First two off the machine

I’ve heard about women who buy long arm machines and then don’t use them. You might think that sounds crazy, because long arms are expensive — who would buy one and not use it? Perhaps it’s because long arms have an intimidating learning curve. You have to learn how to load them, thread them, balance tension, etc. — all the technical bits. But you also have to learn the art of long arming: how to move the machine smoothly, how to produce interesting designs, where to “go next” as you progress across the quilt, and so on. I can imagine that some women are afraid to use their long arms because they know their quilts will look like they were done by beginners, and so ironically, they never progress beyond the beginner stage.

It’s understandable. I know that, in past, I have stalled over doing things that felt hard or intimidating. But I didn’t want to do that with my long arm, so I decided that I would jump in with both feet and load something in the frame. I had this length of fabric, sort of a printed panel, with dogs all over it. I decided it would be my first “quilt” through the machine, and that I would use it to practice tracing shapes and getting a feel for the machine. If I made any big mistakes, no issue — it wasn’t something I’d spent any time piecing. At worst, it might be a quilt for my dogs!

I just worked back and forth, tracing shapes and having some fun.

You can see the quilting better on the back (which is a pale yellow flannel). Nothing special! But the tension was good, I figured out how to work through all the spaces, and I’m adding a cheerful red binding — I think it will make a nice, simple baby quilt.

Encouraged, I dug through my collection of charity quilt tops for my next long arm project. I made this rainbow quilt last spring, and it has been sitting ever since, waiting to be finished. I thought the bands of colour presented a good opportunity to experiment with different fills. Some were easier to execute than others — I had a lot of trouble with the flowering vine I tried to make in the orange square. And in general, my stitching patterns weren’t as smooth and steady as I would like.

But that’s where I have to turn off my inner critic, and stop expecting perfection. The fact is, when I step back and look at it, all my little mistakes don’t show. And I’m certain that the child who ends up with this quilt (it’s being donated to the hospital as a comfort quilt) will enjoy the quilt for what it is, and not obsess over the stitching.

I had fun doing these first two quilts, and I made two useful things that look okay. I call that a win!

My goal over the next year is to keep quilting regularly, and to keep trying new things. So my plan is to be on my long arm 2-3 days a week, and to sew (mostly working through my UFOs) for 2-3 days a week. I have a bunch of books I’ve pulled off my shelf, and I will mark patterns and ideas I want to try.

By this time next year, I hope to have greatly improved my long arming skills, as well as finishing up many UFOs, using up fabrics in my stash, and making good use of books that are currently just sitting on my shelf. Go, me!




Quilt Show highlights

I had an opportunity to attend a quilt show back in October, put on by the local traditional guild I belong to, and I’ve been meaning to post about it for ages!! There were lots of great quilts worth mentioning, but I wanted to highlight three that particularly caught my attention.

Here’s one I liked. Made by Olga Mondoux, it is called “Planes, Train and Automobiles”. Olga used fabrics she collected during her travels around the world, and created a city skyline.

Olga Mondoux - Planes, Train and Automobiles

I liked that she used Tula Pink’s modern block patterns, but not Tula Pink fabric — and not even any brightly coloured modern fabrics I’ve normally seen used to make Tula blocks. The use of neutrals with accents of green is unexpected.

I also like is that the quilting is integral to the design. I see the blocks as a city skyline, because the quilting shows me clouds and rain: the quilting informs my interpretation of the blocks. Without that quilting choice — if the quilting was simply straight line quilting, for example —  I think I would just see an asymmetrical arrangement of blocks, but I wouldn’t see buildings. So the quilting contributes substantially to the interpretation of the piece, and isn’t simply there to hold the layers of fabric together, without reference to what is happening in the piecing.

Cummings _ Washline.jpgAnother piece that caught my eye was Millie Cumming’s “Washday Blues”. This wallhanging combines a number of techniques to powerful effect.  First, it’s dimensional – it incorporates the washline, wooden pins, and the hanging fabrics that are separate from the background. Millie’s fabric choices are compelling. My eye is drawn to the pale blue stripe off-centre, then moves right and left along the washline, examining the pieces hanging there: she has arranged the fabrics on the line to create a generally diagonal slope from top right to bottom left, and this line guides the eye.

Washline ground detail.jpgThe rust in the fabrics on the line are picked up in the rust-dyed fabric at the bottom of the piece — and what cool detail in the stitching! I love the way she’s stitched around the rust-stain details, and added stubbly-looking grass patches.

Similarly, she’s stitched clouds and breezes in the blue sky.Millie Cumming Washday Blues sky detail.jpgThe story card explains that this piece is a memorial to disappearing washlines and vanishing farmlands. I think it’s very effective. The worn denim and rust-stained cottons are rustic, but also convey a feeling of being worn-out and dilapidated.

Lastly, I wanted to mention Marg Notar’s piece called “Market Blooms”. One thing I want to improve is my ability to use colour effectively, and I really admired how well Marg has used the various shades of pink and fuschia to create the effects of depth, light and shadow.

The quilting is an inherent part of the design, adding texture and dimension as well as extra colour to the petals and flowers.

She also included a lot of detailed embellishment which is hard to capture in a photograph. I was really impressed with the degree of workmanship in her flowers.

I did take one close up shot that really shows off the stitchwork and the beadwork. Beautifully done.

There’s nothing like going to a quilt show (or reviewing my pictures from the show) to make me want to get sewing.

So, my takeaway from this is threefold. One, it’s intriguing when you can take a known quantity and do something unexpected with it. Two, colour and value are really worth mastering, as they have so much impact on your piece. And three, if you can start thinking about the quilting at the beginning of the project, and how you can make it a integral part of the design, it’s much more interesting than if you simply view the quilting as something that holds the layers together. Lots to think about as I get back to my cutting table!





My new baby…

Hey, has it really be so long since my last post?? Art classes and family have kept me too busy to do much sewing in the last few months. But all that is about to change, partly because I am not taking classes this semester, and partly because (drum roll) I bit the bullet and bought a long arm quilting machine!

long arm.JPGIt’s only new to me — I purchased it from a friend who is upgraded to a new model. But I’m super-excited to have my own machine to play with, and to be able to create a quilt from start to finish in my own house.

I admit I hesitated a long time about putting so much money into a hobby machine. Then my husband pointed out that many people spend thousands of dollars on a winter vacation to somewhere tropical that only lasts a week. But we don’t travel. We’re homebodies. So I could instead spend the “vacation” money on a machine I will use regularly for years… and when he put it that way, it really seemed almost cost-effective to buy a long arm! I love it when my husband rationalizes these things for me.

Of course there will be a bit of a learning curve… that’s the fun part. Fortunately, I have a few charity quilt tops on my UFO list, waiting to be quilted. Time to start figuring this machine out!

When negative is a good thing

After resting up from our day of making improv houses, my friend M and I launched into a 2-day workshop with Jacquie Gering on activating space.

Specifically, Jacquie talked about the relationship between positive and negative space. We often focus on positive space – the subject of whatever we’re making. If you give a someone a piece of paper and ask them to draw a dog, the person might well draw a dog in the center of the page, with nothing around it. The dog is the positive space — the “thing” being depicted. The rest of the page, the negative space, is the “nothing” — it is the space where there is no thing. It’s empty. It’s job is to hold “the thing”.

At least, that’s how many people treat negative space. They concentrate on the positive space, and the negative space is what is left over. But what if we give more importance – even equal importance – to both negative and positive spaces? When the negative space becomes activated, it contributes to the composition as much as the positive space.

negative space bicycle selfieIn the studio art class I just finished, the instructor, Linda, led us through several negative space assignments. This was one of them (it’s a selfie, because part of the class participation mark required us to take a selfie each day beside something we’d worked on in class).

For this exercise, Linda propped a bicycle in the middle of the room, and instructed us to draw the negative space using black charcoal. Instead of drawing spokes of the wheel, I had to draw the space between the spokes, etc. Because, for the positive elements of the picture to look right, the negative spaces also have to be right. Linda’s favourite example was “arms akimbo”. Frequently, when drawing someone with their hands on their hips, her students would give the subject long spaghetti arms, bent at the elbow. Linda suggested that the best way to avoid the problem was to draw the negative space between the inside of the bent arm and the body — if you got that space correct, you couldn’t possibly make the arms unnaturally long!

negative/positive space assignmentBack to the class with Jacquie, and balancing the positive and negative space. A famous example is the yin yang symbol. Is the black space the negative space, or the positive? You can’t say, because both have equal weight, equal power, within the image. In the first exercise we did with Jacquie, we tried to achieve something similar, by cutting out shapes from black paper, and trying to arrange them on a white background so that neither the black nor the white space seemed dominant. Here’s one example I worked with. Notice how the shape of the white space changes as I move the black pieces closer together, or farther apart.

By the end of the second day, we were all working busily on blocks of our own design. It was really neat to see the different designs people came up with. I’m pretty happy with my design — but I want to wait until I have a few more blocks made before I show it off!

Improv Houses

Last week, I was fortunate to take three days of classes with modern quilter Jacquie Gering. It was a great experience, really adding to my learning. And since I went with my friend M, it was a mini vacation, since we supplemented our classroom hours with walking around the small town where the classes were held, eating nice foods, and laughing and talking in our hotel room in the evenings. When you can combine quilting and carrot cake, you know good things are going to happen!

Jacquie Gering improv housesThe first day, Jacquie led a class on improv piecing, focussed on making these awesome house blocks with a mid-century modern look. This quilt was her sample.

I liked how the blocks were both extemporaneous and bounded — the improv piecing added so much fun, colour and freedom to the houses, while the black framework and solid backgrounds provided the contrast of stability that allowed the houses to pop. If the houses were on a busy background, they wouldn’t be so dramatic.

my 3 improv houses

It was one of those fun classes in which everyone happily sewed away all day, with Jacquie occasionally interrupting us for a teaching moment. I enjoyed wandering around the room and seeing what had gone up on everyone else’s design walls — we started by making a couple of houses that were similar to Jacquie’s, and then people got creative and made all sorts of funky buildings.

Here are the three that I managed to finish that day — I especially like the adobe-style one on top. I’m looking forward to trying some other variations now that I’m home. I think these blocks will become a great quilt that will add a punch of colour to one of my walls!

The class contributed to my experimentation with improv piecing. At one time, I thought “improv” had to be a sort of lawless chaos. I wasn’t sure I liked that. But as I work with improv techniques, trying them in different projects, I have come to view improv as an approach that can be experimental, freeing, whimsical, and expressive. I can control the colours, shapes, or quantity of the improvisational pieces in a project, and use improv to the degree that it contributes to what I want to accomplish.

What I learned in art class is…

My studio art class concluded at the end of July, and after breathing a sigh of relief that I’m free from assignments for a bit, I can reflect on what I’ve learned this term.

I originally signed up for the class because I wanted to be more informed about the choices I was making in my quilting. Other people seemed to know more than I did about things like composition, colour, and so on, and seemed better able to make strong choices. I could look at quilts (or any other art) and see that I liked some but not others, but I couldn’t always say WHY. I enrolled in the studio class hoping that I would start to fill that knowledge gap, begin to understand why I liked some things and not others, and begin to make more deliberate and educated choices in my own work. So… was the class successful in meeting those goals?

I would say yes, this studio class was a good start. But it wasn’t the end. There’s so much more to learn!

We covered a wide range of ideas – line, shading, perspective, colour, working in multiples, composition principles, life drawing and portraiture, and even stop motion video. Some of those things translate directly into quilting; others have a more tangential relationship to it. I found I liked drawing in charcoal — not something that translates well to quilting fabric! But I did try, on some assignments, to draw quilting into it. Like this self-portrait, done in charcoal – the assignment was to draw myself with some object balanced on my head that communicated something about myself. I drew myself with a sewing machine on my head!

Basically, I learned, you want to avoid a picture where everything is centred, because then your eye looks at the thing in the centre, and no where else. You want you viewer’s eye to move around the composition. Some of the principles I incorporated to try to accomplish this were running objects off the edge of the page; using the Rule of Thirds for placement (so the main subject of the drawing is not centred); having the eyes in the portrait looking upwards, to direct the viewer’s gaze upward (an implied line of sight). These are things I can keep in mind when I work on a quilt — I can make the subject more interesting by showing only part of it; or use distribution of colour, value, shape, or direction of line (or implied line) to help move the viewer’s eye around the quilt.

Here’s another project: it was our colour component of the course. The original assignment was to make paper collages that illustrated six different colour schemes (achromatic, monochromatic, analogous, etc). I asked if I could do mine in fabric instead of paper and glue.

I drew out a rectangular prism pattern using the rules of perspective we’d done earlier in the term, and paper-pieced each one using the appropriate colour scheme. Then I used improv piecing to fit all the prisms together.

I admit, while I was working on, there were times when I was pulling my hair out, trying to get it all figured out! In the end, I was happy with how it came together — and I was happy that I built the idea from different things we’d learned in the class, including value and perspective, as well as colour. I would never have made this piece, had I not taken the studio class!

I don’t know how many more classes I will take in total, but I have signed up for two more for the fall: one is art history and visual culture, and the other is about text in art. I’m excited to see where these next classes will take me!

Today is a good day to dye

One thing I enjoy about my friend R is that she is always trying to new things – and frequently invites me to share in her adventures. This past Saturday, she asked me to come out to her farm so we could try cyanotype and shibori. I’m always up for getting my hands dirty!

We started with cyanotype. There’s a way to do it with chemicals you mix yourself, but for this first time, she purchased a package of pre-treated fabric. Like camera film, all you have to do is expose it to UV light for about 15 minutes to get the “picture” to take. So, we drew the blinds of her studio against the sun, cut some sections of fabric, and began laying out our compositions. The fabric exposed to the sun will turn blue; the area covered by an object will turn white.

We added a little tape to the corners, so the fabric wouldn’t shift on the board. We started with buttons, foam cut-outs, and dried leaves. Then we covered our compositions with a piece of glass (can’t be UV treated glass – just the old-fashioned kind! We used glass taken out of picture frames) simply to hold all the objects in place, since it was a little breezy outside. I don’t know if you can see in the photo, but in the lower right, I used some netting from a bag of lemons to see if it would make an interesting pattern – and I weighted the extra down with stones.

After success with our first go, we got more inventive. Here’s a photo showing how the second batch turned out.

This project was super easy, and not messy at all. It does require a good, sunny day, though.

After a break for lunch, we launched into some shibori dyeing. R had purchased  indigo dye, and got it mixed up ahead of time in a vat. Smelly stuff! We prepared our fabrics by finding different ways to scrunch, knot, twist and tie them. Later at home, the Mouse said dismissively, “Oh, it’s just tie-dye!” She’s not wrong – the tie-dye t-shirt kits you get at Walmart can be used to accomplish the same effects. R and I were just using the authentic indigo dye to get the traditional rich blue colour.

There are lots of different ways to arrange the fabric for dyeing, depending on the result you want. Here, I tried wrapping the fabric around a length of PVC tube (like you’d use for plumbing a drain), and wrapping string around it was I went, then scrunching the whole thing down to one end of the pipe. I used a little tape to keep the ends from slipping.

Then we plunged it into the vat of indigo. You leave it in for 3 minutes, pull it out and marvel that it turned GREEN! and then sit it in the sun for 20 minutes, where it turns blue. Then return it to the vat again for more dye. Apparently, it reacts as much as it is going to, after about 3 minutes in the vat; then you have to remove it and sun it in order to get a fresh reaction. We did 3 dips in the dye – we would have to wait until after the fabrics were finished and put through the washing machine before we could ascertain whether that was enough dips to get the depth of blue we wanted.

But here are the wrapped tubes after 3 dips and a quick rinse:

The instructions tell you to gently massage and manipulate the fabric with one hand while it’s in the dye. We did that, though not very aggressively – frankly, I think we were both afraid that we end up with just solid blue fabric! But after seeing the results, I realize how the massaging is important for working the dye into the folds of the cloth. And if you want a more even pattern, it’s also important to try to keep your folds/scrunches fairly regular.

Here’s R with a piece of fabric she’s folded in triangles, then secured the three edges of the triangle wad with metal skewers held together with elastics. You can see the triangles in the design… they unfolded into hexagons!

We used all-white fabric for some of the dyeing. But we also tried over-dyeing, using some of the fabrics we’d dyed last summer that didn’t turn out as well. Adding a layer of shibori was definitely a great way to spice up a fabric that had previously been a grungy orange.

For this piece, I folded it accordion-style, then wound elastics around it at intervals. Turned out really cool!

R kept all the samples we’d made so they could be run through her washing machine. Later, she sent me this photo of all the pieces pinned to her design wall – including the cyanotypes. Don’t they look awesome?

You can see that the indigo blue came out a lot lighter after washing and drying. Another time, we will try doing more dunks into the vat, and more massaging of dye into the creases. But we’re pretty happy with how this first batch came out!

It was a fun day, although I did go home with blue hands, despite wearing gloves for the shibori. I’m definitely looking forward to more adventures with R!