Category Archives: Quilting

Wind River Beauty, Math Part 1

In 2017 Jim and I drove thousands of miles in a number of different trips. When you’re in the car together that much, literally a few inches apart, it helps to have entertainment. Fortunately, we like to talk with one another, so the types of things one might muse about silently instead become topics for conversation. For example, after noticing a stop sign and considering how it looks like a snowball block, I asked, “If you start with a square and want to make a regular octagon from it, how do you calculate the length so each of the 8 sides is the same?” Huh?

Okay, look at the two illustrations below. The one on the left is a stop sign. It’s a regular octagon, meaning that all of the angles are equal and all of the lengths are equal. The diagonal segments of the octagon are the same lengths as the horizontal and vertical segments. I noted the dimensions as a for the vertical and horizontal segments, and c for the diagonal segments. As you can see, a = c. (Click the image to open the gallery and see larger.) The segment lengths are all the same. The dotted segment noted as b is not part of the octagon. If you extend the vertical and horizontal lines to create a square, b is the extension.

On the right is an illustration of a square, red & white snowball block. (This specific snowball block is designed to pair with something like a 9-patch block.) For the octagon (white, 8-sided shape,) the angles are all the same. However, the lengths of the octagon line segments are not the same. The diagonal segments of the octagon c are longer than the horizontal and vertical segments a. Why? For this particular block, each side of the square is cut in thirds; a = b. Going down the left side of the square, the top red segment b is equal in length to the center white segment a, which is equal to the lower red segment. The equal lengths make it easy to pair this block with a 9-patch. But the equal lengths of a and b mean the diagonals c are longer by a factor of 1.414. The general idea is the same for all snowball blocks, with the length of c the diagonal dependent on the length of the two triangle legs. See the primer on the Pythagorean theorem at the bottom of the post if you want to know more. 

So how do you take a square and make a regular octagon from it? I’m not bad at math but will be the first to admit I didn’t learn my geometry. Jim worked it out for me. What he found is

b = .707a
2b = 1.414a
==> side of the square = 2b + a = 2.414a

Why does it matter? At the time it was just curiosity, but I quickly found a project to apply it. In spring of 2018 I took a workshop with Toby Lischko on making New York Beauty blocks. She taught a simple way to use curved rulers and paper piecing to create these lovely, complex blocks. This was mine.

After I made it, I thought about how to use it to center a quilt. My design idea would work best if the center was a regular octagon.

With Jim’s formula in hand, knowing the size of the square, I solved for a and b, which let me know how big to cut the stitch-and-flip squares to make the corners.

I wanted a center block finishing at 17″. (Why 17″? That comes later, more math!) That means
side of the square = 2b + a = 2.414a
17 = 2.414a
a = 17/2.414 (just dividing both sides by the same number to solve for a)
a = 7.04, or just barely over 7″.

Since the finished side of the square is 17″ and a (the center segment) is 7″, the other two segments b are 5″ each. I cut my stitch and flip corners 5.5″ each. This is the result. The finished length of the diagonals (along the purple/orange seam) is the same as the finished length of the orange segment along the horizontal and vertical sides of the square. 

Pythagorean Theorem

Here’s the concept. The picture below shows a triangle that is 1″ on the vertical and horizontal sides. The diagonal measures 1.414″, which is the square root of 2″. (Check with your calculator if you don’t believe me.)

For a right triangle, the square of the length of the diagonal (hypotenuse) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. We often see this expressed as a² + b² = c². To find c, take the square root of c².

In the case to the left, a = 1; a² = 1; b = 1; b² = 1; a² + b² = c² = 2; c is the square root of 2, or 1.414.

In fact, the diagonal of every square is 1.414 times the length of the side. So
length x 1.414 = diagonal.

1″ x 1.414 = 1.414″
2″ x 1.414 = 2.828″ or close to 2 7/8″
3″ x 1.414 = 4.242″ or close to 4 1/4″
4″ x 1.414 = 5.656″ or close to 5 5/8″
and so on.

That also means that if I know the diagonal of a square, I can find the length using
diagonal/1.414 = length. For example
6″/1.414 = 4.243″, or very close to 4 1/4″.
This is also useful in the next step of the Wind River Beauty.

Agreed, you gotta be something of a math nerd to work through all this. I’m glad all my quilts don’t require this process, but it’s a wonderful tool to use for a few.


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.

You Can Do That?

A friend of mine, Joanna the Snarky Quilter, said something recently that resonated with me. Because I won’t be able to find a quote, I’ll tell you what I remember: just because a quilt is “done” doesn’t mean you can’t still change it.

Long ago, a woman Jim taught with told the story of rearranging her home’s living room. Her young daughter came home and saw the changes. Very confused, the girl asked what happened. The mom said she’d moved the furniture, to which the girl replied, “You can do that?”

I had the same feeling when I read Joanna’s claim. You can do that? Of course! Why not?


Last spring I took a workshop with a quilt artist named Cathy Geier. She showed us very simple techniques to transform printed fabric to create a landscape quilt, using glue, markers and crayons, scissors, a little fusible web, and quilting.

Here was my result. This was my first “collage” quilt and I’m pretty happy with it, and with what I learned. One thing that’s odd is it feels kind of sterile. I considered naming it “Where Are the Birds?” because there is no sign of animated life anywhere. Another part that makes me less happy (and I know this wouldn’t bother many people) is that it doesn’t feel like my quilt, because I didn’t design it. Maybe that’s just weird of me to feel this way… But maybe because of that, I like the back that shows the quilting as much as the front.

The gallery below shows a squared-off photo. Click either image to see bigger and with right proportions.


Last year I found a line drawing of a deer’s head that I modified and drew on tracing paper. I considered a variety of ways to use it as an appliqué pattern. I could just use a solid cut-out on a solid background to maximize the impact. That’s still an option, but last week I tried using more of a fabric collage technique. Again, remember I’m still figuring out appliqué as a technique and as a way of using space.

I started by fusing fabric onto the paper.

This was not a good plan. Honestly I FORGOT it was tracing paper, because it looks almost exactly like parchment paper. Fusible web releases from parchment paper; it does NOT release from tracing paper.

It was okay. I actually laughed. I didn’t love what I’d already done, so didn’t mind doing it over.

Once I rebuilt the deer’s head, I needed to choose a background. Here it is on a piece of fabric, printed with a forest design.

Still didn’t love it, but it’s better and at least let me imagine a direction for it. Anything very busy will obscure the deer, but anything very plain will show off the deer more than it deserves. 🙂

Then I saw Joanna’s wise words and thought, what if I put it on the trees landscape?

It is all stitched down now, using a lightning-style zigzaggy stitch from my machine that looks more natural than a plain zigzag. Here’s the truth: I still don’t love it, but I like both the deer and the landscape better now that they’re together. And I learned a lot. Win!

P.S. If you are looking for an interesting blog to follow, check out Joanna the Snarky Quilter. While she has her background in traditional quilting, as long as I’ve known her she’s moved more and more deeply into art quilting. She often shares techniques she’s using for surface design, and she shares process as she moved through projects. She’s very articulate, too, which makes for great reading.

Ideas You Can Use

I love having friends come for dinner. This evening we’ll host another couple, share some good laughs, a few good rants, dinner, and a bottle of wine.

I also love old-fashioned cakes, made from scratch. I think of them as “homely,” as they aren’t highly decorated. I wouldn’t win the Great British Baking Show with my skills, but we’ll enjoy this applesauce bundt cake with brown sugar glaze, with a little ice cream for dessert!

I’m also trying to finish quilting my urn-with-flowers project. It’s been on the frame for several days, and I get a bit done at a time. Each day I think “it might be done today!”

It’s worth mentioning my take on quilting medallion-format quilts. For machine-quilting, you can choose to do an all-over design; quilting that is custom, or different in each segment or border; or some combination. Usually I do an all-over design.

I’ve custom-quilted a few for which, after the fact, it seemed like a waste of effort. There was so much going on with the piecing that the quilting didn’t add much, and I could have done something much simpler. And there are others for which I simply couldn’t have chosen an all-over design. Because this one has a fair amount of appliqué, I decided to do custom. That makes it a much slower process, but it’s coming along and will be done soon!

While I waited for the longarm to warm up this morning, I took a few photos in my studio. They have some ideas you might find useful.

  • I usually sew (piece) with So Fine 50wt. polyester thread on cones. The cones don’t fit my domestic machine, so I keep the cone in a cup next to the machine, and run the thread through the loop of a safety pin.
  • I have a lot of storage in my studio. (Click any picture to open the gallery and see detail.) My fabric stash is in the TV armoire. Almost all of it is in the plastic bins in the top. Other things (scraps, current projects, bags, etc.) are stored under my cutting table in rolling drawer sets. The table is a basic folding table, available at any big box store. It is on “stilts” made of PVC pipes cut to length. The third picture is of an open cabinet we got at a garage sale 100 years ago. The new addition is the wire under-shelf bin that holds my overflow of thread cones. On top of the cabinet is my bobbin winder for the longarm.
  • For a few years I’ve used Fiskars blunt-tipped school scissors when I quilt. They will keep me from punching a hole in a quilt top by accidentally dropping pointy scissors on it. But I never had a good place to put them and found reaching for them (where are they now??) awkward. For Christmas Santa brought me a package of lightweight 3M Command hooks. I applied one to the side of my longarm and now I know exactly where the scissors will be. Next I’ll put one on the side of my domestic machine for the small scissors I use there.

  • At the back of my cutting table is a rack to hold my cutting rulers. Yes, that’s all of them! I had a plastic letter holder for years, foraged from work during a long-ago closet-cleaning. Last summer I purchased a prettier one, and every time I see it, I’m glad I bought it. I also keep a yogurt cup with lid on the table. In it go all my dead needles, bent pins, and dull rotary blades. I’ve used the same one for years. If it ever fills up, I’ll tape it shut with duct tape before putting it in the trash. The other item you see is my pin magnet, for long pins I use on the longarm. It sits in a paper bowl. The bowl keeps the pins corralled just a bit better than the magnet by itself. I keep another bowl-and-magnet of fine straight pins next to my domestic machine for piecing duty.

  • Last but not least is a photo of some of my studio lighting. On either side of the room I have a LED utility light. This one can be removed from the wall above the window, and used for extra light when we photograph finished quilts. The LED strips are inexpensive and give great quality of light.

I hope the start of your new year has been happy and productive, or at least happy. 🙂