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.

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