Saturday, February 27, 2010


February 21 -- up a tree

February 22 -- shiny

February 23 -- down the drain

February 24 -- snowing again

February 25 -- tilt

February 26 -- behind the firehouse

February 27 -- in the alley

The typographic observer 1

The difficult life of an apartment manager -- hmmm, are there any fonts I haven't used yet?

Guest speaker: leftovers

I said in a recent post that some of my nice leftover projects came from scraps given to me by Marti Plager. That's past tense, because Marti no longer gives me her scraps -- she makes leftover quilts herself. I kick myself because I'm the one who showed her how to use the scraps! I asked Marti if she would like to comment about leftovers, so she's the guest speaker today.

My first exposure to using leftover scraps was Kathy Loomis bringing some of her finished work to the critique group. I marveled at what she could do with what other people were throwing away. She loved taking home scraps from a workshop or acquiring a huge garbage bag from friends who were in the midst of tidying their studio.

I really wanted to understand Kathy's mind and how she worked. She works and thinks so differently than I do.

First, I gave her a "small" bag of leftovers which she sewed into nine 12-inch blocks and gave back to me, telling me I should put them together in a composition and quilt it. I did this and the resulting piece still graces my studio wall from time to time for wonderful inspiration.

Then I needed some personal instruction to see if I would really like this approach to making art.

I love it. It is so freeing. I just start sewing pieces together, making small units and then they start to talk to me and tell me what they want to be. I marvel at what can be made using bits of fabric that will not be used for anything else. Why do I find this approach so freeing? It is like gestural drawing, very playful and certainly not wasting "good materials". I come to the sewing machine with no expectations and an open mind. It is a fun and anxiety-free creative endeavor. An activity we all need from time to time.

While Kathy enjoys using the scraps of others, I have no desire to do this. I have enough scraps of my own. I think people who like to use scraps from others are the same folks who enjoy garage sales, flea markets and antique shops. I am not one of these people. I don't like to collect stuff just for the joy of collecting. I might have to dust it or find a place for it. Nothing thrills me more than when I use up what has previously languished on a shelf. However, it is interesting to see your own scraps in the hands of others. The way Kathy uses my materials never crosses my mind. It's amazing. I enjoy seeing what happens. It expands my mind and enhances the way I see the world.

Marti most frequently makes leftover quilts with the scraps from one or two of the big quilts she has just finished. She had a solo show a couple of years ago in which she showed the leftovers alongside the big quilts -- a lovely approach that allows you to see the DNA passed along from the first generation to the second. Here's one of the pairs where the lineage is particularly clear. You can see more at her website.

Marti Plager -- Tolerance

Marti Plager -- Destination 3

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The second quilting lesson

Today was Molly’s second quilting lesson. She had made nine log cabin blocks, each one somewhere between 7 and 8 1/2 inches square. We decided to trim everything to 7 1/4 inches square. A couple of the blocks weren’t big enough on one dimension, so she sewed on strips that had been trimmed off larger blocks.

For me, the most exciting part of a block-to-block quilt comes when you finally put all the blocks together and see what they do as an ensemble.

I do have a design wall that we could have used, but we used the floor instead. In the back of my mind is that Molly has to go home and work without a fancy studio, and I do her no favors if I teach her to work with resources that won’t be at her disposal later. For the same reason, she’s sewing on the kitchen table, cutting on the counter (which is an excellent work height!) and pressing on the stove (which if you think of it makes a fine, firm, heatproof, well-lit ironing board equivalent).

Molly turned the blocks this way and that, and exchanged them and readjusted the layout for quite a while – and don’t we all love this part!! Then she sewed them together. In the process she learned some of the subtleties of piecing, such as how it’s easier to sew over existing seams if the seam allowances are pointing toward you, not toward the presser foot, how you avoid lumps by staggering seam allowances or pressing them in opposite directions, and how the presser foot wants to slide off the edge if there are more thicknesses of fabric on one side of the seam.

The quilt seemed small, even though it’s only meant for a three-year-old, so we made three-inch borders. Here’s the finished quilt top:

Next week we’ll sandwich and start quilting.

Meanwhile, Molly told me she has visions of sewing very complex designs with small pieces, and with triangles and other odd-shaped pieces, and asked me whether she was insane to even think about it so early in her quilting career. So I gave her homework: go home and try sewing different shapes together. There is only one rule: press every seam before you sew on the next piece. She already knows everything she needs to about the theory of piecing, and it will be interesting to see what she makes and what she learns by working on her own.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why the yellow leftovers top makes me nervous

One appeal of using leftovers is that when you confine yourself to the scraps from one quilt, the color palette should already be a harmonious combination. So whatever you make from the leftovers will also go well together.

That makes it easier to put the second piece together – no pesky thinking required – and it’s particularly nice to display the leftover quilt alongside the original so you can see the DNA passed along from the first generation to the second.

However, what if you start with a pile of scraps with no obvious palette? Either because you’re working with leftovers from many different projects, or because one project included everything but the kitchen sink. The latter situation is what I faced with the bits and pieces from Compositional Conversations. The original included just about every color there is, and to make it more complicated, while most were solids, the pile included screen printed fabric, mottled hand-dyes and even some black and white stripes.

I mentioned in a previous post that in the original CC project, I stripped away at least half the composition when it came around to me. There was so much going on that it made me nervous. And that feeling recurred when I started to work with the leftovers. That’s probably why I like the red top more than the yellow one – there’s just too much happening in the yellow.

Now I’m not against quilts where there’s an awful lot happening. But I like there to be some structure that holds things together while they happen. I had thought the pieced “ladder” structure, where the narrow gray strips frame every piece and hold them in rows, would be sufficient for this purpose. But it didn’t do the job in the yellow top. Not only is there a wide variety of colors and patterns in this piece, but there is a lot of curving around and irregularity in the grid.

Grids are loved by many artists because they help hold disparate elements in place, because they make things look orderly even when there is little innate cohesion to be found. That's what I needed with this collection of leftovers.  But in the yellow top, the grid itself is broken.

I’ve used broken grids in earlier quilts in my “Crazed” series, and they worked.

Crazed 7: Flood Stage

Here’s one where the grid curved dramatically.

Crazed 6:  Low Water

Here’s one where the grid was much more random – the “ladders” didn’t all go horizontally, and the breaks came unpredictably. But in both cases, the variation in the grid was the only action in the quilt; the color changed very little, if at all, while the grid was morphing around. In both cases there were only two color segments in the entire piece, and the subordinate one had a totally regular grid. And of course all the “Crazed” quilts that I have shown you are made from solid colors.

I’ve also made “Crazed” quilts with color variation, but the grid was quite regular.

Crazed 4: Painted Desert

But in the yellow leftovers top, I have the feeling that too much is happening at once – both the grid and the color palette are complicated, and it got out of control.

I like the upper half of the yellow top, where there is less color variation and also less dramatic grid variation. I’m tempted to cut off the bottom half for placemats and make the calmer yellow part twice as big (or more). I might be OK with varying the grid a little more dramatically in the new parts, as long as the color palette stayed very restricted.

One word in favor of the lower half of the yellow top came from a friend of mine on the Quiltart list. She said that section looked to her like an aerial landscape, maybe a town on the banks of a river. Since I love aerial landscapes this perked me up and I might even think twice about turning that part into placemats. But I am constrained by the fact that I truly do not have a single square inch of those pink, blue and gray fabrics left, so I can’t do any improvement by addition. I’ll let you know what I decide.

Update:  Five years later I did cut off the bottom half, and I turned it into a quilt, not placemats.  Here's what I ended up with.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


February 14 -- from the balcony

February 15 -- Valentine roses

February 16 -- holly

February 17 -- still snow

February 18 -- still snow

February 19 -- concrete

February 20 -- downtown

Leftovers, the psychological implications of

More about leftovers! When I posted about the two tops made out of the Compositional Conversations scraps, Terry Jarrard-Dimond (who organized the CC project) wrote on her blog,

What could there be about these assortments of scraps that is attractive to someone? Is it because they have a history? Do these shunned remnants have some sort of built-in predisposition for coordination? Is it thriftiness on the part of the interested artist harking back to the origins of quiltmaking? Is it bravado on the part of the new scrap owner saying, "I can make something of nothing"? Or is it simply these collections of leftovers somehow speak to the new owner in a way many of us don't hear?

Then Julia Moore wrote in a comment to my post,

I also have a "thing" for scraps, but in my case, I am fascinated with the suggestive fabric outlines that are left after cutting out complex shapes. In these scrap shapes I see conversations and stories taking place with imaginary creatures or humans. So I pin the shapes onto white backgrounds and let the stories emerge with a little embroidery to help them along. I have been experimenting with letting my "dark side" do the talking. It seems I harbor many monsters that want to get out. This is a good way to release them and the results are so interesting, not anything my nice, ladylike rational mind could produce.

Maybe working with leftovers can be an artistic Rorschach test to bring out psychological issues that are better concealed in more deliberate works of art.

In my own case, let me lie down on the couch and run through Terry’s questions.

1. Yes, I like the fact that the scraps have a history. I especially like leftovers that provide hints about the original project, as in Julia’s work (which I took the liberty of tracking down on the web). I used to get wonderful garbage bags of scraps from Juanita Yeager, and frequently would take expanses of her pieced fabric and rework them.

In this one, Juanita had sewed the pieces together in horizontal rows before she decided she didn’t like the piece. I slashed her work vertically and reassembled into a more complex pattern.

In this one, Juanita had cropped an already-quilted piece, slicing off one or two inches from each side with a rotary cutter. I put the pink and blue scraps together to make the center of the new work, mounted it on the green background and added more quilting.

Here's a piece using leftovers from Marti Plager.  She had made the red/pink strip piecing for a class sample and gave me the extra.

2. Sometimes the remnants from a previous project do come pre-coordinated, which means you don’t have to think that hard about putting them together. Not so with the CC leftover project: every color on the wheel was in the box with the exception of pastels. In fact, my frustration with the yellow top is that I’m not sure I did a good job of putting so many different colors together.

3. Yes, thriftiness is a part of it. I am well known for my frugality, which some in my family would call cheapness. (see my previous post on mending)  And yes, I do feel that I’m giving a nod to the traditions of quilting when I work from scraps.

4. Yes, bravado is part of it too. It’s kind of a fiber art triple axel, like piecing narrower and narrower strips or tinier and tinier pieces than anybody else.

5. Yes, the fabric speaks to me. And I like fabric or even sewed-together rejects that have been through somebody else's hands, because that person speaks to me too, even if I don't know who she is. I have always loved to rescue linens from the flea market. I think of some anonymous woman who worked on that piece for many hours in the evenings, after a long day of hard work, under poor light, because she wanted to make something beautiful, and now she’s gone and her children can’t even be bothered to keep the doily. I feel it’s my duty to take it home so she knows that somebody appreciates what she made.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Last year I was part of an interesting experiment called “Compositional Conversations“ organized by Terry Jarrard-Dimond. She invited 13 other quilters to participate. Terry started by putting a shape onto a fabric ground, then sent it to the next person. Each of us in turn could add new elements or subtract or rearrange existing elements (everything was just pinned, so you could revise to your heart’s content).

I don’t think the finished product will win any design competitions, even though design was what we were supposed to focus on. But it was fun to follow along what happened each week as a new eye surveyed the situation. You can see the work in its different stages on Terry’s blog.

My part in the exercise, which came quite far along, was to remove a great deal of the composition. I tend to get nervous when too much is going on, especially when there is a wide variety of different colors, styles, fabrics, shapes and sensibilities. So I stripped the work down to a far more minimalist design.

That lasted only as long as it took for the package to get to the next person in line. I guess the others in the group don’t like mimimalism as much as I do!

But I’m not posting to talk about the “composition” or even about the “conversation” – I want to talk about the leftovers!!

As people did their thing with the work, we left no prisoners – we packed up all the fabric and sent it along to the next person. Some of us included a little extra fabric in the package, just in case somebody might want to add more shapes in the same color. As you can see by looking at all of the versions, there was a lot of fabric that showed up at one point or another.

After Terry put the composition together, I asked her if I could have the leftovers. I have been putting them together for the last couple of weeks and now have two tops ready for viewing.

The red top is actually the smaller of the two -- 27 x 32.  The yellow top is 25 x 43.  There's more of the red, yellow and dark blue fabrics, so I could conceivably make the red top larger at either top or bottom, and could make the yellow one larger by adding to the top. 

I had originally thought of making the two pieces as a diptych pair, and had carried over some of the reddish fabrics from the yellow top into the red top to link the two, but now I don't think they play well together.

I invite your comments. I'll give you more of my own critique later, and I want to write more about the whole concept of sewing leftovers together.  Thanks, Terry and my other collaborators, for the leftovers!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thank you, Rosemary

Rosemary reminded me in her comment that the quilting pattern on my huge blue quilt looks like a design painted on the interstate underpass near my house.  She's right, of course!  I pointed it out to her once when she visited me.

This design has been there for years, apparently to cover up graffiti, and every time I drive by I fall in love with it again.  I once thought it could become a motif in my quilts, but never could figure out how to make that happen, and I abandoned that idea -- or so I thought.  Apparently it just bubbled up from the subconscious into my quilting.

Thanks for the reminder!  I hadn't made the connection myself.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Two huge quilts

Last week I put two quilts into the transportation infrastructure, on their way to Germany for display this summer in “Color Improvisations,” an exhibit organized and curated by Nancy Crow. I was happy to have them out the door, but I said to my husband as I toted the box away, “there goes a year of my life.”

This exhibit, which will open in Stuttgart in July, is a very special one. Nancy invited people to make quilts, which had to be square, HUGE and spectacular. We submitted photos of the tops, and Nancy chose which ones made it to the next stage. Then we quilted them, and submitted images again for Nancy’s approval. She graciously gave us a couple of months for the final finishing details, and now everything is on its way to Europe.

Nancy is particularly interested in the quality of machine quilting, and told us to make the backs as beautiful as the fronts. We expect that some if not all of the quilts will be hung away from the wall, which if you think about it means you’re actually making two works of art, not one.

We had to swear not to show images of the quilts until the show opens, and I will honor that promise. But I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I show you what the backs of my quilts look like.

This one is called Fault Lines 3, and it’s about 74 inches square.  (The part you see in the photo is about 10 inches wide.)  The front of the quilt has many little areas demarcated by very narrow piecing lines. I didn’t want the quilting thread (which almost matched the background fabric) to cross the pieced lines (which were much lighter), so I decided I needed to quilt each area separately. Having decided this, I figured what the heck, I’d do each area in a different pattern. This turned out to be an excellent decision, as I know I would have been bored silly quilting the same thing for four weeks.

This may be the best quilting job I’ve ever done, and it shows up nicely with dark thread on a pale backing fabric. Considering how large the piece is, I found it surprisingly easy to quilt, even with the challenge of wadding up a huge package under the short arm of a home sewing machine.

By contrast, the second quilt, Crazed 8: Incarceration, about 86 inches square, was certainly the most difficult job of quilting I’ve ever done. I am happy with the result (I guess) but there were many weeks in there when I was ready to set the whole thing on fire. I wish it had not been so physically trying – don’t know if my back and shoulders would have held up better twenty years ago, or if this is just a daunting task no matter what your age and fitness. I also had many skipped stitches, had to rip out a couple of areas because of pleats in the backing, and other problems that I have repressed the memories of.  (The photo above is about actual size.)

On the plus side, I love the pattern of the quilting, which ironically is almost invisible on the front, because of the busyness of the design. I would like to do it again sometime on a whole-cloth quilt so you could see the wonderful pattern without having to go to the back.

I like to finish every art project with a formal evaluation of what I did. Bottom line on these two quilts is that I love the artistic effect of working huge, but quilting them just about killed me. I have resolved that the next time I work huge, it’s going to be in two or three panels, which I will quilt separately and sew together at the very end.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


February 7 -- view from the alley

February 8 -- fence

February 9 -- new snow

February 10 -- getting sick of snow pictures

February 11 -- on campus

February 12 -- the last national economic stimulus program

February 13 -- at the farm machinery show

Be my valentine -- part 2

Hey guys!  It's not too late to do the right thing for your sweetie!

If you already bought this neat metal water bottle with a spray head, you can still run out and get a nice bunch of flowers instead.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The first quilting lesson

Yesterday I started what I hope will become a really rewarding experience: I had my first day with a student who wants to learn how to make quilts. Molly has a sewing machine and has used it for small gift projects and home dec, so we don’t have to learn how to thread the needle. But she has not made quilts.

How to start! ? !

My personal prejudice is that too many teachers of beginning quilting pile it on with too much detail and too many rules. I like to get people sewing, so they can get hooked on the joy of creation before they are turned off by the frustration of "not getting it right.” I thought it might be fun to chronicle Molly’s learning and see what she makes.

We talked about what she wanted to make – a baby quilt – and what pattern/approach she would like. I gave her a choice of three traditional quilting concepts: nine-patch, rail fence, and log cabin. She decided on log cabin.

I think all of those three concepts have much to recommend them to beginners. They’re all so firmly grounded in the traditions of quilting that anybody drawn to the quilt format will feel comfortable. But they all lend themselves to a low-rules approach to construction and design. With any of those three concepts you can make a very traditional feeling quilt, or a very contemporary, edgy one.

First we chose fabrics. I have a stash of fabrics, largely traditional calico small prints, that I have outgrown as my own quilts have become contemporary and abstract. They’re all folded neatly in a “library” so it’s easy to choose a palette.

Molly was happy to find a lot of earth tones, and I was happy to divest them – those of us who lived through the 70s (and bought lots of fabric) are usually not thrilled to remember those glory days of brown.  She chose about a dozen fabrics, making sure to have a wide range of values, with a couple of light-lights to perk up the mediums and darks.  If you have chosen a good palette, you don't have to make a lot of subsequent decisions, just grab whichever strip is on top of the pile or seems to be the right length to match the piece you're sewing it to.

We decided to make nine blocks, so we cut nine three-inch squares for the log cabin centers. Then we cut a bunch of strips in varying widths. Molly sewed a strip to each of the centers, chain-piecing the whole set before cutting them apart and pressing.  Then she added a second strip to each block.  She took everything home and for our next meeting will have nine blocks ready to trim and sew together. We decided there would be no rules: you don’t have to sew strips in a particular order or in a particular color plan or keep the center square exactly in the center of the block.

Two strips sewed to each center square.

There are only two things that I tell beginning piecers to worry about: sewing a straight seam and pressing VERY CAREFULLY.

We talk about how it’s important to start with straight edges on your pieces (thank you, rotary cutters), and to align the two pieces of fabric carefully before you take them to the sewing machine. Don’t watch the needle as you stitch, but rather watch the cut edge of the fabric and concentrate on guiding it past your chosen landmark, about a quarter-inch to the right of the needle. The landmark can be a line on your stitch plate, or a place on the presser foot itself, or the edge of the feed dog plate, or a mark you have drawn in ink on your machine bed – whatever seems good for you.

Molly is using the edge of her sewing machine foot as the landmark. It’s not exactly a quarter-inch, but so what? As long as she always uses the same landmark, her seams will be straight and uniform. If she decides later in her quilting career that she needs to construct quilt blocks with great precision, she’ll be able to do so because she will know exactly how wide her seams are.

And we talk about pressing – how you start on the back of the work by gently guiding the seam to the correct direction, then flip the piece over and do serious pressing from the front. How you set the iron down behind the seam and use its flat edge as a bulldozer to push the fullness ahead of you, to make sure the seam is completely open before you add pressure.

All the other details can wait. And maybe we’ll never get to them! I am constantly surprised and thrilled that you can make beautiful quilts without templates, without a lot of measuring, without a lot of advance planning, without a lot of worrying. If you don’t have to worry about bureaucratic details, you can keep your mind clear to think about the colors, the design, the beauty, the art.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


January 31 -- Big Red at lunch

February 1 -- construction site

February 2 -- parade

February 3 -- church yard

February 4 -- red, white and blue

February 5 -- still life with scissors

February 6 -- snowing again