Adjusting the Contrast

Adjusting the Contrast

This is another experiment with art quilt techniques.

Roseate Skimmer quiltlet.

Roseate Skimmer quiltlet.

For me, quilts have been a great way to engage people at nature festivals.  They give shy spectators something to start conversations about, and they help me remember my talking points!

My next quilt will show the many species of dragonflies that live in and migrate through our area — I had ten species here this summer, and that’s just the ones I could identify.

It is important to me to portray some basics accurately  — I have seen dragonflies illustrated with their wings issuing neatly from under their abdomens.  (Think about it.  Have you ever seen any creature whose wings were not on their backs???)  At the same time, I don’t want to create stuffy textbookish diagrams, I want the blocks to be fun to look at and to create.

My photo inspiration was a picture from this summer:

Roseate Skimmer

Roseate Skimmer.  Notice all the complicated structures in the back that support the wings.

My technique inspiration was an article Pokey Bolton did in the April/May 2010 Quilting Arts magazine, where she printed a dog outline in black on pink scraps, cut the dog shape out, and then mounted it on a background of blue and green scraps.  I planned a similar contrasting image on scraps, but I thought I would just stitch an outline, and then use Shiva Artist’s Paintstiks® to overlay a contrasting color and make a dragonfly shape pop right off the background.

In Photoshop Elements, I used the filter Stylize/Find Edges to get a simple black line drawing.  I was hoping that the fragments of cloth would evoke the wing facets in the finished piece.

The pattern on sheet of fused scraps.

The pattern on sheet of fused scraps.

The next part was the most fun.  I always thought my sewing machine just wasn’t good at satin stitching, but, turns out it was me!  Kathy York’s article “Versatile Satin Stitch” in the February/March 2010 Quilting Arts was so helpful.  Some of her tips were to use two sheets of stabilizer beneath the stitching, to use a larger needle than normal, and to reduce the top thread tension.  Once I did those things, the stitching went like a dream, even with metallic and rayon threads.

I had so much fun that I surrounded the dragonfly with paisley type shapes, some of them with spiky lines.

The dragonfly was lost in the background, though.  It was just too small to stand out.  I added machine quilting lines to flatten and darken the background, but it didn’t help.  I hoped that coloring the dragonfly red would create needed contrast.

Stitched dragonfly and random satin-stitched shapes, free motion quilted.

There’s a stitched dragonfly in there. Really.

This was my first time to use the Paintstiks.  Joanna at The Snarky Quilter just tried them too, with better results than mine.  I did not enjoy their chunkiness, and I really really hated their smell.  They did cover very smoothly though, and the cloth was flexible after application.

This is a problem.

This does not look like a creature that can fly 60 mph.  It looks like a shoe.  Or something squashed with a shoe.

Now there was some contrast, but not in a good way.  There was no unity of style.  There were a lot of pale blue cloth rectangles with a big dull red waxy blob in the middle.  At this point, I was glad this was just a bunch of scraps.  The appropriate reaction to it was the face my grandson makes:

This captures my feelings toward the piece at this stage.

“Uh, Nana, I’m pretty sure I could color in that dragonfly better.”

I thought darkening the background might provide more contrast, so I went over it with Jacquard Lumiere® paints.  I reworked the dragonfly with the paints too, and they went over the Paintstiks well, but overall they didn’t redeem the dragonfly from his blobby stodgy look.

A paint layer was added.

The wings should look transparent and glistening.

The dragonfly had quickly degenerated.  Let’s recap our stepping stones from “Could Possibly Turn Out to be an Accurate Representation” to “Generic Imagery by Someone who has Never Seen an Actual Dragonfly.”

Stitched outline, looks kind of mosquito-y.

Stitched outline, looks kind of mosquito-y.

Filled in with Paintstiks, looks blobby.

Filled in with Paintstiks, looks blobby.


At least it doesn’t have moth antennae.

White paint with marker to bring back some detail.

White paint with marker to bring back some detail.

I  was walking out to the barn, thinking that I would toss the whole thing, when I thought, “What if I had to save it?  Like, what if it was entered in a show and had to be there tomorrow?”

Two thoughts flashed through my mind – add borders, and cover up the body.

So when I went back, I dug out this cotton and silk piece that I had fused last year.

This was carded fiber.

This was carded fiber that is fused with textile medium, into an unwoven fabric.

It was perfect, but I only had a small piece.  I scanned it into the computer, and digitally stretched and copied it, put a blue transparent layer on top to get another colorway, and printed it onto fabric (June Tailor, Inc. Sew-In Colorfast — I have tried lots of printer fabrics and this is my favorite).

The fused fiber, digitally repeated and ready to print.

The fused fiber, digitally repeated and ready to print.

I cut up the printed strips for the border, and used the real fused fiber piece for the body of the dragonfly.  It still looks generic, (and not that original) but at least now it has enough unity and contrast to suit me.  Sometimes the art wins over the science.


Finding the Thread of the Narrative

I write because I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.

- Flannery O’Connor*

I have mentioned before that I have a hard time figuring out what it is I’m trying to say about a topic.  Usually I flail around for two or three long and involved posts, and then one of you nice people makes a pithy comment that clarifies everything for me, and I go, “Yes!  That’s it exactly!”

Well, I have come across a very simple concept to help me tease out specific topics from my big mental basket of fleecy ideas.

I’ve been reading a book called Image and Myth: A History of Pictorial Narration in Greek Art by Luca Giuliani.  It’s about the imagery on Greek vases and how to read the stories they illustrate.  Defining his terms in the introduction, Giuliani says that images (up until modern art movements, anyway) are either narrative or descriptive:

So what actually is a narrative? The first and most spontaneous answer is probably a simple one: every narrative involves and element of surprise.  Thus only something unusual and unexpected can become the subject of a narrative. “For there to be a story, something unforeseen must happen.” (Location 619.  His quote is from Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life by J. Bruner, 2002)

In contrast:

A description does not give rise to expectations on the part of the recipient and does not place him in a state of suspense.  It limits itself to portraying anything that is the case — on a large or small scale — without occasioning questions as to why something happens or what consequences it will have. (Location 642)

You’d think that since I was a fifth grade teacher, I might have run across these ideas before, but no.  I wish I had, it would have helped me give clearer lessons to the kids!  We talked about antagonists, protagonists, and conflict, but I think the idea of surprise would have been easier for them to grasp and to achieve in their writing.  It would also make it easier for them to know how much description to include — enough so a reader will understand the surprise when it occurs in the story, not so much you bore them to death on their way to it.

Well, I’m not teaching any more, but I am finding the narrative/description concept helpful.  After reading interesting research, thinking “What surprised me most?” helped me find the nugget to spin a blog post around.  For example, when I was reading about the Minoans and Mycenaeans,  I was really surprised that textiles played such a huge role in their economy, and that way back then, the state controlled thousands of sheep, and hundreds of spinners, weavers, and dyers. Using that as my focus helped me know how much background information to give, to make it my sense of surprise understandable.

Sometimes, I skip over things when I first read them, but they surprise me by sticking in my head and begging to be written about, like the silk trains that raced across America, or the tiny medieval illustration of a woman bopping a man on the head with her wool cards.  (And then I have to go back and see where I came across them in the first place, and I wish that I kept notes on everything I read.)

And while my quilts and weavings don’t tell stories, I can look back and see where the theme of a surprising idea pulled a piece together.  In my butterfly quilt, I was astounded at the number of butterfly species that were out in one pasture on one day, and in the companion pollinator quilt, I was surprised at how many different insects are important pollinators.  For future quilts, a focus on surprising ideas would give me a structure to build around, with less mental dithering.

But there are many times I don’t need any narrative.  I can just describe a technique and my results – most of us are on the same page as far as the importance of creativity in our lives.  I don’t need to explain the cause of my textile experiments or worry about explaining any consequences — I can just put the description out there for you to do with as you please.

So if you ever have the problem of knowing what you are trying to write about, I hope this idea is helpful to you too.

But please feel free to leave additional pithy clarifications in the comments whenever you see fit!  :)

* I found the Flannery O’Connor quote on two different websites, but not its original location.  So I hope it is something she actually said.




Art Quilt Technique Practice

Art Quilt Technique Practice

I am an excellent Idea Finder/Keeper/Organizer, but not such a great Idea Executor.  I have dozens of notebooks of saved articles, and I have to take some action! This week I had a few days open and I dedicated them to art quilt experiments.

final for now

Technique practice mini-quilt.

I started with an article called “Layer It On” by Annette Morgan, from the Fall 2005 Quilting Arts magazine.  (Yes, I got to this article within a decade of its being published!)  Morgan suggests making new fabric from scraps ironed onto stabilizer, then stamping on designs, covering the whole thing with layers of sheers, cutting through the sheers to reveal the bright fabrics beneath in spots, free-motion quilting and embellishing.

It sounds like quite a process, her book covers and bottle bags were so colorful and cheerful that I wanted to turn my scraps into similar treasures.

Scraps fused to a background fabric.

The starting place – scraps fused to a background fabric.

Morgan suggested using a lightweight iron-on stabilizer.  I didn’t have any so I ironed the scraps on a sheet of Pellon Wonder-Under®, then fused that whole sheet to the right side of a background fabric.  (I was hoping to cut through to expose the background fabric so I wanted its bright side visible.)  This is a great way to use up those fabrics that are really too flimsy to stand on their own.

When I looked at the results, the oval of silk on the right reminded me of a face, so I decided to go with that for imagery.  I love to do contour drawings without looking at the paper, like the one below –

Blind contour drawing.

Blind contour drawing.

it’s a little more dangerous to do that with a sewing machine, so I peeked as I sewed a basic face and a figure.

Some basic thread sketching with size 50 thread.

Some basic thread sketching with size 50 thread.  Those are not devil horns or barrettes on her head; just markings in the fabric scrap.

The basic thread was too light, so I tried some number 12 size cotton.  After a lot of trial and error, I found that a size 100/16 top-stitch needle handled it well, with size 50 thread in the bobbin.  I sketched in a hand, and also added lines in and around the face and figure.  I really liked the combination of thick and thin lines.

Next I cut away some of the top (scrap) layer, added batting and backing, and free-motion quilted wherever I felt like it.  The top-stitch needle had made me brave so I even used rayon thread!  And, for the first time in my long quilting life, it DIDN’T BREAK even once!

before paint

Additional stitching with size 12 cotton gave more definition to the face.  I used rayon thread around the circles on the background fabric.

At this point I turned to the book The Painted Quilt: Paint and Print Techniques for Colour on Quilts by Linda and Laura Kemshall (2007, David and Charles).

The painted quilt

(I got this book a mere four years ago!  It has barely had time to ripen on my bookshelf.)

The Kemshalls suggest painting areas of the fabric after quilting, and then, after the paint dries, quilting through again with a contrasting thread.  They use Jacquard Lumiere® metallic paints, which I had on hand (purchased only three years ago, and never opened before this week).

I LOVED THIS!  The painting makes you look like you can do some pretty fancy piecing!  The paints can be thinned, blended, layered, and stitched through easily.

I like the way that russet swirls, the white hands, and the moon turned out.

I like the way that russet swirls, the white hands, and the moon turned out.

I also tried some Dy-na-flow dyes, to overdye areas of the black-and-white paisley fabric, and the bright green background fabric.  Those added a nice touch of shading, and the printed lines of the original fabric showed through the dye. You can see that in the photo above.  It’s an option I might use again, but it didn’t cause my heart to sing.

Remember that in my initial plan I was going to use layers of sheers, to blend all the random colors, and contain the raw edges.  I auditioned layers of green net (for deeper greens) and then pink net (the complement of green, to tone it down) over the whole piece, but decided to skip the sheers on this piece.

I did take a four inch strip of green netting, and bunch it up to use as a binding on the top half, and I liked the way that turned out.  It is easy to use along a curved edge.

The bunched netting covers the raw edges.

The bunched netting covers curved raw edges decoratively.  You’re welcome.

Then I machine sewed wired gift ribbon for the bottom binding, and I liked how that worked too.  The gold ribbon I used is a little gaudy, but I just wanted to try the material.  Neither binding would stand up to regular use, but for wall quilts or decorations, I think they would be fine.  And! Both of those ideas were my own!  I’m sure someone else has thought of them, but I didn’t get them from any of my clippings or books.

Just proof that once you start experimenting, new ideas come along.

Now that I have found the combination of materials and techniques that I like, I will probably do a few more of these mini-quilts, with more thought given to the imagery and to unifying all the elements.  I do like the base fabric being made from scraps — it’s not as intimidating as choosing and committing to a big piece of fabric.

Okay, three days of quilt time and one article down!



Subtle Colors of Autumn

Subtle Colors of Autumn

I enjoyed the structure of a weekly photo post when I did the 1 Day 1 World Project, so I thought I’d keep that going on my own, with just whatever strikes my fancy each week.

(Warning: some creepy crawly creatures ahead.  Just take a deep breath and don’t miss out on the beauty in their colors, patterns, and textures.)

This week we had a cool spell that had some birds migrating through, and some reptiles moving slow enough for me to get great pictures.  A pair of Eastern hognose snakes came out and sunned in a corner of our garden, for four days in a row.  If hognoses are cornered, they can be very dramatic, first puffing up like cobras, and if that doesn’t work, playing dead.  I can’t bring myself to mess with animals for my own amusement, so I didn’t try anything to provoke a reaction.  Instead I just enjoyed watching them as I came and went in the garden.

And I was surprised to find a Mediterranean house gecko in our wood pile – as you can tell by the name, they are not native, but they are not known to be harmful as some invasive species are.  When I lived in Sugar Land, we had these geckos all over the place, but there they were a translucent white, which I guess is much better camouflage on the white siding of subdivision houses.  I would love to know if the ones up here in the woods are more likely to be dark, like the one I found.

I noticed some crumpled leaves gathered into a ball on a goat weed — when I checked it out, I found a beautiful green lynx spider guarding a web full of her babies there.  She was the perfect color to blend in with parts of the plant.

There was another insect that I noticed only because it was stationary on a man-made surface. If it had been on a tree, I would never have seen it.  I’m not sure, but I think it was a lunate zale moth – they come in a spectacular range of variations.

I also discovered two persimmon trees I didn’t know I had, and I learned a lot about them at Grackle & Sun.  I am going to try mordanting and natural dyeing with these.


We don’t usually get dramatic fall color in Texas, but these subtle colors are beautiful in their own way.



The Best Quilt….

…is one you’ve forgotten you have!

Calendar quilt by Ceda Sanchez of Del Rio.

Calendar quilt by Ceda Sanchez of Del Rio.

I bought this king-size quilt out in Big Bend in 2008.  I had never bought a current quilt before, only vintage ones, but I loved the mix of black-and-white fabrics.

When I got it home, it just didn’t go with the Mission style bed, antique dressers and wing chair in my bedroom, so I gave it to my daughter.  Six years later, she didn’t need it any more and brought it back.  Now that we have downsized, our bedroom is much smaller, and it has only a mid-century modern style bed and two small bookshelves in it.  This quilt’s strong but simple pattern gives the room a more unified and interesting look.

And when I am drinking my coffee in the morning, I can study all those different prints until they inspire me to get up and create something of my own!

This is called a calendar quilt – the red blocks stand for Sundays, and the other blocks are the other days of the week.  Because the quilter used rows of 19 blocks, the red blocks don’t line up or fall in perfectly predictable diagonals.

Thanksgiving Football Dinner from 1905

Thanksgiving Football Dinner from 1905

It’s a cold, gray day — a perfect time for a cup of tea with my favorite party planner, Mrs. Herbert B. Linscott.  Years ago I picked up her 1905 book, Bright Ideas for Entertaining, for a dollar, and it is one of my all-time favorite books.  The names of the entertainments are so enticing – who wouldn’t want to attend a Conundrum Tea, or a Nose and Goggle Party, or a Wedding of the Operas?  Wouldn’t you love to play the Christmas Umbrella Game, or Musicians Buried?

In Mrs. Linscott’s world, dining partners are assigned by themed favors, menus full of puns are printed up to entertain the guests between courses, and the guests come prepared to sing or recite poetry. Everyone is glad of a chance to buy carpet slippers or needlebooks, with the money going to a Sunday School or the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  Not very realistic ideas, maybe, but pleasant to ponder.

So here is her report of a Thanksgiving Football Dinner:

While the ladies were upstairs removing their wraps, a maid came in with a tray on which were six wishbones, each having tied to it a knot of ribbon of one of the different college colors.  Of these they were to take their choice…Meanwhile the gentlemen downstairs had been presented with ribbon rosettes, and as these matched the ribbons on the wishbones they easily found the ladies whom they were to take in to dinner.

A feature of the dinner enjoyed almost as much as the feast itself was the novel form of the menus.  These were written on two opposite pages of dainty booklets, the outside covers of which were decorated with characteristic football sketches accompanied by appropriate quotations.  These were so unique and apropos to the occasion that each guest carried his home as a souvenir when he left at the end of the evening’s entertainment.

I have typed up most of the menu for you, but on only one page.

From Bright Ideas for Entertaining, 1905

From Bright Ideas for Entertaining, 1905

So the courses for the First Half would be:

  • celery, soup, and crackers
  • fish
  • turkey
  • peas, squash, potatoes, and beets
  • canvasback ducks  (I’m not sure you would know they were canvasbacks once they’d been plucked and cooked!)

For Intermission (not yet called halftime, you’ll notice):

  • lettuce salad

For the Second Half:

  • pie – mince and pumpkin
  • sponge cake and ice cream
  • fruits – grapes, oranges, pears, candied dates, raisins, and nuts
  • coffee

Mrs. Linscott’s book makes everything sound refined and amusing, but even at the time that she was suggesting this dinner, college football was controversial.  Three hundred people had died from football injuries – many of them right on the field!- during the past fifteen years.  About twenty died in 1905 alone.  Colleges were thinking of dropping football teams.  Here is an interesting article on the 1905 deaths, and parallels to opinions about football in our own time.

I do have one great football picture for you, even though it’s from about 20 years later than Mrs. Linscott’s ideal football dinner.

Football team, circa 1925.

Football team, circa 1925-30.

The player circled in white didn’t get to go to any football feasts when he was young, but he always loved the game.  He wouldn’t have begrudged those diners their feast, but he would have enjoyed showing them what “mixing it up” means, afterward. :)

That’s my grandpa!



Say It With Linens

Say It With Linens

A few years ago I bought some vintage raw silk yardage and a single-size linen sheet with gorgeous hem-stitching.  I finally got around to turning them into pirate shirts for my daughter and son-in-law.  I was able to incorporate the hem-stitching on shirttails, cuffs, and collar of the man’s shirt, and then I trimmed them out with vintage lace that I’ve had for 15 years.

Pirate shirt from vintage linen and lace.

Pirate shirt from vintage linen and lace.

Wench's shift from vintage raw silk and lace.

Wench’s shift from vintage raw silk and lace.

Authentically wrinkled linen!

Authentically wrinkled linen!

Detail of the lace around the cuffs.

Detail of the lace around the cuffs.

The full effect.  No, I did not make that excellent pirate jacket!  Also, I think all pirate wenches wore pink sneakers.

The full effect. No, I did not make that excellent pirate jacket!  Also, I think all pirate wenches wore pink sneakers.

Since I was making these “long-distance”, I couldn’t check with the recipients on fitting and on every little detail, so I told them to feel free to change whatever they wanted when they got them.  They moved the lace from the man’s collar down to add another layer to the cuffs, but otherwise everything worked.

Of course if you look hard you can see the machine stitching, but I think that having the right fabric helps create a more authentic look.  They wore these to the Renaissance Festival in our area, for Pirate Weekend. It makes me happy that two glorious pieces of fabric have been put to good use once more!

And, you might remember my big prize at the auction — two of my daughter’s friends have offered good homes to some of those linens.  One girl is borrowing six damask tablecloths for her wedding – she doesn’t care that they are different sizes and patterns.  The other girl asked for any fabric tablecloths and napkins that I didn’t want, so she can have reusable items instead of using paper all the time.  It makes me really happy to see the younger generation realize the beauty and practicality of textiles.

Even Better than Quilt Festival

Since I live so close to Houston, Texas, I usually can spend a day at the International Quilt Festival.  This year something else came up that required me to miss it, but I was okay with that!

Grandma and that Clever Chick, 30 years ago

Baby Clever Chick with her grandma, 30 years ago

Great-grandma, That Clever Chick, and baby E.

Great-grandma, That Clever Chick, and the next generation.

Aunt K and Clever Chick

Clever Chick with her aunt, 30 years ago

Aunt Wildhood and nephew

Aunt My Wildhood and nephew

The porch swing used to hang upstairs on the screened-in porch, but there's a big stair well there now.

The porch swing used to hang upstairs on the screened-in porch, but there’s a big stair well there now.

We have changed, just a little...

We may have changed, just a little…

The baby from 30 years ago with her own family!

The younger generation cleverly re-enacts the old picture.

I am so glad that we have been able to gather in this place so many times.  I cherish the sense of four generations holding hands across the decades.

Quilt Festival will be there next year.