Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Answering your questions: quilting designs

Sharon Robinson said in a comment last week, "Looking at these close-up photographs makes me wonder about how you decide on a quilting pattern or strategy."

Excellent question, and I had to think about it for a while.  For some quilt artists, the quilting is the key element in the art, or at least is equal in importance to the piecing.  One such artist who comes to mind is Paula Kovarik, who draws elaborate designs with her quilting line.  In her day job she's a graphic designer who has been drawing with writing implements for most of her life, which is obvious from the masterful imagery she puts onto her quilts.  I suspect that artists like this think of their quilting pattern at the earliest stages of design, maybe even before they settle on a final composition.

By contrast, there are other quilt artists who regard the quilting as a necessary but mainly functional part of the process.  I am one of them.

For me, quilting is sometimes fun, sometimes rewarding, occasionally an opportunity to realize my artistic vision, but often it's just plain work.  I make quilts because I love piecing, and then I do quilting because the layers have to be sewed together.  I usually wait till the top is finished before I start to think about how I will quilt it.

In addition, there's the logistical issue.  Quilting a small piece is quite a different story than quilting a huge one.  I do all my quilting on my plain home sewing machine, not even one with a large harp.  Since my favorite size is somewhere larger than six feet square, it takes a lot of wrestling and manhandling to get anything quilted.

In the past I have done elaborate free-motion quilting on very large pieces, but the last time I did so, I found it so physically wearing that I swore I would never do it again.  I love the effect on the quilt, but not the effect on me.  It's easier to put a walking foot on the machine, roll the quilt into a manageable package and do a simple grid.  That's my default method, especially since the straight lines complement the straight-line piecing of most of my work.

Fault Lines 4, 2010, 76" x 76" (detail)

This piece had relatively large spaces that seemed to cry out for fancy designs.  I realized that I would be bored silly quilting the same designs on the whole piece, so I decided to use a different design in each little segment (segments ranged in size from a half-inch square to about six inches square).  Probably the best quilting I've ever done, but I don't think I'll do it again.

Crazed 4: Painted Desert, 2008, 27" x 39" (detail)

This is my default quilting pattern, largely for physical reasons, but also because the simple grid echoes the lines of my piecing.  I like to use several colors in the quilting and allow the grid to become irregular.  The lines are spaced anywhere between an eighth- and three-eighths-inch apart.

Shards 8, 2002, 12" x 14" 

On tiny quilts sometimes I quilt very dense parallel lines, less than an eighth-inch apart.  I love the effect, but if I used this on a huge quilt it would never be finished.

Fault Lines 1, 2008, 34" x 35" (detail)

On smaller quilts I can be more adventuresome because the piece doesn't have to be rolled up and can be rotated more easily under the needle.  Here's one where the piecing lines go on diagonals, so I quilted lines parallel to the piecing.  I love the final effect, but it was quite an intellectual challenge to plot the lines to cover all areas of the quilt at the density I wanted.

Shards 9,  2002, 9" x 11"

On very small quilts it's easy to make beautiful curves with a walking foot, but you have to be able to turn the quilt freely while you stitch all the way across in one pass.  If you stop in midstream, the line will have an obvious, awkward break in the curve and look awful.  I wish I could do this on a larger quilt!

Bottom line, I wish I were physically able to do more ambitious quilting on the majority of my pieces, but they're just too big.  I'm fortunate that the straight-line quilting that I can accomplish with relative ease looks pretty good with the kind of quilts that I usually make.  But in the end, I don't worry much -- I think my quilts are judged on the piecing rather than on the quilting.


  1. ohhh you hit a topic that is close to my quilting heart - the zen of the quilt line. One thing I've found for me - is that I really try to let the quilt line just be the finishing design element of the quilt. Not often will I offer up a whole new element adding that line - rather I try to keep it in harmony with the rest of the design. Also, although I try to make one design decision at a time - I do keep it in the back of my mind what I'm going to do with the quilting as I go through with the rest of the design process. And yessss - did upgrade to the Janome 7700 just so that I would have more harp space to get the quilt like I wanted. Great post -thanks!!

  2. What size thread do you use? I like the effect on Shards 8. Was that a thicker thread?

    I use to consider the quilting design last, like you. But now, it is starting to be incorporated from the beginning.

    I also have the regular home sewing machine and have to wrestle with the piece sometimes. But I haven't made anything as large as you do.

  3. Thanks for the mention Kathy, I could be your direct opposite! Perhaps we should work together on a piece someday. Piecing can be great fun (I especially like that perfect ironing part when done right) but more and more piecing is getting in my way. The line has taken over. I start all quilts with the line work as my first objective. Love the examples you have posted here. Your work never ceases to amaze me.

  4. Kathy, Thank you so much for addressing my question so thoughtfully. I find it fascinating how many different approaches there are to the quilting part of art quilts. Loved what you did on Fault Lines 4, but wow, what a lot of work! As you mention, I had also noted Paula Kovarik's work as unique for it's focus on the quilt line - and the mastery it must have taken to do what she does! I think the question came to mind because I have two big tops (50-70" per side)staring at me, waiting to be quilted, and I hate leaving them unfinished, but at the same time I have Nancy Crow's admonition to "come back with at least five good quilt tops..." Sigh.
    Thanks again, I always appreciate your thoughtful posts.

  5. Lisa -- I think the quilting is so prominent on that quilt because it's a poly thread (Isacord) and is quite reflective in the photo. It's just regular weight thread.

    Sharon -- when Nancy orders you to make five good tops she doesn't care if they're quilted or not.

    Paula -- hmmmm!!!!! let's talk -- after the QN deadline.