I wrote this four years ago as a message to myself. When I stumble across it again, as I did today, I find it a good reminder to keep focus on what’s important. You’re welcome to take a look.
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?
Engagement is on my mind. My son recently announced his engagement to his sweetheart. Jim and I are thrilled for them, and excited for their future. (Thank you, thank you. I will pass on your congratulations.)
But engagement is not only the formal agreement to marry. It can refer to any emotional involvement or commitment. It can be a commitment to employment, or to defense, or even to meet someone for dinner.
Emotional involvement can vary over time, whether to our romantic partner or our career or a hobby. When you feel a lull in your quilting, for example, you may not feel very engaged in it. Other things might capture your interest, or you might feel distracted or simply bored. In hobbies that may be okay. In your marriage or career, it may be wise to find ways to re-engage.
For myself, I’ve found that if I want to feel more engaged, I need to be more engaged, make more effort. Maybe it’s a “fake it ’til you make it” strategy.
This is my eleventh year as a member of my guild. In seven of the eleven years, I’ve held one position or another, with varying requirements on my time. Recently I took a couple of years off. It was GREAT. Honestly. I didn’t have to get to meetings early, nor stay late, nor work on committee efforts at home. I didn’t even need to go to meetings if I didn’t want to. And a lot of the time, I didn’t. Did I mention, it was GREAT not being involved?
The problem is, some things are worth doing and having even when we don’t want to do them all the time. For example, there is a small-town festival near here that Jim and I go to occasionally. It’s fun and interesting, but honestly, it’s not a big deal. And there’s an entrance fee. But when we go, we agree it’s good to go even when we’re not excited about it, because it is a thing that should continue to exist. And it will only continue if people go, and if they pay their entrance fee.
Someone has to do it, or it will cease to exist.
Well, guild can sometimes feel like that. (Okay you local guild members, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. And if you really don’t, I’ll look for you on the volunteer list next spring!) I think it is valuable, even when I don’t want to participate in it.
So after the couple of years I realized that there was only one way I could fix my lack of engagement, of personal commitment. And that was to recommit. I volunteered for a committee, one of the most active ones, at that, and held that position for more than a year. And then we had “elections” for officers and no one was running for president. A friend asked me to run as co-president with her. So I did. This year I’m co-president AND on that committee, and pretty soon I’ll run an ad hoc committee to review and revise our bylaws.
Now I am fully engaged, both nominally and emotionally. Guild is important to me. It is a thing that should continue to exist, even when I don’t feel particularly like being the one to participate. Someone has to, and sometimes that has to be me.
Another area for disengagement for me is blogging. Blogging has slipped in importance in my life, partly because I’m busy elsewhere. And partly because I feel like I’ve already told you most of what I know about medallion quilts, one of my main goals when I started this site.
I’m not engaged in writing, and I don’t even read a lot anymore. (Yes, my blog friends. If you’ve sensed my absence, it’s been real.)
But I think my blog has value, at least to me, if not to you. And I want it to continue. As I shared with a friend recently
what I REALLY REALLY want, in my heart of hearts, is for other quilters to feel powerful in how they work. And whether they make medallion quilts or art quilts or old fashioned block quilts or modern quilts or whatever they make, I want them to make them from their souls. I want them to express their real selves in their making, to exercise the little power any of us really have, and make what they WANT to make, not what someone else tells them to make. I want them to make what they WANT to make, without fear or concern about what someone else thinks. And they can do it best when they fill their tool box with useful stuff, like how to think. Technique is hugely important, the HOW to do stuff, but if you don’t know how, it is great to have some mental skills to figure stuff out. Right now Austin Kleon has been doing some art with tape and magazines, and he says NO, I’m not going to demonstrate how to do this. I already told you it’s tape and magazines. Now go play!! He is asking people to grab their OWN power to create art, not make his art. That’s what I want. I want to help people make their own quilts, not my quilt.
I can’t help you do that if I’m not here. And the only way I can feel more engaged is to be more engaged. I need to write more. Or at least more often.
Thus begins my journey back, hopefully back to excitement about sharing new ideas, funny thoughts, successes and failures. Hopefully back to helping you make your own quilt, your expression of self from your soul, with power, not fear.
These days, HGTV is focused on total house renovation, largely done by hired contractors, and selling fantasy homes. In the old days, many programs looked at the smaller scale of crafts and DIY home decor. Those old shows, and current ones like Craft in America on PBS, elevate making as a means of expression, and as a source of pleasure in transformation. As I watched those shows I remarked more than once about my wish to make beautiful things by my own efforts. But though I took a couple of drawing and painting classes, and occasionally bought craft supplies to try at home, I had no particular skill or talent for it.
Sometimes I’m still surprised at my journey into quilting. In my first experience fourteen years ago, I cut measured squares using a ruler, pencil, and scissors. I sewed them with seams as wide as the presser foot edge. The machine’s tension wouldn’t hold, leaving me repeatedly frustrated. Once my quilt top was assembled, I used tack stitching to hold the layers together. I pinched together wide bias binding, from a package, around the edge and top-stitched. It’s amazing that little quilt held together as long as it did.
The effort was not very satisfying, much less inspirational. I was not transformed into a quilter, but I enjoyed choosing fabrics to go together, and deciding how they would be arranged. Perhaps that’s what spurred my second quilt. It also was from squares, but I had a new sewing machine and basic tools of rotary cutter, a ruler, and mat. Having better tools allowed more pleasure from the process, as well as a better product.
The tools we use include more than the tangible ones like rulers and mats and machines. They also include the skills and talents we develop over time. I remember in the early days of my quilting having to think about each step as I made a small table runner for a friend. My goodness, it was hard!
Of course, I didn’t use a pattern. I didn’t know patterns even existed. By that time I understood basic patch cutting with a quarter inch seam allowance, so I used the few books I owned for ideas, not recipes. (Eternal thanks to the small number of quilters online, who offered tips and tutorials even without patterns. Because of them, I learned how to quilt. Hallelujah and Amen.)
Besides the books, I started subscribing to American Patchwork & Quilting. Here, too, were patterns that I misunderstood as ideas and inspiration. Though I made a few quilts over the years based on the beautiful projects they showed, I always changed things, subbing a different block into the setting, or changing the size. The quilt below uses the “streak of lightning” setting I saw in an APQ project, though nothing else about it is the same.
Though I always designed my own quilts, it was many years before I thought of myself as a designer. In fact, that thought came to me about four years ago, at a specific moment, which I wrote about here.
While that recognition didn’t change what I do, it did help change how I do it. Seeing myself as a designer made me take design more seriously. Design is something that can be learned, and can be taught. I started studying design principles generally, but specifically related to quilts. I learned about unity, balance, proportion, and movement. I learned how design elements such as color, value, shape, and size contribute to the look of the quilt. And I began to evaluate more carefully what I see and what I make.
Evaluation allows me to identify both challenges and opportunities for meeting them. Currently I’m developing quilts for the class I’m teaching on medallion quilt design. Sometimes when I’m making a quilt, something about it strikes me wrong. Does that ever happen to you? 🙂 I got this far on one of my tops, and was dissatisfied. I knew the problems, but I wasn’t sure about the solution.
The first border of batik around the bear’s paw center block is cornered by fussy-cut flowers. I liked the effect at first, but as I surrounded it with more borders, it bothered me more and more. (Construction note: I used separate blocks, including half-square triangles, to form the borders that create the on-point look. The blocks allowed better precision of placement than I would get by creating large triangles to set on point.) The last border in the picture above is also batik, and it is cornered with more of the red used in the interior.
What didn’t I like? Those corner blocks. Though small, they have a lot of effect on the look. In the interior corners, the black print with red flowers bled into the surrounding fabrics. It wasn’t distinct enough from the batik, the black print, or even the red. On the outside corners, the red is simply too hot.
Another problem is that I’ve limited the number of colors I can use in later borders. There are various blues, greens, golds, and browns in the prints. However, the large sections of aqua, red, and butter yellow make introducing more colors awkward.
The simplest solution to both problems is to change the corner blocks. I looked for blue in my stash that would emphasize the blues in the batik. I had one small piece, about 10″ x 15″. (This isn’t unusual for my stash. I usually buy a yard at a time, but the way I use it, often in small amounts, ultimately leaves me with small amounts.) I cut squares to replace the eight corners and covered the ones already sewn in. Immediately I was happier. The blue transformed the piece, making it cooler and simpler, and allowing blue as another color for outer borders.
As I create my class projects, I explain to my students some of my process, using the jargon of design. Explanation clarifies for both them and me. And I ask for advice and help at decision points. They, also, present their work, and the group provides constructive input.
Over the series of classes, they become more confident in their choices. Some who have never designed their own quilts before are guided through the process, transforming themselves at the same time.
One could define “transformation” as the act or process of being changed. Some synonyms are change, alteration, and metamorphosis. A “metamorphosis” is the transformation into a completely different form, unrecognizable from the beginning. My metamorphosis over many years has taken me from someone with no apparent artistic skill, to one who can change pieces of fabric and thread into things of beauty and utility of my own design, and to one who can teach others to do the same. I like this form, and I look forward to what comes next.
On Friday I finished a quilt top, with which I’m really pleased. When I started it, I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t have a plan. Though I drew some (many!) illustrations in my design software, fabric doesn’t look the same as pixels, so the quilt kept evolving as I got more done. Almost every part of it changed while in process.
I like most of my quilts, really, almost all of them. Some delight me in ways I couldn’t expect. This is one. When I feel that way, it’s because the quilt is something I could not have made before this moment. All the things I’ve learned, all that I know, had to get to this moment, so I could make this particular quilt. When you see this quilt (not now, perhaps in a few weeks,) you might not guess that about it. But I will know. I’ll remember. This quilt is special, because I couldn’t have done it before.
~ *** ~
There was a Japanese emperor who hired an artist to paint a rooster for him. The emperor was a patient man, so when the painting was not immediately forthcoming, he was not very concerned. Even so, years went by. How difficult was it to paint a rooster? The artist was benefitting from the patronage of the emperor, living in the palace grounds, eating the food provided, yet he had not produced the painting. After twenty years the emperor’s patience was spent. He went himself to the artist’s rooms to inquire about his painting.
The artist was startled to be visited by the emperor, but he bowed deeply and invited the other man to have a seat. “Please wait here, and I will get your painting.” The artist retreated into his studio. The emperor could hear him, singing softly to himself, puttering around.
After many minutes the emperor could take it no more. He leapt to his feet, as well as a now aging man could, and filled the doorway of the studio with his presence. “Twenty years I’ve waited and still you make me wait! Why should I not execute you now?”
The artist did not react to the threat, but stepped from his easel and said, “I am almost done now. Do you like it?”
The emperor’s temper calmed as he saw before him the perfect rooster. In simple lines it showed the rooster turned to look over its shoulder at him, just as he’d hoped. But then the man noticed dozens, no hundreds of other paintings almost the same, lining every surface of the room. To his eye, they all looked perfect, too.
“Did you just paint the rooster on the easel?” the emperor asked.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“If you have painted all these other roosters, why do I not have one yet? Why have I waited twenty years for something you could do long ago, something you could do in just a few minutes?”
“Oh, your Majesty, I could not,” said the artist. “It has taken me this long to learn how to paint the perfect rooster. None of those before were good enough to give you.”
[Written from my memory of an old folk tale.]