Category Archives: Creativity

Wind River Beauty, Project Process Part 1

My recent post on project process summarized the steps in project development and implementation. As fancy as project flow charts can get, it really comes down to this, a simple set of procedures that can help you make a quilt, build a highway, or write a blog post. I’ll outline how these steps apply to making the Wind River Beauty quilt, one of my current projects.

Identify problem or objective
The problem to solve or objective to meet was to create a quilt using the New York Beauty block I made in a workshop last year. The original block I made, before modifying, is below.
The fabric in the center was fussy cut from a border stripe fabric. I experimented with the symmetry as shown in this video:

Potential solutions
When thinking of potential solutions to any problem, you can switch into brainstorming mode. Think of a lot of different options, at first without evaluating them as good or bad. When you get stuck, consult one of the many articles online for tips for more brainstorming. Remember, one of the best questions to ask is “what if?”

Making the block wasn’t difficult, but I wasn’t interested in making more. That meant any quilt using it would use only the one. It could be a small quilt like a table topper; a larger ungridded quilt, such as one using the block as one of many blocks of various sizes and designs; a larger gridded one, such as one using a number of other blocks the same size, but different designs; or my specialty, a medallion quilt, featuring the New York Beauty as a center block.

Honestly, I didn’t really brainstorm. I seriously only considered making a medallion quilt, as that was my intention as I made the block. There are still infinite options open within the category “medallion quilt,” so that decision alone didn’t determine my solution, but it did give it a framework.

Beyond that, I wanted to use and honor the fabric I purchased at a trading post on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, south of Yellowstone National Park. A traditional quilt style for some Native American groups is the Lone Star, also known as Star of Bethlehem. There were many quilts of this style for sale at the trading post. If you google “Lone Star” or “Star of Bethlehem,” you’ll see lots of beautiful examples. Here is an illustration from EQ8 of the basic format:

Constraints and resources
Prior to taking the workshop, I assumed that the block, if successful, would be used to center a quilt. The feature fabric mentioned above was both a resource and a primary constraint, since I had a limited amount of it.

In fact, fabric availability is often one of the biggest constraints for my quilts. I almost always start with stash, filling in by shopping only if needed. For this project, I had to create work-arounds for multiple fabrics. I designed my border treatment to use the limited length of the feature fabric. Some colors from the center block required substitution fabrics. The yellow used for the star’s background was a particular issue. The photo below shows two yellows I tried for background. The bright yellow in the lower left corner was too strong, while the soft butter yellow served as an appropriate foil for the stronger colors of the block and star points. You can also see two different purples, and two different rusts. (The color that might look like red in the star points is actually rust in real life. The colors, in general, do not show well in the photos.)

Besides materials, time and skills are both resources and constraints, too. There is no deadline for this project. In that sense, time is a relatively unlimited resource. My skills are a resource in the sense that I’m capable of the design and piecing for the quilt (although there were piecing problems, discussed in the next post.) However, my quilting skills are “intermediate” level. Over time I’ve chosen to do custom quilting more often for my quilts. As I do, I learn more and upgrade my abilities. But I still can’t do all the things I want to do for each project.

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This post is long enough! I’ll share more about the execution of my plan in another post. Thanks as always for taking a look.

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Project Process

I’ve been procrastinating on writing more about my Wind River Beauty project. The first two posts were about some of the math involved with developing the design, and my intention is to share my decision-making as I created it. With quilting still to do, it’s still in process and I don’t feel “late” with my report. However, it isn’t one of those projects that has flowed naturally from start to finish, as if freed fully grown like Athena from Zeus’s brain. As it was with making it, I’m struggling with knowing how to write about it.

To help organize my thoughts (and indulge in some productive procrastination,) I’ll write instead about the project process.

A hundred years ago I designed and wrote software, so I learned to think in flow charts. Later when I taught principles of wealth management to undergraduates at the university, I used a very simple idea to discuss the overall process. It’s the same process used for any problem-solving or project work. It all begins with identifying the problem to be solved. Here are the basic steps:

How does this translate to quilting? Anytime we undertake a quilt project, we first need to identify the objective. Sometimes that is easy and sometimes not. Possibilities include wanting to use particular scraps or orphan blocks, making a special-occasion gift, or creating for a contest or challenge. Really, the potential “problems” to be solved or objectives to be met are personal and related to a moment in time, for most of us.

After identifying the problem or objective, we come up with possible solutions. Again, there are endless options. However, they are limited by constraints and available resources. Special-occasion quilts are, by their nature, constrained. You generally choose to make a quilt for the occasion itself, or specifically to suit the receiver. Last year I made a graduation quilt in white and pale greys, based on the request of the graduate. Or perhaps you want to make a quilt with appliqué but your skills are limited. That probably will affect the design you choose. Resources can include time, money, or available supplies. Or, if you need someone else’s help, like a longarm quilter, their availability and cost might affect your plan.

Given all the possibilities and the constraints and resources, you choose the best option as you see it, and begin making. Once begun, almost every project has its share of challenges, which requires another cycle through the steps of problem and possible solution identification, along with the constraining factors. For instance, if you originally planned to make a baby quilt to present after a baby is born, but then are invited to a baby shower prior to its birth, your available time may be reduced by several months. That can call for a change in plans, perhaps simplifying the original design, or choosing to use only three fabrics instead of a range of scraps.

Finally (whew!) the project is complete. Of course, other challenges might arise from that, including how best to use scraps, putting away the supplies, storing or giving the quilt, and choosing the next project. And the cycle begins anew.

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Though the basic look of the Wind River Beauty project was clear to me from early on, it’s had its share of challenges. To be clear, nothing in particular has gone wrong. I had to change strategies on construction at one point, and available fabric led to decisions that might have been different without that constraint. And my current skills at quilting (and its design) have slowed the finish. Is this very different from most projects? Not particularly. Perhaps none of them really are Athenas, springing fully formed from the head of the creator. 

A Liberated Baby Quilt

In my last post, I wrote about the difference between a liberated or improv process and an improv style. If you’ve followed my blog for very long or taken a look through my gallery, you haven’t seen much in an improv style. But I have done a couple of things in that mode.

About ten years ago, I decided to make a “baby” quilt for my son. He was already an adult by then. Influenced by Gwen Marston’s Liberated Quiltmaking, I did this:

I used print jungle fabric purchased at Walmart because of the cheetahs in the design. Cheetahs were one of Son’s favorite animals. The outside border was also used on a large, tied comforter I made for him a few years before. Some of the solids were cotton-polyester blend broadcloth. The stars in the sashing intersections were directly influenced by Marston’s style. I even did some hand-quilting!

Apparently I wasn’t entranced by deliberately making my stars and blocks look irregular, because other than one more project, I haven’t done other quilts completely in this “liberated” but torturous style.

Even so, when I walk in the room where this hangs, it always makes me smile.

Those cheetahs will show up again in the next baby quilt I make, which is for Son’s expected baby. Here is the fabric I’ll use:

 

Inspired by Gwen

One of the books I bought early in my quilting life, which I still own, is Gwen Marston’s Liberated Quiltmaking (1996.) I tried the “improv” style of wonky stars and house blocks and found it wasn’t for me. However, her improv process helped develop my own design methods.

What’s the difference between an improvisational style and an improv process? My thinking on this crystalized the other day when reading Audrey’s post on one of her projects. She has long worked in an improv method — in her words, “working in an unscripted manner and working successfully to resolve any/all issues that come up, etc. etc.” — only recently has she begun working in a more improvisational style, with less concern for precision and measurement. Again in her words with her emphasis, “My best inspiration overall, is in the vintage and antique style of quilts, preferably the softer, less perfect looking utility style of quilts.”  

I wrote a lot about improv a year ago, including this: “You don’t have to give up rulers and measurement and high-quality construction to make improv quilts. Your points can all be perfect, or not. To me, the real process of improvisation in quilting is that of making one decision at a time, and being open to the notion that any decision you make might be wrong, and call for a change. It is not a style, it is a process… ”

I’ve opened my thinking to agree that we can call “improv” a style, too. But you can create the style from patterns, or you can work the process and still end up with something most people would call very traditional. Improv style and improv process are two different things. They both have their place but they are not the same. What quadrant is most of your quilting in? Most of mine is upper left, in improv method but not improv style.

What Does This Have to Do with Gwen Marston?

Gwen Marston is often thought of as the founder of improvisational style. (I would argue she is not.) Marston has worked with both traditional and liberated styling for decades. I have five of her many books and two focus on historical styling from the 1800s. If you understand that this is the underpinnings of her work, you can see it in what has developed since then.

In the book Freddy & Gwen Collaborate Again (with Freddy Moran, 2009,) Marston includes a quilt that reflects both her traditional roots and her improv styling.

Freddy & Gwen Collaborate Again. Gwen Marston and Freddy Moran, 2009, p. 23.

I was especially taken by the purple background. Three years ago when I began a project using an urn with flowers, the photo above was my strongest inspiration. I started by drawing this:20160126_124416_resized

Three years is a long time for development of one of my quilts. The drawing gave me a starting point, as did the purple background. I chose fabrics for flowers and leaves, most of which were too wimpy against the strong purple and didn’t end up on the quilt. My intention was to needle-turn appliqué the piece. After a couple of leaves, I knew that wouldn’t happen. And so the project got relegated to a bin of works-in-process, or more accurately, works-in-waiting.

Last year as I experimented more with appliqué, I brought it out, chose new fabrics for the center, and began again.

Skipping to the punchline, here is the finished quilt.

Inspired by Gwen. 45″ x 55″. Photo by Jim Ruebush. January 2019.

And a few notes on my improvisational process:
1. After auditioning a variety of colors for the leaves, flowers, and urn, I chose strongly saturated ones that held up to the purple and determined the rest of the color scheme.
2. I adjusted the size of the center with red strips at the top and bottom. This allowed the hourglass blocks on the inner border standard sizing. The hourglasses are scrappy of reds, pinks, oranges and golds, greens, and purples.
3. Visually there is A LOT going on in the hourglasses, which led to the calmer choices in the next border. 🙂 I wanted to extend the purple from the center but had very little of it left. I auditioned several purples and wasn’t happy with any of them. They didn’t “go” with the center. The best way to fix that is to use more than one. The more you add, the more they all go together. So the side borders with appliquéd vines got one purple, while the upper and lower borders with semi-circles on chartreuse green got a different one. While there are lots of greens in the leaves on the sides, and the vines are hand-cut squiggles, the upper and lower borders are fairly regimented, retaining some order.
4. The outer border again reflects the influence of Marston’s quilt, though I didn’t realize it until the top was almost done. Yes, I actually had the red zigzag pieced when I looked at the inspiration photo again and saw that I mimicked it without intending to. The other colors in the outer border repeat those in the hourglass border, and they are the same shape and similar size. The repetition helps hold off the chaos that could have erupted here.
5. I “custom” quilted it using different motifs and threads by section. There is red thread on the red triangles of the outer border, to strengthen them rather than diminish the color. Purple thread is on the purple background of the center for same reason. Most of the rest has a neutral, very fine thread to provide texture but allow the color blast of the surface to dominate.
6. I finished with a green binding.

The technique here is as improvisational as the design method. I used several different methods of appliqué in this project, choosing whatever seemed to work most simply. A few shapes are applied by hand; some are fused and finished with a zigzag; some are stuck down with glue stick; the semi-circles use a completely different method.

Gwen Marston has been an inspiration in my quilting life since nearly the beginning. I’m pleased to finish this quilt that shows that influence more directly.

Just Wanna Have Fun…

Count on me to overanalyze, right? What is “fun,” and how can we have more of it? As a noun, the Google dictionary says that “fun” is “enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure.” Ah, the lighthearted pleasure. That’s what I want! I want to quilt for fun.

Other sources give lists of ways to increase that pleasure. (Google “how to have more fun in art” for links.) They include things like creating the right environment (light, music, beautiful things surrounding you, the right amount of neatness for your comfort); sharing the process with others, or keeping it private so critics won’t disturb you; trying new things; finding inspiration in travel, museums, nature; quieting your inner critic; and on they go. We’ve talked about all these things before.

For me, the keys are fairly simple: make to please myself, even if the project is for someone else; and don’t over-plan, but allow for spontaneity and serendipity.

Making for obligations can kill fun, don’t you think? If you’re making because someone else has expectations, you’re working to please them. That can be deeply satisfying, but maybe not fun. And those expectations can kill spontaneity, or the sense of play, too.

Just this morning I happened to read Amanda Jean Nyberg’s latest blog post. She’s famous for the blog Crazy Mom Quilts and the book Sunday Morning Quilts. Her designs are cheery, scrappy, and mostly simple. I don’t follow her blog and it was a fluke that I dropped in. The thing is, it isn’t just her latest post, it is her LAST blog post. She is retiring. Why? Because she’s spent the last 12 years quilting and writing and designing and teaching to make other people happy, to meet obligations. When she announced the decision in December, she said, “I am certainly looking forward to quilting and sewing, but doing it for FUN rather than with obligation.”

See? for FUN rather than with obligation.

Over the years, I’ve come a long way in quilting for fun. In the first part of my quilting life (2003-2013,) I gave away almost everything I made. Though I enjoyed the process, I was creating to please other people. In the middle of 2013 I made the first quilt for myself, and it was a breakthrough for me. You can see in the caption that I even named it “My Medallion Quilt.”

My Medallion Quilt. 2013. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

After that, fewer of my quilts were made for specific people, reducing my sense of obligation there. However, I created a whole new obligation on the blog! I used it specifically as a teaching tool, both for myself and my readers. I’m proud of the work I did, and you can find a lot of the fruits of it under the Medallion Lessons link. Between that and my writing for a book on medallion quilts, a lot of time was spent on serious effort, not lighthearted pleasure.

Well, that book is never going to be published. Its window of opportunity has come and gone. And I’m done creating for the purpose of writing tutorials. If you have questions or need help, please do ask. I’m still happy to answer questions as I can.

I’m also done worrying about what picture to use, or the quality of photos, or the hashtags silliness in Instagram. If people find my stuff, that’s great. If not, I’ll still be making stuff, and at least for now, still sharing it here.

This afternoon a package came. It holds a set of longarm quilting rulers. One of them is perfect to help me finish the quilt I currently have on the frame. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have some fun!