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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.


Kathleen C. said...

Janet, thank you for taking your time to write about your preparation for the workshop with Gwen and Freddie. I love Gwen's books, tho doubt I'll ever get to a workshop, so I'm looking forward to reading your next installment. And it's pleasure reading your writing.
I make liberated quilts, but have not made the switch to saturated colors and large prints; I enjoyed reading how you went about this change. Thanks for posting your link in Lib-Quilters; now I'll subscribe to the feed for your blog.
Kathleen C in CT (from Lib-Quilters)

WesternWilson said...

FWIW Kathleen (and thankyou very much for your kind comments), Gwen has increasingly moved to using straight solids, which she describes as "more painterly", which is true! She had a wonderful exhibit of her liberated quilts in solids at Back Porch along with a companion book, which is a great visual textbook on this approach. She is at Empty Spools in 2012 and will be teaching on quilting liberated with solids...

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