Thursday, August 1, 2013

Reach for the Stars

Quilt No. 94
August 2013

There’s nothing quite like frogs when it comes to frolicking. Even a little snow won't slow them down.

Reach for the Stars was entirely inspired by fabrics I liked, leading me to buy them at different shops with no particular quilt in mind (which describes 99% of my fabric collection).  This is the very best way to buy fabric – the possibilities remain infinite.  Eventually these favoured fabrics came together to give a sneak peek at what frogs do when we’re not looking.

When the quilt was finished I figured I’d conquered the daytime world of frogs...but what kind of things did they think about after the sun went down?  Did frogs have aspirations?  Did they have their own way of reaching for the stars in the dead of night?  In The Frog Who Jumped to the Stars Franz tackles these very struggles in his own froggly manner.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Escape

The Rebuild of Quilt No. 26 from 2002!

Renovations.  Have you ever bought a new bath mat and had it end up costing you thousands of dollars as you upgraded its surroundings to live up to the nineteen dollar bath mat?  The same thing can happen with a quilt, but the expenditure will be measured in hours, not dollars.

Over ten years ago I was surfing the internet when I can across the logo for a medical conference in Hawaii.  It was very simple – two palm trees, plain beach, and a blue background to suggest sea and sky.  I took the liberty of using it as a starting point for a quilt.  My mistake was that I also used it as the end point for that quilt, and it looked kind of plain.  I somehow convinced myself that quilting a single line around the trees was “good enough” - having already moved on to the next far more interesting quilt.  I decided it was fine – a nice logo lookalike.  To prove how fine it was, I hung it behind a door at the cottage but I secretly cringed at its semi-finished state every time I came across it. 

Then, after enduring more than a decade cowering behind the door, the impossible happened. The quilt was wanted by a friend because it reminded her of Florida.  It would have a chance at real love.  Could I stand its way?  I looked at it and gritted my teeth.  It was basically unquilted.  The mismatched wobbly binding wasn’t nearly as charming as it had been when I was in a hurry to finish the project many years ago.  While I didn’t mind parting with the quilt, how could I send such an unfinished and unloved object out into the world?  It would be like sending your child out with a ball of wool stuffed under each arm in place of a fully knitted sweater!

I just couldn’t do it. 

But what I could do was to quilt it now.  There are no rules about these things, no statute of limitations that runs out and prohibits you from altering a quilt.  And, how long could it possibly take, if I just removed the binding and gave it a proper machine quilting?  A couple of hours?  A plan emerged.  I could toss out that old binding since, 65 quilts later, I had a much better fabric stash where there would surely be a piece that actually matched.  Also, I had somewhat improved my binding skills.  Then there was the issue of how much I hated the boring beige fabric that I’d used for the beach/island.  I could change that too!  In my mind this was all going to achieved PDQ.

I began by machine quilting the island.  It looked pretty good.  My confidence soared.  I machine quilted the sea and the sky.  It looked…not so good.  What you do in these circumstances is set the piece aside and look at it after a few days, or in a different light. You can hold it up to a mirror for a new perspective, or have a friend who would never tell you the awful truth come over and endorse it.  I tried most of those strategies, but reality could not be denied.  The sky looked wrinkled and crappy - even worse than the original unquilted version of it!  It was painful, but this was one of those situations where I just had to tear the Bandaid off the scab.  I ripped out the machine quilting in the sky, planning to do it over.  But now, the sky fabric had stretched and it could not be re-used. Don’t think I didn’t try.

I was getting in deeper and deeper.

There was only one possible avenue.  I got out the scissors and cut off the sky.  The sea part was okay, so I left that intact.  I dyed a new piece for the sky and liked it even better than the original.  I’d also learned a thing or two about dying fabric.  Next, I spent a whole whack of time doing test pieces with various battings until I was satisfied.  I re-assembled the top, batting, and backing, and (gulp!) machine quilted it once more.  The test pieces had been worth the effort – the end result was much better. 

One little problem remained. Now the palm tree fronds looked pretty much like Day One after the hurricane of the century.  All that manipulation of the quilt had pulled off most of the fragile pieces and frayed the few brave souls that were left behind.  Yep.  They too were given a date with Mr. Scissors. But now…despite a foolishly large collection of green fabric occupying my drawers, I could not find any that worked with the other colours in the quilt.  It was a great excuse to go to the fabric store and get some new stuff!  And, of course, some other stuff.

So, in essence, I completely rebuilt this quilt, much as one would the engine of a classic car, keeping just a few key parts and replacing all the rest.  There is enough of the original left to pretend it is still the same item.  The tree trunks and the sea from the original quilt are still there, but everything else had been completely replaced, even the batting and the binding.

Now when I look at My Escape, I'm happy with it, and I don’t feel it needs to play wall flower behind a door.  And like a child who has mastered his table manners, his temper, and his zipper, I’m willing to let it go out into the world on its own. 

It was completely worth the effort.

The original 2002 version of My Escape.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Mars or Bust!

Quilt No. 93
April 2013

Quilters are invariably plagued with UFO’s.  To outsiders this seems inexplicable.  Why would aliens be especially interested in quilters? 

When you’re part of a group, you forget that your use of terminology becomes highly specialized.  Doctors get criticized for this all the time. Patients are baffled by their slap-happy use of medical terms.  You leave the doctor’s office and you have no idea what osteokerflugenglockenitis is but you’re pretty sure it’s not good.  It’s hard to believe that quilters could be guilty of the same offence, but they are. 

I was telling my sister, a non-quilter, about upcoming Project UFO at my quilt guild.  Participants would register and pay ten dollars.  Presentation of a finished UFO by the given deadline would result in the return of the ten dollars.  Failed completion would mean that the money would be donated to the guild.

She instantly became fascinated with the idea that we would all be willing to do “UFO” quilts.  I began describing the orangey fabric I was going to use for mine.  It was a piece of “rust dyed” fabric that I'd created by spraying a piece of white cotton with vinegar and then placing steel wool on it.  Amazing shades and trails of rust dyed the fabric orange.  Unfortunately, this piece had fallen into “UFO” status for quite a while after an unsuccessful attempt to turn it into a foggy lake with flamingos in silhouette. 

My sister thought my UFO should feature Mars.  Since the Mars Balloon Lander had such an intriguing shape, she envisioned this as a prominent feature of the quilt.  Just like the YouTube video, it would enter the scene with a giant bounce!  There would even be a “Welcome to Mars” sign to greet the Lander.

I wasn’t really grasping that her UFO concept wasn’t the one that quilter’s are familiar with, but was instead the more usual UFO designation of “Unidentified Flying Object”.  Not recognizing our disconnect we both went on yammering about our various ideas for this unusual background, with me championing flamingos, and my sister off on a tangent on a distant planet.  I finally backed the nomenclature truck up for her, explaining that in the quilt world, UFO means UnFinished Object.

And so what my sister ultimately dubbed “The Nincompoop Challenge” came into being.  This quilt is a mashup of the creative efforts of a quilter and a non-quilter. Occasionally this kind of collaboration leads to completely unexpected horizons.  Flamingos may find themselves lounging around on Mars. 

Quilt Notes

My sister did the original drawing for this quilt as well as the embroidery.  The moons Phobos and Deimos can be seen in the Martian sky, as can a single crystal representing the constellation Sagittarius. The rust dyeing technique left the fabric quite rough, so machine quilting was not an option.  I did a minimal amount of hand quilting, just enough to enhance the contours.  The flamingos were computer printed onto iron-on cotton, oh-so-carefully cut out, and fused onto the quilt.  They seem to be quite content in their new extraterrestrial habitat.

A hasty initial diagram. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Gramma's Quilt Revisited

Quilt No. 91
March 2013
It’s been over fifty years since my grandmother died, and I’m not sure if I remember her face or if it’s just the photos of her that have planted themselves in my memories.  I was six years old at the time.  Some memories are clear – the green canvas hammock stretched between the poplar trees in the “park” at the side of her house.   There was an old enamel stove abandoned on the walkway that led to the outhouse, a rock garden, a rain barrel, a pump house, and a hen house sheltering beady-eyed chickens who might peck me to death...or not.  She always wore a dress. Probably what I remember the best is the fabric of those dresses.

I’ve thought about her a lot over the years.  We shared, well almost shared, a lot of interests – things like playing the piano and quilting.  A quilt top that she had completed but never had a chance to make into a finished quilt was eventually passed on to me, the only quilter in the family.  Many years ago I sandwiched her quilt top with batting and backing and tried to quilt it.  It was my very first attempt at finishing a large quilt and I didn’t get very far with it.  I packed my botched attempt away in a box for over twenty years while I thought about what I should do with it. 

I finally rescued it a few years ago...and I still didn’t know what to do with it.  I had to be brutal with myself and admit that maybe, just maybe, there was the tiniest chance that I didn’t like it as a whole.  Its rows of diamond blocks were separated by a pale green fabric and the two just weren’t happy together.  But it contained so many pieces of fabric that I loved with fervent and rabid nostalgia that I did not want to do any harm.  I removed my pitifully amateur quilting stitches – there weren’t too many.  I tossed out and the batting and the backing.  I even washed the quilt which had become a tad shop worn without having done a single day’s duty, kind of like Prince Charles passing into retirement while still waiting to start his first job. 

I decided that the green fabric was the quilt’s nemesis, holding all the clambering 1940s and ‘50s fabrics at a metaphoric gunpoint.  It took me another year to get up the courage to remove the green fabric, reducing the quilt to long strips of diamond blocks sewn together.  Now I was free to create some smaller quilts that family members who were closest to Gramma could enjoy. 

I started re-piecing portions of the strips together, repairing frayed fabrics, re-enforcing bits and pieces here and there.  I purchased some new fabric that had a vintage look to it and used it as the backing.  Each time I ran into a technical problem I would think about the question in my head at bedtime and wish I could “channel” my grandmother for an answer.  And each morning I would have a solution to my problem. 

Eventually I completed a small quilt for my cousin that could be used as a lap quilt, or a wall hanging, or perhaps as a decorative element on a table.  

The best part of re-working this quilt was how I got to “know” my grandmother.  I came to understand more fully what quilting was originally all about.  As modern quilters we amass giant stashes of fabric, some of which it is altogether possible we will never use.   As I became acquainted with each fabric in Gramma’s quilt, I recognized the leaner times of post World War II.  Every kind of fabric had been used.  I recognized the scrap pieces from her dresses and from my dresses, and some pieces from a covered cushion.  Other pieces were probably from my grandfather’s shirts.  A few pieces matched a doll blankets that been made for me. No doubt some larger, more important garment had been gracious enough to leave a few extra scraps for a blanket to keep a cherished doll warm. The best pieces of all were from a grey silky dress I wore at age three.  There’s a studio photograph of me happily posing in that lovely dress.  The fabric I remember most vividly is the one with the blue background covered in tiny red and yellow diamonds.  This thin cotton fabric was left over from a homemade comforter.  This was the blanket, filled with down and fine chicken feathers, that my mother would pull out when one of us was shaking with chills and fever.  It made magical healing powers, which I suspect have been retained by the fabric bits in Gramma’s quilt. 

Working on the quilt helped me think about my grandmother from an adult perspective, so different from that of a child.  She was a cook at a Hydro power plant. She and my mother produced three substantial meals a day for the men who worked there – seven days a week, through war time and rationing.  How privileged my life seems in comparison as I take twenty seconds to brew coffee in my Keurig and heat up my bagel in the microwave.  And how warm and familiar it seems as I bend over Gramma’s fabric, using my modern electronic sewing machine, finally bringing to life what she never had the chance to finish.   

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Acute Frog

Quilt No. 92
March 2013

I agreed to do a demonstration at our quilt guild on how to create a pattern suitable for appliqué.  This was sure to be the proverbial piece of cake.  I always have a couple of quilts of this type in various states of completion.  It would be a simple matter of collecting up all the constituent bits when the time came.  And that time was somewhere in the very distant future.   

Fall and Christmas ripped by like an uncaring tornado.  January, living up to its reputation with white and bitter cold, loomed up on the schedule.  Abruptly, it was less than two weeks until I was to do the demo.

My quilts usually involve scaling up my art work or existing drawings or photos into a pattern that I can then use to make the various shapes for the quilt.  I start with a drawing of a cactus, and I end up with a cactus on a quilt.  Plenty of stuff happens in between those two points. This is tedious work, suitable only for the not-easily-bored.  It involves creating line drawings, and transferring these onto acetate sheets, then onto freezer paper.  Ultimately it yields the pieces that are sewn onto the background. 

There’s always plenty of all those items basking on my quilt table.  Who could have ever predicted that my demonstration prep would fail to coincide with an in-progress quilt?  When have I ever had all quilts completed?  Never before had this situation occurred.  I can only surmise that some sort of conjunction of the quilting planets had aligned to conspire against me.  I was finished every quilt. 

A new project would have to be started, but I didn’t have enough time to jump into a major quilt.  I needed a minor quilt.  A cute frog would do.  But I had to hurry.  And I had to break down my process into steps I could describe, something I’d never before intellectualized. I usually just work in wordless surge of creation. This was more like deconstructing a recipe - taking the cake apart and coming up with the flour, eggs, and milk that were the starting point.

And so I picked a smiling red-eyed tree frog, taken from a calendar.  There was no time to get too original!  Whipping through my preparations, I realized that it had to be not so much a cute frog as an acute frog – according to medical terminology –  “brief and severe”. This episode was definitely that and the usual chronic process – “long and dragged out”– was a null option. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Mystery of the Charmed Quilt

Quilt No. 90
March 2013

When I found out that there was Nancy Drew fabric, I simply could NOT believe it.  Sure, I expected to find Harry Potter fabric and Star Wars stuff, but... Nancy?!  Incredible! 

To me, Nancy is the most potent source of nostalgia in the universe – my introduction to actual “books” and the world of mystery!  Who knew there were mysteries going on that people – girls the same age as my sister – were out there solving!  Of course I pictured all this “mystery” as going on somewhere in the “United States of America”, known only to me through the mimeographed map from school – the one on which I’d laboriously printed all the states and all two rivers (Mississippi and Missouri).  Nancy lived in that wondrous, far flung place where each state was a different colour!  And there was more.  There could be hidden staircases!  Surely there was one somewhere in our tiny house – I just had to be diligent, and smart, and I would find it. 

This quilt was made for my friend Bill, a truly loyal Nancy Drew fan, collector, and expert on all things Nancy.  Bill never fails to take the adversities that life unfairly tosses his way and find his own silver linings.  I felt that this deserved some sort of reward.

And so... The Mystery of the Charmed Quilt came into being.  Why “Charmed”?  The Nancy Drew squares were purchased as pre-cut 5x5” squares, called “charm squares” according to official quilting terminology.  I went with a white background, and of course, yellow was a given.  It’s the colour I most associate with the covers of the classic Nancy Drew books.

As for the hidden staircase, I never did find it, but I haven’t given up looking where ever I live. I might just find it yet.

Quilt Notes

This quilt was quilted once, unquilted, and then quilted again.  My first attempts at machine quilting along the edges of the blocks, or “in the ditch” as quilters refer to it, were disastrous.  The skills I’d mastered for free motion quilting were of no help whatsoever.  Apparently ditching it is a whole different skill set.  My first lines meandered like a tired river, but as a testimony to my blind stubbornness, I just...kept...going.  My plan was to rip out what I didn’t like later because it would only be a few lines of stitches...I would master the skill any second.  Well, any minute.  Well, any hour.  Or maybe not.  The lines wandered around like drunken ants trying to escape the Raid factory.  And still I kept going, thinking - like so many fools in a bar - that my prize would look better in the morning.  

It didn’t.  

I decided to check out YouTube to see what I might be doing wrong.  Turns out - pretty much everything.  So I turned back the quilt clock by ripping out all the machine quilting.  I won’t say how long this took, but I did get  more than one movie under my belt as I sat there picking out the stitches.  My next attempt went better as I carefully folded the quilt prior to stitching so that it wouldn’t pull all over the place.  I shortened my stitch length, went slowly, oh so slowly, and used a super sharp Microtex needle.  

The results were far better, still not perfect, but as any quilter (believer or not) will tell you, only a Higher Power can make a perfect quilt. The rest of us can only give it our best shot.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Horse With No Name; The Ocean is A Desert With It's Life Underground

Quilt No. 89
February 2013

I may not have exactly been to the desert on a horse with no name, but I must say it feels good to be out of the rain.  And it’s been a long journey from the desert to the ocean with its life underground – a journey of almost a year, in fact.  A few other quilts have passed Horse in the queue, going from conception to completion while Horse waited in the background – waited for cacti, waited for a mesa, waited for the dye to dry on yet another piece to be used in the desert floor.  Waited on a technique that would yield anemones, waited on a seahorse, waited on a starfish, waited... and wondered...  would there ever actually be a horse?

I learned a few things from this quilt.  One was patience.  If a design element isn’t working out, the best route after executing multiple failures is no route at all.  Eventually a solution will present itself, in its own time.  I learned that you can actually wear out something you’ve added to a quilt by endlessly folding it and scrunching it during the quilting process (the Agave plant at the foot of the cacti had to be completely replaced after the first one frayed into oblivion).  I learned that keeping all those little scraps of dyed material was actually worth the effort.  I learned that organza, like velvet, should be added to my list of banned substances.  Organza is like just about everything else in life that adds a lot of flash.  It’s kind of hard to be sure if enduring the exasperation is worth it.  In this case, I would have to say yes. 

And I learned one other thing.  Eventually there will be a horse.  But you have to look for him.  And because the horse owns the quilt, he can afford to orchestrate things from behind the scene.

Thanks to Dewey Bunnell (of the band America) who wrote these haunting and intensely visual lyrics back in 1972.  From what I’ve read, a rainy stint in England had him thinking about the Arizona/New Mexico desert near the Vandenberg Air Force Base where he lived as a child.  If “horse” was a code word for heroin, it was probably the brain child of someone else’s imagination. 

Quilting Notes

The sunset was painted with (what else!) Setacolor dyes. The whole quilt was built up on a white cotton background using needle turn applique for larger objects and fused raw edge applique for smaller items such as the seaweed near the fish, the anemones, the sea shells and some of the plants.  Heavy gold thread or wool was couched along horizontal cliff and desert floor lines to harmonize them with the sunset - or sunrise - depending on your preference.

Organza was used in a layer over the ocean floor, and for the starfish, as well as the white wave that separates the desert and the ocean. It was also fused in layers to make the tentacles for the sea anemones.  One grouping of seashells was placed beneath the layer of organza to make them fade into the ocean floor.   Pink flowers and a few Agave leaves were also placed under the organza to give a reflection of their desert counterparts.  

A very small amount of beadwork was added to the quilt – on the starfish, as bubbles for the fish, and on the hand embroidered seahorse.  Small pink and white polished “gem stones” were added to the seashell cluster on the left. 

Most of the quilting and outlining of fused objects was done by machine with gold, red, or copper metallic thread.  Microtex sewing machine needles made the quilting possible.  While metallic thread needles almost worked, the thread inevitably frayed and broke, since the quilt is many layers thick in places.  After I switched to a Microtex needle, the machine perfectly executed anything I asked of it.  In order to machine quilt close to the heavily stuffed saguaro cacti, I removed the free motion foot and used the needle with no foot.  It was scary, but some people climb mountains or jump out of airplanes or wrestle bears -  I machine quilt without a foot.  Now we’re even.

The horse makes his appearance in the photo below.

Here are Dewey’s lyrics in his own handwriting.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Goin' Global

Quilt No. 88
January 2013

I always feel that a sort of collaboration has taken place when I take a quilt class or learn a new technique from another quilter. Any kind of inspiration that starts me off on a new quilt gives me that wondrous feeling.  Usually, the source of my inspiration is pretty elusive – I don’t get many calls from Fred Turner or Randy Bachman (Blue Collar) or Tommy James (Crystal Blue Persuasion). 

The “collaboration” that resulted in Goin’ Global was entirely different.  The Timmins Quilters’ Guild was lucky enough to host Kathy Wylie for one of her dynamic and interesting talks last fall.  Goin’ Gobal began in a workshop she taught at Lori’s Sewing Place

But first, let’s move back in time a little. I credit my unabated lust for quilting to my Grandmother.  When I was four or five years old she would sit me down with a jar of buttons, a piece of cotton, and a needle and thread. I would be spellbound for hours.  At times both the buttons and the cloth would be sewn to my pants or the sofa, but she pretended not to notice.  Shortly after I mastered button sewing, I graduated to embroidering my name on every tea towel that wasn't nailed down. I've loved needlework in any form since then.

It was the same with paper snowflakes.  I don’t remember the teacher who first taught me how to take those painfully blunt school scissors and cut out paper snowflakes. It’s something I still do now and then for the sheer joy of cutting paper and seeing what will be revealed. 

Kathy Wylie’s creative adaptation of the paper snowflake technique has resulted in her striking and award winning quilts.   For me, her “sewflake” technique has an irresistible pull.  It’s a wonderful example of what makes quilting not just good, but great – the willingness of quilters to share their knowledge.  When so many activities have been reduced to mere acts of competitiveness, quilting culture still fosters camaraderie with the sharing of “secrets” and discoveries.

And it’s no big secret that I have a fondness for penguins.  Who doesn't adore those stoic, waddling, black and white birds that have cast aside flight in favour of swimming?  So when Kathy encouraged us to choose favourite objects or shapes to launch our in-class creations, I chose penguins.  After a bit of happy trial and error, I ended up with twelve penguins holding wingtips and dancing in a circle .

My next task was to figure out what twelve penguins might encircle.  In the wild it would most likely be twelve other penguins, but one could easily end up with way too many penguins trapped on a quilt.  Maybe…a globe of the Earth?  A lovely idea, but one I’d used too many times already.  A snow globe?  It provided whimsy and magic with a quiet snowfall sifting down on a tiny village.  I printed out the village portion of a snow globe image I purchased on the internet, but used my own dyed background and foregrounds for the globe.  To create the illusion that it was snowing, I painted a piece of cotton with my beloved Setacolor dyes and sprinkled ground up oatmeal flakes on it while it was still wet.  Success in only two tries!
The penguins were hand appliquéd onto the background over the snow globe.  The white portions of their bodies were fused to the dark part and outlined with hand embroidery. It was definitely more fun than adding my name to a tea towel.  When the piece was finished I trapunto’d (stuffed) the snow globe to give it the nice rounded shape.  

I added some radiating dark “flame” shapes.  It was kind of dull looking until I found the intense blue swirly star fabric in my stash. The penguins seemed to approve of that.  The quilt began to look like Southern Lights or perhaps a giant splash-down.  I like to have a quilt that remains open to interpretation.  It allows others to come up with their own idea of what the quilt might have to say.  I was thrilled by interpretive comments from friends.  One, a poet, wrote to me that this quilt was “almost like a fresh dahlia growing and sending life into the universe. The circle village seems enveloped by comforting leaves of hope and life. Radiant stars encourage sparkling appreciation of living in today's world”.  For her, the penguins were “holding hands as they encircle the world with love and helping hands. ... If humankind did this - what an amazing healing world we could share.” I was humbled by her interpretation of the blue rays “of light suggesting that we need to keep our hearts and minds open to one another - to try to be non-judgmental - to share and improve what we can in a world of incredible beauty and yet so much suffering.”

Another friend viewed the quilt as an expression of environmental concern.  “I see this as a reminder from our vulnerable friends, that even though they are supposed to be living in a cool blue world, things are heating up everywhere, and although the "flames" have just recently manifested in their environment, and are still weak (blue), they will be progressing in our lifetime to hot yellows and reds. Then where will our little friends be?”

Yet again I am elated at the power of fabric to speak to us in so many unexpected ways.