A few years ago, I made a checkerboard for a granddaughter. I don’t know how much she used it, but never mind that. Her little brother uses it now.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Some quilts decide to be made, regardless of our intentions. Such was the case for Black Sheep Manor. This is a quilt I would not have made, if not for seeing a panel print earlier this year at a local quilt shop. The full panel had 15 small panel motifs with a country estate theme. The faux-crackled, tea-stained background with black print featured a sheep, two manor houses, a squirrel, two trees, and other assorted illustrations. This is not my typical style.
But Jim and I have friends, smart, funny, warm people, who’ve recently moved to a home they call their “Black Sheep Manor.” When I saw the black sheep on the panel, I had to get it. The quilt called to be made.
The Center Block
The black sheep had to center the quilt, but the small panel finishes at 7″. The size is better suited for a pillow or placemat than the focal point of a lap quilt. I’ve written before about enlarging center blocks with frames of various types. Adding variable star points doubles the size, and making a star-in-a-star quadruples it. But as much as I like stars, this little sheep called for something else.
To highlight and enlarge the sheep without other distractions, I chose to set it with an economy block setting. The simplicity draws the eye to the middle. Using strong value contrast with the subtlety of tone-on-tone prints emphasizes the block structure, as well.
The pattern design on the brick-colored fabric is of wheat stalks, and the pinky-tan setting triangles are printed with a deer motif. Both suit the small-farm life of our friends. These two fabrics, along with the sheep panel, set the theme for the rest of the quilt.
The Inner Borders
Beyond the economy center block, the first border of half-square triangles bursts forth to further enlarge the appearance. Here again, simplicity serves the purpose of enhancement rather than distraction. I did try a different arrangement of HST using two borders, and the effect was messy. As Jim reminded me, KISS is often the best policy. 🙂
The darker rust print edge around the HST finished the look of the center. Rather than the center appearing as a 7″ square, it is 22.5″.
The Middle Borders
Outside of the narrow rust strip is the second most important piece of the quilt. Though the sheep literally plays center stage, the wording personalizes it. Anyone could like black sheep, but there is only one Black Sheep Manor. The wording is hand-lettered using fabric markers. I printed the words on paper and then arranged a light box with an overturned plastic tub on top of a CFL utility light. I taped the paper to the plastic tub. Freezer paper on the back of the fabric stabilized it, and I taped that down, as well. I outlined the letters with a very fine-tipped pen, and then filled them in with a heavier marker.
Framing the wording on either end, and below the sheep block, are strips from the width-of-fabric panel print. On the left and right borders are paper-pieced triangles that finish 2.5″ x 3.75″. They are proportioned differently than flying geese, which lets them fit the space evenly as well as suggest pine trees. The corner blocks are of the broken dishes format.
The next pieced border is of larger HSTs. The HSTs repeats the shapes of the inner border, but the shifting orientation keeps them from simple repetition. It also prevents them from making a dark line on either side of the border, so it is more open and airy.
Also note the narrow strip borders on either side of the HST. These are one of the lightest values in the whole quilt. Using the light color is a bit unexpected, and it keeps the quilt from descending into dinginess.
The Outer Borders
The next border is a style called “piano keys.” I cut the piano keys border to finish at 6″ and planned to make shoofly corner blocks. Instead, I chose four of the other small panel pieces and cornered the border with them. Once their decorative “frame” was trimmed off, they finished at 5.25″, so I trimmed the piano keys to match. Aside from the corner blocks, the piano keys border is mostly dark in value.
The piano keys are made with 28 strips on each side. I made the strips into blocks of four strips each. Each block has a red, a brown (or black,) a blue, and a green strip. These are two warm and two cool. I assembled the blocks in haphazard order, and then assembled the borders only making sure that no two strips of the same color touched each other. Aside from very minimal rearrangement, the placement is random, but the colors and “temperatures” are well-distributed. This was easy! And more importantly, it is not formal or regimented, but casual.
The last border of another rusty print frames the whole. I didn’t know what width I wanted until I tried it. No elements of the quilt are very large, so a relatively narrow border worked better for proportions.
The Fabric Choices
Almost all of my quilts have at least one scrappy border. They help to integrate the multiple pieces of similar color that I use within a quilt. This quilt differs by being scrappy throughout, giving it a casual and homey feel.
Even with scraps, the look is consistent. All the colors have a golden tinge. The reds are brick red and rust; the greens are olivey; the blues all have a touch of teal; and the browns and blacks are warm, not cool. The tan or “background” fabrics also tend toward golden, not grey.
However, if you look more closely at the fabrics, you’ll notice I didn’t take the fabric patterns too seriously. They range from 1800s reproductions to a small piece of a circus print, to Kaffe Fassett. The color and value were far more important than the style of print.
To keep the dozens of fabrics from leading the quilt into chaos, there are places without scraps. For example, the center block has only three fabrics: the black sheep panel, the inner brick red triangles, and the outer tan triangles. The brick red and tan are repeated with the same fabrics for the broken dishes corner blocks. The inner strip border and the final border echo the brick red, varying it somewhat toward rust. The two pale strips borders use the same fabrics. The panel corner blocks with the piano keys emphasize the sheep by repeating the same fabric style. All these points of repetition help calm the appearance.
Except for the panel (which demanded I buy it and make a quilt with it,) all of the fabrics are from my stash, including the back. The vast majority is from scraps and small pieces. Very little is from yardage. It’s been a very long time since I worked with mostly scraps and I enjoyed it a lot.
I had a hard time deciding how to quilt this. I didn’t want the stitching to run rampant over the little sheep, but I also didn’t want to custom quilt the entire piece. I compromised by quilting the center very simply, with an outline of the sheep, a simple fan pattern on the brick red, and triangles of leaves and loops on the tan. For the rest of the quilt, I did an all-over leaves and loops design.
My Overall Assessment
I really fell in love with this quilt. As noted at the top, this is not my typical style, with the black-and-tan-and-country feel. But I often think my very best quilts are those I make for specific people, and I think this is one of them. Another reason I love it is because I couldn’t have made it before now. The design shows a level of expertise that I’ve developed over time. The paper piecing is a new technique for me this year. Hand-lettering the banner isn’t something I would have tried until recently. Besides the look, I enjoyed the process. The ease with which it went together is rare. Each step of the way, decisions were simple, but from a strong sense of direction, not merely from habit.
My friends received the quilt and are thrilled. They’re happy, and that makes me happy.
My medallion class began last week! In class I help lead participants through the process of designing their own medallion quilts. And while they create, I do, too.
In the few weeks we have together, while each of them is making one quilt, I design and construct two. I start with very different centers and color schemes in order to demonstrate a variety of strategies.
The first one I began has a center block that features flying geese circling a star. The block design came from the Big Book of Scrap Quilts, published by Oxmoor House in 2005. The quilt pattern is called “Dizzy Geese,” designed by Joan Streck. Dizzy Geese is a block quilt, with a 17″ block made with templates.
I re-drew the block to 16″ and paper-pieced it.
Though I’ve made quilts in reds and greens before, I haven’t made one I’ve thought of as a Christmas quilt. This one will have that intention, but I’d still like to keep it lighthearted. I’ll minimize the holiday-focused prints, but refer to the occasion through shaping. For instance, the circling flying geese give the impression of a wreath.
With the intricate center, I wanted a simple first border, but one that would extend the range of color. Because the star points are a forest green print, I chose a citrus green for the border. The corner blocks add to the gold, found in the center’s green print and in its background fabric.
The second border was fun and easy to make. Take a look. The corners are just half-square triangles. The side blocks are each made of three pieces and all the blocks are same. Their orientation gives the look of a twisting ribbon as they circle the top.
And the third border is a plaid with dark green, dusky gold, and burgundy, with bright gold corners. I don’t love the dark plaid, for various reasons. But I think it will serve its purpose as the design develops. It’s easy to get hung up on individual elements, such as the color or shapes or value of a particular border. Just as you don’t have to love a particular block to have it work well in a block quilt, you don’t have to love a particular border in a medallion quilt. Every border changes every border, and it’s the final effect that counts.
I have tentative plans for the next borders, but won’t work on this more until next week.
The second quilt begins with a bear’s paw block in the center. I’m less certain of the direction for this one. I really like the center block, with its beautiful Julie Paschkis print in the large sections. And I love the batik that surrounds the block. I am not absolutely sure they work together. However, some patience is in order as I let the process play out. (Trust the process.)
Though I rarely work on two quilts in the same stage at the same time, the chaos is kind of exciting, too. We’ll see if I still feel that way in a couple of weeks. 🙂
Friday Jim and I drove down the Mississippi River from La Crosse, WI. We were returning from a two week trip to see our son, who lives in Washington state. With 2,000 miles behind us on the train, it felt great to switch to our own car.
In Prairie Du Chien, WI, we stopped for lunch. On one wall of the diner hung a quilt with a patriotic theme. It was a medallion quilt, centered by a stylized American flag. The flag block was turned on point twice, emphasizing its importance and creating a nice, large center.
I liked the setting, and especially liked that a non-square rectangle was turned that way. It’s a setting I haven’t used myself.
I’ve written plenty about turning large blocks on point to center a quilt. In one post I described the types of blocks suited for an on-point setting, if it is only turned once. In another I showed how to do that, with the math needed to cut your setting triangles large enough. I’ve also written about turning small blocks twice, creating an “economy block.”
But I’ve never written about turning a larger rectangular block twice. Here are some cool things I learned about it.
The Part I Already Knew
If you turn a square block twice, you’ll double its dimensions. Consider an example of a 15” block. Turn it twice with an exact (not over-large) setting, and you will create a block that is 30” wide. Using the math for diagonals,
15” x 1.414 = 21.21”.
Now turn it again:
21.21” x 1.414 = 30”.
This block setting is often called an “economy block.” It’s an especially effective way of highlighting a small centerpiece, such as a special or fussy-cut piece of fabric.
The Part I Didn’t Think About Much, But Probably Knew, Too
As it turns out, you can do this with non-square rectangles, too.
The Part I Didn’t Know, And Figured Out Last Night
The size relationship for both types of blocks can be generalized, and is far easier than multiplying by 1.414. If the length of the inside shape is A, and the width of the inside shape is B, the distance across the diagonal of the interior square is A+B. That means the length of the exterior square is A+B.
In the economy block example above, the interior square is 15”.
The resulting block is 30” square, or 15” + 15”.
In the second example, if the interior blue rectangle is 12” x 18”,
the resulting block is 30” square, or 12” + 18”.
The next time you want to frame a rectangle with setting triangles, remember how easy it is to determine the finished size. Length plus width of the interior rectangle (square or not!) is the width of the resulting square.
Ain’t math fun? 🙂