I finished climbing The Mountain.
The Mountain. 60″ square. November 2015. Made from stash. Photo by Jim Ruebush.
When I posted a photo of the top, I said that, aside from taking three different tries at the center block, it went together very quickly. One reason for that was I had already defined the border widths. When designing a medallion, there are infinite choices for border widths. Each possibility leads to other design decisions, including block size and the next border width. Because I was using a familiar blueprint, those decisions were minimized.
Two other decisions were made as I chose fabrics. First, I chose to use large patterns, and lots of them. Second, I chose to do minimal piecing. After all, if you use large prints and cut them into little pieces, you lose the impact of the print.
Working with constraints such as size simplifies some things, but it also forces a different kind of creativity than when there are more options. For example, having decided that the center block would be 15″, I needed to choose a design that would translate well to that size. A 9-patch format works easily; using a 5-grid (5×5 format) works, too. But a 7-grid, like a bear’s paw block, is harder to use. Deciding to use all large (or largish) prints meant figuring out how to use them effectively.
This quilt taught me more than you might guess. First, it showed me the power of large prints. When many of us started quilting, we learned that an effective combination of fabrics would include small prints, mid-sized prints, and large prints. (Back then we also were warned against using any solids, as they would read “flat.”) The combination, we were told, would provide sufficient contrast to keep the quilt interesting.
I often use small prints and tone-on-tones as the main type of fabric pattern in a quilt, but I’d never made one with all large prints. I wondered if mixing them would confuse the eye, but I found that didn’t have to happen. The key still is contrast. Using contrast in color and/or value separated the components sufficiently. While the outcome is a jumble, it is an organized jumble. The prints didn’t all mush into a big blob.
The importance of value contrast was reinforced to me, as mentioned above. One thing I like especially is the pairing of the lighter, peachier batik near the center with the darker, bronze batik in the outside half-square triangles. Both serve the same purpose in piecing, but using the darker triangles farther out emphasizes the last border and gives the eye a place to stop.
Value also plays its part in the three borders with light backgrounds. Nearest the center, you see the “sticks” split with red. (I really did split the sticks and insert the red, maintaining the positions of the lines.) The order is reversed two borders farther out, with the red split by arrows with light background. And the next border is a white-with-navy stripe, adding brightness to a quilt that could have bogged down in dreariness. All three of those borders give strong, graphic light/dark contrast, repeating the black with almost-white in the very center.
The third lesson was in piecing. My intention was to use minimal piecing for this quilt, regardless of the fabrics. Over time I’ve found that my tendency has been to increase complexity in my borders. At the same time, I know beautiful medallions can be made with little to no piecing within borders. So it was time to push back and simplify some. The big prints gave an even better excuse to do that.
I’ve been asked why I call this quilt “The Mountain.” It does not have pictures or representations of mountains on it. There are no wild animals, towering pines, or anything else. I am not sure why the name came to me, other than that I have been climbing and climbing, mentally and physically and emotionally and artistically, and now I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere, though of course I’ll never reach the peak.
I think these words of advice from Carina Devera are helpful when facing any mountain:
How to climb a mountain:
1. Don’t forget to pack your courage.
2. Do not presume a mountain can be climbed all at once; one step at a time is all you will be granted.
3. Faced with such permanence, take comfort in all that is fleeting, and dare not disturb the rocks.
I found her essay at On Being, one of my favorite sites. She concludes with “The mountain had taught me how to persist beyond all hope or expectation — a humbling lesson I will not forget.”
There are lessons to learn from all the quilts we make, all the relationships we strengthen or break, all the physical challenges we face. My mountain teaches me to have patience and perseverance, and to stop on my way to catch my breath, to appreciate my traveling companions, and to marvel at my surroundings.