Tag Archives: Original 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.

A Look at Some Medallion Quilts

I’m still on the road, so I’m sharing an older post. It’s a good follow-up to yesterday’s on petting older quilts and remembering the lessons they taught. This was first published more than four years ago, very early in my “medallion period.” Since then, I have studied design more carefully, and my opinions on some of these quilts has evolved as my knowledge has. Even so, it is fun to see some of my early medallions.

While working on developing the Medallion Sew-Along, I thought about what makes a successful design. I haven’t studied design formally, but when we talk about quilt design, we usually talk about elements such as line, color, value, size, shape, and texture. And we talk about how those elements are used, including principles such as balance, repetition, contrast, movement, and unity.

I decided to take a look at a few of my quilts and consider what design aspects work well and what don’t. (All are my original designs.) I welcome your thoughts on them, too. Don’t worry — you won’t hurt my feelings! We all have different taste. But besides looking at mine, take a look at some other medallions, either online or in books, and really think about why the design does or does not appeal to you.

One of my earliest quilts. I designed it. 72″ square.

As the caption says, this is one of my first quilts. I found beautiful, bright butterfly fabric and went from there. What works: the butterfly blocks create movement and unity with the focus fabric. The colors contrast well with the background. Colors are balanced across. What doesn’t work: it’s a little clumsy looking. The squares in the pieced border are simplistic and might look better if they were half-square triangles.

To look at more quilts with a critical eye, click here.

The Curse of Echo

Long ago in the time of gods and goddesses, there was a mountain nymph named Echo. She lived on Mount Cithaeron with other nymphs. One of their frequent visitors was Zeus, who … ahem … enjoyed the company of the beautiful sprites.

Zeus’s wife, Hera, was a jealous type, and she followed Zeus to the mountain one day. Echo stopped her, talking so much and so fast that Zeus had time to get away. In her anger, Hera cursed Echo. The curse? From then on, Echo could never speak for herself, but could only repeat the last few words spoken to her by someone else.

How awful that curse would be, without ability to speak for herself! Yet many quilters choose just this way, only repeating designs made by others.

I see it in Instagram, under the #medallionquilt hashtag. While there are beautiful medallions of a wide variety shown there, Marcelle medallion, Aviatrix, and others show up time and time again. Some designers even specify every fabric and color, so you can duplicate their work!

And of course, it doesn’t only happen with medallion quilts. It happens with many successful quilt patterns and kits. The designer’s voice may be heard, but the maker is silent, except for an echo.

I struggle with my thoughts on this. On the one hand, it’s fantastic that people want to make. I think most are perfectly happy making something with a recipe or paint-by-number method. They really do want quilt patterns and knitting patterns and counted cross-stitch and woodworking patterns. They will follow those patterns exactly, often in the same colors or materials. They will enjoy the process as long as it works. If they love doing this, and they are putting beauty and good into the world, who am I to criticize?

On the other hand, I want other people to experience themselves more completely, and to feel comfortable sharing expressions from their soul. The quilts I see that are most powerful, that touch me most, are also designed by their maker. And honestly, it doesn’t matter much if they’re technically strong or not. The maker’s voice comes through.

Self-expression is powerful, but it’s also scary. It can leave us open to failure and criticism. It can make us feel like our efforts or resources are wasted if the end product isn’t as we imagined. Why open yourself up to problems like that? It’s safer to do something with a known result.

I know a little bit about risk and reward. My career was in investment management. If you stick with the safe option, you won’t lose much, but there is not much to gain, either. The farther out you go on the risk scale, the more potential there is for loss. But when things go right, the rewards are great.

Believe it or not, I’m pretty risk averse. While I don’t use patterns, I have trouble pushing myself to do brand-new things. Instead, I keep pushing at the edges, so I’m learning new skills and not making the same thing time after time. (That would be an echo, too!) I’ve had to convince myself that any efforts can’t end in complete failure. If nothing else, I’ll have learned an important lesson. That helps me take on “risk” in quilting with a more open attitude. Trying something, not knowing if it will work out, and learning from the experience is exciting, like an adventure!

Don’t be like Echo. Use your own voice to tell your own story. What’s the worst that could happen?