Quilters Lead Pieceful Lives.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


My mother has been an artist her entire life.  For many years, she painted, primarily using oils. She painted this picture in the early 1960s:

I have always loved it. The colors, the starkness, the isolation....yet the path goes somewhere and you know the tree will bloom again in the spring. The painting itself is only 11.5" x 9", yet it displays unlimited depth.

As a boy, this picture hung in my bedroom; now, it hangs in my quilt studio.  I have looked at it often, and then last fall it hit me: why don't I make a quilt of it and give it to my mom!

This is way out of my comfort zone, so the idea and the process had to percolate in my mind for several months. I did some research on "raw-edge" quilting. This is where you build up a picture piece by piece, with fabric shapes (for a very literal picture) or scraps (for something more abstract). You can applique the pieces (hence the "raw-edge" tag), either by hand or by machine. You can also use fusible web to "glue" the pieces on to the background (again, with or without applique).

In my search I found a wonderful web site from fabric artist Leni Wiener (http://leniwiener.com/) which included a video on "How to create a fabric collage from a photo". This video explains clearly explains the process of turning an image into a piece of fabric art. Much of it deals with determining the color values of the various parts of the photo; something I did not have to deal with here, as my objective was to replicate the painting as closely as I could. But I emailed Leni and explained what I wanted to do and she eagerly gave my other tips and encouragement (both were much appreciated!).

Some of you may remember my "Sunflower Mosaic" quilt, in which I "copied" a van Gogh painting in fabric. That was also raw-edge, and fused, but the image (and each part within) was much bigger. So I was able to make that with small overlapping squares. I did not feel that that technique would work for this piece. But I still wanted to fuse the tree and fence fabrics to the background.

So here is the process I developed:
  • I took a photo of the painting, and printed it full size (so it was 11 x 8.5; not exactly the size of the original, but close enough).
  • Leni showed me how to turn the photo into a gray-scale image.
  • I printed the gray-scale image on a transparent sheet of plastic (for you oldsters: what the teacher used to use on the overhead projector!). This allowed me to use this both right-side up and reversed (more later).
  • I then created a reverse image of the gray-scale one, and printed several copies. This is what I actually used to cut out the pieces (as templates) for the quilt.

You can see that most of the pieces are very thin. I was afraid that even with having the fabric backed with fusible webbing, some of them would just shred into tatters and be unusable. So to eliminate this potential problem, and to make things much easier, I did two things:

First, I made the tree and fence pieces out of two pieces of fabric fused together. Though they look almost identical (in the finished piece), the tree fabric is actually a shade lighter than the fence fabric. So for each, I took one piece of fabric, ironed a piece of fusible webbing to the right side (usually a huge no-no), and then fused a second piece of the same fabric at a 45 degree angle to the first one. This is so the warp and woof threads would be at an angle and reinforce each other. This layering also had the effect of giving some dimensionality to the finished pieces. I then fused another piece of webbing to the back of the bottom piece (and left the backing paper on at this point).

Second, instead of trying to cut out the entire tree or each side of the fence in one continuous piece, I broke the reversed image up into logical pieces. That way, if any individual piece did fray or if I cut it poorly, the whole element would not be ruined. So the large part of the trunk was one piece; a big branch another, a smaller branch a third, etc. I did the same for the fence rails and posts. This allowed me to actually place the background posts on the outside of the background rails (i.e., posts first), and the foreground posts on the outside of their rails (i.e., rails first). Though not that easy to see in the finished piece, doing this better reflects what the reality would be.

Non-quilters may be asking: "Why use a reversed image?" 
Well....here's what happens next:
  • I cut out the pieces from the reversed paper image.
  • Then I taped them to the paper backing on the back of the fused fabric sandwich. Remember your math: two negatives make a positive!  So I have a reversed image piece on the back of the fabric. So when I next cut out that reversed paper piece again (to include the fabric), and flip the whole thing over, the final piece is now un-reversed!
  • Next I peeled off the backing paper (to expose the fusible web) and hand pressed the piece in its correct place. How did I know where to put it? I laid the transparent plastic sheet (right-side up!) over the background and lined it up; initially with the edges of basting threads I sewed on first, but as the image took shape piece by piece, I lined it up with the previous pieces.
  • Once it was in the proper place, I iron-fused it on.
  • Finally, I did some free-motion stitching with matching brown thread over each shape (the branches of the tree, the rails, and the posts). This added more texture and shading, as well as helping to ensure that the pieces would not come off.
Here are photos of the piece partially done:

Note that I added a little extra to the pieces that were on the edges. That was to insure that there would be no orange gaps showing through when I added the borders.

Now it's time to talk about the background fabric.
My original thought was to take varying shades of orange fabric and ragged-cut and place them horizontally. This would represent the horizontally-oriented brush strokes on the original. I figured I would reinforce this imagery with some horizontal stitching lines. So, the first place to always look is your fabric stash. I found some orange pieces, but nothing really excited me. At the same time I was exchanging emails with Leni; she thought the background had a silk-like appearance. BINGO! I had made this quilt with silk fabrics that I bought on our India trip. Was there any left? Yes!  Enough? Yes! And it is perfect. It has a ribbed texture and subtle shading that catches the light. Using this fabric, I didn't need to do any quilting in the background at all.

I remembered that working with this fabric was nasty; the edges of the silk were really prone to fraying. So, to avoid this in this piece, I fused a piece of lightweight interfacing to the back. This also added some firmness / stability to the silk.

So I fused all of the tree and fence pieces on. Next up was the border. Once again, I went to my stash to see if I could find fabrics to replicate both the brown-wood and the thin inner-gold highlight of the frame. Success again! I added the borders using mitered edges, again, just like in the original.

Finally, I mounted the finished piece by wrapping it around an 11 x 14 stretcher. That is the actual full size of the original.

And here it is:

I think it is pretty darn close to my mom's painting; no?

So....is this a quilt?  Well, technically, no. It is not made up of a fabric-batting-fabric sandwich. I guess you would call it fabric art.  Either way, thanks Mom for all the memories! xxx

Saturday, March 18, 2017

For the Love of Africa

We met Nancy and her daughter Elissa (who was 14 at the time) on our trip to India in 2010. They are an amazing duo... always going to other countries to provide hands-on help to those most in need, including the animals (click here for an example).

Last fall, Nancy requested that I make a quilt for Elissa, who is going to spend a  Semester at Sea starting in September.

But her specifications were somewhat unusual. First, the size. She wanted something "bigger than a twin, but less than a queen". This is because Elissa has a queen-size bed at home, but the beds on the ship are twin size.

Next, she wanted to provide all the fabrics! As she explained: "All the fabrics are from Tanzania. We support a school there (Mwereni School in Moshi), for hot lunch program, water borehole, and farm projects.  We go every other year to see progress and friends, and are gifted each time with a traditional fabric.  The two red fabrics are traditional Masai fabrics that were given to us on safari to keep warm!!".

So between the size requirement and the pre-defined fabrics (and their patterns!), we had quite a challenge on our hands.

But Nancy had some clear ideas for the design. Some of the fabrics had images of various African animals in a range of sizes; she wanted these to be prominently featured. There were several others that she wanted to use as borders. Then there was a beautiful fabric with a large (30" x 41") stylized baobab tree. We went back and forth with layouts and dimensions.  (By the way:  did I mention she lives in L.A.?  So everything was done via email and photos and Excel designs.) We pretty quickly decided that this would need to be a two-sided quilt, as the baobab was too big and beautiful to either cut up or not use at all.

So by some careful measuring of the animals, and after rejecting a number of design possibilities, we came up with this for the front:

....and this for the back:

Totally says "Africa"! The finished quilt is 52 x 74, but amazingly, there are only 43 pieces in total!

When the fabrics arrived at my house and I opened them, I was bewildered. Nancy had said that she was given "red fabrics by the Masai...", but she sent me some plaids!  There had to be a mistake. So I went to Google and typed in "Masai plaid" and found many references (here is one). Yes....the Masai make fabrics featuring plaid patterns!!! Who knew????

Notice that the plaids on the front and back are two slightly different patterns and colors. And these were made of almost yarn-like threads; much heavier than the other fabrics, which are traditional cotton.

As I mentioned above, due to their different sizes, the animal prints had to be fussy cut. Since we wanted the plaids to be the sashing, I also had to fussy cut each horizontal and vertical strip (again, different sizes!), so that the plaid-lines would flow seamlessly around each animal (and around the tree on the flip side). Not easy, and there were a few mistakes that had to be redone. Luckily, there was enough fabric to accommodate.

Which was not true of most of the others. There was only ONE of each of the animals....extra careful measuring and cutting there! The blue zebra fabric (front, top and bottom inner borders), had 3 vertical repeats, but to get the size we wanted, these two had to cut into the third. So again, no margin for error.

The outer border on the front: this was another strip of fabric (sort of like a medallion), with these borders and a centered orange decoration. So there were 4 "corner" pieces (i.e., they contained the border plus the 90 degree bends) . These were carefully cut. The rest of the borders were cut and pieced to make the correct lengths, and to fit in with the corners.

The border on the back was a similar fabric: borders, plus an inner pattern of flowers, except a) it did not contain those "corner" pieces, and b) it had some strange words written along the edges. Again, I had to fussy cut and piece to get enough fabric to fill the desired lengths and width.

Quilting: between the size of the quilt, the bulkiness due to the plaid fabric, and the design layout (e.g., large baobab), I was unable to quilt this myself. So I had Maureen do it at Quilter's Heaven. We choose to use green-red-gold variegated thread, and to do straight line quilting in a 4" grid. These combined to highlight and replicate the plaids on both sides.

And about those words:

It is Swahili and means "All these are inspired"! 

This is truly a great way to describe Nancy and Elissa: Inspired and inspiring!

Safari ya salama, Elissa!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Take the "B" Train

This is the third quilt for this growing family, joining ones made for Sebastian and Henry.  My friend Mari requested a train theme this time.

I found this pattern. It comes from Counted Quilts, and, like all of their patterns, it is made from strips which are then sub-cut into various squares and rectangles, and sewed together row by row.

I went with all solids, except for the grass, trees, smoke, and my favorite go-to: the wood-trunk fabric (hope I never run out!).

For the back I found a cute, colorful pattern featuring trains going hither and yon.

On many of my "baby" quilts, I just do basic ditch quilting, but this time I decided to use the quilting to emphasize the solidity of the locomotive and the shapes of the other objects.

So straight line quilting on the engine, rails, and ties, and random stiples everywhere else.

With the exception of the gray thread on the wheels, all of the other thread colors match the fabric color they are sewn on.