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.