Tag Archives: Process

Inspired by Gwen

One of the books I bought early in my quilting life, which I still own, is Gwen Marston’s Liberated Quiltmaking (1996.) I tried the “improv” style of wonky stars and house blocks and found it wasn’t for me. However, her improv process helped develop my own design methods.

What’s the difference between an improvisational style and an improv process? My thinking on this crystalized the other day when reading Audrey’s post on one of her projects. She has long worked in an improv method — in her words, “working in an unscripted manner and working successfully to resolve any/all issues that come up, etc. etc.” — only recently has she begun working in a more improvisational style, with less concern for precision and measurement. Again in her words with her emphasis, “My best inspiration overall, is in the vintage and antique style of quilts, preferably the softer, less perfect looking utility style of quilts.”  

I wrote a lot about improv a year ago, including this: “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 opened my thinking to agree that we can call “improv” a style, too. But you can create the style from patterns, or you can work the process and still end up with something most people would call very traditional. Improv style and improv process are two different things. They both have their place but they are not the same. What quadrant is most of your quilting in? Most of mine is upper left, in improv method but not improv style.

What Does This Have to Do with Gwen Marston?

Gwen Marston is often thought of as the founder of improvisational style. (I would argue she is not.) Marston has worked with both traditional and liberated styling for decades. I have five of her many books and two focus on historical styling from the 1800s. If you understand that this is the underpinnings of her work, you can see it in what has developed since then.

In the book Freddy & Gwen Collaborate Again (with Freddy Moran, 2009,) Marston includes a quilt that reflects both her traditional roots and her improv styling.

Freddy & Gwen Collaborate Again. Gwen Marston and Freddy Moran, 2009, p. 23.

I was especially taken by the purple background. Three years ago when I began a project using an urn with flowers, the photo above was my strongest inspiration. I started by drawing this:20160126_124416_resized

Three years is a long time for development of one of my quilts. The drawing gave me a starting point, as did the purple background. I chose fabrics for flowers and leaves, most of which were too wimpy against the strong purple and didn’t end up on the quilt. My intention was to needle-turn appliqué the piece. After a couple of leaves, I knew that wouldn’t happen. And so the project got relegated to a bin of works-in-process, or more accurately, works-in-waiting.

Last year as I experimented more with appliqué, I brought it out, chose new fabrics for the center, and began again.

Skipping to the punchline, here is the finished quilt.

Inspired by Gwen. 45″ x 55″. Photo by Jim Ruebush. January 2019.

And a few notes on my improvisational process:
1. After auditioning a variety of colors for the leaves, flowers, and urn, I chose strongly saturated ones that held up to the purple and determined the rest of the color scheme.
2. I adjusted the size of the center with red strips at the top and bottom. This allowed the hourglass blocks on the inner border standard sizing. The hourglasses are scrappy of reds, pinks, oranges and golds, greens, and purples.
3. Visually there is A LOT going on in the hourglasses, which led to the calmer choices in the next border. 🙂 I wanted to extend the purple from the center but had very little of it left. I auditioned several purples and wasn’t happy with any of them. They didn’t “go” with the center. The best way to fix that is to use more than one. The more you add, the more they all go together. So the side borders with appliquéd vines got one purple, while the upper and lower borders with semi-circles on chartreuse green got a different one. While there are lots of greens in the leaves on the sides, and the vines are hand-cut squiggles, the upper and lower borders are fairly regimented, retaining some order.
4. The outer border again reflects the influence of Marston’s quilt, though I didn’t realize it until the top was almost done. Yes, I actually had the red zigzag pieced when I looked at the inspiration photo again and saw that I mimicked it without intending to. The other colors in the outer border repeat those in the hourglass border, and they are the same shape and similar size. The repetition helps hold off the chaos that could have erupted here.
5. I “custom” quilted it using different motifs and threads by section. There is red thread on the red triangles of the outer border, to strengthen them rather than diminish the color. Purple thread is on the purple background of the center for same reason. Most of the rest has a neutral, very fine thread to provide texture but allow the color blast of the surface to dominate.
6. I finished with a green binding.

The technique here is as improvisational as the design method. I used several different methods of appliqué in this project, choosing whatever seemed to work most simply. A few shapes are applied by hand; some are fused and finished with a zigzag; some are stuck down with glue stick; the semi-circles use a completely different method.

Gwen Marston has been an inspiration in my quilting life since nearly the beginning. I’m pleased to finish this quilt that shows that influence more directly.

Productive Procrastination

Did you know that “productive procrastination” is a thing? I’m talking about choosing to do something valuable while actively choosing not to do something else valuable. For example, you could choose to dust your living room rather than call your mom. Or vice versa. What I’m not talking about is getting lost for hours in Pinterest or Instagram photos, searching for inspiration you’ll never actually act on. Or clicking through Facebook or online news ceaselessly, looking for something new to read or respond to.

Right now, I’m putting off writing about my trip to Peru, and all the tasks that are included in that: identifying photos to share; framing my memories so they are meaningful for you, too; considering how those memories have shaped my creativity, even just a little. And I’m also putting off re-starting one of my quilting projects with the benefit of my new perspectives.

Instead, I am working on another VA Hospital quilt. Certainly that is worthy of the time involved. I can’t pretend that it is a high priority — there is no deadline. On the other hand, there’s no deadline for my purely creative adventures, either.

It started when I opened a drawer of orphan blocks, parts, and binding leftovers. I found a bunch of these, dull and dismal puss-in-the-corner blocks. (They didn’t qualify as a UFO by my definition, as they were not “a project” themselves. They were just orphan blocks, parts waiting in inventory until useful or otherwise disposed of.)

They finished at 6″, more or less. The fabric is not particularly nice. And they certainly aren’t pretty. But could they be useful?

(This reminds me of the very silly public television show, The Red Green Show. He is famous for saying, “If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.“)

So what can you do with 10 not-pretty blocks? I decided to use them within a disappearing 9-patch quilt. Mix them in with enough other, prettier fabrics, and they’ll be okay.

When I make disappearing 9-patches, I like to use an accent color for the centers of the 9-patches. It also is helpful to have value contrast between the large corner patches and the side-centers, which become the “legs.” As I picked through fabrics, I decided to stick with dark greens and dusky blues for the corner patches, rusty oranges for the accent center patches, and lighter pieces for the legs.

I made nine large, ugly 9-patches using 6″ finish blocks. All the blocks were unpieced except my green and tan puss-in-the-corner blocks.

After completing the 9-patches, I sliced each into four pieces, arranged them, and stitched them into a quilt top. The top is now finished.

Disappearing 9-patch top. About 44″ x 62″.

(Honestly, it’s better looking in person than it is in the photos.)

I’ll need to build a quilt back, quilt it, and bind it. But it will wait as I have another task to tackle in the next few days, one with an actual deadline.

What are you working on? Are you procrastinating, forging ahead, or doing both in turn? 

Making A Mask

I wrote recently about masks and other faces in the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. Depictions of faces are one of the most common types of visual art, because we humans find faces fascinating. They are so interesting that we often perceive faces in almost any combination of shapes, in any media. And I do mean any media, including Swiss cheese, bowling balls, and on bug bodies! This article in Mental Floss magazine says the phenomenon of seeing faces everywhere is called “pareidolia,” and it is a function of a healthy brain.

Human brains are exquisitely attuned to perceiving faces—in fact, there’s an entire region of the brain called the fusiform gyrus that is dedicated to it. Its functions are evident even from early childhood: Studies have shown that shortly after birth, babies display more interest in cartoon faces with properly placed features than in similar images where the features are scrambled.

The “face neurons” in people with healthy brains are so overactive that they scream FACE! in many situations where there are no actual faces to be found. Those sophisticated face-detection skills, combined with our brain’s compulsion to extract meaning from the sensory chaos that surrounds us, is why we see faces where there aren’t any. Typically these sightings are nothing more than our mind’s interpretation of visual data …

Well, fortunately I have a healthy brain and see faces in all kinds of things. One sighting was in a paper cutting I did late last year. While playing with the classic, six-sided snowflake method of cutting, I quickly drew and cut this:

Well, no, that’s not a face. (I’ll bet I could find one if I look.) But I did several more cuttings, and this simpler cut-out shouted FACE! to me.

For months this piece of paper has been floating around my studio, sometimes “put away” and sometimes in a stack of other paper cuttings on my counter. For months I’ve wanted to create a mask from it, but until recently I wasn’t really sure how to do that.

If you have spent time around children, you might know that both toddlers and teens can be cross a lot of the time. My theory is that it has a lot to do with them being ready in some ways for the things they want to do, but not fully capable in other ways. They get frustrated in their desires, which makes them cross. Though I haven’t been particularly cross about it, my desire to make a mask from the paper cutting didn’t match up with my skills. Now it does. 

I chose fabrics first and ended up with a completely different color set than I’d expected. That’s okay, right? With a background of brilliant gold-yellow, I chose a deep burgundy to provide the framing. I adhered Wonder-Under fusible web to the burgundy (and no, I don’t use affiliate links or payments, so this isn’t an ad.) Next I traced the shape on the web paper in pencil, and carefully cut it out with small, sharp, scissors. Click either picture to see detail better. 

As I chose the features for the mask — eyes, nose, teeth — I added them one at a time, using parchment paper as my pressing sheet. I pulled the paper away from the fusible on the burgundy mask framing, just for the part I was about to adhere. While fusing shapes together, I left as much of the fusible paper on the framing as I could, to maintain the stability of the shape and avoid damaging the fabric. With the paper removed from the feature (eyeball, for instance,) I placed it behind the framing and ON TOP of the pressing sheet, and pressed the edges together. After the fused pieces were cool, I could peel them away from the pressing sheet as one unit.

I continued to build the face, adding more features as I went, and then adhered the whole thing to the gold background fabric.

Now the features are adhered under the frame and the whole thing is pressed to the gold background. The background isn’t attached to the batik print around the edge.

In the last photo you see it lying on top of a piece of batik. I might frame it with that, or I might choose a different border arrangement. Those are decisions I haven’t made yet.

If you’d like to try six-pointed paper cut-outs, whether to make snowflakes or to make a mask, this is a reasonably good video of the process.

You should note, though, that my “snowflake” has six SIDES, while the video shows how to make a six-POINTED snowflake, with twelve sides. Here is my mask paper-cutting refolded into sixths, not twelfths as their snowflake is. 

The difference in construction is that they’ve folded the paper an extra time. While it allows a more intricate pattern, it’s also substantially harder to cut cleanly. Try playing with some plain copy paper to see what pleases you more.

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.”

 

What About That Rooster?

Joanna commented on my last post that it was an interesting bait and switch, titling the post with “Rooster” but blogging about geese. Yeah, that was not really on purpose. By the time I finished showing you the flying geese quilt top, it seemed like a big enough post already. This one is actually about the rooster.

Though I put a couple of recent photos in Instagram, when you last saw it on the blog, I’d assembled portions of the appliqué but had not fused it all together. Here it is, both before and after being fused to the background fabric. Click either picture to see them bigger. 

It’s worth spending a moment here to talk about execution. Over the last few months, I read a lot of different blogs and tutorials about fused and other machine appliqué. For me it was like reading a lot of recipes for one type of dish, and then making my own plan based on what I’d learned.

Whatever this quilt is when done, it won’t be a cuddle quilt or bed quilt. It’s not likely to ever be laundered. I don’t need to worry about finishing the edges completely with stitching. That gives more flexibility for method. Here are a few bullet points, with whatever commentary applies:

* I used Wonder-Under brand fusible web. Honestly, I haven’t tried more than a couple of brands, so I can’t tell you how it compares to other types of fusible.
* For some of the larger pieces, I cut the centers out of the Wonder-Under before fusing to the rooster fabric, leaving just an outline about 1/2″ wide. That reduced the heft and stiffness of those pieces.
* I fused small components together to make bigger parts (shown in the photo above,) using parchment paper as my pressing sheet. Once the pieces are pressed together, they can be peeled off as a group. Some people recommend Teflon pressing sheets, but I used parchment paper; it worked fine and it’s very inexpensive.
* Previously I’d drawn an outline of the rooster on tracing paper, along with a couple of marks to show where the background seams were. That made it easier to place the big parts when I was ready to fuse to the fabric. However, I purposely oriented the rooster a little less upright than my original drawing. That was easy to do since I hadn’t fused all the parts together yet.

After attaching the full rooster to the background fabric, I tried a lot of ideas for how to frame it. Initially I figured to create a narrow line of dark coral, all the way around, and then bordering that with hourglass blocks. None of the color combinations I tried really rocked me.

Many iterations of color later, I left the room. While Jim and I had dinner that evening, I tossed out some questions. You know, what if? What if I don’t use a narrow border of coral? What if I don’t use a narrow border at all? What if I just put one wide strip border around it and call it done? What if …

One question seemed worth pursuing: what if I made a checkerboard border? What if I used three layers of checkerboard, like 9-patches? Or maybe simpler, just 4-patches? Again I auditioned colors. I chose a bronze batik (used in many other projects, and I’ll be very sad when it’s gone) and the same blue print used for the rooster’s head.

The finished patches are 1 1/8″ squares. Rather than work with the tiny pieces individually, I used strips of blue and bronze, cut along the grain for better stability. If you cut across, width of fabric, you can get substantial bowing of the pieced strip.

That’s my progress so far.