Monday, June 26, 2017

Polar Bear Dip

Quilt No. 119
June 2017

I live far enough north that bears are a constant source of conversation. I’ve encountered them quite frequently. On the edge of the city where I live they’ve come within a few feet of the front door.  They’ve roamed around our yard with police in tow.  They’ve climbed trees in the yard, refusing to leave until  someone got serious with a tranquilizer gun.  (No bears were hurt – but one wheelbarrow was demolished by a falling bear).  At our cottage bears have graced all parts of the property with their blueberry spiked droppings, left half-eaten fish on the path, and found and mauled our food cooler that had been sitting on the deck for less than five minutes.  So for these and many more reasons, we think about bears quite a bit.  Of course, we are not that far north, so all of these bears are black bears.  This is a desirable state of affairs, since black bears are generally quite easily frightened off.  Polar bears?  Not likely to be shooed away by your thrown sneaker.

It seems kind of unfair then that I would do a quilt with polar bears rather than black bears, but whoever said that life was fair?  (Your mother doesn’t count).  

The polar bear design that I turned into a small wall quilt originated at Needleworks Studio Canada in Cochrane Ontario.  It was designed by Christina Doucette for Row by Row Experience.  For the uninitiated, Row by Row Experience goes on in quilt shops in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.  Each shop designs a block that incorporates the theme for that year.  Each one usually has a local flavor.  The blocks are long and narrow, meant to be sewn together with other “row” blocks.  Add borders, and voila, a full sized quilt emerges.  Of course you don’t have to combine rows, you can stay with just one and use it as a wall hanging or table runner. 

Polar bears are perfect for a block that originates in Cochrane.  It isn’t far enough north to have polar bears dropping by, but it does have a state of the art Polar Bear Habitat.  You can even watch them live if you aren’t lucky enough to be within driving distance.

My husband liked this block when he saw the kit displayed in the shop.  I pretended not to notice that he was hinting that I buy it.  I already had too many unfinished projects on the go – no time left for bear essentials. 

It kind of nagged at me that I hadn’t been more generous and offered to make if for him.  A year later a friend was down-sizing her stash and gave me the pattern and some fabrics she’d already picked out for it.  Destiny was looming.  The bears were coming for me.

I went ahead with some of her fabrics and some of my own.  I found a short fiber plush-like fabric in my drawers of “whites” that was pretty much the most ideal polar bear fabric in the history of mankind.  Clearly this was karma in its purest form.  I even managed to get the nap of the “fur” going in the right direction.  Once you’ve touched one of the polar bears on the quilt it’s as addicting as stroking a cat.  You will be back for more.

The northern lights proved problematic.  I didn’t want to risk pulling in a small section of the background with the close stitching of “thread painting”. Without proper planning you will pay for this with ripples somewhere else in the quilt.  I tried some fancy stuff with organza, but just like everything else I’ve ever tried to do with organza it was a flop. Actually, I came up with something that looked like a smoky shrub, a foolish object for an Arctic sky. I finally hit on the idea of using up some of my precious wool roving (where DO you buy that stuff without having to buy something the size of a football and the price of a car?).  It worked out pretty well until I ran out of it.  I consulted my Weird Wool Drawer and found one ball that had wool varying in size from skinny strings to fat wool.  I stripped out the skinny strings, chopped out the fat wool parts, and I had some DIY roving.  Best of all, I’d finally used something out of that drawer.  It’s a sizable collection of wool oddities that are almost never useful. I think it’s in cahoots with the organza. 

The Weird Wool Drawer


Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Quilt No. 117
February 2017

This is the thing about being a card-carrying rule follower – challenges become irresistible.  All those delicious rules!  They channel unbridled creativity right into the cozy end of the funnel.  Instead of falling prey to the loosey-goosiness of too many possibilities, there is a path that is already laid out.  Certain things can be done, certain things cannot.  It’s pure heaven for a rule follower!

The year’s quilt guild challenge was to create a “medallion quilt”.  My definition of “medallion” is personified by Mr. T. and mountain of bling.  How would I ever come up with a quilt based on that?  Fortunately, as the description of the quilt version was revealed, it became clear that it had nothing to do with gaudy gold neckware. Whew!

A medallion quilt is one that has the center of the quilt as its focus.  Borders are added around that portion.  The center can be a printed fabric panel (sometimes a picture) or something pieced to give the impression of a whole, for example a lone star.  Turns out - thanks to my sister - I had just the right thing for my medallion quilt lying around in my bloated pile of impulse purchases. 

The center panel of this quilt is a piece called Greeting the Moon, from Red Rooster Fabrics. I saw it when I was attending the Quilt Canada 2016 event.  I wanted it, but I also wanted pretty much everything that fell within my line of sight. So I didn’t allow myself to buy it.

On Day Two of Quilt Canada I casually mentioned the crane panel to my sister.  She knows I’m pretty fond of red-crowned cranes, having used them before in my Hibakusha quilt.  I still have a bit of fabric left over from that quilt.  I would it put in a safe if I had one.  It’s that special.  I’ve used that crane fabric a few times for postcard quilts for friends who were battling cancer.  So far these cranes have been very successful.

“I saw this panel of cranes that I really liked” I commented as we wandered on blissfully blistered feet.  “Did you buy it?” she asked.  I admitted that I had not.  “Well go get it now” she said.  I started stammering about having already bought enough stuff and how I didn’t know what I would do with all of it.  My sister was already dragging around a pack sack loaded with my purchases, pretending she wasn’t my personal pack horse.  (Did I mention she’s a non-quilter, and just about the world’s greatest sport?)  She short circuited my blathering by drawing herself up to her full Big Sister Height.  Then she lasered me with her well practiced Big Sister Glare.  “I said GO. Get it. Now.”  I knew better than to defy her.  She is older than me and taller than me and she has assured me that she is smarter than me.  I’m at least smart enough to know not to argue with her.  I obediently slunk over to the vendor and bought the crane panel.  I didn't even worry about what I might do with it. 

A few months later the President’s Challenge was announced at quilt guild - the medallion challenge.  Too bad I had nothing, nothing at all that I could use for this challenge.  What a lack of foresight on my part, considering that quilt stores sometimes shop at my house, due to my vast fabric selection.  Maybe I wouldn’t be able to muster anything at all for the challenge.

Eventually, during one of my rummaging sessions in my fabric stash, I unearthed the cranes panel.  It was an absolutely ideal starting point for the challenge!  Turns out my sister is right.  She is smarter than me.  Do not let her know I’ve confirmed this.

I’ve added five borders on each side of the panel, and four on the top/bottom of this quilt.  I was going to give it a “light” machine quilting using metallic thread and just outline a few waves here and there.  Meh.  I’d be done in two hours.  But...once I got started on the waves, a few lines here and there made no sense to the eye or the quilt.  It became every line that got quilted.  

Of course, the bottom of the quilt became narrower and narrower in comparison with the top.  Quilts must be quilted with equal density over the whole surface, or you get rippling. This is a rule that can’t really be gotten around, kind of like gravity.  If you go crazy quilting it tightly in one section, you must repeat your act of craziness in all sections. This meant I had to climb that mountain of quilting all the way to the top, equalizing it by adding in waves and clouds.  I actually thought I might never finish, that I would perish at my machine because I’d failed to take along enough supplemental oxygen to get me to the summit.  By the end, my sewing machine and I had become one, a cybernetic organism that lived only to make stitches and trips to the snack drawer.  We took turns doing both.  

Eventually it did come to an end - I couldn’t find even a tiny section left where I could add any more stitches.  I declared the quilt finished and my love affair with cranes over.  Completely over.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Dave the Dachshund

April 2017

It can’t always be about quilting.  I know.  It’s a travesty.  It ends up being necessary to put everything in life into one of two categories: 
  • Category 1:  Quilting
  • Category 2:  Not Quilting

Category 1 takes in all quilt related activities including thinking about quilts, talking about quilts, reading about quilts, and actually occasionally making quilts.

Category 2 takes in, well, everything else, including eating, sleeping, and painting the kitchen.  Ugh.

Category 1 is quite elastic and can be stretched to include sewing if the item in question can be somehow related to quilting.  For example, sewing pyjama pants is a quilting activity, since sometimes I wear them while I’m quilting.  Sewing to repair clothing falls into Category 2, as it is an essentially nasty pursuit that misuses time that could be more appropriately devoted to Category 1.

Watching the TV series The Great British Sewing Bee is a Category 1 activity.  This show is a low calorie version of The Great British Bake Off.  I had to abandon watching that one after I dragged the TV into the kitchen so that I could commune with the chocolate chips during the show. 

They don’t do any quilting on The Great British Sewing Bee, but it does cover a lot of the same skills that quilters use. I’ve completely fallen under its spell.  It’s the stitchery equivalent of Survivor – 10 sewing enthusiasts duke-ing it out for top dog status.  One person must leave “the sewing room” each episode.  At this point, the moderator who makes the announcement chokes back tears.  The sewing contestants all cry, and I sob inconsolably into the arm of my leather chair. 

As the GBSB camera wandered from table to table, it became evident to me that all the cool kids had huge and amazing pincushions they had made for themselves.  The one that made me whimper with envy was the dachshund.  Who doesn’t love this adorable unpronounceable and un-spellable breed of hound?  The beloved “wiener dog”!  I wanted my very own wiener dog pincushion.

I currently keep all my pins in a dish on my psychotically cluttered quilting table.  I rarely have a session at the table where I don’t knock this dish onto the floor, strewing the contents all the way to the house next door.  It’s become a ritual that I’ve learned to endure.  Picking up all those pins every day is keeping me flexible. My fine motor skills are top notch.  I could get one of those magnetic pin dishes, but then the pins get magnetized and my scissors become an unusable porcupine-like object.  Un-clamping magnetized pins is worse than a crawl around the carpet and has no therapeutic value whatsoever.  But... a pincushion that doubles as a cute animal companion?  That struck me as the ideal solution. 

I easily found the free pattern for Dave Dachshund at Sew magazine.  It wasn’t too complicated.  I even managed to avoid being dissuaded by the word “gusset”.  (It’s on my list of Hated Words).  Within a singe day, Dave was lolling on my quilting table and radiating advanced cuteness.  I couldn’t actually stick any pins in him though.  My Facebook friends (pet lovers all) were quite vocal about implementing a “no-stab” rule for Dave.  I didn’t have the heart to point out that Dave is made of cotton and lacks a nervous system.  So the pins have stayed in the dish, and Dave has been put in charge of it.  And to his credit, he’s only spilled it twice.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Sailing at the Farm

­­Sailing at the Farm; A Paper Bag Challenge
April 2017
Lois/Joan/Julie Collaboration

Never turn down anything chocolate - or anything quilt related when the challenge gauntlet is thrown down.   This quilt is the end result of one our “paper bag” challenges at our guild. The challenge works like this.  One quilter fills a paper bag with some fabric scraps and notions.  Whoever gets the bag has to make a small quilt using the contents. They’re allowed to add their own thread and imagination, nothing else.   At least a piece of every fabric or item in the bag must be used.  To add to the fun the bag contains a whole bunch of alarmingly unharmonious fabrics.  Some people love this challenge.  Most are neutral.  The rest would rather have their hair set on fire. 

Last fall Lois was charged with coming up with a challenge. When she revealed the two paper bags, everyone in the room either looked at the floor or suddenly noticed something of spellbinding interest in their purse.  To be fair, everyone already had at least one too many projects in their queue.  I wanted to grab one of the bags right away, but I hated to appear greedy.  I’d done this type of challenge before  (Light and Dark in the City). It was time to let someone else to have a chance. 

It took a while for the two bags to get picked up. Both went to people who volunteered an absent member for the project.  Hint: never miss a meeting.  One bag got passed around, and eventually it reached my friend Joan.  She did the background and then became the victim of evaporated enthusiasm. She set it aside.  We kicked around some ideas, but I could see she’d already moved on.  The quilt got added to her pile of unfinished projects, with the fabric-in-waiting and the things that were no longer as much fun as when they were started.  If you are a quilter, you know this feeling well. Projects that once tapped you on the shoulder while you were sleeping and dragged you to your machine at six a.m. eventually became dreary.  You start thinking about breaking up with them.
Joan's Background
I offered to take this one and finish it under the pretense of heroism, but the truth was I’d wanted to do one of these all along.  And, since the background was completed, all the heavy lifting had already been done.  All I had to do was swoop in and find the story. 

There were some blue and white blocks in the bag that hadn’t been used yet.  Turning them on point, I recognized their true calling. They were sail boats!  I added grey strips to the water, and added more grey fabric at the bottom of the quilt.  I reduced the size of the sky.  A beautiful day for sailing emerged.  

From the bag, I added the flowers (buttons) and used the 3 colours of embroidery floss for stems and leaves.  The unseen farmer was way instantly way happier with his little house by the sea. 

Finally, I machine quilted it with metallic thread in the water and sky.  I would never normally have added a light coloured binding, but that was the only fabric left that was big enough.  Surprisingly, it made the piece look like a snapshot of a farm by the sea. There was still one jarring piece of brown fabric left.  It fell into conflict with every other fabric in the quilt. I used it on the back as a border for the label.  No one had specified exactly where the fabric had to be used.

And the fate of this quilt?  It will find a whole new home as the door prize someone will win at our upcoming quilt show.  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Finding Mankind

Quilt No. 118
March 2017

This is one for the doodle addicted.  You know who you are.  You embarrass yourself at meetings as the doodle that began as a few innocent marks in the margin of your notes becomes cultivated into pages of swirls and triangles and leaves with veins and warts.  Harry Potter is defeating a Lord of the Rings dragon, and both are wearing top hats.  Suddenly, you snap back to reality in a quiet room.  All the faces around the meeting table are now turned to the bloom on your page.  The question the chairperson has directed at your deaf and doodling ears is a complete unknown.  You dredge up your best all-situation answer - “It could be possible.”  I’ve learned this the hard way.  Corporations frown on doodling.

The other circumstance that fosters doodling is the telephone call.  Meetings held on the phone are the worst.  At the end I must tease out my notes from the grip of butterflies.  Fish with large eyes muddle the key points and bubbles obscure the phone number of the key person I’ve been assigned to contact.  I’m also a home doodler.   I was talking to my sister on the phone when Finding Mankind found me.  She is unaware of my doodling ways, and I find it best to keep it that way.  At the end of the phone call I look over the doodles and then throw them away.  However, in this particular one I spotted a man.  He was difficult to distinguish from the background, just like mankind cannot easily be extracted from his environment - despite lofty thoughts to the contrary.  In this quilt you must look carefully. Eventually you too will find mankind.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Wysocki's Victorian Street

Wysocki’s Victorian Street
Quilt No. 115
September 2016

I’m still feeling the inspiration of the crewel, crewel world of embroidery-quilt fusion.  Metaphorically, it’s like jumping out of a plane.  Once you cut the embroidery out of its background fabric, you are on an unwavering trajectory.  Hopefully the conclusion will be a pleasing one, but failure to open your parachute or execute a satisfactory quilt will have the same critical ending.  There will be a splat.

It seems lofty to say it, but this quilt started out as a Charles M. Wysocki painting.  His works are fascinating to examine, simple in appeal, rich in detail, rendered in warm tones.  Many of his compositions are fictional towns or villages reminiscent of American life from the 1800’s to the 1930’s.  They beckon you to pack up your steamer trunk and move in.  We can’t all own a Wysocki painting, but we can experience his art through the Wysocki calendars and jigsaw puzzles that have made him so well known. Converting his art into crewel embroidery kits gave us another way to enjoy his designs.

I was surprised to learn how similar his method for creating a painting is to designing an art quilt.  Wysocki did not paint existing places, but used his imagination to take ideas from several sources and bring them together into a new and convincing scene. The  Swoyer's website gives us a peak at the steps involved

Wysocki's method of working is painstaking and methodical. When he gets a concept for a painting, he first draws the various elements on small pieces of tissue paper. There might be two or three or as many as dozens of such mini-pieces. These are moved around, or changed, or developed, or all three, until he is satisfied that he has a balanced composition. He might then do an overall drawing on tissue and then embark on color. If the color is not going properly, he will start all over again to redesign. Sometimes a painting will take weeks to develop. Sometimes all the many elements fit easily and everything seems to fall into place.

I too have used this method, and taking elements from numerous sources, moving them around endlessly until they cooperate and form a into something that matches the murk of my mind’s eye. This was the technique I used for Horse With No Name.  I’ve certainly never been as accomplished as Mr. Wysocki, but having used the same technique does give me some appreciation for the patience it takes to continue rendering a work of art through the frustration of the initial unsuccessful stages.

It was a humbling experience to take Wysocki’s brilliant artwork through yet another rendition in its path from painting, to crewel embroidery, to quilt.  The original framed embroidery had a plain background that left the street floating unanchored in the picture frame. I wanted to take it back a step in time and ground it with earth and sky.

My mother had completed this embroidered piece in the 1990’s.  It hung on the wall of her Ohio home for many years, proudly flying a tiny American flag in her American/Canadian household.  Many years later, the piece looked out from the wall of her Canadian home, the flag still flying and unconcerned with its new location.  Regardless of the location, visitors always paused to admire her handiwork and choose a favourite house on street. 

When I decided to give this embroidery the “quilt treatment”, it took me more than a few weeks to get up the courage just to un-frame it.  Washing it by hand was the next scary step, but both the embroidery and I survived the act.  The background shrank in unison with the crewel wool, but the embroidery floss did not shrink at all. 

My next step was to stabilize the piece with fusible cotton.  I trimmed the background off, carefully snipping around the trees.  I sewed the earth fabric to the sky fabric, and fused the embroidery onto that.  This stabilized everything nicely, and allowed me to machine quilt it with “invisible” thread to give a more three dimensional look to the buildings, people, horses, and so on.  A considerable amount of “touch up” needlework was needed because of the variable way it had shrunk during washing.  I saved this step until the quilt was completely finished so that any additional problems caused during quilting could be fixed at the same time. I finished the quilt with a wide black binding. Surprisingly, the piece went back to looking like…a framed picture.

During the process of quilting this piece it was easy to become lost in the detail, leading to an appreciation of the care and skill both Wysocki and my mother had poured into its creation.  I felt he had scrupulously achieved one of his key goals for his work. "I want drama and light, carefree times or a lonely, heartfelt memory." All of these come to life when you're strolling down Victorian Street.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Who's There?

Quilt No. 114
September 2016

Comfort. It’s a bad thing.  Despite the fact that it’s the thing we most desire when we’re toiling away at work, or when we’re swishing our butts around on those metal chairs they set up at graduations, comfort is no longer a good thing.  And the most offensive part of comfort?  Your own personal comfort zone!  It is now imperative for you to remain outside of it, where you will produce new and wondrous works of art.  It doesn’t matter if you gnaw off your arm in frustration along the way to making that art.  It doesn’t matter if you have less fun than the last time you had a root canal and a bunion removal on the same day.  Just like a marathon session of childbirth, the suffering will be erased from your mind when you see the finished product.  At least that’s the theory.

I hear it over and over.  “Get outside your comfort zone.”  This pretty much goes against the grain.  Humanity has spent more than a few millennia courting comfort.  Nearly all of technology has been developed in the name of comfort or its cousin, convenience - which is really just another way to garner comfort.  Ordinary things like eye glasses, air conditioning, bear spray, and Prozac have been invented to give us comfort.  We are genetically programmed to wallow in the blissful comfort of sofas, slippers, and Spandex. But in the same way that adversity fosters the creation of art, tossing aside your comfortable ways and plowing into the danger zone will win you the rewards of creative glory.

My take on this? It’s pure phooey.  All this “reaching” and ‘”stretching” and “pushing” is best saved for episodes of yoga or hockey or putting on those extra small pantyhose you bought by accident.

It is perfectly appropriate to step back inside your comfort zone.  Breathe in the euphoria.  It’s the zone where you are meant to be!  That’s exactly what I did with this quilt.  I deafened myself to the nay-saying anti-comfortists and did a quilt in the appliqué style with which I am infinitely familiar.  It felt utterly liberating.  I didn’t spend hours trying to figure out how to do something novel.  I was free of the grind of problem solving and trouble shooting and cussing over the fact that I was cussing too much. 

This quilt, made from a drawing I saved a few years ago, was a dose of fun.  I was captivated by the owl’s expression and the intimate winter setting.  A story is hanging in the air waiting to be told.  It’s early evening.  The snow has just begun its tentative descent.  The tree trunks huddle together in the sparkling snow, gathering in the silence that marks deep winter.  The owl opens his pink door to see a surprise.  Who’s there?

So, I’ve taken back my comfort zone and in the process I’ve learned something.  Not every endeavor has to supersede the last one.  I can’t believe I didn’t know that.  Sometimes “success” is just satisfaction.

Annoyingly, I’ve lost the source where I found this picture, so I can’t give proper credit to the artist.   While allowing my comfort-addicted brain too much leeway, I simply cannot remember where I found the original drawing.  Book?  Internet? Fever dream?  I wish I knew.  I’m still looking.

October 24, 2016 Addendum!  Thanks to the TinEye Reverse Image Search engine I've located the source of the original drawing for this quilt!  I uploaded the image of the drawing I used to create this quilt and easily found that well known children’s book author and illustrator Arnold Lobel (1933-1987) was the artist.  The drawing, Owl At Home, is the title page for a book of the same name that Mr. Lobel wrote.  He is also the author/illustrator of many other children’s books, including one of my favourite series, Frog and Toad.  Mr Lobel’s Owl At Home drawing came up for auction in 2009.  It was expected to fetch $US 10,000 – 15,000, and was sold along with famous works by Ted Geisel (Dr. Suess) and Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are).

Monday, April 18, 2016

Killbear Pine: The Canadian Wilderness

Quilt No. 110
March 2016

This year the quilt guild I belong to decided that we were suffering from an embarrassment of riches. It was time to spend like drunken sailors, but instead of cases of rum our plunder would be quilting workshops.  And we wouldn’t go to the workshops, we would have them come to us.  Such is the power that can be wielded when the membership fees finally exceed the expenses.   

For part of our spree we brought in quilter/designer Joni Newman. Her simplified stained glass technique lends itself beautifully to the creation of quilts that capture the Canadian wilderness in a style that is reminiscent of The Group of Seven. 

I remember learning about The Group of Seven in high school art class.  Well…I sort of remember.  When I did a little neuronal fact checking, the bits at my disposal included that there were seven of them and they were artists.  Trees and rocks were involved - especially lonely singleton trees clamped onto rocky shorelines. Tom Thompson came to mind.  I was definitely a little fact impaired. 

Looking to round out my knowledge, I discovered that most of what I knew was incorrect.  While The Group of Seven started off with seven members, they actually ended up with more than seven.  No one thought to change the group name.  They were officially active from 1920-1933, and while Tom Thompson was a major stylistic influence, he was never a member, having passed away in 1917.  And yet we still associate his iconic painting, The Jack Pine, with the Group of Seven.  In essence, their most famous, representative painting was done by a non-member.  It doesn’t get any more Canadian than that.
The Jack Pine/Tom Thompson 1917

Believing that a distinct Canadian art could be developed through direct contact with nature, the Group was best known for their paintings of the Canadian landscape. Over eighty years later we still adore their paintings and I still yell “Group of Seven!” whenever I spot a lone gnarly pine tree against a backdrop of granite.

I was able to add my own touch to Joni’s Killbear Pine design by pillaging my stash and using some of the blue fabrics I’d previously dyed.  The particular design is based on the scenery of Killbear Provincial Park, located on the Georgian bay shoreline of Lake Huron, part of Ontario’s Great Lakes.