Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Laws of the Land

I keep hearing about the "quilting police." I'm not sure who they are, but apparently they are very scary. I envision hooded figures in dark robes (quilted, of course) swooping in and torturing me for violating 1/4" seam rules and creating misshapen blocks. I was watching a quilting show and the women who seem so kind and grandmotherly said they "don't believe in" trimming blocks, that quilters should get their seams right to begin with so that the blocks are the correct size. I thought I detected the flash of a tin badge, but maybe it was just my guilt (or should that be skewed quilt?) clouding my vision.

I've been messing with these blocks for a couple of weeks now. Even though I said I wasn't really into traditional quilting patterns--that I preferred freeform quilts like the first one I did, so that's what I would go back to--there is something comforting about cutting strips of a certain size, seaming them, recutting, and fashioning blocks. I don't have to make design decisions beyond which fabric to use, and I know, with just a little thought, what the next step will be.

The problem is that I keep having to compensate for something--bad cutting? bad seams? and the more I try to compensate, the more my sizes are off. I now have 6 blocks that are each sized differently. I think they are supposed to be 12" square; most of them run between 11 & 11-3/4" (and not necessarily square). So the question is, what do I do with them? My intention was to piece 12" squares of black and the floral fabric in between these, but in order to do that I need to know how large to cut those squares. Which means I need to have consistently-sized blocks. Which means (gasp!) trimming my blocks to some consistent size.

I've put too much time and fabric into sewing up these blocks, and I can't bring myself to just toss them aside and not use them because they're flawed. What would the quilting police have me do with them, I wonder? Give them a proper burial and then punish myself with not only a feeling of failure, but guilt about wasting time and money? Sentence them to solitary confinement for eternity? Rip them apart and redo them until I get them right?

I fully expected that, as a beginner, I would have a lot of skills to acquire and that my work--especially pieced blocks like these, regardless of how simple they are--would leave a lot to be desired. But I think that hearing from experienced and highly-respected quilters that they don't "believe in" trimming blocks, that quilters should be better than that, may stifle beginners who are often too worried about perfection-- and failure-- to jump in and give something a try.

I'm going to trim my blocks, and they'll probably look a little wonky for it, but that's the price of being a beginner. I don't know whether that's thumbing my nose at the quilting police, since I haven't figured out the laws of the land yet. But I'm going to sleep with a light on, just in case.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Foreign Units of Measurement

I remember in High School we had a short "metric system" unit in a science class. I don't remember a thing about it, except the teacher warning us that someday the US would go to the metric system and we would need to understand it.

I know what a liter is, but that's because they started bottling soft drinks in liters rather than quarts. And, I know how big 3 mm is, because that's the thickness of most of the sheet glass I buy (unless I buy double-thick glass, which is, of course 6mm).

At any rate, I have no idea how to convert gallons to liters, or centimeters to inches, or Fahrenheit to Celsius. It's all foreign to me. In the same way, figuring out how much fabric I need for a quilt is just as foreign.

I was always good at math, but I didn't really like it very much. Knowing that there was a correct answer waiting at the end of a problem, and that the goal was to figure out how to get to that correct answer, was boring. I enjoyed the fuzziness of the humanities much more--the uncertainty of the ending, the possibility that more than one answer could be correct, the weighing of each possibility--those routes seemed much more interesting.

Which I guess is why I approach math in quilting in a similar way. Rather than crunching numbers to see how much of each type of fabric I'll likely need, I start with the possibilities; what if I piece this green with this purple? Oooh, how about adding these lovely floral squares? The problem, of course, is that I start throwing fabrics together and creating blocks, and quickly realize that I don't have enough of one fabric to finish.

When I head back to Jo Ann Fabrics for just "a little more" fabric to finish the project, I discover that those 4 flat quarters I bought just because I liked them really were the last ones in the store (maybe I could avoid this problem by shopping at a real quilting store, but I'm still boycotting all of them in the Austin area because they can't get their acts together enough to offer beginning quilting classes. I'm pretty sure that the first one who offers a decent beginning quilting class will have gained a customer for life).

At any rate, I swear at that point that I will never start another project until I know I have enough fabric to complete it. I head home and promptly start another project using those 4 flat quarters I bought just because I loved them.

I guess I'm an eternal optimist. After all, 25 years after that High School class, we still haven't converted to the metric system.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Under the Shade Tree

I finished my grandson's quilt last night. I've decided I do like attaching the binding by hand, since I can do it in front of the television. The quilt has a few faults, but Brandon is thrilled with it! Now I'm taking it easy for a while. I haven't felt up to par since I had the sinus infection, and I think my body is telling me to take it easy and quit driving myself so hard.

Then again, there's that little voice in my head saying, "ok, break's over . . . get back to work!"

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Side Trips

It was a rough week. I was in a Project Management training class, and while I learned some interesting things about communication, management, and negotiation, I've decided I really don't like project management and don't want to be a Project Manager.

I didn't have much time to work on anything, although I did manage--by staying up very late and getting up very early--to finish machine quilting my grandson's quilt. I'm working on the binding now and should be finished with it today.

I've also been reading more. I had forgotten what a lovely relief it is to be swept away by a good novel. Most of the books I read these days are craft- or art-related, so I really just peruse them over and over again. Anyway, as I've mentioned before, I'm an avid book collector, and I've never read many of the books I've picked up over the years, so I can always find an unread book on my shelves. Finding one I can fall into is sometimes a different matter. This time it took a couple of tries, but yesterday I finally settled into Alice Hoffman's Seventh Heaven, and I've barely put it down since. I have several of Hoffman's books, but I've never actually finished one. This one has taken hold of me, though. Her writing is subdued and the plot doesn't seem to be going anywhere at first, but before I knew it I was pulled away from myself and into another world where I know these characters and feel for them and share their emotions. I think I'll up round my other Hoffman books up now and work my way through them.

I managed to figure out the dual-action on the airbrush, and I'm experimenting with painting fabric. It's harder in some ways than I expected, but I love the soft, brushed colors. I'm looking ahead to my next project and trying to figure out ways to incorporate all the fabric I've been dying, painting, and now airbrushing.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Notes for the Survival Guide

I'm still working on my grandson's quilt. I didn't get much done on it this weekend with Mother's Day and all, but I've learned some valuable lessons. I now know that I can't trust basting spray to hold my sandwich together until I get some stabilizing lines sewn. I "stitched in the ditch" between the sashing rows and I think the sandwich shifted so that the backing fabric was off. As a result, the quilt ended up slightly wonky. I also know it's VERY difficult to tear out quilting stitches, so after giving it an honest effort, I just left the lines they way they were. I'm hoping that my grandson doesn't notice. Of course, that will be difficult, since I'll obsessively point out this major flaw to anyone who comes NEAR the quilt.

The second thing I learned is that, if my tension for free-motion quilting is fine, but my stitches suddenly start acting out-of-control (the bobbin thread showing on the top, for example), NOT to tighten the tension. That is, apparently, what's been causing the needles to break, and it doesn't resolve the problem. Instead, what actually seems to work is to rethread the machine, and take the bobbin out and put it back in (thank you, Sandra, for the suggestion to back off the tension when I was breaking needles left & right!).

Finally, I learned that I don't really like all this nice, patterned, geometric quilting. I had much more fun with the first quilt I made, which was more free-form. That's what I'm going back to with the next project.

We were out this weekend and I happened to check at Harbor Freight for an airbrush compressor. Sure enough, they had one on sale. I bought my airbrush months ago to paint glass, but I never got around to learning to use it. Plus, the idea of hooking it up to the monster compressor that I use for my sandblaster was too frightening, so the airbrush has been resting on the top shelf of the closet until I could get a small compressor. This particular model can be used in either single-action or dual-action mode. Single-action means that pressing the button releases both air and paint; dual-action requires pushing down for air, sliding back for paint (sort of a rub-your-tummy-pat-your-head trick).

At this point, I wish I had just been brave enough to buy the dual-action, instead of thinking, "well, if I'm completely uncoordinated, I'll just stick with single-action mode." I'm managing single-action just fine (and it's a LOT of fun!), but switching over to double-action on the brush is tricky and involves spinning a little wheel back and forth, and I can't quite figure out whether I'm doing it wrong or whether the brush is not working correctly. It came with a video tape (fortunately, we still have a VCR!) so I'll have to rewatch it and practice changing the brush from single-action to dual-action. Anyway, I brushed a scrap piece of fabric I had lying around, and I love effects and the way you can gradiate the color from very light to very dark.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Pressing On

My sinus infection is no better, but I can't stop working. I had a co-worker once who described this as the "Protestant Sick Ethic"; that is, if you just keep working hard and ignore your illnesses, you'll be rewarded by having them go away.

At any rate, after waking up at 3 am every morning for the last 2 days, and working on these for a little while each evening, I ended up with 6 variations of the log cabin block. I had picked up a copy of Log Cabin Quilts With Attitude by Sharon Rotz, and I like the slight wonkiness of the blocks (both because the strips vary in size, and because you then trim the blocks by tilting them). So I futzed around with some fabric I already had until I came up with something that reasonably resembled a quilt. I'm adding borders now (the smaller blue border, a larger purple one after).

It's interesting: now that I look at the picture (as opposed to the actual piece) I don't like the layout of the blocks. Maybe next time I should take a digital photo of the layout and evaluate it before I sew anything together.

My 7-year old grandson, who lives with me and my DP, has been begging for his own quilt since he saw the first one I made. He wanted it EXACTLY like his "Mimi's" (my DP's "I'm-not-old-enough-to-be-a-grandmother" name; mine is "Nana"). Of course, I had no interest in trying to duplicate the same quilt, so when I was far enough along with this one I presented it to him and asked his opinion. I told him I thought it was bright and cheerful just like he is, and his face lit up. "Is it going to be mine?" he asked, and I was incredibly relieved to say, "yes! it is!" as if I had planned it that way from the beginning.

He's already asking when he can make a quilt. When I hauled out the machine weeks ago, he stared wistfully at it and said, "I wish I could learn to sew." I helped him make a little drawstring bag, and then a simple pillow, and he was thrilled. Afterward, he said "Nana, you can't imagine how much I wanted to learn to sew." Who knew? At any rate, it looks like I may have a traveling companion. He's an adventurous little guy; he's already talking about how all the trips he'll take someday to China, India, and Mexico.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Down and Out

After the free-motion problems on Monday, I went back to piecing Monday night when I got home from work. I started these log-cabin variation blocks, pieced with various-sized strips. I like them because they go pretty quickly. Once I have enough I'll figure out what to do with them.

I have a raging sinus infection and rather than antibiotics, the Dr. gave me steroids. I still can't quite figure out why. About the only time I ever get sick is once every year or two years with a sinus infection. The Doc usually gives me antibiotics & its cleared up within a couple of days. I'm frustrated now because I'm not feeling any better, I can't sleep, but I'm too tired to work on anything.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Down in the Valley

I'm having serious tension problems. Or rather, my machine is. Although it's causing me quite a bit of stress as well.

I'm trying to free-motion quilt a journal cover for my Mom's 83rd birthday. I practiced on a scrap sandwich with no problem, but every time I put the real piece in the tension goes haywire. The only difference in the scrap and the real piece is that the former uses a commercial fabric on top, and the latter hand-painted fabric. I don't know if that would account for the problem. You can see the black bobbin thread coming to the top.

Then, my needles started breaking. I've broken two already this morning and I'm almost out of needles, so I'm giving up for now.


I have to head to work now, and I hate starting the day this way--especially a Monday.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The View From the Top

My first quilt! I love it, faults and all!

Almost to the Top

It was such an amazing feeling to have created an almost-complete quilt. A huge obstacle loomed ahead, though--one I had been trying to ignore. The quilt binding. I had read several descriptions of binding online, and every one of them confused me.

I went back to Mitchell's Machine Quilt book and, thank the heavens, she had written a clear, easy-to-understand description of the process. I wasn't ready to tackle a continuous binding all the way around the quilt, so I chose to add what she called a "french-fold blunt corner binding." That is, I cut strips 2-1/4" wide and the length of each side, the top, and the bottom. I folded and ironed them in half, wrong sides together. Then I laid the binding on the front side of the quilt, matched the raw edges to the raw edges of the quilt, and stitched a 1/4" seam. I trimmed the backing and the batting (I think to 3/16"), folding the binding around to the back, and whipstitched it onto the back by hand. At least I think I whipstitched it. I wasn't really certain how to whipstitch something and I couldn't find clear instructions online, but I think what I accomplished is a reasonable facsimile. I bound the sides first, then the top and bottom.

I have mixed feelings about handstitching the binding. Part of me really enjoyed it. I rarely stop working and just relax, but I stitched the binding in front of the television, which offered some much-needed rest. On the other hand, it was a slow and tedious process, and I was anxious to complete my first quilt. I'm not sure whether I'll continue to sew the binding on by hand or learn how to do it by machine.

I was done. I had completed my first quilt ever. The view from the top was breathtaking.

Mt. Everest Continued

The quilt top measured 50" x 36", so I was able to cut a solid piece of black for the backing. I bought 100% cotton batting, then later discovered I liked the batting I had used before better (80% cotton, 20% polyester). For some reason, I was able to more easily free-motion quilt with the latter.

At any rate, I cut the batting and backing larger than the quilt top, laid the backing out on the floor, sprayed it with Sulky KK2000 spray, added the batting, resprayed, and laid the quilt top over it.
My back reminded me for several days afterward that I should have cleaned off my 8' workbench in the glass shop and used that to assemble the sandwich.
It was time to start quilting, and I started with long, vertical straight-stitch lines in the center panel. Then I tried free-motion stippling and meandering on the blue, green, and orange strips. I moved onto the "landscape border," then continued stippling and meandering on the dragonfly border. Finally, I free-motion quilted the black border. I didn't use a pattern, either to create the quilt top or to do the free-motion quilting.

The biggest mistake I made was while quilting the black border. The edge would flip under and I would accidently get it caught in the quilting. I would rip the stitches out and start over. You would think I would have learned after the first time this happened, but I made that mistake at least once on all four sides of the quilt.

Mt. Everest Without a Guide

No one can claim I'm not adventurous. I'm typically terrified of new adventures, but I try them anyway. Another personality characteristic is that I'm not patient. I really want to take a quilting class, but it seems I'm destined not to.

After having no success finding a class in Austin throughout the entire month of April, I checked the Salado quilt shop and saw that they had a class on the 2nd Saturday in May. Since that was only a week away, I thought that would be fine. I would be willing to drive the 50 or so miles each way for the full-day class. I called the Saturday before the class to see if space was still available. "Oh," the woman on the phone calmly informed me, "we moved that class to today. I guess we forgot to change it on our web site." Since it was nearly noon and I had missed almost half the class, I didn't even contemplate speeding to Salado to try to catch the class. I also managed to avoid screaming into the phone.

Instead, I contemplated my small but lovely collection of fabric. I don't have a quilting wall or a flannel board, so I just laid the various fabrics out on the floor of my craft room (after clearing a space on the floor, of course. I'm also not terribly organized). I found a combination of hand-painted and commercial fabrics that I really liked. Sadly, I pondered how I might create a quilt top if only I had some instruction. Then I thought, what the heck, and I started to do it anyway. I knew that I wanted the quilt to be usable, and so the yarn flower stem I had used for the design layout would need to be replaced with fabric. I didn't like any of the fabric I had on hand, so I headed to the fabric store. I found a beautiful batik that had colors similar to the yarn, so I bought some of that. I also bought what I hoped would be enough solid black fabric for the backing.

I started by making sure the center, orangish panel was even. I cut borders from the the blue & green dyed "landscape" fabric and sewed those onto the center panel. I turned the edges under on the 3 strips (the blue at the top of the center panel, the green to the left, and the orange to the right), then sewed those onto the panel with straight top-stitching.

I created the floral stem from the batik by cutting a thin strip, ironing under the edges, and stitching it onto the panel. Originally, I had intended to create the flower by cutting petals from white fabric. I started looking at the batik, though, and saw floral petals in it, so I cut those out and fused them onto the panel. I cut and attached the purple dragonfly border and coordinating purple squares in the corners, then attached a black border. I scattered a few more batik "petals" on the black border by fusing them and then free-motion zig-zag stitching them. I applique-stitched around the flower in the center of the panel. Whew. I was ready to create my sandwich and start quilting.

Settling In

Now that I had at least practiced rotary cutting, piecing, and quilting, I decided it was time to see if I could put them all together and actually create a quilt. Not a real quilt of course, because I was too nervous about my newly-acquired skills to try anything bed-sized (even small bed-sized; even child-bed sized; even very small child-bed sized).

On the other hand, I wanted to practice making some blocks, sewing them together, and quilting. I finally settled on the idea of a tote bag. I had already made a bag, so I was fairly confident that I could do it. I had in mind that it would be a fairly large tote bag in bright, summery colors. Maybe something to take to the pool.

Anyway, I found an easy block pattern online, then spent a while trying to estimate how much fabric I would need, then finally gave up and headed to the fabric store. I bought a yard of each fabric, knowing full well that I would have a lot left over, but that's ok. More to practice and play with.

I think I did a pretty good job (ignore that stray thread in the picture; why are my house, my furniture, my dog, and my hair suddenly covered in stray threads?). I pieced the quilt top together in a long rectangle. I started quilting by attempting to "stitch in the ditch." I have to tell you that this is a confusing process. Everyone describes it differently. Do you actually stitch IN the seam? That's the way it's often described, but then you read about stitching on the "low" side rather than the "high" side (the low side, if I understand it correctly, being the side away from which the seam is ironed). If you're stitching to one side or the other, how can you actually be stitching over the seam, which is the exact center? I finally decided to stitch adjacent to the seam on the "low side." Afterward, I chickened out on free-motion quilting, and instead just straight-stitched diagonal lines through the squares over the entire piece.

I had intended to add a lining, but decided just to back the piece with the pink polka-dot fabric and let that serve as the lining. I added a decorative line of stitching through each piece of the pink, folded the rectangle together, stitched up three sides, and turned the bag right-side out I rolled the top edge down twice and topstitched it. I bought some pink webbing for the handle(s), but I still haven't decided how I want to attach them, so the piece still isn't finished. Somehow the bag came out smaller than I thought it would, so it will make a better purse than a pool bag.

I'm not showing the back, where I put a block in backwards. I thought I checked and double-checked and triple-checked my block layout, but somehow I missed that. Oh well, I like to think it gives the bag character. At any rate, it was fun to actually create something related to a quilt, even if distantly.


After my free-motion fiasco, I decided it was time to slow down, get my bearings, and explore the terrain in more detail. I read as much as I could find online about free-motion quilting, and bought a small book, Marti Mitchell's Learn to Machine Quilt in Just One Weekend. It wasn't terribly helpful for free-motion quilting, but it had some great advice about other aspects of quilting.

I put together some scrap sandwiches of white fabric, batting, and backing. I practiced fast stitching and slow moving. It was amazing how much I improved with just a little practice. I still didn't believe I would ever be capable of the beautiful free-motion designs I was seeing on quilts, but at least I was making progress.

I took one of these scrap practice pieces and decided to paint it. After I painted it, it was too pretty to toss, so I thought I would practice some art quilt techniques on it. I:

  • Cut green, painted fabric into very thin, wavy lines, then straight-stitched them on.
  • Found an old lino stamp I had carved of a fish and stamped paint onto fabric. Attached it to StS2, cut it out, and appliqued it on.
  • Bought some water-soluble stabilizer, sandwiched yarn & other fibers between two pieces, and stitched a grid over it. I dissolved the stabilizer, cut out the "ocean floor" pieces, and stitched those on.
  • Couched some green silky fibers on.
  • Added white beads of various sizes to look like coral.
  • Sewed beads to the fish.
  • Appliqued a jellyfish on over some tiny copper threads and off-white yarn fibers (those became the tentacles).
  • Made some fan coral out of painted cheesecloth.
This piece was so much fun to make. I didn't make any rules for myself, and just kept embellishing it until it felt done. I was also happy to know that I could recycle all those scrap sandwiches I've been practicing free-motion meandering and stippling on.

Stumbling Along

I'll be the first to admit this looks like no other free-motion quilting I've ever seen. It's pretty awful. I think that's primarily the result of two factors:
  1. Inexperience
  2. Being too tentative
I've figured out since making this piece that being too fearful when free-motion quilting is not helpful. My sense is that I really should just leap in and not keep trying to back out at the last minute. The other trick I've discovered is to attack small sections at a time rather than trying to free-motion all over the place.

By the way, the lettering on the fabric is a result of the alphabet stickers applied to wet, paint-washed fabric. I put the fabric in the sun to dry, then removed the stickers and outlined the light lettering with a fabric pen.

My beautiful DP swears its the loveliest fabric journal cover she's ever seen. I pretended not to remember that she's never actually seen any other fabric journal covers.

Circling Back

I happened to see on an episode of "That's Clever" a woman sewing a quilted fabric journal cover. She rotary cut strips, sewed them together, then proceeded to quilt and embellish. I have a rotary cutter! I thought. I have an interest in journal covers (and experience sewing a pseudo-quilted journal cover)! I have painted fabric! I have a new machine that requires use to justify its expense!

I attached the quilting foot and proceeded to try to understand 1/4" seams. I had read online how to cut three strips, sew them together, then measure the overall width of the piece to make sure my seams were true 1/4". I completed this little exercise, then was shocked to discover my piece was off by 1/2". How was this possible? For years I had been sewing standard 5/8" seams, and I just knew intuitively that a 1/4" seam was that little mark on the metal plate just to the left of the 5/8" mark (have you guessed yet that math is not my strong suit?). I got out the ruler, stuck it under the presser foot, and learned quickly that a 1/4" seam is much smaller than I thought. By about a 1/4". Duh.

It turns out that the right edge of the quilting foot actually indicates the 1/4". Duh again. Oh, and that tiny metal sliver on the right edge of the quilting foot? I'm guessing that's used to keep the top layer of fabric from walking to the left when sewing a seam. Don't ask me how much time or how many ripped-out stitches were required to figure that out.

With the seam thing figured out, I proceeded to cut my strips and sew them together. I layered the top, the batting, and a piece of backing. Now I just had to figure out this free-motion quilting thing. I panicked. Take a deep breath! I thought. It can't be that hard!

I took a scrap of plain white fabric and made a quilt sandwich (I'm slowly learning the language--who could have guessed a sandwich would refer to inedible fabric?), attached the darning foot, dropped the feed dogs, and increased the presser foot pressure. I then spent the next 1/2 hour playing a quilter's version of pat-the-head-while-rubbing-the-belly. Supposedly, you want the needle to move pretty quickly while you move the fabric around at a slower pace. Of course, the harder I pressed on the foot pedal and the faster the needle flew, the faster my hands wanted to move the fabric under the needle. I ended up with stitches that were so tiny they were barely visible, and some that would have made decent basting stitches. Right next to each other. Oh well, I thought, my quilt sandwich comprised a couple of dollars worth of fabric, batting, and paint, and a few hours of labor. What did I have to lose? I chickened out anyway.

I put the standard presser foot back on the machine, decreased the presser foot pressure, and selected a decorative stitch on my machine. Of course I forgot to raise the feed dogs, so I ripped out the beginning stitches, raised the feed dogs, and started over. I added a feather stitch over the top of each of the strip seams. That's nice, I thought. I still had vast areas of unquilted fabric on my journal cover.

I fused 3 diamond-shaped cutouts to the top of the cover. I fused a heart-shaped cutout to the lower-right front. I zig-zagged stitched around them all. Finally, I knew that I couldn't put it off any longer. I gritted my teeth, replaced the foot with the darning foot, dropped the feed dogs, increased the pressure, and starting running like crazy.

A Stake in the Ground

One day I managed to drag my DP to the fabric store with me. I don't remember quite how this came about; we were probably on our way somewhere else when I casually mentioned that I just needed to run in and grab a darning foot.

I had discovered this interesting show called "Uncommon Threads," and had taken to recording it while I was at work. One day a woman demonstrated "free-motion quilting" on a piece. Now, this would shock quilters, I'm sure, but I had no idea that such a technique existed. I finally managed to figure out what "feed dogs" were (the name is not as intuitive as you might think), and promptly went to my machine to figure out how to "drop" them. After searching carefully all over the machine, I determined there was no way to drop these things, so it was time to get the manual out. I learned that I was correct; the dogs couldn't be dropped, but my very basic Singer machine had come with a plate to cover them. So THAT'S what that little plastic piece was. I slid it on and proceeded to attempt free-motion quilting with no success and huge hunks of thread tangled all over the fabric. This terrain requires more exploration, I thought. My first discovery was that I would need something akin to a "darning foot" to help keep the fabric from popping up too high while I whirled it around under the needle. Hence the trip to the fabric store.

At the store, I asked the woman in the sewing machine section about a darning foot. We started chatting about free-motion quilting, and she convinced me that I would probably struggle with my machine forever since it wasn't really meant for free-motion quilting. Now, whether this is true or not I'll probably never know. I'm sure some people manage to free-motion quilt just fine with a basic Singer machine. But she was obviously an experienced saleswoman and very good at her job, because soon my DP was suggesting that I needed a snazzy new Husqvarna Viking with pre-programmed decorative stitches and feed dogs that actually dropped and several other features that seemed quite handy.

"No no!" I protested weakly. "I don't NEED a new machine! I don't know that I even want to learn to quilt!" I'm sure the manic gleam in my eye and the drool coursing my chin had nothing to do with the decision, but DP insisted that we buy a new machine because she really wanted me to make her a quilt.

I was excited about the new machine, but I was also terrified. There was no turning back now.

Supplies for the Journey

All the quilting-class descriptions I read indicated that learning how to rotary cut was the first order of business, so I ordered a rotary cutter and mat online. But my impatience got the best of me, so I took a trip to the new Jo Ann Fabrics in Austin, where, wonder of wonders, rotary cutters and mats were on sale 40% off. I bought one of each, along with rulers in various sizes. I wasn't sure what size rulers to get, but I had seen someone online using a 6-1/2" square, so I grabbed one of those.

I bought thread in various colors. I still wasn't certain what type to buy; I loved the variegated threads, but they were rayon. I had read that "real quilters" used only cotton thread. I had started taping the show "Simply Quilting," even though watching it was much like watching the Spanish channel in that I didn't understand about 90% of what they were doing or talking about. Snippets ended up sticking in my brain ("I use only cotton thread" being one of them), though I could never be quite sure I had heard or translated correctly. I also picked up a few yards of white cotton fabric to paint. After my experience with the acrylic paints stiffening the fabric, I investigated fabric paints, and bought several Jacquard sets.

I really wanted to take a quilting class, but it turns out that the quilting shops in Austin must not place a high priority on classes, since they're treated in a somewhat haphazard way. The most complete class I could find--$100, but worth it, I thought, since the class would take me through the entire process of creating a simple quilt--was already in progress, and the store couldn't tell me when a new class would start (I finally gave up calling them every few days as they suggested, since I was sure they began rolling their eyes and whispering "It's that crazy, desperate, wanna-be quilter on the phone again"). I decided I would start practicing rotary cutting. I began by cutting the fabric on the right side--the wrong side, as it turns out. I couldn't understand the logic of cutting the fabric from the left, but I followed the online instructions anyway. At some point it began to make perfect sense why you cut from the left side, since you can see your measurements through the ruler this way. I also discovered that I really needed a larger ruler: 24x6" seemed the way to go, so I headed back to Jo Ann's.

I continued painting fabrics, but I wasn't terribly happy with the Jacquard paints. They seemed to wash out after drying, and I found myself having to re-apply them several times to get the colors I wanted. I was thumbing through an old issue of Quilting Arts, a magazine I love and had been buying for a while--purely for "inspiration" for my other art projects, of course--and saw a reference to Setacolor. I found these at Michael's, and bought a starter pack of 6 colors. I immediately loved the vibrancy of the colors (although they washed out slightly upon drying too, but not as much as the Jacquards, it seemed to me). The added bonus was that you could put objects (leaves, cutouts, etc.) on top of the painted fabric, set it in the sun to dry, and end up with lighter patches where the objects blocked the sunlight. I was having a blast painting the fabrics, and I experimented with using stickers in the shape of leaves, flowers, and various shapes to block the sunlight on some pieces. The edges curled up on some of the stickers, but for the most part, they worked well. I had some alphabet stickers and one day pressed some of those onto a piece of painted fabric to spell out my DP's name.

I did figure out eventually that I love both the Setacolor paints and the Jacquard Dyna-Flow, which feels and acts more like a dye than a paint. Someday I may actually try some dyes, but for now I'm trying to use up all the paints I've purchased.

Once again, the stacks of painted fabric were growing, and it was time to figure out what to do with them.

The Dark Road

The quilt shop had piqued my curiousity, so I turned to the smartest thing I know: the web.

Entering "quilting" as a Google search term turned me out onto a dark road littered with too much information that had me stumbling all over the place. I started again: "quilting beginners." Now, IMHO, the problem with most written instruction is that people tend to forget what it's like to be a newbie. Experience and increased skill must create a type of amnesia that results in such breezy commands as, "Attach the binding." Binding?! What is binding? Where do I find it? How do I attach it? Or, "Cut strips on the bias." Ok. Sure thing. Just as soon as I can understand why I would feel any bias towards this beautiful fabric. I gave up and decided I would just have to proceed down this dark road without a flashlight.

I decided to inventory my sewing supplies, since I was now reading about rotary cutters and mats and rulers and threads (nylon, rayon, cotton, metallic?) and batting and needles and quilting feet, most of which I either didn't have or didn't know how to use. I ran across a stash of little fabric samples I had been collecting. I have no idea WHY I had been collecting them. I tend to pack-rat items so that at any moment a lack of supplies will not interfere with a bolt of inspiration.

I decided I would stitch all these pieces together to form some version of patchwork. The pieces were different sizes, different weights, and probably different materials, but I busily sewed them together, leaving the edges frayed. I picked up some thin cotton batting at the fabric store and sandwiched it between this patchwork piece and a solid piece of fabric for the back, then I set out to quilt it. I had no idea what I doing. I simply sewed through the three layers in a semi-diagonal fashion with no pattern. Then I added some zig-zag stitching around the edges of some of the patchwork pieces.

When I was finished, I realized that there were quite a few puckers in the piece; I'm guessing this was due both the difference in the weight of the various pieces, and to haphazard way I sewed them together. I could be wrong, of course, since I still have no idea what I'm doing. Anyway, I sewed some thin strips of fabric (frayed edges and all) on top of the patchwork to cover some of the puckers. I also cut a heart shape from some hand-painted fabric and sewed this onto the cover with invisible thread and beads. I had no idea it was so hard to sew beads on. I cut the quilted piece so that it was a nice rectangle shap, then I zig-zagged all around the edge.

Now, it was time to try to figure out how to attach the journal pages. I pondered and pondered, then finally took the easy route and bought a blank journal refill. I turned the right and left edges of the piece in and sewed them at the top and bottom. On the spine of the fabric cover, I punched a hole through the quilted fabric toward the top and toward the bottom with an awl, then added eyelets. I ran fibers and yarns through the eyelets and tied them at the top, then tied a few small beads and embellishments to the ends of the fibers. I hand-tacked the fibers down to the center of the spine since they seemed somewhat loose.

I love, love, love this journal cover. It's a mess, but it's so soft and strangely comforting (by the way: the front actually is an even rectangle, it just doesn't appear to be due to my lack of photography skills).

Mostly, this journal cover reminds me not to be afraid of even a dark road. Once my eyes adjust, it turns out the road isn't so dark after all. I may have to feel my way along, and there's a good chance I'm headed in the wrong direction, but a road always leads somewhere.

Off the Map: The Quilt Store

Another one of Bautista's techniques that I wanted to try was "crayon melting." Claudine Hellmuth uses this technique in some of her collage books, too, and it generally requires a small quilting iron.

One day DP and I took a trip to Salado, a little town about 50 miles north of Austin. We try to make it up to Salado every few months to wander the galleries, visit the lovely little shops, and have lunch. We stopped to eat at a little cafe we hadn't yet tried, and I happened to notice a quilting store next door. "I'll bet they have a little quilting iron," I said, so we headed over after lunch.

The minute we walked in the door, I was enchanted with the quilts hanging in the entrance. One was labeled a "watercolor" quilt--I had no idea what that meant, but the urge to reach out and stroke it was irresistble. I quickly found the iron, but then wandered around like a kid in a candy store, eyeing the vibrant colors and patterns and textures of the fabric. I was considering the fact that my sewing machine was already set up in the formal dining room, a room that had largely been wasted space up to now. I was also casting about for an excuse to buy some of these beautiful fabrics. I finally sighed and said, "I may have to take a quilting class." I thought DP would roll her eyes and gently remind of the hundreds (ok, maybe thousands) of dollars worth of glass, kilns, and supplies collecting dust in my workshop; or the tons of art supplies filling my craft room from shelved floor to ceiling. Instead, to my surprise, she said, "I love quilts. That would be awesome." It just goes to show that 11 years of living with someone doesn't mean you know them all that well.

By the way, I did use the mini-iron to melt crayons, which is fun and can lend some interesting surprises to paper and collages. At the same time, having stepped mentally into that brilliant landscape of fabrics, I couldn't quite force myself to leave.

Freewheeling, Continued

Just a quick disclaimer: I have no monetary interest in promoting Bautista's book, Collage Unleashed. I don't know Traci, have never met her, and didn't even know who she was before I picked up her book. I'm crazy about the book, though, not necessarily for the projects (although those are fun, and every time I read it I unearth little nuggets buried everywhere), but because it has led me to some of the most spontaneous, freeing art creation in my life. You move quickly in projects like paper-towel monoprints; it's hard to overthink it, and the instant gratification fuels my desire to create even more.

At any rate, I now had a fabulous canvas/painted fabric bag, and some leftover fused pieces. Traci also has ideas for creating handmade journals in her book, so I gathered up some of those papers I had been painting and stamping and cut them down to create signatures for the journal. I sewed the signatures into a cover I made with the leftover painted fabric. I added fibers, ribbon, & embellishments on the spine, and a lampworked bead to the front as a clasp (I attached a cord loop on the back to wrap around the bead).

I love this little journal, and the only thing I might do differently next time is to use copies of my paper as journal pages. Not only did I use up most of my painted paper, but the acrylic is difficult to write on. I have to use a gel pen (although colored pencils work well for drawings).

Saturday, May 5, 2007


I suppose I still haven't explained how ending up in this foreign land of textiles is Traci Bautista's fault. But we're almost there . . .

About the time I was trying to be more spontaneous in my life, I happened across Traci's book Collage Unleashed. I was standing in the bookstore, thumbing through books on collage. Some of my art journal work was beginning to resemble collage, and I was really interested in understanding collage techniques. What adhesives did I use for what? Did I need to seal my painted pages? How did I do that? And what was this "gel medium" I kept hearing about?

I picked up Collage Unleashed, glanced through it, and promptly put it back on the shelf. Too messy, I thought. Too strange. Not enough step-by-step hand-holding.

That very same evening, I was watching a craft show I had recorded earlier in the day. There was Traci Bautista, demonstrating how to create prints from dyed paper towels. Not only did I think this was too coincidental not to be some huge cosmic tap on the shoulder, I also thought "hey, that looks like fun." Back to the bookstore.

Turns out that creating prints from dyed paper towels IS fun. So are most of the other techniques in the book. So there I am, freely dying and printing and stamping and embellishing paper, and I get to the part of the book where she starts to sew paper. "I have a sewing machine--somewhere," I thought, and promptly searched all the dark back corners of closets to find it. I drug it out and stitched some paper.

One day, while waiting to check out at Hobby Lobby, I noticed some white bandanas for 89 cents. I had noticed that Traci was also painting and dying and stamping fabric to use in collages, so when I got home I tried that. Painting fabric was even more fun than painting paper, and suddenly I had all this lovely, painted fabric piling up. Now what?

One of the projects in the book was a tote bag, and I thought I could probably manage that. I did some research on fusible web--who knew they had created double-sided fusible web in the 20 years since I had last sewn?--and headed to the store for some and some muslin for a backing (two items that Bautista mentions in her book). I had no idea what type of fusible web to buy or how heavy the muslin should be, so after what seemed like hours in the fabric store, I finally grabbed some Steam-a-Seam 2 (SaS2) and a yard of cotton duckcloth. It seemed more substantial than the muslin, which was pretty thin.

I laid the painted fabric onto one side of the SaS2, then cut geometric shapes: rectangles, squares, triangles, and strips. I then laid the pieces onto the duckcloth until I liked the arrangement, then ironed them down. I thought it needed something more, and then I remembered a collage I had made and scanned into my computer. I printed it out onto iron-on paper and ironed it to the piece that would become the front of the bag. Then, I just laid the two pieces of duckcloth with right sides together and stitched up three sides (the selvage edge became the top edge of the bag). I added a handle using invisible thread, and I sewed on a copper-wrapped dichroic glass pendant that had been lying around as a clasp (I attached a loop of black silk cording to the bag of the back with invisible thread to hook around the clasp). You can see the final results. I love it! I was hooked on fabric!

I did learn that painting fabric with acrylics without adding a fabric medium resulted in very stiff fabrics. I also learned that the SaS2 tended to make the fabric even stiffer. Fortunately, I was using these pieces for a bag that needed a little stiffness.

I had managed to parachute straight into this strange but tempting world that I knew nothing about.

Road Maps

I'm a book collector. I still have books from graduate school that I never read, never will read, but can't bring myself to get rid of. I can't pass a bookstore without buying at least one magazine, but more usually several magazines and a couple of books. Every one of those purchases is justified, however, in the name of "inspiration."

Years ago, a friend gave me and my Darling Partner (DP; the somewhat-equivalent of the DH for you straight girls) a book of photos on Cowgirls. I love the book and revisit it every few months. After I started creating stained glass, though, I saw the photos in a new way. I started to look at the lines, the colors, the light in each photograph; then the backgrounds, the dominant elements, the movement or stillness captured in each shot. And I started to think about how I might translate and capture images like these in glass. I think that was the first time I thought deeply about inspiration, about what inspires us and how, and I began to look more closely at what I was drawn to--images, colors, composition, line, materials.

Back to the book store, and now I went crazy. Suddenly I was spending hours pouring over photography magazines, craft magazines, art magazines, books on polymer clay, wood, glass, and nature, art calendars, art books, and anything else with a picture in it. I bought a sketchbook and began drawing; I kept it hidden so that no one would see my ridiculous efforts, too undisciplined to even be called drawings.

I took a trip to Seattle for a workshop with a glass artist I deeply admire, and, standing in a little grocery store on Whidbey Island, I spied a quilting magazine. I was drawn to the colors, patterns, and textures of the quilts, so I bought it. For "inspiration," of course. I took dozens of pictures on Whidbey Island, sketched trees and the view of the Sound, and flipped through the quilting magazine. I understand why this beautiful part of our country has such a high ratio of artists; there is something spiritual in the area that calls to the soul.

The workshop was as valuable for the instructor's stories about his own inspirational sources as for the techniques that I learned. I was anxious to get home and turn up the volume on my own artistic voice. Rather than pushing me to find that voice and speak it through glass, though, these inspirational forces seemed to be pulling me in a different direction. I felt I needed more spontaneity and less thought, along with immediate gratification, which is almost impossible to achieve with fused glass. I started sketching more, then dragging out the craft and art supplies I had been accumulating for years: watercolors, acrylics, stamps, colored pencils, fibers, glue, scissors, and pens.

I began an art journal and worked in it every day. It was just for me I reminded myself--no one would see unless I wanted them to, I would never have to worry about whether it would sell, and there were no rules.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

In the Rearview Mirror

I am a stranger in a strange land.

Somehow I've taken an artistic detour from the land of glass into the world of fabric. It's all Traci Bautista's fault, if you want to know the truth, although the road from there to here is long and somewhat winding.

A few years ago, I took a stained glass class in an attempt to save my sanity from a job I abhorred. I love stained glass, and since I have an untreatable case of "why buy it when I can make it" syndrome, I thought I would learn to create those beautiful stained glass windows I had always admired. Creating stained glass pieces was excellent therapy to counteract the psychic destruction my job was wreaking, but I felt too stifled by the careful, measured processes that stained glass requires. (By the way, if you're ever tempted to make a stained glass window rather than purchase one in order to save money, resist the temptation. Several thousand dollars later, you'll realize that there's a good reason stained glass isn't cheap.)

Glass wasn't my first crafty venture. I have a history of backpacking through the arts and crafts world, dropping in and swapping stories by the campfire, then moving on to new ground. Here's a map of my wanderings:
  • Woven Potholders: My mom bought me a "weaving" kit when I was 9. Remember those? A little plastic loom and some stretchy, rubber-bandy-like pieces of synthetic material in multiple colors. I made a bazillion potholders, took them door-to-door, and sold them for $1 each. I sold plenty too, although I now realize that my business venture was successful more because of kind-hearted customers than because of my craft or sales skills.
  • Practicing to be an "artist": In junior high, I had a secret fantasy that someday I would be a famous artist. I spent most of my class time practicing my artistic signature. I would scrawl, swirl, and dash my way through hours and pages. I finally perfected my signature. Unfortunately, I had no art to attach it to. I yearned to take art classes, but I assumed that only people who already knew how to be artistic could take art classes. I knew I couldn't draw, so of course I couldn't be an artist, which meant I couldn't take art classes.
  • Sewing: In the 7th grade, I took the required Home Ec class and learned two invaluable and lifelong skills: how to sew, and how to make sausage balls. I also learned how to make a bed with "hospital corners," but that was just a silly waste of time. Do they even have Home Ec anymore? What a shame if they don't, because most of the people I know who sew learned there. Anyway, I made "super simple" tops and dresses and, when my kids came along, "super simple" summer dresses and shorts for them. But I never really liked sewing all that well, so eventually my machine was relegated to the closet to become the official dust collector. Occasionally I would drag it out to make some simple curtains or fix a tear, but I don't remember ever changing the presser foot, adjusting the tension, or even having to wind bobbins!
  • Crocheting: Pregnant with my first child, I bought a crochet kit so that I could make a baby blanket (see the "syndrome" comment above). A co-worker watched me struggling in the breakroom during my lunch hours to follow the written directions, trying to understand yo-ing and single and double and treble crochets. She finally took pity on me and taught me how to crochet. Every few years I still dig out the hook and buy some yarn and make an afghan.
  • Ceramics: a friend took me to a shop where, once a week, you dropped in, bought some greenware, cleaned it, glazed it, left it to be fired, then returned to pick up your masterpiece. I loved getting out of the house and having a "girl's night out" while doing something crafty, but after a couple of years the store closed down and I couldn't find another that offered these in-store "workshops." Unfortunately, I gave most of my ceramic pieces to my ex-mother-in-law. I hope she still enjoys them. Really. I do.
  • Beading: I made some beaded earrings and had visions of making more, but who knew that beading could be so tedious? Besides, who needs 40 or 50 pairs of beaded earrings, anyway? I still have boxes of tiny seed beads, most of which I can't see at my age.
At any rate, I stuck with stained glass for a couple of years. I did some craft shows and realized that the last thing you want to haul back and forth to an outdoor craft fair is a bunch of heavy, somewhat fragile panels of leaded and copper-foiled glass. I needed more spontaneity in my artistic journeys anyway. Then I heard about this thing called "fused glass."

Fused glass provides loads of fun and requires truck-loads of money. I cut, painted, fritted, fired, sandblasted, slumped, carved, and draped my way to some beautiful pieces. I learned numerous techniques, bought every fusing book available, and tried to copy every piece I admired.

I love fusing glass, but at some point I crossed a mental and emotional bridge. After taking classes from a couple of very talented glass artists, I realized that learning techniques and attempting to copy pieces I admired wasn't enough, and it wasn't art. I wanted to create work that meant something, to me and to others. I yearned to hear that "artistic voice" people talked about.

I wanted some art to hang my signature on.