Tag Archives: Fail better

Try and Try Again

When I make a quilt, sometimes I can envision just what to do. HA! Sure. Sometimes. But probably as often, I run through several scenarios before deciding I’m done with a segment.

That might work with any or all of these steps:
1) Think about different possibilities. Consider colors, shapes, scale…
2) Try ideas in EQ7.
3) Sketch out ideas on paper.
4) Audition fabric.
5) Cut and stitch fabrics.
6) Assemble.
7) Disassemble.
8) Try again.

I’m teaching my Medallion Improv! class again. My students are each making a quilt, which they design for themselves. I am making two quilts of very different natures, in order to demonstrate thinking about a greater variety of puzzles. The more traditional quilt is going together pretty easily. But the non-traditional one¬†is a bigger mystery.

The tentative title for this one is “I Found the Housework Fairy But She’s Not Coming Back.” ūüôā


Here are the steps I’ve taken¬†so far:

1) The center block uses a piece of fabric from Alexander Henry. Once I cut it to size, I knew the fairy would get a little lost in the center, with all the busyness. I wanted to frame her better and reduce the clutter of the scene. I added the curved strips, which helped. She’s still not quite as obvious as I’d like, but it’s better. And the insets add a little texture, so it isn’t “just” a piece of fabric now.

2) The first border actually did what I wanted. The turquoise top and bottom helps direct attention to her because of the aqua in her hair. The mitered corners point at her, centered in the block. The overall simplicity helps offset the busy center.

3) Last week in class I showed the students that much, as well as a bunch of fabrics I considered for the second border. Phyllis exclaimed about one that is very pale. I thought it was too pale, but when I got it home, that was the only thing I liked.

3a) I made 5 test blocks of the very pale and a light aqua. They have curved piecing, which I thought would contribute to the organic nature of the piece. I did not like them.

3b) I thought a lot about what else to try. I didn’t want to just put a slab of the very light fabric next. Then I thought about what my sister Cathie would do. She has a little more intuitive approach to her medallions, and I figured if I could mimic her, I might get it right. (Hilarious, huh? A calculated attempt to do something spontaneous…) Irony aside, I decided to put squares on point, but make them smaller than the width¬†allowed. That meant more squares¬†and¬†a little more delicate feel. But I needed to figure out how to fill the width. I chose having a darker color outside and extra of the very light color next to the center. Also because all the squares and their setting pieces are on the bias, a strip of lavender on the outside edge stabilizes it and gives it a more defined finish. This muchI like. The next challenge was figuring corner blocks.

3c) Corner block attempt 1: built 4 corners and attached 2 of them, and attached that border. It didn’t work.

3d) Corner block attempt 2: disassembled all corners, modified them which included cutting new pieces and rebuilding. It didn’t work.

3e) Corner block attempt 3: disassembled all 4 corners, cut new pieces and made new corner blocks. It¬†didn’t work.

3f) Hurray! It pays to go through stash one more time. The first 3 attempts were for pieced blocks. I thought an unpieced corner would be too obtrusive. But the batik print I used is blotchy enough that it doesn’t call attention to itself. It also brings out some of the yellow from the center, giving me the opportunity to use it again in the next border.

Okay, so the score card on that is 1 major change to¬†the center, 1 major change to the second border, and 3 major changes to the second border’s corner blocks. Five big changes in the first three segments (center plus two borders.) THIS is typical, and it’s all okay. Each time I tried, I failed better. This is part of the experimenting, trying something, learning from it, and trying something different.

I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Thomas A. Edison



Self-Critique is Part of the Process

“You’re too hard on yourself.”

“Quilters are famous for pointing out the flaws.”

I’ve heard both of these many times. I heard both these¬†ideas¬†yesterday in comments, when I posted about a recent finish. If you don’t think about it, they sound like the same thing, that pointing out flaws is the same as being hard on myself. That pointing out flaws is an unnecessary burden on my self-esteem, reinforcing bad thoughts about myself.

It’s not.

While it’s possible that quilters are famous for pointing out flaws, there can be more than one reason we do so. Perhaps it happens when someone is uncomfortable with praise, and seeks to minimize it (and herself) by criticizing her work. Perhaps it happens when someone is seeking praise, hoping that by pointing out problems, a chorus will arise denying it.

But for me, pointing out flaws is neither of those. For me, self-critique isn’t about¬†you (or what you think of me or my quilts.) And it isn’t about me (and how good or not good of a person I am.) It’s about the work. It’s part of the process of working. It’s how I improve in what I do and how I think.

I’m not a perfectionist. My piecing is pretty good, generally, but there are too many variables that aren’t controllable to think I can “perfect” it. Starch has its place, but I won’t soak my fabrics in starch, as some people do, trying to deny fabric one¬†of its most important characteristics: plasticity. The ability of fabric to stretch and ease is part of what makes it pleasing as a medium. Otherwise I might as well cut and paste paper into designs. And often, once a piece is quilted, small errors fade into the texture of the quilt, becoming nearly invisible. Even so, there will always be ways to improve my piecing, and I try to move in that direction.

Quilting, stitching those three layers together? I can do a serviceable job. But I have no expertise and probably never will.

My focus is on design. For me, piecing and quilting are always in service of the design. And to improve at designing, as at anything else, I need to practice. “Practice” is not simply doing something over and over. After all, doing the same wrong something over and over simply entrenches bad habits.

To practice with improvement, I need evaluation of my designs. And to evaluate them, I need to understand the characteristics that can lead to a pleasing composition.

We call those characteristics “design elements and principles.” In quilting, the elements are the tools of design, such as color, value, shape, pattern, and line. The tools are used to create the viewer’s experience, such as unity, movement, repetition, balance, and proportion. These are the principles.

As I learned more about the principles and elements, my designs became stronger. Coincidence? Perhaps. But along with learning about those factors, I also started to assess how successfully I’d applied them. What do I see? Why does it seem static, or too chaotic? The balance seems wrong; what happened, and how could it have been better? That color seems out of place; the value contrast could have been stronger here. Ooh, I really like the way this element echoes that one…

Self-critique, assessment, evaluation. Whatever you want to call it, describing¬†— for¬†myself — my design successes and failures, taught me to apply those design components.

When I point out the same positives and negatives of my designs to you, it is not so you will either confirm or deny my view. (Of course if you have opinions to share, I welcome them.) My hope is that what I’m¬†learning will be of service to you, too.

My goal is not perfection. There will always be varying levels of success and failure within any quilt I make. My goal is to learn and to become more powerful in my art.

Self-critique is part of my work process, and part of my learning process. As I learn to see more clearly, I don’t learn to succeed. I learn to fail better.