Monday, December 19, 2011

Still Looking for Christmas

Quilt No. 78
September 2011

They re-make movies all the time – so why not quilts? Still Looking for Christmas got its start in the 1980’s - you can tell by the saturated reds and blues and the style of the art work in this one-piece panel. I knew almost zero about quilting at that time, but I did know I wanted to follow these little bears that were clearly enjoying their Christmas preparations.

This panel is intended to be an advent calendar. It came with a tiny bear that I sewed together and stuffed. The bear is to be moved to a different location in the house each day as he “looks” for Christmas. The whole idea really appealed to me as I remembered how, as a child, I too combed through the house prior to Christmas seeking evidence of Santa, and once eating an entire “found” container of Swedish tea ring cookies while my mother was at work. My father, left in charge, hadn’t babysat me often enough to know that I could hide in the lower kitchen cupboard where Mom hid the Christmas cookies.

I really didn’t know what to do with the Bear quilt panel, but I did know I wanted my daughter to have it on her wall. I had taken a beginner’s quilting course during my maternity leave, so at least I knew about adding batting and backing. Beyond that my knowledge got sketchy. I hand quilted around each room in the house, and that was about it. With a super busy three-year-old in the house, who had time for detailed quilting? Next, I went to square it up prior to binding it. Uh oh. It simply could not be done. The scene had been printed onto the fabric very crookedly. It was especially wonky where the lines of the calendar veered off on their own trajectory on the right hand side. As a novice quilter I was baffled as to what I might do. After much anguish, I finally bought some ruffled eyelet lace and sewed it all around the edge. It actually did a pretty good job of disguising the quilt’s lack of straightness. And so it remained for over 20 years, dutifully being displayed in my daughter’s room each year, even after she became an adult returning home for the holidays.

As my quilting skills improved over the years, I came to enjoy the bear quilt less and less. So crooked. So little quilting. So yellow with age. At some point in time, the stuffed bear had gone missing (or perhaps went off to college) and a small stuffed mouse of questionable origin had stepped in to take its place. I politely asked my daughter if we couldn’t retire this quilting embarrassment. My daughter hates to cause me grief or stress, but she was swift with her “No way!” She suggested that maybe I could update it? Brilliant! I immediately ran for my ripper and removed the offending eyelet lace. Then...I folded up the project and stuffed it under some UFO’s on my desk and left it there - for two years, maybe three. Christmases came and went without the bears celebrating it in their beautiful red and green house. Last summer the quilt somehow magically forced its way to the top of the UFO pile. Such is the magic of Christmas and how it continues to operate through-out the year. We usually just fail to notice it.

In the intervening years I had replaced my sewing machine with one I that could machine quilt with much more ease than the old cranky one. Machine quilting looks easy - until you actually try to do it. I’d done small bits of machine quilting here and there. Mostly I was unsatisfied with the results. I started reading articles on it, researching it on the internet, and watching YouTube video how-to’s. This proved to be very time consuming, as any session involving YouTube invariably devolves into endless viewings of cars skidding on ice, feats of dare devilism, concert viewings (The Doors on Ed Sullivan!), and a wallow through nostalgia in the form of Muppets segments or 1960’s cartoons. Skate boarding dogs and The Annoying Orange are also visually addictive. So, staying with the less than thrilling intricacies of machine quilting took more than a dollop of self discipline. Ultimately, I grasped that machine quilting is a skill. It’s like playing the piano, or hitting a tennis ball with the racquet instead of your head – it takes practice. You’ve got to do it over and over until the area of your brain dedicated to machine quilting finally “gets it" and burns it in like a cluster of songs on a CD. In order to improve your machine quilting technique, it’s said that you need to do 20 minutes a day for 30 days. So that’s how the bear quilt came to be renewed and my machine quilting skills finally came to improve.

I removed the old back and tossed it out with the old batting. I washed it, re-sandwiched it with new batting and backing, and set as my goal to do one room a day - or every few days - since real life still had to be part of the equation. A single room took about 45-60 minutes, so I tried to complete one room per session, moving on to the outer areas of the house and yard after the rooms were finished. It was kind of like a construction project where you do your interior decorating before you worry about the landscaping outdoors.

I finally finished the whole thing and even found the missing bear swimming around in a drawer full of notions. I added tiny sleigh bells, and Christmas buttons so that I could fasten on both the mouse and the bear as they patiently waited their turn to look for Christmas. I liked having two Christmas seekers to share the fun. After all, no one wants to be alone at Christmas.

But then, even though I had the experience of 77 finished quilts under my belt, the wonky-printing-on-the-fabric issue brought me to my knees yet again. If I put the binding on all four sides of the quilt, it would only emphasize its crookedness. I’d already decided that cutting the quilt wasn’t an option, I wanted to retain the original panel as a unit. I brooded over what to do – had I learned nothing in the intervening 20 years? In the end I put a series of double-sided holly leaves with tiny pompom berries around the bottom so that there was no straight line to look at. And, it sort of worked, but mostly just in my head. I guess I just like the contorted format after all. Who knows, maybe it wasn’t just a bad day on the fabric printing press back in 1987. Maybe the whole intention was for the bears to live in a world that was wasn’t too rigid. Perhaps that’s the whole point - to just enjoy Christmas and whatever unexpected directions it may bring.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Julie's Garden

Quilt No. 81
December 2011

I spy with my little eye...Julie’s Garden! Who hasn’t spent a pleasant evening or car trip using their little eye to spy objects beginning with a selected letter of the alphabet? In the car Dad would say “I spy with my little eye...something that starts with “H”! I would yell from the back seat “HEAD! It’s the back of your head!” He would of course say yes, both of us ignoring the logic that he couldn’t exactly see the back of his own head - even if he wasn’t driving the car! So when I saw a pattern for an “I Spy” quilt I was hooked. I was like a fish that had swallowed not only the hook line and sinker, but the whole boat. I was obsessed, dragged unwillingly into the bosom of the crack-cocaine of quilting – the “I Spy” quilt. Sometimes it happens that way – a quilt that wasn’t even a thread on your horizon yesterday highjacks your psyche, making you decline food, water, air, chocolate. There is no mercy.

As an art quilter I have a massive collection of fabric bits and pieces. And all these fabrics have only one thing in common. They're all weird. For example, I have a tiny drawer filled with fabrics that are all either rocks or stones or bricks. I call this my masonry drawer. My untamed assortment of fabrics goes on and on like that – a drawer of Africa, a box of reds, a bag of music prints, two boxes of postcard quilt fabric (one labelled “Christmas” and one labelled“Not Christmas”). So when I came across a quilt pattern where I could use these wildly differing fabrics I knew I was at the cusp of quilting Nirvana.

By cutting a 3.5” square hole into a piece of cardboard, I was able to “spy” a perfect picture for each of the 120 blocks of the central portion of the quilt. It was almost too much fun, as though my rotary cutter and I had been unleashed in an endless garden of free fabric. I threw open all my drawers, bags, and boxes of fabric and began furiously cutting out squares. Flowers, fish, dogs, moose, snowmen, giraffes, books, bears, boats. Waldo. Yes, even Waldo – the “I Spy” theme reminded me of all the hours I had spent finding Waldo in those clever books with my daughter. My little eye definitely needed to spy something that started with “W”.

The inner border and outer binding strips also gave me a chance to use some of the fabric from my collection of “transition” fabrics. I buy these every time I see them – the gradual colour change across the fabric as it transitions from one colour to another makes these invaluable. I can nearly always find the exact shade I need in one place or another on a transition fabric. This explains why mine are full of holes – I usually need only a little piece, and so I extract a chunk here, and a snippet there. The quilting moth strikes again. For this quilt I was able to use a transition fabric in continuous strips, showing off its lovely subtle colour changes.

The outer border forms the boundaries of the garden. These gorgeous green prints from Brazil, a gift from Cris and Becky, are what bring the whole quilt together in a wonderful blending of fabric and family. I thank them both for indulging my passion for fabric with these treasures from the other side of the equator!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Santa Says Time To Decorate

Quilt No. 80
November 2011

What could be happier than a Santa getting ready to hang his Christmas lights? Stepping outside of my usual style, I went with a pattern this time, and created an actual block quilt. The original pattern had a set of squares going down the left hand side of the quilt that spelled out the word "Believe”. It seemed sort of foolish to me. You either believe or you don’t. That state of mind can’t be induced by a quilt. It comes from years of cultivating the magic that surrounds a white-bearded man who willingly inserts himself into chimneys each year in order to please children - a man who has given up everything in his life in order to supervise elves, build toys, train skittish reindeer, and keep his belly in a perfect state that resembles a bowl full of jelly. Now if that sort of dedication doesn’t inspire you to “believe” in the spirit of Christmas, then a few squares of fabric are never going to change your mind.

This Santa has a nice red flannel suit, some beautiful crystals to light up the stars in the background, and a lovely string of lights that weren’t part of the original pattern.

I hope my god-daughter and her family have many, many happy Christmases with Santa looking on.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Quilt No. 79
September 2011

This quilt was made from a one-piece printed centre panel – hence none of my usual pain-staking bit-by-bit piecing was required. A fully printed quilt ("panel") is commonly known by quilters as a “cheater ” – but these can still be great fun to do.  The challenge is to make it your own unique creation. My husband spotted this one in a quilt shop in Elora, and since he liked it so much and he is such a perennial good sport, I bought it to make for him.

In theory, all I had to do was to add the borders and quilt it. On my first attempt, I began by hand quilting it. Meh. It looked like nothing. I ripped out the stitches, but left in all my gold hand stitching around each individual leaf.  It looked nice and had taken me just about forever to complete. Next, I tried machine quilting it, but I made a mess and had to rip it out. No matter what I did the quilt looked like it needed a long course of Prozac. It was dull, listless, no life to it at all. I ignored it for a long time as other quilts passed it by on the queue to completion.

One day I rediscovered it in the bottom of a box of UFOs (UnFinished Objects). I suddenly realized what it needed! All the windows were too dark. I cut each one out and replaced the dark brown window fabric with yellow fabric. The houses were now alive and occupied, as though each family had finally returned after a long absence. And, having replaced my semi-ancient sewing machine, I was now able to enhance it with gold and copper metallic threads. Of course none of these show up in the photo. Getting a good photo of a quilt is about as likely as having Nessie pop up in front of your camera lens.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Blue Collar

Quilt No. 77
September 2011

If nothing else, this quilt is a testimony to my tenacity. It spent just under two years “stalled” in one phase after another, passing through an almost infinite number of iterations – some good, some bad. Almost every piece was added on and then taken off - two, three or more times. I left the whole thing suggestively close to the garbage can more times than I’d like to count. And yet, finally, the end result did emerge.

The song Blue Collar, by Bachman-Turner Overdrive was the starting point for this quilt. While this song is much less well known than their iconic Takin’ Care of Business, it is my personal favourite from their repertoire. It’s an unusual rock-jazz fusion, or at least that’s my guess – I’m not exactly an expert on music genres. Perhaps it’s Fred Turner’s lyrics rather than the music that makes Blue Collar such an intriguing theme.

In the song, a blue collar worker on night shift implores daytime workers to withhold judgement of his world - a world they have never experienced. While the daytimers are snoozing, and maybe even looking down their noses at the blue collar workers who toil at night, they're missing out on the mysterious beauty of the city at “four in the morning.” To that end, I’ve tried to create a night time city scene that celebrates the world of this blue collar worker. He sits on a park bench with his lunch pail at his side. Fish frolic in the fountain, and flowers and trees are bathed in the lights of the fountain and surrounding city. A full moon in a “diamond sky” overlooks an array of tall buildings and trees.

Quilting Notes

The buildings have an odd, fanned-out perspective that differs from the perspective of the objects in the park. This was quite challenging and meant that I could not add in objects between the park and the buildings since these would have required yet another perspective. Much too crazy/impossible!

Two fabrics were used for the buildings. One was a silk tie patterned with blue oval shapes. When taken apart, a neck tie has a much larger quantity of fabric in it than you might imagine. It was kind of tricky to find a fabric for the solid coloured buildings, but I eventually settled on a placemat that Fabricland was selling for practically nothing – I could see they were desperate to get rid of it. I machine quilted the placemat buildings with blue thread to harmonize them with the tie fabric buildings.

The blue trees near the buildings also came from a single silk tie, yielding two shades of blue by using both the back and front of the fabric. This tie was a freebie from my Quilt Guild. It was intended to be used in a bow tie block . When I went to cut the tie for this block, I could tell that the material was too thin to use in a bed quilt – but, gee, didn’t it match the Blue Collar colour scheme perfectly. Happily, I was able to jettison all my previous unsuccessful tree attempts, including the ones I had to already sewn onto the quilt. So that no one at Quilt Guild would be any wiser, I substituted another tie to make my bow tie block. So far my husband hasn’t noticed...

The roadway started out made of denim fabric. My original concept called for an actual blue collar to be used in the quilt, but after a very long series of unhappy experiments, I concluded that collars are pretty ugly on anything other than clothing. Better to stick with a metaphorical collar than an ugly quilt.

Next came the park. Almost every object you could ever hope to find in a park was tried and/or considered. The bench was going to be the park’s focal point, but no matter what size I used, it looked, well, foolish. It needed something to go with it. I hesitated to attempt a fountain – it seemed like an impossible challenge. I spent about three months looking at pictures of fountains on the Internet. Nothing else seemed to be feasible. I went into my “what the hell” mode. Of course, fountain number one did not work out - after being thoroughly bonded onto the quilt. It had to be coaxed off when I decided to change the road and replace the grass with a different fabric. I found that I had barely enough of that one irreplaceable piece of specially dyed sparkly fountain fabric. It didn’t help that while Blue Collar was “stalled” I had used up most of that piece for the Lodestar quilt.

The whole time I was completing the quilt I was smug knowing that I would not have to struggle to figure out how to quilt the sky. Diamond skies? Are you kidding? A nice straight-forward cross hatch pattern would yield great diamonds. But... it made the sky look not like diamonds, but like the inside of a winter coat. This threw the quilt into yet another stall, and every new idea for quilting lines only made it look worse. Finally, in a frenzy of “less is more” I simply followed the perspective lines of the buildings and decided to go with machine quilting instead of hand quilting. I added Jolee’s Jewels (crystals) to the sky. Elsewhere in the quilt, glass beads and metallic threads in sliver and copper helped to further develop the sparkly night time look.

While I pretty much ground down most of my teeth into nubs trying to get through this quilt, I am, at very long last, satisfied with it. And I’m immensely grateful to BTO for this inspirational song. I hope I have done it justice.

View the Video: Blue Collar - Bachman-Turner Overdrive

Close Up of Fountain

Lyrics to Blue Collar - Bachman-Turner Overdrive (Fred Turner 1973)

Walk your street 
And I'll walk mine 
And should we meet 
Would you spare me some time 

'Cause you should see my world 
Meet my kind 
Before you judge our minds 

Blue collar 

Sleep your sleep 
I'm awake and alive 
I keep late hours 
You're nine to five 

So I would like you know I need the quiet hours 
To create in this world of mine 

Blue collar 
Blue collar 

I'd like you to know at four in the morning 
Things are coming to mind 
All I've seen, all I've done 
And those I hope to find 

I'd like to remind you at four in the morning 
My world is very still 
The air is fresh under diamond skies 
Makes me glad to be alive 

You keep that beat 
And I keep time 
Your restless face 
Is no longer mine 

I rest my feet 
While the world's in heat 
And I wish that you could do the same 

Blue collar 
Blue collar 

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Quilt No. 76

August 2011

Lodestar – this is a star that shows the way. We all know of at least one lodestar that’s been pretty influential in the history of humanity. This one is much less lofty – a simple shooting star on a winter’s night. A mouse, a rabbit, a dog, a cat, and a squirrel look up and contemplate in the silence of the night.

I arrived at work one morning last winter to find a manila envelope had been stuffed under my door. I instantly knew that my friend Lily was the source. I am often the beneficiary of beautiful poems or scenes or other items that she is kind enough to share with me. Each time I am amazed that she would take time out of her life to share these treasures. On that particular day it was a packet of some of her favourite Christmas cards that she and her husband had received this year. The night scene with the reverential animals immediately captured me. “ Why not?” I thought. I would take a break from torturing my way through my own quilt designs and do one based on this card. The original art work of Eva Melhuish certainly needed no improvements from me! I just hope that when Ms. Melhuish created this scene, it went a lot more straight forwardly for her than it did for me.

At first, things went along smoothly. Scaling up the card into a pattern was a breeze. I just happened to have a background that I’d painted ages ago lying around that worked perfectly. I had used my usual Setacolor paints and achieved nice snowflake shapes by scattering oatmeal flakes over the wet surface of the fabric. Animal-like fabrics were also surprisingly easy to find at Fabricland. I even found a furry piece that did a pretty good mock up for the tabby cat. What could possibly go wrong?

Then I came to the trees. Recreating them seemed beyond my grasp. I tried drawing them, finding usable pictures of them, and taking actual photos of trees. Nope. I tried going abstract and I dyed fabric for them at least threes times, cutting them out in tree shapes, blobby snow shapes, anything that vaguely might be construed as being tree-like. Nope. I looked at pictures of snowy trees and branches on Google until my eyes grew twigs. Nada.

When I encounter this type of impasse I invariably use the same helpful strategy. I quit. Quitting can be good. Quitting can be merciful. I set the project aside where I can't even look at it. This was pretty distressing because the “set aside” projects were starting to take up a lot of space. They were blooming like weeds on ripe manure.

After a few months I looked for tree pictures - again. I finally found one tree that would work, so I scaled it up and altered it to yield four trees. These I printed out on cotton, using the ink jet printer. I know, you think it can’t be done, but the printer doesn’t care one bit as long as you have the cotton attached to some sort of stabilizing paper. Oh yes, and ink jet ink is not waterproof so you want that cotton to be commercially prepped for printing. If you’re an annoying a do-it-yourselfer like me you can do the fabric prep with Raycafix or Bubblejet Set, all very tedious, but tedious is what quilters live for. The printed trees were too pale, so I re-painted them with Lumiere paints.

The other big stumbling block was the squirrel’s tail. I had been thinking about how I would do the tail for months. It would be so much fun! It turned out the materials I had set aside for tail try-outs were all useless, totally useless. I had three kinds of fake fur, two kinds of real fur, three kinds of fuzzy fabric, and a package of strips that could be made into chenille. None of the fur or fabric worked out for reasons too boring and distressing to describe. I was not worried, since I really wanted to use the chenille anyway. In the original artwork, the squirrel’s tail curls around in the most fetching way. I would make the chenille do the same thing! But the strip of “chenille” I had was just a piece of flat fabric. It requires some kind of special brush to turn it into actual chenille. Chenille is not an exotic entity, it’s merely some kind of psychotically frayed fabric. This I never even imagined all those years I lay under my super-special chenille bedspread when I was a kid. I thought it was some kind of wonder fabric that probably came from a secret, carefully guarded factory in the faraway Orient. Not China, or Japan, or Taiwan - a much more mystical and exotic Orient. But no, you just get some loosely woven chunk and fray the hell out of it. What a dream buster that is. And to further destroy my fantasy, it does not make the excellent squirrel tail I had dreamed of.

I made another trip to Fabricland and found just the right colour of fake fur, with just the right length of pile. Lucky me – I only had to buy a strip 60 inches wide and 4 inches long to make a three quarter inch tail. But it worked, even though it didn’t curl in a fetching way. This I was willing to overlook. What I could not overlook was that cut wisps of fake fur drifted all over the house, gracing rugs, tables, black pants, computer screens, the even the toilet seat. Who knew fake fur could be so ubiquitous?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Wish You Were Here

Quilt No. 75
August 2011

This quilt accidentally grew out of the fabric salad that lives on my desk. The first thing to appear was the dyed square you see in the centre of the quilt. It hung around for months while I tried to figure out if this test piece could have any possible use. Next to appear were some delicious turquoise-blue fat quarters from my friend Ruth, who sent them to me for no particular reason at all (other than that she is a wonderfully creative and endlessly thoughtful person). These gravitated towards the dyed piece. Next I discovered a fabric with perfect palm trees, a treasure reclaimed from the never-ending sale of fabric bits hosted by the Hospital Auxiliary. That was also the source for the weird wool that frames the centre piece. I can’t remember where the green border fabric was found, but more than likely it came from same source. Eventually all these elements came together to form this scene. The dolphins? They just swam in there because it looked so inviting.

Quilt Notes

The central square section was dyed with my usual favourite Setacolor dyes. Elmer’s School Glue No-Run Gel (Blue) was used as a resist. It’s applied to the fabric and allowed to dry before the dye/paint is added. Glue covered areas remain free of dye.

The entire quilt was machine quilted, giving me the opportunity to use 3 or 4 of the possible 1000 stitches my sewing machine apparently knows. Now only 9,996 more to try...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Posssum Block

June 2011

This appliqu├ęd block features a mother possum and her three babies. The block is 18x18 inches, and is part of a larger quilt, Woodland Creatures, that is being completed by the Timmins Quilters Guild as a fund raiser. Possum boys, left to right: Freddie, Bennie, and Joey.

Donna this is for you.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gone Sailing

Quilt No. 74
February 2011

What do carnation pink, orange, and silver have in common?   Absolutely nothing. Pink and orange together remind me of that odd advice, "blue and green should never be seen, except inside the washing machine."  I never agreed with that, but it makes for a better poem than you could squeeze out of the words "pink" and "orange".  This is because orange is basically a cranky colour - friendly with brown, tolerable with yellow, complimentary with blue.  It has only a few friends. But.. orange with pink? And silver?

This colour combination was what I ended up with in the guild's "Crayon Challenge".  We dumped a box of 64 crayons into a bag. Each person pulled out three random crayons.  All crayons went back into the bag between picks, so I wasn't the only one to get the endearing carnation pink crayon. The crayons picked dictated the fabric colours to be used by that person to make a quilt.  Quilters were allowed to add two additional colours of fabric to make their quilts.  The only common factor was that everyone picked unsettling colour combinations.

Sailfish. What evolutionary or divine engineer could ever have come up with such a creature? The long beak, the ribbed sail, the inevitable jumping pose?

My fascination with these fish began when I was a six-year-old with a sore throat. Back then if you were sick you stayed in bed. If enough time went by before you rallied and demanded to return to your outdoor world of skipping ropes and can-kicking, the doctor was called. You didn’t go to his office - he came to your house, accompanied by his mysterious black bag. A stethoscope and thermometer would be pulled out. Other stainless steel medical equipment would slyly feign innocence in the bottom of the bag. Hushed words and tiny pills in flat pink boxes would be dispensed. Eventually you would get better. As the years went by the practice of medicine changed, and the doctor’s time became more and more precious. Forces beyond his control tethered him to the office or the hospital. House calls vanished. A sore throat came to mean a trip to his office.

Our doctor had a mahogany desk littered with papers and inexplicable medical paraphernalia. There were no toys and few magazines. A foray into the medical world was a serious thing. You were to sit and contemplate your lot in the waiting room, not guffaw over the jokes in The Readers Digest. There was, however, one frivolity that escaped all this desperation. An enormous sailfish - a trophy from a fishing trip - had been stuffed and mounted on the wall directly behind the doctor's desk. I can still remember all of its splendid and dusty details. It gleamed with a greenish varnish-like finish, and if you stared at it long enough, it would wink at you.

All fabric used in this quilt has been hand dyed. The sailfish was inspired by a  pin I bought at an antique store in St. Jacobs. I put it in the scanner and used this file to create the scaled-up version of the sailfish you see here.