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!

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