Where the Wild Things Are

Kerry at Loving Hands At Home got me thinking with her lovely post about her affection for her home.  What do I love best about my home?  That it is a place where the wild things can still roam.

I share my home with all kinds of creatures, and I notice new things every day.

A great blue heron can look so magnificent one minute...

A great blue heron can look so magnificent one minute…

...and downright goofy the next.

…and downright goofy the next.

But what gorgeous colors when the sun catches its bill!

But what gorgeous colors when the sun catches its bill!

A red-shouldered hawk can also look a little less than imposing...

A red-shouldered hawk can also look a little less than imposing…

...and who knew a turkey vulture's feathers were so gorgeous?

…and who knew a turkey vulture’s feathers were so gorgeous?

 

Spotting a cocoon of wild silk on a bare branch...

A cocoon of wild silk on a bare branch…

…will release a Polyphemus moth…

...with feathery antennae.

…with feathery antennae.

 

A forgotten pod explodes...

A forgotten pod explodes…

... white fireworks

… into white fireworks of milkweed seeds.

Wherever I am, I am at home if I can just get outside and walk with wild things.

 

Twenty-five Days Behind Everyone Else

In 2013, I finished 22 small quilts and weaving projects, but in 2014, I only finished 17, and 3 of those were just tiny practice pieces.  In a way that was okay, because I took the last months of the year to just play around with techniques that I’ve been wanting to try for a long time.

But I think with a little structure, I can accomplish more this year.  I saw a planning idea I liked from Laura at Made in Oxford ( I was led there by Nana Cathy) and I am adopting that for goal-setting this year.  It’s fun to see what plans different people fit into this format.  Here’s my list:

15 in 2015

  • 15 fused applique blocks – just blocks that I will join together into one quilt at some time in the future.
  • 14 finished-up fabrics,and scrap bags.  I say this every year, but this year I have pulled the ones that I want to bid adieu, and I am going to work with them first.
  • 13 technique try-outs.  This will be continuing my foray into the miles and piles of articles I have saved.  I am going to join in with the Love Your Library challenge group hosted by Emily at Snapdragon Crafts (and I was led there by Laura, above).  Emily even has monthly themes for working through your library.  Unfortunately I cannot figure out how to get her cute banner as a widget in my side bar, so I will just have to link to her periodically.  (I did not add “become more technologically ept” anywhere in my list of goals for this year.)
  • 12 mini practice quiltlets.
  • 11 video segments viewed.  I have some Craftsy classes and Quilting Arts videos and I never watch them!
  • 10 materials try-outs.  These are materials I have on hand, mostly for surface design or embellishment.
  • 9 new dye plants.  In 2013, I sampled about a dozen plants from my yard.  Last year I looked at how colorfast they turned out to be, but I didn’t throw even one more plant in a pot!  This year, I need to sample more, especially the fall plants.
  • 8 small quilts – crib quilts and lap quilts.  I already have one done!
  • “7 layers of design” cloth.  This is a concept I learned from Jane Dunnewold and I want to make some practice pieces.
  • 6 activities to share textile skills, like giving weaving lessons, speaking to an afterschool group, or volunteering at a quilt show.  I already have 3 of these scheduled.
  • 5 fiber field trips
  • 4 warps
  • 3 tops (the kind to wear, not quilt tops).  I have the fabric, I have the patterns, I just need to make them!
  • 2 larger quilts – large for me is twin-size and up.
  • 1 show entry!  In each of the past two years, I have taken on one thing that is a challenge for me.  One year I joined an online quilt show, and one year I submitted an idea to a magazine for their reader’s challenge.  This one is less challenging than it sounds, because a local church is having its first quilt show, and they will take all entries with no fee and no jurying.  :)

Laura points out that this equals 120 total goals!  But most of mine are small, and things I normally spend time on.  I may not achieve all of them, but I think this structure will help me achieve more than I did last year.

 

First Finish for ’15!

My daughter That Clever Chick needed a baby boy quilt for one of her friends, who is on bed rest for seven weeks.  I always wish I could consult with the recipient and see what their taste is – do they prefer bright or neutral fabrics?  Do they have a decorating theme in mind? But in this case I couldn’t, so I decided to go with fairly predictable cuteness.

Baby quilt

Baby quilt

I wanted to incorporate these blocks that I had made a few years ago, but had given up on because they were just too blasé.

I love this penguin fabric, but its color palette is so limited, I had a hard time finding other prints that would blend with it.

I love this penguin fabric, but its color palette is so limited, I had a hard time finding other prints that would blend with it.

I took them to the quilt shop with me and found some fabrics to mix in with them and give the quilt some life.

Could these creatures be any more adorable?  And sea turtles!

Could these creatures BE any more adorable? And sea turtles!

(I might have found just a few other fabrics to take home too.  And Melanie, I would love to discuss that with you, but my husband reads my blog.)

For this kind of quick quilt, I lay out the whole backing and batting, and then start the top with a panel of the “feature” fabric in the middle.   I lay a border strip on one edge of the panel and sew through all the layers, and then just rotate around the central panel with strip after strip, all the way out to the edges.  This makes one giant log cabin block.  I use thin strips, fat strips, and sometimes big chunks of pieced blocks.

I hesitate to call it “quilt as you go” because there is not a lot of actual quilting going on.  The various strips have nice neat edges that look as though I am the queen of stitching in the ditch.  Once everything is sewn down, I do go back and do a small amount of quilting in any big open spaces. (Part of me wants to get really good at quilting and strive to be as good as Doreen, but the other part just wants to jump into picking the next set of colors and patterns to combine into a new project.)

We have had two months of dreary gray weather, so it was fun to work with these bright colors.  I hope they brighten the waiting period for the new mom, too!

Shadows of the Past

Shadows of the Past

Three years ago when I was photographing this dress from the 1800s, I got to wondering how it would look by candlelight, the way it was seen when it was new, 170 years ago.  Our friend Cara graciously agreed to model it for me, and while the pictures did not turn out as well as I hoped, I still think they capture the beauty of the dress.

Beautiful fabrics as they were originally seen.

Beautiful fabrics as they were originally seen.

1800s cotton dress by candlelight.

1800s cotton dress by candlelight.

The back of the dress is as beautiful as the front.

The back of the dress is as beautiful as the front.

So even though I need to try photography by candlelight again, this is my response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Shadowed.

Dating the dress is a little tricky.  According to Joan Severa’s book My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America, the fan front bodice was popular from the 1840s until about 1853, but it was often cut long, going to either a point or a softly rounded line.  This one has the fan front but it is gathered at the natural waist.  The narrow bias cut sleeves are very simple. with no fullness, ruffles, or caps, making them harder to tie to a certain year.  And to be more accurate, I should have come up with some sort of white collar.

This fabric still feels amazingly soft and comfortable, not brittle at all.  Severa says that the US had a large textile-printing industry by this time.  To see more details about the dress’s construction, including a close-up of the weave, cartridge pleating, and tiny tiny hand stitching, visit the original post.

Texas became a state in 1845, and our town, Montgomery, was in existence then (and the place that the Lone Star flag originated!) so I will guess that as the date for the dress.  Its owner may have kept it as a commemoration.

And thank you to Cara for bringing this dress back to life!

Digital Collage with Fabric

Digital Collage with Fabric

For weeks I have been trying to figure out how to take my own fabric swatches and digitally blend them with specific shapes, to use in art quilts.  Even though I have a lot of photo editing books, my problem was that the books are organized by term, to explain what each program feature does, but I had no idea what term I was looking for.

Finally, after going through practically every option in every tool bar, I figured it out. After seeing the plethora of effects you can get, you might want to try it too!

I use Adobe® Photoshop® Elements 12 software.  Fortunately Adobe allows use of screenshots of their programs for educational purposes on websites*, so I can show you the process.  (However, they do not allow cropping or otherwise adjusting screenshots, so the thumbnails will be hard to see here.) If you use another photo editing program, I hope these steps will be helpful there too.

finished

A practice piece that combines Grandma’s cream pitcher with some handwoven fabric, and photo editing magic.  From here I could print it on fabric, and then use it in an art quilt.

 

Prerequisites for this technique – a basic knowledge of how to select parts of an image, and how to create layers.

Step One:  Take a photo of your object against a simple but highly contrasting background.  It doesn’t matter what color it is, because you can change that later.  Upload to your computer, straighten, crop, and otherwise get the image to your liking.

For this sample, my object is the white cream pitcher, the background is the bright orange fabric.

I will refer to the pitcher as the object, and the orange fabric as the background.

Step Two:  Copy your original image to a new file with a transparent base layer. I like to set up a new file that is a standard size, regardless of the size of my original photo.  I use 8.5 by 11 inches, 180 pixels per inch in resolution, with a transparent base.  (The small gray and white checks denote transparency.)

The original photo is on the left.  I never work with the original, I always copy it to a new transparent base layer.

The original photo is on the left. I never work with the original, I always copy it to a new transparent base layer.

All Adobe product screenshots reprinted with permission from Adobe Systems Incorporated.  See terms of use link at the bottom of this post.

I like to set up my working layout in columns (the layout button is on the bottom left tool bar).  Whichever picture I am working on will show that it is active by a white highlighted file tab, and on the right, its layer thumbnails will be visible.

Step Three:  Close the original photo.  Now we are going to separate the object from the background, while keeping both available to use as we wish. It is like cutting a paper doll away from its background, while keeping both parts intact and useable, but since we are going to do it with pixels, it’s going to take a little more work.  The benefit is that once it’s done, we can use it over and over.

Use the magic wand tool to select the background. I have zoomed in on my image so you can see the white dashed line that shows the border between the selected object and its background.

The magic wand tool selects the orange background and separates it from the white pitcher.

The magic wand tool selects the orange background and separates it from the white pitcher.

Step Four: From the Layer menu in the top tool bar, choose Layer/New Layer via Cut.

This will give you one layer with the object, and one with the background and an object-shaped hole cut out of it.  When you look at the image in the main screen, you won’t notice any difference, but the thumbnails show what is on each layer.  The positive shape and the negative space are separated and are each on their own layer.  In the screenshots below, I clicked on the little eyeball icon in each layer’s thumbnail one at a time, to make that layer invisible, and show you the image separation.

The background layer once the object has been cut out.

The background layer once the object has been cut out.  Both of these screenshots are from the same step.

When I make the background layer invisible, we see the object by itself on a transparent ground.

When I make the background layer invisible, we see the object by itself on a transparent ground.

Step Five:  Now open the photo you want to use to combine with your shape.  I am using one of my handwoven samples here, but I could use a photo of a sunset, or a flower — you get the idea.  I would only ever use my own work, though.

The fabric I am going to use to fill the shape is on the left.

The fabric I am going to use to fill the shape is on the left.

And here is the real magic, the shortcut that took me weeks to figure out!

Select the layer with the object in it; not the transparent layer and not the background – you can see a blue bar selecting it in  the layers menu on the far right.  (I have made the background layer invisible so this shows up better, but you don’t have to.)

From the top tool bar, choose Layer/New Layer.  A dialog box will open, and check the little box in the middle with the phrase, “Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask.”

Check the box to create a clipping mask.

A swatch of double-woven fabric is on the left.  To apply it to the pitcher shape, I checked the box to create a clipping mask.

A new blank layer will open above the object layer, but indented to the right.  Copy and paste your filler photo into that new blank layer.  You may have to move it and/or expand it, but IT WILL FIT THE SELECTED SPACE PERFECTLY!!!!

I used the move tool to adjust the fabric expand to the pitcher shape.

I used the move tool to adjust the fabric expand to the pitcher shape.

(This was very counter-intuitive to me, because in every other process I have ever done in Photoshop, I have worked from the top down.  Usually, the topmost layer blocks the visibility of the images on the layers below. So in adding the fabric swatch image to a top layer, I would expect it to hide the pitcher outline, and if I just added a new layer in the regular way, that is what would happen.  But the check box switches it to an alternative function.  The upper layer becomes a sort of subordinate layer, and the lower layer controls where it is visible.  If it was up to me, instead of calling it “Clipping Mask from the Previous Layer,” I would title it something like, “Upper Layer Drips into Lower Layer.”)

Optional Steps

For just a flat cutout look, you could stop here.  Choose Layers/ Merge Downward to link the clipped layer (what I think of as the fill) down onto the object layer.  Then the new surface and the shape will bond together as one, and you can move them, resize them, etc.

But before that step, I like to play with all the filters and see what effects I can get.  To make the featured image at the start of this post, I applied a stained glass filter to the layer of the double-woven fabric.  For richer color, I used the “multiply” adjustment layer, and then duplicated that whole layer.  You can see the two identical thumbnails on the right hand side below.

I reduced the opacity on those colorful layers to about 75%, so the white pitcher is still visible underneath.  Its highlights and shadows show through somewhat and make the new creation look more three-dimensional.

When I am happy with my choices, I merge the layers.  Then the effects will stay with the pitcher shape — I can copy it and use it on another background, or resize it.

The stained glass filter applied to the double-woven fabric layer.

The stained glass filter makes the double-woven fabric unrecognizable.  I made the background layer invisible so I could concentrate on the pitcher’s appearance.

I like to use the background that was in the original photograph, because the shadows match up and add to the 3-D effect, but I change the color to complement my new object, using the Enhance/Adjust Color tool.

The slider adjusts your existing color, it doesn't match the color in the display bar.

The slider adjusts your existing color, it doesn’t match the color in the display bar.

pitcher 2

The edge on this one is not great, but at this point, it’s only a twinkle in my laptop’s eye!

So much whimsy, so early in the year.  :)

So much whimsy, so early in the year. :)

I always have more ideas than I have time and materials to actually make.  For me, digital collage is a fun way to play with a lot of ideas in a short amount of time.  Now that I have figured out the process, I think I’ll be doing more with it this year.

 

* Adobe user guidelines

A Cloud of Witnesses

A Cloud of Witnesses

This old photograph captures the essence of what I try to preserve in this blog – ordinary people, finding a sense of competence in knowing a skill of handwork — maybe even finding companionship and comfort there too.

A group of women with samples of their handwork.

A group of women with samples of their handwork.

Notice the handwork samples on the wall behind them.  They are gathered together to show what they have learned, to display their work.  But notice the ones who even as they pose, seem to be completing a few more stitches or adjusting the position of the thread.

Let me enlarge the picture so you can see the individual women better.

Look at the lady in the back row, second from left. Does the embroidery on her shoulder match that on the skirt of the lady with glasses, front row, far left?

Look at the lady in the back row, second from left. Does the embroidery on her shoulder match that on the skirt of the lady with glasses, front row, far left?  (Close-up in next picture.)

Look at the embroidery on the white skirt, and see if it matches that in the back row.

Look at the embroidery on the white skirt, and see if it matches that in the back row.

They are dressed in clean white shirtwaists, most of them with the fashionable pompadour hairstyle of 1900.  But these are not fine ladies doing delicate drawn thread work or embroidery; they are working on simple, more functional projects, with inexpensive materials.  Some are making baskets, and some are making mats, interweaving fibers without a loom.  They don’t look particularly fond of each other or happy to be in the picture. What is their story?  Are they recent immigrants being taught a skill?  Are they women of questionable virtue being given another chance?  Are the teachers good-hearted volunteers, or stern taskmasters?

Notice the black fringed shawl

What is that word that starts with L in the back corner?  Loyola?

ladies 4

These are the people I attend to, ordinary working class people, maybe people who didn’t expect anything about their lives would be remembered.  Textile work is the language we have in common, the lens that helps me connect to and understand their lives. There is so much of their story I don’t know, but I am happy whenever I can save a few fragments and pass on their memory.

 

Drawing the Threads Together

Drawing the Threads Together

I have been wanting to do a series of still lifes based on favorite vintage items, from the kitchens of my grandmother, mom, and mother-in-law — things like teapots, recipe boxes, and figurines.  But every time I try to draw a group of these things, I have problems fitting them on a page, and getting all the lines at the right angles and distances from each other.

So, inspired by an article called “Photo, Paint, Stitch” by Kelli Nina Perkins*,  I decided to let the camera and the computer do the hard work of capturing arrangements and details for me, and for the last few weeks I have been absolutely obsessed with photo editing for fabric.

Material for future projects - outlines, digital collages, and printed images.

Material for future projects – outlines, digital collages, and printed images.

I hope to show many of the variations I tried in future posts, but today I will start with the one that uses the computer in the simplest way.

Here’s the photo I started with.  In Photoshop Elements, I used the “poster edges” filter to emphasize the contour lines.  That’s the extent of editing on this sample; I was ready to print.

A photo of zinnias with the "poster edges" filter applied.

I could never have gotten all those petals and leaves in the right places.

However, I was out of printer fabric sheets.  Fortunately these drawings of Grandma Lin’s reminded me that I could use regular cotton fabric for the background.  I have read that you can iron freezer paper to the fabric, to give it enough stability to get through the printer, but that didn’t work for me. I ironed Heat & Bond fusible on to the back, left the paper backing on, and it ran through the printer great.

I really liked how the fabrics gave added detail to the image without overpowering it, and how, in different lights, the fabrics took on different looks.

I like the subtle effects that the two different fabrics give.

I like the subtle effects that the two different fabrics give, and how they help unify foreground and background.

For this project, I picked the print on the right, with a white-on-white design for the base fabric.  I peeled off the fusible backing, made a quilt sandwich, and did some free motion quilting around the image.  The thread kept breaking, so I put a sheet of stabilizer on the back of the whole quilt sandwich, and that worked wonders.  I added some decorative stitching to accent the centers of the flowers.

Then I added some Jacquard Lumiere paints to give more definition to the petals and leaves.

Close-up of the flowers.

Especially on the red flower, you can see the white-on-white floral print of the background fabric coming through, making the surface more interesting.

The bottom of the picture was too bland, because the white pitcher was sitting on a white platter, so I repeated some of the flower colors in a color wash with Derwent Inktense watercolor pencils.

Two green borders looked okay, but too predictable.  I had an 8 inch strip of batik scraps in the right colors, already pieced, so I slice that into 2 inch strips and used it as another border.  Then I took a long string of pink beads that I have had forever, and stitched it on too.

Bead border detail.

Bead border detail.

The finished size is 14 inches by 17 inches.

This may be the cutest project I have ever made.

I can see so many possibilities for future projects!

I loved this project because I was able to use what I learned in earlier practice sessions with stabliizer, paints, and watercolor pencils; and I was able to use up some scraps.

I did not get very many big projects done this year, but I did accomplish my goal to take the time to try new techniques, and I am looking forward to doing more with these techniques in the new year.

* This article is from the July/August 2009 Cloth Paper Scissors magazine.  It gives a lot of clear directions and design options, but I ended up using a different process than what is given there.  Maybe I will get to those ideas soon.

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.

Paint.

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.