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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Collaborative Quilting Part III: Deconstruction

One of the very best things about the Gwen Marston Freddy Moran books is that they have, particularly in the second volume, taken some time to point out critical &/or significant design elements. That practice not only gives the reader and student a nice peek into the Freddy and Gwennie design process, it helps inform your own process. Marston and Moran place a high value on the inclusion of unexpected elements, which by confounding expectation, cause our eye to stop and say "hey, what gives??" This forces you to look carefully at the composition, and have a little conversation with the quilt in hand.

A perfect example of this approach is represented in the quilt below:

 Photo from the Sue Spargo blog, taken at Sisters, Oregon. Quilt by Marston and Moran, "What a Star!" p. 186 of "Collaborate Again"

First, the colours. Not many times in our quilting lives do we finger a schoolbus orange fabric sprinkled with red dots and say "hmmmm, what a fabulous background fabric this would be"! And yet, it works so very well here. In the notes on this quilt, the makers point out the salient design elements: mixing of liberated and traditional (precision) pieced elements, filler strips both pieced and plain, split blocks, unexpected colour shifts in the sawtooth borders. In addition, you can see blocks constructed of both high and low contrast elements ie. stars that stand out from their background fabric, and stars that blend with it; a small twist on the traditional that makes you stop and look around the quilt for similar unexpected elements.

It becomes clear as you examine the quilt that these unexpected, non-conforming elements give the quilt its charm and depth of character.

I have become especially fond of those filler strips. They are, all on their own, tiny design challenges.

You could lay in a simple strip of fabric, but what if you decide to take that space and fill it with a custom-designed filler composition instead? Will you use tiny stars or tiny Freddy's Gardens? All elements the same size or different sizes? Floating on the background fabric or a new fabric? Sashed? Split?

I was particularly charmed by the row just inside the outer black & white sawtooth border, which features regular blocks of either stars, churn dash, or broken dishes. That's interesting enough, but the spaces between the blocks, normally reserved for plain background fabric, have instead become mini design fields containing smaller and interestingly placed stars, churn dashes etc.

And do I need to point out the border of wiggly coloured lines on black? I'd like to meet the fabric designer who had the guts to submit that design for printing! That fabric is wild, strikes me as rather grotesque, and I can't imagine saying "I'll take 3 yards!"...but it totally works in this quilt.

We talked in class about what drives the composition of a quilt like this, and how you digest it visually. For me, a successful quilt evokes pure emotion, and from the Marston/Moran quilts I get a jolt of unfettered  joy. These are not particularly restful quilts, but they are vibrant, resonant, and engaging.

Like most good friends.

p. 102/103 Collaborative Quilting
Part I
Part II

Monday, April 4, 2011

Collaborative Quilting Part II: Fabrics

It is worth taking a moment to discuss the fine points of fabric acquisition.

To gear up my stash for the Freddy Moran and Gwen Marston experience, I first turned to collecting black and white fabrics, something completely new to me. I was astonished at the variety available (having never noticed them before, **blush**), and at the effort fabric houses are putting into creating new and useful black and white prints. I quickly learned that these prints fall into three categories: prints that read primarily as black, prints that read primarily as white, and prints that read as grey. This last group, the busy and generally small scale black and whites that read as grey, are of limited use in the Marston/Moran style of quilting. In general, any fabric that is middle of the road in terms of contrast value, neither high nor low contrast value, adds to the "mush factor" in these quilts.

Many of us have experienced the mush factor via charm pack projects: if you construct a project out of charm packs in any one collection, the fabrics all fight for your eye time, and individual, lovely prints (no matter how prettily they match in terms of palette) get lost, utterly lost, in the visual confusion. The way to remedy this is to add high contrast sashing or rows, and this baby quilt pattern from the Moda Bakeshop site is a perfect example (below). The busy-ness of a charm pack has been pleasantly tamed by the visual rest-stop offered here by white fabric:

Marston and Moran use black and white to accomplish the same end, often sprinkling in "reads as black" or black fabric through the blocks themselves, and/or using black and white sawtooth or checkerboard strips to visually separate the more colour-full elements. Note that even in sawtooth or checkerboard construction, high contrast is a must for clean, sharp and sophisticated design. I quickly found that in making my first strips of sawtooth that the best look came from pairing one "reads as white" fabric with one "reads as black" fabric.

Also useful are fabrics which are some variation on black and white stripes: a big favourite of mine has been this wonderful irregular stripe:  Micheal Miller "Ebony Reeds" CX-3529:

In terms of choosing coloured fabrics, Freddy advocates (wisely) the choice of highly saturated, pure colours, that is to say, colours that are not tinted with black or white. Designers like Brandon Mably and Jane Sassaman spring to mind here, but most bright collections (ie. Moda's "Happy") will contain some winning pure saturates.

The timing of my first visit to Back Porch coincided with the release of the Kaffe Fasset "Spots and Dots" line, and the fabric below revealed itself as one of my "super fabrics", a flexible mixer in clear colours that pleased my eye greatly:

And it turns out, bright polka dot fabrics in all scales will be a good addition to your Collaborative Quilting stash. Brightly coloured stripes, again in various scales, are also reliable stash bets. Both spots and stripes make fabulous binding fabrics.

When it comes to putting these brights together, keeping the contrasts dialed up is again the key to success. You want to include in your base fabrics high value and low value along with high hue balanced against black or black and white. In my mug rug photo, repeated below from an earlier blog post, you can see the contrast principle at work:

The centre black and white is small scale (and also dotted), and balances against the third row of larger scale, rectangular black and white stripes. The sapphire spot fabric is paired with a glowing cerise and orange stripe (so again, round with squares/rectangles, and hot colours paired against cool colours). Turquoise appears in many of the prints but is not dominant in any. The binding works not only in picking up that turquoise, but offering a dramatic hit of black. I stitched in the ditch (so as not to muddy the clear colours) with a variegated yellow and orange thread, which shows really nicely against the sapphire blue backing (the blue from Patrick Lose's "Mixmasters Dot to Dot" collection).

To begin with, I simply chose fabrics from my stash and laid them against each other on my cutting table. It quickly became clear which paired in a pleasing yet dramatic way.

Working in small projects like these mug rugs is a great way to experiment with colour and design without committing to a huge and expensive project. Liberated log cabin mug rug projects are especially well suited as a learning curve project in colour and design.

Past choosing small projects, I found that in tackling my class project, really my first "Freddy and Gwennie" project, using a strip quilt format worked well. I sewed parts into strips (ie. a strip of pinwheels, a strip of flying geese, a strip of 16 patches on point). Why? Because on the design wall, you can easily lay your strips side by side and start shoving them around into pleasing arrangements. It quickly became clear what background colour for my setting squares worked well, whether to add borders on all sides or just 1 or 2, what sawtooth and checkboard elements worked well between strips, etc.

Where did I get all these fabrics? I shopped brick and mortar when and where I could, faring well at Back Porch. But most of my local fabric stores are heavily traditional, and most in any case only stock a limited number of the new collections, and a limited selection from any one collection at that. Online vendors were a big help, and I could scan their offerings fairly quickly and comfortably, particularly when they allowed sorting the fabric images by colour. I find screen representations surprisingly accurate.

A good site to begin with is, and from there I shop hard for free or no shipping. I like Desperate Quilters and  Quilt Expressions  in  particular, not just for their selection and pricing, but the fact they tuck fun and useful little gifts (like note pads, pencils and pens) into my orders. Thanks, ladies!!

Other online shops I have used include FabricWorm, EQuilter, Fabric Shack, From Here to Quilternity, Hancock's of Paducah, Pink Chalk Fabrics, Sew Mama Sew. There are tons out there, you just have to track down the fabrics you are after, and using Google Images is a good way to turn up hard to find fabric sources. Incidentally, a good online fabric house will advise you if they are not able to fill your order precisely, and will give you the option of adding another fabric before placing your order. Since I often gauge my order to be maximum yardage for a shipping cost category, it can be a real extra cost to me when the fabric house ships me a short order. I track my shipping cost per fabric yard quite carefully.

Enough for today!

(to be continued...)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Collaborative Quilting Part I:Empty Spools Seminar, Asilomar by the Sea

It all began with a decision to take a long overdue romantic weekend away together, for which we chose the Monterey Peninsula, booking a stay at the transcendent Old Monterey Inn. During the course of that delightful weekend, I followed the advice of fellow Stitcher's Guild posters and popped into Pacific Grove's Back Porch Fabrics. Not only was Back Porch the single best quilting store I have ever been in, the selection of quilts hung on the high walls was gallery-worthy. I was struck by one in particular, similar to this one, below:

Based on "Sticks" by Marston and Moran

Now, I am not a huge fan of modern and abstract quilts (perhaps blinkered by my Virgo nature!) but this one really spoke to me. Under the quilt was the tag "from page 180 of Freddy and Gwen's book". I found a book by these ladies and quickly turned to page 180 only to find a page on making liberated star blocks...and realized that there were TWO books! The first was Collaborative Quilting, the second was Freddy and Gwen Collaborate Again. I bought them both.

These books were a revelation. Never before had I seen such masterful colour handling, and such an unfettered, joyous approach to quilt design. Best described as "sophisticated-primitive", the designs are based on elements in traditional quilts, but respun in a modern esprit, in modern fabrics.

I took the books home and read them, scanning the photos over and over. I definitely wanted to make something like these, so I went hunting for a workshop by the authors. First in line was a 5 day seminar hosted by Empty Spools, on the ground of Asilomar Conference Centre in good old Pacific Grove. The stars were obviously lined up, so I signed up.

The format of the class is to prepare a number of parts with which to stock what Marston and Moran call "The Parts Department". Living on opposite coasts as they do, they make stacks of quilt elements independently; blocks of various sizes in stars, churn dash, pinwheels, flying geese, free form houses and trees, even chickens and Freddy's signature "Freddy's Garden" blocks. Whether precision pieced or made in a casual "liberated" style, these are made in a rainbow of colours, and to prevent visual overload, are judiciously balanced with strips of black and white elements; sawtooth, straight strips or alternating black and white blocks. These disparate, pre-made elements are brought together when the authors meet, and they design directly with the parts, up on the design wall. The quilts tend to come together very quickly out of a well stocked Parts Department.

In preparation for class, then, I had to put together some parts of my own, and a quick survey of my stash revealed a complete lack of suitable fabrics. I am young in quilting years, having taken my Quilting 101 class only three years ago. And having spent the intervening years largely focused on building my nascent precision piecing skills via kit projects, not only was my stash small, it was very traditional. And I didn't have a single solitary black and white fabric. For the Freddy and Gwennie style, that would simply not do. Mercifully, Christmas was just around the corner, so I used my tidy sum of Chrismas present money to lay in a suitable range of fabrics, largely by shopping online. I hunted up online fabric houses that offered low or no shipping for large orders, and scanned the sale offerings, which often feature bright, outlandish fabrics perfect for the Collaborative Quilting style, but anathema to the more traditional approach. And I got a swatch card for Kona Solids, and stocked up on saturated solids.

As the eye-popping packages began to arrive, I quickly found that certain patterns and fabrics really stood out as particularly well adapted to this new approach. When one of these super-fabrics appeared, I would re-order, stocking 5 yards against future quilts and parts. To my surprise, my favourite pieces leaned heavily toward a sapphire blue/orange combo, and the turquoise and red combination from one of the Marston/Moran quilts. I found myself using colours and combinations I had never dreamt of before.

Given that this saturated palette, balanced by blacks and whites, was new to me, I decided to make a series of "mug-rugs" (aka coasters) in which I would practice my noob colour handling skills:

That proved to be a very good beginning exercise, and I really love using these mug rugs under my endless cups of tea! They also save my cutting mat from warping under the hot cups...

Over the 4 months or so before the course, I made up lots of pinwheels (focusing on combining a black based print with coloured fabric), liberated stars, Freddy's Gardens, black and white sawtooth, nine patches (made of 1" strips), and 16 patches (made of 1 1/2" strips). 

I learned quickly that when new fabrics arrived, it paid to cut three 1" strips, and three 1 1/2" strips right away, and then sort them into drawers by light/dark/black & white. 

 After my shopping spree was over, I had small Rubbermaid drawer units:

filled with sorted strips. I could then, at leisure, pull out sets of strips, sew them together, and then when cut into the actual base units needed for assembling the 9 or 16 patch units, stow those base units in their own drawer, ready for assembly. In this way, I could slip up to my studio and sew up a few units without any need to do design or cutting work, meaning even small chunks of time were  highly productive.

This suited my situation perfectly...not only was I able to fit sewing in and around my usual roster of chores, but we are very involved currently providing support to a dying family member. The intensity of that situation leaves us mentally and emotionally "on empty" when we get home, and I found the simple sewing of units together from pre-cut elements the perfect way to zen out and regenerate. And working with the cheery colours and finished units was a real joy and solace in a dark and sad time.

Having all the base bits ready to go also helps you make the colour quotient in the 9 and 16 patches truly random as possible, which is the aim. For most traditional quilters, the most difficult element of the Collaborative Quilting style is letting go of the urge to match things! These quilts do not tolerate the quilter being "matchy". Balance and  proportion are brought about by clever manipulation of the groups of elements, not so much by planned colour work.