My life as a quiltmaker (for chronological order, read oldest post to newest)

Friday, December 21, 2007

31. Windshield Wash

In at least one previous entry, I've suggested that there are quilts I shouldn't have finished, and here is one I've considered in that light. Yet even as I say it, I know that despite design flaws, a quilt like this one can still cover a bed or keep someone warm. It's only that I can get discouraged when lots of time and great effort aren't enough to make the effort "great." Confusion reigned throughout the making of "Windshield Wash", and only stubbornness saw it through to the end.

Inspired by a photograph of a wet windshield, I noticed the clarity of shapes created by windshield wipers and the blur of rain outside those shapes, and began what I thought of as a sequel to my hubcaps quilts. In retrospect, my first ideas were probably the best: I began by using sharply delineated prints within the "wiper" shape, and blurry, hand-dyed fabrics outside those areas. However, that isn't what is pictured here, because right away I received two very different bits of feedback from two people whose judgment I trusted. One said: "keep going, it's working" while the other said, "oh-oh, not enough contrast". Then one of my sons took a look while visiting and added a third notion of what direction the design could take. That did me in for a bit, teaching me that there are vulnerable moments in my creative process when I probably shouldn't ask for a critique. Knowing when I'm ready to hear feedback without melting down is an art unto itself. I scrapped what I had so far and tried another idea. And a third. And a fourth--the one that is pictured here, with dotted fabrics interspersed with small fabric pieces graded from light to dark. But over time I had lost heart, lost vision, lost the excitement of seeing what the image would become--lost all but the desire to get it over with. I completed six windshield shapes and doggedly pursued setting them into a quilt. I got too fancy and too clever, trying to do something different and eye-catching--and did I mention complicated? Simple would have worked better.

BUT--I like the quilting: big thread and big stitches inside the windshield shapes contrasting with tiny stitches and regular quilting thread in the curvy strip-piecing. I love the beautiful backing (lower right above), which gives good weight to the quilt and highlights the stitching. I like the fabric with polka dots and watercolor streaks that suggest splashing raindrops. I especially like that the quilt is finished and has a useful life. Best of all, I like the wavy piecing that caused me to continue exploring curves in my next quilt, because the next quilt finally led me into the new millennium and the new direction I'd been waiting for.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

30. The Robert Allen Quilts

Like the wedding dress quilt of the previous entry, these two pieces marked a time of transition from working exclusively with traditional cottons to exploring the possibilities of unusual materials. The wall-hanging on the right was finished during the last year spent at our old house, and the one on the left was made during the first year in my new studio.

Instead of the open-ended, no-deadline wedding gown assignment, however, these quilts each came about within a very short, no-nonsense timeline set by professionals at Robert Allen Contract, which has an office in our town. Several designers needed an interesting way to feature their fabric line for a trade show. Someone thought "quilt," and since I had some local visibility for my quilts as well as a business phone number in the yellow pages, they invited me in for a consultation. These decorator fabrics are not what one usually considers suitable for quilts, but I never turn down a challenge (see previous entry!) before I've determined it's impossible, so of course I committed to creating a quilt featuring upholstery-weight samples (by the following week? Sure, no problem!).

The mandate the first time around was a traditional pattern, so I chose a geometric design called "inner city", pictured on the right above. Not a large piece, it was relatively unexciting to make except for the adventure of working with thick fabrics which included some percentage of non-natural fibers given to melting if held under the iron too long. Since they were also quite resistant to taking a nice sharp crease, I frequently held them under the iron too long. That lesson was learned quickly, the project was completed and auctioned off at the trade show in New York, and that story ended.

Or so I thought. The following year at around the same time (which again turned out to be about two weeks before the quilt had to be in New York), another project materialized in the form of medium weight wools and shimmery transparent fabric probably intended for curtains. This time I proposed a new design which yielded a process more interesting than practical, given the time limitations--but in a tug-of-war between "interesting" and "fast," interesting always wins out and sleep loses. In real life, anything "white" in the photo on the left above is transparent, and the medium weight wools, with some circular appliqués, float on it. I sewed individually lined, curved-edge wool squares onto a large length of the sheer fabric, leaving a sheer, curvy border around the outside of the entire quilt--it's a shame I don't have a better photo of it, but that's what happens when you make something with nearly invisible components.

In trying to remember how I accomplished the uniting of these unconventional, incompatible fabrics of such varying weights, I note with interest that I'm not exactly sure how I managed to get the quilt to hang straight, without buckling. I do remember having to be extremely careful and precise, because that's a stretch for me. The nature of immersion in a creative process--especially when the process results in something brand new accomplished under time constraints--seems to be that in retrospect the experience is a bit of a blur; years later I find myself thinking "how on earth did I do that?" Yet every time those blurry experiences happen, I forget the moment-to-moment "labor pains" and come away with an expanded range of challenges I'm willing to take on, as well as a sense--absolutely inaccurate, of course--that I don't remember learning how to do these things because I've always "just known".

For the next several years, these annual decorator fabric projects greatly expanded my ability to work with wools, silks, sheers, and laces. Such projects were bright spots of creativity in between the "dry spells" occasioned by the process of using up my energy in establishing a new, rigorous schedule of teaching in my studio. The ability to use any and all types of fabric led finally to a "breakthrough" quilt which began a new quiltmaking chapter. There was just one more as-yet unfinished "albatross" to complete before that could happen.

Friday, November 2, 2007

29. Wedding Dress Quilt

No matter how long this entry runs, it couldn't possibly be as lengthy as the experience of making this quilt. A year or two (at least) before we moved, someone had contacted me about creating a quilt from her wedding dress. The dress itself was unusual in that it had a train made of cascading crepe and satin fabrics in autumn colors ranging from light peach through orange to deep rust, embellished with silk leaves here and there. The rest of the dress was a more typical white silk-like material. The quilt was to be the "essence of autumn", since the wedding had taken place in October. An art teacher, the client brought me a copy of the wedding invitation she had designed and drawn, featuring two swans and a pumpkin.

The initial stage of this project went smoothly enough. I suggested that we use her drawing as inspiration for a central design, surrounded by autumn leaves fashioned from the pieces of the train (along with some additional printed and sheer fabrics); all would be machine-appliqued onto the white of the wedding dress. As I write these words, it seems simple enough in concept.


The truth is that I only completed this project after at least four years of lurching from one state of paralysis into another, with brief bursts of nerve-wracking, irreversible dress-destroying activity in between. I was almost certainly intimidated by the fact that the owner of the dress was herself an artist, and was further stymied by having designed a quilt that I didn't know how to make. I had no idea how to create the large drawing in the quilt's center, I didn't know how to work successfully with slithery, easily frayed fabrics, and I wasn't all that adept at the kind of free-motion machine work I had envisioned as the quilting on the finished piece. I like challenges, but this one nearly did me in, and I will be forever grateful that this client never, ever pressured me, showing extraordinary patience and contacting me every once in a while to see if I (and her dress) were still on the planet.

To make the very long story short, I eventually did tons of free-motion thread embroidery for the central motif, "drawing" with needle and spool after spool of thread; I stabilized sheer and slippery fabrics with a fusible web before sewing them down; and by the time I had completed all the embroidery--not to mention many other projects in the intervening years--I had accumulated enough experience to do the improvisational, free-hand quilted leaf designs on the resulting queen-sized quilt.

Would I do it again? Probably, but not on purpose. What I learned about the effect of my awesome powers of procrastination on my peace of mind was even more valuable than the new skills and techniques that this risk-taking brought about. But it is surely no way to run a business or treat a customer, and I have confined all subsequent impossibly difficult designs to the quilts I make for myself--or the patient people I love. I have even learned that some of those impossible quilts should never be completed, but that's a story for another day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

28. Houses

One morning in July 1996 we decided to move. Four months later all our belongings had been transferred into a newly-built house modeled after the only one we had actually stepped into during our search for a new home. The process was just as unexpected and unanticipated as it sounds. Soon after moving, I put up a flannel-covered design wall in my new studio and began this quilt about the houses that were important to our family.

I now had a wonderful place in which to work, and yet my mind was all over the map and my focus was diffused. Off-balance, I had lost my bearings; though full of ideas and the desire to tell the story of our family homes, I had no mental image of the piece. So I simply started making bits and pieces that related to the theme. Beginning in confusion is sometimes the only way I can jump-start the creative process. While it makes sense to have a plan and then go on to carry out the plan, it is actually more often true that my mind only begins to cooperate in the creative process AFTER I start working. In other words, first I begin. Then I'm gradually inspired by what I have begun.

In this case, I returned to techniques I had already been playing around with. A bit of improvisational piecing came first as I generated some tree branch imagery, using the chartreuse and burgundy that I was seeing in the blackberry and bramble bushes of late winter (New England isn't all gray in winter, but you have to know where to look). Free-motion bobbin embroidery was right for creating evergreen branches (with painted/stitched pine cones) to go along with the bare winter trees, because our new home is surrounded by pines. And the quilt couldn't reflect our New England roots without a stone wall or two, so I made several. Initially, I appliqued the stones but then ran out of patience. A computerized drawing program made it possible to print out a pattern of my stone wall on paper, and using transfer paint, I ironed the design onto fabric. Then I happened upon a fabric that had stones already pre-printed and added that to the mix. Finally, I photocopied my house photos onto transfer paper and ironed them onto fabric. Now I had lots of pieces for my quilt, but bringing all the disparate elements together turned out to be very difficult, reminding me again that designing doesn't really get easier over time. Although after all these years of experience I generally avoid making the worst choices, the really inspired good choices are always elusive, involving hours of staring at my design wall, having moved a couple of pieces of fabric into or out of place, no closer to resolution. Moving the pieces of this very small quilt every which way finally brought home the realization that while the number of pleasing combinations of fabrics and placement might be infinite, I only had to choose one of them and sew the darn thing together.

Thoughts about house and home (and packing and unpacking) burned up a lot of energy for many, many months--more than I ever could have anticipated, as I learned how to organize and live in our new spaces. Given the distractions of moving and its aftermath, the disparate elements that made up the current version of my quilting career were as difficult to meld together as the parts of this quilt. I was still selling my curriculum through mail-order, thinking about writing an article here and there but not getting around to it, giving an occasional "show and tell" talk to various women's groups, and teaching a beginning quilt class. I didn't have much in the way of commission work. I hadn't made a quilt I was really, really happy with since I had moved, and I knew that I couldn't summon my muse back by command. The quilts would come, but I would have to be patient.

All the while, I seriously considered my need to increase my contribution to our income, muse or no. My new space was the answer. Little by little, more and more students visited my studio, and returned week after week for classes. The numbers grew, and I added fabric and supplies to the studio, as a convenience for them and an additional source of income for me. The students became more and more accomplished, and I found myself problem-solving and trouble-shooting in different ways. I had begun something new. And I would be inspired; I'd find out where I was headed next.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

27. Moon over the Mountain

Made in the mid-90s, "Moon over the Mountain" hinted at future explorations while making use of traditional patterns, revealing the "back-and-forth" thought process behind the quilts I was making: sometimes I wanted to be an artist doing my own thing and sometimes I simply wanted to enjoy making work that other people would like and want to own. I gradually learned, of course, as I sold (or didn't sell) pieces, that both paths are a very, very difficult way to make a living. Or, rather, to make money. The living part is actually very rewarding.

Traditional pieced block patterns have survived the test of time because they work; the ugliest stuff didn't get passed from generation to generation, and it mostly disappeared (though it is true that some of it bobs to the surface from time to time, and then sinks out of sight again.) Choosing "tried-and-true" old-time patterns for this piece allowed me to concentrate on exploring color and setting. Familiar structures served as a jumping-off point to which I added rectangular blocks featuring free-form curved strips pieced together in a more improvisational way (a technique first learned from Marilyn Stothers back in the 80s). I had worked improvisationally for some time, but now I began to incorporate free-form, no-template curves into the mix. When making less traditional choices there is a much greater risk of failure--who knows what will survive the years?--and I was straddling the fence in this piece: I wanted to sell the quilt, so it couldn't be too far "out there." But I wanted to enjoy making it, so it couldn't be just another thoughtless repetition, either.

This is the tightrope on which I balanced at the time. In order to have a viable career in quiltmaking, I concentrated on making and selling work. Wanting to sell work comes perilously close to wanting to please, and it's tough to make honest work of integrity that way. Some do. I couldn't--at least, not enough to be self-supporting. It was time to move on to new ways of earning, and the move was monumentally jump-started when Michael woke up one morning and suggested "new house, garage, more storage." For me, that meant "new studio." It also led to much diversion of creative energy, a bit of a quilting dry spell, and then a brand new chapter.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

26. What Relief

The phrase "pales in comparison" was surely coined for "What Relief". This quilt hangs in the main stairwell of our house, and you must pass it to reach our guest bedroom or my studio. I can't even count the people who have been in my house numerous times before they ever notice the six-foot-square quilt hanging in front of their eyes. It has a similar impact in slides, photographs, and quilt shows, which must account for the fact that it has been rejected from multiple shows. When it does manage to secure a spot, it often serves only to highlight its more colorful brethren. And yet...and yet... it's a very comfortable quilt to live with, graceful and easy on the eyes, with both hand and machine stitches defining its curved quilting designs. It's one of my very favorites, but its virtues can't be captured in a photograph.

It sprang from a desire to make a quilt which would have the same "embossed" relief effect that I had seen in a magazine picture of a white plaster wall with raised white floral designs. This kind of effect has been achieved in many traditional quilts through the use of trapunto techniques, also called "stuffed work," often done entirely in white. But I couldn't see my way through to abandoning color entirely, so I strip-pieced pastel fabrics together to form a "canvas" on which I would do lots of hand quilting, machine embroidery with metallic threads, and bobbin embroidery with RibbonFloss.

At this stage of my career, one of my purposes in making any quilt was to do my best work and hope it would enhance my public reputation, so I would be able to secure additional teaching jobs. I don't know why I thought that making a quilt which disappeared in a crowd would do this for me, but there you are...when inspiration comes, you really can't fight it. I wanted to create subtlety, and I most certainly did.

I worked really hard to help this quilt succeed: it got into its first show based on a slide taken before it had been fully quilted, and the deadline came upon me before I had completed the stitching, which--since I'd never missed a deadline--caused me to stay up most of the night stitching away, only to be too tired to drive it to the dropoff point an hour away. Husband to the rescue again: he dropped it off while I slept (thank you, Michael). I like to think I manage my time better in my older, wiser years, though it can still be touch-and-go around Christmas time.

The interesting thing about "What Relief" is that it, too, has gotten not only older but "wiser," through an unforeseen influence of time alone. Pictured here are two detail shots of the quilt including the border fabric (which was also used for the thin wavy lines throughout the quilt). The photo on the right from 1996 shows the border fabric design before its fugitive dyes began to fade away, as shown in a photo taken today. The fabric was originally low contrast and pastel, but its blue and beige tones have nearly vanished, bringing pale yellows to the fore, so that the fabric now is creamy and very subtly patterned. I don't mind the reduction in contrast, although I liked it before, and so did the judges at Quilt America who awarded it a prize in 1996, its moment of public glory. Fading should not happen, at least when fabrics have been carefully protected from direct sunlight as they have been in this case, but mistakes are made in the manufacturing process from time to time, and I remember that I did purchase this particular decorator fabric from a remnant table at a very good price. So..."What Relief" not only pales in comparison--it just pales, period. Then again, I've developed wrinkles. Of the two forms of aging, I might prefer fading...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

25. LocoMotif

Hubcabs 1 led to Hubcaps 2 which led to Windshield Wipers (more on that later) which meant that I had a series going; LocoMotif is the fourth quilt in that series inspired by machine imagery. While visiting the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, I had noticed a train engine in a nearby pocket park. Drawn to the sculpture of sinuous pipes, nuts, bolts, gears, and wheels, I wandered up close, took a photograph, and loved the resulting imagery so much I decided to translate it into fabric. And because there was a contest coming up featuring train and railroad themes, I decided to do it in one week, the end of which was scheduled to be a mini-getaway long weekend in New Hampshire for my husband and me. He gamely watched as I couldn't quite get it finished enough to photograph before leaving for vacation; he bravely suggested that I bring it with us to work on. I rolled up the full-size drawing and packed it along with fabrics, pins, needles, threads, and paints. I still can't believe I spent part of our vacation working on a quilt deadline, but in fact it was a most efficient way to work, because the only distractions were welcome ones: running on beautiful country roads, swimming on a lake, and eating out. Efficient, yes. Fun? It depends on who's answering the question. My husband's unflagging support qualifies him as a bona fide saint (that, by the way, doesn't make him any easier to live with, but I digress). I mailed the slides off only to be rejected because my entry didn't arrive in time (I had hoped it was a postmark deadline, but I was wrong). This is another of those experiences that taught me lessons: it's good to stay utterly focused, because you'll get a lot done in a short time; it's better not to do that while on vacation; and it's smart to pay attention to the fine print on the entry forms.

This quilt went on to gather additional rejections until it was discovered by someone who thought it belonged in our local museum as part of an exhibit called "Fuel for Thought." There, someone gave me a real gift by recognizing the engine depicted in the quilt. Then LocoMotif was discovered by my younger son. If you give one son a quilt for his 21st birthday, you must do the same for the second son, and the quilt is now his. However, come to think of it, it's still in my studio and it's still part of my traveling lecture/trunk show. Given that he's a married homeowner who just turned 30, it's probably time to let the quilt go home with its rightful owner. And it's time to come full circle and complete Number Five in the series, which has been accepted for a fall exhibit at--where else?--the New England Quilt Museum.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

24. Neighbors

Throwing lots of fabrics up on a design wall to create new work is easy. Knowing what to take off the wall is really hard. Knowing when you are finished and ready to sew the piece together is harder still. These challenges are represented by "Neighbors," one of a category of quilts which in the mid-90s was something new for me, involving a more spontaneous design process. My quilts and wall-hangings up to this point usually had an idea, a concept, a plan--however "sketchy"--behind them. What I began to do now was much more improvisational.

This new approach was born of a need to work fast, which in turn had arisen from a decision to use high-end craft venues to move small works quickly. I needed a lot of work to send out to galleries and also to take with me to several large craft fairs which were an experimental part of my business plan. Small works were either wall-hangings like the one pictured here or pillow covers. Both initially represented a way of working which let me try out ideas and techniques on a small scale; they were like fabric sketches.

It wasn't until I had put up a few pieces of fabric (probably retrieved from a scrap basket or even more probably from scraps piled in a heap on the floor) that I began to think I was creating a city of sorts, a city of strange juxtapositions. I didn't try to understand why I liked these combinations (maybe some things are better left unexplored!); I just kept auditioning pieces of fabric to see what the piece would become, and at some point--the sky fabric came last, I think--it felt like enough.

In sewing it together, I had to plan ahead, because the order in which I sewed pieces could box me into corners or create nice, easy-to-sew straight lines. Though designing "Neighbors" was like creating a collage, I couldn't simply superimpose one piece of fabric over another if I were going to piece the work together without making a mess of it. This spurred thoughts about how construction techniques dictated some of the "look" of the piece and raised questions for future work: Would I limit what I represented in fabric to what could be neatly constructed, or would I design with abandon and then figure out how on earth to sew it into some form or other?

I'll answer that: yes. Yes, I would. Both. I'm still working it out.

Let me sum up: as usual, the results of working on a succession of pieces like "Neighbors" followed the laws of unintended consequences. I learned to work fast and with less plodding because I needed to sell more work: a good thing. I chose craft shows to try to do that: a not-so-good thing. I learned more about the limits and possibilities of my chosen medium and was pushed in new directions: good. Though the craft shows were not worth the effort from a business point of view, the "preview open-house sale with friends and students" the week before the show developed into a successful tradition for me for a number of years: good. From where I sit now: it's all good.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

23. Fiesta Log Cabin

Though the title says "Fiesta," the quilt looks Asian-inspired to me...and it is, having been conceived as a solution to the problem of how to use 18 samples of Japanese yukata fabrics, each of which was a small and pricey rectangle sporting one ginormous (it's in the dictionary now, so I can use it) flower motif. I had bought the super-sized swatches because they were so unusual--almost garish, with a strong statement of their own to make. It was a challenge to get them to cooperate with other fabrics.

The setting features the flower fabrics as the centers of "courthouse steps" log cabin blocks, surrounded by strips of equally strong but less bold fabrics. These blocks alternate with large squares composed of four half-log cabin blocks joined together. The whole idea came from a sketch I did on a napkin at a restaurant where the pattern of the table surface had given me the idea. Though at first glance the blocks with the floral centers appear to be smaller than the adjoining blocks, they are actually the same size. This optical illusion was a surprise to me--and I love it when that happens. (Sometimes it would be nice to know exactly what the quilt I've designed in my head will look like, but I almost never do). The colors in the stripes reminded me of old-fashioned Fiestaware, which--together with the fact that the quilt had a lot of visual energy and I had a lot of fun making it--led to the title.

As part of my renewed enthusiasm to "make a go" of my quilting career, I had begun to put out a regular newsletter announcing the classes I'd be teaching and shows I'd be in. In one of the issues I announced that I would give away this quilt to the person/organization who could come up with the best proposal for using it to raise money for a good cause. It was an experiment in launching a quilt to do some good in the community without actually having to sell the tickets myself. I thought I might get a bit of publicity out of it, too (which, by the way, I did not--oh, well). Out of several proposals, I selected one which would benefit an alternative school for kids who'd gotten themselves into trouble. I spent a bit of time visiting at the school when I dropped the quilt off. The quilt had had its day in the sun at a few quilt shows; it was a quilt with lots of good energy in it, and I felt happy to look at it. And that was that.

People often ask me how I can bring myself to give my quilts away or sell them. Except when a bit of nostalgia hits and I feel a brief wave of desire to see a quilt again, I'm well-rewarded as I work through the creative process, and when the product is's over. Of course I love it when someone is willing to buy a quilt from me, because then I can be reasonably certain that it won't immediately end up as a dog bed or a furniture moving pad. But once it's out of my sight...I'm already looking forward to the next quilt.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

22. A.K. Remembered

Half way through creating this quilt in the early 90's, I ran out of the blue "sky" fabric and couldn't find any more anywhere. Attempting to create my own version of the blue flowered print, I took the plunge and for the first time tried fabric paints. The pieces are small enough and the quilt is busy enough that the old and new blues worked together just fine, and I acquired another set of skills that I have put to good use over time. But that isn't why this quilt's story is told here.

Most steps along the way are not giant leaps, and not every quilt is major. This one is a short story: a small quilt, a small tribute to someone who in a small way helped me along my path. Someone who happened to have the experience and wisdom to recognize where I was and who happened to do the exact thing I needed at just the right time.

"A.K." was the mother of a friend. She was also a quilter, one whom I saw regularly for a relatively short period of time whenever my friends and I met for our run at the house where she was living with her daughter's family. At a time when I was deeply mired in doubt about whether quilting would be a career or be relegated to hobby status, when outer and inner voices were pushing me to commit wholeheartedly to a focused working life, she commissioned me to make a birthday present for her daughter. It was to be in part a quilt of autumn in New England. I completed the commission, and I think she was pleased to be able to give my work to her daughter. It wasn't the quilt pictured here.

Not too long afterwards, she died. Some time later I found myself making yet another autumn quilt (it's clearly in my blood) and remembering this generous and wise woman, and I gave the quilt its name. She had made a relatively minor decision in choosing a birthday gift for her daughter. But her choice, added to other voices and other small gestures of support over time, helped me to believe that I wasn't put on earth to keep a spotless house nor to turn the world around or upside down. On my own I had finally figured out that I wasn't put here to teach in the public schools, either.

So I sat down and set about creating a real business plan. Having committed to my life's work, now I committed wholeheartedly to exploring all aspects of it--including the question of whether I could support myself. The business plan didn't last long in its original form, but the career has endured and the explorations have taken me in directions I never could have predicted. Meanwhile, the quilt has hung in art galleries and on dormitory walls, holding its own as a reminder to be grateful for fine people and small works.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

21. Hubcaps 2: Color Wheel

Back in ninth grade, I taught myself how to play the guitar so I could become a brown-haired version of Mary Travers. (I tried to iron my hair straight also, which worked about as well as my folksinging career.) The guitar was retired shortly after college when I realized I'd have to take some lessons and practice a lot in order to be satisfied with the sounds I was making. I had gone as far as I could without formal training.

I reached a similar stage in quiltmaking, but this time I committed to doing whatever it took to improve. Taking an introductory art class gave me a chance to work in a variety of media while honing my ability to see and to figure out what I saw. The quilt pictured here was made around this time and became the subject of an article in American Quilter Magazine about the experience of taking an art class and its effects on this quilt.

Hubcaps 2 continued a series in which I have enjoyed exploring machine imagery. Here I used only one of the nine patterns--in color this time--that I had drafted for "Hubcaps." Immediately faced with a compositional challenge, I struggled with the design, because no matter what I did I ended up with a bulls-eye in the center. Having pieced lots of gray prints together for a background (just as I had pieced colored strips together in my first hubcap quilt), I had dwarfed the single circle within too much background. Here's where taking the art class made a difference: I had learned to trust that if my efforts didn't look right to me, the design problem wasn't solved. Instead of strong-arming a pre-conceived solution into place, I had become willing to allow time for chance and random thoughts to assist me in coming up with satisfying answers. The quilt came together for me when I decided to view things from a different angle (oh, the metaphorical implications here!). I took the section of gray strips and tipped it in a diagonal orientation: much more satisfying to me, but still too overwhelming for the center circle. Superimposing a light-colored frame composed of pastel striped fabric (changing to brightly colored stripes where the frame crossed over the gray fabrics) reduced the sea of gray prints and was a solution which continues to delight me when I see this quilt. It would have been gratifying to get this effect on purpose, but here's how it really works: pile of rejected fabric on floor + quilt forming on wall + eyes wandering back and forth between the two = many possibilities, including some right ones. Benefitting from chance, though, has taught me to wait patiently for the lucky moments--and then learn how the effect can be achieved on purpose the next time. Working in series extends such lessons by letting me build upon previous problems and solutions.

There was now empty space to be filled within the light colored frame, and serendipity played a role here also. Before beginning the quilt, I had experimented with silkscreening. A small advertising picture of a hubcap design became my test screen, printed on gray and unbleached muslin fabrics. These printings were really supposed to be a trial run, but I liked the way they turned out and never printed any more. When placed together in a checkerboard arrangement, they echoed the central "color wheel/hubcap" image. I used exactly as many as I had, and I had exactly as many as I wanted, even though nothing had been pre-planned. A final border of darker grays and blacks re-introduced accents of color and curved lines drawn from the center.

While I still remember well what I did to design this quilt, I can't remember exactly how the inspirations for the design solutions came about: they are just "magic" moments. I do know it's a magic that can only come when I am in a prepared state of mind. The preparation in this case was patience and an open mind, fostered in part by the art class I took. The satisfaction I felt in my solutions was validated when "Hubcaps 2" was selected for inclusion in the Fiber Arts Design Book V by Lark Press.

I gave this quilt to my older son on the occasion of his 21st birthday, because I had read about an old tradition of "freedom quilts" presented to sons when they reach adulthood. Many of the flashes of color and contrast accenting this quilt came from two wonderfully graphic cotton shirts he wore through his middle school years, so the gift seemed appropriate. Once again I am struck by the power of a quilt as symbol and metaphor: I loved this quilt but "let it go" across the country with him, where it remains.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

20. November Unfolded

A flowered fabric in unusual colors and a take-out food box led to "November Unfolded." The pattern idea was simple enough; I had already done two small wall-hangings using an unfolded box as template and felt I could do more--I wanted to integrate the curved "tab" of the box into the design.

The color was another story; I was drawn to a very light floral fabric with an unusual palette: creamy white background with yellow, rust, green, and black flowers. (This fabric is used in the patches which represent the base of the unfolded box.) I struggled with the colors in this quilt; I was fairly certain the fabrics I saw on my design wall wouldn't be on anyone's list of favorites any time soon, but I was compelled by them. A couple of weeks into the process I realized that these are the colors that show up on a rainy November day along a New England roadside: the rusts and dark wine colors of the oak leaves that hang on after the brighter leaves have long since fallen... the bittersweet, with its bright orange berries and hint of golden yellow husks... the pines whose needles have gotten a bit more yellow-green as the year has aged... the bright red-orange winterberry... the black of wet tree trunks after a downpour... and the ever-pervasive gray of the sky just before winter sets in. Not the best-loved landscape of our region, but home nonetheless.

By this time I had come to understand that any quilt worth my time and effort would have to please me. But when you send work out into the "quilt show" world for the express purpose of its being seen, you really hope a few other people will love it, too. And I had a bad feeling about that. My feeling was confirmed at a "show and tell" event with two local quilt guilds. A ripple went through the crowd when I showed the quilt, but it was because I tripped as I went up the stairs to hold it up for display. The actual showing yielded the dreaded "hmm...interesting" reaction.

I had wanted a jury to like it enough to select it for a show whose deadline was coming up in January. It was not to be. Though I completed the quilt in record time (two days early!), it was not accepted into the AQS show. Here was a moment against which I had been steeling myself, but even so I was not prepared for the strength of my anger and hurt when I got the rejection letter that set off a series of internal struggles which of course had been there all along just waiting to be faced. Again I looked for answers about the value of putting so much time and effort into making quilts, and again I found myself in utter confusion about how to best get my favorite work "out there", and blah blah blah. In the heat of the moment it was difficult to sort out the issues, and I didn't have the time. I now found myself in a public school classroom two or three days a week, with other days and evenings taken up with quilt classes or my part-time job for the Conservation Commission. And that didn't count the huge energy cost inherent in not doing things, especially when you factor in the internal agitation resulting from the things not getting done but constantly shoved to the bottom of endless lists. If I were to do a word count in my journal entries for that year, the highest number would go to the word "tired." Resilience and sense of humor are early victims of fatigue, and yet they are the most sorely-needed traits while contemplating life decisions. Something had to give, and this 93-94 school year would help me to decide what was worth pursuing and what had to go.

Twenty years had passed between my first quilt and November Unfolded. Back then, I was already an "old hand". But fourteen more have passed since then, and I've learned I was really just beginning the journey. I'm still not happy my quilt was rejected. I am still happy I made the quilt I loved. I did find those "few people" who also loved this quilt: one wrote about it in an article called "Strange and Wonderful" and another invited me to include it in a show called "New England Seen" at the New England Quilt Museum. And that's enough for now.

Monday, June 4, 2007

19. Nocturne

Circles have kept coming round in my quilts. Sailboats, also. Nocturne is an example of both, in a quilt begun shortly after I had worked long and hard on a very large, very pink and white traditional quilt. I longed to work with bright colors again. A magazine ad featuring a sailboat weathervane provided inspiration; it featured a background divided into sunny sky on one side and rainy sky on the other. I placed my version of the boat in a circle, half day and half night. The patchwork forming the border is a variation of the traditional "Ocean Waves" block, quilted with a "clamshell" pattern. The night/day interior is quilted with wave-like shapes in metallic threads. I tried out a number of techniques and materials and ideas with results that satisfied me, and yet somehow--though I enjoyed making it--I didn't feel emotionally connected to the piece. I'm no sailor. I find I can describe the quilt perfectly accurately from my memories, but I don't remember why I wanted to make it, and so I think of it as a "study". It's definitely too small to function as a quilt, and viewing it as decorative art raised the question of how I felt about making quilts that weren't...quilts. To this day, I continue to explore that particular issue and have come up with a very large number of (sometimes circular) thoughts about--not to mention attempts to resolve--that stubbornly abiding question.

It wasn't until much later--when the piece appeared in a magazine--that I discovered that the pieced border in the top right side of the quilt has a red/blue half-square triangle unit that somehow got rotated a quarter turn while I was sewing the block; it's just plain wrong. This was another in a long line of mistakes which help to give my quilts their unique voice, and really the one thing which finally linked me to the quilt and gave it some "personality." This particular work made me happiest when I found someone who really did connect with it, enough to purchase it.

Themes come round again in life, also. As I've mentioned, my first son was off to college, with the second not that far from following him out of the nest, and I was once again faced with the question of where I wanted to put my energy--not to mention the responsibility of sharing those giant tuition bills. Keeping home running smoothly could always eat up time, but I was devilishly clever at finding ways to do the "homemaking" I wanted to do and avoid the parts I didn't like, and it had become clear to me--and to my husband--that I always would. I knew I had a passion for quilting. But did I want to keep it as a hobby, untainted by the need to please anyone but myself--or did I want to throw myself into it full force and make it a career? It was time to make some difficult choices. And then, against all reason and just as my quilting voice was beginning to be heard in a larger world than my own town, I decided to give teaching in public schools one more try. I signed up to substitute teach in a local school system, to see what it would be like. Thus began a year of soul-searching and, finally, a commitment to my work.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

18. Grandmother's Rows Garden

The way I figured it, "Grandmother's Rows Garden" was bound to be a failure. "Leave of My Senses" had succeeded beyond expectations, leaving me intimidated and challenged in the process, not really knowing what to do next. But by now I'd gotten into the habit of entering several large shows each year, partly to spur me on to complete at least a few of the many ideas that were usually swirling in my head, and also to reward myself for doing the more routine work of commissions. Though I fully expected to fail to live up to myself, I designed and submitted this quilt to Quilter's Gathering in 1993. I had it in my possession as a completed quilt all of about 30 minutes before I mailed it off to the show. I have never seen it since. The magazine pictured above owned it after awarding me the purchase prize for "Most Innovative Use of a Traditional Pattern."

I don't even know where the quilt is now, although that isn't so different from the fate of many of the quilts I've made. What I do know is how it felt to go through the design process, because I wrote about it in my journal (oh, how I wish I had done more of that!). I started working on August 15, with a two week time-frame to go from nothing at all to a finished slide of a mostly-finished piece to enter into the show. I began with the desire to use a large hexagon shape and spent the first afternoon staring at my empty white design wall, cutting, placing, rearranging, and removing pieces of fabric. Nothing felt right. Nothing came together. At the end of the first day, I still had a blank wall--and now a bad mood, as well. Though I walked away, my thoughts continued to wander back to the workroom as I tried to figure out how to get the look I was after: vertical columns alternating between "vase" shapes and "flower" shapes reminiscent of calla lilies, with the hexagon shapes vanishing as color flowed from one block to the next. But it just wasn't happening. Two days later I had to ask myself why I was basing the quilt on hexagons if I didn't want them to show up? I decided to explore the possibility of leaving space between each hexagon, with some kind of fabric strip in between, so that these geometric shapes would contrast with the curving vertical lines. Then the problem became how I would actually sew everything together. I stayed up much too late working on a new technique for topstitching the quilt together with machine embroidery stitches. It would have been simpler to use an iron-on fusible web product to accomplish the design effect, but I had strong opinions against having a bed-size quilt that was cardboard-stiff instead of soft.

The next day I was back to making pillow shams and notebook covers (small commissions), but since I was in the "impulsive, impatient" stages and likely to get carried away by my ideas (see "Ambivalence" in a previous blog entry) it wasn't a bad thing to step away from the quilt for a day or two, so I could really see it again.

By the end of August, I was delighted that I had produced a major piece in a tight time frame (except for completing the hand quilting), and noted in my journal that I was happy with the way it had turned out: "not a blockbuster piece," I wrote, "but a good size, and it offered several technical challenges which I feel I handled well." In retrospect, one of the most important benefits of making this quilt was the addition of new technical abilities to my "tool box." The prize money didn't hurt, either. But the largest consequence of all was that, in creating this piece while contemplating former success, I realized--and noted in my journal--that "every quilt I make has to have my voice in it, and it has to be honest work. If those conditions are met, if I avoid falling into the trap of doing the latest fad technique...I can be satisfied with both the process and the product." That understanding saved me when I eventually did experience the very rejection that I had expected when I made "Grandmother's Rows Garden".

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

17. The Bobby Quilt

"Bobby" was one of the first commissions I worked on in the "post-Lynne" era of QuiltEssential. It remains the most painful experience of 30-plus years of making quilts. The quilt was the third one commissioned by this particular client, for whom Lynne and I had previously made two quilts which had been warmly received. This grandmother wanted another quilt for her newest grandson, and she wanted cars and trucks, in primary "boy" colors as opposed to baby pastels. I set about designing four different car/truck blocks, drew up a proposed quilt design on graph paper, pretty much exactly as it is in this picture, and got the "go-ahead." I chose a blue/green plaid for the borders--very "masculine", I thought--and a blue print for the sashing and for the name that was to be sewn along the bottom of the quilt. I chose lots of stripes, plaids, and bold graphic fabrics for the cars and trucks. I was satisfied with the results as I delivered the quilt to the house just before Christmas; the client wasn't there, but her daughter accepted the package.

Shortly after Christmas, I received in the mail a letter from my client. In no uncertain terms, she rejected the quilt I had made, telling me that the quilt was far too ugly (her words) for her to even consider giving it to her grandson. She asked that I pick it up and take it away. It wasn't at all what she wanted, and she made no attempt to spare my feelings in saying so; quite the contrary, in fact--she made sure I understood just how upset she was that her planned Christmas present was such a disaster.

I shed bucketloads of tears at the kitchen table where I finished reading the letter. Devastated, I wrote a quick note asking when I could pick up the quilt, enclosed her refund, and cried some more. After the tears came anger, when I considered the way she had handled the matter. Then, gradually, I worked on the "forgiveness" part of the experience--that is, after I had sounded forth rather vehemently on the subject with my running buddies; oh, the things they have heard over the years....

The perspective granted by the passing of time now lets me understand what I gained in the process. After the humiliation came a firm resolve to listen more carefully, to make sure I truly understood what the customer was asking for, and to make sure we were on the same page about color vocabularies by the end of our contract process. Commissions are not about me and my preferences. All of my clients since that time have benefited from that lesson, and in the kind of work that I currently do, it is especially important that I get it "right," although that is a subject for future blog entries.

Happy ending: I removed the "Bobby" sewn along the bottom border and sold the quilt to someone who was able to see the quilt with a kinder, gentler vision. And my confidence was tempered and strengthened by a dose of humility and a feeling of gratitude that we don't all see the world through the same eyes.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

16. Spring Thaw

After making "Ambivalence," Lynne and I returned to themes of nature. We set out to make a companion piece to "Forget Me Not," featuring a pieced background, a "window" area containing floral motifs, and suggestions of a landscape. One thing we knew at the outset: there would be no curves this time. Leafing through the many "idea" scrapbooks that we kept to inspire us, we happened upon a magazine ad featuring a narrow, vertical shaft of light on a dark background. Thematically it had nothing to do with what we wanted to work on, but it was a compositional starting point. We began with the "landscape" background, working from the top down, beginning with small rectangles and gradually increasing the size to give some abstract sense of perspective. Also in the scrapbook was a color image, torn from a magazine, which depicted an alpine setting with colorful flowers in the foreground. I have a dim recollection that our subject matter and color palette were influenced by that clipping. So much for the background.

Then the question became: what exactly do we add to give this quilt its reason for existing. After all, it wasn't imagined as a bed quilt with an obvious utilitarian purpose; we wanted it to have a focal point. We experimented with a number of ways to fill our "window" area, and abstract flower blocks were our answer. We then composed a vertical panel of pieced strips and set them at a diagonal angle to provide additional contrast between them and the background. Somewhere along the line we began to perceive the design as that which our title suggests: a spring thaw, an icy-cold mountain gradually giving way in color and geometry to a river and a springtime burst of flowers and greenery. Choice of design for the quilt stitching then became clear: snowflake-like shapes quilted with silver thread within the vertical shaft, "landscape" contour lines in mountains, river, and field areas, and flower-like shapes dotting the "grassy" part of the landscape.

The finished quilt hung at a number of venues, the most memorable for me being the Vermont Quilt Festival. The previous year at the same show, Lynne and I had celebrated winning awards by enthusiastically enjoying the champagne reception; the year "Spring Thaw" hung, we commiserated over the fact that it hadn't won a ribbon by energetically partaking of the champagne reception.

Our last joint art quilt effort, "Spring Thaw" is intertwined with beginnings and endings, with life's ups and downs and unpredictable paths. By this time, Lynne and I had done a lot of teaching together. There were many innovative attempts at "promotion" and marketing, many grant proposals and letters and articles written, many ribbons won, many shows mounted. We had drunk many a cup of coffee as we pondered the problems posed by living the "artist's life." We had shared many a chuckle as our dogs raced after each other. Our work had been featured in art galleries and fine craft venues and even a Japanese magazine. We had taken an art class together at RISD in the continuing ed department. We had worked craft fairs together, and eyed each other sympathetically and silently as we heard the inevitable comments of potential customers who wanted to do just what we were doing--if only they had the time. And how much time DID it take, anyway? Hearing the answers, the customers would often completely support our charging a fair price, all the while signaling that they themselves would not be spending that sum on work they could imagine themselves doing--if only they had the time.

But over time, we found ourselves in an era when imported quilts had begun to overwhelm the market, appearing for impossibly low prices in department stores. Though we were offering custom design, our prices for traditional quilts were now being compared to prices of quilts made in countries where wages and materials costs were far lower than in ours. And though we were still selling art quilts, made by one or the other of us, they were often the smaller pieces at smaller prices.

During those same years, our children were growing up. My first son was preparing to go to college, and there were financial pressures and life issues to address--including issues I thought I had already figured out but had really just placed on hold for a time. I was working with our local conservation commission on a part-time basis as well as doing QuiltEssential commissions and teaching. And most often, it was a commission or teaching, not making art. One particular job proved to be the last straw, at least for Lynne: two identical, traditional, queen-sized quilts forced her to ask herself if she really wanted to be spending her artistic energies in exactly that way. Our goals began to diverge as we fell under different kinds of pressures and expectations, and with the writing of one final check, QuiltEssential was in my keeping.

Lynne and her husband own "Forget Me Not." "Ambivalence" lives in my house and is often featured in the lectures I give. We donated "Spring Thaw" to the local art museum for its annual fundraising auction, where it raised a worthy and gratifying sum.

Our quilting connection endures; I still look to her for the occasional critique when I get stuck or want a trustworthy reaction to some new effort. She drinks less coffee these days than I do, but we, along with another old friend from the early days, regularly meet over mugs of something hot. And QuiltEssential goes on.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

15. Leave of My Senses

Mistakes? This quilt had them in spades. Lessons? Oh, yes. And opportunities, too: my forays into a quilting career were confirmed and furthered. I didn't give the quilt its name: my husband came up with the idea when he saw me feverishly trying to finish the top for an entry deadline: "Leave of My Senses," he called it.

Planning for this piece began while I was lying awake one night. Moonlight, filtered through holly bushes just outside the window, streamed into our bedroom and cast crescent-shaped shadows onto the wall. I thought the shadows in shades of gray were interesting all by themselves, even without any color. I had already wanted to work with curved leaf shapes and had (with Lynne) done a very simple version in "Forget Me Not." Happening upon a book covered by marbleized paper, I studied closely how the positive and negative shapes and values flowed into each other. Inspirations and observations merged, yielding a 12-piece curved block unit. Sixty-six of these blocks created the quilt top. Though every block was made from identical templates, the placement of lights and darks varied, and half the blocks were mirror-imaged. No two blocks were the same in fabric choices; I used some maroon and green prints and a wide variety of grays and blacks. It was a nightmare to keep track of--its title was most descriptive.

Now, about those mistakes. As usual, I worked feverishly to meet the deadline. Although life really was pretty darn busy back then, I have to admit I probably focus best when I'm under time pressure. But my work can be compromised technically as the clock ticks mercilessly along, and that happened this time. I got the slides mailed off all right, was accepted into the show, and even won a first place ribbon. Yet when I saw the quilt hanging, I overheard one woman say to another, " really doesn't hang that well, does it?" I wish I could say that she was just envious that I had a ribbon. In fact, she--and this bugged me no end--was right. I know that I don't make perfect quilts; I don't have the patience or the skill for it, and only occasionally do I even have the desire. Still, her comment gnawed at me.

Finally realizing that the technical imperfection which kept the quilt from hanging "just right" kept people from focusing on the design and the details I wanted them to see, I took drastic measures. When the quilt was accepted into the American Quilter's Society Show in Paducah, KY, I took time to remove the sawtooth edging, time to take out all of the elaborate quilting in the two side borders, time to remove the borders completely. I was determined to find out why it would not hang straight, and I did. The length of the quilt varied by 1-2 inches depending upon whether I measured through the vertical center, or the sides. The sides were just a bit longer, causing the ripple in the center. I shortened the side borders, put everything back together again, and shipped it down to Paducah.

One afternoon during the multiple-day show, I received a phone call from one of the show officials and was overwhelmed to hear that "Leave of My Senses" had won the first place in the Innovative Design competition of this nationally prestigious show. To me it felt like winning an Oscar, and in addition to validation, a fancy ribbon, and a Waterford crystal award, it included a money prize which enabled me to buy a fancy new sewing machine to replace the very basic model I had received as a high school graduation present. I would be interviewed and published in the book containing the winners. I gained both confidence and credentials for furthering my career goals: in the next months and years I would have to decide exactly what form those goals would take.

In this instance, all that I went through to fix my mistake was justified by the award. I learned important lessons. It is definitely more efficient not to rush things if it means undoing them later. Though I fixed the mistake that was interfering with my communicating with the viewer, I didn't feel compelled to fix other mistakes: for example, one set of "prairie point" inserts in one of the curved seams is inserted upside down. No one but me has ever noticed unless I pointed it out. It would have been a waste of time to fix that. And as for avoiding making such mistakes (excepting the ones caused by sheer haste): not gonna happen. I've been doing this a lot of years, and even my current work sometimes yields examples of quite unintentional glitches discovered after a quilt has been shown, published, even purchased; there are probably more that I haven't even discovered. I'm hoping they will serve as (unintentional) rewards for some future diligent observer.

Long after this quilt had traveled to many other places and won additional ribbons, it was a source of one of my greatest rewards. In 1994 there was an annular (solar) eclipse in our area, in mid-day. I had just finished a run with several friends when they called to me; just about the time when the eclipse had reached its peak, one of them had noticed the sunlight casting crescent-shaped shadows through the leaves of a large tree and suddenly realized she was looking at a pattern that very much reminded her of "Leave of My Senses." When I returned home from my run, there was a message from my husband who, coming in from his lunch hour run, had seen those same shadows through another tree (the crescent-shaped shadows are a feature of this type of eclipse) and had for the first time understood the inspiration behind this quilt. To have created something that had caught a glimpse of nature's design--even though I didn't fully understand it--was the greatest thrill. To communicate some truth--however small--through the work of one's hands and spirit: well, there is no greater motivation for me. Nor is there a goal more difficult and elusive and rare. Clever, "interesting," beautiful, different, new: any of these is easier than "true". The pursuit of authenticity and the very occasional but joyous and even surprised "yes!" that rises when I see what I've made are all that is necessary to explain why I must continue making quilts.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

14. Running Stitches

"Ambivalence" returned. Or rather, some elements of that quilt reappeared: its plaid geometric shapes became scaled-down "houses" lining an imagined New England roadside in a quilt made of my racing t-shirts. It was inevitable, I guess, that my running and quilting interests would merge when my shirts began escaping from the drawers they were stuffed into.

It isn't easy composing a quilt with such a wide variety of large and bold graphic designs. The obvious choice, and the simplest, would have been to cut out all the logos in same-sized square shapes and sew them together in a grid, which--given the number of shirts I had--could have sheltered my whole extended family. I began to experiment by putting up pieces on my flannel-covered design wall, but the result looked more like a jumbled billboard than the quilted "running journal" I had hoped for, so it was back to the drawing board.

Gradually I realized that what I wanted to convey was my enjoyment of running, and--daughter of New England that I am--that meant my enjoyment of running on country roads through four seasons, with the companionship of good friends. Knowing what it is you want to say makes all the difference: once I understood why I was making the quilt, I was able to separate the shirts into winter, spring, summer, and fall colors; I cut out a fabric road for the center squares. Piecing fabrics together in an improvisational way, I tried to suggest houses and trees along the road, rather than to depict them realistically. My friends--with whom I have roamed the roads, solved many a problem, shared laughs and tears--are represented in photographs transferred to fabric. These days, it's simple to print a digital image directly onto fabric, but back in the early 90s when I made this quilt, the only option available for getting pictures onto fabric meant buying reverse-image color photocopies of my pictures, coating the copies with a white glue-like liquid, and letting them dry. Little by little, I used water and elbow grease to rub away the paper; what remained was a color image imprinted on a plastic-like medium which I then glued onto fabric. It was a tedious process, but it put my friends in the quilt.

The results were positive: I ended up with extra room in my drawers for new race shirts, great dust cloths from the shirt remnants (to this day, t-shirt rags take the place of paper towels in our house), and a quilt which led to my first magazine article. Back then, external rewards seemed to come easily and regularly as a result of exposure in various regional and national quilt shows; it seems to me now that I never even worried about whether I would get into a show, and I never had to look far for the next opportunity to present itself. And sure enough, this quilt brought a new chance my way. One afternoon I received a phone call from one of the editors of American Quilter Magazine. She asked if I were sitting down and went on to tell me that she and her co-editor wanted to put my running quilt on the cover of their magazine. As it turned out, the editors were overridden by a higher-up who wanted something more acceptable to a larger number of readers. Instead, they asked me write an article about the quilt so they could feature it within the pages of the magazine. This was my first shot at writing, and I hadn't even had to send a query letter. In hindsight, I marvel that I somehow avoided agonizing self-doubt and simply took advantage of the opportunities that came along. Those lucky first experiences have made it easier for me to recover from the sometimes appropriate yet always disheartening rejections from shows and magazines that I have experienced since. Little successes and little failures make for a balanced life in the long run.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

13. Hubcaps

Even while we worked on our joint QuiltEssential commissions, Lynne and I each continued to create our own quilts as well. In my previous entry, I mentioned that I've learned to work in a series; pictured here is Hubcaps #1, the first of several "machine-inspired" quilts. Right next to it is a copy of the April 1989 Consumer Reports car issue. While you might easily imagine that the magazine inspired the quilt, I'd like to believe (without a shred of evidence) it was the other way round. In fact, the quilt pre-dated the magazine issue by at least a year (and it would have been two if not for the year I spent collecting black, white, and gray printed fabrics before beginning work). I include the side-by-side pictures of both not because I suspect that Consumer Reports staff were hiding in my workroom (though the quantities of fabric, thread and lint everywhere would surely have provided enough cover), but because it was an early reminder to me that "there is nothing new under the sun." Makers of quilts have always made heavy use of borrowing and sharing; creative souls in all media have always built upon the ideas of others; and sometimes--as in this case, I suppose--ideas are just "in the air" waiting to be used. I think it must be related to that phenomenon by which you learn a new word and then suddenly see it in every newspaper and billboard that catches your eye.

While quilters have for years found inspiration in butter churns, windmills, barn doors, and mariners' compasses, I don't find myself tripping over many of those objects in my daily rounds. What was a constant in my everyday routine was my car, especially in the days of chauffering youngsters from place to place, so of course--as most things eventually do in my world--it became grist for the quilt mill. Sitting at a car dealership while waiting for an oil change became an opportunity to marvel at the design effort that goes into wheel covers. It was an obvious next step for me to interpret them in fabric.

I experimented with a number of backgrounds against which to set the circles, but settled on this strip-piecing because it evokes motion. The hand quilting echoes the circles and suggests spinning, and a tire-tread design is the source of the hand-quilting lines in the border. These last two details are not visible in the picture here, which indicates two things: first, I shouldn't be doing my own photography, and second, I take special pleasure in adding details that reward the viewer who, having seen the quilt from a distance, comes up close for a better look.

This quilt was the first solo effort for which I received really positive feedback from judges, a coveted spot in a traveling exhibit (three real museums, with three real openings!) and some prestigious ribbons. It's also a quilt that carried to new heights what had now become my usual operating formula, which I can summarize like this: compelling idea + procrastination + deadline = finished-at-all-costs product with technical imperfections. As I finished the quilt top, all that strip-piecing was getting mighty stretchy around the edges; I decided to just "rein it in" with tight borders all around. When that method yielded a bulging middle, I quilted the center section even more. These labor-intensive efforts yielded a quilt which doesn't hang straight and still bulges in the middle. Nevertheless, with a temperature of 104 degrees and lots of flu symptoms, I finished the binding and shipped it off to a show. Perfection had eluded me again, and was a success. In adding a contemporary voice to a long line of forerunners, I felt truly connected to the rich tradition from which I had already benefited so enormously.

Monday, April 2, 2007

12. Ambivalence

It is just possible that I have succumbed to the twin dangers of too much nostalgia and too many episodes of Lost. I resolve to avoid "cliffhanger" blog endings for a while. But here is the promised "setback" story.

I've talked about a bit of the recognition Lynne and I received for our work together, but now is the time for the tale of how we were carried away by our own success. We began work on a piece which we would enter into a show entitled "Tactile Architecture." Not only did no one ever see it in that show, no one ever saw it in any show. Here's why.

With school-aged children and part-time jobs in addition to our "QuiltEssential" joint venture, Lynne and I were veering between “work” activities and “home” activities; we were women caught in the middle of a culture and era which caused me, at least, much confusion about exactly where my energy should be directed at any given moment, day, week, month, or year. We were taking our work very seriously, but we weren't exactly raking in piles of money. We were making some dollars, some art, and some bedcovers. I won't speak for Lynne (she's always had her head on straighter than mine on this topic), but I struggled to separate self-respect from earnings, and connect it to how well I was using my time in life.

We undertook a doomed effort to bring clarity about these conflicts into a quilt that ended up reflecting all of our confusion instead. Our design sketch depicted houses that said “family”, buildings that said “work/office”, and women's heads that said “we're caught between the two” (as well as "we don't quite know how to do fabric faces"). Our concept contrasted the straight lines of the buildings with the curved lines of the women “caught” in between.

Truly it was too much of a burden for one quilt to bear. Caught up in the ideas and the creative process, we failed to realize our folly. In fact, by that time, we were adding yet another layer of meaning in the hand stitching design: a tree of life, just in case the quilt was deficient in symbolism. To her credit, Lynne understood earlier than I that this quilt wasn't developing as successfully as we'd hoped. As the deadline for submission approached and the time pressure for finishing the hand quilting mounted, she abandoned the attempt. Unwilling to admit defeat, I completed the quilt. Persistence in the face of adversity isn't always a good choice. Together, we showed our work to a trusted friend of good judgment, who looked quizzically at the central shape containing those strangely disembodied heads and said, “interesting..."

For those who might not realize: that word is not a ringing endorsement. She followed up with “...but what's the football in the center?” From that moment, the quilt was referred to between us as “the football quilt”. Its true name is “Ambivalence,” a title chosen to enlighten the viewer about the ideas expressed in the quilt but which in fact ended up referring to our feelings about it.

HUGE lessons were learned: (1) no matter how great the idea, someone had better be seeing—and not just with the mind's eye—the visual design that is actually taking shape, preferably before too much work has been done; (2) no matter how many of those great ideas there are, it is probably wiser not to include all of them in one quilt. These days, I've learned to work in series so I can explore a subject over time and don't have to include all my favorite ideas or fabrics at once. I try to remember to look at what I'm doing and to see more truly and simply. I now know just how hard that is to do; "simple" never gets any easier, and I don't think it ever will. But I'm truly and simply happy that I can keep trying.

Monday, March 26, 2007

11. Forget Me Not

I've sometimes said to friends that I lack the "ambition" gene (this is easier on my psyche than saying I lack sufficient talent to take the world by storm), but now I can see that my breezy comment isn't exactly true. It seems to me that back about 17 or 18 years ago, Lynne and I really did have some ambitions--and some were fulfilled. One highlight of the time during which we worked together was the quilt pictured here, "Forget Me Not." We set out to continue our "windows" series, looking at the natural world through our own personal lenses. The leaf-like background came from an inspiration I'd had in response to a marbleized book cover print that I'd seen. This background pattern that Lynne and I devised included just two template pieces--not that I hadn't tried to make it far more complicated. This was one of those times when I caved, in deference to Lynne's lack of enthusiasm for the version in my head that contained a minimum of 13 templates. We rummaged through countless decorator fabrics, searching for those that would make perfect rocks or flower blossoms or foliage. Many a hideous print entered our fabric collections just because it contained one good leafy line or stony texture. Though there was constant "give-and-take" between us about which fabrics and colors would go where, we didn't struggle through this quilt. As I recall, it seemed effortless, proceeding from the most rudimentary sketch--a few composition lines on a plain sheet of paper--to finished quilt, from hand appliqué to machine piecing to hand quilting. Both of us loved this quilt: we loved the making of it, and we loved the rewards it brought us.

Like most of the quilts we were making during this time, "Forget Me Not" wasn't as amusing as some of my earlier efforts. But it was a learning experience, even so. We thought we were learning that our quilts were becoming more awesome and that we were becoming artists. There was evidence for this, or at least positive reinforcement for our notions. When we traveled along with this quilt to the International Quilt Festival in Houston, we were completely taken by surprise and elation when at the awards ceremony, "Forget Me Not" was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Art Quilt division. Shortly afterwards, it won a First Place at another show at the Salisbury Mansion in Worcester. Yes, we were delighted. But we felt we had earned our place, and we were working our way towards greater glories.

Sure, one judge in yet another show sent back a negative comment about our composition in this quilt--which we neither agreed with nor entirely understood. But I, at least, was blissfully unaware that there would be any limit to what I (or we) could achieve, as long as I were willing to work very hard at it. One thing I've always known about my own quilts is that I have to make many in order that a few might be good, and I was willing to make as many as I needed to. I had confidence that I would continue to improve. In quilting I really hadn't had any setbacks, and neither had Lynne. That was about to change.

Monday, March 19, 2007

10. Potholders and Piano Covers

The QuiltEssential collaboration took place during years that were rich in many, many ways--pretty much in every way except actual dollars, in fact. Our children were growing into people I really liked. Even better, they were kind to their parents in ways that teenagers often are not. I had a part-time job that contributed something to my community as well as to my bank account, and a part-time business that contributed to my personal well-being and happiness. We even had a new member of the family in the form of a little puppy named "Jack." Lynne also had a new puppy named "Callie," and as we worked together on quilts, Jack and Callie raced around our feet, having a grand time and keeping smiles on our faces.

During this time, we put together a curriculum which took new quilters on a “sampler quilt” journey from beginning to end. Once we had taught it, we printed it up and sold it by mail order to other aspiring teachers. After meeting with each new client, Lynne and I put our heads and hands together to design and complete the commission: some quilts celebrated weddings, births, or anniversaries; others were made to match new wallpaper or a favorite piece of pottery. Working with an interior designer, we reproduced an old sampler in a new size. Grant proposals yielded money to create raffle quilts for community causes. Approaching quilt shop owners gave us a retail outlet for our one-of-a-kind scrapbook albums in which quilters could store pictures of their work. We made quilts that hung on walls, quilts the size of potholders, and even a cover for the grand piano at our town's public library. We were new enough to quilting and business that we had boundless enthusiasm and an endless supply of ideas (some of which we cast aside as silly or too much trouble only to see them appear as someone else's book years later). We had big dreams and lots of energy; the combination led to notable successes, memorable failures, and gradual realizations. And I think each of those categories deserves its very own blog entry. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

9. QuiltEssential

As I've mentioned, I had reason to wonder about how efficiently I was using my time back in the middle of the 1980s. I had a husband who worked long hours and two growing boys who had activities of their own. Between family responsibilities and a part-time job, my schedule was so complicated that I kept it on file cards, with colored sticky dots and highlighters marking where I needed to be and when. (That didn't prevent me from forgetting to pick up my children—and the rest of the carpool—one afternoon when I lost track of which day it was, but that's another story.) To survive and prosper, our family needed a provider of income, a supervisor/organizer, a chauffeur, a cook, a housekeeper, and a volunteer. Sadly, it did not need a quilter.

Yet I (and in fairness I must say my patient husband) noticed that I was finding time to quilt anyway. Cleaning and laundry might fall by the wayside, but I met quilt show deadlines without fail. My friends and I met weekly to view and to encourage each other's progress in quilting. These meetings were a modern version of quilting bees, I suppose: a lifeline linking me to people with whom I could share creative impulses, excitement about the "art" of quilting, and frustrations about not having enough time and energy to be the artists we aspired to be. We took our shared interest seriously, going to exhibits, keeping up with and teaching each other about the latest trends, fabrics, colors, gadgets, techniques, books.

Over many cups of coffee, a friend and I wondered whether we could make this hobby pay for itself and justify some of our quilting hours. One planning meeting led to another, and in 1988 the two of us started a business which we called “QuiltEssential.” We would make quilts on commission, we would teach, and we would even try making art together. The quilt pictured in this entry, "Where the Wild Things Are," is the first we designed together, and its story is worth telling if only because it brings back such good memories of friendship and thoroughly engaging work.

Back then the world was becoming aware of the Windows operating system for computers. I had had an early interest in computers through many previous jobs and saw the idea of multiple windows as an interesting organizing principle for—what else—a quilt. Lynne and I had written a grant proposal to create a quilt to raise money for a town project. As we sat down to design the quilt, that "windows" idea seemed promising to us as a way to view and highlight some of Mansfield's landscape features.

Oh, those were heady times, as a cable-tv crew filmed us "on location" at some of the town's wetlands and ponds, and the local newspaper ran a prominent article about us and the quilt. All so that we could sell lots of raffle tickets to raise funds for the building project which would house both the library and the local council on aging. And we did.

In the process we also created a new "quilter" who was neither Lynne nor I but a third, composite “spirit.” We learned a remarkable amount from working together: Lynne never compromised on color, and she was wise not to, because she was invariably right. I never compromised about line--well, all right, on occasion, in deference to her desire to avoid fussy piecing, we both had to adjust our expectations of what constituted good design. We had much to learn, and learn we did. A promising beginning.

Monday, March 12, 2007

8. Sailboats #1

This quilt was experimental in more ways than one. I had began to wonder about my efficiency, as I devoted more and more hours to my craft and correspondingly fewer hours to tasks like cleaning and laundry. Hmm, I wondered, why not cut two of everything and get two quilts for the design time of one?

Now I can tell you why. What I ended up with is one finished quilt and a pile of pieces that I was unable to sew together because I'd already done that and why, oh why, would I want to do it again? Only when it came time to give a young nephew a quilt did I complete the second one. Come to think of it, most of my quilts require deadlines at one stage or another. But deadlines or no, this remains the only quilt I have ever made twice.

Sailboats #1 marked a departure in another way. For the first time, I designed my own block pattern. I went out on a limb and made the block rectangular instead of square. Then, before learning whether this design would work, I introduced another variable into the experiment, deciding to vary the size of the blocks, doubling at least one of the dimensions in each new horizontal row, just to see what would happen. I was quite enamored of my creative idea. But as I made each new row of the quilt top, larger and larger empty spaces showed up in the blocks, and I was getting myself into design difficulty as I used larger and "busier" prints to fill them. I was trying so hard to do something “artistic”—because by now I had been exposed to quiltmakers whose work was more art than craft—that I had become quite self-conscious. Self-consciousness, I think, produces one of two things: paralysis or bad art. Or maybe both. I ended up feeling kind of silly about the whole experience, and with equal parts of desperation and humor, I added some cartoonish alligator and turtle appliqués along the bottom “shoreline” of the quilt.

A few years later, in the late 80's, I submitted this piece to a juried show and received a judge's comment that "the animals do nothing for this piece." Probably true as far as the judge could see, but they do serve to remind me not to get carried away by my own cleverness. Even though I should be wiser now, it's a lesson that bears repeating from time to time when I'm struggling with yet another piece, because even though I usually find brand new mistakes to make, I can also get seduced into repeating an old one from time to time.

This quilt did hang in a couple of local shows, and just in case the judge's comment didn't teach me enough of a lesson, one viewer drove the point home as she said (oblivious to the fact that the quilt's maker was standing near her), "I don't know why anyone would make a quilt that looks like that." Sometimes I do believe it's a wonder that I kept making quilts at all. On the other hand, at the very same show not too much later, I heard another viewer observe that my quilt was her favorite--and she didn't know I was standing there, either.

So I come away from this quilt and the many memories it evokes with the largest lesson being that if I design my own quilts, they had better be designs I love, because I can never guarantee that anyone else will appreciate them as I do.

Monday, March 5, 2007

7. Kaleidoscope

In 1983 my husband and I bought our first house and moved our young family to the community where we have lived ever since. It felt like the right time to set down some roots. Normally reserved—I would even say a bit shy—about joining groups, I knew I needed to make connections with new people. I took my first step in that direction when I joined a quilt guild, where I met people who would become close friends and who still continue to inspire me, challenge me, and inject humor and adventure into my quilting life. For many people, including me, the social thing isn't effortless, because even the friendliest and most welcoming groups include people who already know each other and have formed comfortable relationships. This can make a newcomer feel like an outsider. I made a conscious choice to ignore any natural tendency to feel excluded and just tried to imagine that people did in fact want to get to know new people. It turned out to be true.

Not too long afterwards, several members of the guild approached me about going to the Vermont Quilt Festival and staying overnight for several days so we could take classes. This seemed like a very big step to me at the time, since we were asking our husbands to assume both their own responsibilities and ours for a few days. Looking back, I don't remember a moment's hesitation on my husband's part, and when we talk about it now, neither of us can remember just how he handled the "child care" for a first- and fourth-grader during his work day. (If I were to ask my kids, I believe they would mostly remember lots of fun trips to fast food places while I was gone!) Planning for our trip took place at a house about 4 miles away from ours, and I remember riding my bicycle to the meeting, dressed in a blue-and-white striped dress. I think the reason that I remember such odd details while I scarcely know how my husband managed his work day plus child care is that going to the meeting changed my life. With people I hardly knew, I attended my first-ever quilt class and festival, where my brand-new friendships were strengthened to withstand the passing of years and where I was introduced to a whole new world of people for whom making quilts was an irresistible passion: not something they chose to do, but something they couldn't keep from doing.

I returned from Vermont energized to learn more and to create a quilt I had designed in a class with teacher Mary Golden, who taught me the particulars of piecing an eight-pointed center (finally!) and the design possibilities of the traditional kaleidoscope block. With the making of the "Kaleidoscope" quilt pictured here, I entered new territory. Now I understood that by changing the colors from one block to the next, I could create a design that flowed across the surface of the quilt; the underlying grid and the traditional block were still there but didn't have to be the primary emphasis of the design.

No one understood this idea better than local quilt teacher and artist Kathleen Weinheimer, who spoke at one of our guild meetings the next year. Several of us realized we had much to learn from someone who made quilts with an artist's eyes, and we took some classes with her. She emphasized the concept of “value” in her design process and taught us to order our fabrics from lightest to darkest as well as by color, causing us to regard our fabrics in a more painterly way. She looked at my quilt in progress, understood what I was trying to do, and told me what she was seeing.

In helping me to understand what she saw when she looked at my design, Kathleen gave me my first critique, and it is still the gold standard for me. Hearing whether or not someone likes my work can be rewarding or painful, and over the years there has been plenty of both kinds of feedback. But "constructive criticism" that is most useful to me occurs when someone tells me just what their eyes are seeing when they view my work. For the first time, someone was reminding me to keep looking at what was in front of me to see if the fabrics I was using were achieving the effect I wanted. Sounds so simple--like so many profound and wonderful lessons.

I entered “Kaleidoscope” into our guild's quilt show. In my hurry to complete the quilt on time, I hastily sewed on a purchased bias binding. The edge rippled in a sloppy way, but I overlooked that and hung it anyway. So this quilt, too, had flaws--that was nothing new. This time, however, I corrected at least one of the mistakes, and that was an unprecedented step. When "Kaleidoscope" was accepted into the very first “Quilter's Gathering”, a large regional show in Westboro, MA, I decided to fix the bad binding. Ripping out? Not yet, not for me. I sewed another, better binding over the first. The judge's form that accompanied the quilt on its return to me was designed to offer both an encouraging comment and a suggestion for improvement. I've never been sure which category my judge's comment fell into, as the note came back to me: “binding firmly applied.” If she only knew.

"Kaleidoscope” also inspired my first speaking engagement, a program presented to my guild in the mid-80's. I was no computer genius, but my husband had gotten interested in the overlap between computer programs and the geometry of quilting. Together we worked on a program to display multiple design possibilities of the kaleidoscope block. Into our guild meeting space I lugged a RadioShack TRS-80 and a color television set. This first speaking engagement was memorable at least partly because I was rattled enough that I appeared before my audience in mismatched shoes, a fact which I discovered partway through my talk. Fortunately I was among friends, and we had a good laugh. I may in fact be the only one who even remembers my shoe mistake, though others remember my dragging a tv set and computer keyboard to the meeting. The other thing I remember well is a strong impulse to share my excitement about this new world I was discovering with my fellow quilters. The teacher in me was beginning to surface again, though it would be a while before I understood that.