Category Archives: Creativity

Growing Pains? Not If You Don’t Grow

How has your style changed over the time you’ve been quilting? 

Today I visited a holiday pop-up market and saw the work of a local quilter. For as long as I’ve been aware of her as a quilter (and she has some “presence” locally,) most of her work has looked the same. It’s a very particular style, and I don’t notice any change or evolution in it over at least several years. Maybe she loves what she does; maybe she has found her “voice,” and isn’t interested in changing it.

Other quilters change their style, and sometimes they way they think about their process. A blog post written by my friend Audrey touches on that. Some might describe her style as “primitive” or “folk art,” but I would say Audrey has a joyful style that is unique to her.

Audrey is clear about the effort she’s undertaken to transition her style over the years, to one that feels more authentically her own. Quilts she was pleased to make fairly recently are not those that light her up anymore. This post on Growing Pains from nearly two years ago describes her sense of dissatisfaction: “honestly, some of my quilts seemed to be missing just a little something beyond my grasp or understanding. This happened very gradually … But then I realized that I was growing increasingly frustrated with some of my earlier quilting choices, even projects ‘in-the-works’. It has increasingly seemed to me that I was betwixt and between.”

That’s how I feel right now, “betwixt and between.” I think of my quilting so far in three discrete stages. First was learning basic technical skills of piecing and focusing my efforts on block quilts. Second was learning more about design and focusing my efforts on medallion quilts.

And third? I’m in the doorway to the third stage. My year largely has been about learning techniques to improve at telling stories, to make quilts that are more fully expressive of me.

As it turns out, I finished a bunch of quilts this year, but mostly they aren’t “third stage” projects.

But there are some I’m especially proud of, things that I couldn’t have achieved before. Unless I keep reaching and trying new things, how will I ever experience that feeling? Here is one, called Fierce Little Bear. I made it for my niece as a way to express my love of her and understanding of her.

Fierce Little Bear. 67″ x 67″. Finished January 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

The fabric and layout begin the story, but the quilting finishes it. The quilt reads from left to right as a whole picture framed by trees on either side, canopied in leaves and clouds. At the base is a field of flowers. Butterflies float next to the tree trunks. An owl hides in the tree on the left, while a squirrel is on the lower right. And a fish swims in an aqua pool. Click on any one to open the gallery and see some of the detail.

Compare it to a quilt I made in 2011. The photo is poor, but you can get the idea. It’s pretty and well-made. I still love stars and hourglasses. But it is part of my first stage.

I can’t make the same quilts year after year and feel satisfied. Growth is difficult. It requires effort and sometimes discomfort. I’ll take the discomfort, though, in exchange for a more rewarding experience.

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Productive Procrastination

Did you know that “productive procrastination” is a thing? I’m talking about choosing to do something valuable while actively choosing not to do something else valuable. For example, you could choose to dust your living room rather than call your mom. Or vice versa. What I’m not talking about is getting lost for hours in Pinterest or Instagram photos, searching for inspiration you’ll never actually act on. Or clicking through Facebook or online news ceaselessly, looking for something new to read or respond to.

Right now, I’m putting off writing about my trip to Peru, and all the tasks that are included in that: identifying photos to share; framing my memories so they are meaningful for you, too; considering how those memories have shaped my creativity, even just a little. And I’m also putting off re-starting one of my quilting projects with the benefit of my new perspectives.

Instead, I am working on another VA Hospital quilt. Certainly that is worthy of the time involved. I can’t pretend that it is a high priority — there is no deadline. On the other hand, there’s no deadline for my purely creative adventures, either.

It started when I opened a drawer of orphan blocks, parts, and binding leftovers. I found a bunch of these, dull and dismal puss-in-the-corner blocks. (They didn’t qualify as a UFO by my definition, as they were not “a project” themselves. They were just orphan blocks, parts waiting in inventory until useful or otherwise disposed of.)

They finished at 6″, more or less. The fabric is not particularly nice. And they certainly aren’t pretty. But could they be useful?

(This reminds me of the very silly public television show, The Red Green Show. He is famous for saying, “If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.“)

So what can you do with 10 not-pretty blocks? I decided to use them within a disappearing 9-patch quilt. Mix them in with enough other, prettier fabrics, and they’ll be okay.

When I make disappearing 9-patches, I like to use an accent color for the centers of the 9-patches. It also is helpful to have value contrast between the large corner patches and the side-centers, which become the “legs.” As I picked through fabrics, I decided to stick with dark greens and dusky blues for the corner patches, rusty oranges for the accent center patches, and lighter pieces for the legs.

I made nine large, ugly 9-patches using 6″ finish blocks. All the blocks were unpieced except my green and tan puss-in-the-corner blocks.

After completing the 9-patches, I sliced each into four pieces, arranged them, and stitched them into a quilt top. The top is now finished.

Disappearing 9-patch top. About 44″ x 62″.

(Honestly, it’s better looking in person than it is in the photos.)

I’ll need to build a quilt back, quilt it, and bind it. But it will wait as I have another task to tackle in the next few days, one with an actual deadline.

What are you working on? Are you procrastinating, forging ahead, or doing both in turn? 

Five Quilts in Four Weeks

Between the middle of September and four weeks later, I started and finished four quilts, and I also put the binding on a fifth one. This isn’t my preferred way of working but deadlines piled up on me. Here is a quick run down:

When I returned home from a high school reunion, Jim informed me that brother-in-law Dan was granted an “honor flight.” According to the website, “Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials.” Dan’s trip to DC was scheduled for less than two weeks later. I wanted to make him a quilt. Coincidentally, another brother-in-law, Sonny, was also taking a flight in mid-October. One quilt wouldn’t do; I would make two of them.

When I need to  make a quilt in a hurry, I often design it using Electric Quilt software. Currently I’m using EQ8 (version 8.) I designed similar quilts for both men. The medallion format with which I’m so familiar uses block “borders” for these, making sizing simple.

Dan’s Honor Quilt. September 2018. About 66″ square. Photo by Jim Ruebush. Border blocks (hourglasses and puss-in-the-corner) finish at 8″.

Sonny’s Honor Quilt. October 2019. About 61″ square. Photo by Jim Ruebush. Border blocks (rail fences) finish at 6″.

Both quilts were easy to execute, but Sonny’s was actually much simpler. It uses all one block style, alternating blue and red, and solid white as the only background fabric. The only complexity in Sonny’s quilt, in terms of the block borders, is the blocks combining half-square triangles and rail fences. It took a bit for me to work it out, but in truth it was really easy to do. If I ever make them again, I’ll show you how.

I used all stash for both quilts, except borders and backs. Both used lots of smaller pieces for the blues and reds.

In the midst of making these, I realized my sweet neighbor Heather’s baby shower was in early October. I planned to make a quilt for the baby, but he isn’t due until December, so I wasn’t in a hurry. With the shower coming up, that changed things!

I used the same rail fence blocks that were so quick for Sonny’s quilt. Once the front was finished, I gleaned leftover parts from another project to make the back, turning the quilt into a two-sided quilt. All fabric was from stash.

Heather’s baby quilt, front. October 2018. About 46″ square. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Heather’s baby quilt, back. October 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

The fourth quilt was a hostess gift. Jim and I went to Peru! (We’ll write about our trip soon, on Our View From Iowa.) One of the meals during our tour was at a family home. The tour company recommends bringing a small gift for the hostess. It’s a way to connect with the family, as well as show gratitude and have a way to say something about your own home.

My original plan was to take a small wall-hanging that’s already finished, but it wouldn’t fit nicely in our carry-on suitcases. Instead I started a new one, with the primary design being a map of Iowa. The fabrics chosen represented the corn and soybeans grown here, as well as the broad blue skies. Using a quickly-traced outline of Iowa, I cut the assembled cloth to size and appliquéd it to a background fabric. On the left (west) and right (east) sides of the map, the blue stitching represents the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Hand-stitching through the map, and machine-quilting through the background, completed the design. On the back I adhered a label, written in Spanish, to explain what the image is and how it represents Iowa.

Un Mapa de Iowa. October 2018. About 15″ wide.

Last but not least, I also put a binding on a VA hospital quilt, which was finished except for that. It will be donated at my next guild meeting. No photo of the finished quilt.

It was a busy month for quilting, and as you may or may not have noticed, I didn’t write here at all during that time. As soon as the Iowa map quilt was finished, we left for Peru, giving another two week gap. One thing to note is, the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to get started again. Hopefully this will break the ice and I can shift into semi-regular posts again.

Thanks as always for reading.

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. 

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.