Try and Try Again

When I make a quilt, sometimes I can envision just what to do. HA! Sure. Sometimes. But probably as often, I run through several scenarios before deciding I’m done with a segment.

That might work with any or all of these steps:
1) Think about different possibilities. Consider colors, shapes, scale…
2) Try ideas in EQ7.
3) Sketch out ideas on paper.
4) Audition fabric.
5) Cut and stitch fabrics.
6) Assemble.
7) Disassemble.
8) Try again.

I’m teaching my Medallion Improv! class again. My students are each making a quilt, which they design for themselves. I am making two quilts of very different natures, in order to demonstrate thinking about a greater variety of puzzles. The more traditional quilt is going together pretty easily. But the non-traditional one is a bigger mystery.

The tentative title for this one is “I Found the Housework Fairy But She’s Not Coming Back.” :)


Here are the steps I’ve taken so far:

1) The center block uses a piece of fabric from Alexander Henry. Once I cut it to size, I knew the fairy would get a little lost in the center, with all the busyness. I wanted to frame her better and reduce the clutter of the scene. I added the curved strips, which helped. She’s still not quite as obvious as I’d like, but it’s better. And the insets add a little texture, so it isn’t “just” a piece of fabric now.

2) The first border actually did what I wanted. The turquoise top and bottom helps direct attention to her because of the aqua in her hair. The mitered corners point at her, centered in the block. The overall simplicity helps offset the busy center.

3) Last week in class I showed the students that much, as well as a bunch of fabrics I considered for the second border. Phyllis exclaimed about one that is very pale. I thought it was too pale, but when I got it home, that was the only thing I liked.

3a) I made 5 test blocks of the very pale and a light aqua. They have curved piecing, which I thought would contribute to the organic nature of the piece. I did not like them.

3b) I thought a lot about what else to try. I didn’t want to just put a slab of the very light fabric next. Then I thought about what my sister Cathie would do. She has a little more intuitive approach to her medallions, and I figured if I could mimic her, I might get it right. (Hilarious, huh? A calculated attempt to do something spontaneous…) Irony aside, I decided to put squares on point, but make them smaller than the width allowed. That meant more squares and a little more delicate feel. But I needed to figure out how to fill the width. I chose having a darker color outside and extra of the very light color next to the center. Also because all the squares and their setting pieces are on the bias, a strip of lavender on the outside edge stabilizes it and gives it a more defined finish. This muchI like. The next challenge was figuring corner blocks.

3c) Corner block attempt 1: built 4 corners and attached 2 of them, and attached that border. It didn’t work.

3d) Corner block attempt 2: disassembled all corners, modified them which included cutting new pieces and rebuilding. It didn’t work.

3e) Corner block attempt 3: disassembled all 4 corners, cut new pieces and made new corner blocks. It didn’t work.

3f) Hurray! It pays to go through stash one more time. The first 3 attempts were for pieced blocks. I thought an unpieced corner would be too obtrusive. But the batik print I used is blotchy enough that it doesn’t call attention to itself. It also brings out some of the yellow from the center, giving me the opportunity to use it again in the next border.

Okay, so the score card on that is 1 major change to the center, 1 major change to the second border, and 3 major changes to the second border’s corner blocks. Five big changes in the first three segments (center plus two borders.) THIS is typical, and it’s all okay. Each time I tried, I failed better. This is part of the experimenting, trying something, learning from it, and trying something different.

I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Thomas A. Edison



Power Builders 04.17.15

This is Week #11 of my Power Builders creative links. If you’d like to see last week’s, you can find it here.

I call this series “Power Builders” because that’s what these little items do for me. They make me more powerful in my art and in my life. I hope they do the same for you. Some of the links will be about how other creative people use their time, structure their work, find inspiration. Some may be videos, music, or podcasts to inspire you. Some of it will be directly quilt-related but much of it will not. What you see in Power Builders will depend on what I find. Feel free to link great things in comments, too.

When you are stuck in your art, do you ask “can I do this hard thing?” Or do you ask, “HOW can I do this hard thing? Here are a couple of items on the HOW of art.

1) I can’t help but put this first. John Bramblitt is a painter. As a younger man he lost his sight to epilepsy. As he puts it, his eyes work fine, but his vision processing center does not. After adjusting to his new world, he asked “how?” That simple question led to amazing art. Please watch this video, and check his site linked with his name. There are more videos under the site link for them.

2) Here’s a wonderful story through Huffington Post on an exhibition in San Francisco. The artists collaborated in pairs at Creativity Explored, a “nonprofit art center and gallery where artists with developmental disabilities create, exhibit and sell art.” The art, processes, and friendships developed are worth your attention.

3) A term used in the item linked above is “outsider art.” This refers to art created by those who are self-taught and working outside of the “artistic establishment.” Another who fits this description is quilter Diane Rose. She has made more than 900 quilts, all while totally blind. Enjoy this interview with her.

4) Think you’re having trouble with “how?” I stumbled on this post on breaking creative blocks with a beginner’s mind. With some description of how we learn and problem-solve, the essay continues with some suggestions for rethinking the problem, including “approaching tasks with an attitude of openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions, even if you’re already an ‘expert’ at it. It’s the ultimate way to give yourself a fresh perspective.” I especially like the tip on practicing at being a beginner: “Action: Think like a beginner and act deliberately: try, fail/succeed, and then try again. Ultimately you’ll discover things you might have missed originally.” For me, using this approach purposefully has allowed me a greater range of solutions for any given problem.

What has inspired you this week? Let us know in comments.

How I Design Medallion Quilts

For the last couple of years, most of the quilts I’ve made are medallion quilts. I’d guess I’ve made more medallions, or at least written more about them, than almost anyone else. There are no other blogs I’ve found focused on them. There is a pretty small number of books out there about medallions, and I think I either own or have considered owning all of those books. I’ve studied them carefully, as well as a few great books on borders. I’ve studied design of quilts, as well.

The fact that there is little written material on medallions has actually helped me learn about them. Rather than simply following directions from someone else, I’ve had to think deeply about how to solve puzzles as they’ve arisen. And writing here about those solutions has helped me to understand them more completely and find new ways to incorporate them in my work. Medallions’ design strategies and construction techniques sometimes differ a fair amount from block-format quilts. They can be challenging quilts, but they’re never boring to make.

However, the lack of information out there leads quilters to think medallions are hard, too hard, something to put on the list for later. Or if they do make a medallion, it should be from someone else’s pattern. If you want a “traditional” medallion, you find a “traditional” pattern. If you want a “modern” medallion, you find a “modern” pattern. (The labels are in quotation marks because I think the labels are ridiculous. I could go on, but will save it for another time.) After all, with a pattern you have a pretty good idea of what the outcome will be. You don’t need to trust your own powers of design. If you don’t want to, you don’t even need to pick your own fabrics.

But for some of us, there is little satisfaction in a paint-by-numbers quilt, and tremendous pride in one we create ourselves. For those quilters who want to, you CAN design your own medallion quilt, even if you haven’t designed many (or any) quilts before. EVERY quilter who wants to can design their own medallion.

How? By being mindful.

“Mindful” is kind of a buzzword these days. At a minimum, being mindful means paying attention more thoroughly to what we’re doing right now. When we multi-task, or listen while our minds are on something else, or bog down our brains in what-ifs or should-haves, we aren’t really paying attention to the present. One researcher and author, Ellen J. Langer, discusses being mindful as being the opposite of mindless. Mindlessness is doing things on automatic pilot, or doing things just because we’re “supposed to,” without considering who made those rules or why. Mindlessness also includes concern for evaluation by others, or comparison with others, to determine how “good” we are at something.

These are part of how I understand mindfulness. I would also include being open. When I am open, I am willing to accept not just what’s going on right now, but also the possibilities that now offers. The whole range, as broadly as they could happen. That includes things that might have a “bad” outcome as well as those that might have a “good” outcome. I don’t need to imagine all those things, I just need to accept the possibilities, without prejudging.

Many (many) years ago I worked at Continental Bank in Chicago. I was a software programmer and analyst, a good fit for someone who likes to solve puzzles. But sometimes I’d get frustrated that the projects I worked on weren’t well defined. I could come up with solutions, if only other people would stop changing the questions. My boss, Wendell Meyer, was a kind and wise man. He spoke quietly and thoughtfully. Besides his demeanor, the thing I remember most about Wendell is a suggestion he offered when I expressed my frustration: “Think of it as a challenge and an opportunity.” In other words, reserve your judgment and face the work with a positive attitude. You might be surprised at the outcome.

That sounds surprisingly like what many quilters laugh about: the design “opportunities” that arise from mistakes we make, unexpected effects of color or contrast, or running out of a fabric. When we view our quilting as full of challenges and opportunities, we are being mindful of the possibilities.

My word for the year (and for last year) is “EXPERIMENT!” To me this means not just trying things, but trying them without expectation of how they’ll turn out. When I have expectations of specific outcomes, and things turn out differently from that, I could be disappointed. I’d rather just be surprised.

How does this work in my designs? When I make medallions, I design as I go. That means that each segment of the quilt is a brand-new experience when I get to it. It can be any color, any size, built of any shapes I want. I’ll only know what I want by trying things. Even if I envision a particular block for a border — even if I’ve already built all those blocks and attached that border — I know it might not work right. And while that can set me back momentarily, it doesn’t crush my spirit. Because there is always something out there that will work. I just need to find it.

Here is an example. One of my current projects is for the class I’m teaching. For the sake of the class, I’ve assigned certain sizes for the center block and borders. (Normally I don’t set such restrictions on my work.) The center block is 15″. I began with an economy block (square-in-a-square) that finished at 7″. To take it to 15″ I had to frame it or otherwise amend it. There are infinite possibilities in how to frame it, but I began with the colors I wanted to use — dark reds, black, greens, and golds, inspired by a piece of black paisley.

I like stars for center blocks because the points create outward lines, immediately strengthening the center’s position as a focal point. If I added variable star points to the economy block, I would double the size, from 7″ to 14″. That’s still not 15″. So the decision to make then was to use a variable star format or something else, and if I used it, how to adjust the size.

15" block for class

15″ block for class

Believe me, I could go on explaining each and every decision I’ve made so far in this project, and why I’ve made them. But both you and I would get bored!

When I design medallion quilts I am mindful. When I am mindful I:

  • look at each decision point as having many possible solutions, none of them inherently bad or good.
  • know that there are no rules I must follow, only guidelines.
  • trust the process, which often includes backtracking.
  • remember that skills in design, execution, and mindfulness are built over time, not conferred with a wave of the skills fairy’s wand.
  • don’t compare my work or my abilities with other people’s, except to learn and be inspired.
  • share generously with others, rather than guarding my knowledge jealously.
  • know that when I am mindful, I am powerful.

I’ve written about power before without using the label “mindfulness” with it. But my power arises from understanding I have choices in what I do with my quilts, how I pay attention to my husband, or how I react to a nasty comment from someone in Facebook. I strengthen that power when I make skillful choices, and I can only improve at those skills with practice, as for anything else.

If you’ve read through this long post, thank you for sticking with me. If you have any questions about how I design from an operational standpoint, or about how I see mindfulness in my life or quilting, or pretty much anything else, you are always welcome to ask.

Garden Party

Also finished on March 31 is Garden Party. Yes, that’s right, folks! I finished both quilts the same day!

Garden Party. 62" x 68". Center panel by Julie Paschkis for In the Beginning Fabrics. Finished March 2015. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Garden Party. 62″ x 68″. Center panel by Julie Paschkis for In the Beginning Fabrics. Finished March 2015. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

This goes on my list of favorite quilts of all time. Unfortunately this quilt does not belong to me. As I started it, it told me, “I’m for ___.” I said, “No, I have something else planned for ___.” But it was insistent. So ___ will get it, but we’re going to hold onto it for a while.

What makes this one of my favorites? I love the center panel. This whimsical view into the garden is like looking out (my fantasy of) my back window. Squirrels and birds abound. The colors and values range from palest green to black. The reds run from pinky to orangey. The tree trunk, flowers, and birds provide a variety of golds and tans. Greens and blues complete the palette. With both color and value, I could have gone nearly any direction on this.

The first thing I did was use the red line to stabilize and square the panel. The sawtooth border of half-square triangles sprays leaves beyond, continuing the organic feeling. The variable stars are quilted with 8-petaled flowers to reinforce the garden theme.

I started playing with the garden maze lattice blocks early in the year. See posts here and here and here. The last of those three posts shows how I made the blocks for this quilt. Originally I planned to fill the lattice with black, but it was apparent that it would be too stark. A floral would be better for value and “light,” and would give a stronger garden effect. I had a floral on black and considered using it. Before doing so, I happened to look at the Hancock’s of Paducah site and found a Julie Paschkis floral from the same line. And BONUS! It was $4.99/yard. I bought it and backing fabric at the same time.

When it arrived I knew the scale was too small, and ultimately I used it in the final border. The fabric I already had provided light and color. The fanciful feel went well with the rest.

Building the lattice crossover blocks was simple but required some coordination. There are sixteen crossover blocks including the corners, and with that there are six different kinds. So I had to plot it out and keep track carefully.

Here again, my quilt top surprised me. I thought it would be done after the lattice (garden maze) border. But it clearly needed something else to finish it. Again I thought I would use black to outline that, but black was too harsh and too dark. After the relatively dark lattice border, I needed to brighten it. Jim helped me narrow down the options and we agreed the golden tan worked best. Finally I used that piece I bought from Hancock’s for the last edge.

This quilt was an adventure from start to finish. I actually started it more than a year and a half ago. It was … unworkable. In February took it apart and began again. That is the MOST important point: I BEGAN AGAIN. Why is that important? Because my critique of its progress was not tied up with my ego. It did not hurt my feelings to acknowledge that it needed a do-over. By returning with a beginner’s mind, I found a new way forward. THIS is where your power lies, in finding a way forward, without expecting a particular outcome.

I love everything about this quilt. The garden theme carries through the entire work. The pieced borders use different sizes and shapes, and color emphasis, but all relate to that theme. The background of the stars border brings a lot of light to something that could have become too dark.

I’ll be sad to ship this off to the owners, and eager to get their reaction to the surprise. Fortunately, I don’t need to do that until after July, when I’m showing several quilts at a local gallery. :)

Stained Glass Too

I am very blessed — I have few real deadlines or obligations in my life. (Taxes? Done! Death? Not in a hurry!) But when I’m nearing the end of a project, and nearing the end of a month, I end up telling myself I should finish that project by the end of the month.

I LOVE finishing things, because then I can start new things. And with a new class to teach this month, it was great to clear the decks at the end of March. In doing so, I finished Stained Glass Too and Garden Party.

Stained Glass Too. 66" x 70". Finished March 2015.

Stained Glass Too. 66″ x 70″. Finished March 2015. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

I’ve shown you progress on this quilt as I made it, and I showed you the finished top before quilting.

The quilting I chose (which you probably can’t see in the photo above) was simple meandering. The primary reason was because I wanted the effect of ripply antique stained glass, and/or the notion of the colors being wavy and washed like watercolors. As simple as the quilting was, it did what I wanted.

I love the colors and fabrics in this quilt, almost without exception. It was fun to make a quilt all tending toward warm. Even the “cool” colors were greens, turquoises, and purples, so all had warm hues mixed in. The quilt became a little bigger than I’d originally planned. I thought it would stop after the broader green border toward the outside edge, but when it got that far I wanted it a little airier, so added the narrower strip borders and the final pieced border of beads.

Besides lightening the total effect, that last pieced border also repeated the triangle-in-a-square units used near the center. At the same time, because the long beads are of two colors, it echoes the notion created in the hourglass border, where two colors come together separated by a spacer.

In critiquing farther, I haven’t decided how I feel about the low-volume effect. In a relative sense, the dark turquoises and that olive in the strip borders show up as dark, but they are more dark-mediums. I’m kind of a high-contrast gal, so it’s a narrower range than I am used to.

I also don’t love the fabric used for those spacers in the hourglass border. Spacers were required because the quilt is oblong. The block size that would fit “correctly” on the vertical didn’t fit on the horizontal. The color comes off as murky as compared to all the clear pastels. But it is the same fabric as in some of the center’s hourglass blocks, which were leftovers from another project. Repeating that fabric helps tie the center to the rest of the quilt.

This quilt is going to stay with Jim and me, as it has not claimed another owner. The bright, cheery colors suit our living room and we’ll enjoy using it.

Power Builders 04.10.15

This is Week #10 of my Power Builders creative links. If you’d like to see last week’s, you can find it here.

I call this series “Power Builders” because that’s what these little items do for me. They make me more powerful in my art and in my life. I hope they do the same for you. Some of the links will be about how other creative people use their time, structure their work, find inspiration. Some may be videos, music, or podcasts to inspire you. Some of it will be directly quilt-related but much of it will not. What you see in Power Builders will depend on what I find. Feel free to link great things in comments, too.

Few things are more inspiring than seeing the creativity of others. Today’s post will highlight a few museums to inspire you. 

1) From Craftsy, a list of quilt museums across the U.S. I’ve had the privilege of visiting a few, including the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, NE. “The center houses the world’s largest publicly held quilt collection. The more than 4,500 quilts and related ephemera date from the early 1700s to the present and represent more than 25 countries.” Kalona, IA’s Quilt & Textile Museum is a stone’s throw away from me. And I recently enjoyed a visit to the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, KY. From the site, “The Museum’s vibrant and breathtaking exhibits are rotated 8-10 times per year. The primary gallery, with over 7,000 square feet of exhibit space, features quilts from the Museum’s collection which includes over 320 works of art. The Museum’s additional galleries feature touring and thematic exhibits of unique and diverse works of art.”

The Craftsy post includes links for museum and exhibits in other parts of the country, as well.

2) We’re all familiar with names of huge museums in big cities. Have you ever wondered about smaller gems? Your local university may have one. lists the “50 most amazing college museums.” The University of Iowa is on that list, partly for the world-class African art collection. (Unfortunately, we still don’t have our art housed in town, because the 2008 flood destroyed the museum. All the art escaped safely.) Other worthy museums include those highlighting arts of various periods and origins, geology and natural history, design, archealogy and anthropology, among other subjects. Check the list, check your local colleges and universities. You may be surprised at the wonders you’ll find!


Rusty, the giant sloth in the University of Iowa’s Natural History Museum.

3) From Icarus to Space X, we continue to be fascinated by flight. The age of air and space travel has spawned an enormous amount of art of all kinds. See what some of the fuss is about at museums devoted to the history of flight. The big one, of course, is the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. But don’t limit yourself to it. Across the country you can find other venues, including the Tillamook Air Museum in Oregon, the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, NE, and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, in Dover, OH.

4) Quilting is often considered a folk art, but there are other arts in that category. Woodworking, ceramics, metals, textiles, all display the ingenuity of humans to design and create the useful arts. Wikipedia provides a list of 31 folk art museums, including some near you. All entries on the wiki page link to other wiki pages. Dig a little deeper (google them yourself) to find out more.

What has inspired you this week? Let us know in comments.

Self-Critique is Part of the Process

“You’re too hard on yourself.”

“Quilters are famous for pointing out the flaws.”

I’ve heard both of these many times. I heard both these ideas yesterday in comments, when I posted about a recent finish. If you don’t think about it, they sound like the same thing, that pointing out flaws is the same as being hard on myself. That pointing out flaws is an unnecessary burden on my self-esteem, reinforcing bad thoughts about myself.

It’s not.

While it’s possible that quilters are famous for pointing out flaws, there can be more than one reason we do so. Perhaps it happens when someone is uncomfortable with praise, and seeks to minimize it (and herself) by criticizing her work. Perhaps it happens when someone is seeking praise, hoping that by pointing out problems, a chorus will arise denying it.

But for me, pointing out flaws is neither of those. For me, self-critique isn’t about you (or what you think of me or my quilts.) And it isn’t about me (and how good or not good of a person I am.) It’s about the work. It’s part of the process of working. It’s how I improve in what I do and how I think.

I’m not a perfectionist. My piecing is pretty good, generally, but there are too many variables that aren’t controllable to think I can “perfect” it. Starch has its place, but I won’t soak my fabrics in starch, as some people do, trying to deny fabric one of its most important characteristics: plasticity. The ability of fabric to stretch and ease is part of what makes it pleasing as a medium. Otherwise I might as well cut and paste paper into designs. And often, once a piece is quilted, small errors fade into the texture of the quilt, becoming nearly invisible. Even so, there will always be ways to improve my piecing, and I try to move in that direction.

Quilting, stitching those three layers together? I can do a serviceable job. But I have no expertise and probably never will.

My focus is on design. For me, piecing and quilting are always in service of the design. And to improve at designing, as at anything else, I need to practice. “Practice” is not simply doing something over and over. After all, doing the same wrong something over and over simply entrenches bad habits.

To practice with improvement, I need evaluation of my designs. And to evaluate them, I need to understand the characteristics that can lead to a pleasing composition.

We call those characteristics “design elements and principles.” In quilting, the elements are the tools of design, such as color, value, shape, pattern, and line. The tools are used to create the viewer’s experience, such as unity, movement, repetition, balance, and proportion. These are the principles.

As I learned more about the principles and elements, my designs became stronger. Coincidence? Perhaps. But along with learning about those factors, I also started to assess how successfully I’d applied them. What do I see? Why does it seem static, or too chaotic? The balance seems wrong; what happened, and how could it have been better? That color seems out of place; the value contrast could have been stronger here. Ooh, I really like the way this element echoes that one…

Self-critique, assessment, evaluation. Whatever you want to call it, describing — for myself — my design successes and failures, taught me to apply those design components.

When I point out the same positives and negatives of my designs to you, it is not so you will either confirm or deny my view. (Of course if you have opinions to share, I welcome them.) My hope is that what I’m learning will be of service to you, too.

My goal is not perfection. There will always be varying levels of success and failure within any quilt I make. My goal is to learn and to become more powerful in my art.

Self-critique is part of my work process, and part of my learning process. As I learn to see more clearly, I don’t learn to succeed. I learn to fail better.