Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Have you ever seen a shy chickadee?  I haven't.  I have admired their fearless spirit combined with a large dose of curiosity and a cheerfulness that is undiminished even by an empty bird feeder.  They are tiny birds with a commanding presence, due as much to their coloring as to their personalities.  That strong black and white head atop all the gray on the wings and the ruddy blush of their breast makes them stand out in any season.  And I had thought for a long time about how to use that color and that ceaseless activity as the basis for a quilt.

Last summer, spending a lot of time sitting around recovering from foot surgery,  I began to try some sketches for a block that would abstract the essence of a chickadee. My attempt was not to imitate reality here but to capture the idea of a chickadee, which as the blocks repeated would merge into some kind of pattern.

When I finally got a sketch that looked good, I redrew it as a block in Electric Quilt so I could play with various layouts, finally settling on a basic layout and as usual leaving the ultimate color and detail choices to the fabric phase of my design.   And here it is:
This is the quilt as it hangs, complete with large label, in the Mountain Laurel Quilt Guild Exhibit 2010, proving that I did get it done in time for the show, (but just barely).

You may notice that these are not square blocks set on point, but diamond-shaped blocks so that the birds change shape depending on whether they are oriented vertically or horizontally.  But I liked the setup with the birds on the outer ring taking off in all directions as chickadees do and the birds turned toward the center disappearing into a crisp black and white pattern surrounded by an interwoven ring  (had to get interlacing in there somehow) formed by the wings. 

I chose commercial black and white cotton, particularly since I know how hard it is to dye a strong solid black, but I set about dyeing some gray gradations for the wings--and found how many different shades of gray exist.  Chickadees are neither green gray nor blue gray but a middle of the road gray gray that I finally got after several failed attempts.  That ruddy blush on the breast was even harder to capture.

With the fabric ready I began to contemplate actually piecing this block and realized it was an excellent candidate for paper piecing--another good reason to have drawn the block in EQ6 because I could print out multiple copies.  I divided it into sections, figured out the order of stitching, dealt with the problem of the set-in seam at the bottom of the head section and made a test block to see if my plans would work.  Soon--well, actually a few weeks later, I had twelve chickadee blocks up on my working wall begging for a suitable background.  

I had been envisioning a sort of free wheeling background, some sort of random curving patterns to contrast with the very symmetrical, structured blocks, but when I tried a corner of this I realized that the contrast was too great and the result was chaos rather than contrast. Instead I chose the more orderly curves that you now see, but that still provide a bit of contrast with all the straight lines of the central part.  I ultimately decided to use two gradations of grays in the background with the middle sections being just slightly lighter than the corners.

The quilting is a mixture of machine quilting and randomly stitched hand quilting using pearl cotton that also provides some texture contrast with the highly structured birds.

And then there were the edges.  I decided not to face the quilt because I wanted to keep those tiny yellow points very sharp and finally (you can read the story of the binding fiasco here) chose a black binding.  It's official name:  A Toccata of Chickadees.

If you are still reading and have not given up on this long listing of details and gone off to make yourself a cup of tea, then thanks for the company!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Challenge

For each show the Mountain Laurel Quilt Guild exhibit committee comes up with a challenge for the members and this time they chose a great one:  create a quilt that is less than 36" in any direction and is "Out of the Box," i.e., it cannot be a rectangle or a square.  The result was a lively potpourri of styles and shapes, with several members using the challenge to try a technique totally new to them or to just design their own free form wall hanging.  Pictures are no substitute for seeing these works in person, but pictures will give you an idea of what the challenge section looks like:

I was one of those members who chose to do something entirely new--a quilt that moves and changes as the air currents spin the individual pieces and as the viewer changes his or her perspective.

I call this Turn, Turn, Turn, for obvious reasons and it measures about 30" x 32".  I had wanted to make a kinetic quilt for years and had been sitting in a Thai restaurant over a year ago, waiting for Tom to park the car and staring at a chandelier made of off white disks hung on strings that moved when the air conditioning came on.  --Ah--I thought--I could perhaps use the same concept to create a quilt with different parts of a pattern on long strips--  When I began to think about the guild challenge, it seemed the perfect opportunity to see if I could actually create such a quilt.

The project began with my drafting a variety of designs that would create a new design when flipped from one side to the other and deciding which ones created some kind of harmonious pattern.  Of course, the process of selecting colors was the same as in any quilt, but here my procrastination paid off as I had some beautiful fabrics that I had bought at the Lancaster quilt show that had been sitting on my buffet for a few weeks because I loved looking at them.  One was a hand-dyed fabric from Ghana that complemented a deep emerald green and a deep teal that had been hand woven in Bali and had the sheen of silk even though they were cotton.  I added a couple of  other batiks and I was on to solving the batting problem, since my usual cotton batting would not supply enough shape.  Luckily I had made fabric bowls a few years ago and so decided to try Peltex, a perfect choice, since it provided some stiffening but I could still stitch through it.  

After some trial and error, I managed to successfully sew the back and front onto the Peltex and the designs even matched up.  As I finished my fifth strip, however, I began to worry about the next step.  How would I mount these to make them turn.  Would they turn?  Would they line up enough to make patterns?  Before I invested more hours and more of that wonderful fabric, I had to find out.  After running heavy quilting thread through the top of each, I taped the thread to top of a doorway and stood back to see what happened:

They lined up beautifully and turned now and then in the breeze from a ceiling fan!  This was getting exciting. I now had the energy to finish the other fourteen strips.

Of course, when they were done and I had added some beads to the bottom of each, I had to jump the final hurdle:  how to mount all of them so that they could hang on a wall.  I finally decided on a piece of wood about 1 1/2" square with two small hook and eyes screwed into the top to which fish line would be attached. On that I stapled more Peltex that would be sturdy enough to hold the thread.

To cover the wood and Peltex I quilted another piece of the Ghana fabric and then confronted another moment of truth:  Would it hang on the wall?
Indeed it did!
And here is one last alternative view at the exhibit, since this quilt does look different every time you see it:

And if you're still with me, thanks for the company!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Pictures at an Exhibition

The Mountain Laurel Quilt Guild Exhibit 2010 opened with a crowded gallery last night.  This is a shot down the left side in the quiet before people starting arriving.  And the next one shows the center grouping:

To be successful, an exhibit like this takes a great deal of work and many volunteer hours.  None put in more hours for this show than Susan, the exhibit chair, who, with her great organizational skills, managed to keep all the plates spinning, the committees on target, and everyone reasonably happy throughout the two years of preparation time for this event.  She was aided by a number of generous hard workers in our guild.

But the big percentage of the success has to be attributed to the quilters willing to put their work on display.  For some this is easy; for others of us it is difficult and the more of us we put into our quilts the harder it can be to send them out there for all the world to see and comment on.  

So here's to the hard work of Susan and all who helped her and to the hard work and courage of all the quilters whose work is on display.   Together we all made something beautiful!

Friday, September 3, 2010


I have not done very well this week in terms of my resolution to post more frequently.  But I have a very good quilt-related excuse.  This has been the week for hanging our local guild's biennial exhibit.  Unlike other quilt shows which are often hung in large gymnasiums or some kind of community center, ours began twelve years ago in the Gmeiner Art & Cultural Center, a local community art gallery, and has stayed there ever since even though the guild has grown considerably in those years.  The space is limited, but makes a beautiful backdrop for all the richness of color, texture, and pattern that the quilts bring.

Since the show is open to any of the members, now numbering almost 150, it is always a bit of a nail biter to see if we will have enough room.   As usual, I, with the help of five other members, was given the task of somehow fitting the quilts into the space and making it somehow look like these very distinctive quilts settle into some kind of flow and rhythm.

And this year, as usual, on Monday morning as I moved quilts around into a possible progression before the rest of the hanging committee showed up, I was convinced that we would not have room to hang all the first choices (We guarantee each member that we will include her first choice in the show).  But this year I was convinced more strongly than in other years because, as the guild has grown in numbers, members have also grown in skill or at least in the confidence to take on larger projects so that we had very few small wall hangings this year.   But as usual, by the end of that day, we had found a way to get all the first choices in and, by the end of Tuesday, we had  a good percentage of the second choices as well.  And the show looks good!

I did remember to bring my camera with me, but my attention was definitely on other things besides taking pictures.  So you will have to imagine a space filled with piles of quilts, ladders, long poles for the quilt racks, and rods for hanging quilts on the wall that gradually becomes more coherent.

Tonight we party!  The Mountain Laurel Quilt Guild Exhibit 2010 will officially open and will remain at the Gmeiner all month.  And I promise pictures after the opening reception--as well as some details about my two quilts that are hanging in the show.  And if you're still with me this time, thanks for the company.