenth century wedding, since as National Park Rangers at Salem and Minuteman they spend most of their lives in the eighteenth century. Emily planned to make her own dress and those of the female attendants and, as she pointed out to me last January, the petticoats in the 18th c. were quilted. Out of some overblown feeling of maternal responsibility--or just a momentary streak of masochism--I agreed to hand quilt the front panel and got reluctant agreement that machine quilting would be acceptable on the back. (I did point out that she was not hand stitching the seams of her dress.)

Emily asked if I could model the quilting design on a petticoat owned by Abigail Adams from the textile collection at the Peabody Essex Museum. And as I studied the quilting on the original and then worked at drafting the design into one that would fit on the length of silk for Emily's dress, that web of connection with the past began to become real in my hands. Abigail Adams was a strong, capable, and loving woman, and I wondered when she wore this petticoat. Since it was made of silk, it certainly was chosen for an elegant occasion--perhaps a major event when John Adams was ambassador to England or perhaps she wore it for his inauguration. And Emily, who wore the updated version of the petticoat last weekend, has become a strong, capable, loving woman as well. And what of the unknown quilter who must have spent days with this petticoat, sewing tiny stitches. Did she laugh while she sewed? Or was she just trying to get one more petticoat done so she could feed her family that week? A cliche, perhaps, but that may be just the point, and that web developed many strands as I sat, recovering from foot surgery in June, stitching a petticoat that belonged to me and to Emily and to Abigail and to someone whose name I will never know.

In the original each of the swooping circles contained a different flower or leaf pattern. I decided on three different ones in the front and then a repeat of them all on the back in machine quilting. Emily loved the sunflower-like one on the original so I put that in the center. The design can be seen a bit better on the back, a cotton hand-dyed by the Lunns.

The second swoop I changed from a stylized generic leaf to look more like an oak leaf since I like the symbolism, and the swoop on the left was filled with a horn-of-plenty type of design.
Click on the image to make it bigger.

I made a deal with my obsessively perfectionist self that this was not to be an occasion of lamenting and self-deprecation. A master hand quilter was not making this petticoat, but just an adequate one, although my quilting did improve a lot by the end.
I looked forward to the machine quilting, where I felt a bit more competent, but I had not quilted a large expanse of silk before, and as that beautiful fabric slid under the machine needle, unfortunately not always in the direction I wanted it to, I limited myself to one four-letter word per session and kept sewing. I did take out some of the most egregious slips, but here was learning that I know I will use again, as my hands adjusted to the different feel of the fabric. The finished machine quilted side:
By the end of August my quilting was done and the two pieces were safely shipped to Emily for her to put together. The finished petticoat:

And here is the petticoat on the bride next to her new husband surrounded by the other members of their wedding party. Emily made her dress as well as the other two dresses.

Thank you, Emily, for giving me the opportunity to participate in your wedding in such a deeply meaningful way.

But is this art? I know the art police will immediately agree that it was not. It was, of course, not an entirely original design, and, worst of all, it was meant to be (gasp!) used, not hung on a wall. I might even tend to agree with them since this is far removed from the type of quilting I am doing now. But yet something in me feels that there was more than just a skill that was happening as I was making all those swoops come out the way I wanted them to. I will concede that I cannot claim mastery here, but I am still thinking about the art issue.

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.