Thursday, July 30, 2020

Up against the wall!

PYRO Gallery is preparing for our first show since we closed abruptly in early March.  It seemed like the perfect opportunity to unveil my new postage stamp quilt, which is not only new and big but timely, because it's about coronavirus.  (I wrote about this quilt in April when I first started working on it.)

And so this afternoon my wonderful, tall and handy son helped me install it on the tallest wall in the gallery.

The lights haven't been adjusted yet so this isn't a very good photo, but you can see 169 little postage stamp bits socially distanced from one another.  (Some are more vigilant and compliant than others, just like actual humans.)

To make it hang properly, the columns needed to be weighted, and I wondered how to do that.  Then I found a whole bag full of rusty washers shaped like coronaviruses!

The show will run from August 6 through 29, at 1006 E. Washington St. in Louisville.  The gallery will be open from noon to 3 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and the entire show will be up on the PYRO website for virtual visitors.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Masks for Australia

After I wrote in April about making masks for friends, family and supporters of PYRO Gallery, my sister-in-law in Australia asked whether I could make some for them.  I said of course, whipped out four beautiful masks, packed them up and took them to the post office.

I regularly send stuff to two foreign countries: Australia and Germany.  I've dabbled in other carriers but my go-to is the post office.  I love the post office; I love the stamps, and the ubiquity of the service, and the daily delivery; I love getting and sending real mail to and from real people.  I've read the history and learned how the post office, serving all the 13 colonies, was the major institution to hold the disparate settlements together before independence.  For many years I sent a postcard to my mother every day and found joy and comfort in the ritual of the mail.  I am appalled at the president's attempts to cripple or kill the post office.  So I'm a big fan.  Hold that thought as I tell you the rest of the story.

Time passed and I realized, weeks later, that I hadn't received a thank-you note for the masks.  I found the receipt somewhere in the pile of stuff on my desk, and checked the tracking number.  Here's what I learned:

May 1 -- mailed
May 2 -- arrived at Louisville Distribution Center
May 5 -- left Louisville Distribution Center
May 5 -- arrived at Chicago Network Distribution Center
May 5 -- arrived at Chicago International Distribution Center
May 6 -- arrived at Chicago International Distribution Center  (yes, I know it arrived the day before but now apparently again)
May 6 -- left Chicago International Distribution Center 
May 10 -- in transit to next facility
May 21 -- processed through Chicago International Distribution Center 
June 8 -- arrived Chicago (where I thought it had been for the last month...)
June 9 -- departed O’Hare

Now, I like Chicago as much as anybody, and I would personally be happy traipsing around the place for a month, returning periodically to my base of operations to change clothes and regroup, but I didn't think that mail did that sort of thing.  Guess I was wrong.  

After its month in Chicago, the package set off for the Southern Hemisphere.  By boat?  By carrier pigeon?  It arrived on June 20.  Must not have been by boat, because when we took a cargo ship across the Pacific it took 14 days from Los Angeles to New Zealand, and this was only 11 days.  So probably an airplane, albeit a mighty slow one.  And then it took another 11 days to get to my brother's house 100 miles west of Sydney.  No details on whether its week in Sydney was like its month in Chicago.

The tracker recorded that on July 1, "Addressee not available -- scheduled for another delivery attempt today."  Which apparently never occurred, nor did the carrier leave a note in the box.  After I checked the tracker again my brother went to their local post office and collected the masks on July 8.

When I looked at the USPS website just now, I found pages of alerts from dozens and dozens of countries warning of delays and suspensions in mail delivery.  Australia's, for instance, said "Customers should expect delivery delays."  No kidding.  If you're planning to send anything overseas you might want to send an e-card instead. 

During May and June I was feeling like a chump -- why had I even bothered to make and send masks to a country that had pretty much whipped coronavirus before my package got there.  But guess what, this month they're having a resurgence.  The state of Victoria, where my nephew attends university, is in heightened quarantine.  My nephew, deciding to come home for a while, managed to get on a plane hours before Victoria closed its borders.  And a few days ago a new outbreak in New South Wales, where my family lives, has everyone on alert.  So maybe the masks will come in handy after all.

Friday, July 24, 2020

NYTimes strikes again

I love the New York Times.  We've subscribed to home delivery for decades and I couldn't live without its news coverage.  Not to mention its art and music coverage and its editorial columnists and its wonderful photography and its puzzles.  So it really pains me when they drop the ball, over and over, to the extent that I have to make fun of them in this blog.

Such as this spring and summer, when the editors have been desperately reaching for ideas to help people occupy themselves during pandemic quarantine.  I loved to hate their series on Designer D.I.Y.  and so did a lot of you.  Earlier this week, when I snarked a recent NYT article on how to mend jeans with sashiko stitching, one of you commented: "The real mending is called boro."

Gail commented: "In my long experience mending jeans, it's NOT the patch that needs strengthening, it's the thinning jeans fabric around the hole.  I'm going to guess this guy "mends" his jeans not out of need, but rather to make fashiony statements.  As one whose family wore out (still does!) many pair of jeans doing real physical work, the fake wear and repairs just hits me all the wrong way.  Is this where I put in a Harumph! and Get off my lawn!?"

Our running feud with Designer D.I.Y. got passed along to Susan Lenz Dingman, an artist in South Carolina who is one of my online acquaintances from way back.  She wrote me to tell about her recent run-in with the Times' do-it-yourself obsession.  You should know that Susan has made a lot of "vessels" consisting of some cord and a bazillion machine stitches to sculpt and hold everything in place. She writes:

"Last week I received an email from a photo editor at The New York Times.  She found my fiber vessels on the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show's website featuring last year's accepted artists.  She thought they were woven and would make a great DIY "basket" project for the Sunday 'At Home' print edition.  This series of articles is apparently about using actual pages of the newspaper and ordinary things found around an average household.  Her message included links to past projects, including instructions for folding a spread of the newspaper into an envelope and another for coiling strips of the newspaper into decorative paper beads.

"I knew at once that there were problems.

"First, my fiber vessels aren't woven.  I don't weave, never have.  Second, the process is rather laborious.  Third, even though I have written a free online tutorial for making my fiber vessels, the instructions can't be simplified into a neat, four or five step process.  Yet... this was an email from THE NEW YORK TIMES.  I was personally floored that anyone from such a prestigious publication would have found me.  I didn't want to write back with a simple NO.

"Immediately my husband Steve went to our local grocery store and came back with two copies of last Wednesday's edition.  Within twenty-four hours, I managed to create a fiber vessel.  I blogged about it HERE.  My response to the photo editor's message included images and a nicely phrased suggestion that my work is available should the newspaper ever want to feature work by artists who have incorporated their newspaper.  She was impressed but asked if I couldn't figure out a simple woven basket using strips of the newspaper. Politely, I declined, citing my inability in weaving as an excuse.  Yet, in the back of my mind I thought to myself, 'Susan, so you really want to have your name in The New York Times for a silly, simple DIY project that looks like an elementary school craft project?'  My answer to myself was another NO.

Susan Lenz Dingman, "Black & White and Read All Over: The New York Times"
"I am writing today mostly to say THANK YOU!  Your blog posts confirmed my suspicious regarding this odd opportunity.  I'm glad I didn't attempt to figure out something appropriate!"

Meanwhile, at today's breakfast table my husband pointed out a NYT feature for kids, in which they're supposed to get points for doing various virtual activities with their best friend, such as writing a letter, reading a book together or watching the same movie together/apart.  They're supposed to check off when they do an activity, and keep a running total in the corner.

Let's hope there's a white gel pen at hand to do that checking.

Monday, July 20, 2020

More DIY from the Times

I was kind of disappointed to see, a couple of weeks ago, that the NYTimes had discontinued its weekly Designer D.I.Y. series of articles on pathetic fashion craft projects.  It was so much fun to make fun of them!  But somebody must have picked up on my unhappiness, because here's a new pathetic advice feature in yesterday's Times.  This one's in the Sunday Magazine instead of in the styles section, so some other editor is responsible.

The Magazine has been in the habit for a long time of providing a very short "Tip" every week.  Usually the Tips are for how to do things that nobody actually wants or has occasion to do -- for instance, how to survive a tsunami, how to dig up a grave, how to grow hemp, how to herd reindeer, how to toss a pizza, how to wheat-paste posters, how to catch a swarm of bees.  But this week it's right up our alley -- how to mend a pair of jeans.

illustration by Radio for NYTimes Sunday Magazine

Most of this little article is a paean to a guy who grew up in Japan, "a descendant of many generations of experts in a kind of decorative needlework called sashiko" and is now doing it for a living in Pennsylvania. How sashiko is so beautiful, how many patterns there are, how this guy has found meaning in his family heritage in sashiko and "has spent hundreds of hours covering jeans he owns in stitches patterns to make them stronger."

Then there's your actual how-to tip.  There's a supply list: sashiko thread, a thimble and "a two-inch-long needle with a small eye."  There's a direction: cut a denim patch bigger than the hole.  Now "stitch all over the patch first to make the fabric stronger."  Digression on how to transfer sashiko patterns to the fabric (washable pen or carbon tracing paper).

Finally, "place your patch on the inside of your jeans and sew the two together."  Do not do this on a T-shirt.  (No danger, since you told us in the headline that we're mending jeans.)

That's it.

Hmmm.  As one who has mended dozens if not hundreds of pairs of jeans and other pants, I take issue with this process instruction.  First off, if I were going to mend a pair of jeans I would not bother doing sashiko all over the patch first.  After it's on the pants, maybe.

Second, I would not obsess over precise transfer and execution of a sashiko pattern to my patch, unless I were a guy who wants to make a living off his ancestral craft and enroll you in a workshop to learn same

Third, if I had put beautiful sashiko stitching onto a patch I would for sure sew it to the front of my jeans, not the inside where people would only see the little bit of it visible through the hole.

Fourth, if I didn't know how to mend jeans (otherwise why would I be reading an article entitled "How to Mend A Pair of Jeans") I would probably feel cheated when the directions told me "sew the two together" and left the hard part to me to figure out.

The takeaway: again, the New York Times proves that it loves the concept of people doing craft at home, but hasn't a clue as to how to guide them toward actually doing it.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Fiber art on the obit page

Today's New York Times had a two-fer: fiber art prominently displayed in both the obituaries on the first page of that section.  You rarely see even one, so this was good.

Obituary 1: Molly Parker, 81, master basket maker from the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine.  She learned her ancestral craft from her mother, and as a young woman made work baskets for fishing and potato farming.  Later her "fancy baskets," like the strawberry below, became collector's items.  Go to the obit and make sure to see the video of her at work, with close-ups of the elaborate techniques that make the baskets fancy.

photo from New York Times

Obituary 2: David Kaiser, a great-great grandson of John D. Rockefeller.  What he did was intriguing (fought to make Exxon, the descendent corporation of the Rockefeller oil monopoly, more accountable on climate change) but what caught my eye was the photo of the antique quilt in his office.  I think it's hung in a plexiglas box.  Loved the colors; would be happy to put it in my own office if none of his heirs want it now.

photo from New York Times

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Baby quilts: another tutorial

I've always loved putting babies' names on their quilts, among other reasons because it signals to the child that it's HER quilt and she can do WHATEVER SHE WANTS with it.  I have a bunch of different methods to call on, but my favorite is pieced letters.  They're easy to do when the child is named Vivian or Matthew, maybe even Elijah, but difficult for Cassandra, Robert or Quincy.

Or Isaac.  But I wanted to make Isaac's quilt with piecing, notwithstanding the curvy letters.  I bribed myself to do a good job by turning the task into a tutorial, which made me be careful.

This method sort of uses a template, although it's not the kind of fussy construction that you might associate with that word.  It starts with a paper cutout of the letter (of course, you can use this method for any kind of curved piecing, not just letters).  I drew the curve of the C quite shallow to make the piecing easier.

Start by placing the template over the red fabric and cutting along the edges -- eyeball about a quarter-inch away from the edge of the shape to give yourself a seam allowance.  This doesn't have to be precise but do go slow and easy as you cut.  If the cutter pushes a bubble of fabric ahead of the blade and the fabric slinks away from you, lift the blade and set it down again, making sure the template stays in position.

Place the letter on top of the background fabric, and put the template on top.  You want to transfer the curve to the background fabric so you can cut it properly, and you also want to mark the curve on the letter to make it easier to match and sew.  But how do you mark a line on two layers of fabric?

The answer is to use a dull edge to firmly press the line.  Many different tools will accomplish this, such as a rotary marker (like a rotary cutter with a smooth non-cutting edge), the back of a knife, a knitting needle, the pointed end of a pen or paintbrush, or a plastic hera tool.

Whatever tool you choose, test it out on two layers of fabric and various working surfaces to see how hard to press and how well the line shows up.  Remember, it only has to last for a few minutes as you work.  A good light helps you see the mark.

It's always easier when piecing concentric curves to start at the "center" and proceed outward, so that means the first seam will be the one on the right.  Do one seam at a time and press it before you proceed to the next one. 

Use your tool to trace the right-hand curve of the C from the paper to both layers of fabric.  Make several crosshatch marks to help match the curves when you pin and sew.

You've already cut the seam allowance on the letter, so lift it off.  Cut the seam allowance on the background fabric.  Again, no need to be obsessive, just eyeball about a quarter inch.  If you must, err toward a narrower seam allowance rather than a wider one.

Pin the two pieces together at the hash marks, hold the letter on top and stitch slowly to join the two pieces.  (When you join curves, it helps to label them in your mind as "hill" and "valley."  For this seam, the background is the hill and the letter is the valley.  You should always try to stitch curved pieces together with the valley on top of the hill.  It's a lousy mnemonic, but a good sewing practice.  If you can come up with a better mnemonic, go for it -- and let me know so I can change my teaching vocabulary.)

Press the seam toward the valley.  Place the newly sewn segment  on top of the other side of the background fabric, making sure that you have enough underlap for the seam allowance.  Put the template back on top of the letter, matching up the right edge with your new seam.  I like to mark the top with pins on both sides so the left-hand piece of background fabric doesn't get turned upside-down -- a particular concern with woven plaids like this one, where there's no clear right side of the fabric.

Again, use your dull-edge tool to trace the stitching line through both layers of fabric, lift the template and make hash marks across the seam.

Cut your seam allowance.

As you did before, press the seam toward the valley.

P.S.  I used the same method to piece the S on Isaac's quilt, but the curve is much trickier to sew when it changes direction halfway through.  I had to do some ripping and restitching to make it lie flat, and also had to change direction as I pressed.  After I had struggled for a while it occurred to me that I could probably have hand-sewn the seam a lot quicker, but I soldiered through.  It looks pretty messy from the back, but fortunately nobody will ever see that again.  I don't like piecing curves that change direction, especially with only a two-inch radius, but I do love Isaac enough to grit my teeth and do it just this once.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Tutorial: diagonal rail fence

Here's how to make diagonal rail fence blocks, like those in Isaac's quilt that I showed you last week, with zero waste.  I think this method is especially nice for plaids, but if you don't have a lot of plaid in your stash, try out other fabric palettes.  Basically you stack up a pile of blocks, cut through them all in one diagonal line, then switch the order so when you sew them together you get two-tone blocks.  Like this:

Make a diagonal cut through the whole stack.  Take the top piece from one of the piles and put it on the bottom.  Now sew the pairs together in their new order.

You get three new blocks, all different.

Depending on how close to the top edge you made your first cut, and how skinny you want your rails to be, you may have room for as many as three or four more cuts.  Or you may want to quit after one more cut, giving you three rails in the block.

You always do just one cut at a time, swap the pieces and sew the new pairs back together.  That way you can't lose your place or sew the wrong pieces together.

After you cut, always make sure you take the top piece from one of the piles and put it on the bottom so the new pairs will join different fabrics.

This is the basic recipe for making three blocks.  If you want four blocks, start with four pieces of fabric.  Five pieces of fabric will give you five blocks.  This rule holds true no matter how many cuts you make in the blocks.

If you want nine blocks in your quilt, you can make three sets of three, or a set of four plus a set of five.  You can even rearrange the piles in midstream.  For instance, make one cut in a set of four blocks, and one cut in a set of five blocks.  Sew them back together.  Now take two blocks from one set and swap them out for two blocks from the other set.  Stack the blocks and proceed with your next cut.  If you like math puzzles, you can write algorithms for complicated mix-and-match procedures that will give you many no-two-alike blocks.

Three pieces of advice:
1.  Never ever switch the direction of the diagonal cuts in the same block.  If you make some cuts slope up and others slope down, the blocks will look really crappy.  Ask me how I know.

2.  If you use woven plaids, like those in the two quilts I showed you, there's no obvious right or wrong side of the fabric.  So it's very easy to lose track of which side should be up.  That results in a block where the seam slopes up instead of down, or if you're really not paying attention, a block where some of the seams face up and others face down.  Ask me how I know.  I suggest you put a pin in the right side, or use any other method that helps you keep track of which way is up.

3.  If you want to make the up-and-down mountain effect of the three quilts I showed you last week, you will need to make half of the blocks slope up and the other half slope down.  I strongly suggest you make all the ups first and get them on the design wall.  Then make all of the downs.  Make sure you use some of the same fabrics in each set, otherwise it will probably look weird to have all the up blocks predominantly blue or the brightest fabric show up only in the down blocks.  If this sounds too complicated, then forget about the mountain effect and just have all your blocks slope in the same direction.  The quilt will look just as nice.

Important:  Each time you make a new cut, the seam eats up a half inch of height.  So if you're planning to make blocks with just two rails (one seam), add a half inch to the blocks you cut in the first place.  If you want seven-inch blocks, cut 7 inches wide and 7 1/2 inches tall.  Or better yet, cut 7 1/4 inches wide and 7 3/4 inches tall just to give yourself some wiggle room in case the seams run a little bit wide.  You can cut the block down to size after it's all sewed and pressed.

Cutting dimensions
- always add 1/4 inch width to trimmed block dimension
- always add 1/4 inch height PLUS:
   - for one seam (two rails) -- add 1/2 inch height
   - for two seams (three rails) -- add 1 inch height
   - for three seams (four rails) -- add 1 1/2 inch height
   - for four seams (five rails) -- add 2 inches height

Happy sewing!  Let me know how it works out for you.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Baby quilts 2

Having whipped out a baby quilt for Vivian last week, I realized that I probably ought to make one for Isaac too.  We met Isaac when he was three, and have considered him our grandchild for a long time, but I never got around to making him a baby quilt -- and now he's nine and a half!  Yet there is no statute of limitations on a baby quilt in my book.

The first step was to survey my stash and see what kind of fabric was available.  A couple of years ago I went on a divestiture spree and gave away several cubic yards of commercial print fabrics that I thought I would never use.  But rooting around in drawers and boxes turned up a pile of woven plaids and I got the idea to replicate a quilt made some time ago for my rail fence book.

But this time, since it's meant for a boy, I dispensed with almost all the pinks and ended up with a much darker palette (even though it looks pretty bright in the photo).  Here it is on the design wall, waiting for the blocks to be sewed together.

This pattern of up-and-down diagonals, which I think of as mountains, is an old favorite.  I first used this approach in a workshop with Margaret Miller in 1996 when she was developing a "recipe" for quilt blocks that she subsequently called "Easy Pieces."  Workshop participants were invited to send photos of quilts made with this approach, and mine was selected to be professionally photographed and put in her book.  I realize that I don't have a good image of the quilt, so here's a scan from the book.

I loved this approach, and made several quilts with it, but Margaret's construction method left lots and lots of fabric on the cutting room floor, as you can tell from this diagram from the book:

So when I revisited it many years later, I came up with a method of making blocks with random diagonals that left absolutely no waste.  That's the method I used for the pink quilt at the top of the post, and for Isaac's quilt.

In case you're in the mood for some easy sewing that looks really complicated, I'll give you a quick tutorial on this diagonal rail fence block in the next post.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Baby quilts 1

After months of productive serious artmaking, it was time for some mindless sewing, putting blocks together and quilting them up.  I've had this quilt top partially made, pinned up on the design wall for months and months; can't remember why it stalled, but then it got pinned over with other things.  I think it got started when I was still making rail fence quilts for my book (a long time ago).  But I hauled it out last week, decided it should go to Vivian, and finished it up.

I've labeled and headlined this as a baby quilt, even though the child is now three years old.  In my mind a baby quilt is first, small; second, meant specifically for a small person; third, meant to be washable, draggable in the dirt, sittable on the floor, usable for all purposes without parental permission or disapproval; and fourth, personalized if at all possible.

Strangely, I never made baby quilts for my own children, even though I did for almost all the other babies I've ever known, but I have always been fond of that size for myself.  I have three small quilts that hang around in our living room and bedroom, perfect in size for just a touch of warmth in a cool room.  Lately Vivian has been drawn to these quilts, carrying them around, carefully spreading them out on the floor to lie on, wrapping "presents" in them, and covering her animals and dolls when they need to go to sleep.

I think she'll be visiting next week, and it will be fun to give her this quilt to take home with her for her very own.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Designer DIY -- MIA

It's Thursday, so I went straight to the Styles section of the New York Times this morning to find the new Designer D.I.Y. article and -- it wasn't there!

Maybe Vanessa Friedman, the Times fashion editor, read the message I posted on Sunday to the "reader feedback" site and was so mortified that she instantly pulled the plug on the series.  Or maybe they ran out of designers willing to spend 15 minutes cooking up a lame craft project in return for some free publicity.

Either way, our loss of silliness to make fun of is the world's gain.