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:

 

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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. 🙂

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!