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

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.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

6. Spinning my wheels

As I've said, the non-quilting parts of my life were not without struggle; I was immersed in an ongoing, ever-more-complicated process of exploring my options for "meaningful work." To be painfully honest, I didn't only want worthwhile work; I had plenty of that all around me, every day. I think that back then I also wanted work that "other people" considered worthy; I should be saving the world, or at least changing it somehow. And for a good salary, too. I once chuckled dismissively as my husband's aunt asked--as she grilled me about a new job he had--"but is he important?" Yet a letter I wrote to a friend in 1978 suggests I might have felt that I had failed to be "important," because I wrote: "I'm at home and enjoying it, trying not to feel too guilty about not being devoted to a career...I enjoy doing things with my hands--quilting, weaving, etc. (I never outgrew the 'playdough and cut-and-paste' stages of life)." There was part of an answer to my search in those words, but I couldn't see it.

So I read books about career choices, and in my journal I wrote entries in response to self-evaluation questionnaires. Writing about "my most satisfying achievements," I used the word "happy" in only two of those long-ago entries: one was about quilting, and the other was about raising my children. Another huge hint. But I couldn't figure out the big picture. While waiting for enlightenment, I ground whole wheat berries into flour and learned to make bread; I hung our clothes out to dry and did without a dishwasher to save energy; I pored over nutrition information so I could have a healthy family and maybe even become a nutritionist; I made clothing for my children; I found a full-time job as an administrative assistant while my husband took care of the children and wrote his dissertation; I began running regularly and even competitively. Though I would have been skeptical and probably annoyed if anyone had suggested it, I seem to have been on a mission to be a worthy modern woman.

All through that time I continued to turn to fabric for "recreation." Grinding wheat berries got old quickly, but my fabric collection still thrives. I began a subscription to Quilter's Newsletter Magazine (which I have to this day) and as a result became familiar with quilting tradition and patterns. I now knew how quilts were "supposed" to be made. So I began the quilt pictured here. Its "Carpenter's Wheel" center was a relatively difficult traditional block with set-in corners, featuring only a few fabrics. One of those fussy blocks was enough for me, and the quilt literally spun off wildly as I figured out how to avoid making any more yet still achieve a quilt of usable size. I began quilting this piece on a large, freestanding quilt frame; much later I realized that quilt frames work better when people quilt communally, but never mind: I was upholding a tradition. Then life changed again.