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

Sunday, May 11, 2008

47. Capital T

Sometimes I get stuck. Not because there aren't enough ideas, but because there are so many that my head starts spinning and I don't know what to focus on. At those times retracing my steps a bit and going back to some unfinished work can give me a starting point. This was such a piece: begun in enthusiasm, abandoned in frustration, and reclaimed in time.

Years earlier while on a studio retreat, a small dyed/photoexposed piece of fabric featuring a repeated capital "T" in a beautiful script had inspired me; in a trance-like state with no distractions, I grabbed a background fabric and a handful of other fabrics which were shot through with shimmery metallic threads. Unhesitatingly I frayed the edges of the small squares I had cut, remembering my mother fringing the edges of checkered fabric to make a tablecloth. I was left with a pile of glitzy fuzzy fibers when I was done. All to the good: I dropped the fibers onto the central "T" piece and massaged them gently into place in the corners. I lined up the squares and stitched everything down. The whole process took very little time; I worked without thinking. But when I returned home, the easy state of mind left behind, I folded the piece up and stored it for later.

Much later: when I decided to enter the members' show of our local Arts Museum but had nothing ready, I dug the piece out from my piles of unfinished stuff and felt I was back where I belonged. Somehow in the interim I had figured out how to finish it; cutting bamboo pieces from my garden and grabbing ribbons off my shelf, I prepared it for hanging. I entered the show, received an award of merit, and sold it to someone whose name began with "T." I was back in the saddle again, and it had felt practically effortless. It was play. And when it's play, things always work.

46. Rug wool

These aren't quilts. They are made of tougher stuff than the lightweight cottons I often use, and they are made to withstand foot traffic, chair legs, or hot mugs of coffee on tables. The materials here hail from the wool clothing of previous generations. A motley collection of colors, a bit of order imposed by the maker, stitching: they are enough like quilts to satisfy me.

In making "East Meets West" with family linens and laces, I had begun to connect present with past. Looking through all of the old textiles I inherited because no one else wanted them, I felt I understood at least something about all those people who took the time to work these fancy fabrics, because I too have spent so many meditative hours making things that are unnecessarily time-consuming and elaborate.

My mother-in-law's mother was one of those people. She made incredible braided rugs, and when she died she left behind many bags of wool strips, beautifully cut, folded, stuffed and sewn, all prepared to be braided. My husband thought he might use them to make a rug some day. Although that may still happen, in the meantime I've snagged some of the wool. It's not in me to braid rugs by hand the way she did. But it's fabric, and I think it's clear by now that I have a really strong impulse towards recycling "good stuff" and a really good sewing machine that can easily zig-zag wool strips together. My "grandmother-in-law" spent lots of hours cutting up the usable parts of old clothing--been there myself!--and preparing it for a second life. I could neither duplicate nor throw away her efforts, and rugs like these--or table mats, chair cushions, and coasters--have been a happy diversion and a way to add a new chapter to the story and new life to old memories.

45. East Meets West

Seattle's Asian Arts Museum has a lovely Art Deco facade, part of which is pictured on the left. This locale was the site of my older son's wedding a mere 11 months after his younger brother had been married. This time I wasn't asked to make a quilt. That, of course, didn't stop me.

Theirs was to be a Seattle wedding and a Seattle life, so it was natural that a Seattle building serve as inspiration for the curvilinear designs in the quilt. But a bit of our east coast life had to be included too; the background for the facade-inspired motifs was pieced in crazy-patch fashion from vintage family linens and laces, including pieces of a crocheted tablecloth I had begun (and abandoned) early in my own marriage. The lustrous gray-green dupioni silk used in the curved designs was chosen to reference the metalwork tracery of the front of the museum.

Contrast without conflict was a theme here: the quilt is of the east and west coasts; it unites former generations with the newest family members; it features stitching made possible by a technologically sophisticated sewing machine as well as lots of old-fashioned hand quilting. The hand work couldn't be finished in time for the wedding, so the quilt was presented and then brought home to be completed. It has taken more than two years of additional stitching, partly because my hands aren't getting any younger and partly because the piece just seemed to call for loads of handwork to complement the beautiful crocheted and embroidered laces worked by previous generations of women. Every stitch taken has reminded me of my love for two wonderful people beginning a life together, and so the quilt has been a joy to work on--but will also, speaking less sentimentally, be a joy to finally finish.

Like the quilt, this post has been a long time coming. As they say, "life happens," and an awful lot of it has been happening lately. Silence has offered solace and time to find my way back to work, and in the interim I have found a certain peace--as well as amazement, because I couldn't possibly be that old--in seeing a new crop of quilters coming along poised to enjoy the next resurgence of this craft. Some are doing fresh, intricate and skillful work that speaks of and to a new generation with new ideas, new goals, new energy, new fabrics.

I, on the other hand, am still trying to use up the fabrics I already have, working within the constraints of former choices. Tied to, if not always bound by, my own generation's imagery, I sense the problem when I shop for clothes: new styles are too young, but clothes for people "my age" are off the mark. In my quilts, at least, I want to unite my impulse to conserve and reflect on the past with my desire to embrace the future. It's a balancing act to welcome what is genuinely new even while recognizing that much of what is hailed as "new" is simply the old coming around again. On the one hand, it would be tempting to scoff at the never-ending, outlandish reinvention of the wheel, and on the other, too easy to embrace the outdated but comfortably familiar.

That leaves me thinking that a reinvention of me, and not the wheel, is the way to go. As friends who have quilted for years begin to knit, to learn book arts, to challenge themselves in new pursuits, I've wondered why I haven't felt called to do the same. But for me the reinvention has taken a different form: in the dialog between old and new, I am now growing comfortable in the vintage crazy-patch background, a bit faded, a bit eccentric, but still speaking.

44. Sudoku

How many people can say their work of art has been purchased by a patron who is legally blind? I can, and I hardly know how to feel about that. But this quilt's new home is not where the story begins. It begins in Tokyo in 1998, where I purchased a really strange and interesting fabric with many designs, both abstract and figurative, repeated across its surface in bright colors. Then the story pauses for seven years, until the sudoku craze comes along, right around the time I had begun to think one more time about going back to writing for magazines. There's an idea for an article, I said to myself. This was back when I had the audacity to hope my bright idea hadn't yet occurred to every other quilter on the planet.

I set to work on making my sudoku quilt by learning to solve a sudoku puzzle--and another and another and another. Research, not procrastination. Curious to know if the visual patterns based on a logic puzzle would be as interesting as designs arranged "by eye", I took one of my solution grids and assigned a color as well as a motif from that long-ago fabric to each of the numbers one through nine. In cutting the different designs out of the fabric, I had carefully figured out that I could get nine each of nine different ones. But I had made a mistake and was one short, so one of my groups of nine is really a group of eight plus one little doggy picture. (Which creates a secondary puzzle: can you find the one-of-a-kind?)

Wow--did those choices make designing the quilt easy! No layout agonies here: just follow the solution grid and see how it looked. And the Japanese fabric--which I knew no one around these parts would ever have seen before--made it interesting as well as easy. Then I did another sudoku creation, this time a silk pillow cover, with charms and buttons and doodads assigned to numbers 1 through 9. With two samples and a story to tell, I wrote the article, sent it off, and got no response at all. About a year later sudoku quilts popped up in magazines and in quilt shows, and shortly after that a book about the subject was published. Too late I realized that the editor to whom I had sent my article had probably been swamped with sudoku ideas.

But I was not dismayed; real discouragement came only after the next article I sent out garnered an honest-to-goodness rejection, complete with the descriptive term "cute". In my world, this is not a good word when it refers to a piece of work or an idea. It was especially not good when I was actually trying to make a serious point in my article about experimenting with "ugly" fabrics in order to understand what is and is not "ugly." Ouch.

Some light of understanding began to dawn on me: there are times when I am good at picking up the new ideas "in the air" before most people, but I'm just a tad too late about it to lead the way. Add to this other times when I am simply out in left field somewhere, oblivious to what most people are really interested in. And the times when my ideas are not of sufficient "weight", and the times when they are just too heavy. Time to make my peace with the fact that on the planet Earth, I am going to feel like a Martian from time to time.

Catching a new "wave" from popular culture? Be careful--your work could be old before it's new. Getting credit for your "new" idea? Gratifying but extremely rare--it's usually not only your idea, anyway. Feeling like a Martian? Okay and inevitable. Feeling like an authentic version of yourself even in your occasional "cuteness"? Priceless.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

43. Winter Peace

I had never really wanted a dog. I had been dragged into dog ownership against my better judgment, moved by the desires of my children while knowing that the dog would become my responsibility. Eighteen years later, having fully experienced the expected burdens, I had also unexpectedly enjoyed the profound emotional depth of a relationship between a 12-pound, four-legged creature and me. This was a chapter in my life that was about to end.

On March 3 of the winter following our son's wedding, a veterinarian would visit us to help Jack exit what had become a painful existence. Agitated and completely incapable of settling down, I went into my studio and without any thought at all pulled out some fabrics and bits and pieces of things begun but never finished. I put them up on my wall and began this quilt, though I could not continue. Looking at the fabrics I had selected, I knew it was a winter piece, for an end-of-winter peace. In the colors and patterns there was a suggestion of the quiet of the woods and trees and ground so loved by the smallest member of our family. I had even turned up a photo, transferred to fabric, of snow-covered pine needles taken very near the spot where we would bury him in our back yard. The vet came and the rest of the day was spent in tears and a sadness more overwhelming than I could have believed possible.

Beginning this quilt and running ten miles the following day were the two things that gave me the time to feel all of the emotions surrounding this event. The run left nothing behind except a bit more peace of mind, but this quilt--every hand and machine stitch, and even the cozy flannel backing--will always be a tangible reminder of that little companion who had been with me since the beginning of my career as a professional quiltmaker.

Jack wasn't the only one getting older during this time. I didn't have all the time in the world--who does?--and I hoped I was getting wise enough to focus on doing the quilts that were important to me and letting the rest go. But even so, with each new quilt I made (apart from the commissioned quilts that were pre-sold), I was adding to an already large body of work, and it occurred to me to wonder: How many quilts does one family need? How many could I actually sell? How many was I willing to part with? How many could I give away for good causes?

For the moment, there was really only one answer to all the questioning: working kept me sane, and sanity was good, so... I got back to work. I was still eager to get to my studio every day, there were miles and piles of fabrics to use up, and there were articles left to write.

42. Family Trees

If you are my age and you have two sons, it's a good bet that the only daughters you'll ever have will be the ones they choose. Suddenly this thought went from mere theoretical possibility to the reality of a serious contender for the first daughter-in-law! In loving my son, this new person in our lives captured our hearts, too. Before too long there was a two-year engagement (on the west coast) culminating in a wedding here on the east coast.

With a nice long lead time, my son and daughter-to-be gave me a gift: they asked me to make them a wedding quilt. I now had two years to procrastinate. Having free rein to do whatever I could dream up, my mind raced with possibilities and couldn't settle on anything except fall colors--the wedding would take place in mid-October, a favorite time of year. The venue for the wedding reception was all about walls full of windows looking out at a wonderful rustic autumn landscape. The one interior wall that didn't have windows was large, blank, and the perfect place to hang the wedding quilt as a backdrop for the head table. I wanted this quilt to be very special and to reflect something about their unique day. But it's daunting to set out to make something so meaningful: it can have a paralyzing effect and ultimately result in something pretty heavy-handed, and that's where I was headed. And then I had a dream.

Dreams do not usually guide my life. As a matter of fact I'm rarely even aware of my dreams, so this one was memorable, though it's much vaguer now than it was at the time (all my journals are strangely silent during this period of time--a lot was happening, and not all of it as joyful as the upcoming wedding!). But I do remember waking up with a complete and peaceful understanding that I did not need to be making a blockbuster show quilt, knowing fully that this quilt wasn't about me but about the joy of a wonderful event. If there were ever a case for expressing feelings, this was it, and I had to be willing to risk sentimentality in order to arrive at true sentiment. Requisitioning special fabrics from both families emphasized that this quilt was about love...families...joining families...joining family trees and all that good stuff, which led to the final structure of the quilt. But something was missing as I pieced the branches from old and new fabrics into three panels: leaves. I chose leaf-shaped buttons (which show up as small "spots" on the narrow panels in the photo on the right, above) and sewed them on, then printed many leaves on heavy card stock, cut them out and threaded them with ribbon. Guests at the wedding wrote their good wishes for the bride and groom and hung them on the buttons as pictured in the photo on the left, above. And despite the fact that the quilt doesn't go so well on a bed in a home where a cat and dog reside, and despite the fact that the paper leaves will probably never hang on that quilt again, and despite the fact that the quilt hasn't actually taken up residence in its owners' home (waiting for that home renovation with a large wall included?), it was a dream come true.

41. Artful Hands Raffle Quilt

Somehow I thought that because I had stopped teaching classes in my studio, I'd have extra time on my hands (?!?) and decided to take on our guild's raffle quilt project. Searching for a pattern that would accommodate beginners as well as experts and that would look good no matter whose fabric stash we raided, I also found myself looking for a project that might yield an article about how other guilds could use the pattern for their projects (still in teaching mode, I guess, but from a distance instead of in my studio). Having just abandoned half my income, I had begun to think about re-launching (really, launching, since I'd only done a few articles) my writing career, and this was a start.

The pattern shown here is a variation of the "Crossed Canoes" block, one in which an overall design is formed when individual blocks are rotated and set together. In the original pattern, long skinny triangles come to sharp points at one corner of the block, which means that when the blocks are sewn together, there are many places where twelve seams must match up perfectly. Even if you have no idea what I'm talking about, you can imagine that it isn't easy to align twelve seam allowances perfectly, let alone deal with the bulk of all that fabric. Adding small triangles at the corner of each block changed the pattern so only four seams had to match up. Much easier! Using a vector drawing program on my computer, I made a scalable pattern to accompany an article about the project, lauding the ease of sewing and the wide range of fabric choices possible with the pattern. I sent the article off, supremely optimistic, and waited. And waited. Nothing. Ever. I believe the classic advice would be to send it somewhere else after waiting a reasonable time, and maybe I'll try that some time. But while I waited, the raffle quilt raised money, as it was supposed to, and was won by someone. I got distracted by other ideas, other quilts, and other events: little things like family weddings, for example--and thus unwittingly entered the "short attention span" phase of my career.

40. #43 Pearl Hill Road

This quilted portrait of the house where I grew up was a Christmas gift to my parents the year they moved from their home of more than forty years to a retirement complex of small homes. The wall-hanging was a compendium of the techniques I had practiced over the years. I painted the sky. I used free-motion embroidery on wash-away stabilizers to create the tree foliage and then applied it to the background. I worked with sheer mesh for shadows and windows. A photograph of the stone wall in the foreground was printed directly onto fabric. But there is no curved piecing, and that was a change.

In my mind the piece marks other changes as well, beginnings and endings. Both of my sons had established independent lives--on the west coast, and who knew for how long? Michael's dad had died, and it had been a troubling time. I could see that the natural order of things would require me to turn my attention to family members a little more frequently than I had been doing. My mother-in-law lived in a nearby town, and my parents lived an hour and a half away. My husband had begun to work from our home more frequently, with a full-time, at-home office on the horizon. Right in the next room. Lots of togetherness would be great, but the noise of the classes I taught in the studio might prove a bit distracting.

Even more to the point, though, was that demands on my time from outside the house offered up an ultimatum. I could continue my full schedule of teaching and commissions, add regular visits to family members, and become cranky and tired. Or I could drop some part of what I was doing and stay the even-tempered, mild-mannered Pollyanna I had always been. (Just ask my husband and children! Honest!) I thought long and hard about how life seems to offer up changes every few years. "Flexible" is my middle name (just ask my husband and children! Honest!), and I felt the need to drop something. I loved getting together each week with my students. But as I became more tired from responding to one family crisis or trouble after another, I found myself hoping they wouldn't show up--hardly the ideal way to approach teaching.

By this time I had taught hundreds of students, and during the previous year I had applied for a grant so I could showcase their work in a special quilt show at our library/community center. As it turned out, this was my "swan song" as local instructor, although I hadn't planned it that way. Surveying the quilt show, I was a grateful, satisfied teacher, but I also realized I was becoming ready to let go of that role. Just as my parents had known when to move, now I knew when to move on.

39. To Bead or Not to Bead

"To Bead or Not to Bead" wasn't the question--it was the answer to the current problem. I was bogged down in creating a book which no one seemed to want. That was a recipe for discouragement, which in turn led to a rather "down" frame of mind that did not yield much fun in quilting or anything else. It was time to lighten up.

I was still teaching, lecturing, and making commissioned work. But in focusing so intently on my curved piecing techniques, I had gotten stuck in a rut. Every new idea was stuffed into the curved piecing category, whether it truly belonged there or not. I, who had always tried to teach my students to develop a full tool kit from which to work so their designs would never be limited by technique, had fallen into that very trap: my big bag of tools hadn't been opened lately. It was time to to play with fabrics again, and this quilt is the result. Some time earlier I had clipped a jewelry ad out of a catalog, thinking it would be fun to try to make fabric "beads". It was a simple idea: shapes in fun fabrics sewn onto a dark background, with free-motion-embroidered gold chain between the beaded strands. The work yielded a quilt I liked as well as a breath of fresh air and a new perspective.

I had given the book my best shot, and now it was time to let it go. If it sounds as though this was an easy decision, don't believe it for a minute. These ideas on which I had focused, along with the quilts I made with them, were significant in my development as a quilter, and I truly did feel I had something new to offer. However, I had already received the benefits of having thought them through and written them down. Teaching about the techniques in person seemed the most effective way to convey them. Under the best of circumstances the book was never going to be a best-seller. Giving up this attempt didn't mean I would never write again (obviously!), but I was forced to consider my real motivations for writing this book. I had to accept that recognition for my contributions to quilting was probably more to the point than any income I would receive from the book. Rising inside me was a feeling of "listen to me, listen to me, I am doing good work here and nobody is paying attention!" Such reflections made me cringe in embarrassment, and I realized pursuing this project any further would have required a worthier reason than the gratification of my own ego.

Creating this quilt helped me to step back and consider what I truly care about in this crazy career of mine. It turns out--ta-daa!--that what really makes me happy is making quilts I love. Another simple idea, and I think the right one for me.