Monday, October 6, 2014

Quilting in the Wind - Again!

Quilt No. 62 Gets Some Much Needed Lovin'

As I've said before, most quilters are plagued by UFO's (UnFinished Objects).  It's one of the inexplicable tenets of life that starting a project is ever so much more fun than finishing it. There's that tsunami of enthusiasm, that unadulterated glee that accompanies a new enterprise. This applies not only to quilting, but to pretty much everything else - taking French lessons, teaching the dog to fetch your purse, encouraging the cat to flush the toilet, siding the house.

I like to think I've taken the UFO to a new place.  I now take quilts with FO status (Finished Objects) and demote them back into UFO's.  It's positively perverse.  It's the equivalent of Sisyphus finally getting that cantankerous stone to the top of the hill, being dissatisfied with the way he got it up there, and deciding to roll it down and start all over again.  At least in my case I only roll it half way down.

While I was reasonably satisfied that the design of Quilting in the Wind expressed the story I wanted to tell (see the 2008 blog post) I was never happy with it as a Finished Object.  It's been hanging in the closet since the day after it was finished in 2008.  So it was the first quilt I thought about when I started looking around for a quilt that I could revitalize with some machine quilting.  A practice piece.  Quilting in the Wind backslid into UFO status.

I removed the binding and all the hand quilting.  Yippee - none of the elements on the quilt needed to be replaced, unlike my previous adventure with My Escape.  Lacking a good idea of just exactly what shapes I should quilt into it, I spent hours gawking at it, doodling with my machine, and creeping other quilter's FO's on the internet.  All of that proved to be fruitless.  Ultimately, I just went for it and tried to add in quilted shapes that looked like wind.  Never having actually seen wind, this was tricky.  It called for lots of imagination and plenty of cups of coffee, and not necessarily in that order.

This quilt did prove to be a good learning experience, and my key take away was this.  If you don't know what to do...just jump in.   It actually will come to you.  (Warning: this is not good advice for non-swimmers or pilots who never showed up for their lessons.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cabin Fever

Quilt No. 97
March 2014

Each September at the guild the president announces a new challenge, and the quilts are due the following spring.  It’s something I look forward to each year.  We have a varied group with members of all skill levels who do all types of quilting, so rules are kept to a minimum - lest anyone be discouraged from entering their own unique interpretation in the challenge.  This is quilting at its purest – there is not usually a prize, it is simply done for the joy of it.  Some members make a quilt, others do not, and both scenarios are perfectly welcome. No scrutiny, no judges, just, “Here’s an idea. Make it your own.” 

The 2013-2014 challenge was to use the log cabin block in a new way.  Or…if you didn't feel like that, well…use it in an old way.  Keeping it loosey-goosey – that’s what creativity is all about.  The log cabin block is easy to construct and is often the very first one a new quilter is taught.  I was no exception. Way, way, back in something like the Jurassic Period, I was a new mother on maternity leave.  Since a baby only took up only 20 out of every 24 hours, I was looking for something to fill in that dull and dreary 4 hour gap.  The city’s Parks and Rec department offered a basic quilting course right when I most needed it.  It was there that I learned about rotary cutters, quilting mats, and what a log cabin block was all about. 

I’d always wanted to learn how to quilt, had begged my mother to teach me since I was about eight years old.  After all, I’d been using the sewing machine for two full years at that point!  When you’re eight, that’s 25% of your lifetime!  I refused to believe she did not know how. I figured she did but she was just too busy and was pretending to not know. I ignored the fact that she’d never made a quilt or even a block. I also failed to appreciate that she had plenty of time to teach me to sew kickass Barbie clothes, play jacks, iron shirts (I had an inexplicable fondness for ironing), cut out magnificent snowflakes, swim, and play poker.  I went on to excel at the crafting of brocade Barbie evening dresses and winning at five card stud.  But I now see the truth.  She never quilted and probably didn't even know much about it.  She wasn't withholding at all!

The log cabin block is super simple.  You start with a small square of fabric.  You sew a strip of fabric to one side, rotate it, sew on another strip.  You keep going in this way and a block magically blooms in your hands.   I was anxious to practice my newly acquired skill back when I took my first class, so baby was installed in an infant seat, the seat was installed on one end of the dining room table, and I was installed with my Singer at the other end.  My first project was a log cabin table cloth that covered the top and padded the sharp corners of our large square coffee table.  It turned out to be a fortuitous choice when, later on, the infant-turned-toddler launched herself eye first onto the corner of the table.  The end result was that the Christmas photos featured a black eyed child.   Thankfully, the doctor in the emergency department gave us the benefit of doubt after a cursory run of the child abuse checklist.  So you could say that quilting has made me a better mother.

Of course, I like to think outside the blocks, so I wanted to do something a little different for this challenge.  I reasoned that an actual log cabin would do.  I love to take a photo and scale it up into a pattern for a quilt.  There is one crucial element.  It must be photo I really like.  I also had a momentary flash of brilliance and decided to make this quilt for my soon-to-be son-in-law, Lucas. He loves camping, so isn't a log cabin just about the same thing?

I started looking at photos and drawings and paintings of log cabins on the internet.  I wanted not only the perfect log cabin, but one that I felt he would think was the perfect log cabin.  I have no idea what the criteria for that would be, but I figured I would recognize it when I saw it.  I probably looked at a thousand cabins.  Not one seemed right.  It turns out they’re not that aesthetically pleasing.  But I’m perpetually undaunted by daunting tasks.  Eventually, long after I’d tired of looking at *!%$#&^$ log cabins, I saw a photo that was just a porch, with a window, a rocking chair and a guitar.  I could feel a bingo coming on.  Clearly this was the one since he loves to play the guitar.

I scaled up my outline of the photo, dyed some fabric for the logs of the porch wall, painstakingly put together the whole quilt, leaving the rocking chair until the last.  I couldn't get it to look right, despite keeping it proportionally sized to the original photo. I made it bigger.  I made it smaller.  I made it black, then brown.  I thought about red, the colour that all rocking chairs should be, but decided against it.  Sorry Dad.

Also, when I looked at it the window didn't seem right.  It was too large.  The guitar was bloated and misshapen like it had been bingeing on sodas and marshmallows.  I had made some extremely tiny actual log cabin blocks to put around the perimeter.  I wanted to respect the spirit of the challenge and use the actual log cabin block somewhere in my piece.  The tiny blocks did not work. The whole thing resembled  a mismatched set of china - nothing went together. There was not even one thing that I liked on the entire piece.  I consulted  others and they verified my worst fears.  Yep.  Ugly.  I showed it to my husband.  He couldn't tell that it was a porch.  Yep.  Ugly and confusing.  Clearly this was way more than just the “ugly phase” most  quilts go through at some point in their evolution. 

The challenge deadline was looming, mere weeks away…and despite a massive effort....I had…nothing. 

I decided to keep what I could from the current excrescence and  go forward.  Since the porch concept was a failure, I needed to find a new format for my log cabin.  What if…I moved the whole idea to the inside of a log cabin? That gave so many more possibilities for objects that could be used!  And I could still use the window and the rocking chair!   The miniature log cabin blocks that weren't working for a perimeter could be made to look like an actual log cabin block quilt draped over the chair! 

I dyed new fabric and came up with a much better way to create the log walls, sewing on each log individually and then stuffing it.  What else would be in this log cabin?  I’d always wanted to use up some of the fabric from my extensive collection of bricks, so adding a fireplace was an easy decision.  The fireplace would need a nice bright fire burning and a basket of birch firewood handy.  The window was lifted out of the failed quilt and placed in the new quilt and curtains were added.  The rocking chair was added.  Not again!  It was too big.  The next one was too small. The next was too black and dominant.  The next was too brown and disappearish.  I was Goldilocks, unable to get my porridge just right.  It’s important to know when you are defeated.   I usually figure this out long after that actual event has taken place.

Perhaps… it needed some other kind of chair?  A comfy chair?  A puffy chair?  A chair with print fabric?  For once I knew exactly what it should look like!

When I was a child we had a cottage, and of course, it being the sixties, and my mother being super-social, we knew everyone on the lake.  Some neighbouring cottages I liked going to more than others.  At the top of the list was the cottage with the real bear skin rug.  I still get a thrill just  thinking about it.  Next to that came my parent’s friends, Doris and Ted’s cottage.  Their place had two gigantic puffy armchairs.  Occasionally, Dad and Ted were unable to come to the cottage because of work, and my Mom, my sister, and I would stay with Doris.  Being the littlest, I was given the mind-boggling privilege of sleeping in those two flowery chairs.  They simply pushed them together.  It was like sleeping in the softest cloud, one with exquisitely flowered walls.  I knew it was probably the safest place on earth.  I felt sorry for all the other poor dolts who were too large to get the chair treatment.  That was the sort of chair the cabin deserved. 

I was able to find a perfect chair photo, scale it up, and use a piece of the fabric my sister had just given me for Christmas.  Yes, she’s that insanely cool – she gives me fabric on my birthday and at Christmas - even though she doesn't quilt!

I loved the chair, it was just like the one I remembered, even if it had paisley fabric instead of flowers.  There was no way I could drape a miniature quilt over it and cover up a place I was going to want to sit quite often.  I decided to place the quilt on the floor of the cabin.   Except, (spoiler alert) it isn’t really a quilt.  Sewing those tiny blocks into a quilt would have made it too bulky to drape.  It was added onto the quilt one square at a time.  It’s quite a challenge to place blocks on a quilt “floor” and have the perspective such that it looks like it’s lying on that floor. I finally solved quilt dilemma #203 by getting out a quilt, laying it on the floor, photographing it, and using the fold lines in the picture as a guide as to how to place the blocks to get the look I wanted. 

Whew.  Almost done.  I sewed the salvaged guitar appliqué, which was tricky with its multiple pieces and the lumpy quilt behind it.  Alarm bells went off.  Too large!  The guitar was too large.  The relative size of each piece in this type of quilt is crucial if the end result is going to be pleasant – and convincing.  By now I had pretty much ground my teeth down to nubs in frustration.  It took several days before I allowed myself to admit that I would have to completely re-do the guitar…meaning that I would have to find a new photo of a guitar at the precise angle I needed  (I don’t have a guitar I could photograph, and I draw haphazardly at best).  It would have to be the proper orientation, and I would have to once again create the wood fabric for the guitar body. How far do I go with these things?  Turns out, pretty far.

I looked for photos of wood that you would buy if you were going to make an actual guitar.  I downloaded a photo of spruce.  I digitally adjusted it, getting the colour just right, and the scale of the wood grain just right.  I printed it out on cotton.  I tell you this, so that in reading this long treatise, you too can know the suffering of tedium.  I sewed on the new guitar.  It looked, it looked, well, it looked – bent.  I had to unstitch it, and add a cardboard insert in the shape of the guitar body in order to get it to look flat.  It’s possible that I could have made an actual guitar in the length of time it took me come up with the final fabric one.

Finally the quilt was finished, well, sort of…but it lacked life.  And the quilt in the middle of the floor with the guitar on it looked lonely and unanchored.  What else would Lucas have in his cabin?  Well, yes, a whole lot of computer gear, but one can get too realistic.  Dogs!  He is a card-carrying dog lover.  I added in two pets who tied everything together quite nicely. As a bonus, they seemed quite satisfied with their new home.  I can’t guarantee they’re housebroken, but after he the gets the quilt, well, it’s no longer my problem.

This quilt is unique in many ways, but at present the feature that sticks out in my mind the most is how every single element in the quilt was problematic.  Except for the dogs.  By the end of it I had become the living embodiment of the quilt’s title.  I was wracked with Cabin Fever.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Princess and the Pea

Quilt No. 98
June 2014

The Princess and I have spent quite a few months together, a lot more time than I would have thought even remotely possible on the first day I laid eyes on her.  Of all places, the iconic artwork of Edmund Dulac showed up on Facebook, a forum surely never anticipated in 1911 when Mr. Dulac crafted his illustration for the fairy tale The Real Princess

It’s a fairy tale we’re all familiar with…a prince longs for a princess to marry – but she can only be a real princess.  Even back then it was tough to tell the phonies from the realies.  By chance, on a stormy night, a bedraggled girl shows up on his castle doorstep, begging for lodging and claiming to be a real princess.  As is the prerogative of all mothers who fear loss of their sons to scheming women, the Queen is suspicious.  She can’t creep the girl’s Facebook page or Google her.  But she has to know if the goods are genuine.  She devises a plan, and places a pea under “twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down quilts” (or twenty feather beds, depending on the version you read).  Only a maiden with such a “fine sense of feeling”, clearly the defining attribute of a real princess, would be able to detect the pea.  In the morning, true to form, the princess reveals her rightful station by complaining loudly about the lump in the bed.  He married her immediately.  Go figure.

I have my friend Bill to thank for the Facebook posting of the magnificent piece of art that inspired this quilt.  Bill cheerfully (and sometimes doggedly) lives with quite a few physical challenges.  One night he had a particularly bad night filled with discomfort.  He tossed and turned all night like the poor princess in her pea-ridden bed.  He posted the Dulac illustration with his comments the next morning on Facebook.  When I saw the photo of The Princess and the Pea I was a goner.  What a quilt she would make! Already the Princess had become personified in my mind. You can see a picture of the original painting here.

As children we all loved fairly tales.  We still love them as adults, but we tend to forget this.  Currently they’re enjoying a revival in the adult world as film makers have figured out that audiences of all ages are enthralled by movies and TV series featuring our favourite fairly tale friends and foes.  My Dad read these stories to me when I was a child.  My mother was more inclined to read to me from The Galloping Gas Stove, an imaginative concept, but not one that would translate into a quilt. 

You can find The Stories of Hans Anderson with Illustrations by Edmund Dulac on Project Gutenberg. His Princess illustration is the frontispiece (a word I don’t get to use nearly often enough) in the book.  Edmund Dulac was one of the five major "Golden Age" gift book illustrators. This was during an era that began in the early 1900’s when new colour printing techniques first allowed the mass production of story books with colour plates.  There’s more on Edmund Dulac and the printing industry at JVJ Publishing.  His talents were such that at age 22 he was commissioned to do 60 colour illustrations for the collected works of the Bronte sisters!

It was quite a task to choose all the fabric for such a large number of mattresses and eider-down quilts.  On my first attempt, I tried to match Dulac’s colour scheme as closely as I could.  What looked fabulous on canvas looked jarring on a quilt.  Without the subtlety of colour shade adjustment that paint allows, the colours could not be harmonized.  I started over, eliminating those odd green tones Dulac used so successfully in his painting, and stayed with pinks and blues for the bedding. 

The fun thing about a quilt of this nature is that you’re not locked into cottons like you would be for a quilt you that goes on a bed where someone might eat toast, get a fever, or play trampoline.  You can lavish on the satins (okay, largely satin-like polyesters) and use whatever creates the right look.  It’s liberating to be free of cotton, a fabric that, in the quilt world, teeters back and forth between the humble and the snobbish. 

The canopy ceiling and the mattresses were all done with a foundation piecing technique (also know as paper piecing).  You draw the pattern of the folds onto a fine piece of interfacing.  Fabrics go on the front of this.  You flip this over and sew it on the back, along your pattern lines.  It’s one of those quilt techniques that’s easier to do than it is to describe.  By running a line of basting stitches at the “top” and “bottom” of each mattress, I was able to gather them in prior to stitching them down.  A little stuffing (polyester, not feathers) and they have their puffy, mattressy appeal.

I wasn't going to put all the folds in the canopy ceiling.  Gag, what a lot of work!  After all, Dulac got to paint them in – he didn't have to deal with fold after fold of super thin slippery fabric.  It seemed too daunting a task, but my sister made me.  She’s older than me, so I have to do what she says.  I tried a lot of unsuccessful techniques before I hit on the foundation piecing technique. Constructing the folded part of the canopy ceiling (which was later sewn onto the quilt) took over three hours.  And I did not one, but two, of them. I'm not even counting the "prototype" I practiced on.  Don’t ask.  But, as always, my sister was right.  It was worth the effort.

As I anticipated, her face was a challenge.  I tried drawing it, and I tried tracing it, but she inevitably turned out more like the castle gargoyle than a princess.  I could not capture her expression, and even after all the months we’ve spent alone together, I cannot even begin to decipher her expression.  Such is the brilliance of Edmund Dulac.  She might be exasperated, frightened, exhausted, frustrated, haughty, humbled, coming down with a touch of ague.  I just can’t tell.  But what I do know was is that the quilt would be nothing without preserving that mysterious expression she possesses in the original painting.  To keep it true to the original I printed her face out on fabric and used that.  I still puzzle over what she’s thinking about each time I look at her.
I also didn't want to do the details on the bedposts.  Really, this project was just dragging on and on.  Quilts with more tangible deadlines kept passing the Princess by in the queue, as they went on to welcome babies, celebrate birthdays, or comfort a bereaved friend.  But when someone near and dear to me (who I just happen to be married to) insisted that the posts needed the details, I knew he was right.  Again.  Dang.  The hand embroidery took just shy of forever, but in the end I was glad I’d been arm-twisted into it.  The Princess deserves the best. 

There are many, many artists’ interpretations that accompany the innumerable versions of Hans Christian Andersens’s story, The Real Princess.  They range from stunning to whimsical to eerie, but I think Edmund Dulac did it best.  I hope he would approve of my tribute to his superb piece of art. I like to think he would be happy to know that there is indeed a pea hidden in this quilt.  As for the Princess?  Well, perhaps she is not so happy to have that nasty dried up legume in her bed.  But such are the tribulations when you are a real princess.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

True North

Quilt No. 96
January 2014

I've always believed that just about the only constant in life is change.  This appeals to the science nerd in me, while satisfying the philosopher as well.  Quilting ties in with this rather nicely.  A baby comes along, we make a quilt.  A wedding, a graduation, same thing.  First “big bed”?  Off to university?  A new home? Quilts all around. Life is unpredictable, full of ups and downs, and we all must inevitably endure changes that are often not of our own choosing.  Sometimes it’s just a skirmish and other times it’s all an all out campaign for survival. Quilts still contribute. Quite often, they’re made for cancer patients. Surely the love with which these are constructed has therapeutic value. And while there are no randomized controlled trials to verify the healing power of quilts, I know that it happens.

Life is long, but never long enough.  We must travel through the gains and losses of the years.  This “I Spy” quilt was made for my dear friend Lily after the loss of her husband.  Lily is a poetic woman with more spirituality in her little finger than most of us possess in our entire cell mass!  She and her husband shared a legendary love of nature and, in particular, the nature of Northern Ontario.  Eventually, circumstances dictated that Lily must leave the North for another part of the province. With the loss of her husband as well, it seemed to me the most daunting of challenges.  And so I sought, from a distance, to give her back a little piece of her beloved North. 

Each 3 inch square is a picture of something you would find in Northern Ontario – loons, a fox, a wolf, a bear, various wild flowers, blueberries, trees – so many trees – and of course a penguin.  While in nature these are strictly found in the Southern Hemisphere, the penguin is still valid, since it represents, well, me. Snow, barns, canoes, ferns, cabins – they’re all part of the fabric of our area. Books are also included, since winters here are long, and at times the comfort of an indoor retreat is compulsory. A fairy is waving around her sewing needle (guilty, yes, me again), butterflies are flitting, snowmen are cheering up wintery days.  Fish, ducks, moose, the kind of thing you might encounter in your own back yard up here, they’re all posing in True North.

This quilt captured the imagination of several quilters in my guild and I was thrilled that they too made “I Spy” quilts.  Someone recently asked me why they’re called  “I Spy” quilts.  The only answer I could come up with was that I had taken the idea from a calendar featuring quilts, and that was the name they had used.  I’m not sure if this is a traditional quilt format in the way that “double wedding ring quilt” or “Dresden plate quilt” are, but it is fitting.
My Dad was fond of playing the game of “I Spy” with us when we were kids, and the whole family, adults and children, would get in on the fun.  We never tire of recounting the story of the time he said “I spy with my little eye, something that starts with ‘N’”.  My cousin immediately yelled out the correct answer. “Knob!”

Making an I Spy quilt is great fun, especially if, like me, you have a vast collection of what we call “picture” fabrics.  The calendar where I found the idea called them “conversation” fabrics, which I like even better.  I could talk about my fabrics at length, and I appreciate those of you who are too polite to roll your eyes when I do so.  Hopefully I've given you a quilt to make up for it.  I collect these fabrics wherever I go, but I have to sheepishly admit that it is sometimes difficult to figure just how I will use them.  What do you do with Charlie Brown, twelve kinds of frog fabric, dogs, birds, cats, Kirk and Spock, garden gnomes, spools, horses, leopards, Darth Vader, and grapes? If the scale of the photos is right, you can make endless combinations of I Spy quilts.  Other than that, until inspiration strikes, you can simply admire them.  That’s mostly what fabric is for.

If you should ever decide to take on the adventure of I Spy quilting, here are a few tips.  Cut out more 3 1/2 inch squares than you will need so you have plenty to swap around when you lay them out.  This will help you see what looks best.  You can even cut a few of these as you buy new fabrics so you always have a big selection – a worthy idea, but one I've never had the discipline to execute! 

Sticking with a few basic colours can make these quilts a little more restful on the eyes – but maybe that’s not the look you want.  The spy’s the limit on these.

Never hesitate to use your Christmas fabrics in these quilts!  This resolves several dilemmas.  You get to “keep Christmas with you all through the year” (never easy) and you get to use up those Christmas fabrics that you bought fifteen years ago with no particular project in mind. 

The layout of the squares in these quilts is really best done according to value, that is, how light or dark in overall tone they are.  Tone trumps colour in these quilts. If some squares really stick out  -  perhaps the red ones - clump them together into a shape such as a heart or a square in the centre, or maybe around the edge, or in each corner.  Like wild horses, they need to be corralled for their own safety and your viewing pleasure.

Lay out the squares and leave them there for a couple of days before you start sewing them together.  That way you will start to notice the odd square here and there that might need to be moved to a different spot in the quilt.  You can also take photos of your layout.  “Sore thumb” squares show up instantly in the photo.  Adjusting your photo to black and white will make these ones even more obvious.

For the border, using solid colour fabric or a transition fabric (one that changes through a range of harmonious colours) helps unify it and pull all the colours together. It also gives a calming effect to the overall look of the piece.

 Also, I really like these quilt squares to puff up, so I use polyester batting, and quilt by machine in the ditch between the squares, with no additional quilting in the squares themselves.  An all over pattern will just obscure the pictures. 

Just as I hoped, Lily loves her True North quilt.  It’s part of her healing journey, one that I know she will complete in her own way, one step at a time.  To me, she is an inspiration, and a role model, and I am honoured to be a part of her life.