The Worst Book I Own

I reviewed the holdings in my personal quilt library this week. It’s always a treat to touch each book, flip pages, remember why I keep it. There was one I didn’t open, but merely re-shelved. If I numbered my 81 quilting books from 1 to 100 (yes, I meant that — just imagine a gap in numbering…) with 1 being best and 100 being worst, there is a qualifier for 100. Hands down, the worst quilt book I own is Hidden in Plain View.

In 1999, the stories of a woman named Ozella McDaniel Williams were published in the book Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. The book also includes a mesh of related research about African symbolism, escape routes, and information about the times.

Author Tobin met Williams in 1994. Williams was a South Carolina quilt vendor at a flea market mall. In 1997 during their second of three meetings, “Ozella,” as the book refers to her, told Tobin stories she claimed were passed down through her family. This oral history, if confirmed, would change our understanding of methods of communicating about the Underground Railroad and routes to freedom.

The book tells Williams’ tale of eleven quilt blocks in the code. The blocks were sewn into quilts, which would be displayed one at a time on fences or clothes lines. Because it was normal to air quilts regularly, showing the quilts this way wouldn’t arouse suspicion by owners or overseers.

Sounds intriguing, yes? Indeed it is, and intrigue led the book to bestseller status.

What about it is so bad? And if it’s so bad, why do I keep it?
As a piece of writing, it is badly done. Full of breathless suppositions and conjectures, the authors repeatedly ask questions rather than state conclusions. Facts and fiction are woven together to try to create a whole cloth. But there are holes throughout. Since the book was published, extensive research has shown many errors of fact. In addition, there is no supporting evidence of the premise. You can read a lengthy summary of the Underground Railroad quilt code stories, and evidence refuting them, here.

It’s not at all clear if the story, either as told by Williams or as reported by the authors, is intended to be a fraud. Any or all of them may have been conveying history as they actually understood it, rather than with intent to profit off fiction. Either way, between the poor writing and the poor scholarship, this is a book that had a much larger audience than it deserved.

I keep the book because we need to keep a record of myth as well as truth. Those who know the difference can show it most easily when they have both to draw from, including myths in their original form.

As I said in the linked post, “Truth is strength. We don’t need to pretty it up with cozy quilts and homey images. We owe it to those who suffered slavery, to ourselves and our children, and to the future, to know and tell the truth.”

Reviewing Books

Nope, this isn’t a book review. It’s just a few thoughts about my own quilting/textile library. You’ve seen the picture below of my one bookcase, shelf bowed by the weight. Each shelf has about 24″ of space, and it was full.

I have a rule, though. That’s IT. That’s as much space as my books get. As said before, I want to be in control of my stuff. I don’t want my stuff to control me. Since I add several books to my collection every year, to stay within the confines of that bookcase, some need to go away.

My book shelf was empty, having been moved to wash walls. When I put it back, I turned the bowed shelf over. As I put the books back last night and today, I reviewed them. I looked at each one, considering whether or not they were worth their shelf space. (Okay, I’m analytical, but in truth I didn’t think about it like that. I just thought about whether they were useful to me or not.) A surprising number were not.

For those left, I made sure one of my name/address stickers was placed inside the cover. And I updated my spreadsheet that I use to keep inventory. Each is recorded by title, author, publication date, and category of book. Why keep track? There are hundreds of dollars worth of books in that little case. If bad things happened and I needed to make an insurance claim, I want a record of them.

My history books. Best? American Quilts by Robert Shaw. Worst? Hidden in Plain View.

Eighty-one books made the cut. The largest portions of them are on quilt history and what I consider to be pattern books. I have nine books on quilt design. Eight books are on medallion quilts or borders. Two of those are not very good, but I keep them because there are so few books specifically on these topics.

My small quilt group is doing a used book exchange for our holiday meeting. I’ll save one or two of the discarded books for that. The rest will go to our local Mennonite relief thrift store.

What’s in your quilt book library? Do you sort it regularly like you might a clothes closet? Are there items that no longer fit or are no longer your style?

What do you do with books and other quilty items you no longer need? Do you pass them on to other quilters?



Around the World Blog Hop

A few days ago, WordPress notified me that I had posted my 200th blog post. I’d known it was coming and considered posting something “special” to celebrate, like I did for my 100th post. Just about the same time I was invited by Pati Fried to join the Around the World Blog Hop. Pati blogs at her own site as well as with See How We Sew. Since the two events are so close in time, I’ll use the blog hop to celebrate.

Have you had a chance to see some of the blog posts in this series? I love the idea because what we’re talking about is creative process — how do we think about and create art? In truth, it was harder to write this post than I expected. It forced me to think very hard about why I make the choices I do.

What am I working on?
I’m always creating something, sometimes something tangible and other times only in my head! I write here and at the blog Jim and I share, Our View From Iowa. And as you may be aware, I also create quilts.

Like most quilters, I usually have multiple projects in process. In the past couple of weeks I’ve made three simple quilts. Right now I’m working on binding them. I have a long-arm machine, which makes pretty quick work of most of my quilting projects once they’re to that stage.

Next up? I’ll head back to my beloved medallion quilts. I have a maple leaf center block in mind for the next one. After that, I’ll let inspiration guide me.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
To answer this, I had to consider how “genre” applies to quilts. We could consider incredibly broad categories, such as “quilt intended as art that one might hang on a wall” or “quilt used to cover or cuddle for warmth or comfort” or “quilt for a variety of other duties such as covering my toaster or holding all my junk when I go out.” Or we could split the world into “traditional” and “modern.” Or we could go to “pieced” or “appliqued” quilts. I think most of us would agree these are inexact categorizations, at best.

I make pieced quilts that would generally be considered traditional in style, and almost always intended for comfort or warmth. That’s not very different.

Aside from that, for the past year or so, I’ve been studying and making medallion quilts. Their proportions, value and color balance, and other design principles and elements are different from block format quilts. In addition, construction strategies are somewhat different. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one in blog-land who is actively studying them.

My designs do not attempt to imitate historical quilts. My quilts wouldn’t be considered “liberated” or “modern.” I don’t design to please someone else. Instead, I think my quilts are recognizably mine, and my work shows my artistic “voice.” That voice includes a lot of breathing room and a lot of movement, with less piecing than many historical or modern quilts. (Most of the “modern” medallions I’ve seen are very traditional in their styling, though they differ in colors or patterns.) The fabrics I choose cross styles, and are more important for their color, value, and pattern than their date of manufacture or designer. Frankly, fabric designer isn’t on my list of things to care about.

Why do I write/create what I do?
I create because there is power in the act of transformation. I transform ideas and words into complete thoughts, which may be meaningful to others. I transform ideas and fabrics, through shape and line and color, into quilts. I call it “power” while other people refer to it  as something as essential as breathing or eating. (I wrote more about why I quilt here.)

I create medallion quilts, specifically, because they require a different kind of problem solving than block quilts. Since every frame is unique, if only in size, they are more complex. That complexity engages me from the beginning to the end, and I enjoy the challenges they provide.

How does my writing/creating process work?
When I taught financial management, I taught a problem-solving process. It began with identifying the problem, determining what resources are available and what constraints are in place. The next task is to consider a variety of solutions and what they offer. Choose a solution and implement it. Then analyze the results for where it succeeded or failed.

To a great degree, the way I create follows the same type of process, and I call my process “Design As You Go.” I see it as problems to be solved by both sudden inspiration and deliberate calculation. The methodology is in place for the quilt as a whole, as well as the various parts of it.

For medallions, every border needs to enhance and support what’s come before it. For most quilts, I choose from stash to the extent I can. Sometimes that requires and spurs extra creativity. Even if I’ve decided what block or piecing to use in a border, that can change when I see what colors I have available. The surprises in one border lead to surprises in the next. It’s like opening a new gift each time.

UP NEXT in the Around the World Blog Hop
I’ve asked Joanna at The Snarky Quilter and Mary at Zippy Quilts to take the batons from here. They have very different styles. But both are very immersed in process, which is why I enjoy their blogs so much! Take a look at their blogs today, and be sure to stop back on November 3 to enjoy their blog hop reports.

State of the Stash, October 2014

A year ago I gave my annual State of the Stash report, a long-standing tradition in the  Stashbusters Yahoo group. The primary goal of the group is to encourage members to avoid unneeded fabric accumulation, and to use what they have. The stash report helps members be accountable for their progress toward their own goals. And it’s time to report again.

Usually my personal goals don’t include stash reduction, simply because I have a relatively small stash. However, over the past couple of years I’ve been transitioning my stash to brighter, happier colors. With that I’ve added some stash.

Most of my stash lives in the upper part of the armoire, sorted by color into plastic bins. A few pieces are in the lower right cupboard, including oddments like large pieces of light neutrals, a couple of over-sized pieces that might become backing, and a couple of themed sets of fabrics.

In the lower left of the armoire are other odd things, including some upholstery fabric and an old embroidery project.

I don’t keep track of how much I purchase or how much I use, as some Stashbusters do. But it will all fit in there, even with the additions from this year.

To see more, click here!

Not Twelve

Not Twelve, 48″ x 60″.

This is not twelve seams, as you can see. However, it is the same format as I used for the previous VA hospital quilt, and it measures 48″ x 60″, also. While I started with the same plan, the colors I chose would not play nicely together. The strip of half-square triangles down the middle highlights all of the colors and made it work.

Here is a close-up that shows the colors and patterns more clearly.

The VA’s patients are both male and female. I think this quilt would suit either a man or woman just as well.


In religion and mythology, in the stories we tell, in how we mark time and distance and measure progress, twelve is a magic number. Think of all the twelves…

Twelve Apostles
Twelve Sons of Norse
Twelve Sons of Jacob
Twelve Tribes of Israel
Twelve Knights of the Round Table
Twelve Dancing Princesses
Twelve Brothers
Twelve Angry Men
Twelve Years a Slave
Twelve Days of Christmas
Twelve Drummers Drumming
Twelve Months in the Year
Twelve Years in the Chinese Calendar Cycle
Twelve Hours in the Half-Day
Twelve Inches in a Foot
Twelve Steps

And so many more!

Here is a small project that uses twelve. There are twelve seams assembling this quilt top.

I’m making this quilt for our local VA hospital. My guild distributes about 200 quilts a year within the community, and many of them go to the VA. They have requested quilts that measure about 48″ x 60″ (both numbers evenly divisible by 12.) Your local VA hospital may have different needs. If you’re interested in making quilts for them, please check with them directly.

As you can see, the piecing is just strips. It took me longer to choose the beautiful fabrics than to sew it together.

The “center” of the quilt measures about 33″ x 45″. The borders add another 15″ in each direction. You can use any combination of strips, and it’s a great way to use some of those amazing fabrics you don’t want to cut up!

I’m planning to make at least a couple more. If you want to do this kind of a project, really get creative in your color combinations. The next one I have in process will use a brown, teal, and purple border and include a chartreuse and gold fall colors fabric for the interior strips. It sounds weird, admittedly. But I think it’s going to turn out really well.

Special thanks to Jim for taking the picture and putting up with me so well when I grumble! xoxoxo

Curved Piecing with Debbie Bowles

Last month I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Debbie Bowles. If you don’t know Debbie, I encourage you to take a long look at her website. Debbie has a unique way of using space in her quilt designs, breaking out of the mold of traditional blocks. In fact, Debbie was modern before modern was a thing!

The workshop was on curved piecing, and Debbie was a wonderful teacher. Her calm, pleasant manner helped us feel at ease. She was very efficient in her lessons, and kept track of us while we worked to answer all questions. She showed us various settings and blocks for the small lessons we did, letting us envision how we can incorporate curved piecing into our own work.

Here is a video that shows the basic process. Having a really sharp rotary cutter is important. You’ll notice Debbie doesn’t use pins. In fact, you don’t need them and using them simply slows things down. With all of her blocks, you trim to size after sewing.

Here are a couple of photos of blocks I made in her workshop.

Two blocks, each made with 4 fabrics.

Two more, each made with only 2 fabrics.

This technique isn’t only useful for blocks. I’m more likely to use it for borders than blocks. Also think of how fun quilt backs could be with curved piecing.

Do you ever used curved piecing for block quilts? For borders? Do you pin? Do you have any tips to share?