Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I haven't thought about quilting almost since we moved into this house. Sure, I have a quilt that is just a few hours from being done. I always do. The current one was promised to a friend for the birth of his first child. That child is now 4. They have two more children, too (or maybe 1 1/2--I don't remember).

When we moved in to this house, I had the living room set up with a writing station, a sewing station, and a quilting station all ready for me. I never used the quilting station, and the last of the quilt frame went outside just before the baby came. I was too busy writing. I did finish a quilt while we were living in Colorado Springs and house hunting. That was the last.

So it was a great surprise to me Sunday morning when I got back into bed after getting all the kids ready and off to church that, as I stared at my ruby-red curtains with the light shining through just enough to make them glow, the image of a quilt appeared in my mind. Complete. All my quilt designs come that way--the entire quilt "appears before my eyes" (in my mind, but just as visible as if it really were printed on the ceiling, wall, or, this time, the red curtains). So, well-trained from many years of other quilts appearing, I grabbed a pen and paper and sketched it all out.

It's not easy designing from a finished image that fades unless I sketch it out (and even then). What I see is the finished product, not any of the intermediate steps or how to get there. I can't turn it round and round in my mind, or feel it, or examine how this effect or that shadow was constructed in fabric. Being away from quilting for years made it that much harder. It actually took me three tries (I could get that effect this way:......) until I realized the lines in the quilt were--duh!--quilted in.

So now I am fighting the urge to run over to the fabric store. I need undyed muslin (my background of choice anymore), ruby red alligatorskin textured vinyl (I often have to find these kinds of things in the form of old clothes, linens, tablecloths, or fabric remnants at thrift stores), cream-colored flannel, and the riches jewel-toned red velvet they have. Plus, possibly, red chiffon to match (and overlay) the velvet. I don't know about the chiffon yet--I have to go to the fabric store and play with it and velvet to see what effects I get. I might have to go with rich red satin, instead. I just don't like working with satin much because it fades, and red satin so often is more "scarlet" toned than "wine" toned. Or it's just wine colored, and I want red wine kind of color. So so picky. I suppose it's a miracle that I usually find everything I need at thrift stores instead of regular fabric stores! All of this nitpickyness is just why so many art quilters just buy undyed, unbleached muslin and make their own colors.

My problem with quilts (and watercolor, actually) is that I am completely in love with COLOR. I want bold, bright, strong colors. I want the texture and tones you get from oil paints. They DO make these kinds of fabrics, but I always have to take into account the extra cost and the print style on the fabric (most bright colors come in some variety of calico, not plain). Not being able to mix colors to create the perfect shade and feel used to hamper me a lot more--until I figured out how to layer chiffon over another color. Now I have lots of options.

So much of the joy of designing quilts comes from the limitations. Dad used to say that great art comes from working within restraints. It's true. Working with fabric had definite restraints. You really Can't do some things. Defining the work as a quilt adds further restraints. For example, a work is not technically an art "quilt" unless it has three layers: top, batting, and backing. On the other hand, some of the joy of making art quilts comes in the breaking of the rules, like using vinyl as one of the fabrics (technically, even art quilts are "supposed" to use cotton or cotton-poly blend) or putting in "not enough quilting" (the comment the judges gave me for the brick wall quilt when I entered it in a quilt show). I have added further limitations to myself: until Sunday, all quilts I designed were designed to be created using patchwork techniques, any single top could only use one patch shape (or that shape cut in a clean half from a corner to a corner), all quilts had to be hand-quilted. I especially love working within the "rule" I have for myself that all three visible layers must be intentionally designed (the top, the quilting, and the backing--thus no machine-quilted "filler" patterns) and the quilt must be attractive to look at from the back as well as from the front.

I have come a long way, I guess, from my early "rules". Grandma Wilson showed me that embroidery has a good place in quilting a long time ago. She also introduced me to the idea of using tying (old view: "the abomination!--that's for bed quilts") as an effect. Other art quilters introduced the idea of using non-fabric things (paint, buttons, baubles, etc) in the quilts and making them not bed-sized.

I have noticed in my life that working at something doggedly and then taking a complete break from it actually increases my skill at the thing. For example, when I took typing 1 in high school, I ended the first year typing about 45 wpm. I took the summer off and didn't type a single thing. The next school year started, and I found myself in typing 2 because none of my other classes worked out (who knew that the Lord was giving me a vital skill for my future as a writer--I thought He was frustrating my plans somehow at the time). When I took the typing test, I could type 60 wpm. Huge increase from time off. For me, time off is just as vital as practice.

So I had time off, and then sat down to design this quilt and found that it didn't fit into many of my old rules. It's about a yard square. It is still pieced, but not patchwork-style--and I might applique it (which I always shunned before because I wasn't good at it and because it took away the constraints that helped me work). It is an artwork made to be hung on a wall instead of a "quilt" made to be hung on a wall. It only has batting in the design because of the effects batting will produce in the background, not because of the need to define it as a "quilt" by someone else's standards. I finished the design, and it was good, and I realized that I had just mentally exercised all the skills that all the years of "following the rules" taught me--and created something that didn't follow the rules!

The other breakthrough with this quilt is that my mind was designing to finish--easily and quickly--instead of to craft the most perfect quilt by quilter's standards.

So my mind is opened suddenly to me as an artist as well as me as a writer. And I have found that even thinking the art--even designing the quilt, despite the fact that I cannot finish now--is immensely satisfying to me. I get as much delight from a beautiful artwork that only I can see in my mind as a beautiful artwork that I see in a museum. Color, line, form, and visual rhythm are an intense joy. What a blessing to rediscover art!

And then yesterday, staring at the new shelf Dad built in the living room, I figured out how to put a sewing station back together in my bedroom. I've been without a sewing station for a year. This is a happy thought for me.

Oh, and the design was a pomegranate.

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