Thursday, March 31, 2011

Photo crisis du jour

Monday I was walking home from the store and saw a beautiful scene, with a huge forsythia in full bloom emerging from behind a wooden fence.  Whipped out my camera, took a picture, checked the view screen -- and wondered what the black fuzzy triangle was at the lower left. 

You guessed it, the eyelids that are supposed to retract to reveal the lens weren't retracting all the way.  What had happened?  Fifteen minutes previously everything was OK.  The only thing I'd put in my pocket since stowing the camera was a folded sheet of paper, but maybe that was enough to give the camera a shiner.

Yesterday I took the camera in to the shop and bade it good-bye as it went off to be fixed.  Then headed out for my walk.

I have a backup camera, the old one that I upgraded from last summer, but it wasn't charged up and ready to go with me.  So I was camera-less on this walk, the first time that's happened in many months.  And I realized in a very short time how naked and unprepared I felt.

It's been about two years since I started carrying a camera every time I took a walk.  It has changed the way I look at things -- I'm always seeing photo ops in the most unlikely places.  Sometimes I just look at colors and textures and how they juxtapose.

But more often I find beauty, decrepitude, humor and just plain weirdness.  In my hour of walking yesterday I saw at least twenty things that I wanted to document -- but wait!  No camera!

I came home and plugged in the battery charger for the old camera.  Maybe tomorrow I'll retrace my steps and get photos of the pumpkin in the alley (could it have been purchased before Halloween and still look that good??) and the boat hiding in a garage and the flowering quince in full bloom.  Everywhere you look there's a picture to be taken, but you need that camera in your pocket.

Photo du jour

waiting for the mailman

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Are quilting magazines counterproductive?

I’ve embarked on a train of thought this week that started with a discussion of Quilting Arts magazine. (Earlier posts here and here, or just scroll down and read the last two essays in between the pictures.) Several of the commenters to yesterday's post raised questions that propel my train farther down the track.

Diane wrote, in part, “I get your concern that it's all too easy to be diverted from focus on art by the appeal of new gadgets and techniques. But you seem to forget that what might be distracting to you might be exactly what someone else needs to take her art in the direction she wants. Maybe that new technique is exactly the way she can put her artistic vision onto fabric.”

Diane, I think your comments reflect on the state of “art quilts” today. That heading encompasses people everywhere from serious artists to total newbies.

It’s like a pyramid. At the bottom are a lot of people who don’t even think in terms of artistic vision or taking their art in a certain direction; they’re happy just to make nice things. As Leigh put it, “I strongly suspect that most people don’t have any ideas they are looking to express. They just want to have the latest and greatest and make a Cute Project for their friends to tell them how ‘Creative’ they are.”

These are the people who buy patterns, make quilts described in magazines and books, enjoy a different kind of technique and project every month, and buy the new toys and products. They may say they’re interested in “art quilts,” but in practice, there’s a lot of quilt and not very much art. These people pay the bills for the huge quilting industry, which to a degree supports the habit for all of us. It’s this huge audience that publishers have to cater to, if they want to stay in business.

At the tip of the pyramid are serious artists who may or may not earn a living from their work, but certainly approach it like a business, working hard and trying to make the best possible art they can. This small audience is one that publishers cannot afford to cater to. There just aren’t enough of us to buy the magazines and books that we like.

In the middle, however, are a lot of people in transition. They may have entered the art quilt world as beginners, but now they are wanting to progress toward more original and creative ways of working. If they’re lucky, they’ll find a good teacher who can help them find their sea legs and move ahead. But many will look toward books and magazines, especially Quilting Arts, for guidance.

Here's a cute little quilt I made before I knew there was such as thing as artistic vision.  You can learn how to make it too, from a really good book.

And this is where I have concerns about the technique- and product-oriented focus of some magazines -- it’s so easy to keep thinking about technique and never get around to the design and meaning. Does this act as an enabler, subtly encouraging people to stay on the lower levels of the pyramid, making a new nice thing every month, instead of urging them to move upward and develop their artistic vision through focus?

Yes, a new technique can often energize and transform somebody’s whole work, and that holds true both for hobbyists and serious artists. That’s exciting when it happens but it also implies the discipline to stick with the new technique and make it your own. My fear about magazines with a new technique every month is that people will fall in love again next month and never get to master the one they loved last month. Maybe what I’m saying – and several of the people who commented yesterday had the same idea -- is that people who want to move up the pyramid should read Quilting Arts as eye candy, but for their own good, resolve to actually use only one new idea a year, if that.

Photo du jour

telephone pole

Monday, March 28, 2011

New techniques -- good or bad?

I wrote yesterday about the conversation on the Quiltart list: whether Quilting Arts magazine has lost its focus on art. Some people, including me, thought the magazine has gotten too repetitive, too simple, writing about little projects rather than about big art.

Other list members jumped in to defend Quilting Arts. Several pointed out, and I have to agree, that there are many relative beginners who benefit greatly from a magazine that encourages you to make original designs and experiment with new ideas. And the focus on relatively small work – artist trading cards (2.5 x 3.5 inches) and “inchies” (1 inch square) have been popular formats – is good for people with limited time to devote to art and craft.  Still others regard their work as a hobby rather than a serious vocation or avocation, and are happy to make nice things without worrying about artistic development.

artist trading cards from my past

But one commenter in particular rattled my cage. “Not everyone, no matter how passionately they desire, can take workshops from the best and the brightest in our field to learn the new techniques and get a handle on how to use some of the wonderful new products,” she wrote. “There is a need for opportunities to see and learn how to do some of the newest techniques in our fabulous world of making quilted art. Who is going to dispute that?”

Well, I’m going to dispute it. I would even argue that one of the factors holding us back from greater artistic achievement is the lure of new techniques and products. It’s so easy to equate technique with inspiration, when in reality technique should be so much lower on the food chain.

I read a fascinating and disturbing book last year, “Seven Days in the Art World,” which among other things talked about how grad students and their prof at California Institute of the Arts conduct a critique session. (Click here for a wonderful review/discussion of the book in “Art in America.”)  What comes back to me today is the CalArts guiding principle, “No technique before need.”

I happen to think that’s a dumb principle in many walks of life and art. It’s so much easier to produce decent works of art if you have mastered some basic technique. For instance, if you’re a painter, you can get down to work when inspiration strikes without having to first figure out how to stretch and prime your canvas, and go down to the art supply store and read labels to find out whether you want oils or acrylics. If you’re a quilter, you can get down to work without having to first figure out what kind of fabric to buy, how to piece, how to quilt, how to make the thing lie flat, how to put a sleeve on the back.

That said, I’ll defend the principle as it applies to advanced practitioners. If I really need to screenprint a design onto my fabric, I can learn how to do it. If I need to machine embroider precision lettering onto my quilt, I’ll figure out where to get a machine and how to program it. But if I don’t want or need to do those things, why spend time learning them? That question applies even more when you start talking about products and equipment. Why buy a sewing machine with advanced embroidery or needle-felting capabilities, a package of Transfer Artist Paper or Angelina fibers or a bolt of Misty Fuse, if you don’t need them?

But the desire to learn and buy the latest techniques and products, as the Quiltart correspondent seems to think is essential, isn’t just a way to waste time and money. I think it’s actually counterproductive, even for people who don't consider themselves serious artists.

Why? Because having learned the technique or bought the product, the natural inclination is to use it in your next piece. Your work gets motivated by somebody else’s trend rather than by your own ideas. And your work tends to jump around in response to what was in the magazine this month instead of growing organically out of your previous work.  Devotion to the latest techniques and products is like attention deficit disorder. You never focus on one thing long enough to make it pay off.

I sometimes reflect on what my long-dead grandmother would think if she visited my studio. She would be amazed and delighted at the rotary cutter and its attendant mats and rulers, and at the fact that the sewing machine is computerized and can make a row of zigzags or little flowers. She’d be particularly enamored of the knee lift lever. But that’s it as far as equipment envy.

She might be surprised that my quilts don’t use traditional patterns, but once I explained how in the half-century since her death quilts have come off the bed and moved to the wall as art, I’m sure she’d understand. She might be surprised at my elaborate free-motion quilting, but when I showed her the darning foot she would know exactly how it worked in this context.

And this is the most important part – as she looked at my quilts, she wouldn’t find any technique that she didn’t understand perfectly. It’s just piecing, and quilting. She did those things a hundred years ago, and I’m doing them today. I don’t think much about technique any more, just about design and meaning. And that’s what I wish more of for my fellow citizens of the fiber art world.

Photo du jour

sign of the week

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reading about fiber art

The big conversation on the Quiltart list yesterday had to do with Quilting Arts magazine and its spinoff TV show, and whether the “arts” part of the title is still applicable.

Somebody watched a show and was unhappy at its emphasis on perfect piecing and pressing, and its choice of sappy projects. “So where did this milk toast concept of ART come from? Where did the ART magazine and technique show go to? I am so disappointed,” she wrote.

I had to agree, and my contribution to the discussion was to observe that apparently the economic realities of the publishing business dictate that you must go to the lowest common denominator in order to sell magazines and ads. In the little ballpark of quilting, the l.c.d. is that people want to say they're making "art quilts" but don't have the knowledge or mindset to actually do so. Instead they learn techniques, buy products, follow directions, and think they're doing something worthwhile.

And maybe they are!  Depending on your level of expertise and aspiration, making a project as described in Quilting Arts magazine might be just what the doctor ordered. It might teach you something new, stretch your imagination, and give you a well-deserved feeling of accomplishment.  Thousands of quilters seem to find this magazine, and this approach, appealing.  But (back to the original complainer) it probably isn't art, in the sense that it isn't very ambitious and may not be very original, and it doesn't do much for serious fiber artists.

I suggested that there just isn't enough market interest in serious fiber art to support a lovely, glossy magazine like Quilting Arts, or TV shows or even books. I should have pointed out that we do have Fiberarts magazine, and Surface Design, the magazine of the Surface Design Association, both of which set their sights higher.

We probably have to give up on TV for getting any artistic inspiration. Even mainstream art, with its much greater constituency, struggles to show up on TV without being dumbed down, gimmicked up or presented as an afterthought to biography. A year or two ago I was visiting two artist friends when a made-for-TV movie about Georgia O’Keeffe came on. We all trooped in to watch it, but gave up in less than an hour; it was so heavy on sex and so clueless on art that we couldn’t stand it.

Books, which used to be the specialized refuge of the total nerd, have also gotten caught up in the competitive jungle of the marketplace. My own library is full of interesting and inspiring books featuring prominent artist/quiltmakers, their works and their thoughts – all bought in the previous century. Many of them were bought locally, or from a vendor at a big quilt show.

Today apparently the popular quilt publishers won’t touch a book unless it has patterns. You may be able to find the occasional book with higher aspirations – Joan Schulze’s self-published book from last year and Nancy Crow’s 2006 book are excellent examples – but neither came from a “quilt publisher” and I suspect neither will be found at your local quilt shop.

So what’s a serious fiber artist going to read? As I mentioned, I like Fiberarts and Surface Design. I like the catalogs from major shows like Quilt National and Visions. I own some of the technical bibles on surface design. But beyond that, I find that mainstream art magazines and books contribute more to my artistic development than any of the “quilt art” publications.

What do you think? What do you read?

Photo du jour

porch with a view

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Successful despite myself

We hear a lot of hoohah about how photography is so important in getting our work into shows.  I generally agree, and will credit my wonderful photographer George Plager whenever possible.  But for this particular show, I had to do it myself.  I finished the piece less than 24 hours before I had to get on a plane and there was no time for professionalism.

I probably should have given up after five minutes with the camera.  My piece was so wispy that the autofocus on my point-and-shoot camera apparently couldn't find anything to grab onto, so it was a bit out of focus.  I wasn't proud of this photo.  On the other hand, when trying to photograph something this insubstantial, I think even George or Ansel Adams would have been challenged.

My only hope was the detail shot, and that came out beautifully.

The good news is that the work was chosen for the show anyway.  Fortunately for me, the jurying wasn't done as in Quilt National, where apparently full views are all the jurors see in the first several rounds.

The piece, Gridwork 1: Purple Heart is on display in Textiles in a Tube, at Greenville Technical College, Greenville SC, through April 15.  The exhibit had a gimmick: all work had to arrive in a 3" x 36" tube.  Terry Jarrard-Dimond, who was the juror, has written about the show on her blog and has photos of the best in show.

I was pleased with this piece.  It's the first in a series that I call Gridwork.  I see these as a logical extension of my postage stamp quilts, where little bits of fabric are held together in a stitched grid.  My latest postage quilt experimented with omitting some of the bits of fabric, allowing large expanses of the grid stitching to exist alone in space.  Now the gridwork series omits all of the bits of fabric, leaving only the grid. 

This piece was constructed using the sewed cord technique I wrote about last year.  The "purple heart" segment was darned in by hand.  At first I thought I would weave an even surface with over-under-over-under threads.  But the metallic thread had a life of its own and wouldn't lie flat to be woven into, so the threads are going every which way.  As with so many aspects of art and life, Plan B turned out to be a lot better than Plan A probably would have been.

Photo du jour

tarmac art

Friday, March 25, 2011

A surprise in "Art in America"

When my "Art in America" arrives, I read it from the front to the back, every page.  Sometimes I think the ads are more interesting and educational than the editorial features.  All the big galleries showcase their current exhibits, usually with huge photos of the most striking piece in the show and/or a piece by the most famous artist in the show.  Ads in the March issue feature art by Diane Arbus, Donald Judd, Robert Motherwell, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean Dubuffet, and that's just in the first 27 pages; it goes on and on.

I'm used to seeing familiar names in the ads, but something startled me on page 109 -- yes, a familiar name, but it was familiar to me from -- gasp! -- fiber art!  And not just fiber art, but quilts!  The artist was Regina Benson, and she's going to have a show at the Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center in Frederick MD next month.  And the center took a full-page ad, half of which announced Regina's show.

Here's the image from the ad.

Regina Benson, Core Sample

I was particularly pleased by this ad, for two reasons. 

First, that a museum thinks highly enough of a fiber artist to advertise her to the mainstream art world.  Many museums and galleries show fiber art, but I sometimes get the feeling they're a tiny bit ashamed of it, and don't publicize the shows as much as they would for paintings and sculpture.

Second, that Regina's piece was not immediately identifiable as fiber. 

Huh?  Why did that make me happy?

You may know from reading my blog that I'm paranoid about how fiber art often gets treated as a second-class citizen in the mainstream art world.  I think that the more our work resembles traditional, functional textiles such as quilts, the easier it is for people to immediately categorize it, and just as immediately discount it.  So anything we can do to interrupt the knee-jerk response, or even to delay it a while, is probably a good thing.

People might well be reading "Art in America" and not know that Regina Benson makes quilts.  They might be drawn to the striking image and admire it for a while, before they read the title of the show, "Personal Landscapes:  Fiber in concert with nature."  Heck, they might even slide by that description and go see the show without realizing beforehand it's fiber.  If they do, I bet they'll be in for a very pleasant surprise.

Photo du jour

not the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Signing my work

When I wrote the other day about my facing method, I showed a picture of the back of a quilt.  Visible on the sleeve was my name and the title of the quilt -- I put that on the backs of all my work.

Elena left a comment: "When I saw "Jaunty F" in San Jose, I was surprised by your signature on the face. In this post I see you also sign boldly on the sleeve.  There are many thoughts about how and where an artist signs his work. Signatures are a rarity in any quilt world.  Would you share your thoughts about this? And what are you using to make that signature? Discharge paste or bleach?"

 It's funny that she brings up this issue, because it's one that I have wrestled with over the last several years, and I would say my practice is evolving, at least as far as the front of the quilt is concerned.  On the back, I have been using this method of signing the sleeve for a decade.

First, let me talk about the back -- I use Finish dishwasher gel (used to be called Electrasol) in a squeeze bottle to write my name, the title of the quilt and the year.  I like this brand because the consistency is stiff enough for the gel to hold its bead and give sharp edges to the lettering.  With other brands I've tried, the gel is more liquid and the bleach oozes and wicks out to give a fuzzy edge.

Now back to the front of the quilt.  Elena refers to "Jaunty F," a quilt I made from selvages as a commission for Hilary Fletcher.  I wrote about it last fall when Hilary's collection was on view at the San Jose Textile Museum.   

I have made several quilts from selvages.  I like the texture of the raw edges, and especially love the printing in the margins of commercial fabrics.  So when it came time to finish this quilt, I thought it would be amusing to sign the quilt in the same style that designers sign their fabrics.

The typical selvage would read something like "Spring Flowers by Suzy Queue for Alexander Henry Fabrics."  Mine read "Jaunty F by Kathleen Loomis for Hilary and Marvin Fletcher." 

Here's another quilt that I signed the same way.  It was a donation for a fundraiser for the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, to occur during the museum's black-tie Bourbon Ball event.  I signed this one "Bourbon Ball by Kathleen Loomis for KMA+C."  It was a little more subdued than the one for the Fletchers, because the writing went vertically.

With my pieced quilts I have not been so bold.  For many years I generally did not put any signature on the front.  Recently I have begun to stitch my initials in free motion quilting, through all the layers.  The letters are just under a half-inch tall.

I think I kept the fronts pristine all those years not from modesty but from some concern about judging and jurying.  I've heard horror stories about quilts that had blue painters' tape applied on the front to cover a signature when the judges came through -- and nobody removed the tape when the show opened. 

But I've changed my ways and plan to put my initials on everything from now on.  Maybe I'll even go back and put them on older quilts.  I haven't paid enough attention to this issue to respond to Elena's comment that signatures are rare in the quilt world, but if I attend the big quilt show in Cincinnati next month I'll be on the alert and report back. 

Meanwhile, what do you think?  Do you sign your quilts?  If so, how?  If not, why not? 

Photo du jour

at the fruit market

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why I love Kona

I mentioned last week that in my strip-piecing workshops in Cincinnati, I asked everybody to bring Kona cotton solid colors.  One reason for making people buy a specific fabric was that I planned to have them contribute strips to a community swap pile, and that sort of thing works best when all the fabrics have the same weight and hand.

But the other reason is that I just plain like Kona for piecing. 

Here's most of my Kona stash -- still haven't gotten it put away after my workshops.

I know that the choice of fabric is a very individual decision for accomplished fiber artists.  I know many people who won't work in cotton at all, preferring the luster and brilliance of silk.  Most people who dye their own fabrics are monogamously attached to their favorites, and that makes sense, because they  have invested a lot in knowing exactly how a particular dye is going to behave, and that will vary if you switch to a different fabric.

When I first learned to dye, I bought a big supply of Testfabrics 419, a mercerized cotton that is well regarded for its tight, smooth weave and its ability to take dye brilliantly.  I dyed up many, many gorgeous yards of the stuff before I ever figured out how to best use it in piecing.  And when I did, I learned to my dismay that my beautiful fabric really didn't like to be sewed up.  If you had to rip out and restitch a seam, or God forbid take out a quilting line, it was too bad because those needle holes would never disappear.  I never bought pimatex, beloved of Nancy Crow and many others, because I observed the same thing happening in their work.

Meanwhile, when I started using commercial solids almost exclusively in my piecing, I bought whatever brand struck my fancy or had the right color.  At first, that didn't bother me, but as my piecing started to get more intricate and the pieces started to get smaller and smaller, I noticed that combining fabrics of different weights led to subtle differences in how the piecing would press and lie.  Beefy fabrics like Kona would stand up higher at a seam than lighter ones like P&B, and sometimes seams didn't like to press flat because one fabric sewed tauter than another.

And I couldn't help but appreciate the fact that Kona comes in 220 colors!  You won't find them all at your local fabric store, but you can always order online if you need a particular hue, or if you need a whole lot of different reds or blues, as I did last year for two new quilts.

A whole lot of reds!!

So as I used up or segregated out my lighter-weight fabrics, I resolved to buy only Kona when I needed replenishments. 

And I needed a lot of replenishment, because for several years I went to Nancy Crow workshops for two or three weeks a year, and could easily use 20 yards of fabric each time.  Even after I accumulated boxes worth of leftovers, I would buy three or four three-yard cuts before leaving for the Crow Barn, in case I wanted to make a very large quilt with an abundance of a single color.

I like Kona because it's beefy, and thus has some substance, but also because it's not as tightly woven as 419 or pimatex, and thus a lot more flexible and forgiving.  If you piece a tight curve, and it's not exactly perfect, not to worry because Kona will press into shape.  If you have to rip out a seam, the needle holes disappear with a spritz of water and a hot iron.  If your quilt has a bazillion pieces, it will press flat unless you have screwed up terribly.  All these qualities are particularly important for relative beginners, which is why I like to request it for my workshops.  And it's widely available in chain fabric stores, if not in your local quilt shop.

Kona takes dye very nicely, perhaps not as brilliantly as pimatex but certainly adequate at a professional level.  I have bought PFD by the bolt so it's there if I want it, although I haven't dyed anything in years.  Much as I love the look of hand-dyed fabric, when you're going to cut it into pieces the size of postage stamps it seems like a waste.  Besides, I like the flat expanses of commercial solids, much as color field painters like Kenneth Noland used paints straight from the can and concentrated on the design rather than the nuances of mixed colors.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will testify that I am not on the payroll of Robert Kaufman, the manufacturer of Kona.  But if somebody in their marketing department would like to send me a truckload of it, I would sure cut and sew it up with great joy!  Either way, I will continue to tell everybody I meet that it's my favorite fabric for piecing and quilting.

Photo du jour

disgrace to the neighborhood

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Quilts for Japan -- I don't think so

They're at it again -- the sympathetic and caring people who want to do something for Japan in the wake of its earthquake.  As surely as night is followed by day, disaster is followed by people wanting to send quilts to the survivors.  I wrote about this last year when the quake hit Haiti, but obviously enough people don't read my blog and do what I tell them.

Could there be a more inefficient way to provide help and solace to people whose lives have been turned upside down than for each of us to put a quilt in a box and send it across the ocean?  Well, maybe to put a quilt in a box and send it to somebody in Ohio, who will then unpack all the little boxes and get all the quilts across the ocean in a big box.  That's being suggested on the Quiltart list this week.

But wait, there is an even more inefficient way!  This morning's Quiltart list brings the suggestion that you send canned food, and a can opener, in an express mail box (postage $12.95) to a US soldier stationed in northern Japan, who will hand deliver the box to a shelter.

A brief Google foray reveals a variety of opinions on how one should respond if faced by the desire to help Japan.  One school of thought repeats my favorite mantra: if you want to get help to people fast, send money to an organization that's there already and knows how to provide disaster relief.  I always used to love the Red Cross, but became disillusioned at its misuse of money donated after 9/11 (they used the money for other purposes) and its flawed responses in New Orleans and Haiti.  Now I favor smaller groups with more focus, such as Doctors Without Borders.

Another school of thought is that Japan is a very rich nation with a highly developed sense of community responsibility, more able to take care of itself than practically any other country on the earth, and perhaps we should direct our charitable activities toward places that need it more.  Haiti is still a mess.  And of course, there are plenty of people right here in the U.S. who need help, especially since Congress seems hellbent on throwing more and more unfortunates off the train.

Yet another school of thought is that it's a bad idea to earmark your donation for a specific place, no matter what organization.  You should simply support their efforts and thus enable them to respond immediately to what happens.  For instance, Doctors Without Borders was on the ground right in Japan right after the quake simply because they had resources already.  Had they been required to wait for "Japan" money to roll in, they'd still be staging up somewhere waiting for a plane.

I'm splitting the difference.  We give to Doctors Without Borders every year, but I'm waiting to see what happens in Japan before committing to any new donations.  And I'm sure as heck not going to send a quilt or a can of beans.

Photo du jour

sign of the week

Monday, March 21, 2011

Facing -- why I changed my tune

Last week I posted a tutorial on facing quilts.  Suzanne Sanger commented that she has used another facing method that I used to espouse, and wonders why I changed.  Here's the answer.

Several years ago, when I started to face my quilts instead of binding them, I developed a method that gave me flat corners instead of the lumps that occur when you turn back one side of the quilt, then turn back the adjacent side on top.  The key was to slice off the bulky inner layers of the quilt -- the batting and the backing -- a little bit inside the corner of the quilt before turning the facing back.

This method called for only a single thickness of facing at the corner of the quilt, to minimize the bulk.  I cut that corner piece with a curved edge, and it looked pretty neat on the back!  I was so proud of this method that I wrote about it in the American Quilter magazine, and many people, including Suzanne, have told me that they have used it since.

So why did I fall out of love with it? 

While the quilt above has its bottom edge free, so you can see the nifty curved facing, most of my quilts have sleeves at both top and bottom to hang better.  The extra time and care to sew the curved facing seemed like a waste because the sleeve covers it up.

It occurred to me that I could throw the bathwater out but keep the baby.  The curved facing seemed to be accomplishing nothing, but I sure liked the method of slicing the bulk out of the corner, and using only one thickness of facing.  Suzanne describes this as a "one-piece corner."

And those elements survive into my new method. 

To prove it, here are two photos of slicing the corner.  The pink is an old photo from my old method; the blue is a new photo from last week with the new method.  At the key moment in the process, they're exactly the same.

The reason both methods work the same is that there's only one layer of facing at the corner, since I cut off the second facing strip an inch before I got there.

Suzanne commented that my old method called for edge-stitching the facings, and I don't mention that in the new method.  She's right.  I found that when I was sewing facings on, half the time I forgot to edge-stitch, and it didn't seem to make that much difference.

But if you want to edge-stitch, you can certainly do so with my new method.  I'll do that the next time I put a facing on, and take photos for the blog.  (Don't hold your breath -- I probably won't be finishing any quilts for a couple of months, but I promise this will come in the fullness of time.)

So bottom line, if you love the curved edges on the back of your quilt, by all means stick with the old method.  But if you're simply looking for a neat, clean, no-bulk finish, the new method is considerably faster and uses a little less fabric.

And Suzanne, thanks for asking!  It's wonderful to hear that somebody read that long-ago article and found it good enough to keep using.   

Photo du jour


Sunday, March 20, 2011

The in colors for spring

When I taught workshops last week for the Contemporary Quilt and Fiber Artists in Cincinnati, I asked people to bring Kona cotton so we could swap colors and have the fabrics stitch up nicely together.  So I know I gave them a limited palette of fabrics to start from.  Still, when I dropped in at the Hobby Lobby in Cincinnati the day before the workshop to augment my own stash, there were at least 35 colors to choose from.

What actually happened: a couple of colors were wildly popular and others totally absent from the workshop.

Purple and green were the big winners in this popularity contest, showing up in several quilts.  But only green made it to the fashion show at the guild meeting.  I counted a dozen people wearing green of various hues, including myself.  Only one or two people wore true greens; everybody else went toward the yellow side of the spectrum.

But the big surprise to me was that pink made such a big splash at the party -- and apparently had such a good time that it came again two days later.

Separated at birth 1: two different workshops, almost the same color combination  (three pinks as the original colors, plus dark gray as a neutral and lime green as an accent)

Separated at birth 2: two different workshops, almost the same color combination  (black, white and gray as the original colors; plus pink and green as accent colors)

It's also surprising to me that in the first pair of separated-at-birth twins, the "recipe" yielded two quilts with very similar personae.  But in the second pair, the character is very different, thanks to a warm pink vs. a cool pink, and a clear yellow-green vs. a grayed blue-green. 

Color is always amazing, which I'm sure is one reason we all stick with art!

Photo du jour

ducks in a row

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Craft -- good or bad?

Although I go to museums and galleries whenever I can, you would never accuse me of being knowledgeable about the Art World.  But I do try to remedy that situation by reading some art magazines and newspaper reviews.  I'm always interested in what they have to say about "craft," (as opposed to "art") and particularly what they have to say about fiber.  But sometimes it's not easy to figure out what they mean.

Yesterday morning I was looking at the latest issue of  "Art in America" and read a review of a show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.  Before the critic got to talking about the show, he paused to slam the museum for having changed its name nine years ago; it used to be the American Craft Museum. 

"...the timing of the decision to leave craft behind could not have been worse," he wrote.  "In the past decade, manual skills have become red-hot intellectual property, drawing unprecedented attention from artists, designers, activists, environmentalists and scholars.  Who knows what benefits might have come to the museum, had it continued to stand proudly for the complex, contradictory values of the handmade."

Reading that was pretty cheering; it made me want to put down the magazine, get out of bed, go to my studio and make some red-hot, complex, contradictory, handmade art!  (Even though I had to wonder how exactly this red-hot critical focus is manifesting itself, and why all the fiber people I know are somehow missing the boat.)

That evening, exhilarated by my red-hot day in the studio, I was reading the New York Times art pages, and found a review of another show, this one called "Unpainted Paintings."  The gimmick is that the artists used stuff other than paint to make their artworks -- Kool-Aid, fire, nails, buttons and foil were among the stuff mentioned. 

Anna Betbeze, Parlor, 2008, flokati rug, pigment, acid dyes,
129 x 95"

The next paragraph started out very encouraging:  "The roster includes one young, relatively unknown artist named Anna Betbeze, " the critic wrote.  "She works on wool rugs with acid dyes and watercolors to create stained, eaten-away works that suggest woolly mammoth hides attacked by avant-garde cave painters."

How nice, I thought, to see this artist's work described favorably, with no patronizing adjectives or putdowns, so frequently found when "mainstream" critics talk about fiber work.  But then I read the rest of the paragraph:

"The show also brings one — but only one — artist in from the cold of the so-called craft world: the internationally known fiber artist Sheila Hicks, although she is represented by a piece resembling fancy upholstery that is far from her best."

OK, if a critic wants to not like a piece on display, that's her privilege, and I won't take offense on behalf of fiber artists.  But what's with the remark about coming in from the cold?  Who besides art critics so-calls the so-called craft world?  Why is Sheila Hicks snarked for making fiber and Anna Betbeze isn't?  Or is Sheila Hicks being snarked not for what she made, but because the critic and/or the Art World have labeled her as a resident of the Craft World?  And if so, whose fault is that??? 

And if craft is such damn red-hot intellectual property, why snark at all?

I'm confused.  To heck with the studio -- maybe I'll just go back to bed and read magazines.

Photo du jour

river walk

Friday, March 18, 2011

Quiltmaking 101 -- Perfect faced quilts -- the tutorial

Much as I love traditional quilt bindings, I think that if you want your quilts to be regarded as art you do better to make a more “painting-like” finish for your edges. Here’s how I put facings on my quilts so the composition goes all the way to the edge.

After the piece is quilted and pressed or blocked, stretch it out flat on a cutting mat and use your ruler to establish the trim line. Since you will turn back a half-inch, you have a little wiggle room – you can trim a little bit beyond the edges of the piecing.

PS – the clamp holds the ruler in place to make it easier to cut a long straight edge. As an alternative, call a helper to hold down one end of the ruler, especially if you're working on a large quilt.

Proceed around the quilt and trim all four edges.

Cut facing strips 2 ½ or 2 ¼ inches wide on the cross-grain of the fabric (to give it a little more stretch). Place the first facing strip at one corner of your quilt, and stitch along one side of the quilt with a half-inch seam allowance. Stop about three inches from the corner and put your needle down so the quilt stays in place.

Cut off the facing strip about one inch from the end of the quilt. Hold it up out of the way and position the second facing strip at the corner. Turn back a quarter-inch hem and pin that in place.

Let the free end of the first facing strip fall back in place, and stitch through both layers to the corner.  Turn the corner and stitch along the second side of the quilt. When you approach the next corner, repeat what you just did.

When you get around to the fourth corner, pin back the hem on the first facing strip, which is waiting for you, lay the facing over it and complete the stitching to the corner.

You have completed part 1 of the facing. That was the easy part.

Part 2 presents more of a challenge, because you now have to turn the facings right side out, and what’s going to happen to the bulk at the corners?  That has always been my pet peeve with quilt facings done in the traditional manner – you can end up with four layers of batting and backing, plus eight layers of facing strip, plus four layers of quilt top, all stacked on top of one another. That makes a huge lump at the corner and I think the whole quilt looks clunky as a result.

My method eliminates the bulk at the corners. Sure, you have a double thickness where you turn back the half-inch edge, but the corners are no thicker than the rest of the edge. Here’s how that happens.

Go to one of the corners and rip out the stitching about a half-inch back in both directions.

Pull back the facing and the quilt top, separating the quilt layers into two halves.  The quilt top and the facing will become the top and bottom of the corner of your finished quilt; they're essential.  But the batting and backing do nothing but add bulk; they're a liability in the corner, and we are going to get rid of them.

Make sure you have two layers turned back -- the essential two layers -- and two layers lying flat on the table -- the liability layers.  You will probably be able to see the needle holes from your stitching line, even though you have ripped out the thread. For this picture I marked the corner in green, and I often do the same thing in real life so I can tell where the corner falls.

Here’s the scary part. Get a scissors. But before you cut, say out loud, at least once: “Don’t cut the quilt top, don’t cut the facing, they are essential.” And make sure you do what you just said. You are going to cut away the batting and the backing at a 45-degree angle, about a quarter-inch inside the corner. After you cut, check the little triangular piece and make sure you have indeed snipped off the corner (that’s why it’s a good idea to mark it in pencil or ink).

Lay your uncut top and facing back in place, and re-sew the corner.

Here’s what it looks like on the bottom.

If you’ve ever sewed garments, you are probably flashing back to the points on collars and the square corners on cuffs. You are thinking the next step is to trim off the edges of the facing, grading them practically to the sewing line at the corner. If this is the case, you need to be brainwashed. Get that image out of your head!  There's no more cutting!

You’re going to keep all that extra fabric and turn it in when you flip the facing right side out. Remember, you cut off the backing and batting from the corner, leaving a tiny triangle with no stuffing at all. If it didn’t get filled with something, it would be awfully limp and puny there after you got the quilt finished. But now the extra fabric of the top and facings will cram into the corner and fill it out.

You can get the corner turned almost all the way just by sticking your finger in firmly. If you need to urge it a little more, a small crochet hook has a rounded end that you can poke into the corner without fear that it will stab a hole.

Press the corner between thumb and finger to get it smooth and flat, using your crochet hook if needed. You may need to poke and prod and press at the corner for a couple of minutes to get everything lying neatly in place. Push and pull the top facing toward the left (as the photo above is oriented) to keep it taut away from the corner. When you feel that all the layers are lying smooth and flat, pin enthusiastically.

Flip the quilt over and make sure the facing doesn’t bulge out and show from the front.

Continue to pin the top facing along the edge of the quilt, moving away from the corner, working right to left (counterclockwise). First turn back the half-inch edge of the quilt, finger-pressing and pinning it in place (the white pins in the photo above), making sure the facing is pulled taut away from the edge. Then turn the hem allowance under and pin there (the red pins in the photo). Keep both rows of pins in place till you have finished hemming.

You may want to pin all the way around the quilt before you start hemming. Or you may want to pin one edge, sew it, and then pin the next one. It doesn’t really matter, except that you should always stitch counterclockwise. And instead of starting in a corner, start sewing three or four inches to the left of the corner. You’ll see why in a minute.

When you have made your way all around the quilt, turning, finger-pressing and pinning, you may find that by continually pulling and smoothing your facing taut toward the left you are moving a bubble of extra fabric ahead of you. Now that you’re reaching the starting point, how will you make the corner lie flat?

Well, remember that you haven’t sewed down the corner yet – this is why you started three or four inches in. You can take out a couple of pins from the corner, smooth the bubble in under the top facing, repin, and sew around to your starting point.

For this tutorial I assume that you are hemming down the facings by hand. If you want to add a line or two of machine topstitching for a more secure edge finish (click here for a post about this technique) I suggest you turn the corners, pin the outer edges of the quilt, machine stitch through the half-inch turnback, then hand-hem the facings down last.