Tag Archives: Design-As-You-Go

The Rooster

Sometimes all the what-ifs lead to creative breakthroughs, and sometimes they just set up roadblocks to making. If you chase every possible path, you’ll never get anything done.

After finishing the checkerboard border, I had lots of choices available. The size of the center (center block plus the border) was odd, something like 19.75″,  and it would have been awkward to add a border of regular square blocks at that point. I could have added a spacer border to make a an easier fit, but I wasn’t happy with the sizing that would have required, either. And I would have needed a plan for type of pieced border, so I could choose the spacer border width.

What if, instead of a pieced border, I made an appliquéd one? Then the width wouldn’t matter, except relative to proportions. Yeah, that could work. That begs the question, what kind of appliqué? Something pretty simply, something small to work with the proportions, something in colors already used, or similar enough to them that the color isn’t confusing. Well, I guess that narrows it down…

At least it let me get started. After the dark blue and bronze checkerboard, I wanted an edge of salmon. From a construction standpoint, the narrow border would stabilize the piecing, since the checkerboard squares finish at 1 1/8″. From a design standpoint, it would repeat the color of the rooster’s feet and eyeball, and refer to the background coral (mesh-like print) and the rooster’s comb and wattle. It would brighten the composition with the accent, and give separation from another, darker border.

I decided to try for a finished width of about 1/4″. In retrospect, a flange would have worked well, too, and may have been easier to execute. But this worked well enough. Before attaching, I made sure the center’s corners were good and square. That involved shaving off tiny bits of the pieced checkerboard along the edges. Fortunately they were in pretty good shape. Then I pinned the narrow salmon border with lots of fine pins, so the two pieces were flush along the edges, and they wouldn’t slip away from each other. I stitched carefully to maintain the seam allowance. (And when I add borders, I always backstitch at both ends.)

I had already chosen a blue for the last border. It’s the same color as the blue on the chicken, but rather than a random-looking stripe slashing across it, it has a very fine cross-hatching of black and off-white, suggesting plaid. The regularity of design repeats the regularity in the checkerboard, but of a completely different scale.

I drew a simple shape to appliqué, thinking I could just repeat it a number of times around the edge. After digging through lots of fabric, I chose a dark toffee color with a brown leaf print. I pressed fusible web onto a small piece of it and cut out three of the shape. The shape is either an X or a +, depending on orientation. With the size I cut it, there is only room for it as an X.

Once I had the three samples and auditioned them on the blue border, I decided they took too much attention away from the rooster. I could have gone through a million more what-ifs, everything from what color or width of border to use, what color or shape of appliqué, whether to go back to the idea of a pieced border. The fact is, though, I like it just the way it is. I declare the rooster top “done.”

 

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The Old School House

Some old buildings fascinate me. I love the lines of old train stations, small-town Carnegie libraries, and one-room school houses. For many years I’ve fantasized about turning a school building, of the style common in the Midwest and seen in television’s “Little House on the Prairie,” into a home.

There’s another style of school building more common in early New England, two stories with straight lines of brick or clapboards, and symmetrical windows. Buildings like these appear often in embroidery samplers from the early years of our country, worked by school girls expected to learn domestic arts, rather than academics. Here is a charming example from wikipedia:

These buildings hold a different romance for me, and I wanted to make one for myself. About mid-way through creating the top, I posted about it (and thoughts on the term “improv”) in this post.

And more about it here. In the photo below you see the center framed four times, through the dark red paisley. I could have maintained the square shape with the rest of the borders, but elongating the quilt would emphasize the tall, narrow shape of the school. To lengthen the shape, I added borders to top and bottom.

By mid-March I had the top finished, including a bit of additional embroidery. By the way, I loved doing the embroidery! It was free-style, improvisational all the way, with no hoop. There is more embroidery in my future, no doubt!

The finished quilt pleases me enormously.

The Old School House. 51″ x 64″. March 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Though I had several dozen flying geese in double pinks, reds, browns, and teals, (after all, the quilt was supposed to be a strip quilt of geese, not a medallion quilt with a house,) I opted to simplify the colors by using only pinks and reds. Using a wide variety of fabrics for them makes them a bit more interesting.

With all the warm colors, I chose to repeat the cool colors with the teal triangles and the olive green narrow strip, as well as in the star points.

Notice how simple this construction is! The only obviously pieced borders are those with stars and with geese. The rest are plain strip borders. (The print second border, just outside the line of teal, is actually pieced in many places, as I eked out the length from scraps.) No one needs to be an expert to make something like this. They just need to know how to make things fit well enough to lie flat.

As with Fierce Little Bear, some of the detail is in the quilting, rather than in the piecing or format. I used white thread to create some airy detail in the sky, and green to draw more wispy leaves around the tree and to expand the globe of flowers on the right. The roof got lines in rust, and the window details were emphasized with the texture of pale golden tan thread, similar to the window backgrounds. I also quilted lines across the house in the manner of clapboards. Click on any picture to open the gallery for a closer look.

I’ve been enjoying my projects so far this year, both those finished and those still in process. I’ll keep sharing the finished ones as I get posts written, though in truth, I’ll probably skip writing about the VA hospital quilts.

Thanks for taking a look!

Finished in 2018:
1. Fierce Little Bear
2. VA hospital quilt
3. VA hospital quilt
4. Charlotte’s Kitty
5. The Old School House
6. Georgia’s graduation quilt
7. Where Are the Birds?
8. Fiesta!

Fierce Little Bear

The first quilt I completed this year named itself, as many do. It is called “Fierce Little Bear.” The bear in the name refers to the bear’s paw block that centers it. “Fierce” and “little” describe the owner of the quilt, my niece, a petite young woman who has faced tragedy and trial with grit.

I started the project last fall with a bear’s paw block, made with fussy-cut paws. In a post called Transformation, I showed you the beginning of it, including changing corner blocks to the dark blue you see below. 

I finished the top, posting a few photos on Instagram of the progress. By mid-November I was ready to load the layers for quilting. And by five days later, I took it off again because of tension issues. This photo of picked stitches gives a small sense of the trouble. I unpicked more stitches for this quilt than … any other since the last one I finished! (I’ll tell you about it soon.)

I’ve mentioned (many times, probably!) that I’m trying to learn how to tell stories better with quilts. There are many ways to do that, including the choice of fabrics, block style, and layout. Any words or pictures added through appliqué or other means can help tell a story. Another way to tell a story is with the quilting, which was a big part of my plan with this one.

Because I wanted the quilting to be special, and because my machine was having some erratic tension, as I continued to quilt, I checked the back every couple of minutes to be sure it was going okay. Now mind you, “checking the back of the quilt” while it’s on the frame usually means getting on the floor, scooting under the frame, craning the neck while holding a light up to the back, scanning across all the work done, burrowing back out from under the layers, and standing up again. All doable, but not always comfortable.

With holiday and project interruptions, I finished quilting and binding it early in January. At that point, the next step was delivery. My niece lives near enough to see in person but far enough that it requires a special plan.

And then! Then I saw that IQF had a call for entries to the Chicago show in the spring. One of their exhibits was Midwest Traditional quilts. Well, what could be more traditional than a medallion? So I entered it, putting off delivery of the quilt to my niece. It was not accepted — I think their idea of traditional was somewhat different from mine — but I’m glad I tried.

Finally at the very end of March, Jim and I took a short trip to see my niece Emily and her dad, who is my brother. I had three quilts with me and said I just thought she would enjoy seeing them in person, since mostly she sees my work on facebook. I showed one, then another. And then I had her open the third, Fierce Little Bear. Below is a gallery of photos of Emily examining it with her husband Adam. Click on any to open and embiggen.

Here is the quilt.

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

The piecing design of this quilt, along with the fabrics, begins a story. The bear’s paw center is a traditional block design. Each of the “paws” is fussy-cut from fabric designed by Julie Paschkis. Here are two of them.

The combination of this fabric and the batik surrounding the center drove the color choices, including the emphases on cobalt blue, turquoise, and red. The Julie Paschkis prints also included black backgrounds, allowing use of black, also. This is a wildly unusual color combination. (And I will say, Jim and I took dozens of photos of this quilt, more than anything I’ve ever done, and in various set-ups for lighting. The colors simply do not show well together in photos, but they are quite beautiful in person. sigh…) 

The inner borders of turquoise and yellow create a faux-on-point setting, and also allow the illusion that the center block and its batik border float on top of the rest.

The middle borders are intentionally sharp and jagged, and have a subtle reference to Native American designs. And the outer border repeats the batik, tying it all together.

The quilting finishes the story. It 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. You truly can’t see the detail without close examination. Here are a few pictures to give you a taste of it.

This is a very long post and I am omitting so many pictures I’d like to include, but you have to stop somewhere. The last photo I’ll show will give you different information. It is a black and white image of the top, prior to quilting.

While I made this, I fretted a lot, hoping it would turn out well and suit my niece. She is strong and vibrant; she loves the outdoors; she is generous and kind; and she is unique. That’s what I wanted the quilt to be. Over and over I showed photos of progress to my brother, and he continually encouraged me, reassuring me that she would love it. But the colors, though beautiful, are no one’s idea of an expected combination. Finally, I looked at the top without color, in the black and white version above. And finally I was reassured that it worked. Exactly as I wanted.

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? 

 

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?) 🙂