Tag Archives: Design

What Makes It Interesting? Part 4

I’m going to wrap up my thoughts on what makes a quilt interesting, with some comments on how a quilt’s story contributes. To remind you, I’m specifically talking about quilts that might be used as a bed or lap quilt, and not art quilts or wall-hangings. Also, if you’d like to read more on this, see the first three parts of this here, here, and here. Take a look at comments, too, as they offer more to the discussion.

Let me clarify that these posts are about how a quilt (or other object) appears visually, and what characteristics lead one to spend more time looking at it. But when a story helps us appreciate the look, the story is significant, too.

Remember this?

This is a pillow I made for my son. With the buttons pulling at the placket, it looks like a shirt too small for its wearer. Not really an attractive look. Once you’ve noticed that it is a shirt repurposed as a pillow cover, there isn’t anything else to see. Not interesting, and no reason to keep looking at it.

I could have posted a photo of it with no explanation. Instead, I told you a story about my son and about the shirt. Based on the reactions in comments, it seems the pillow is more interesting than it appears at first glance.

Stories can be told about the object itself and why it is important, or about the process of making, or about the owner. They can be embedded within the object or thoroughly outside of it. Because quilting is a visual craft, we can use symbolism of color or shape, and we can include words and ideas, to convey meaning or story. Take a look at Kerry’s beautiful quilt she has basted and ready for hand-quilting. It is a sampler with quotations embroidered onto several of the blocks. At least part of the story in her quilt is apparent. And it is that story that will help keep the viewer looking, until their curiosity about the quotations and variety of blocks is satisfied.

Another example is a quilt I made for a family friend, for her high school graduation in 2007. Ten years ago I was an early quilter, and the fabrics I chose were more important, symbolically, than the design.

Whitney’s graduation quilt. Lap quilt sized. 2007.

Without close-ups, you might not be able to see the various prints. There are musical notes, in honor of her experiences in high school band, and smiley faces, to signify her multiple dental surgeries and teeth-bracing episodes. The flip flop sandals note her favorite footwear, and the narrow border is a long line of coffee cups, to celebrate her work at a local coffee shop. In the lower right corner is a “W” for her first name. And in the upper left corner is a plaid I created from strips of colorful fabric. The plaid is to commemorate her friendship with my son. (Plaid!) Unlike with Kerry’s quilt, this quilt’s story is best read by someone who knows the owner.

Another quilt, made in 2010 for another of Son’s friends, has a very long back story. What you see in this picture is the punchline. Notice that besides the soccer ball, there is a trumpet behind the word “PLAY.” In addition to the words and pictures, the pieced bands use Dan’s high school and university colors.

Dan’s college graduation quilt. This is actually the back of the quilt. 2010.

I still use fabrics to convey meaning. My recent quilt, Black Sheep Manor, includes a variety of prints that the owners may notice over time and attach meaning to. Besides the fabrics, I’ve also used piecing to add significance. For instance, in a note to the owners, I explained the “piano keys” border as books, tremendously important in their lives. The middle border of half-square triangles also was intended to have meaning to them that others would not find.

If you’re familiar with Antiques Roadshow, you know that an object’s provenance can be an important aspect of its monetary value. What you might not know is that provenance or story can add value to a wide range of objects, not just antiques.

Recently I read Austin Kleon‘s book Show Your Work. In the book’s Chapter 5 “Tell Good Stories,” Kleon briefly describes an experiment done on the monetary value a story can add to an object. The experiment is more fully described at BrainPickings, in an article called “Significant Objects: How Stories Confer Value Upon the Vacant.” According to the article, the researchers

… would purchase cheap trinkets, ask some of today’s most exciting creative writers to invent stories about them, then post the stories and the objects on eBay to see whether the invented story enhanced the value of the object. Which it did: The tchotchkes, originally purchased for a total of $128.74, sold for a whopping total of $3,612.51 — a 2,700% markup.

Having a story made the objects more interesting, thus increased the value to buyers. The results were summarized as follows:

“It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.

I encourage you to read the whole article at BrainPickings.

Our quilts carry stories with them. Some stories are only obvious to the makers, as described in my post Transforming the Past| Transforming the Future. Some are obvious also to the intended owners. I believe we honor the tradition of quilting when we are aware of this, and let our quilts tell stories. I believe we can find the process of making more meaningful when we incorporate stories, as well.

Do your quilts tell stories? Are the stories mainly for your own benefit, or ones that anyone can see, or specific only to the owner? Do you have any other follow-up thoughts about making quilts that are interesting for the viewer? 


What Makes It Interesting? Part 3

In my last post I talked a bit about why color draws us to appreciate some quilts more than others. Besides color, per se, unexpected color combinations might be more important in finding a quilt interesting.

Two other factors that might make a quilt interesting are the combination of fabrics and any story about the quilt’s design, the making of it, or the owner.

When I think about the combination of fabrics, I’m thinking about the impression the fabrics make aside from color or value. For example, within a color group, or within a value group, are there differences that draw the eye? Are there details that contribute to the look or feel of the project?

One strategy that can be effective is to repeat a pattern design in multiple fabrics across a quilt. For example, you might use multiple leafy prints in various ways, or multiple dots, or plaids. When the viewer notices the second paisley, they might naturally search for a third. That search keeps the viewer attentive to the quilt — something about the quilt must be interesting to warrant it.

I don’t often take many close-up photos of my quilts (must change that …) , but recently I shared several pix of my seasonal quilt Christmas Is Coming! These show that the fabrics are mostly in reds, greens, and golds, not unexpected in a Christmas quilt.

Imagine if all the reds were done in only three fabrics. Imagine if all the greens were in one lighter green and one darker green. Imagine if all the light-valued “background” fabrics were the same throughout the quilt. Imagine if there were only one gold. Would it be as much fun to look at? Imagine snuggling under this quilt for a nap, or to read a book. Would a quilt in seven fabrics keep you looking from block to block as it drapes across your lap?

What else would be missing with fewer fabrics? The feeling would be missing. I designed this quilt to be festive, and to include a sense of whimsy. The feeling created by the combination of fabrics leads directly to emotional engagement, one of the things that draws the viewer in to look more.

In this case, more fabrics makes it more interesting. The set includes a broad array of styles and variations on the core colors. I wouldn’t say that more fabrics is always better. I’ve seen fabric lines that, even with lots of print designs, don’t offer variety of style, or much range of color. Creating a quilt using just one fabric line can make it look “matchy matchy,” or excessively coordinated. And that, in my opinion, takes us back to quilts that must depend on something besides the fabrics to be interesting.

In general, I find scrappy quilts to be more interesting than those made with fewer fabrics. But your mileage may vary! What do you like when looking at quilts made by others? What do you like when making your own quilts? 

In what will probably be my last post on making quilts interesting, I’ll talk about how story contributes. 


What Makes It Interesting? Part 2

I continue to think about “interesting,” because I want to make interesting quilts. I want them to challenge and engage me in the process, and I want them to engage the viewer/owner when done. Keep in mind that you don’t have to like a quilt to find it interesting. It doesn’t need to be “pretty,” or in a style you prefer. It doesn’t need to be one you’d like to make yourself.

In Part 1, I mentioned a few characteristics that can make quilts interesting to me. They include

  1. something unexpected
  2. balance with asymmetry of placement, shape, color, value, pattern, or texture
  3. movement, a sense of direction
  4. rhythmic repetition
  5. imperfection

There are three other things, or perhaps more specific characteristics, that I’d like to include on that list. They are color, combination of fabrics, and story.

There’s no denying that color creates strong reactions in many of us. Who doesn’t have at least one “favorite” color? According to the lay magazine Psychology Today,

… color preferences derive from our preference for the objects that typically have these colors…

Our individual preference for a particular color associated with these objects (a living room wall or an automobile) will be produced and reinforced by the positive feedback associated with the object and the color it has.  Everyone has a somewhat different life experience, and so as people increasingly experience pleasure in something they bought in a particular color, they will tend to chose similar objects in the future with the same color.  This leads to a self perpetuating situation.

So color preferences help keep us safe, by choosing foods and other items with which we’ve had a good experience. We choose clothing colors that either show us off or protect us, depending on our needs. Some quilters I know prefer bright, saturated colors, while others reliably choose earth tones or muted hues. If you usually quilt with 1800s reproduction fabrics, you will probably notice, and spend more time looking at, quilts made with similar colors.

I’m not sure that is enough to make a quilt “interesting.” (What do you think? I don’t have a very well-formed thought on this.) It seems to me that for color to make a quilt interesting, there needs to be something unexpected going on. My blog friend Judith of jmn Creative Endeavours said in a comment, “One factor I try including in all of my quilts is an unexpected colour – when I get that right the quilt comes to life. It doesn’t take much of that colour to have an effect … Most people looking at one of my quilts don’t see what I’ve done, they just feel the effect.”

Recently I did a guild presentation with trunk show. More than once I found myself thinking, about my own quilts, that I’d used an unusual color combination. For example, the quilt below uses red, coral, teal, aqua, periwinkle, lemon yellow, and acid green. Certainly the colors aren’t the only thing going on, or the only reason someone might look at this. (And they’re not necessarily ones you like or would choose! It’s okay if you don’t like it.) But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another quilt with this combination.

Contrast this with Dizzy, which I showed you in the last post. The few colors are pulled directly from the print floral in the middle border. Because the floral sets the palette, there is no surprise in the colors of other fabrics used.

Combination of fabrics and story are two more factors that create interest for me. I’ll discuss those more in a couple more posts.


What Makes It Interesting?

Not just beautiful, not just well-crafted. What makes a quilt interesting, one you want to look at for a long time? One that keeps bringing you back to it?

In these questions, I am not thinking of “art” quilts or wall-hangings. Rather, I’m thinking of quilts, whatever their style, that might be used as a bed or lap quilt.

What design characteristics make a quilt interesting? Is it easier to answer if asked what makes a quilt boring?

What makes a quilt uninteresting (to me):

  1. nothing unexpected
  2. perfect symmetry including all use of placement, shape, color, value, pattern, texture
  3. no sense of movement, nothing to direct the eye
  4. too much repetition — same shapes in same colors with same placement
  5. no repetition, too much movement, chaos — if there is too much going on, I shut down
  6. “perfection”

Things that can make a quilt interesting to me:

  1. something unexpected
  2. balance with asymmetry of placement, shape, color, value, pattern, or texture
  3. movement, a sense of direction
  4. rhythmic repetition
  5. imperfection

Here are two quilts I made in 2017, for comparison. In some ways they are the same, with solid white backgrounds and lots of open space. They are both “pretty,” I think. But one is more interesting (to me) to look at than the other.

Dizzy. 60″ x 60″. 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Fire & Ice. 68″ x 68″. 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

So what’s the difference? In some ways, Dizzy is more interesting than Fire & Ice. Dizzy has more colors. It’s kind of fun to track the block colors back into the floral print border. There’s more value differentiation in Dizzy than in Fire & Ice.

But to me, Fire & Ice keeps my eye for longer. There is more to it that is unexpected, or requires more time to consider. There are more shapes and different angles in it, while Dizzy has only two basic blocks, the pinwheels and the variable (sawtooth) stars. In Dizzy, the blocks’ colors are also symmetrically arranged. If you see one quadrant of the quilt, you don’t need to see the rest. While that is essentially true for Fire & Ice, the repetition alludes to other shapes, rather than directly repeating. The outside corner blocks use a “wing” shape from the center block, but they frame different shapes. The solid red lines are various widths. The center block suggests some puzzles to its construction. The positive/negative space use of alternating hourglass blocks creates the main movement.

Besides, that, the design of Fire & Ice is far from perfection. The proportions of shapes are not quite right. The border of alternating bars has an even number, meaning the line is not symmetrical. There’s a lot of white space in the final wide border, especially as compared to the hourglass border. Some shapes are big and some are small. The lack of perfection is exactly what makes it most interesting.

To me, it’s useful to consider what makes an interesting quilt, because I want to make quilts that are interesting. I want to make quilts that someone might linger over for a long time, taking in the details. Ones that have a story to tell through their design. Ones that carry little surprises. Ones that pose some challenges in the making.

What characteristics make you linger over a quilt? Why do you keep looking? When you think of your own quilts, which ones do you still enjoy looking at, and why? When you think of “interesting,” what do you think of?


Christmas Is Coming!

The top of my class Christmas quilt is done, but it needs to be quilted. (I’m still working on the bear’s paw quilt, too. As these get bigger, it’s harder to work on them “at the same time.”)

Here are a few pix. Below is the finished top in as big of a view as I can manage. There are a few “Christmas” fabrics in it, but I rarely buy novelty fabrics. My friend Sharon passed a few of hers to me, so bits of hers show up. Mostly, though, it is other reds, greens, and golds I had in stash. I didn’t buy anything new for this.

Quilt top, laid out on the floor. I can’t get quite high enough to fit the whole thing in view. It’s about 68″ square.

OH, that’s not true. I did buy the green paisley in one of the strip borders. I’d used a different green, cut it and attached it, and simply wasn’t happy with it. This green has more light in it and has more interesting pattern.

A decent view of the center block, which finished at 16″. The green border around it is 2″ wide, taking the segment to 20″ square. Notice how the strip border neither encloses the center block, nor expands it. It is neutral. The swirly line print does draw the eye, but does not direct the eye farther out. This suits, because the center block really is self-contained. With its round shape and circling flying geese, it wouldn’t work as well with something like spraying half-square triangles in the first border.

The outside border is the red plaid at the top of the photo. It helps settle down the riot caused by the pile of packages in the next border, all in scrappy fabrics.

I had fun making the green “packages” with their bows on top. The bows are just flying geese, and they echo the shapes in the hourglasses above, as well as the flying geese in the center and the pinwheels in the corner blocks.

The pinwheel corner blocks are a funny illusion. They’re made of the same block as that ribbon border near the center. It’s called a “Y” block in EQ7. There are 4 of them in a pinwheel block, and using all the same “background” fabric makes it look like a pinwheel on point. The pinwheel spins, as do the flying geese in the center, though going in different directions. Finally, they are one more allusion to a package, as it looks like you’re looking down on the top of a fancy bow.

Over the years I’ve gotten over the wish to make my fabrics match for style. While I do want them to “go” together, there is a pretty broad range, even in a quilt like this. There are 1800s reproductions, a few Christmas fabrics, at least one batik, a fabric sold as wide backing fabric… I enjoyed using the last of a few scraps, evening piecing a few scraps together to make patches big enough. I remember where I bought some of these, including on a family reunion trip in Michigan, on an outing to Illinois with Jim, at chain stores and local quilt shops and one online store. A quilt like this represents a large part of my quilting history, stitching memories into the design.

I plan to keep this quilt. Though we decorate pretty minimally for Christmas, I’ll enjoy having this out, either spread across the dining room table or draped on the stair railing, or even bunched around the two of us on the couch. Some day maybe I’ll give it to one of my kids, instead of the coal they usually get for Christmas. 😉