Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Book Review, and The Lego Test

I recently ordered two new crafting books from Amazon. My bookshelves are overloaded, and I’ve been working hard not to buy more books. I’ve been really good about going to the library, instead, and I’ve become much pickier about which books I actually buy.

As one of my few recent purchases, then, I had high expectations for Melanie Testa’s new book, Inspired to Quilt. Initially, I was disappointed when I flipped through the book. Yes, I am a craft-book “flipper”; I look at the pictures first, check out the project instructions, and only read the large chunks of text when forced to (see the second half of this post for some thoughts on this issue of reading). I tend to jump into a project before I really understand the ideas behind it, because I’m so reluctant to actually READ the book.

Anyway, I was disappointed because it seemed that most of what Testa includes in her book are techniques I already know about: stamping and printing with thickened dyes, for example.

But then my eye caught a few intriguing words here and there: “layering,” “organza,” “freezer-paper stencils.” I kept looking at the wonderful photos of Testa’s work and wondering how she got those lovely effects. I knew there had to be more to this book than initially meets the eye.

As it turns out, Testa actually provides quite a bit of information about how she creates her art quilts, but it’s not laid out in a simple, step-by-step project format. Instead, much of the information regarding design, inspiration, and experimentation that Testa loads into the book can be found by carefully reading the text.

Don’t get me wrong: Testa provides a LOT of step-by-step direction for adding imagery to art quilts: creating monoprints, stamping dyes onto fabric with hand-made stamps (which she tells readers how to make), applying soy wax, using freezer-paper stencils and masks, and many more. I’m familiar with most of these techniques, so I didn’t find much new information there.

However, when I forced myself to slow down, start at the beginning, and read the book, I indeed found myself being “inspired to quilt.” My sense is that Testa wants to both provide people the tools (in the way of techniques) they need to create art quilts, but also the ability and desire to design art quilts. She wants to avoid having people reproduce HER work. Instead, she wants to inspire them to produce their OWN work.

The other thing I really like about the book is that each of the photos of her work is accompanied by a short description of the techniques she used to create that piece; even if she doesn’t give us a step-by-step process for recreating her pieces, she does provide road maps that show us how she got to where she was going.

I’m glad that I bought this book. Not only is it a valuable addition to my library, but it’s helping me in my never-ending quest to slow down and be patient.

To summarize then, here a few pros and cons of Melanie Testa’s new book, Inspired to Quilt:


  • High-quality, slick pages with high-quality photographs of Testa’s work
  • Loads of information, both “buried” within the text and in a step-by-step format
  • Coverage of several different dyeing techniques: direct dye painting, monoprinting, stamping, working with soy wax, using stencils and masks, and more
  • Inspirational ideas about how to layer imagery on fabric to create art quilts
  • Encourages experimentation and “rule-breaking”


  • Few step-by-step “projects”
  • Important information is sometimes buried within the text, so getting the most benefit from the book requires careful reading.

And now, what do LEGOS have to do with this post? Well, here’s the story:

I am a technical writer by profession. Most of my writing provides instructions for people who need to perform a task quickly and efficiently. A few years ago, I took a workshop on minimalist writing, which is, essentially, providing only the information people need, when they need it.

As part of the workshop, we were organized into groups and given a simple task: using the provided instructions, we were to assemble a small Lego tow truck. The “winner” of the contest would be the group who correctly assembled the tow truck in the shortest amount of time. Everyone had the same assignment and the same Lego parts. What we didn’t know is that each group had very different instructions.

The first thing I noticed as my group worked to assemble the tow truck is that we skipped any text in the assembly instructions. Instead, we went straight to the illustrations. If we couldn’t determine the next step in the process from the illustration, we backed up and read the instructions.

My group finished first, not because we were any smarter or more mechanically-minded than the others, but because we were fortunate enough to receive the “best” instructions. It turns out that, every time the instructor taught this class, the group that received the same instructions we did assembled the tow truck first. These instructions had very clear illustrations, supported by clearly formatted and concisely written step-by-step directions. The group that finished 15 minutes or so after us had instructions with fewer and less clear illustrations, and less clearly-written directions. The group that never finished had instructions with NO illustrations, text that was formatted only in paragraphs, and lots of “background” filler information sprinkled in among the directions (long, rambling passages on the the history of Legos, for example).

Now, here’s the really interesting part. It turns out that people read according to what their goal is. If it’s to perform a task as quickly and efficiently as possible, they “read” just like our group did: going straight for the illustrations, then to the numbered steps or bullet points for clarification. On the other hand, if people are reading to educate themselves and really learn something, as many of us did in college, for example, we’re more likely to read long passages of text (think about the way college-level textbooks tend to be written).

Unfortunately, we’ve become both a much more impatient society, as well as a more visual one. People claim that reading is actually on the rise, and point to the increased use of the Internet, and particularly the enormous popularity of blogs. But pay attention to your own reading habits: I’d be willing to bet my lunch money that very few of you have read this post all the way through. More likely, some people dropped in and, seeing no pictures, left immediately. Others skimmed the text, looking for the pictures or the “important points,” and slowed down only when they got to the “pro” and “con” bullet points above. Then, they resumed skimming, and perhaps lost interest before reaching the end.

What about your own reading habits in craft books, on blogs, or on web pages (I’m not counting books such as novels here, since they assume from the beginning a different motive for reading)?

  • Do you go right for the pictures, and read the surrounding text only when the picture interests you?
  • Do you look for the visual formatting cues to “important” information: bullet-dots, numbered lists, quote offsets?
  • Do you skim the text, looking for points of interest, then go back and carefully reread only when the topic seems sufficiently interesting?

I know I do. But sometimes I wonder how much I miss this way. I wonder whether I’m overloading myself with information, but skimping on the more thought-provoking reading experiences that require attention and patience. If we’re all doing the same thing, what are the short- and long-term effects of this way of reading on our culture? On our verbal and visual literacy?

Framing this in term of my craft books, I’m wondering whether what I’m looking for when I initially skim them is the short-term “project” that I can jump into, rather than a longer-term learning experience. Is this one factor that holds me back in being able to design and produce the thoughtful work I hope for?

If you HAVE made it all the way to the end of this post, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.


Sandy said...

I made it to the end!

No, what you said intrigued me and I carried on. Partially because my DH is a technical author, and then because I realised this is a good essay which can illustrate some of the points I know to be true in my own way of learning and in the subject matter I teach. (Fashion, Textiles and Design)

I am doing my qualification for Teaching Adults in the Lifelong learning sector. It is not easy to find actual essays which speak to the issue of learning aids for those with visual learning styles or in the psychomotor domain. (you can find aids or even concepts of developing, but not much disscussion about the whys and wherefores.) I think this is mainly because the ones who like to write are the theorists or in the cognative domain.

So, to make a long story shorter, I am bookmarking your post and will pass it on to the other teachers on my course.

How did I get here? I followed your link on Complex cloth about the silk screening with Setacolor paints and decided to see what else was on your blog!

Sandy Snowden in the UK

Chris said...

I tend to look at pictures first then look for bullet points second. One on the most enjoyable books I have worked with recently is "Art Quilt Workbook" by Jane Davila & Elin Waterston. It is formatted like a school workbook. Each chapter teaching something new, providing exercises and activities that build skills and then overlap lessons in the next chapter. I read this book from beginning to end.

Sequana said...

I'm a real "reader" of stuff, so I didn't skip a word of your blog. I read fast tho, probably in phrases.
I love reading "destructions" and like that better than just pics. But then, I'm of the old school, cause I'm old. *S*

Michele said...

This is actually really helpful - I looked at the book on Friday and decided not to buy it because it looked like it focused more on projects (gotta spend that Christmas gift card sometime!) I'll take a second look.

tiedyejudy said...

I, too become impatient when there are too many words, but recently bought a book on Shibori and actually read a great deal of it, even though it delved into the history more than the 'how to'. As for using the illustrations instead of the words, I do that mostly in real life because most of the written instructions seem to be done by someone for whom English is a second language! I congratulate you if you are a technical writer... chances are you need to know your stuff inside out in order to be able to write the 'how to'. In Melly's case, I took a class from her a couple of years ago, and she definitely knows her stuff! I didn't know any of those techniques, and learned a lot. I haven't bought her book yet because of budget considerations, but I understand she is conducting challenges on the QA website using what she wrote about in the book, so maybe that will give you some inspiration to dig further.

Jackie K. said...

Interesting discussion about the LEGOs instructions! I'm wincing in memory of my days writing instructions & procedures in a manufacturing environment. If I were able to include visuals then it would have helped immensely!

Regarding my blow-through of blog reading/craft books. I can honestly say that I do scan for visuals first, then delve into reading details afterwards. I also feel the need to slow down and simplify. Too much info coming at me and not enough processing/doing!!
I'm working on it ;)

queenopearls said...

Michele, Great article which speaks to the visual artist in us all. I skim and then go back. This seems to be a common denominator.
One quality keeps me reading: brief, anecdotal humor. Especially useful when learning new processes. I want to know I am not the only one who has been in this spot.

Deb's Artful Journey said...

I read your entire article because I found your writing to be compelling. However, I do think I go for the visual pictures & bypass the written word in craft books/ blogs etc (unless its a non/fiction). I am an avid reader, but you bring up some very interesting points. I will have to think on them, so thank you!

Judy Alexander said...

I am definitely a skimmer on the first pass when it comes to quilting and craft books. I will go back and look for details as I need them. Very interesting.

Amy Cavaness said...

I found your thoughts ring very true for me, too. I've started a blog for tutorials and, tho I've tried to include good photos, you've reminded me how very important they are in instructions!

Sometimes I've noticed that the text in some of my (many)sewing/quilting books seems like filler, tho--kind of like the songs that fill up a CD around the 1 or 2 songs I bought the CD for! I guess that's what they have to do sometimes to make a "book" instead of a "booklet"!

I appreciate your review--thanks for sharing it with us.

lyric said...

I go straight for the visuals - and often don't get the chance to read until later.
Wonderful post!

Dijanne Cevaal said...

Interesting post Michele, and right to the point in relation to craft books where one expects to learn something from the author and text. However , as you also point out, considerations are different when the book has a different orientation- something I am grappling with at the moment. I am looking at making a catalogue of a series of work I have done and including the original inspiration for the works as well. I do feel the work needs explanation as a lot of it was based on research- and stories inspired the work also. None of it was made just as if. I wonder how much of this information a prospective buyer/reader might want?

Lisa Flowers Ross said...

I made it to the end, too. For craft books, I definitely like to have lots of pictures for inspiration. I would rather have the kind of book that provides techniques you can use to create your designs, verses specific projects. I just ordered Testa's book and will see how it is.