Thursday, May 31, 2018

Quilts in the newspaper

I'm late in catching up with the newspapers, struggling with jet lag, but I just read an interesting art review in last Friday's New York Times.  It seems that William Arnett, the famous discoverer/promoter of the Gees Bend quilters and other black Southern outsider artists, has begun to give away the artworks collected by his foundation.  The Metropolitan Museum in New York received one of the first such gifts, and has a big show of the work through September 23.

In a glowing review, Roberta Smith, the Times' chief art critic, gives high praise to several of the best-known Gees Bend quilts on display, including one from the famous U.S. postage stamp series.  The show also contained several pieces by Thornton Dial and other artists who made sculptures from discarded tools, metal, tarps and other junk.

in the show:  Loretta Pettway, Medallion

I was happy reading this review -- the quilts were regarded as art.  But towards the end of the review, the critic just couldn't help herself from falling into the same old stereotypes.

She devoted four column-inches to a discussion that started "It is de rigueur when writing on exhibitions of this kind to review the shortcomings of the terms used to allude to the vast body of art... created by people limited by racial inequities, poor education, mental or physical challenges, or poverty" and ended with "Let's just call all of it art and proceed."  (If you're going to just call it art, why go through the litany of "shortcomings" and the recital of the politically correct terms used to describe the stuff?)

She points out that "self-taught" as a descriptor "didn't work since many artists are self-taught in some way.  (Quilters, for example, learn their art from their female relatives.)"

Oh, Roberta!!!  Couldn't you at least have said "some quilters"?  You're obviously unaware of the huge industry of quilt instruction, and I'll forgive you that, but do you really think that quilting is still a homespun craft carried on in a log cabin or sod house?  And that quilts are inseparable from grandmas?

At least she called us "artists."

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

More about Marimekko

I wrote earlier this week about my trip to the Marimekko store in Helsinki, prompting a comment from Jill Hoddick, which I will reprint in full because it's so wonderful:

I grew up with a mom who wore Marimekko dresses for years.  She was a ceramics professor at USC and knew Armi Ratia, the founder.  My mom, Susan Peterson, was knighted by the Finnish government for her work as a ceramic educator.  I was lucky enough to go to Armi's summer home to spend time in the summer of 1967, when I was 16.  The home was very modern, and full of all prints Marimekko.  What a delight.  And I was lucky enough to come home with gifts!!!  Before my mother died, she gave all her dresses (I think about 75) to a Finnish museum.  To this day I still use Marimekko to cover dining tables and walls, and bring joy and color to my life.  I became a costume designer, and not an art quilter, perhaps because of my experience with Marimekko.  I have sheets in this print!

And aren't we all jealous -- imagine having enough Marimekko lying around to cover tables and walls!!  And imagine having a mom as accomplished as Jill's -- read about her here.

Several years ago I was quilting some pieces for Nancy Crow, and told her that I needed drapery-weight fabric for the back.  So she sent me three yards of Marimekko.  How fabulous is that, having enough Marimekko in your stash to use it as backing.  If you're not familiar with this brand, the fabric used to come only in a heavy cotton that was perfect for home dec and non-fluffy clothing.  This month I was intrigued to see that they now are producing the same designs on a quilting-weight fabric (the saleswoman called it batiste).

I didn't want to spend 40 euros a meter to buy any new fabric, especially since I no longer sew dresses or pillows, and wouldn't dream of slicing up a Marimekko fabric for a quilt, but I did pop 5 euros for a remnant, 13 x 56 inches.  At first glance you might think what on earth would somebody do with that piece of fabric, but I think it will make an intriguing background for hand stitching.  I'll let you know how that works out.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Deja vu in Helsinki

In the early 1970s, when Marimekko was all the rage, I made myself a dress from a huge pink/red print.  It was a highly impractical dress, sleeveless and floor-length, and I recall wearing it only once, although maybe I have forgotten.  But the print was unforgettable, embodying the minimalist-yet-wow Scandinavian design esthetic.

We had the pleasure of spending the most of this month in the Baltic, and Helsinki was one of the stops on our cruise.  One of the other women in the group, a quilter, told the guide that her fondest wish was to visit a Marimekko shop, and the guide figured out a way to make that happen.  Since it was a big favor, I thought I should come along too -- a favor for two isn't quite as outrageous as a favor for one.

When we walked into the shop what did I see but my identical pattern from the 70s.

And then I saw that they now offer the same design in at least three different sizes:

And on coffee mugs, trays, cosmetic pouches, oven mitts, napkins, and who knows what else.

They also have "my" pattern in a black/gray colorway, but I like the original better.

It made me feel good to know that some things never change.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- pressing curved seams

Just as sewing curved seams is a bit trickier than straight seams, pressing is also a bit more worrisome.  But with any kind of seam, you should get into the habit of pressing as a two-step process.  First press lightly from the back side, then turn the work over, check that the seam is good from the front, and only then press enthusiastically.  You want to find and fix any problems before you set them in with lots of pressure and moisture.

If you have sewed parallel freehand strips into a larger module, as in the block above, wait until you have them all stitched before you press anything.  Then sweep your iron across the entire set, pressing all the seams in the same direction in one swoop.  Fabric has a lot of forgiveness and will usually ease itself together nicely even if the edges aren't mathematically exact.  But it seems to lose a bit of flexibility every time it's pressed, so the first time is always the best.  If you have to return to a finished module and add more curved strips, spritz your existing seams well with water before you press in the new seams.

With more pronounced curves it is important to press the seam allowances toward the outside edge.  It's easier to get fabric to spread out under the iron than to get it to squeeze in and still stay flat.

When you press toward the outside, the dark fabric gets to keep its exact original shape; the seam allowance on the lighter fabric has to spread out a bit on the edge to lie flat.  Not a problem; fabric is usually willing to stretch.

When you press toward the inside, the dark fabric gets to keep its exact original shape and things look good from the back.  But underneath, the lighter fabric has to squeeze in to make the extra fabric fit.  

Sometimes this will work out just fine, but sometimes, especially with very tight curves, the underneath fabric can't squeeze in enough and instead it forms pleats.  A problem. 

No matter which way you press, you may come up with the occasional extreme situation where there seems to be just too much or too little fabric in the seam allowance.  If you have sewn garments in a past life, you may be tempted to get out your scissors and cut notches in the seam allowances to make them lie flat, just as you would do at the underarm of a set-in sleeve or at the curved edge of a patch pocket.  Please overcome that temptation!

Instead, try pressing first with plenty of moisture and see if you can encourage the fabric to stretch out and lie flat.  If it still resists, you can get your scissors, but instead of cutting slits in toward the seamline, cut around the edge parallel to the seam to reduce the width of the seam allowance and see if that works.  You can safely cut to within an eighth-inch of the seamline on a quilt that's intended for the wall; stick with a quarter-inch if you plan to use and wash the quilt.  If all else fails, it's better to make several slits that stop at least an eighth-inch shy of the seamline than to make a few that go all the way in.

One last word about pressing: we all were brought up to think that pressing occurs on the ironing board.  But quilters would be better off using the ironing board for fabric storage, as I do, and making another surface to actually iron on.  That's because it's important to have your entire piece lie flat as you press.

As soon as your piecing outgrows your ironing board, you're only able to get part of it to lie flat, and then you have to shift it around.  What frequently happens is that each segment is indeed flat, but the whole thing isn't -- just as you are able to press a garment in flat segments, even though the whole dress curves to fit your body.

So make yourself an ironing surface on your work table or a countertop or even on the floor.  You don't need fancy metallic ironing-board cloth; an old mattress pad, wool blanket or two thicknesses of a towel will do very nicely.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- freehand and curved seams 3

If you want to sew S-curves or even more complicated curves, you probably need more precision than you can get from the just-sew-it approach described in the last blog post.  Instead you need to establish a seamline and cut seam allowances on either side.

You don't need to go all quilt-police-traditional and make templates to accomplish this, but you do need a way to make a copy of the curve that will become your seamline.  Why not do templates?  Because you would lose the spontaneity of the freehand curve and change the character of your improvisational composition, and also because exact templates are so fiddly and time-consuming.

Instead, here are two methods of making your curves fit together perfectly while keeping the freedom of the immediate free-cut line.  I call them semi-templates.  You don't need to cut templates to accomplish this, but you do need some way to "remember" your curve so you can add seam allowances as you cut.

The first method uses a template, but it's a free-cut template with a minimum of tedious fuss.  Start with some pattern material that's big enough to draw your entire curve, and a cutting mat big enough to let you do it with one swoop of the rotary cutter.  The pattern material can be freezer paper, newspaper, interfacing or tissue paper.  Lay it out on your cutting board.  Take your rotary cutter and slice a gorgeous curve through the pattern.  If you want, you can stop there, or you can cut more curves as long as they don't cross any of your previous cuts.

(In the photos below I've made four cuts, the start of a large "striped" panel that can keep on going as long as I want. After these pieces are sewed together, I'll have to retrieve the template paper with the curved edge of 5, then make more cuts for more pieces.)

Don’t separate the two halves of the cut yet – first take a pencil and mark across both pieces every six inches or so, and/or at critical points on the curve. And mark across both pieces at the exact top and bottom of the curve.

Pick up one piece of the pattern and lay it on your fabric, making sure you keep track of whether this is going to be the right-hand piece or the left-hand piece. Now visualize how wide you want your seam allowance to be, and free-hand cut that distance away from the template.

It doesn’t have to be a perfect quarter-inch – no need to fuss with rulers, just eyeball it. There’s enough give in the fabric that you will not have problems. Finally, pin the two pieces together at the marked points, and sew. The seam will press perfectly flat.

Look at that beautiful curved seam!  Now put template #1 aside, get templates #2 and #3 and repeat the process for the next curve.

Place template #2 right up against the seam, and cut along its left edge, adding the seam allowance by eye.  In this photo template #3 is waiting, but I will actually cut it from a third piece of fabric, not maroon.

Note that I do not suggest you cut out all the pieces at once.  It's way too easy to lose your place and try to sew the wrong pieces together (ask me how I know).  Instead cut two pieces (one curve), sew and press, then move on.

With this method you can make curve after curve, as in this quilt of mine.  With some practice you can use this method to make winding-road seams with multiple changes of direction, as long as you mark and pin the seams carefully.

A variation of this method uses a marking wheel to draw your curved seamline directly onto the two layers of fabric, thus eliminating the template.  If you're not familiar with this tool, it's like a rotary cutter except its "blade" is dull, not sharp.

Instead of using the rotary cutter to make your curve, you use the marking wheel, which works exactly like the rotary cutter, with the same arm motion that gives you those nice, loose, artistic swoopy lines.

Layer two pieces of fabric where you want the curve to go, giving yourself plenty of fabric underneath (you don't want your curve to run off the edge of the bottom layer).  Limber up your arm and make a swoopy curve, pressing hard enough to crease both layers of fabric.

The creased lines don't show up all that well in the photos but they do in real life, at least long enough for you to cut and sew as needed.

Now separate the two layers, noting carefully which direction you need to extend for seam allowances. Switch to a rotary cutter and by eye, follow your creased curve a quarter-inch away.

As you did with the paper templates in the first method, put one or two marks across the seams and pin them so you match the curves before stitching.  The more complicated the curve, the more places you should mark and pin.

In the next post I'm going to tell you to press your seam allowances toward the outside of a curve.  That's great with a C-curve, but how about an S-curve?  The "outside" may be toward the left as you start, but then the curve changes direction and "outside" is toward the right.  I can't give you a hard-and-fast rule for these situations.  If one leg of the curve is more gentle than the other, press that one toward the "inside" so it will become the "outside" when the going gets tough.  If all else fails, flip the direction of the seam where the curve changes direction.  Use your best judgment, and plenty of moisture and elbow grease at the ironing board.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- freehand and curved seams 2

If you have chosen to cut your quilt pieces freehand instead of using a ruler, or if you are deliberately using curved seams, you face a construction issue: how to make the finished seams lie perfectly flat.  If the curves are gentle -- think the profile of a watermelon -- and if they curve in the same direction, you can usually just sew one to the other and they will be fine.

This approach works as a new construction method if you layer two pieces of fabric on top of one another, then cut a gentle curve through both layers.  Swap the pieces and stitch them together.

The piece above was made with three cuts, not one, and of course it yielded a mirror image piece with the same curves but the opposite color arrangement.  Note that the middle seam ended up wonky, with the black quite a bit longer than the orange, even though they were presumably the same length to start with.  This is not a failure of sewing skill; it's an unavoidable and unpredictable result of the process of sewing two bias edges together.

When this happens to you, and it will, don't feel guilty, don't try to rip the seam and redo it, just trim off the edge.

The just-sew-it approach also works with random pieces that you may find in your stash and want to sew together.  As long as the curves have approximately the same radius, and point in the same direction, you'll probably be fine.  But if they point in opposite directions, or are too radically different in profile, you'll end up with bulges or clots.  Plan ahead, and don't do that.

These pieces will most likely go together beautifully.  

These pieces won't.

With gentle curves the actual sewing will be very much like holding straight edges together -- no big deal.  But when you sew more pronounced curves -- as the watermelon profile becomes more like a cantaloupe or a grapefruit -- it's harder to maintain the proper seam allowance because the two edges are so different in profile: one a distinct hill and the other a valley.  It will be easier if you hold the "valley" curve on top and the "hill" on the bottom, even though that makes a lousy mnemonic.

Establish the seam allowance at one end of the seam and put your needle down through both layers.  If possible, set your machine so it automatically stops with the needle down, to make sure the pieces don't slip out of alignment when you stop to reposition the fabrics.  Carefully align the edges of the two layers and stitch for maybe a half inch.  Stop needle down, and reposition the fabric.

Make sure you can see the edge of the under layer, because it curves away from the needle and if you're not careful you can sew right off its edge.  If you stitch with a hint of pink peeking out from under the yellow, you'll be fine.  Yes, this is slow going, but this is how you get a perfect seam.

The top layer will form ruffles behind the needle as you stitch around the curve.  Don't pull tight on the top layer as you hold it in position; if anything, ease just a bit of extra fabric into the curve as you sew.

After you get to the end of the seam, flip it over and check whether you have inadvertently sewed any pleats into the bottom layer of fabric that you couldn't see.  If you have, get your seam ripper and open the seam for a quarter inch on each side of the pleat.  This time sew with the "hill" side up so you can watch carefully as you ease the fabric under the needle and get it smooth this time.  It's important to fix any glitches before you press, while the fabric is at its most flexible.

Sometimes you'll sew curved edges together, press the seam, and it looks as though everything is perfect.  But when you flip back to the right side, you'll notice that the two edges didn't match perfectly. When you turn that curved seam over, run your fingernail along it from the downhill side to find any hidden pleats.

If you find one, don't worry -- it's very easily fixed.  Turn it back to the wrong side and notice that the iron has creased the fabric at exactly the right place to give you your perfect seamline.  Restitch the seam along the crease mark and the curve will look exactly as it did before, except the new stitching will have closed the pleat.

Looks great from the front, but....

....there's a huge gap at the end of the seam between black and  yellow.

Go back and stitch exactly on the crease line. 

You will note that all the curves in this post go in one direction only -- no S-curves or multiple-winding roads.  If you want to sew these more complex curves, you'll need a more precise method to make them lie perfectly flat; stay tuned for the next tutorial.

And then there will be more about pressing curved seams in a further installment of Quiltmaking 101.  Wait and read that before you take your seam to the ironing board.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- freehand and curved seams 1

The rotary cutter is a blessing for anybody wanting to make straight edges, a huge improvement over tracing around a template with a pencil and then cutting along the line with a scissors.  Rotary cutters, paired with rulers, make perfectly straight edges with very little work.

Although traditional quiltmakers have always worked with ruler-straight edges and seams in most block construction and when sewing blocks together, contemporary artists often prefer the looser look of freehand cutting.  You still use the rotary cutter and mat, but instead of lining your blade up against a ruler you cut without a guide.  Even when an edge/seam looks almost straight, you can see the artist's hand in a freehand line where you don't get that vibe from a ruler-cut line.

On the left, freehand straight lines; on the right, ruler-cut:

Can you see the difference?  It's subtle, especially if you're only looking at one block, but gives a different character to the finished quilt.

The problem with freehand cutting is friction.  In an ideal world, your fabric wouldn't be the least bit slippery and your rotary cutter would be so sharp and roll so smoothly that it would cut a clean edge without pulling at all on the fabric.  You would finish your cut with the two pieces of fabric exactly in their original places, so perfectly aligned that you would barely be able to see that they were cut at all.  In the real world, the blade catches just a bit and pushes or drags the fabric along with it a hair as it rolls along; you'll often see a bubble of fabric moving ahead of the blade as it cuts.  This is especially true if you are cutting two layers of fabric at the same time.

To prevent this, and to make sure that the cut goes exactly where you want it to, it's helpful to hold the fabric in place as you cut.  For short cuts, you just hold it down with your fingers (being careful, of course, not to cut yourself).  For longer cuts, anything over a foot, I like to hold the fabric in place with the plastic ruler, but keep the cutting line at least a quarter-inch away from the edge of the ruler.  That way you get the best of both worlds: the freedom of the freehand cut, where you can wobble or curve your line if you want, plus the ease of cutting fabric that stays where it's supposed to.

When you're joining almost-straight strips and blocks, you can pretty much just put them together and sew a straight seam; the fabric will have enough give to press flat. But as the seams get longer, or as you're joining long rows of blocks, or if your freehand cut had a bit of curve to it, you have to be a little more careful.  If you're not, you can end up with a hill or a valley or both, and even the most diligent pressing won't make them disappear.

Stay tuned for tips on how to sew not-straight pieces of fabric together and still have them come out perfectly flat.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- batting cleanup

Several years ago I started a series of blog posts that I call Quiltmaking 101 -- tutorials on all the basics of machine-pieced quilts.  Early installments deal with how to use the rotary cutter, how to stitch seams and how to press.  Moving along through the production process, you can learn how to efficiently sew block-to-block quilts together, how to put the quilt sandwich together, and how to quilt it.  Finally, you can learn how to finish the quilt, with bindings or facings, and how to put a sleeve on for hanging.

I think that somebody who never saw a quilt before could probably learn 99 percent of what she needed to make one by following this series of tutorials.  If you want to read them, they're all right here.

But I realized recently, as I went back to check out one of the posts, that I had left some gaps in the instruction.  Most embarrassing, I realize that I never explicitly discussed freehand cutting -- the heart of improvisational quilting -- and how to sew together a quilt with curvy pieces.  So I am putting together a series of posts on piecing curves.  By that I mean both gently curved seams like these:

and more severe curves like these:

I'll be posting these new tutorials in the next couple of weeks.  Meanwhile, I invite you to look at the Quiltmaking 101 link above and tell me if there are other basic skills that you'd like to see additional tutorials on.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Kimono everywhere 4 -- my pieces

For our Kimono Challenge I made two small pieces using only small scraps.  I searched out torn and frayed bits and areas where the kimono had been mended in the past.  As we went through all the garments we had noticed that many of them had been mended, generally by cutting a piece of matching fabric larger than the hole, placing it underneath and invisibly stitching the layers together.  I found only one piece with a large mend, and turned it upside down so the patch was obvious.

I sewed everything down to a background mostly using running stitches, but late in the project started adding french knots.  When I was using silk or rayon thread the knots were tedious and small, but then I found a spool of 28-weight cotton Aurifil thread in a variegated ivory-pink-coral-maroon colorway, which made beautiful fat knots and was very easy to work with.  So I made large masses of knots, piling them right next to one another or even climbing on top of each other.  I love this effect, and it's a seductive technique for those of us who enjoy going into a zen state and stitching for hours at a time.

The other two pieces didn't have mends to showcase but I used the same techniques -- raw edges on the bits of silk used in the collage, lots of running stitches to hold them down to the background layer, french knots, dangling threads at the bottom.

These pieces eventually need to be mounted in frames or on panels, but not right now.

Friday, May 4, 2018

A quiltmaker's dilemma...

Last summer I took four quilts out to hang at a doctors' office as part of a program that PYRO Gallery has had for a few years.  Twice a year we hang a new "show" of as many as 50 pieces of art at the office, and in return the doctors agree that a certain amount of art will be purchased.

The good news is that one of my quilts has indeed been purchased, and though I will be sorry to see it go I know it will be going to a good home.  The quilt is "Linear B," which was the ultimate fine line quilt -- it consisted entirely of machine-pieced fine lines!

Each of these little strips is cut from commercial striped fabric and is approximately one-eighth inch wide.

Linear B won the juror's choice (aka second place) at Art Quilt Elements in 2016 at the Wayne Art Center in Wayne PA.

When we went to hang the art at the doctors' office that quilt was the only tall, skinny piece that anybody had brought, so it got to hang right by the elevators in the main lobby.

So this week I went out to collect the quilt and pack it up to be shipped to its new owner, and was appalled to see that in the months since I left it, it had warped!!

Instead of lying flat against the wall, as in that installation photo above, it was gaping at the sides, as much as four inches away from the wall in the center.  As you walked off the elevator, you got a great view of the back of the quilt.  Yuk.

Obviously I have to do some remedial sewing before this quilt can be delivered, but what?  Do I want to sew three additional horizontal sleeves with slats at the quilt's shoulders, waist and knees?  Or should I sew vertical sleeves along the edges of the quilt and slip a very tall rod into each one to hold the sides against the wall?

If any of you have had experience with this kind of gapping, please let me know what you did and whether you're happy with the solution.  The new owners are waiting!!

Thanks in advance...

And by the way, I put up "Big Ice" next to the elevators after I took down "Linear B."  Maybe it will go to a new home too.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Kimono everywhere 3

I realized in looking back on past posts that I never finished telling you about the Kimono Challenge that our local fiber and textile arts group held last year.  (Look here and here for the first parts of the story.)  It comes to mind now because we have just learned that later this year we are going to have a public exhibit of all the art made in the challenge.

Several people made wall art from the kimono in our challenge project.

Particularly intriguing in this one is the "Japanese" lettering in the center right of the piece.  It was achieved by cutting up some silk-screened fabric in an allover pattern and sewing it in vertical strips!

This one combined silk with handmade paper and Japanese paper, with hand and machine stitching.

I'll show you what I made in the next post.