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

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 appliqu├ęs, 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.