Festival of Quilts – UK

Don’t get excited.  I didn’t get a chance to go to Britain for the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham.   At this point in life, it’s not even on my list of Things to Do.

However, Bonnie McCaffery went and she made two short vidcasts of her visit to the show.  She’s been doing this for a long time and, I must say, that it is a pleasure to see how her skills as a videographer have grown over the years.

While she is a very talented quilter in her own right, these vidcasts are not about her, but about the things she sees and the people she meets. 

I had just recently visited the Web site for the International Quilt Festival in Houston.  This is the official site and has a straight on shot of each winning quilt in all the categories.  I thought the pictures this year were, well, dull.  Not that the quilts were dull, mind you, but the pictures themselves were too small to appreciate anything about the details or workmanship.  Maybe my memory is playing tricks but I could have sworn they used to have better pictures, even ones that you could blow up and see stitch by stitch.

Then Bonnie posted a note about the most recent vidcast.  Still in a state of numbness from the election, I clicked over and was jolted right out of my seat!

We saw a variety of quilts, often with close up views.  We met some of the quilters and two small interviews were imbedded in between the tour.   I wish the music was set to play at a lower volume than the interviews but otherwise, this is nothing but a rave review.


Detail of quilt by Jose Beenders-Klomp from the Netherlands

As an American quilter, I really enjoyed seeing quilts that have grown out of a whole different set of cultural references.   You can see it in both color use and design.  The Fashion Show was unique.  Don’t miss it!

The Dumb Bells at Festival of Quilts UK is a second video which concentrates on a group of women who made an Olympic-themed quilt for the show.  Each square shows a quilt-related Olympic event with a rather chubby Sunbonnet Sue as the participant.  Pretty cute stuff and we get to see and hear about each block from the maker.         


Over the years, Bonnie has provided lots of vidcasts, some are show tours like these and others concentrate on an individual quilters.  We see an interview, enjoy several of her quilts and then watch as she explains one of her techniques.  These are still available for you to see.

It’s not the same as being in Britain but it was a pretty good second place and I didn’t have to pack a suitcase or go through the security check points at the airport.


Thread painting – Grandma style

Thread painting is a phrase used by modern day quilters to describe the heavy use of thread, usually by machine, on the surface to create the look of painted strokes.

My grandmother, Mollie Harowitz, wasn’t a quilter and never heard of thread painting.  I never saw her use a sewing machine.  She did all her work by hand, most of it after she developed arthritis in her fifties.

Fall colors

Mollie did all her work with embroidery thread.  In those days, that usually meant silk thread.  The pieces glow as if they were lit from within.

She had no lessons that I ever heard of.  She would just take a piece of fabric and sketch a picture on it with a pencil.  Then she filled in the whole thing with stitches. The tree picture above is fairly typical of her early work.  Most of the stitches are simply short straight lines, often overlapping neighboring stitches.

Boats at Newport News

She didn’t pay a lot of attention to perspective and apparently never gave much consideration to how a work would be framed.  In the harbor picture above, you can see that her initials are cut off on the side.

Grandma got better at shading things as she did more work.  You can see the depth in the grass in the foreground and the darker threads on the shady side of the trees.  She even began to show the shadows on the ground.

Coming up the drive

I don’t know where you would be standing to get a view like this of a house and the driveway.  It’s almost as if she were seeing it from an airplane.  She worked hard to put details in this picture but they are often out of scale with the yellow flowers (French knots) as big as the heads of the people coming up the driveway.  Yet the whole thing fairly throbs with life. 

My parents had these pictures and many more hanging in their house.  For reasons I will never understand, almost all of them were put into elaborate old frames, carved and gilded to within an inch of their lives.  The mats were bright blue, red or green and dwarfed the subtle beauty of the embroidery.

I ended up taking most of them home.  The first thing I did was have them re-matted in organic neutrals and framed with a plain dark wood.  I have trimmed all that off the photographs so you can just enjoy her work.  I hoped my children would fall in love with them once they saw them reframed but no such luck.

Skating on the river

The background fabric was blue in this picture which gives the sky a wholly different look with the dull blue peeking out amidst the wisps of snowy clouds.  She did a better job with the people.  Instead of just dark smudges, they are clearly wearing different clothes and you can see them moving on the ice.  It looks like there are several people in the background riding sleds down to the water.  Each part of the picture contains other little details.

More next time!

Does old equal valuable?

A woman on a list I belong to came across a ratty old quilt.  She asked the group what she should do with it as it was too far gone to repair.

I just want to make some observations about quilts, old and new.  We all make them for different reasons.  For myself, I enjoy the process.  Some of them I have given as gifts, some I have sold, many I have used and enjoyed.  Only a couple have any sentimental value.

Here’s where you can gasp in horror – I threw out the first original quilt I designed and made.  I loved it at the time, of course, but the fabric was inferior and one of the pieces began to rot right through within a couple years.  After giving it house room for more than two decades, I got rid of it last fall after my mother died.

The conjunction of those two things is not an accident.  As I may have mentioned before, my mother’s 3400 sq foot house was crammed with THINGS.  She thought all of them were worth saving.  Heck, she thought most of them were worth money. She was wrong.  Something is worth money only if someone else is willing to pay for it.

If you are a person who finds sentiment in everything, for whom every old plate or quilt has a story to tell, that’s great.  Keep those things.  Enjoy them.  Use them.  Or box them up and become a hoarder.

But please, don’t try to make other people feel bad if they do not feel that same connection.  Not all of us do and I say, thank goodness for that.  We have to live in whatever space we have.  Keeping everything is just impossible unless you want to walk sideways through the piles.

In my opinion, keep the things that mean something to YOU.  If the original maker of that quilt didn’t care enough to leave it to a family member or if there was no one in the family who cared or even if there was no family left, the sentiment is already gone.  Without knowing the story, you aren’t holding onto their history.  You’re just making things up.

Here is the next part that will make people mad at me.  You can’t keep everything connected to a person you love, much less all the other old stuff that will cross your path.   Keep the brooch she wore every Sunday or the ring she got for her 25th anniversary, but get rid of the dime store earrings she bought on a whim or the whole collection of inexpensive watches, bought to match every outfit. 

Keep something you will use or wear or hang on the wall.  If you are going to keep it in a box in your attic, you might as well save a step and send it to the Salvation Army right now.  If you don’t, your children will.

Birth of a Class–the work begins

I used the word birth on purpose because writing a class is a lot like making a baby.  Getting the idea is the fun part.  Then you get to the labor pains.

My high school teachers would be delighted to know that I outline my classes before I start.  Otherwise, it is too easy to get sidetracked and lose track of the main theme of the class.

An easy class would be one in which you choose a project, list the supplies, provide a pattern and outline the steps to make the quilt a reality.  Most Quilt University classes are not like that.  We really do think of them as courses and want our students to come away with lots of new skills and the confidence to use them.

For the Next Step class, that meant my first chore was deciding just what I wanted them to learn.  I had decided to focus on the grid but all traditional blocks are based on a grid which meant I needed to narrow it down.

I decided to go with the most popular two sets of blocks: the 4-patch and the 9-patch.  There are hundreds of blocks in those two groups, but it was a start.

I like to work with Electric Quilt.  It gives me a way to play with blocks, fabrics and quilts quickly and efficiently.   By the time I opened my project file, I had changed the name of the class to Step Two.  There would be several more names until I finally settled on Anatomy of a Block.

At the last minute, I worried that Anatomy sounded too scientific and I polled the students who hang out in our Student Lounge to see what they thought.  I wish there had been a resource like that when I was naming my children!  My daughter ended up being Jennifer, since I had only known one my whole life.  As it turned out, that was the most popular name for a girl that year.

Anyway, I picked a slew of blocks and then started trying to set them into quilts.  Over the years, I have fallen in love with blocks that refuse to play well with others and I wanted to be sure that these blocks would coexist together in a variety of ways.

counterchange_allover   counterchange_cross_connector
I loved the Counterchange Cross block and made it work in both these layouts, but it isn’t a good sampler block, so it isn’t in the class.

In the middle of all this planning, I became executor of my mother’s estate and the class got set aside for 4 months as I tackled the gargantuan task of clearing out her house.  That is definitely a story for another day.

When I got back to the class, it took a while to get back into the groove, and I thought playing with fabric might stir up my enthusiasm and get me engaged again.  Lots of people refer to quilts with many fabrics as scrap quilts, but I actually pull 20-50 fabrics for almost every quilt I make.  The trick is to find one piece that I really love and then make sure that everything else will be happy in the same quilt with that piece.

Once the stack is pulled, I am free to use any fabric for different parts of the quilt, knowing that they will all be visually pleasing together in the final product.  Well, most of them will.  There is always a piece or two that sticks out no matter what you do.  Stripes can be hard to use, especially if you are making triangles and they point off in all different directions.  Even worse, they may not be printed straight on the fabric and end up all cattywumpus.  (That may not be a real word, but I bet you can tell what I mean.)

Some conversation prints are the same way.  My starting fabric for the pile was a gorgeous print with Japanese style lanterns on it.  They looked just awful cut up and used sideways or upside down, so they didn’t actually make it into the quilt at all.

I tell my classes about mistakes like that because it helps them to avoid making the same ones.

right_hand_of_friendship   gentlemans_fancy.
The Right Hand of Friendship was a terrific looking star and I also liked Gentleman’s Fancy.  Both were tricky to put together.  I could do it but I could envision frustrated beginners running into problems.   They came out of the class.

In the end, I made enough blocks to carpet my family room, so I divided them up into three piles.  The first became a sampler, sized to fit the twin bed in our guest room.  The second has blocks that are almost all purple and I suspect it will end up with my daughter.  The third pile hasn’t decided what it will be when it grows up.  For the time being, I will just think of those blocks as part of the sourdough starter, pieces and parts just waiting to belong to a quilt.

corn_and_beans_finished   ohio_star_blues
Two purple blocks – Corn and Beans and the Ohio Star

Right now, I am working on the border for the sampler.  The center is sewn together.   Several of the tricks I teach in the class give you leftover half square triangles.  I wanted to show a way those could be used, so I am trying to work them into the border.  The idea needs work.  Hopefully, it will look smashing when it is finished.  I like to follow patterns up to a point and then I enjoy the challenge of working things out on my design wall.  That’s just a fancy name for a big piece of flannel nailed to the wall.

A slice of the sampler before the borders – the first border will be a blue strip which will move the emphasis away from the reds and into the blue family.

(It wasn’t until I stood back to take a picture of this quilt that I realized how inadequate my camera was.  Purchased because it fit in a pocket, it has no real wide angle capabilities at all.  With luck, that problem will be remedied this weekend.)

The class is written and registration opens in a couple of hours.  I don’t know whether I am the mother giving birth or the nervous dad pacing in the waiting room.  Either way, I can’t wait to see how the students like it!

Birth of a Class

We used to have a lot of beginner level classes at Quilt University, but I realized one day a couple years ago, that attrition had caused a big gap between my Starting from Scratch class and the next traditional class. 

triple_irish_charin   jewel_box
Triple Irish Chain and Jewel Box, one of my all-time favorite scrap quilts

Ideas chased around in my brain for weeks.  Should I offer a simple pattern like the Irish Chain or the Jewel Box?   Those are great projects but there isn’t a lot to teach.  Since I was in the second grade, I loved to play school and try to teach other kids.  I guess I never grew out of that.  I want my students to leave with more skills than they came in with.

So just what was it I wanted these hypothetical students to understand as they moved on from their first quilt or two and started exploring more possibilities?  I thought back to my own journey of discovery.  One of the first books I bought was Maggie Malone’s 1001 Patchwork Designs.  I salivated over all those blocks, tearing up strips of paper and marking the ones I liked until the book looked like a porcupine with white quills.

maggie_malone_    fanning
Early quilting books by Maggie Malone and
Robbie and Tony Fanning were in black and white

That book came out in 1982 and was a leap forward from the two books that I already owned.  There wasn’t much in print back then.  The instructions were right out of the 1850’s; you made cardboard templates, marked the fabric with a pencil and cut out the pieces with a pair of scissors.   Even better, because it had lots of instructions, was The Complete Book of Machine Quilting by Robbie and Tony Fanning.

My first quilt was a log cabin and all the strips were torn.  After two of those, I felt ready for my real love – stars!  I picked about a dozen stars and worked on them painstakingly for nearly a year.  When it came time to put the top together, no two blocks were exactly the same size.  Undaunted (okay, I was a little daunted but didn’t know enough to pull out my hair), I just cut spacers out of the muslin background.  I laid out the blocks and figured out how big each individual spacer needed to be so that all the rows were the same width.

Honestly, I don’t remember what I did about the height, but I am pretty sure that I put a sashing strip between the rows.  I am equally certain that not all my stars had sharp points.  I finished that quilt and used it proudly for several years.  That was when I looked down one day and realized that all the places that had a particular brown color had simply rotted away.  My precious quilt was dissolving before my eyes!

We have come a long way since my cardboard template days.  We have rotary cutters and accurate rulers to use with them.  The tool that really makes the difference between okay, good and excellent is graph paper.  Graph paper lets us draw out our blocks and make truly accurate patterns. Even if we don’t need the pattern piece for a 3” square, it is good to know the precise size we want to cut with our rotary equipment.

Understanding how to use graph paper, whether you do it with a pencil or inside a program like Electric Quilt became the basis for my Next Step class.  That doesn’t sound very sexy, but the secret was choosing great blocks and beautiful pieces of fabric.  Nothing to it, right?

You know better than that.  More to come…….

Felting–Big Surprise to Me!

When Lily Kerns suggested a class on felting, I was not enthusiastic.  I had been hearing about these new machines that punched fibers together and I just couldn’t see the appeal.   She assured me that she was not going to use a machine and that other people would see the beauty in this art form.

She was right, of course, as she so often is about things that are a little off the beaten path.  We have been offering the class for a couple years now and the variety of work done by our students goes far beyond anything I could have imagined.

JeaNa created an abstract composition with different shapes, colors and textures that has a deep richness to it

Patty Powers
Patty Powers’ project looks like one of those Victorian nosegays, elegant and frilly

These and many other abstract pieces were lovely and showed great imagination.  But the ones that really captured my heart and made me reconsider felting as an art form were the pictures that looked like they came from the Impressionist School.  The very idea that anyone had that much control over the placement of loose fibers just blew my mind!

Celine Lang
Celine Lang created a beach with stormy surf rolling in

sharon in_TN
Sharon in Tennessee sculpted this beach scene

Teresita’s picture looks like a Van Gogh

Vicki Fisher-Lerer
This piece by Vicki Fisher-Lerer makes me think of the Monet series on haystacks.  She got the color down perfectly.

So, I freely admit it – I was wrong.  Whisper Felting must be a great class to inspire works like these.  If this all appeals to you, the class starts this weekend and you still have three days to sign up.  Visit us at www.QuiltUniversity.com.

My Passion for Color

I love color but I didn’t always know how to get where I wanted to go.  As a beginning quilter, I would choose two fabrics and muslin for the background.  All that work and the results were just BORING.

Having absolutely no art classes in my background, it never occurred to me to research color in the art books at the library.   In the mid-80’s, quilt fabric began to change from tiny, multi-colored prints to larger prints, more saturated with color.  I was still just buying enough fabric for a single quilt and working through it until I finished.  A 2-day class with Doreen Speckmann changed the way I bought fabric and my stash was born!  Doreen taught me to think of each piece of fabric as a dab of paint on my palette.

radiationEventually, the marketplace included wonderful books on color from authors like Mary Coyne Penders, Jinny Beyers and Joen Wolfrom.   They became my teachers.  I devoted the next year to working through all kinds of color exercises from their books.  I learned to speak the language of color.

As my quilts changed to richer, deeper, more nuanced colors, so did my choices in the garden.  Where I used to just buy whatever struck my eyes and plop all the colors together, I learned to make a bigger splash by grouping like plants or colors and introducing a spark of the complementary color.  Nature gives me green as the background color but it is never boring because there are so many tints, tones and shades.  Even the time of day will make the colors look different.


Mother Nature makes the best selection of greens

I learned to put artemisia, Dusty Miller and lavender in the garden to separate the greens and add light.  Look how the blue leaved hosta stands out above.  I want fabric in all those colors!

The more I studied, the more strongly I felt about sharing what I was learning.  I did workshops in my guild and eventually wrote a series of articles on color for The Quilter magazine.  That series became the basis for my Color Companions class at Quilt University.

Requests from my students and my own ongoing desire to dig deeper into the mysteries of color led me to develop a class called Gradations and Transparencies.  I sewed and wrote for a year!  The class focuses on using many  gradated values a color together in a quilt.  Sometimes, as with We are Insignificant (below), the palette is very restricted but the use of value results in a big impact.

we are insignificant_quilted

  We are Insignificant

In the kaleidoscope quilt at right, the palette is analogous, meaning all the colors used are in a row on the color wheel.  The values go from light to dark and alternate in each block to create the design.  The corner pieces create the illusion of transparency, as if you are looking through one color to another.  I struck it lucky when I looking for backing fabric and found a piece that picked up many of the colors used on the front.  This quilt was made for my daughter, Jennifer.  Her favorite color is purple and the walls of her bedroom are sage green.  This combination gave her everything she needed.

The problem with learning a lot of about color – at least for me – is that I want to correct people when they do it wrong, much as I feel the overwhelming urge to correct their grammar.  I try to resist the impulse.  Unsolicited advice is hardly ever welcome.  But sometimes a student picture will cross my screen and it is such a wonderful example of good color use, that I just want to stand up and cheer.  That happened this afternoon as I was thinking about this post.  The blocks made by Barbara La Belle are an outstanding example of using complementary colors.

Barbara La Belle   _4635E

Barbara La Belle from Ripless Paper Piecing

I still study color every chance I get.  Often, that just means keeping my eyes open to the world around me.  Other times, a new book will come along to teach me a new way to look at things.

P.S. Gradations and Transparencies starts this weekend at www.QuiltUniversity.com.  Come join me!