Saturday, March 31, 2012

Friday, March 30, 2012

Fitting it all together

After I posted photos of my new quilt in progress and commented that fitting the irregular modules together will be tedious, Olof asked if I could show exactly how this will occur.  So here's a record of about an hour's work yesterday.

Here are two modules that seem to want to go together, except the one on the right isn't big enough.  I put them on the design wall to see exactly how much needs to be added.  I decided to add some at the top and some at the bottom, because it would make a more complex pattern.

Working first on the bottom part, I found a little bit of preexisting piecing that seemed to be about the right height, added some extra at left and right, and sewed it to the right-hand module.

To augment the top part, I needed a wedge-shaped piece that would be wider toward the right.  It would be tall enough that I needed some complexity at the right, so I sewed a slice from a strip set to another strip set and put it in place.

I didn't chop off the top strip set yet, because I wasn't sure exactly how tall the wedge would have to be.  Then I added some bits toward the left to make it wide enough, and sewed it to the right-hand module.

When I trimmed the top edge of the new big module and saw how much of the wedge was left, the top right section needed more complexity.  I shifted the ruler and left myself an extra quarter-inch in case the new seams took up too much height.

I opened two seams, sliced the module open, pieced in new pink strips, and sewed everything back together again.

Yes, this is fiddly work that many people would find impossibly tedious, but I love it.  I like the challenge of making things fit, I'm willing to rip out a seam and go back to improve a section I've already sewed.

I do start by making a bunch of strip sets, which makes parts of the process more efficient, but I don't rely exclusively on them.  This style of piecing uses a lot of diagonals and irregular patterns; I don't want the regularity of a grid.  So whenever I get too big an expanse of plain right-angle strips I try to break it up and go in another direction.  I know you can find the long seams joining the smaller pieces if you look hard, but I want you to have to look hard.

I keep a small cutting mat on my sewing machine table, a small design wall at my left hand, and a small ironing surface that I can use by swiveling my chair.  So I can work for quite a while without having to get up.

I turn on trash TV, or maybe check out what opera is being broadcast from the Met on satellite radio, and let myself sink into a zen state while I sew.  It's the best part of making a quilt.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A change of pace

After working on ice colors for the last month trying to depict Antarctic glaciers and ice floes, I was ready for some different colors.  I knew I needed plenty of fabric to make a huge expanse of piecing, so didn't even bother to look in my big stash of solid colors where the typical piece of fabric might be a yard.  So I went to the store for Kona cotton.

My first thought was to choose two colors very close in value but near-complementary in hue.  I know that combination often causes the pattern to vibrate and shimmer.  I had made a small quilt with that plan and sent it out in public recently, and wanted to replicate the effect at a much larger scale.

Gridlock 1, 2011

But I couldn't find a combination that worked.  I think the store was awaiting a shipment because many of my favorite colors were absent without leave.  No good rich purples, no  darkish blues.  I looked in the medium values trying for something that would go with some nice browns, but wasn't inspired.

So how about a total change of pace -- hot orange and hot pink?

Several years ago when I had a big crush on Ellsworth Kelly I saw a tiny photo of something he had made; I don't even remember if it was a painting, a print or what.  The photo was about an inch square, just big enough to get the general idea of the design.  In fact, I stole (rather, adapted) the design and made three quilts from it, and may go back and do more in the future.

What stuck with me was not just the design, but the colors -- hot orange and hot pink, so close in value that you almost couldn't tell where one stopped and the other started.  And here they were on the shelf, and they passed the shimmer test, vibrating before your eyes.

So I loaded up on them, came home and started sewing, without even stopping for lunch.  When inspiration strikes, you want to get on with it.

My design plan is to sort of replicate Gridlock, except a lot bigger.  At this stage I'm sewing modules more or less a foot square, except they're mostly not square.  Almost all of them have strong diagonal edges, which means it will be a pain in the butt to get them to fit together in the end.  But that's a problem to deal with in April or May.  For now, I just want to sew.

on the wall -- March 24

on the wall -- March 27 -- moving right along....

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I was there first

Last week the New York Times had an article on the art scene in Lisbon, illustrated with several luscious photos of the older sections of town.

New York Times photo, Nacho Alegre

When I saw this photo I thought it looked pleasantly familiar -- in a very brief visit to Lisbon in 2007, an afternoon ashore from a cruise ship, we had strolled through a seedy (no, I mean picturesque) old part of town with very similar buildings.

Then I happened to be looking through my pictures from that trip and what did I find....

photo by Kathleen Loomis

Sure, his picture is better. He probably waited around all afternoon for the cars to leave -- or maybe he paid them to clear out.  And he crouched down a bit so the lamp ended up higher.

But what fun to see that nobody has bothered to paint the building in the last five years!  And to realize that I was there first.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spool story

Coats & Clark, the thread manufacturer, is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year.  The firm started in Scotland, came to the U.S. in the mid-19th century, and is still going strong.  I  happened upon a special anniversary section of its website the other day and spent many pleasant and some frustrating minutes looking through its history.

You will drool over the photos of old sewing machines, thread cabinets, sewing notions and, of course, spools of thread.  If you don't want to take the time to visit their website, I'll give you the second-best Coats & Clark nostalgia tour from my own collection of sewing memorabilia.

Unfortunately, you will gnash your teeth trying to figure out the details of the company's history, as many fun facts are as cleverly hidden as Waldo.  Each page of the site has big arrows left and right, which you can use to move forward and backward in time.  But each one also has tiny arrows which you can use to find more info from the same time period.  It took me a whole lot longer than I should have spent on the site in toto to discover the second set of arrows.

The best joke in the website came at the very end, where they show an array of spools from then to now.  The copy reads:  "Gold metal spools replaced wooden spools.  These were soon replaced by plastic spools."

I don't know how old you have to be to remember the gold spools, but they haven't been gone all that long -- it took me less than two minutes to find a representative sample in my own thread stash.

And no, the gold spools are not metal.  They're plastic.

Which makes me wonder who put together this website, and who at the company approved it before it went live.  Surely in a company celebrating its 200th anniversary there's somebody around who sewed with their thread in the last decade or two.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Photo suite 13 -- door travelogue

Chios, Greece

Kyoto, Japan

Samos, Greece

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Vestenberg, Germany

Antigua, Guatemala

Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Friday, March 23, 2012

Made to measure

I am one of the artists participating in an upcoming exhibit sponsored by Studio Art Quilt Associates, which will make its debut in Houston this fall and later travel here and there.  It's called "Seasonal Palette," which as you might expect deals with the different colors that represent or evoke the seasons.  We were juried into the exhbit last summer by submitting images of some of our quilts, and by choosing a season and specifying which colors we would use to depict it.

Surprisingly, a disproportionate number of the selected artists wanted to do winter (and I was one of them).  Some of those chosen for the show were assigned other seasons, but I was fortunate to get to keep my first choice.  I think it had to do with my remarks about being inspired by my trip to Antarctica.  Something about that continent commands awe and respect even in those who haven't been there.

So several months later, I've just about finished my entry for the show.  Just the sleeves to attach, and I'm ready to send my baby off into the world.  I am really pleased with what came out of this challenge.  I think the quilt does a good job of evoking the huge glaciers and icebergs that I saw in Antarctica.

What's on my mind this week, though, is the particular twist of this assignment that has to do with measurements.  Specifically, we were told to make our completed quilts 32" by 78".  Obviously this will result in a cohesive installation, but achieving it is not as easy as you might think. I've only constructed to a specified dimension a couple of times in the past, again in order to conform to the rules of a prestigious traveling exhibit.  And it was just as hard this time as it was in the past.

You may think you know exactly what to do -- you block out the given length and width on your design wall and arrange your composition within those boundaries.  You make it larger than you really need, knowing you'll have to trim off some at the end.  But wait.  Constructing a quilt isn't like making a painting -- you can't just design something that seems like it's going to be 32 inches wide and have it actually turn out that way.  Instead you make it 34 inches wide and expect to trim some off at the end (and hope the extra two inches are enough).

For instance, look at my unquilted top on the design wall -- it kind of oozes toward the right as it goes downward.  Once it gets squared up will it still be wide enough?  Will I have to slant the ruler as I trim it to its final dimensions? 

The wild card, of course, is the quilting.  I ended up quilting this piece in parallel lines that went across the narrow width of the quilt.

In parallel line quilting, you always find that the fabric takes up between the lines of stitching; the cross section, if you could see it, transforms neat, flat layers of fabric into bulges that would look like figure eights.  If you were to grab the top and bottom and pull them taut, everything would stretch out a bit, but in ordinary display that's not going to happen.

As a result, what I thought was plenty long enough ended up not.  I lost more than three inches in height because of the quilting, to the extent that when I got to the bottom edge of the quilt, I had to stop quilting and add more pieced fabric to the left side of that diagonal edge to make it 78 inches long. 

With this quilt it was no big deal -- I just found more of the fabric I had been using, pieced a new triangular section in which some of the existing pieced lines were continued, folded back the batting and backing and sliced off the pieced top on a diagonal, then sewed the new section to it.  Everything got folded back to its proper place and pressed, and I continued the quilting till I got to the (now longer) bottom edge.

After I measured the width of the quilted piece, I decided I couldn't risk quilting a whole new set of vertical lines, because I didn't have much width to spare and couldn't easily augment the quilt because the horizontal quilting lines stopped at the original edges.

More important, with this quilt cutting to fit was no big deal because the pattern really isn't a major element in the design.  The expanse of fabric in certain values is important, but who cares if a little triangle of piecing disappears or has to be extended?  By contrast, if you're working with an actual design rather than an expanse of similar fabrics, it can cause real problems if you have to cut off a certain shape to make your quilt exactly so wide and tall.

Layout 2 --  a quilt that was in an internationally touring show several years ago that had to be 52 inches square.  When I finally quilted it and cut it to size, the design was somewhat of a surprise.

I'd much rather work unencumbered by specifications: making the quilt so it looks right, then finishing it and discovering at the end how big it turns out to be.  Making to measure adds another fiddly dimension to quilting that I'd just as soon do without.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The fabric cartel

Designer fabric lines -- good or bad?  Much discussion on the Quiltart list this week on this subject, sparked by reports of a lawsuit.  Seems an Author wrote a book illustrated by various quilts she had made, but the credits failed to mention that a certain quilt was made from fabrics designed by a Designer.  The Designer sued for copyright infringement.

As most lawsuits are, this one was settled, with the Author's Publishing Company agreeing to credit designers in similar situations.  But the discussion raged.  A lot of outrage, and some comments that it makes you want to give up using commercial fabrics entirely if that's the way they're going to be.

I was one of the many people who commented how it would be impossible (at least for me) to credit the designers of the commercial fabrics I use.  Many of the fabrics in my stash were purchased years ago, and many have been long since divested of their selvages.  I often slice off the selvages soon after purchase, or later if I need selvages of a certain color.  And that's not to mention the fabrics that arrived from somebody else's scraps and leftovers, or those that were recycled from an old dress.

But as the discussion proceeded, it got worse.  The defendant in the lawsuit revealed that she customarily receives fabric free from manufacturers, because she makes quilts that appear in books and magazines.  Apparently the quid pro quo is that she lists them prominently in the credits.

Then another would-be author revealed that she had approached a publisher with a book about (among other things) using fabrics from your stash to achieve good color, texture and contrast.  The publisher told her, "you'll have to re-make all of your examples with current fabrics because people only want to see what's available now....not what has been taken from your stash."

Someone else pointed out that fabrics have a shelf life only slightly longer than that of fish, and that many people appear at the fabric store with a magazine article in hand, only to be crushed to learn that the fabrics in the picture are no longer available.

I am deeply discouraged by this situation.  I have encountered a lot of beginning-to-intermediate quilters whose sewing skills are well developed but who have no confidence in any aspect of design, whether it's developing their own compositions or choosing their own fabrics and colors.  It has been my objective as a teacher to liberate quilters from ever having to use other people's patterns, and I have realized that I need to broaden that objective to also liberate them from having to use other people's fabric palettes.

I recognize that it may be good business for everybody -- publishers, fabric manufacturers, authors, designers -- to participate in this daisy chain of mutual promotion.  But the losers are the quilters who are encouraged at every turn to outsource their fabric selection to the design sensibilities of somebody else.

I've mentioned in this blog that I am working on a book that seeks to help beginning-to-intermediate quilters develop confidence to make their own designs.  I've made six new quilts in the last couple of months to illustrate the book, using fabrics from my stash, and have also found at least a half dozen in my pile of old quilts that use the same concepts referenced in the text.  I guess it's a good thing I'm going to self-publish rather than be told that I'd have to remake everything with currently available fabrics.

If the fabric manufacturers, the publishers, the designers and many of the authors are all in collusion to get people to go mindlessly to the store and buy WHAT'S NEW, where will the innovation come from?  How will the artists emerge from the muck?  I guess it's up to us independent voices, the bloggers, the self-published authors, the artists who stay out of bed with the power structure, to cry in the wilderness that you can escape.  You can learn to choose your own fabrics and patterns, you can work from your stash, you don't have to buy WHAT'S NEW (and for that matter, maybe you don't have to buy anything at all!!!!).

Just finished this quilt top earlier this week as an illustration for my book -- everything came from the stash, some of it is decades old.  Shame on me  (but I like it...)

Monday, March 19, 2012

The writing on the wall

News flash from Hobby Lobby: apparently it's trendy to put letters on your wall.

I found all kinds ready to hang, some classically beautiful:

some pretty good-looking, if you like faux antique:

and some not so good-looking:

And many more ready for you to paint, decoupage, wrap or whatever.  I counted at least nine different kinds and sizes, made of wood or cardboard, which I won't bore you with.  Here's the best of the bunch, typographically speaking:

I suppose that most people who buy these letters will buy enough to spell out their names, even though that's typographically questionable. All-cap words are often hard to read, especially with godawful typefaces such as the pink and blue glitter jobs above. What, you didn't notice the glitter in the photo?  Sorry, bad photography.

In my household there are lots and lots and lots of letters on display, but sitting by themselves rather than spelling things.  And all of them led a functional life before they retired to become decor.  Some are printer's type:

Others are stencils:

And some aren't technically letters at all.  This is a piece of rusty metal that my friend Debby found on the railroad tracks and gave to me because it sure looks like a B and she knows I will give a letter a better home than just about anybody.

You know I'm a snob about letters, so it won't surprise you that I like my "real" letters better than the made-in-China models.  Either way, there are a lot worse things you could put on your walls than the alphabet.

Just try not to put this on your sofa: