Monday, November 29, 2010

Sign of the week

I guess it's better than being OK at mediocrity.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Black Friday frenzy

On this glorious weekend of socially encouraged consumer excess, it has been my particular pleasure to open a box of leftovers from my old friend Juanita Yeager.  Why brave the snow and the crowds for 3 AM store openings when you can just rip open a box of fabric and paw through it in search of delicious bargains!

Juanita knows of my legendary love of other people's scraps, and every now and then bundles up a care package for me.  Her scraps are like other people's shopping bags, with lots of big pieces, and her color sense is wonderful, but even better, she throws in partially completed projects that struck her fancy but then unstruck.

I was thrilled to unpack a bunch of quilt blocks, already completed, that will sew up into a nice big baby quilt for a baby arriving in January.  If I were feeling ambitious I could sew additional blocks from the many, many, many pre-cut centers and strips found in the box, enough for that baby's king-size wedding quilt, but it would probably take me just about that long to finish it. 

And a bunch of free-form log cabin blocks, plus enough pre-cut strips for a lot more.  Those could become a sample for my book on improvisational log cabins, the book I wrote a couple of years ago but haven't yet figured out how to get published. 

And best of all, I found a small bunch of black and white scraps that have already become a newborn quilt for said baby.  I have written before, in regards to said baby's cousins, that newborns need little black and white quilts in the first few months of their lives, because they can't see colors at first.  But give tiny babies something in black and white, and they will "read" them intently, paying attention for long periods of time. 

The best part of newborn quilts: they are tiny, to match the baby!  This one took less than a day's work, spread over the holiday weekend.  And after the baby has outgrown the quilt, it will serve for a doll bed or a dresser scarf.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


November 21 -- on the rocks

November 22 -- textured

November 23 -- red

November 24 --  rainy night

November 25 -- pink C

November 26 -- trash

November 27 -- trees

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Houston winner

On the list of winners at Houston, one quilt leaped out and came to sit on my lap -- Diana Sharkey's honorable mention winner in the Art -- Abstract, Small category.  It's called That's Graphic! and is made entirely out of selvages, which are very dear to my heart. 

Diana tells me that she has used selvages many times to make tote bags, and one day last January while she was snowbound the selvages called out to her and wanted to become a quilt.  Here's what they turned into:

Diana Sharkey, That's Graphic!, 36 x 36", 2010

I've used selvages many times in the past myself, enjoying, as Diana does, the text and register marks in the margins that usually get cut off and thrown away.  But while my quilts have always reveled in the raw edges (after all, what is a selvage but an edge?), Diana made hers behave by using 1/8-inch seam allowances and turning all those raw edges inside. 

By contrast, here's what my selvage quilts look like in close-up.  I make a quilt sandwich with a white top, then stitch down the center of the raw-edged selvage through all layers of the sandwich, attaching the selvages and quilting the sandwich at the same time.  And I leave my thread ends hanging.

I think it's always fun to see how two people, inspired by the same concept, can come up with different results.

Congratulations, Diana, and happy Thanksgiving to everybody!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Up the establishment

After my post yesterday wondering why so few quilt artists walk on the wild side, with images or themes about dark emotions, several readers left very thoughtful comments, raising so many points that I wanted to respond at length.

Donna is right that I want us all to think about what we’re making, what we’re exhibiting, what we’re rewarding. So much about establishments, in no matter what field, from government to education to social mores to art, has accreted over the years without conscious reflection by the people who follow the party line. It was wonderful this week to read that finally the people have risen up to say “enough” with the security theater of gynecological patdowns at the airport.  Yet for years we’ve all been putting up with it, passing it off with the brain-dead “we have to do it to be safe.”   It would be better if we did more thinking and less going along, and not just at the airport.

Meanwhile, the huge establishment of quilt shows, quilt magazines, quilt workshops and quilt supplies has gotten to the point where “that’s the way it’s done” has become a huge force – for the good? Or not?

I don’t think this force is taking us totally in the wrong direction, but it’s definitely urging us strongly toward a side of the street that I don’t want to walk on. The explosion of interest in crafts of all kinds, and quilting in particular, over the last few decades has been remarkable, and has brought many benefits. It’s much easier to buy good fabric, good thread, good sewing machines, equipment such as rotary cutters and mats and a myriad of other things that simply weren’t there 30 or 40 years ago. Magazines, books and the internet allow everybody to keep up with events in the field, connect with fellow quilters, learn techniques and solve problems. There are quilt shows around every corner, giving even beginners a chance to see good quilts in person and display their own work. And there are teachers available everywhere to show you anything you might ever want to learn.

And yet. Go into that craft store or quilt shop, and see how easy it is to be enabled to make truly awful work. You can buy kits or patterns to help you make sappy, crappy ugly quilts or embroideries or puff-painted sweatshirts. You can take a class in how to sew beads and angelina fibers and silk cocoons onto your sappy, crappy quilt, perhaps from somebody who only a year ago was as much a beginner as you are. And returning to my post from yesterday, you can find juried shows to accept your quilt and even give it a prize, apparently using evaluation standards that do not extend to art or design.

Catherine commented yesterday that representational “agenda art” is often bad, citing “clunky, obvious images.” Yes, and it’s also true that a lot of decorative art is bad, with clunky, obvious images. There’s too much bad art out there, no matter what the subject matter. It’s true in every medium, but let’s stick with quilts for today.  My concern is that bad art seems perfectly well accepted, even rewarded, in the big-time quilt extravaganzas as well as the small-time guild shows. The last time I attended the big Paducah quilt show, the top award went to an attractive quilt whose claim to fame was that it had 100,000+ Swarovski crystals applied to the back side.

(A whole ‘nother question is how art fares at the “art quilt” shows like Quilt National and Quilt Visions, but I’m not going to touch that one today.)

You may wonder why I even try to look for art at Paducah or Houston. The purpose of these shows is to display attractive work, competently executed, and please the crowds enough that they will buy lots of stuff from the vendors.  The purpose is not to stretch the boundaries.  The problem is that the big winners in Houston this month, which will now hit the circuit and probably be big winners in Lancaster or Paducah next spring, set up “standards” that thousands of other quilters will aspire to.  So we’ll now have more symmetrical, monochromatic, fussy medallion quilts, and of course lots more flowers and trees, and they’ll win ribbons at Lancaster and Paducah. 

Obviously there are thousands of quilters out there who are doing pretty well in terms of technique, productivity and enthusiasm. If only they were encouraged by the establishment to make good art instead of mediocre or bad!

So do we even care? Should we challenge the establishment?  How would we go about that if we wanted to?  Or should we just secede?  What do you think?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dark thoughts

I wrote earlier this week about being underwhelmed by looking at the winners in the recent International Quilt Association show in Houston, and opined in particular that the winning quilts in the many pictorial categories were all sweet, sentimental, unchallenging and, at least to me, disappointing.

The Houston show is the largest quilt show in the world, and one that does a good job of showcasing art quilts as well as traditional quilts.  Arguably it's the biggest and best display of art quilts for the masses – its 55,000 or so visitors far exceed the number who see Quilt National, Visions or any of the other exclusively art quilt shows.  It’s as good a place as any to take the pulse of what’s going on in the art quilt world, so my disappointment with the winners may be more telling than if I were to be disappointed at another show.

I've attended this show several times in the past, and in 2004 I went to Houston with a hypothesis: the problem with art quilts is that they are too nice. In my art quilt travels over the last decade I had seen hundreds, even thousands, of art quilts that were pleasant, beautiful, cheerful, serene -- and relatively few showing the wider gamut of emotions that you find everywhere in painting, sculpture and mixed-media.  To test this hypothesis I hit the show floor with a mission: to find quilts that showed irony, sorrow, anger, sex, bitterness, humor, disturbance, sarcasm, cynicism, or any other emotion on the dark side of the scale.

Granted, the fact that many quilts are non-representational made it harder to decide which ones are “nice” and which ones aren’t. So I concentrated on the ones that gave me clues: those showing identifiable subject matter, through images or text, or where the artist statement provided insight.

On the whole vast floor of the show, where 799 quilts were hung, I found quilts depicting:
• two people transfixed by grief after their son died
• an ugly industrial city overshadowed by factories and cooling towers
• a striking, even scary head shot of a medieval Oriental warrior
• three black women from the pre-civil-rights era waiting for a
  segregated bus
• bipolar disorder
• dark, mysterious family drama of an unspecified nature
• an aging mother losing her confidence
• a scene of environmental disaster
• an old man mourning his dead wife
• AIDS victims in Africa

That made ten quilts that show the dark side of human experience and emotion, 789 that didn’t.  And even the quilts depicting dark emotions seemed curiously cheery.  Here are some photos in each category.  Unfortunately, if I wrote down the info about artist and title, I lost it long ago.  If you can identify any that I can't, please let me know!

Elizabeth Barton, Ferrybridge

There was no sex, of either the pornographic or non-threatening persuasion. The only sex appeal was an awkwardly drawn depiction of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Not even any couples on their daily rounds, except for the aforementioned ones in bereavement, and one where an old married couple stood there and smiled. (Two artists did reveal in their statements that their abstract quilts referred to their husbands.)

Only two quilts about war. One showed two Civil War soldiers, one blue, one gray, together in their pre-war West Point class photo. One recast the famous Vietnam photo of three soldiers, the two on the outside supporting a wounded man and helping him to walk. But, if you can imagine it, this was a “nice” quilt, the grisly image surrounded by pleasant pastels and the artist statement talking about hope and patriotism.

In Houston’s aisles, children smiled; animals both tame and wild looked grand; landscapes were sunny and beautiful. And not only in the sentimental pieces that nobody would classify as art quilts; it was also true for most of the “serious” work that you can find in art quilt shows.  And would you have expected anything different in a show titled “Quilts: A World of Beauty”?  

Maria Elkins, Ohio Dreaming

Although I didn't attend the show this year, I suspect it wasn't a whole lot different.  Certainly looking at the winning quilts didn't suggest that much had changed.  And I suspect that the Houston show isn't that much different from other quilt shows, even those staking out the art end of the spectrum.

By contrast, it doesn’t take much research to see that in the just-plain-art world, there is a far wider range of both emotions and subjects. My latest “Art In America” reviews recent shows where the artists deal with terrorism, the global financial crisis, torture, slumlords, unemployment, divorce, child abuse, AIDS, the conflict between environmentalism and cheap consumer goods. Why does quilt art play in such a small sandbox? Do we know from past experience that jurors will not accept quilts with darker attitudes? Or do we limit ourselves simply as a reflection of our own comfort zone?

At this point many readers may be saying, “But I don’t want to make ugly quilts! What’s wrong with beauty? There’s enough nastiness in the world already; who wants it in their living room? Besides, nobody would buy my quilts if I dealt in darker emotions.” That may all be true, and I don’t want to suggest that all quilt artists should be making work about hunger, war, pollution, torture, adultery, conspicuous consumption or mental illness. But might it be better if SOME quilt artists did?

And even if we don’t want to do the darker emotions, why do we do so little irony, sex or humor? Must we be earnest from morning till night?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Houston winners

The huge Houston quilt show happened two weeks ago, and I wasn't there.  Although I like to attend this show, and have done so many times in the past, this year it didn't work out for me to be there.  What I love about the show is the huge variety of vendors, and the many special exhibits.  (Those outside the International Quilt Association juried show, which constitutes only about half of the quilts.)

Shelley Brenner Baird, Seeing Around Corners, (details) in the SAQA Sightlines exhibit at Houston

What I don't love about the show are the winners.

They're on view on the IQA site, and as I scrolled down the very long page -- one fine thing about IQA is that they give lots of prizes -- it struck me that the big winners all look alike.  They're all symmetrical, bordered, full of fussy, intricate little appliqued or pieced bits.  Most of them read as monochromatic, even though the little bits might be in contrasting colors. 

I particularly noted that the Master Award for Traditional Artistry winner and the Master Award for Contemporary Artistry winner, displayed side by side on the website, could easily have been interchanged -- I could see no difference in character, sensibility, technique, composition, fabric or color that would lead one to be seen as traditional and the other to be seen as contemporary.

As you keep scrolling, finally you come to one that's not cut from the same cookie, made by Naomi Adams, which won the Future of Quilting award.  On the IQA site it looks like a section from a nice knitted sweater; on Naomi's blog it reveals itself as an intriguing 3-D woven piece.

Keep scrolling, and finally you get to the "category awards," in such genres as "art-abstract, small,"  "art-naturescapes,"  "art-people, portraits and figures," "art-pictorial,"  "art-painted surface," and seventeen other slices and dices.  I find this proliferation of categories depressing as well as daunting.  What if you make a quilt with a little girl standing in front of an old truck with mountains in the background?  Do you enter it in naturescapes or pictorial or people, portraits and figures?  What is gained by having so many categories except the opportunity to give more ribbons to a lot of quilts that look a whole lot alike?

Certainly the many, many pictorial categories in shows like this encourage quilters to make pictorial quilts, which I am not a fan of.  I think the medium of fabric is not particularly suited to representational images, especially those copied from photos.  Even those that are executed well tend to be sentimental and sweet.  Nancy Crow once commented that she prefers abstract designs for quilts "because pictorial quilts are too easy" in composition.

Let me run through the subjects of the winning representational quilts.  Trees by a path, trees by a lake, trees in snow, trees with a sunset, trees with two women walking.  Orange flowers, yellow flowers, white flowers, purple flowers.  Buildings by the oceanside, buildings by the lakeside, sailboats.  A woman in a garden, women in a marketplace, a child in a marketplace, people on the street, people in the desert, a man in the desert, a man in a doorway, a doorway.  A cat, a dog, a tortoise, three different birds, farm animals.  And those were just the winners; I suspect there were a lot more flowers, birds and trees in the rest of the entries.

Decorative, most of them, but there were only a few that would have called me for a closer look had I been walking down the aisles in Houston.  Is it just me, cynical and snobbish, who gets tired of pretty and interchangeable quilts?  Is it just me who wishes the quilt world would set its sights a bit higher, its boundaries a bit wider?

I'll write more on this subject later this week.  Meanwhile, what do you think?

Saturday, November 20, 2010


November 14 -- pipes

November 15 -- yellowed

November 16 -- out the window

November 17 -- ducky

November 18 -- in the alley

November 19 -- ginkgo

November 20 -- tree house

Friday, November 19, 2010

Plan B

Memorial Day -- just wait, I'll tell you about it later

I started working on my Christmas ornaments yesterday, which is a bigger project than it may sound like.  Every year I make ornaments for close family and friends, with two rules: they must have the recipient's initial or name, and they must have the year.  When I started, the guest list was about a dozen and I worked exclusively with sewing or enbroidery.  This year the list is above 40 for the first time, and it's getting harder and harder to come up with a design and/or technique I haven't used before.

Ordinarily I get started on this project earlier in the year but this time I didn't.  About a month ago I decided what the plan was going to be, and knowing that, I didn't feel so much pressure to actually make the things.  I bought my materials a couple of weeks ago, and that relieved the pressure even more. 

But when I sat down to work yesterday, it didn't take long to realize that the plan wasn't going to work.  I was going to print onto paper with a block made from styrofoam take-out trays, and acrylic paint.  That had worked beautifully a month ago when I took a workshop, but the paper I had bought to use for the ornaments was too slick, the little "block" slid around and I couldn't get a good impression.

So oops.  Fortunately the workshop had not just involved printing from styrofoam, and I had learned another technique that became my Plan B.  Which I will not talk about, since many of the recipients of these ornaments look at my blog and I don't want to spoil the surprise.

When I told this to my husband, I observed that any fool can come up with Plan A, but it takes talent to come up with Plan B.  And upon reflection, I think that statement is more profound than I realized as it escaped my lips.  How many world-class troubles have come about for lack of Plan B?  For instance, in case they didn't meet us with rose petals on the streets of Baghdad?

But on the art front, how many times has the piece that worked so well when you thought it through lying in bed at 3 am ended up not quite so perfect when you started to sew it up?  How many times have you put something together, pinned it up on the design wall, and realized it wasn't right?  That's why God invented seam rippers, and why we need Plan B. 

You might even say that Plan B is what distinguishes the serious artist from the beginner, the wannabe, the dilettante.  We all start out making things that seem wonderful simply by virtue of being finished, and when we run into problems it's so easy to settle for not-quite-great.  But as the standards get higher, we realize that whipping out the first idea that came to mind doesn't always (usually? ever?) lead to great art.

In my serious art life -- by which I mean the last six or seven years -- I've made only one project that I consider perfect from beginning to end.  It sprang into my mind fully formed, I knew immediately it was going to be wonderful, and I went home and made it exactly as envisioned.  This was my quilt "Memorial Day," which won the Quilts Japan Prize at Quilt National '09. 

Memorial Day (detail) 

I don't expect to have another such experience.  Usually making good art requires work, of the intellectual variety as well as the physical.  But Plan B builds character, and you should be proud of your ability to work through problems and come out on the other side better than when you started. 

Now I'm off to work on those ornaments again, and hope that Plan B works.  If not, on to Plan C.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The typographic observer 4

Found in a cemetery in Stuttgart.  Hope this doesn't mark the death of written language.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Decorative -- good or bad?

I have used the title "(something) -- good or bad?"  several times in the last couple of weeks, and maybe you think I'm in need of an imagination transfusion.  That's actually a family joke.  My niece Allison, a social worker, did a year of low-paid community service and found herself in too many discussions among her co-workers in which they earnestly debated the ethics and morals of, for instance, toilet paper.  Bad, because it uses trees and fouls the environment; good, because, well, you know.  So we took to suggesting debates along the lines of "Communication -- good or bad?" or "Sky -- good or bad?"

Today's discussion is prompted by a blog post by Elizabeth Barton about her new work.  She wrote, "But the few people I’ve shown the piece to have objected to it because they didn’t like the colours. They think of wall hangings as decorative items (whether they have a meaning beyond decor or not) and therefore should be in decorative, attractive colours." 

This post resonated with me, not so much for the underlying issue (should your work be attractive, or is it OK to use "weird" palettes?) or the really underlying issue (should you care what people think?) as for the totally superficial issue -- the use of the word "decorative."

I've been reading some books on fiber art and the struggle to get it into the art mainstream, and keep running into the argument that "craft" is different from "art" because, among other things, "craft" is so damn appealing to people!  They want to touch it!!  They think it looks good!!!  Good Lord, it couldn't possibly be "art."

"Decorative" is a dirty word in this critical view, a patronizing put-down of any craft, whether it's fiber or ceramics or glass or whatever.  It's even occasionally used for patronizing put-downs of painting that doesn't meet a critic's high standards.  Another dirty word is "haptic," which means it appeals to the senses.  By contrast, "art" involves thinking, not touching or feeling, and thus is superior to "craft." 

And yet we know that the great majority of quilts or other fiber pieces that are sold did so because buyers were attracted to the haptic, decorative aspects.  People don't buy things in any medium for their homes unless they are decorative, to a certain degree. 

A decorative quilt -- Log Rhythms 2

Sure, some people are willing to have a non-pretty, raw, in-your-face, visceral painting in the living room because they are moved by its message or its emotional strength.  But I suspect they are outnumbered by the people who do so to make a public statement about their disposable income and/or sophisticated taste in art, not because they really like the ugly things.  Artists like Anselm Kiefer or Francis Bacon who paint the dark side must look largely to museums and corporate collections as buyers rather than individuals.

And since most of us fiber artists can't command museum and corporate customers, we're stuck with individuals, and we're therefore stuck with their wish for decorative pieces for the living room (even if they don't match the sofa).  So decorative -- good or bad?  On the one hand, producing decorative work makes it easier to sell.  On the other, it may make the artist feel she's compromising her vision, and it certainly makes it harder for fiber to be accepted in the mainstream art world as long as the art/craft = intellectual/decorative dichotomy holds strong.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sign of the week

does this count as a sign?  I hope so

Monday, November 15, 2010

Quilt date for November

Since I was moved to post yesterday about my sewn jewelry, I thought it would be a good idea to tell you more about my technique of sewn cords.  And since it's the fifteenth of the month, time for a quilt date, it seemed serendipitous to do both at once.

This technique uses the zigzag stitch to embellish cords or bundles of cords.  Great for necklaces, and also additions to quilts. 

War Rationale 2 (detail)

Crop Management  (detail)

The first step is to find a cord or multiple cords to be the base of your stitching and decide how long you want the finished cord to be.  Then choose threads for your machine to match or complement your cord.  Sometimes you want the same color for all three; sometimes you want a contrast color.  Metallic threads work particularly well in the bobbin, where they have little chance to break or misbehave, and add a bit of sparkle. 

For the photos in this post, I've used different colors for the base, top thread and bobbin thread, so you can see better what's going on.  In real life you'll probably have lower contrast, so the bits of base cord peeking through the stitching won't be as obvious as they are here.  Or you can stitch densely and cover every bit of the base.  For these pictures, my base is three cords held together in a bundle.

The basic sewn cord is just thread zigzagged over a base.  To make it easier to see what's going on, and to give you more control over the stitching, remove the presser foot.  This makes you vulnerable to sewing over your own fingers, so BE CAREFUL!!!  Don't try this after two glasses of wine with dinner. 

You need to lower the presser foot lever to engage the tension disks and make sure the top thread feeds evenly.  But since there's no actual foot to hold down the cord, the feed dogs will not pull the cord along as you sew.  Instead, you'll have to grab the cord behind the needle and pull it along as you sew, and hold the cord in front of the needle to keep it taut and guide it directly under the needle. 

If you pull quickly, the zigzag stitches will be spread out along the cord.  If you pull slowly, the stitches will bunch up and cover the cord densely.  If you pull backward, it's like hitting the reverse control -- your stitches will go back over your previous stitching and make a double layer.

If you want the stitching to wrap snugly around the base cord(s), set your stitch width just a little wider than the cord itself (make a sample first).  If you want the stitching fairly loose for special effect, use the mazimum width.  But there's a tradeoff here -- the narrower the stitch width, the harder it is to feed your cord smack down the middle without the needle hitting it now and then.  After you've practiced a little you'll figure out what width suits you best.

The zigzag stitching usually encases the base cord but doesn't pierce it.  That allows the thread to slide up and down the base cord, which allows certain special effects.  But when you start your stitching, you want it to stay put.  Anchor your first stitch either by sewing through the cord or by making a knot in the base cord and stitching through the knot.

Now you have thread ends that you may not want to be visible.  So pull the thread ends toward you and incorporate them into the bundle with the base cord.  Hold them there with your fingers or tweezers, in front of your needle.  Grab the cord behind the needle with your other hand, and pull gently while the machine stitches. 

Go for a while and see what happens -- try pulling the cord at different speeds, and different stitch widths, and see how that changes the look of the finished cord. 

Now it's time for tricks. 

-- Make a thread bobble.  Make several fairly long stitches by pulling the cord quickly.  Now stop and pull the thread back toward you.  The stitches will pile up behind the needle.  You can leave them just so, in an airy little swirl, at left in the photo above, or you can stitch back and forth over the pile a few times till it's densely covered to make a solid bobble, at right in the photo. 

-- Make a thread burst.  Hold the back of the cord firmly.  Take your tweezers or other narrow sewing tool  (toothpick?  skewer?  seam ripper?) and pull an inch of thread out of the bobbin.  Continue stitching; the extra bobbin thread will be caught in the stitching and make pretty loops.  Especially nice if you have metallic thread in the bobbin -- the loops will sparkle.

-- Make a cord bobble.  Grab the free end of the cord and bend it back on itself.  Hold the two ends together with the hand behind the needle.  Grab the U of the bend and pull it a quarter-inch toward you (or longer, if you want a longer bobble).   Stitch over both cords, pulling gently away from you, till you get to the U.  Again, grab the U and pull it toward you till the overlapped section is as long as you want the bobble to be.  Bend the free end of the cord back toward you so there are now three cords in the bobble area.  Stitch all three together till you get back to the end.  If you want, go back and forth a couple of times to make the bobble really dense.

-- Make a cord loop.  Grab the free end of the cord and pull it to the side to make a loop.  Let the loop hang to the side while you continue stitching onto the free end of the cord.  If you want, you can put a knot into the loop, or run the loop through a bead, then catch the end of the loop back into the stitching.  This way the cord loop will not be stitched, just showing its natural color.

If you want the loop to be covered with zigzagged thread, stitch for a couple of inches down the cord, then stitch back (pull with your front hand, not your back hand) to the starting point.  Now thread your beads and make your loop or knot.

-- Leave thread ends hanging from the cord.  At any point, you can pull out a length of thread and let it hang free of the zigzagging, just as you did with the thread burst.  Or you can incorporate a new thread into the stitching and let the ends hang free at beginning or end.  Or you can let the loose thread end parallel the cord for a while, then pull the ends back into the sigzagging. 

-- Join two or more cords by zigzagging them together. This is particularly nice if you want a multi-strand necklace to hold together at the back of the neck.

This technique lends itself to incorporating beads or other embellishments.  You can string beads on the cord before you start zigzagging (dip the last half-inch of the end of the cord into Fray-Check and let it dry; once it stiffens it's easy to thread small beads). In the photo below I threaded seed beads onto just one of the three cords in the base bundle. 

For larger beads, thread them onto your finished cord.  Or you can thread beads onto a second cord and incorporate that into the zigzagging.  When you string beads onto a cord, make sure the other end is knotted, or don't cut it off the spool yet.  this prevents your beads from escaping onto the floor, from which they will probably never return. 

If a bead has a large enough hole for your sewing machine needle to go through, you can simply attach it while you zigzag.  Carefully place the bead underneath the needle and lower the needle through the bead, turning the wheel with your right hand and holding the bead in place with your left hand.  Keep your foot off the foot pedal while you do this; it could be dangerous to accidentally stomp on the gas and send the needle hurtling downward while your fingers or your tools are in the way.

If you want a bead to hang at a certain level, make a thread bobble or a knot underneath to keep it from slipping down. 

If you want to make a slip-on necklace (no clasp), finish the cord and string the beads.  Check the length, then cut the cord an inch longer than you need.  Overlap the two ends and zigzag them together.  To make sure one end doesn't slip out of the bundle, make sure your stitching pierces both cords.  Or put a knot into each cord and make sure to stitch through each knot. 

If you want your cords to hang loose, decide how to finish the ends.  When I use these cords in a quilt, I catch the top ends into a seam or under a binding, so the cords emerge from between pieces of the quilt.  I usually put an overhand knot into the bottom end and let the threads hang free into a little fringe.  If the free thread ends look skimpy, you can incorporate an extra thread or two into the last couple inches of stitching, so you have more thread ends in your "tassel."

I suggest the first date be a little necklace, because everybody has some beads lying around.,  It's highly unlikely, but if by some awful luck your necklace is too ugly to wear you can always cut the cord, remove the beads and start over.  Try a monochrome color palette; ordinary sewing thead is fine, and glitzy threads like rayon or metallic are flashy.  For the cording, anything you have on hand will work, from as lightweight as two or three strands of carpet and button thread, to as heavy as rattail cord or household string. 

Let me know how it works out. If you want to send me a picture of what you made, I’ll post it.  Have fun!