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.