Author Archives: Melanie McNeil

About Melanie McNeil

Quilter, Designer, Teacher, Writer

Still a Beginner

Yesterday I spent quite a bit of time writing a blog post that was bad — stupid, indulgent, unpublishable. No, not really all that, but sort of a waste of time, and not good enough to simply revise.

I was indulging myself a bit with how long I’ve been blogging, how many posts I’ve published, how many comments.. yada yada. Who cares, really? It was boring even to me. 🙂 But so you don’t think too poorly of me, I was trying to answer a question posed in one of my Facebook groups recently. One of the members asked bloggers, “How do you find the time or inspiration on what to post about?

The short answer to that question is, sometimes I don’t find the time. And sometimes I do. All kinds of things inspire my writing. I write about what I’m interested in. Sometimes that’s projects I’m working on, sometimes it’s design ideas or tutorials, sometimes it’s current events, sometimes it’s things that light my imagination, like a museum trip. Now and then I just whine about something quilting-related. 🙂 I always always have things to write about. The real issue for me is, if I’m spending my time writing, what am I not doing while keeping the blog up to date? It’s hard to allocate my time well.

I am not worried about growing my audience, because I write primarily for myself. No one is paying me to do this. But there are people out there, (hello, people!) and I enjoy sharing with others. I enjoy teaching and try to craft my posts carefully so they are useful in some way to readers. If I truly were just using it as a personal diary, it wouldn’t be the way it is.

***

Even though I have a few blog posts under my belt, and have made a few quilts, I’m still a beginner at both. There’s still plenty I don’t know how to do, or haven’t done enough to actually get good at it.

For example, I’ve been working on appliquĂ© projects this year, from simple flowers on the ¡Fiesta! quilt, to all the Hands and Hearts, to the more elaborate Rooster,  to the crazy mask. Each one has taught me more about how to envision shapes in space, how to choose colors and fabrics, and how to attach them appropriately for the purpose.

I’m very much a beginner in this area, both from a technical standpoint and a design aspect. It’s a whole new way of using my brain. I want to be really good! but I’m just not yet. And I need to remember:

When learning something new, be patient.
Allow for your work to look like a beginner’s.
Just keep at it and things will improve.

Here’s my new start on an old project.

I actually started this two-and-a-half years ago, which for me is a really long time. I began it with a sketch, created by drawing and cutting shapes, and then tracing around the shapes to establish approximate position.

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And this is what I said about it at the time: “I’m planning to do old-fashioned needle-turn appliquĂ©, without all the glueing and pressing and fusing and fussing that some of the other techniques use. This will be relatively primitive, both due to my skills and my intention. The colors I’m choosing are joyful, not stuffy. I’ll show you progress as I make it.”

HAHAHA! Yeah, the intention was to use needle-turn appliquĂ©, but then I realized I don’t really enjoy it, and the project would never get done. Not only did I change applique methods, I also changed fabrics for everything but the stems and the paler leaves, which were already stitched down. The first ones I chose were too muted, not strong enough to stand up to their background. The more saturated colors work better than the ones discarded.

The next modification to it will be the addition of a bird in the lower right corner.

***

And speaking of beginning, a different member of that same Facebook group asked today about a “scant” quarter-inch seam allowance. A variety of responses were given, from “it doesn’t matter as long as your seam allowance is consistent” to “it DOES matter if you want things to fit.” The best answer included a link to this video, which explains exactly why a good seam allowance matters.

Some other good tips for beginning quilters are here, including in the comments.

As always, thanks for reading!

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More on Tariffs and Quilting

I wrote the other day about upcoming tariffs and their effects on the quilting industry. The main point of my post was to define terms — what is a tariff? and what is a trade deficit? — and to note that the proposed tariffs are targeted to consumer goods, including fabric and other craft goods, from China. You can find a list of the targeted goods here.

A great new source for information on tariffs is this podcast with a trade law expert named David Gantz. It’s about 35 minutes and is presented by Just Wanna Quilt, the research project led by Elizabeth Townsend Gard from Tulane University.

A primary concern to quilters is woven cotton fabrics. From what I could learn, approximately 30% of imported woven cottons are from China. (There are a number of woven cottons on the linked list, starting on page 125.) Of course, woven cottons include lots of different things, right? There are denims and broadcloths and dress fabrics and flannels and decorator fabrics. Lots of things, including quilting cottons.

There is some good news about quilting cottons. Though I can’t find any stats on this, according to Abby Glassenberg’s new Craft Industry Alliance post, “The majority of premium quilting cotton sold in independent quilt shops are imported from Korea and Japan and will not be tariffed.”

If you look on the end of a bolt, it shows country of origin. People who’ve looked in quilt shops seem to be saying that this is true, the majority show Korea or Japan as the source. However, as reported by Abby Glassenberg, there are quilting fabric companies who have recently started having digital printing done in China. A source of mine says digital printing allows better color control and smaller batches. I’ve been told that the ink toners for digital printing are more environmentally friendly than screen printing colors. These factors make digital printing an attractive alternative, and China, apparently, does them well and cheaply.

This doesn’t speak to the proportion of quilting fabrics at Joann’s and other big-box stores that are from China. I don’t know anything about these numbers.

More importantly, I don’t care. To me, it doesn’t matter if Joann’s buys all of their fabrics from China and “quilt shops” buy all of their fabric from other countries. Other than pure intellectual curiosity, I don’t care.

Here’s the thing: as long as I’ve quilted I’ve heard people say “I’d never shop at Joann’s” and
“I’d never shop at Walmart for fabric.” There has always been a “good fabric comes from quilt shops” and “I don’t buy fabric from Joann’s because it’s icky” vibe from a lot of quilters. But you can’t tell what’s good or bad by where you buy it. What’s important is how it looks and feels and holds up to the purpose. I’d love to set up a blind test for those who think they can tell the difference.

It would pain me personally to see an increase in quilt snobbery. I’d hate to think that, because I can afford to shop at a quilt shop, I shouldn’t care what happens to those who shop at Joann’s, either because that’s the only store around or because that’s what they can afford. It reminds me of those who don’t care about food deserts, where people have their gas station quick mart to get groceries and not much more, and then make opinionated remarks about how those people should just buy better quality food. This issue of tariffs makes me concerned that same style of snobbery will show itself even more than usual in quilting.

Let’s not be like that. Let’s be supportive of quilters and other makers, regardless of where they buy their materials. Let’s look at the issue of tariffs and how it will affect quilting, not how it will affect ourselves personally. Quilters are generous. We give quilts, we teach, we share. Let’s be generous with our attitudes, as well.

Mirror, Mirror

Recently I showed you how I made a mask, starting with a six-sided paper cut-out. The framing for the face, shown in burgundy, started with a single piece of paper. Even though there are pieces cut out of it, the frame is continuous around the outside edge.

It certainly doesn’t have to be. Consider using, say, three pieces of paper that are the same, but arranged symmetrically around a center point. It would give the same type of symmetry as you see with the mask.

Here’s another paper cutting I did in six sides. I cut it into thirds. Hmm, I like the separation. Then I wondered, what if I only had one of them but wanted to see what it looks like with three? And what if I change direction? That’s something I can’t do if it’s all in one piece.

In the last two of those photos, you are seeing one segment of the original cutting, as reflected in mirrors. Using mirrors gives me a lot of flexibility. For one thing, I don’t need to cut multiples of an intricate design in order to see the possibilities; I can have just one. Also, I can see more than three images (two in the mirrors plus the actual paper one.) For instance, I can see what it looks like if I have four images.

Using mirrors isn’t my original idea. I’d already been thinking a lot about symmetries and playing with paper cutting when Toby Lischko visited my guild. Her presentation to us was about using pairs of mirrors to find interesting patterns in our fabrics. I also took her New York Beauty workshop and used her mirrors to choose the focus of my block center.

The turquoise fabric offered an infinite number of choices for fussy cutting, and I could try them out with the mirrors.

Toby offered mirrors for sale, but she ran out before I had a chance to buy mine. She also has them on her website, shown as Marti Michell Magic Mirrors. Not surprisingly, Marti Michell also has them for the same price, $13.98.

I was so impressed after the workshop, though, that Jim and I searched online for a substitute solution, at a lower price. 🙂 We didn’t find just the right thing, and other priorities took over. I had a bit of serendipity recently, though. While walking through a department store, about to close because of bankruptcy, I noticed two small mirrors hanging on a costume jewelry rack. Everything in the store was for sale. Everything! So I asked how much they would cost. I bought two mirrors for less than $4. (Last week my 14-year-old granddaughter bought two mannikin’s arms for 50 cents apiece. Because who doesn’t need two mannikin’s arms?)

Handy for scratching your back! Photo credit to my daughter.

The next challenge was how to get the mirrors to stand up at the correct angles. (Toby’s/Marti’s mirrors come pre-hinged, but you still have to set the angle.) After trying different possibilities, Jim and I both thought of using velcro (hook-and-loop) to hold them together. Between the two of us, we had both self-stick squares of velcro and also strips. We put squares of hooks on the back and cut short strips of loop-tape to grab them on either side. The angle can be set either with a protractor or simply by checking for how many images are created. (Remember, there are 360° in a circle. There are 120° in each third of a circle; there are 90° in each quadrant; and there are 60° in each sixth. To see three images, including the actual thing, set the mirrors to stand at 120° apart.) If needed, a simple piece of tape can be run across the top to hold the angle desired.

I have some other projects in mind that can make use of the mirrors, so while I wasn’t prepared to spend $14 and shipping for them, they are well worth the investment made.

Some people make the kaleidoscoping “stack and whack” quilts. I can’t imagine doing that, even though some look fabulous. I’ve also seen a lot of fussy cutting for hexagon projects, and mirrors could help visualize those. Have you ever explored shape symmetry in your quilts? Have you used mirrors to do so? Tell us about it in comments. 

Tariffs and the Cost of Quilting

Have you paid any attention to the new tariffs imposed on goods imported to the US? I’ll tell the truth: there is so much chaos in the political news all the time, I haven’t keyed in on this as much as I should. However, yesterday I saw two articles on the tariffs and the cost of quilting. The issue in total is worth understanding better, and if this is our entry into that understanding, so be it.

The first item to clear up is the term “tariff.” A tariff is a tax or duty paid on a class of imported goods. (Alternately, it could be imposed on goods being exported, to be paid before they leave the country.) The importer pays the tariff. If the importer re-sells that good directly, they will need to increase the price at which they sell, in order to recoup the expense of the tariff. If they don’t increase the price, their profit will be reduced or wiped out. If the importer is a manufacturer, they may be able to cut costs elsewhere to reduce the impact of the tariff. However, that will have a different effect, perhaps on the other suppliers they buy from, or on labor, or on the end buyer of their goods.

In July, the Trump administration announced that new tariffs would be imposed on the import of $34 billion of Chinese goods coming into the US. The intention was to make Chinese goods more expensive for American consumers, so we would import less Chinese product as compared to the amount of US product we export to China. In addition, American businesses would theoretically be “protected” from foreign competition, allowing them to increase their sales.

A trade deficit is the amount by which a country’s imports exceed its exports. According to the US Census Bureau, at the end of June, the US had a trade deficit with China of $185.7 billion for the year to date. In other words, we imported $185.7 billion more from China than we exported to China so far in 2018. In 2017, it was more than $375 billion for the year as a whole.

So far, that sounds reasonable, right? If we want a different balance of trade, we should (preferably) export more, and possibly import less. Tariffs would be a good way to import less. (There are a lot of economic reasons this may or may not make sense at all. Way beyond the scope of this little post.)

The hitch in this plan comes in with retaliation and escalation. As soon as the tariffs were announced, China declared their own set of tariffs on incoming American goods. And in return, trump has set in motion more tariffs against China, as well as new ones against Canada, Mexico, the European Union, and Japan. A wide range of goods from all over the world will be more expensive for Americans.

So how does this all affect the quilting industry? After August 30, another $200 billion of Chinese goods will be subject to tariffs that could be from 10-25% of value. In 2017, the US imported $6 billion worth of fabric of all types. Not all of that was from China, but from what I can gather (a variety of somewhat confusing sources,) about 30% of woven cottons are from China.

It is reasonable to assume that the prices we pay for fabric will go up, on average. Fabric companies will have to cover the tariffs as they import, and that cost will need to be covered by the consumer to maintain their profits. Small retailers (local quilt stores) may not be able to pass on the price increases to their own customers, which could lead to more shops leaving business.

In addition, textile machinery, including sewing machines not made in America, may have increased prices. (Which “domestic” or regular sewing machines are actually made in America these days? Any?) Tariffs on goods coming from the European Union and Japan might hit that market. Parts for repair of your older machine could face the same hurdles. Many gadgets and notions are made in China and may have higher prices, too.

I don’t have the answers on this, but I advise you to pay attention. Some retailers, including JoAnn Fabrics and Dharma Trading Co. have already notified customers that tariffs may affect pricing.

Here are the two articles I saw yesterday. One is from craft industry expert and reporter, Abby Glassenberg. Mostly, it explains that she is researching the issue and will be reporting on it soon. Sign up for her newsletter for notification on this concern, as well as other great stuff on the craft world.

https://whileshenaps.com/2018/08/on-embracing-the-unknown.html

The other item was from Quartz. It gives another brief summary of the upcoming changes.

https://qz.com/1365978/the-all-american-pastime-of-quilting-is-being-tucked-into-the-trade-war/

Updated to include a link to this article in Bloomberg:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-21/retailer-joann-calls-on-crafters-to-oppose-trump-s-tariffs

Update 2: As said below in comments, ‘My post is NOT about the politics of this, from either side. As I mentioned, there are economic arguments in both directions. And this is not a question or post about “is it worth it.” It is ONLY to let people know this is an issue they should be aware of. If there are more comments on the politics of it, I will delete them.’ I have very strong opinions on the politics of this. As a retired investment professional with degrees in finance and economics, and many years experience in the field, I also know a few things about the economics of it. I WILL NOT DEBATE those issues here, and I will not allow for others to do so, either. That, again, is NOT the point of the post. Thanks for your respect on this.

Expect to see more on this soon. If enacted, these tariffs have the potential of affecting every part of the quilting industry.

 

 

 

 

Making A Mask

I wrote recently about masks and other faces in the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. Depictions of faces are one of the most common types of visual art, because we humans find faces fascinating. They are so interesting that we often perceive faces in almost any combination of shapes, in any media. And I do mean any media, including Swiss cheese, bowling balls, and on bug bodies! This article in Mental Floss magazine says the phenomenon of seeing faces everywhere is called “pareidolia,” and it is a function of a healthy brain.

Human brains are exquisitely attuned to perceiving faces—in fact, there’s an entire region of the brain called the fusiform gyrus that is dedicated to it. Its functions are evident even from early childhood: Studies have shown that shortly after birth, babies display more interest in cartoon faces with properly placed features than in similar images where the features are scrambled.

The “face neurons” in people with healthy brains are so overactive that they scream FACE! in many situations where there are no actual faces to be found. Those sophisticated face-detection skills, combined with our brain’s compulsion to extract meaning from the sensory chaos that surrounds us, is why we see faces where there aren’t any. Typically these sightings are nothing more than our mind’s interpretation of visual data …

Well, fortunately I have a healthy brain and see faces in all kinds of things. One sighting was in a paper cutting I did late last year. While playing with the classic, six-sided snowflake method of cutting, I quickly drew and cut this:

Well, no, that’s not a face. (I’ll bet I could find one if I look.) But I did several more cuttings, and this simpler cut-out shouted FACE! to me.

For months this piece of paper has been floating around my studio, sometimes “put away” and sometimes in a stack of other paper cuttings on my counter. For months I’ve wanted to create a mask from it, but until recently I wasn’t really sure how to do that.

If you have spent time around children, you might know that both toddlers and teens can be cross a lot of the time. My theory is that it has a lot to do with them being ready in some ways for the things they want to do, but not fully capable in other ways. They get frustrated in their desires, which makes them cross. Though I haven’t been particularly cross about it, my desire to make a mask from the paper cutting didn’t match up with my skills. Now it does. 

I chose fabrics first and ended up with a completely different color set than I’d expected. That’s okay, right? With a background of brilliant gold-yellow, I chose a deep burgundy to provide the framing. I adhered Wonder-Under fusible web to the burgundy (and no, I don’t use affiliate links or payments, so this isn’t an ad.) Next I traced the shape on the web paper in pencil, and carefully cut it out with small, sharp, scissors. Click either picture to see detail better. 

As I chose the features for the mask — eyes, nose, teeth — I added them one at a time, using parchment paper as my pressing sheet. I pulled the paper away from the fusible on the burgundy mask framing, just for the part I was about to adhere. While fusing shapes together, I left as much of the fusible paper on the framing as I could, to maintain the stability of the shape and avoid damaging the fabric. With the paper removed from the feature (eyeball, for instance,) I placed it behind the framing and ON TOP of the pressing sheet, and pressed the edges together. After the fused pieces were cool, I could peel them away from the pressing sheet as one unit.

I continued to build the face, adding more features as I went, and then adhered the whole thing to the gold background fabric.

Now the features are adhered under the frame and the whole thing is pressed to the gold background. The background isn’t attached to the batik print around the edge.

In the last photo you see it lying on top of a piece of batik. I might frame it with that, or I might choose a different border arrangement. Those are decisions I haven’t made yet.

If you’d like to try six-pointed paper cut-outs, whether to make snowflakes or to make a mask, this is a reasonably good video of the process.

You should note, though, that my “snowflake” has six SIDES, while the video shows how to make a six-POINTED snowflake, with twelve sides. Here is my mask paper-cutting refolded into sixths, not twelfths as their snowflake is. 

The difference in construction is that they’ve folded the paper an extra time. While it allows a more intricate pattern, it’s also substantially harder to cut cleanly. Try playing with some plain copy paper to see what pleases you more.