Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Light and Dark in the City

Quilt No. 108
December 2015

Every so often a challenge will come your way.  Sometimes you duck it, sometimes you plunge head long into it, throwing caution and your underwear into the wind.  Light and Dark in the City was kind of like that.  And it all started with a paper bag.

A couple of weeks before Christmas a “paper bag challenge” was announced at quilt guild.  It works like this.  Fabric, notions and sometimes other non-cloth fibre items are put into a small paper bag.  Batting is included, and the quilter who receives the bag must make a small quilt with only the items found in the bag. She can use her own thread and tools, but she may not add any fabric to it.  Sounds pretty simple.  Until you open the bag.

Some of the items in the paper bag.
I’ve never gotten to do one of these before.  Generally, there are only two paper bags, for two lucky quilters.  People who want to give this a shot put their names in a draw.  This particular time not too many people entered.  Everyone was eyeball deep in Christmas preparations at home and the project had to be completed by the next meeting, a measly two weeks away.  My odds of winning one of the bags were considerably better than usual with fewer names in the draw.  And I was pretty darn pleased when my name was announced. 

The bag contained about twenty pieces of fabric in solid colours, or “solids” in quilt world jargon.  The colours were completely random, not necessarily colours you would intuitively partner up together.  There was one print – a black fabric with small white dots.  All these pieces were fairly small and varied in size.  Also included was a placemat sized piece of batting, and two larger pieces of black cotton.  And...a tiny baggie with  red, green, and black woolish pieces in it.  I heard someone behind me say, “Oh, there’s roving too.”  I pretended to know what that meant.  Someone else said, sagely, “Ah, for felting.”  Roving? Felting?  Was it too late to re-raffle the paper bag?  I was supposed to create a quilt and learn how to felt in two weeks?  All while Christmasing-up my house? Gulp.

I brought the paper bag home and placed the pieces on my quilting table.  There were a lot of longish strips – immediately the idea of doing skyscrapers came to me.  I am quite fond of quilting cities (Before, Blue collar).  There wasn’t a lot of time to ruminate about it.  Sometimes I can spend way more than two weeks just thinking about a quilt before I start designing.  This was not going to be one of those times. 

 "Before" a city quilt I made after 9/11.
To get myself started I consulted my favourite coffee table book, Skyscrapers.  This book profiles several famous buildings and gets your mind past the idea that all buildings are tall boxes that are stubbornly rectangular.  It launched my project with a few buildings that were varied in shape, allowing me to comfortably default back to my own building creations...all of which were rectangular boxes. 

I wanted to create a harbour skyline, a long one.  However, this was limited by the size of the batting, which was cut to the dimensions of a placemat.  Ha!  Limiting factor or not, I could at least alter the batting into a long and narrow shape by cutting and piecing it, two activities that basically define quilting.  This generated a new limiting factor – I now had a maximum of 8 ½ inches for those tall skyscrapers.  Not much room left for the water – and no city skyline looks quite right unless it’s on water.  Night time city skylines also have those grand reflections in the harbour water – I wanted to capture those too.  There was just enough room to squeeze in some light reflections using my favourite shiny rayon thread.

To use up the roving - whatever it is - I machine quilted over it to create clouds.  Learning to felt would have to wait for another day.  Or another challenge. 

I finished the piecing and the quilting and turned to my carefully conserved strips of black that I’d saved for the binding.  I was four inches short.  I had three other pieces left that were big enough to help me out – white, hot pink, and the black/white dot piece.  I decided to use the hot pink. To make it look like I’d planned it that way all along, I ran the pink fabric through the printer and printed out the name of the quilt on it.  After many test pieces I was able to sew it on so that the words lined up centered in the quarter inch wide piece of pink on the binding.  Alas, the pink was then too dominant and distracting.  I fused in some strips of black to de-emphasize it as much as I could.  It would have to do – painting black over the pink would have sent me straight to the cheater’s list.

Julie and Linda with their tale of two cities.
I willed myself not to email Linda, the quilter who was doing the same challenge, to see if she would divulge what subject she had chosen for her paper bag project.  When it came time to reveal the quilts at the meeting, we were flabbergasted to find that both of us had created cities.  The cities were radically different with mine horizontal and narrow and distant, and hers an intimate close-up of a warm urban place with an actual felted tree and a felted roof. 

I would have to say that I truly learned a lot from this challenge.  But, nope, I didn't learn how to do felting. I'm saving that for another day.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Never Forget

Quilt No. 47 January 2006 / machine quilting completed November 2015

One minute of silence seems hardly enough time in which to reflect on the wars of the past, let alone the worries of the present.  But in 2005, as I sat at my desk at work, the one minute of silence on Remembrance Day was enough time to have the entire design of this quilt slip past the background of my thoughts.  I put it on paper, and began working on it soon after, completing the quilt in January 2006.  The quilt has since traveled around to a few Remembrance Day displays, but I was never quite content with it.

By 2015 I had an additional decade of quilting experience under my belt, having completed over 100 quilts.  I was “renovating” some of my older quilts – a great way to practice my machine quilting skills.  Just like archery, restringing your banjo, and taxidermy, machine quilting is a skill.  And the only way to acquire a skill is to practice it. Yes, your teachers, your mother and those pesky nuns who taught you piano were all right.  You have to practice.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that James Bond automatically knew how to slay bad guys, woo beautiful women, and fly any object with wings and a motor.  He had to spend plenty of time practicing all that stuff until he got it perfect.  Machine quilting is exactly the same, minus the bullets and the helicopters.

I was convinced machine quilting this piece would be a couple of afternoon’s work.  Possibly my eyes were crusted over with stupidity – it’s hard to imagine a more inaccurate time line for a project. I first went with a fairly widely spaced round of quilting.  It looked so bad I thought I might have to demote it and use it as a door mat.  At the back door.  I then got serious about doing this quilt right, and machine stitched carefully around every object on the quilt.  Also, the poppies had originally been meant to look as though they were lying on the lawn.  I know.  It never worked for me either.  I added in stems and leaves to push the poppies into the foreground where they belonged.  I then very closely machine quilted the entire quilt.  This caused the side borders to puff out like relentless waves rolling in on a beach.  No matter how much quilting I added to the borders they would not be tamed.  Ultimately, like many things that are defiant without explanation, they had to be cut loose.  Chopped.  Banished.  After all, there was the good of the whole to consider.  A fitting philosophy perhaps, for a quilt depicting the results of war. 

The above photo shows the machine quilting on the back of Never Forget



Monday, November 30, 2015

I Spy Placemats

November 2015

For some of us, I Spy quilts are the popcorn of the quilt world.  You can never stop at just one.  This is particularly true for those of us who collect “picture fabrics”.  Aptly nicknamed “conversation fabrics”, these pieces can have pictures of pretty much anything – barns, dogs, birds, angels, stinky cheeses, Snoopy, Nancy Drew’s magnifying glass...the list is endless. So far the only pop culture object not depicted in fabric is Donald Trump’s hair. 

Basically, if someone, somewhere liked something, there’s probably a bolt of fabric bearing a picture of it.  And I probably bought a bunch it.  These pieces, while looking nothing short of fabulous in my fabric collection, are actually quite difficult to use up.  It’s like cooking – you can’t just grab all your exotic ingredients off the shelf and use them up in a single dish.  That method yields the proverbial dog’s breakfast whether you’re making food or quilts.

Our guild recently made placemats to give to the clients of The Red Cross Meals On Wheels program.  My contribution was two I Spy placemats.  They’re fun visually because every time you look at them you find something you didn’t see the last time.  It’s the same pleasure you get from watching reruns of your favourite TV show.  There are always subplots and cool props you missed on your first pass. 

Some of my other adventures with I Spy quilts, including tips on making them, can be found in my previous posts Julie’s Garden and True North. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Lost on the Ocean

Quilt No. 107
August 2015

Frogs.  They keep showing up in my quilts.  It’s not so much that I love frogs.  It’s pictures of frogs that I love.  I have frog calendars, and frog stationary, and more than one Kermit the Frog hanging around the house.  I have a frog cookie cutter, frog salt and pepper shakers, and a plastic frog next to the kitchen sink that dispenses soap.  With the exception of the dispenser, I did not buy any of these froggly items.  People see frog stuff and they immediately think of me.  It’s pretty humbling.

I do admit that I have allowed the inspiration of frogs to guide my purchases more than a few times – and all of those purchases were fabric.  So, whenever I can, I like to add a frog or two into my quilts.  Sadly, this does not happen nearly as often as I’d like.  So my collection of frog fabric is growing in leaps and bounds.

In Lost on the Ocean, a particularly exotic frog is sailing on his lily pad.  The sun is blasting down on him.  The ocean is swirling.  A mildly frantic concern is starting to nudge at his consciousness.  The heat penetrates his skull and unleashes a psychedelic vista.  He begins to long for the comforts of home...or maybe even just a bit of sunscreen... 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Prairie Points

Quilt  No. 106
July 2015

Apparently, I’m not yet finished with my exploration of what can be done with all those old crewel embroidery pieces that I did decades ago.  Who would have thought that they would find their way back into the creative queue after all this time?

This wagon piece was probably the second embroidery kit I did back in the day.  I found it balled up in a drawer.  To be truthful, I never really liked it much – both the colours and the composition were kind of dull.  After I embroidered it, I never even considered framing it.

So…when I wanted one to just fool around with, this fit the bill.  My general rule of thumb is to never fool around with anything you aren’t willing to lose.  This includes quilts, pieces of fabric, old linens, buckets of ice cream, and friendships.  I wanted to machine quilt  the whole piece rather than cutting out portions to use as I had in Fred and Marty, and The Fox Gets a New Home.  

So, using smoke Wonder Invisible Thread, I machine quilted the details of each object.  I then moved on and did some contouring of the off-white background so that the elements weren’t just “floating around” loosely anymore.  Meh.  It improved it a little.  But only a little.  I added on a medium green cotton border.  Basically that made a larger but no more interesting piece.  Or…maybe I’m just not fond of wagons.  The rabbit in the scene wasn’t prominent enough to pull the piece out of the Land of Ho Hum.  

Eventually I hit on the idea of putting the teal green/blue/beige lumpy wool between the centre and the border.  The teals added enough warmth to wake up the whole piece.  Echoing that colour in the binding brought things together in a much more pleasing way.  

Next came choosing of a name for this quilt.  “A Wagon, A Barn, and a Rabbit” seemed unspeakably lame.  I turned the naming proposition over to my Facebook friends, who, as always, elevated the whole endeavor to a new level.  The names began in the realm of the sublime and poetic, emphasizing the genteel farm scene.  Then…people started to get concerned that the wagon lacked a horse.  This was quickly interpreted as the horse having shirked his duties and run off.  I don’t know much about horses, but perhaps this is the sort of thing they routinely do.  The rabbit, having no duties other than being cute, stayed put.  The tale about the miscreant horse began to morph into titles worthy of country and western ballads.  

At the end of it, the weight of collective brilliance made it impossible for me to choose a title.  I defaulted to a draw.  My friend Helen won the draw with her entry “Prairie Points”.  I thought this was especially fair, since Helen revealed that she had completed the same embroidery piece too.  There was also additional "insider" amusement to be had, since Helen is a quilting friend, and prairie points in the quilting word have nothing to do with prairies or unreliable horses.  They’re a series of folded triangles used to finish off the edge of a quilt.  Maybe the horse ran off with those too.

Here’s a list of titles that were suggested.  Note that the rabbit received as much love as the horse received derision.


Home Sweet Home

Rancher's Meadow Caravan

Harvester's Chariot in Grasslands

The Day the Horse Died

Damn That Horse. Died and Left Me to Tow the Wagon

Na minha casa existe paz (translation: My home is a haven)


The Horse Ran Off

Prairie Points
The draw!


Rabbit Finds a Home

Rabbit's New Car


Crewel Summer

Wife Left, The Horse Ran Off: It's Been a Crewel Summer

Rural Exodus

Runaway Horse

Lonely Rabbit

Spring Delight

Amish Homestead

Once Upon a Time


Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Fox Gets a New Home

Quilt No. 99

Ahh, the early 1980’s.  They were the Crewel Years.  Every department and craft store had a tantalizing selection of crewel embroidery kits.  It was a welcome change after I’d knitted an ocean of sweaters, a platoon of Christmas stockings, and crafted enough Christmas decorations that, three decades later, I still have too many to display.  

Crewel embroidery kits came complete with everything you needed to finish the project. The cloth was delicately stamped with the picture.  Ample amounts of wool in all required colours was included.  This came in one giant hank, like a horse tail, and the first task was to separate out the medium green from the light green from the very light green.  Sometimes they even threw in very very light green.  Separating the colours could take a whole day and would have my mother and I debating rose vs coral vs fuchsia for hours.  The kit would also include a complete set of detailed instructions on how to make every type of required stitch. No matter how many kits you did, they always came up with novel stitches – herringbone, threaded backstitch, closed featherstitch.  Final details were added in with embroidery floss.  The smaller kits thoughtfully included a little plastic frame so that you could get your project ready for display without that time-wasting trip to the store. 

For those with very dexterous hands and the eyes of a sharp shooter there were also extremely tiny embroidery pictures to complete. These ones used only skinny embroidery floss, which came in a 6-stranded format and often required the use of a single thread-like strand for a particular area.  Those kits required gobs of patience and the same quantity of light as your average hospital operating room.  Such was making of The Fox. 

Sometime in the early 1980’s I gave the completed, plastic-framed fox to my sister.  Years went by, and she subsequently gave it back to me.  The circumstances surrounding both situations elude me.  And, yes, she will be horrified that I don’t remember.  Geez.  I made the fox.  What more does she want?  She will give me the complete fox history, and I, having failed to file away those crucial historical details, will be compelled to believe whatever she tells me. 

Despite his meandering life path, I still liked the fox and was happy to have it back in my possession, even in its dated plastic frame.  I threw that away.  I cut around the fox leaving a narrow seam allowance to use when I appliqued it to….I couldn’t think of anything.  I thought I might add it to a postcard quilt for a friend who had moved away, and casually mentioned this to my sister.  Surprisingly enough, she completely lost it.  The last time she had become that mired in emotionality she was at the altar getting married!  Who knew the fox was that important?  I was forced to re-think my position.  I abandoned it in a box of embellishments where it could share equal time with all that other stuff I felt guilty about not using. 

As per usual, years went by with the “in progress” fox in limbo.  One day a quilting friend called me over to her place to share in a windfall.  She had come into possession of a large box of fabric.  Most of these were fabrics of the “outcast” variety.  They were not cotton. Quilters generally worship exclusively at the altar of cotton.  I’m a little more inclined to stray outside of the all-cotton rule, so she kindly shared the box of deliciously slippery shiny fabrics with me.  

There were all kinds of taupes and related colours.  So intriguing!  I cut lengths from several pieces and sewed them together in aimless curves and ended up with a whole lot of sew-what.  I thought maybe the fox could help me out, but I wasn’t sure just how.  

My friend had also given me the fabric I ultimately used for the trees in this quilt.  She described it, and I agreed, as a piece of fabric that was just too special to cut up. The fat quarter (a 20x22” piece) was terrorizing her – too beautiful to use, too beautiful to not use.  It was too small to use in a large quilt, too big to waste.  I have a largely undeserved reputation for bravery with scissors, so she felt the fabric had a better chance of finding its way onto a quilt if she gave it to me.

For quite a while the fox and the enchanting slippery fabrics went back and forth to my cottage in the box I take with me every summer weekend.  One Saturday, a blue fabric that was under consideration for another quilt ended up tucked next to the stalled fox project.  It was fabric love at first sight – the dark blue provided the missing element that the fox had long dreamed of, and the creation of the fox’s new home was on its way.  

So, who got the quilt after the fox found his new home?  Well my sister, of course.  I figure I have a couple of decades before she gives it back to me.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fred and Marty

Quilt No. 104
April 2015

There has never been a time in my life when I didn't have at least one creative pursuit as my constant companion.  One of my very earliest memories is that of threading wool on a blunt plastic needle through pre-punched holes around a dog printed on a piece of cardboard.  There were other cards that came with the dog – maybe a duck and a horse, but really I didn't care a fig about the animals.  For me it was all about the needle and that single strand of wool. 

As the years went by I exchanged my over sized plastic needle for shinier and sharper metal needles. This started me down the long path that eventually took me to quilting. The route was long and circuitous.  By the age of six or seven I was already a jaded crafter who had wandered through knitting and button sewing and embroidery. I had become a serial crafter, living for my next needle.  In my endless quest for more, I made the discovery that a motorized version of the needle existed. It was called a sewing machine!  This opened up whole new creative vistas for me as I created a kickass Barbie doll wardrobe that would have made Pierre Cardin scream into his knickers and take up baseball. 

Peep and Squeak in original crewel work.

In the 1980’s my needle mania took me deep into crewel embroidery territory.  I embroidered fruit and birds and wishing wells.  Eventually I came to the Dimensions embroidery kit entitled “Peep and Squeak” designed by Linda K. Powell.  In it, a bird and a mouse sit atop a fence post, completely lost in the bliss of a routine day of easy companionship.  There are a few flowers around the base of the post, but the background is completely empty.  This framed piece hung on a wall for a number of years, eventually losing favour for no discernible reason.  The delightful bird and mouse silently took up residence at the back of a closet.  Every so often I would find them in there.  I would feel guilty.  I would close the closet door and turn my attention to something else.  They never seemed to mind.

After some experimentation with fabric paints one summer, I came up with an interesting piece of fabric that had a blue sky hovering over white leaves.  These were outlined in green, courtesy of the light-sensitive Setacolor dyes.  I had painted the dyes onto white cotton and topped it with mountain ash and other leaves and ferns from the surrounding forest at the cottage.  Next, I let nature takes its course (otherwise known as reading cheap novels on the dock).   The fabric turned out pleasing and vibrant, giving the impression of wind blown foliage.  It figured it would work well as a background fabric if I could find something that wouldn't get lost in the leaves.  

A few years went by before the dyed piece accidentally crossed paths with Peep and Squeak, proving yet again that you should never keep your creative stash too tidy.  Too much organization can be a creative buzz kill.  A stray piece of fabric thrown on a an old piece of embroidery could be the perfect surprise  marriage.   The mouse and bird had enough visual oomph to tame the background.  And since they were reinvented with a whole new look, I decided it was time to give them new names.  They became Fred and Marty.  Names like “Peep” and “Squeak” hardly seemed lofty enough after all that they had been through.

Quilt Notes

Step one was to pry the embroidery out of its frame, and tame the dust monster by hand washing the piece. Crewel work washes surprisingly well if you give it the same respect as a 100% wool sweater, and it comes out completely refreshed.  I then ironed fusible cotton onto the back of the sections prior to cutting out the individual pieces.  A large dose of audacity was required to take the scissors to a piece of embroidery that had once taken me several months to complete! 

 I left about a ¼ inch seam allowance and hand appliquéd the bird/mouse/post piece and the clover pieces onto the background.  This required a lot of attention to detail in order to keep the heavy pieces of embroidery flat against the background. A lot of work had to be done to make the embroidered pieces appear complete again.  I added in crewel stitching where the background showed through, or where the wool strands had separated.  Most of the crewel work was outlined with new stitches in wool.  Finding matching wool was tricky even though I had kept much of the leftover wool from multiple projects my mother or I had completed decades ago.  The wool from the original Peep and Squeak kit was nowhere to be found.  Of course.

I then began free motion machine quilting the background using rayon thread, mostly following the outline of the leaves and then adding in quilted leaf shapes above those.  Gradually I began quilting lines in the sky that would suggest a blustery day.  I used smoke coloured polyester thread to quilt through all layers of wool and fabric to enhance the details in the characters, the post, and the flowers.  The stems for the clover were added on last of all.  The Fred and Marty relocation was complete.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Quilt No. 103
February 2015

Say it with fabric.  I keep immersing myself in this endless quest.  And when I decided to create a quilt for my daughter’s wedding, it was never more difficult.  It needed to celebrate one of life’s key events, and to wholeheartedly welcome Lucas into our family.  It needed to depict something about them, something they could look back on in their dotage that would make them say “Remember that?”   It also needed to show that as a mother (and mother-in-law) I had at least some understanding of what they loved to do.  I didn’t want them to think that I hadn’t been listening...

Each year they plan their wilderness camping trip with great zeal, selecting the destination, amassing the equipment, working through lists of gear and food, selecting between the “must have” items and those relegated to the “wish list”.  The duration of any camping trip is far shorter than number of hours that went into planning it.  Since this is a many-months-long focus in their lives, I know how much it means to them.  After all, who doesn’t want to conquer nature with a canoe, two paddles, a food barrel, and the luxury of a single roll of toilet paper? 

Fortunately, I had lots of time to plan their wilderness camping quilt - just as well because for the first year of “planning” I came up with absolutely no ideas.  During the second year I came up with several crappy ideas, one of which had park symbol signs stationed along the border in a freakish parade.  Mercifully, that one never got off the design table.

Trying to force a creative idea invariably sends it into that slippery-pig phase where the harder you grasp at it, the more gleefully it eludes you.  In the end all you have to show for your efforts are greasy hands and remembered squeals. 

I finally quit actively thinking about it.  Likely, my subconscious continued to wring its hands over the problem, because not too long after that, I was struck by the image of a tree trunk with their initials carved inside a heart.  It seemed like something they might do, or rather, like something they would talk about doing, and then decide against in order to avoid harming a tree.

Once I had the key element everything flowed from there.  Well…I wish!  It was more of a miserly trickle, with more ideas tossed out than embraced.  I at least knew the concept of what I wanted – a lake, a canoe, an idyllic forest scene where a few animals made their home, and a campfire.  Bit by bit it came together, eventually including a picnic and their favourite bottle of wine. 

My plan was to put ferns along the bottom, and I spent a couple of painstaking hours cutting out fern-print fabric to capture the ferns without the background on which they were printed.  I arranged and rearranged ferns for weeks on end without ever even approaching a pleasing result.  By the end of my endeavours the ferns took on a flayed look, completely shredded from too much handling.  I moved on to flowers, combing through my considerable stash of fabric, auditioning every possible floral piece regardless of colour or size of flower.  It wasn’t much of a surprise to find that method yielded nothing. 

During this time period, wedding planning was going on.  It included a trip to help my daughter purchase her wedding gown.  Of course, this brought back memories of my own modest gown, and I pulled it out of the box that was hiding under a deeply satisfying layer dust.  This sparked conversations with my sister about her wedding gown, so she retrieved hers as well. 

It was pretty clear that styles have changed radically since the 1980’s when gowns were demure and covered as much of the bride as possible.  High collars and long sleeves were the trend, pretty much the opposite of today’s styles.  For my sister and me, there was no doubt in our minds that no one would ever want to wear those completely outdated wedding gowns again.  But that didn’t mean that they were of no further value.  Both gowns had flowered lace in just the right scale to use on the quilt. 

I remove some pieces and started “testing” it.  The lace readily accepted Pebeo Setacolor fabric paint, and was easily transformed.  I made orange flowers from my dress, and orange-pink flowers from my sister’s dress.  Hers also had lace in the shape of leaves, and this I painted green.  The bluebells readily exchanged their bland white existence for one of vibrant blue.

The tree has only a few tender young leaves.  It is at the beginning of its life’s journey.  I removed the sash from my wedding gown and dyed it green.  The synthetic fabric slurped up the paint with gusto, and was relatively easy to use to make appliquéd leaves.  A little silver metallic thread machine quilting gave them the dazzle they deserved. 

I still needed to add the bride and groom into their own personal camping-quilt experience.  Luckily I had one photo of them paddling a canoe.  Since I am not generally on the invitation list for their camping trips (no one wants to portage a canoe, numerous backpacks, food, paddles and one mother) I felt quite fortunate to have snapped a photo several years ago at our cottage. I printed out the photo of them in a canoe, and fused it onto the quilt. 

I hope that this quilt will always hold true for them, and that they will always paddle together through all the sunny days and the inevitable sorrowful days that will build the fabric of their lives.