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.