Retreat Report

After showing my prep work for last weekend’s retreat (here and here,) I thought I should also share a follow-up about it.

The retreat was scheduled for Friday, Saturday, and most of Sunday. During the week prior to the retreat I had a mild cold, and on the night before it was to begin, we had a forecast for several inches of snow. Between the two conditions, I decided to stay home on Friday and join the other quilters on Saturday. Even so, I sewed most of the day Friday, except when I was napping.

This morning I finished applying borders to this strip quilt for the local VA (Veterans’ Administration) hospital. It measures about 39″ x 59″.

Saturday I started fresh. After checking in at the retreat center and setting up my machine and stuff, I got to work sewing this baby quilt top. I had a little bit of cutting to do, but most of it was ready to go. It is about 38″ square.

And on Sunday I made blocks for a third quilt. They are all sewn but not pressed, so I’ll share them another day.

Since I usually work by myself, and often without teevee or music going, it was very different to have friends around me. I enjoyed listening to their conversations and getting to know some of them better. I think my sewing efficiency was better in some ways and worse in others. Certainly I got a lot done in the time, and I’m pleased with that.

Next steps are to press the other blocks I made and assemble them into a top. Then prep backs and batting for all three and get them quilted. With a lot of other things on my plate, I won’t guess how soon that will happen.


Prepping for Retreat 2

Man, time flies, doesn’t it? Between working on other projects and catching a cold, it’s been several days since I’ve even thought about my retreat. But considering I need to leave here early Friday (less than 48 hours!) I better get on the ball.

I have my first project prepped to make a quilt for the VA hospital. While I pulled fabrics for that, I also dug through my parts drawer. Most of the stuff in there is lengths of binding that weren’t used, but there are a few other odds and ends, including orphan blocks.

I’ve never counted orphan blocks as UFOs. That’s because in my life, they’re just random blocks, not neglected projects. And I don’t have very many, but there are a few. One of them is the terribly cute economy block I made for my world-famous tutorial. (Yep! Google “economy block” and see. Between my original blog post and the pinterest links to it, that post has two of the top four listings.)

As cute as it is, I don’t make a lot of cute quilts, and I haven’t found use for it. Until now. What the heck, right? It’s the perfect center for either a stillborn’s quilt or a small child’s quilt. My guild donates both sizes through our university hospital. Or if I love it too much, it might be for the new baby of a family friend. And while I don’t have a lot of those sweet colors left in my stash, there is enough to cobble together something I’ll be pleased to give.

Here is the beginning of it on the design wall, pieces cut but not sewn together.

So imagine big half-square triangles in pink and yellow all around, and then a double layer checkerboard in pinks, yellows, and blue. And then probably that more vibrant pink gingham for the last border.

One thing I enjoyed while cutting these pieces is completely finishing a few of these fabrics, aside from small scraps. That amazing stripe? That’s all there is of it. And the dainty but whimsical floral on yellow background? Gone. I’ve loved having them and using them, but as mentioned, I don’t make many quilts in pastels and twee prints. It won’t hurt to use them up.

Besides prepping projects, there is packing to do. Here is our list of suggested items:
* Name tag
* Sewing machine, power cord, foot pedal, attachments
* Machine needles
* Fabric and patterns for your projects
* Rotary cutter/scissors
* Seam ripper (just in case)
* Rulers (Please label these since they all look alike.  Address labels work well for this.)
* Marking pencils/pens
* Thread
* Tape measure
* Pins
* Lamp (optional)
* Lint roller for Sunday cleanup
* Something to drink (no alcohol) water, coffee and tea are always provided
* Snack to share (optional)
* Comfortable clothes—layers are probably best
* Pajamas
* Toiletries
* Your own pillow (optional) one is provided
* Sewing chair (optional)

Seems like they left off the calculator… I’ll also take my iron and a two-sided ironing/cutting board. And since we have a forecast for several inches more snow, and our work space is in a different building than the bedrooms, I’ll take sneakers for inside and boots for outside.

It looks like a lot, but aside from the chair, all of it is pretty compact.

Other than chocolate, I am missing anything from this list? 


Prepping for Retreat 1

In less than two weeks, I’ll join 15 other local quilters, mostly from my guild, for their annual spring retreat. Okay, sure, the first half of February does not really count as spring in Iowa, but it will be warm and sunny where we are.

Have you ever been to a retreat? This will only be my second time, but from my prior experience, it seems that it is good to be well-prepared. Besides bringing snacks to share, most quilters bring projects to piece. Though there will be ironing stations and cutting tables set up, it’s more efficient to use retreat time for stitching, rather than cutting.

I plan to take at least two, and maybe three or four projects to work on. That way I can change gears if bored. The first one will be a quilt for the local VA hospital. It will be simple with 32 6″ puss-in-the-corner blocks with 31 alternate blocks, for a layout of 7 x 9 blocks. With borders, the top will finish at 48″ x 60″.

I’m working from stash, but also from some pieces my small-group friends gave me for another project. They each said they DO NOT want the fabrics back! So I’ve pulled out what I want for the other project and figure a great use for the rest is donation quilts.

Cutting is almost done for this one. These are most of the fabrics:

Yes, that plaid was sold as a Christmas fabric, but who cares, right? I think it will do well for most of the alternate blocks. Here is the basic plan:

I still need to choose something for the alternate alternate blocks, because I am ONE BLOCK SHORT of having enough of the plaid for all of them. So I figured, make do! Switch them up and dress up the layout at the same time. But given the large floral with the blue background something rusty might be the right thing there.

It’s not fancy, but I think it will make a pretty quilt and something quite useful for one of our veterans.

What do you take to work on at retreats? 

Is This Improv?

As I work on another project, I’m mulling over the meaning other quilters give to the idea of “improv.” This is a long post, so thank you in advance if you choose to read.

Improvisation often implies just winging it, or spontaneously reacting. However, great improvisational speakers are prepared, understanding their topics and practiced in persuasion. Great jazz improvisers have tremendous musical training and preparation. They may not plan their improvs, but they aren’t just “winging it.” The inspired creativity of extemporizing is built on the rest of the written piece. It generally has structure and form, following loose rules not obvious to the untrained listener.

A post on Disc Makers Blog quotes an interview with legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. Tyner said that he doesn’t practice for improvisation, but what he does is to compose a lot. To him, improv and writing music are the same in many ways, but improv is composition on the spot, in real time.

In quilting, this would be as if designing a quilt and “improv” quilting are the same, except that improv is a faster process. I’m not sure that’s how I see it, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Quilters often take a different view altogether. Somehow “improv” has come to be seen as a style. Think Gee’s Bend. Or think of a number of different books on quilting improv. As I look at the covers in Amazon, they all feature quilts with seams that aren’t straight, points that don’t match, non-standard blocks or traditional blocks that are done in a wonky style.

To check on my impression of this, I googled “what is improvised quilting”. One of the first posts is the gallery of photos from the Modern Quilt Guild. All the photos on the first two gallery pages are styled with the characteristics I mentioned above.

One improv quilter, Cheryl Arkison, wrote about “What Really Counts As Improv Quilting?” :

… taking a traditional pattern and making it without measuring pieces or worrying about perfect points. This often makes it wonky.
… sewing together random bits of fabric to become bigger pieces of fabric. These can be used on their own or as part of something else.
… taking a certain cut of fabric and sewing it to another with no preplanning about what goes next to what. Free form piecing.
… changing course midway – once, twice, or thrice (or more) – because you can.
… an attitude that allows you to not freak out when something goes wrong or off track while piecing a quilt top.
… being open to the direction your quilt takes or being okay with scrapping it when you hate it.
… as much about the process as the product.

I would argue that the first three points above have much more to do with style than with improv. To me, improv is NOT a style or a quality of work, but a process, akin to improvisational theatre and music. It is a process about paying attention, making decisions based on what’s already happened, and choosing next steps based on resources available. It isn’t about randomness. I do like her point that it is an attitude that allows you to not freak out. 🙂

Arkison ultimately emphasizes process, too. “Improv is an approach, a technique that starts with simply starting. You begin without knowing what the end product will look like. You are improvising the design as you go.”

The article mentioned above in Disc Makers Blog has “11 Improvisation Tips to Help You Make Music in the Moment.” The tips begin with “Believe that you can improvise.” Also recommended is learning music theory; I would say this is similar to learning quilt design theory — it isn’t necessary to improvise successfully, but it does give you more to go on. Other tips include:

  • Try reacting to what’s around you
  • Embrace the accident
  • Don’t judge yourself in the moment (but review after the fact)
  • Say something — let your listener connect to the music by telling a story with it
  • Keep learning

All that said, how about this piece? I started to tell you about it in my recent post A Lot of Fun Stuff Going On. Here is the current status (and I will probably add more borders):

The photo is slightly off square, but the piece is on the money. 🙂

If you look at this through the eyes of the Modern Quilt Guild, I expect this would not be considered improvisational. But they don’t know about my process, do they? They don’t know that this started as a strip quilt, not a medallion quilt. They don’t know that the house was my design, and that it looked empty and lonely by itself, so I decided to add mullions on the windows and moulding on the door, and a tree. Or that the tree continued to grow without a plan, as trees do. They don’t know that the bird once lived in an anthology of children’s stories and poetry.

They don’t know that my process included choosing teal to frame the house, because teal would repeat the color of the door and feed well into the other fabrics I already chose. Or that I began with scraps of border stripe in a variety of lengths, none more than a few inches long, and found to my surprise that with careful piecing I had enough to miter them into the corners. Surely that is improvisation!

They don’t know that the next two fabrics were chosen after audition, or that their widths were determined based on what came before, what the fabrics themselves offered, and the potential for what will come next. They don’t know that this is another pink and brown quilt, because it is NOT! Because of improvisation.

And what will come next? I don’t know!! I still have 112 flying geese made for my strip quilt, and it’s possible that about half of them might fly around the edge. Or maybe not. My process allows me to make that decision when I am ready to make that decision.

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 also called Design-As-You-Go. It is what I teach in my Medallion Improv class. It is how I prefer to work, even though I often switch to design software to choose my later borders. That too is part of an improv process, because I leave open the possibility (which often happens) that I will not like what I designed with software, and I try again without freaking out.

In fact, I believe medallion quilts are uniquely perfect for improvisation. Because you make one border at a time, you can make one decision at a time.

Off my soap box now. Thanks for reading, if you’ve gotten this far. What do you think about improvisation? Do you improvise in quilting or other parts of your life? (We’re really all just makin’ it up as we go, aren’t we?) 🙂

Beginning is underrated*

*That is a recent post from Seth Godin, a popular writer and thinker on innovation and excellence. A lot of his posts are not much longer than that, a few words of inspiration, motivation, or encouragement to make, do, serve, share. And here the message is to do. Just begin.

There are different ways to say this. Nike’s famous “Just Do It.” Or the basic lottery pitch of “ya gotta play to win!” Something I’ve often said is, “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” (Now, sometimes that might have been said with a whiny tone of voice, implying that other people who could or should take responsibility would not, and therefore it was left to me. But most of the time, it’s simply my own recognition that I have a task to work on that won’t do itself.)

Are there things you’ve been intending to accomplish, but which you haven’t started yet? Are there quilt shows you want to enter but haven’t yet filled out the form? Are there techniques you want to try but for some reason haven’t? You can fill in those blanks for yourself better than I can. And I have a list of them, too!

Today is a good day to begin, so let’s get started!

What’s on your list of things to begin?