These days, HGTV is focused on total house renovation, largely done by hired contractors, and selling fantasy homes. In the old days, many programs looked at the smaller scale of crafts and DIY home decor. Those old shows, and current ones like Craft in America on PBS, elevate making as a means of expression, and as a source of pleasure in transformation. As I watched those shows I remarked more than once about my wish to make beautiful things by my own efforts. But though I took a couple of drawing and painting classes, and occasionally bought craft supplies to try at home, I had no particular skill or talent for it.

Sometimes I’m still surprised at my journey into quilting. In my first experience fourteen years ago, I cut measured squares using a ruler, pencil, and scissors. I sewed them with seams as wide as the presser foot edge. The machine’s tension wouldn’t hold, leaving me repeatedly frustrated. Once my quilt top was assembled, I used tack stitching to hold the layers together. I pinched together wide bias binding, from a package, around the edge and top-stitched. It’s amazing that little quilt held together as long as it did.

The effort was not very satisfying, much less inspirational. I was not transformed into a quilter, but I enjoyed choosing fabrics to go together, and deciding how they would be arranged. Perhaps that’s what spurred my second quilt. It also was from squares, but I had a new sewing machine and basic tools of rotary cutter, a ruler, and mat. Having better tools allowed more pleasure from the process, as well as a better product.

The tools we use include more than the tangible ones like rulers and mats and machines. They also include the skills and talents we develop over time. I remember in the early days of my quilting having to think about each step as I made a small table runner for a friend. My goodness, it was hard!

Terri’s Variable Star Table Runner, about 8.5″ x 25.5″. From my early days, maybe 2006.

Of course, I didn’t use a pattern. I didn’t know patterns even existed. By that time I understood basic patch cutting with a quarter inch seam allowance, so I used the few books I owned for ideas, not recipes. (Eternal thanks to the small number of quilters online, who offered tips and tutorials even without patterns. Because of them, I learned how to quilt. Hallelujah and Amen.)

Besides the books, I started subscribing to American Patchwork & Quilting. Here, too, were patterns that I misunderstood as ideas and inspiration. Though I made a few quilts over the years based on the beautiful projects they showed, I always changed things, subbing a different block into the setting, or changing the size. The quilt below uses the “streak of lightning” setting I saw in an APQ project, though nothing else about it is the same.

Em’s Bed Quilt top (unquilted.) Streak of lightning setting. From about 2007. I don’t have a photo after it was quilted and bound.

Though I always designed my own quilts, it was many years before I thought of myself as a designer. In fact, that thought came to me about four years ago, at a specific moment, which I wrote about here.

While that recognition didn’t change what I do, it did help change how I do it. Seeing myself as a designer made me take design more seriously. Design is something that can be learned, and can be taught. I started studying design principles generally, but specifically related to quilts. I learned about unity, balance, proportion, and movement. I learned how design elements such as color, value, shape, and size contribute to the look of the quilt. And I began to evaluate more carefully what I see and what I make.

Evaluation allows me to identify both challenges and opportunities for meeting them. Currently I’m developing quilts for the class I’m teaching on medallion quilt design. Sometimes when I’m making a quilt, something about it strikes me wrong. Does that ever happen to you? 🙂 I got this far on one of my tops, and was dissatisfied. I knew the problems, but I wasn’t sure about the solution.

bear’s paw center block with borders

The first border of batik around the bear’s paw center block is cornered by fussy-cut flowers. I liked the effect at first, but as I surrounded it with more borders, it bothered me more and more. (Construction note: I used separate blocks, including half-square triangles, to form the borders that create the on-point look. The blocks allowed better precision of placement than I would get by creating large triangles to set on point.) The last border in the picture above is also batik, and it is cornered with more of the red used in the interior.

What didn’t I like? Those corner blocks. Though small, they have a lot of effect on the look. In the interior corners, the black print with red flowers bled into the surrounding fabrics. It wasn’t distinct enough from the batik, the black print, or even the red. On the outside corners, the red is simply too hot.

Another problem is that I’ve limited the number of colors I can use in later borders. There are various blues, greens, golds, and browns in the prints. However, the large sections of aqua, red, and butter yellow make introducing more colors awkward.

The simplest solution to both problems is to change the corner blocks. I looked for blue in my stash that would emphasize the blues in the batik. I had one small piece, about 10″ x 15″. (This isn’t unusual for my stash. I usually buy a yard at a time, but the way I use it, often in small amounts, ultimately leaves me with small amounts.) I cut squares to replace the eight corners and covered the ones already sewn in. Immediately I was happier. The blue transformed the piece, making it cooler and simpler, and allowing blue as another color for outer borders.

As I create my class projects, I explain to my students some of my process, using the jargon of design. Explanation clarifies for both them and me. And I ask for advice and help at decision points. They, also, present their work, and the group provides constructive input.

Over the series of classes, they become more confident in their choices. Some who have never designed their own quilts before are guided through the process, transforming themselves at the same time.

One could define “transformation” as the act or process of being changed. Some synonyms are change, alteration, and metamorphosis. A “metamorphosis” is the transformation into a completely different form, unrecognizable from the beginning. My metamorphosis over many years has taken me from someone with no apparent artistic skill, to one who can change pieces of fabric and thread into things of beauty and utility of my own design, and to one who can teach others to do the same. I like this form, and I look forward to what comes next.

26 thoughts on “Transformation

  1. snarkyquilter

    One of the tricky parts of any design process is knowing how far to push it. Sometimes a solution presents itself and seems to satisfice. But, it may be worthwhile to push harder and dig deeper for an even better solution. Your post is a “poster child” (forgive me) for just that point.

  2. Elizabeth E.

    I saw these two photos on IG, but saved my comment for her, where the form is long form, and I knew I’d get your thoughts on the process. I couldn’t believe how much the quilt changed with the swap-out for the blue blocks. I loved the before and after photos, and enjoyed reading about your experience. Sometimes we don’t often know what will make the difference but just start cutting and trying, holding up the blocks as we go. I hope that was the case for you, but I think you said you went right to the blue. Bravo! It’s wonderful, and it cuts the sameness of the early tonal pattern.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I wasn’t sure at first if I wanted to keep the flower corners, but I didn’t know how to replace them. Once i got as far as the outside corners, I knew they had to go, and with a “new” color. The blue stood out right away as a reasonable choice, so I’m glad it worked. Thanks much.

  3. KerryCan

    I saw the first version and thought it looked fab, and couldn’t understand why you wanted to change it . . . until I saw the change you made and it looked even better! On another note, I have found it interesting, getting back into quilting after a number of years way, how very many of the local quilters make quilts only from patterns and kits and have never designed anything themselves. I think they’re missing a lot of the fun!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      A lot of MY fun comes from the design process, and yours, too, I think. So I agree, there is fun to be had that they might be missing. 🙂 Thanks for looking at the quilt versions. It took quite a bit to unstitch those inner squares and attach new ones in their place.

  4. katechiconi

    I agree with Textile Ranger that the aqua colour ‘needs’ something. To me, the effect is a little as if we’re looking through a lattice at sky beyond, as the warm values of the red and batik fabrics are so much stronger. I do much prefer those blue cornerstones, and hope that one day I’ll be self critical enough to actually change stuff like that in my own work!

  5. TextileRanger

    I do like how the blue cornerstones bring out the blue in the outside border batik. BUT (and I am only saying this because in the past, you have given me ideas that have helped me see beyond my current design to a more original one, so ignore it to your heart’s content if you like) to me the large areas of sky blue are calling out for some sort of applique that would echo the tree and vine forms of the showcased fabric. But maybe you are planning some intriguing quilting designs for that area and that would look phenomenal too. Or maybe you are going to add more borders. I will stay tuned to find out! 🙂

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      🙂 Thank you for your thoughts on the sky blue/aqua. It does seem to ask for more, doesn’t it? The next border is heavily pieced, so I will wait until that is done to make any decision. However, quilting something special there might be just the ticket. Thanks.

      1. TextileRanger

        That is a good point — I was looking at it as if it were a finished quilt already. That blue may serve as a lovely resting spot for the eyes, perfect just as it is, between the intricate pieced areas. I look forward to seeing it!

  6. weddingdressblue

    Very thoughtful. I, too, have found that I am more a designer than a quilter, though not nearly on the same scale as you. It was always more about inspiration than a pattern. And, I agree that the blue cornerstones make the whole quilt “work” much better.

  7. tierneycreates

    I enjoyed reading a little about your quilting journey (and I loved how you opened with HGTV as that still remains one of my TV addiction through I swear I will stop wasting time watching it!)
    That is amazing you have already designed your own quilts. Wow. I had to do years of traditional patterns before I would have entertained the idea of designing my own quilt. (Of course now I only want to design my own quilt, through I am still attracted to patterns).

    I love the color and design of your bear paw medallion center!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Tierney. You could make a deal with yourself — only watch while you’re doing hand work, like binding or applique or hand quilting. OR your knitting!! 🙂 Then you can enjoy it without “wasting time.”


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