December 28, 2009

And a little handquilting

This is a small quilt, 20x28--a nice size to hang on a door. You can click on the image to enlarge it for a better view of the quilting. Here's a detail of the colored rectangles; the thread is YLI silk 1000 denier.

This is one of a pair of small quilts, in which I was playing with magenta and its friends. Here's the other.

Construction of the orange-red tier of shelter is coming along quite well. Another couple of days of piecing and I should have enough strata for this section.

December 24, 2009

Genealogy of a Quilt-2

Back in this post I wrote about a quilt top pieced with rectangles that combined fabric from two ideas--thinking about a pine grove and about stones. Over the last few days I've pieced a back for that quilt. I incorporated the stone-blocks in the back, and decided to slice through the largest ones (that looked more like dinosaur eggs than stones). The photos above show details. Here's the full back:
I like it.

December 13, 2009

Turquoise scraps

This is a 4" coaster, made with scraps from the turquoise tier of "Shelter," along with some of the orange-red that will go in another tier. Tomorrow I'm going to start strip-piecing the orange-red fabrics.

December 6, 2009

Alternating easy and difficult

Writing my last post about ten days ago was very helpful to me. The realization that I didn't have to think about April as a deadline for finishing Shelter gave me permission to enjoy simpler piecing projects without feeling they were a distraction from the larger work. I started up a routine that has been very productive as well as satisfying. I would "warm up" by laying out and piecing together a few blocks of the "Spectrum" quilt, and then I would move over to Shelter. To help me focus on the more difficult work, but not get overwhelmed or discouraged, I decided to limit a stint on Shelter to the length of a CD--about 40 minutes. (I generally listen to instrumental only for work that takes mental concentration--quiet jazz or solo guitar.) Alternating back and forth (though generally not doing more than one or two stretches on Shelter in any one day) has had significant results. The finished Spectrum quilt above, quilted and washed. This is 36x36. I really enjoyed making this quilt, and I think I'll do this pattern again. Below you can see the quilting a little better, along with the back. (As always, you can click on the photo to see a larger image.) I would have liked to handquilt this one--the shot cotton is so soft that the machine quilting seems crude--but I wanted to get this one out to its young recipient.

With the Spectrum quilt done, I wanted to find something else really simple, to keep up the alternation. I've had the "Turning Twenty" pattern in my drawer for a long time, and decided to adapt it for a crib quilt. I down-sized it by 50%, and ended up with this little quilt, 36x44, made from small pieces in my stash. I like Spectrum better, but it was satisfying to use up fabric that I have on hand, and this pattern is adaptable for a wide range of fabrics.

OK, enough on the easy stuff. Here's what happened with Shelter. The next photo gives you a bit of an idea of how I lay out strata, and then have to cut away what's underneath before basting the pieces onto the stabilizer.

Once I get a section set, I baste it all together. I'm putting off the final applique until I'm sure of the composition. With it only basted, it is easy to add something in later.

Today I finished basting up the turquoise tier. I've pinned it up above the blue tier on the design wall, roughly turning under the edges to get a sense of how they'll look when they're pieced together. The piece is now about 60" wide. It will be taller once the black and then orange-red tiers are added.

(For a post that shows all four colors, and that explains the origin of this quilt, click here.)

November 24, 2009


In my work life, I often am working towards a deadline. On a day to day basis, it's the deadline of preparing for class, or getting graded work back to students. When I was doing scholarship, I would figure out deadlines that would help me get the work done. In the early stages of a project it would be finishing a paper to be delivered at a conference; further on it would be the book deadlines supplied by the publisher. I know how helpful it is to have a deadline to get work done. But when I stopped doing scholarship, and quilting took up that space in my life, I self-consciously eliminated the deadlines. For the bigger art pieces, the ones that are deeply personal, I wanted to just go at whatever pace developed, settling into the piece and the experience of putting it together. That's been a good thing. But now I have a self-imposed deadline approaching on "Shelter." I scheduled myself to give a talk in late April on my turn from scholarship to quilting, and I would like to have Shelter done in time for that talk. When I first committed myself to this date six months ago, it seemed so far away and so reasonable that it hardly counted as a deadline. But now it's getting closer, and I will need to pick up the pace to get it done. Partly this is good: this piece is very challenging, and I can use a little nudge. But I also don't want to feel rushed. I also don't want to feel guilty if I spend time working on smaller things--just piecing for the fun of putting colors and shapes together, or to work up some gifts. OK, I've just decided: If Shelter can be finished by April, that will be good, but if not, I can show it as a work in progress, and that will be OK too. I need the pressure off.

So I can enjoy little things like this, some sample blocks for the pattern "Spectrum" by Judy Taylor:

taken from her book, Successful Scrap Quilts (this quilt is on the cover). I don't have any baby quilts on hand for gifts, and suddenly there's a baby just arrived and another on the way. I think this pattern will work up nicely with the array of shot cottons that I have on hand.

I also just finished up some octagonal placemats for my sister--a good shape for a round table. The large black one with the pieced stripe is a centerpiece; the placemats themselves are each just one fabric. The placemats were useful for practicing my ever-rusty machine quilting.

And suddenly it's almost December and I haven't contributed a quilt all year to my guild's charity project (quilts for local social service agencies to distribute to foster children), so I worked this up quickly from a panel with numbers.
I used this quilt for some more free-motion quilting practice. I had fun with the "Dresden Daisy" design from the "365 Days of Free Motion Quilting blog," alternating it with squared off spirals in the number squares.

The "365 Days" blog by Leah Day has helpful video tutorials for all the designs.

So, I'll let my "Shelter" deadline help move me along, but will also enjoy keeping up with "Spectrum" and other small projects, letting myself be satisfied with however far I get on the larger work. . .

October 20, 2009

back to Shelter

Finally, a good stretch of time last weekend and the mental state needed to get back to work on Shelter. The photo above is one section of the turquoise tier, just basted for now, but I'm liking it.

The problem comes as I move across into bigger areas. There is going to be some "stubbiness." I think the piece about in the middle above that ends in a stub is OK, but that the piece that starts with a stub, below the top edge of the tier (like the light green piece) is not. This section further is pinned only, not basted, so no problem making changes. I might try changing the angle of the stub, but it will probably be better to have everything either start from the top edge, or be tucked under another piece. If you are able to follow this somewhat convoluted description and have any suggestions, I'd be glad to know them!

Another challenge is that this tier is so much larger than the dark blue tier that I can't use the same construction process. For the smaller one, I pinned the whole thing up on the design wall, and then moved it back and forth from table to wall to work and look, work and look. This is too big for that, so I am having to work on it just on the table, relying on a stepladder for getting some distance on it. I also am attaching the turquoise strips directly to stabilizer, which I didn't do for the blue piece (though I had the stabilizer cut, and basted the fully pieced blue tier to the stabilizer once it was done). So, more bricolage, figuring things out as I go along.

And in case you're curious about the big project at work that kept me so busy all summer and into the fall, you can see the end product here.

September 13, 2009

Slow progress on Shelter

I've been very busy with a large project at work for the last two months, which has made it difficult to get back to "Shelter." I am at the stage of building up the large turquoise section that will arc around the blue section. I started working with some strata that I had pieced back in February, but found that working with 42" strips on this larger section wasn't going to work--the pieces looked "straight" even with curved piecing. I finally figured out that I needed to work with shorter pieces and interlace them, as I'd done in a very early sample piece. So, I cut most of the existing strata and most of my fabric in half (scary! I left some uncut, just in case). I laid the strips out on a drying rack (photo above), and now in the shorter bits of time I have for quilting (given the big work project), I'm concentrating on creating more strata, rather than working on laying them out on the design wall--which takes more active mental work than I can muster right now. Here are some of the strata:

And here's a photo of some of the turquoise section, very roughly pinned up--enough done to show me that using the shorter strata is the way to go, but with a lot of pinning and re-pinning yet to be done to get this section working:

July 22, 2009

Genealogy of a Quilt

Not only did I need a break from the concentration of working on Shelter, I also needed something easier to balance the intense work I'm doing for my job this summer. So, I spent a week or so piecing this top, made up of rectangles of various sizes that I had cut for another project, since abandoned. It was just the right thing to be doing--playing with colors and placement, but not a lot of intricate planning or sewing needed. Here's the story of how I happened to have all these rectangles on hand. They have their origin in two different ideas.

This little maquette (12x12") dates back to 2005--my first attempt at abstraction. My intention was to evoke the feeling of a very quiet place at the summer camp that I attended as a child, the "Pine Grove." Away from the busy-ness and activities of camp life, this was a place further down the lake, a walk down the road, a place where you could sit along amongst the pine trees, hear the lapping of the water, and just be by yourself, quietly, for a while. I don't know that I'll ever make this into a quilt, but when I saw solid fabrics in related colors, I would buy a half-yard or so. A few years ago, I started thinking about working with images of stones, and my eye was caught by a pattern in Jean Van Bockel's book, Meadowbrook Quilts: 12 Projects Inspired by Nature. Her model used mottled fabric for the stones and various beige fabrics for the backgrounds. I started out trying everything in solids, including a wider range of colors for the backgrounds:

But I thought these looked like dinosaur eggs, rather than stones, so I bought a lot of quarter-yard pieces of fabric that had stone-type textures and tried out several blocks with those:

This was better, but I didn't like it enough to go on, and I eventually went in another direction with the idea for stones, painting my own fabric and working with other sorts of compositions. That left me with a large number of solid rectangles cut up--some from the "pine grove" fabric and some purchased to fill out a palette for the background to the stones. About a year ago I used some of the rectangles to make this hanging, about 28x40:

It hangs on the wall above my computer at work, and is a welcome restful spot for my eyes. Then a couple of weeks ago, I went back to the box full of rectangles, and I made the top at the beginning of this post--about 48x56 or so. Finally, I used up the last remaining rectangles making three place-mat sized pieces. I'll use these to test out possible quilting designs for the larger piece, and then have them for placemats afterwards:

And what about all the leftover "stone"-type fabric? Perhaps I'll use that for the back of the quilt, along with the abandoned blocks.

June 30, 2009


Having finished the blue section of "Shelter," I'm taking a break, and have made a half-dozen coasters, 4x4," piecing leftovers from the strip-pieced strata, and adding in an accent color. These make up quickly, especially if I sew just one line of stitching around the edge, rather than quilting lines inside the square. I didn't think to take a photo of version #1, where I had sewn a continuous row of navy blue stitching around the edge of the coaster. The blue stitching across the red/orange stripe was distracting. "But it's just a coaster," I told myself. But I also kept noticing the blue stitches interrupting the contrasting stripe. So, the next coasters I sewed a start-and-stop line, thinking I would leave the earlier ones as they were. In the end, I ripped out the stitches in the earlier ones, and re-did them. Better. At a retreat this winter, Bill Kerr of FunQuilts gave a talk about the importance of details--to carry out one's work into the smallest detail. The point seemed somewhat obvious, but in these past months I've felt the influence of the talk a number of times--pushing me to consider a detail that I was tempted to skip over. Now, these coasters are far from perfect; they tend to have dips or bulges on one side or another, not easy to control for. That I'll live with, but the element of contrast was too important to mess up. . . even for a coaster.
Here's another one. A quieter contrast--I like this one a lot. I just finished reading a collection of essays by the composer Roger Sessions, Questions about Music. (Not a usual subject of reading for me, but I'm participating in my public library's summer reading program, which challenges you to read a book in eight different categories over a period of six weeks; music is one of the categories.) The book includes two essays on composing; lots of analogies to the process of creating a work of art. For example, he talks about a composition being built on elements of association and contrast. I tend to be drawn to fabrics closely associated with each other, and have to push myself to bring in the element of contrast of value and hue.

June 13, 2009


I've spent this week going from pinned up sections of strip-pieced strata to sewing together the sections with needle-turn appliqué. As I have tried this and that in the somewhat complex process of construction of this piece, the term "bricolage" came to my mind. It's a term I learned long ago when reading Claude Levi-Strauss's book, The Savage Mind; it refers to the making of something through a kind of resourceful tinkering or fiddling around, making use of things that are at hand. When making a quilt that originates in an idea, rather than a pattern, it can be a puzzle as to how to physically get the fabric to do what one has imagined. Sometimes I feel like an engineer, figuring out a process of construction. But "bricoleur" (one who does bricolage) is closer to the role, as it is not a systematic, principled process, but one of trial and experimentation.

Next spring I'm scheduled to do a talk at the college where I teach, in a series dedicated to the research/creative work of the faculty. I'm planning to talk about my turn from research to art, and knowing that this is coming up in a year, I find that I'm starting to think about the talk. This is probably why I've been noticing comparisons of the artistic process to the research/writing process. I can't think of anything parallel to "bricolage" in my life as a writer. Nothing physical (except my love of the original historical documents--though they were not material that I were subject to my physical manipulation, other than careful handling), and very little that was experimental and spontaneous in the way that working on a quilt can be.

* * * * *

Below is a close-up that shows a line of applique joining strip-pieced sections. In working on this quilt I've been helped by two books that explain methods for doing layers of curved piecing, Vikki Pignatelli's Quilting by Improvisation and Karen Eckmeier's Layered Waves. These have both been very helpful to me, though I'm using hand-stitching to join the sections, rather than the machine stitching they use (Pignatelli using a blind-hem stitch and Eckmeier a top-stitch). Both books avoid using the word "applique," even though these are both methods of machine applique. It seems that many quilters are put off by the notion of applique, which is really too bad, because it makes possible virtually anything in joining fabric.

And here's a section that is all sewn up. By the way, the photo I put in my posting last week was way too dark, but my camera was on the blink and after that photo it gave up the ghost. These images taken with a borrowed camera are much better.

June 6, 2009

When is something done?

One week later, I think this is now ready to be sewn. (Click on image to enlarge.) After the version posted on 5/30, I fiddled for another hour or so, and then wrote to a friend, "Knowing there are limitless variations, it's sometimes hard to know when to stop. Sometimes I know 'This is IT,' but sometimes the feeling is more like 'yes, I could go on, but this version is good, so get on with it.' Right now, I feel more like the latter. I'll look at it again tomorrow and see what I think." Well, when I looked at it the next day, I knew it wasn't there yet. Every day this week I've spent time adding and changing pieces. As soon as one section was better, something would bother me in another section. When is it done? When I can sit peacefully in front of the work, with no one spot catching my eye, calling out to me for further attention.

As I've turned from writing and scholarship to quilting, I've often seen parallels in the two processes, but this issue of "done-ness" seems different. When doing research, I could tell I'd done enough when there started to be diminishing returns--when the more I read, the more I came up with things that confirmed what I'd already figured out. When writing, I would always go through multiple drafts, revising, revising, and more revising. But when writing a book--or even just an essay--one never sees the work all in one visual experience. It's easier--or more necessary?--to accept that one has to let the work out in the world without perfecting each minute detail. But maybe there's a parallel also. What would keep me from considering a chapter finished? If there was a place where I realized the argument wasn't clear--where the reader would have trouble getting from one paragraph to another, or one sentence to another. In a quilt or visual art one also needs movement through the piece, needs not to get caught in one place.

May 30, 2009

First section of "Shelter"

For the last couple of weeks, I've been back working on "Shelter," constructing the bottom left corner. (Click here for a sketch of the quilt and notes on how the layers are being constructed.) The photo shows a lot of strata pinned in place (28"high and 34" wide). The challenges I'm finding are: 1) working in variations in line, avoiding too many parallel lines; 2) judging the right quantity and placement of light-valued pieces (the largish shiny stripe in the upper right is not so bad in reality--it's satin that is catching the flash); 3) avoiding some pieces that sweep across the whole field. I thought I had fixed this last issue, but in adjusting something else, there it is again. A detail:

Suggestions welcome!

May 3, 2009

Success, on the second try

I set aside a large block of time yesterday for my first dye project at home. Good thing I had another large block of time today, to compensate for the large error I made yesterday. Here were the steps I took, with the goal of dyeing several pieces of fabric that I could cut up for use in "Stonescapes":

1) I dyed several pieces of fabric a pale gray with a full immersion method, with the intention of then doing a second low immersion dyeing to get various kinds of mottling with darker gray and brown. But when I washed out the dye, no color was left. As I reconstructed what I had done, I realized I'd made a catastrophic math error when mixing the dye, using way too much water (by a factor of 10). Since I was aiming for a pale color to begin with, this meant essentially no dye was used. Well, on to Plan B.

2) Not able to face up to another 1-1/2 hours of full immersion dyeing, I went on to the less time-consuming part: adding mottled color onto the still-white fabric, in low immersion. At the same time, I pulled a few of pieces of colored Kona cotton from my stash, two pieces gray and one tan, and did the same on them, after washing this non-pfd (prepared-for-dyeing) fabric with Synthrapol. (Sorry for the dye lingo--it's for the benefit of any dyers out there who may be reading.)

3) This morning I washed out and dried all 7 pieces of fabric. The bottom three in the photo above are the ones done on the commercial Kona. Done! The top four at this point were streaks and spots of brown and gray on white. So,
next I overdyed these pieces, three gray and one tan, using low immersion.

End results: This is all fabric that is definitely usable for my projects involving stones, and I think they'll yield larger pieces with interesting design than what I've been getting when I paint. And I'll triple check my math the next time. . .

April 25, 2009

More about dyeing fabric

Here's some more about the workshop with Carol Soderlund. The photo above is from a project where we chose a color from the sample book we had created, and then dyed a yard of fabric, low immersion, aiming for a solid look (whether mottled a lot or a little). Mine is the rusty red, 5th from the left. I really did get the chosen color, and I was aiming for some mottle. Success!

A central part of this workshop was the creation of a sample book, 343 hues from three different combinations of primaries, for a total of 1,029 swatches in the sample book. Here's just one page, with 49 one-inch square swatches.

Posted with permission; (c) Carol Soderlund

It is quite something to know that I can now make fabric with any of 1,029 colors--and how to vary them further if so desired. Getting a predictable variation of two or more colors across one piece of fabric will be more of a challenge than with the painting process I've been using the last several months, but dyeing gives me a larger range of color and value than I'm able to achieve with paint, and the ability to readily color larger pieces of fabric.

I highly recommend any workshop with Carol; she is a superb teacher!

April 15, 2009


I'm currently at a week-long workshop on "Color Mixing for Dyers" Part I by Carol Soderlund. The photo is a pile of scraps from the 1,000 different colors we dyed samples of in the first two days. It is quite an experience to be immersed in color to this extent. The workshop is being held at Nancy Crow's Timber Frame Barn.
Here's half of one batch, waiting to be loaded into the dryer. Each piece was kept separate to avoid bleeding from one piece to another.
And here's a pile out of the dryer. Each of these is a different color.

April 11, 2009

Hand work

Photo by Ken Exum for the Galesburg Register-Mail

Isn't this a lovely photo? That's me knitting during a recent forum for city council candidates; the photo was published in the local newspaper, with the caption "Multitasking." Appropriate caption, as I only knit while doing something else as well--mostly attending meetings of one sort or another. Here's a photo of the finished socks, my first pair:

I've been knitting since I was a child, but it never occurred to me to make socks. They've become a popular item in the current knitting revival, and there are such great sock yarns out now, that I thought I'd give it a try. This pair is made with just one yarn (Opal); it automatically makes these patterns as you knit. Very cool!

April 9, 2009


I've made up some small trial samples, to try different ways of finishing the edges of stone rectangles. (Each small rectangle piece is about 1.5 x 2".) The top is a pillowcase binding; middle is hand-sewn edging, half with hand-dyed thread from Laura Wasilowski, half a double strand of plain khaki (most visible on the bottom edge); the bottom is a 1/8" binding, which is straighter than it looks in this photo! Click on the photo to see close-ups. I'm inclining towards center or bottom versions. Any thoughts?

The quilting: I'm planning on hand-quilting, in the ditch. The bottom two are a little to the side of the ditch, because I ironed the seams open on these, not thinking about the quilting.

April 5, 2009


I recently spent four great days on a quilting retreat. I sewed many panels for the turquoise section of "Shelter." I also brought with me work in progress on "Stones." The image to the left is two small pieces, finished up as coasters (about 4"), done with hand-painted fabric for the stone shapes. I'm working on different sizes, compositions, shapes, seeing how pieces like this might work together into a quilt.

I had also, some months ago, tried doing something that focused on color alone, using small rectangles of Kona cotton, but it turned out very boring (about 10x13"):

While at the retreat, I thought of trying rectangles (forgetting I had done it before), but now using hand-painted fabric. Here are two versions. I'm quite happy with these. Each are 7 rows x 7 columns, but the pieces in the second are a little larger than in the first. First is 8.5x11", second 12x14". (Color difference due to night/day photos.)

This second piece was originally larger—9 rows by 10 columns:

But having more seems to take something away—the piece becomes more like a tile floor, and one's attention is drawn less to the beauty of the little rectangles, some of which are like little landscapes. (I think if you click on the images, you'll get a bigger version.)

Now on to figuring out the quilting (something very simple) and finishing technique (probably a pillowcase binding).

March 17, 2009

External Validation

The feeling of engagement in the process of quilting and the pleasure in (some of) the finished products are entirely sufficient motivations to keep me going in quilting. But it's nice to get external validation occasionally as well. My little "Waves" wall hanging recently brought in $250 at the Brockton Family & Community Services raffle. (Detail above, to show quilting.) And "Loss" has been accepted into the 2009 Sacred Threads show. (Mary Beth has had two quilts accepted into the show also.) I'm not inclined to enter juried shows, but the special nature of Sacred Threads made it a venue in which I could imagine sharing "Loss" with a larger audience.