Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Baby quilts 3 -- fixing mistakes

If not for trash TV to listen to while I sew, I would not be nearly as motivated to hang in there through the boring parts in the middle -- where the piecing is done and you just have to sew, sew, and sew some more to get the damn things finished.  Yes, there's a certain calm zen in endless sewing, but it's easy to get distracted and leap up to do laundry or defrost something for dinner unless you have something to hold you to the task.

I'm binge-watching The West Wing now, having never seen it when it was on TV the first time around.  Watching the fictional White House grapple with North Korea, terrorism, budget crises and mad cow disease is strangely resonant with my day job of watching the real White House grapple with real problems.

But let's talk about baby quilts.  I've finished piecing and quilting all five quilts, and have embroidered four and a half names and DOBs.  And unfortunately, have had to stop and fix several mistakes.  They happen to the best of us, but don't you want to just kick yourself when they happen to you?

Here's one from yesterday afternoon:

Bet you don't know many little girls named Elizabh do you?  It took a long time to rip out this stitching, since I had gone over the same line four times.  But I was happy to find that the needle holes weren't too obvious after I got everything corrected.

Earlier in the week I realized that this dark spot, which had been apparent on one of my quilt blocks for a long time, was not just a water spot but something permanent.

I toyed with a turned-edge applique to cover the spot, but ended up with Wonder Under.  Still thinking about whether I need to stitch around the edges or if I can trust the glue to hold up by itself.

Here's last week's mistake: my backing fabric had been plenty big when I started, but had apparently slithered out of position while I was quilting.  When I got out toward the edge I realized that it had slithered so far that I needed to cut out four quilting lines, piece in an inch of new fabric and do the ends of the quilting over again.

But all the mistakes were fixable, and I knew exactly what to do to fix them.  So I got to watch another hour of TV while doing it.  There are worse ways to spend an hour.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Inspirational reading for the day

If you're feeling depressed and discouraged today (as who isn't?), here's a five-minute read that will cheer you up.  The New York Times visited a tiny village in Ecuador where the finest Panama hats are made, and gives us a two-page spread of photos and text that will certainly put a smile on your face.  How nice to be reminded that master craftsmanship still exists and is respected.

New York Times photo

(Don't ask me why it took six weeks from the time this story was posted online to get it into the print newspaper.  I guess we dinosaurs who still love paper have to have our noses rubbed into it every now and then.) 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Yo-yo dress update

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the best in show winner at Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie.  It was a dress made of yo-yos, whose train merged into a rectangular yo-yo quilt, made by Marty Ornish.

I wondered in my blog post whether the yo-yos were recycled from old quilts or newly made from old fabrics or what.  This morning I was happy to find that Marty left a comment on my post that explains all.  She writes:

"These two circa WW2 quilts were made by three women.  The youngest, Joan Crone, is now 86, and she sewed these yo-yos 'to help pass the time during the war' and created the quilt with her mother and grandmother.  Her own grandchildren didn't want these quilts, and after she saw my other work at my solo show at Visions's Art Museum, she gifted the yo-yo quilts to me with the explicit wish that I would incorporate them into my art, and she is thrilled with the response.

"Many of the yo-yos had to be repaired, and I deconstructed one of the quilts to create the dress.

"Regarding the issue you raised as to whether or not the yo-yo quilt meets the strict definition of a 'quilt,' while, as you know, a traditional quilt has three layers stitched together, with the advent of art quilts many textile museums now accept two layers of a textile held together by stitching as qualifying as a quilt."

What a good story, especially the part about how the grandchildren didn't want the quilts (boo, hiss) but they were recycled into a lovely art installation.  Marty does this all the time, and is happy to receive donations of unwanted textiles to use in art.  Those of you whose children or grandchildren are as unappreciative as Mrs. Crone's might want to make note of Marty's address [ ] so your beloved stuff could also find a new home with someone who will treat it very well.

Here's an excellent interview in a San Diego paper in which Marty tells how she got into wearables and other fiber art. 

Regarding Marty's comment about the definition of a quilt, she's right that the art quilt world has generally discarded the requirement of three layers.  As one of the founders of the FNF exhibit, I was proudly responsible for writing its definition -- "layers held together by stitching" -- and participated in several discussions, both as juror and as installer, about whether a given entry met the test.

Once we received a quilt that had been accepted, but when we unwrapped it the lack of any stitching-through-layers was obvious.  We loved the piece and tried and tried to find a single stitch anywhere that went through.  Fortunately the artist had sent in her entry well before the deadline, and we decided to send it back to her and ask her to put in at least two or three stitches that would be clearly visible.  She did, without noticeably changing anything about the piece, and the quilt went on the wall and looked great in the show.

We accepted more than one entry over the year from a well-known fiber artist who did intricate hand-stitching.  It was obvious that the stitches went through multiple layers, because we could see that the back and front were different fabrics and the stitches went all the way through, so it clearly met the FNF definition -- even though the artist's website made a point of saying that she does NOT consider her work to be quilts.

I still think yo-yos are pushing the definition, because the stitching mainly goes between one yo-yo and another rather than holding the two layers of the yo-yo together, but faced with a beautiful piece like Marty's dress, you look for a reason to define it in rather than a reason to define it out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Baby quilts 2 -- piecing

I now have all five tops pieced, or at least the main portions of them.  They're all pretty small and I'm debating whether to add borders to make them larger.  Ordinarily I would expect medium-small quilts to just go on the wall, and probably would go out of my way NOT to add borders.  But these are quilts for kids, and I know that little kids like to use their quilts -- wrap things in them, lie on them, furnish dollhouses and secret caves with them, hide under them.  So what is too small to use?

At some point Zuki gave me several yards of a dark navy cotton print with white origami cranes, and thought maybe it could be used in the quilts.  And I have already used it as sashing in one of the tops.  But would the smaller quilts look brighter with a lighter border, maybe a pink-and-white or blue-and-white stripe ?

Still thinking about what to do next.  Meanwhile, the one that seemed most ready to be quilted up -- the 2x3 above with the blue and white stripe border -- is sandwiched and started, and should be done tomorrow.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Baby quilts again

You probably have had one of these yourself -- an item that has been on your to-do list for so long that it's easy to forget, but when you do remember you are awash in shame for having let it slip so badly.  My hall of shame includes a bunch of baby quilts, the oldest one owed since February of 2013.

There's a back story: 55 years ago I met my dear friend Zuki in graduate school -- but actually it all started decades before that when her grandmother was in a sewing circle in Hawaii.  Somebody in the sewing circle had access to scraps from a factory that made aloha shirts and muu-muus, a bright and beautiful array of tropical prints.  Zuki's grandmother sewed the scraps into hundreds of quilt blocks, some 8 inches across and some 10 inches but all the same pattern, and eventually those blocks, never assembled into quilts, fell into Zuki's possession.  She, an accomplished sewist herself but not that interested in quilting, gave them to me on condition that I make a twin bed quilt to give to her nephew, and I could do what I wanted with the rest.

I did that, maybe 25 years ago, and stashed the rest of the blocks away.  Then 13 years ago Zuki's first grandchild was on the way and I was invited to the baby shower.  I pulled out the stash and made a baby quilt, which was such a hit that I did the same thing for the next five grandchildren.  I did the last four in a marathon in 2013, discovering that it's easier and faster to make four quilts at once than to do them separately.

But since 2013 there have been five more grandchildren, and I haven't done a single quilt.  Finally two weeks ago I decided the time had come.

To my surprise, there were still an awful lot of quilt blocks left in the stash, although I had cherry-picked the best ones long ago.  I managed to put together one set of blocks straight from the box.

But the rest of the leftovers had some problems.  All the center squares are solid colors, which apparently were not in vogue at the shirt factory; some of centers were of different fabrics, too flimsy or too ravelly.  One of the patterns that was used over and over came in several different colorways, including brown, which I didn't think was appropriate for baby quilts.  So I ended up taking about 30 blocks apart, keeping most of the edge pieces, putting the brown pieces and the centers into the scrap pile.

Mostly this was easy, if tedious, although I did mutter and cuss when I got to the occasional block that had been sewed at 100 stitches to the inch and was really hard to rip out.

I had enough edge pieces to make 24 new blocks, and grouped them into two sets: one with all the pinks for a girl, one predominantly in blue for her brother.  Although I have made it a point of pride to make all these baby quilts from the original collection, I have allowed myself to add the occasional solid color or stripe of new fabric as needed.  Here I used new fabric for the solid centers -- yellow for the girl, blue for the boy -- and remade all the blocks.

I'll tell you more in the next post.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Form, Not Function 5 -- something different

Every art/quilt show worth its salt has something a little different, something that doesn't follow the usual format of a flat-against-the-wall quilt.  This year's FNF, of course, chose one like this for its best in show; here are some more pieces that fell into this niche.

Shannon Conley, 33°20'N, 105°33'W, 64 x 34 x 6" (detail below)

It has been quilted and pierced, then scrunched and stiffened into a sconce-like form that opens toward the top.  The desert colors reflect the remote New Mexico location of its title (but I hope the actual terrain of the place isn't quite this wrinkled).

Katherine Gibson, Unwearable Cloak, 60 x 84" (detail below)

Gibson has neatly cut magazine pages into tabs, layered them and stitched everything to a fabric support.  I might have wished only for a bit more color to pep up the white expanse of the top half.  I hope the paper will hold up for this quilt to be shipped and seen at many more shows!

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Form, Not Function 4 -- pictorial

This year's FNF had only a few pictorial quilts, two of which won awards.  One of those awards was the one given by my small quilt support group, River City Fiber Artists, which meant that I got to visit the museum early and choose. 

Longtime readers will recall that I generally dislike pictorial quilts as a genre, especially portraits.  I have long felt that fabric is not a good medium to depict photographically realistic images, but this year I had to admit that the quilt winning the RCFA award is perhaps the best portrait quilt I've ever seen.

Linda Anderson, Velvet Flowers, 31 x 51" (detail below)

For me, the challenge of portraiture in fabric is how to achieve the graded tones of facial features without the abrupt changes in switching from one fabric to another, the Photoshop-aided posterization process used by so many quilters to render photos into fabric.  I'm sorry I didn't do a better job of figuring out the process, but Anderson either painted or printed the faces, then quilted with a whole lot of threadwork, changing colors to enhance the realistic facial contours and skin tones.  Metallic thread made the image sparkle.

By contrast, look at this portrait:

Margaret Abramshe, Nan, 33 x 29" (detail below)

Here too the image is painted or printed, then quilted.  But here the quilting is all the same color, intended to highlight the contours rather than the gradations in skin tome, and is much sparser, giving a stylized look to the portrait.  The quilting line becomes an art element in itself.

Quite a different approach is seen in one of the honorable mention winners:

Kathy Nida, I can't Be Your Superwoman, 88 x 52" (details below)

Nida's work is instantaneously recognizable from across the room in any quilt show, with intricately rendered details in a sometimes-cartoony style.  A very different approach to figurative art in quilting.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Form, Not Function 3 -- because you asked...

I've had a few reader comments to the two posts I've made so far about Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie.  Wanted to respond to them before I go on with more discussion of the show.

About the Best in Show dress made entirely of yo-yos, Shasta wrote: "It reminds me that I have yo-yos I need to stitch together still." 

After I observed that I wished the jurors had not chosen three quilts with the same basic "recipe" -- big, improvisationally pieced, white, densely machine quilted -- Irene commented: "Maybe the jurors had nothing but that type of work to select from..."

Good point, but according to the Carnegie's web page, there were 265 quilts submitted by 110 artists, so I think they could have found something different if they had tried.  By the way, that web page has photos of every quilt in the show, not just the prizewinners, so you might find it interesting to spend a few minutes on a virtual visit.

Shannon commented:  "You could conceivably add Aryana Londir's piece to this list -- the color sense is different but the piecing approach looks somewhat similar.   After reading your post today I went back and looked at the show again to see if it felt too "heavy" in that particular approach.  After consideration, I'm not sure.  The overall show feels balances to me and there are several other additional (apparently) pieced pieces that don't have this style/approach.  I wonder to what extent this is a piecing style that is currently used by a large variety of artists?  I also wondered if it might be tied to the jurors.  I remember QN 19 when Nancy Crow was a juror the selected pieces felt enriched for those that had a Nancy-Crow-piecing style.  Not that that's necessarily bad, just perhaps an influence."

Shannon makes several points worth responding to.  First, Londir's quilt is definitely of the same character as the three I discussed in my last post: improvisationally pieced, machine quilted with parallel lines, the shapes predominantly right-angled.

Aryana Londir, What Day is Today?  41 x 24"

I like this quilt a lot -- how can you go wrong with the cheerful and dramatic German-flag color palette, plus just enough white to make it sparkle.  A nice balance of solids with commercial prints and what look to be discharged or dyed fabrics.

Shannon makes an excellent point about how the individual jurors and their own tastes can influence what's picked for a show.  Theoretically, having three jurors should make it more difficult for one to have a disproportionate say, but we all know that sometimes one voice is more equal than the others in the room.  I did not see the Quilt National show that Nancy Crow juried (it was QN 17, not 19) but I know that there were a lot of improvisationally pieced quilts in that show and many people suggested that Crow had mainly led the charge toward work in her own genre.  The fact that she, not the QN organizers, personally selected her two fellow jurors did nothing to dispel the faint aura of favoritism.

Longtime readers know that I am a huge fan and disciple of Nancy Crow.  I spent 16 weeks in her workshops over the years, taught at the Crow Barn, machine-quilted three pieces for her, and have credited her with turning me into a serious artist.  Probably because of her influence I love and teach improvisational piecing myself and I'm always happy to see that kind of quilt in a show.  But I confess that many times I find myself categorizing that kind of quilt as "look-mom-I-just-took-a-Nancy-Crow-workshop."

Longtime readers might recall that I was livid because QN 13 had only two quilts out of 85 that were pieced in the classic quilt format.  Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction, at least in this particular show.  This year's FNF isn't anywhere near as skewed in its selection as QN 13, and it's certainly a good show, with few if any duds and a bunch of solid, beautiful, well-made quilts.  I'll be talking more about several of them in the next few posts.  Meanwhile, thanks to Shannon, Irene and all my readers for your thoughtful comments.

PS -- Shannon has a very non-traditional quilt in the show, which I'll tell you more about.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Form, Not Function 2 -- improvisational piecing

There are only 19 pieces in this year's Form, Not Function show, so you can't help but notice when you seem to see the same one more than once.  Don't say to your friend, "Did you like that improvisationally pieced one, the really big one, with lots of white and all that machine quilting? It won a prize." -- because that only narrows it down to three.

Here's what won the second prize, in effect:

Susan Lapham, Playland #3, 85 x 82" (detail below)

It's densely machine quilted with horizontal lines barely an eighth-inch apart.  Yes, as the title suggests, there's a hint of playfulness but the subdued palette of off-colors gives a calm feeling despite the complex piecing, especially the tiny squares of black scattered on the large white areas. 

Honorable mention went to:

Margaret Black, Curb Appeal 7, 84 x 64" (detail below)

Black won a prize at last year's FNF for Curb Appeal 6, somewhat larger and more complicated than this year's entry.  (She also took best in show at Quilt National '17, before she embarked upon this series.) 

What's to say about this one -- it calls out to all of us who love to piece and cut and piece and cut and keep going forever.  Like Lapham's quilt, this one is densely machine quilted with parallel lines, except these go vertically.

And another honorable mention:

Susan Michael, All That You Dream, 75 x 64" (detail below)

It's the tiebreaker in the machine-quilting department, making two out of three with vertical lines.  The bold black-and-white palette gives a more assertive character and graphic quality than was seen in the other two quilts, with overtones of African prints and sparing accents of red and yellow.  Unlike the other two quilts discussed today, this one mixes fabrics, with canvas, ticking and some little shiny fabrics side-by-side with quilting-weight cottons. 

As one who does improvisational piecing with mostly right angles and dense machine quilting with parallel lines, I find it difficult to say anything bad about these quilts!  I'd be happy to have made any one of them.

All three of these quilts, especially the first two, suffered a bit from being displayed on white walls.  It was hard to tell where the quilt stopped and the wall started.  A gray or beige wall would have made them sparkle and sing.

More important, when one-sixth of the whole show consists of basically the same recipe, I have to wonder whether it might have been more interesting for viewers if the jurors had found a little more variety in approach and appearance.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Form, Not Function -- Best in Show

Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie is a show that has been at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany IN since 2004.  It has bounced around the calendar several times for various reasons, including bad weather (it used to be in the winter) and coordination with Quilt National (so people could catch both shows on a single road trip) and this year, coronavirus.  But it opened today, despite everything, and the museum is ready for masked visitors every day except Sunday.  The show will be up through October 31, a longer run than usual, so maybe you'll be able to see it in person.

Best in Show went to Marty Ornish for her 3-D installation "She gazed at the carousel through rose-colored glasses."

Yes, it's made of yo-yos, a slinky one-sleeve halter-top dress cascading into a train that extends up the wall.

Ornish's artist statement says she works in "salvaged textiles and found items" and the yo-yos all appear to be made from Depression-era prints.  I wish I knew more about the provenance -- did she find the yo-yos in somebody else's discarded stash, or make them herself?  Are the fabrics authentic Depression-era or reproductions?  In any case, the result is stunning, and the subdued pastel palette is calm and soothing from afar and endlessly interesting up close.

As I drove home from the museum it occurred to me to wonder whether this technically qualifies as a quilt under the FNF definition: layers held together by stitching.  I guess technically it does, because yo-yos have a front layer and a back layer, and though the layers aren't exactly stitched "together" (the back of a yo-yo is entirely free of thread), you can argue that each yo-yo is "held together" with its buddies via stitching.  (I have served as a juror in FNF several times, and it's this kind of nit-picking that you fall into ex officio.)  Anyhow, the yo-yo quilt is a time-honored niche, so I would give it a pass even though it's not the standard "quilt" format.

And I'm so glad this year's jurors did, because this is a wonderful tour de force and so much fun to look at.  When I was at the museum on Wednesday to choose the prizewinner for the River City Fiber Artists award, we agreed that this piece should be a no-brainer for the Viewer's Choice.  I still think so!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Checking in on calligraphy 3

Trying to achieve the same character as the Denise Lach calligraphy that I loved, I ventured out to my local art supply store, which had just reopened, to buy a little squeeze bottle with a needle tip in the smallest diameter they sold.  This turned out to have a different character than the eye droppers and coke-can pen -- namely, much more prone to blobs!

Seems that the squeeze bottle has three modes, just like Goldilocks and the three bears: not enough ink flow, too much ink flow, and just right.  Unfortunately the only one of these modes that I am able to control is too-much; if you give the squeeze bottle a little squeeze you get a huge blob.  Just-right mode seems to occur only after you've started with too-much and written out the excess, and after a short while it expires into not-enough mode.

One of the advantages of this method is that if you keep the squeeze bottle quite empty, you can add more ink of a different color tomorrow -- or even midway through one day's page -- and change the color.  I put too much red in a while back and am still writing it off, waiting for a chance to transition over to blue or green.

I've experimented with doing my letters straight up and down and on a slant. Some days I'm happy with what I come up with, other days not so much.  But none of the days are even close to the Denise Lach exemplar that I am trying to emulate.

You can see all my daily calligraphy here.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

NYTimes tells us how to weave a basket

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the New York Times searching for somebody to write up a crafts project to weave a basket from newspaper.  My internet friend Susan Lenz, a fiber artist, was approached by the Times to see if she would do the job, and after some thought, Susan said no thanks. 

You will be glad to know that the Times found somebody to do it, and in today's newspaper you can find (pretty good) directions for making a square basket.  And at the bottom of the story, in tiny type, it says "Send us photographs of your baskets, or ideas for crafts that involve newspaper.  Email us at"

If any of you out there do papier mache maybe this is your moment to get famous.  And any second-grade teachers out there probably know lots more projects that start with newspaper.

I'm so happy to see the Times solicit ideas from real people instead of going to fancy designers who clearly are years away from actually making things with a needle and thread.  Maybe now they can come up with crafts projects that both make sense and are easy to follow the directions.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Checking in on calligraphy 2

I have been looking to the book Schrift Spiele by the German calligrapher Denise Lach as inspiration for my daily calligraphy.  This example from the book spoke to me, and I have been trying for several weeks to achieve similar results that made me happy.

Denise Lach, Schrift Spiele
I like the contrast between heavy blobby strokes and very fine lines, and the way the actual letters are difficult if not impossible to make out.  The text said it was done with a "glass pipette" which I gather means an eye-dropper kind of tool.

So I looked around the house for eye-dropper kind of tools, and came up short.  But wait, how about the eye dropper inside the bottle of ink?

I did a bunch of dailies with this method, and was less than thrilled.

The blobby strokes worked out OK but the hairlines were more difficult.  This effect was exacerbated by the tendency of the acrylic ink to show up much lighter in value when there isn't much coverage.

Next I tried my old coke-can-and-tongue-depresser pen, which gave a different nuance to the fine lines.

Sometimes I'd get ink splatters, which were OK, but overall I felt the ink flow was very hard to control, and I just wasn't happy.  Some parts of the composition were nice:

...but other parts seemed crude and ugly:

I decided I needed a better tool.  I'll tell you about that in the next post.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Checking in on calligraphy 1

Although one day seems very much like the next in these lockdown/quarantine times, I do have my daily calligraphy to keep me honest.  When I run out of inspiration I grab my book by the German calligrapher Denise Lach and try to find an illustration that looks interesting.  And then I shamelessly copy it, maybe several times, trying it on for comfort to see if I can make it mine instead of hers.  I'll show you three different examples in posts this week.

Here's what I copied from, what I would describe as whimsically drawn letters:

Denise Lach, Schrift Spiele

And here are several days worth of my alphabets.  I have found that 26 letters seem to fill one of my pages quite nicely.

Lach's calligraphy has a smaller range of colors than mine, but somehow looks snappier.  I'm lazily working just from the bottles of ink that happen to be living on my dining room table.  Yes, I could probably root around in the studio and come up with some paints in different colors, or maybe colored pencils, but that would require energy, a quality that I don't seem to have a whole lot of lately.

I kind of like these alphabets, but I'm not sure they're going anywhere.  Maybe I should be trying to contort my letters into more non-traditional shapes, or trying to find more colors.  Or maybe find just one color, as Lach did.

You can see all my daily calligraphy here.