Five-Four

I’ve got a thing going with these Interleave quilts, and now I even have a source of fabric with (almost) precise quarter-inch grid lines for easy foundation piecing of long thin strips. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to find commercial fabric with precise quarter-inch or half-inch stripes or checks, I gave up and created my own on spoonflower.com. You can buy it too. At $17.50/yard for basic combed cotton it is a bit pricey for fabric you will never see in your finished quilt. But if you want to piece narrow strips, this will save you hours of time. Full disclosure: if you buy it I get some royalties. All proceeds will go to support my spoonflower habit. You can see how I used the grid fabric as I pieced the quilt in the photo below. The orange fabric at the bottom is the backing fabric. It was one of the striped fabrics I auditioned and rejected for being too far off from quarter-inch stripes.

For those of you who are wondering why I care so much about precise quarter-inch stripes, quilters tend to piece their quilts with quarter-inch seam allowances. That means the stitching is always a quarter inch from the edge of the fabric. I have a special foot for my sewing machine with a guide that makes easier to do. So if you cut one-inch strips of fabric and piece them with a quarter-inch seam allowance on each side, you get a precise half-inch strip of fabric showing on the front of the quilt. This turns out to work out really well for the Interleave series because the alternating strips occupy the space of the turned under seam allowance of the adjacent strips. You can do this piecing without a foundation and just line up each strip by aligning it with the previous strip. However, I find that cutting long thin strips with perfect precision is difficult, so I am much better off if I align the strips to a pre-marked grid.

So, armed with a couple of yards of “quarter-inch-grid” fabric, I made another Interleave quilt last week. Unlike the other quilts in this series, for this one I made two panels with different numbers of vertical fabric strips. For example, Interleave #4 and Interleave #5 both started with four vertical strips in each panel, while Interleave #3 started with five. Using the same number of strips as well as the same amplitude and frequency for the sine wave shift provides a nice, regular pattern. For Interleave #7, I went for a more chaotic approach and used five strips in one panel and four in the other. There is still an illusion of curved shapes, but these shapes are all different sizes and an interesting five-four rhythm.

This quilt is made entirely from commercial batik fabrics. These are all multi-colored pinks, yellows, and oranges, which provide a rich texture. Two of the fabrics are cool ombre gradient fabrics that change color intensity from top to bottom (look for the yellow wave on the left that starts medium yellow, shifts to pale lemon, and then to cheddar; to the right is a pink wave that starts out cherry red near the top and fades to pale pink).

With the exception of Interleave #2, I did not add any quilting beyond the quilt-as-you-go quilting that is part of the piecing process (since I piece these quilts by sewing the strips directly to a foundation fabric layered over batting, layered over backing fabric). But this time around I decided to add free motion machine quilting as well as a bit of hand embroidered stipples and french knots. The quilting ads some additional depth and also highlights some of the shapes that emerge from the chaos. Click on the photo to the left to see the quilting up close.

Some of you may have observed that I haven’t said anything about Interleave #6. Quite true! Interleave #6 is still a work in progress. I started working on #7 while waiting for some Spoonflower fabric to arrive for #6. Also, #6 was commissioned as a gift, so I won’t be blogging about it until after it is presented to the recipient later this month.

Interleave #7: Five-Four, 25.75″x33″ machine pieced and quilted commercial batik cotton fabric

Tartan Tango

Some time in April a VIP visitor came to the STUDIO to talk with Golan, accompanied by an entourage of folks from CMU public relations and our central administration. While Golan entertained the visitor, members of the entourage wandered around the STUDIO, where they happened to find me surrounded by bright colorful things, working on Interleave #4. I introduced myself and showed them what I was doing. They were intrigued by the Processing program I was using to generate quilt designs, as well as the dozen or so colorful printouts of candidate quilt designs scattered on my desk. They started asking questions. Could I design a quilt like this with a CMU theme? I assured them I could come up with something. They told me they might be interested in commissioning such a quilt and would get back to me. A couple weeks later they sent me email, and asked me to describe a CMU themed quilt I might design with the Processing program. Then they asked for a mockup. They liked what they saw and I got the commission – with a very tight deadline. I got to work right away.

I had promised an Interleave quilt that would represent art and technology being woven together into the fabric of Carnegie Mellon. My design featured sine waves and CMU’s tartan fabric, which appears on graduation hoods and all sorts of official university paraphernalia. Plaid is a tricky fabric to work with, and many a hideous design has been created with CMU’s tartan plaid. I was determined to conquer the plaid. I headed to the campus store to purchase some. It turns out they sell both wool and flannel versions by the yard. I bought a yard of each. I could always make a kilt or pajamas out of whichever fabric I don’t use for the quilt.

I assembled panels of tartan and “solid” batiks and prepared to construct the quilt. From the previous Interleave quilts, I had learned that it really helps to to draw half-inch lines on a foundation fabric and line the strips up with the fabric for quilting. But it is difficult and tedious to draw so many parallel lines on fabric, so I tried to find striped fabric with half-inch or quarter-inch spacing. I asked for advice from some of my favorite online fabric stores but ultimately came up empty handed. I’m sure such a fabric is out there somewhere, but I have been unable to find it (but stay tuned….). So I marked the foundation by hand, and layered it over a sheet of batting and a cute apple print fabric I had in my stash.

The quilt construction proceeded similarly to the previous Interleave quilts. I decided to give this one a border, like a picture frame. I added a half-inch black border and a 1.5-inch tartan border. The tartan border was overwhelming so I trimmed it back to an inch for a much more pleasing effect.

After completing the quilt I photographed it. Fran Flaherty in the CMU Digital Arts Studio made 50 prints of the digital image on 11×14 archival paper.  Perry Beck at the CMU art store cut 50 mats. And I hand numbered and signed 50 prints. And then Fran made 50 certificates of authenticity and I signed those too.

This past weekend the quilt was presented to Maureen Cohon, wife of the outgoing CMU president. Mrs. Cohon gave the matted prints to the partners of the board of trustee members who participated in her “partners program.”

Interleave #5: Tartan Tango
25.5×33.5″ machine pieced and quilted commercial batik cotton fabric and wool tartan fabric

After I finished this project (a few days early even), I took some of the scraps from the tartan quilt and some other recent projects and improv pieced a couple of small quilts for my two graduating PhD students.

Children’s Museum Exhibit

I have a solo exhibit of six quilts hanging at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, on the yellow wall opposite the “Garage” room. These quilts include:  Lying on the Floor of the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum Looking At the Ceiling, De-identification
,  Self PortraitInterleave #1: Venetian LinesInterleave #3: WaveformsInterleave #4: Sine of Spring. (Yes, I finished Interleave #4 last week, just in time to send it over to the museum.) The exhibit should be up for about a month, but I don’t have an exact end date yet. I love the Children’s Museum and am really excited to have an exhibit there.

The exhibit came about after the director of the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum attended a meeting at the STUDIO and saw some of my quilts, including a quilt I made based on a photo I took at the museum. The museum has an art installation called “More Light” by Dick Esterle in their great dome (which used to be a post office). 840 pink and orange streamers are suspended on threads. They are hanging in a grid, so in reality they are parallel. But if you lie on the floor in the very center of the dome and look up the streamers, they appear to radiate out from the center. I snapped some photos with my cell phone while my kids were working on art projects at the museum. As soon as I saw the streamers from that perspective I knew I wanted to make a quilt of that image. The radiating lines in the dome ceiling and the large dark circles are pieced. The lighter circles in the dome and the streamers are all fused on and stitched.

I was speaking at an event in downtown Pittsburgh today so I decided to skip lunch and take a walk across the river to the Children’s Museum to see my quilt exhibit. It was a lovely day for a walk — beautiful weather and blue skies. It was fun to see my quilts on the wall of the museum.
On my way back I stopped to take some photos of Cloud Arbor across the street from the museum. A little girl ran up to me and suggested that I get a little closer to the fountain so that I could get wet. As we were talking, the cloud generator turned on and the girl rushed into the fountain to get wet. If I had not been dressed up and scheduled to speak to a room full of lawyers an hour later, I probably would have followed her.

Sine of Spring

I was so pleased with the results of Interleave #3, that I decided to continue the series and see what else I could do to facilitate my quilt design with Processing. This time I started with some of the fabrics I wanted to use — a wonderful, colorful wavy batik fabric seemed perfect for a sine wave quilt. I matched the colors in this fabric with other fabrics in my collection, and not finding exactly the right shades, it was a good excuse to go fabric shopping.  I worked on the quilt design in Processing, but couldn’t figure out how to represent the multi-colored wavy fabric in a single hue. So I enhanced my Processing program so that I could input digital images and use them to create my interleaved designs. I took digital photographs of a bunch of my fabrics with a ruler next to them (for scale). I then experimented with using these digital images in my computer-generated designs.

The addition of digital images of fabric made my computer-generated interleave designs much more vibrant, and also allowed me to visualize the placement of fabric patterns. I had lots of fun playing with different designs.

I eventually selected a design and began the process of rendering it in fabric. I used a very similar approach as I used in Interleave #3, except this time I drew 64 pencil lines spaced a half-inch apart on a piece of white fabric and layered that foundation fabric over the batting. I then sewed the colored strips to the sandwich of white fabric, batting, and backing, aligning each strip to a pencil line. I was able to use just one pin as I positioned each strip. Not having to line up each strip with a ruler and pin it in place along the whole length of the strip saved a lot of time. By the time I finished this quilt I was able to position, piece, and press each strip within about four minutes. I did run into a few problems with some of my pencil lines that were not completely straight — the fabric stretches a bit when you draw on it with a pencil if you are not careful, causing some of the lines to curve. This inspired a not-yet-successful mission to find a commercial cotton fabric with precise half-inch or quarter-inch stripes that I could use as the foundation.

I enjoyed watching the pattern unfold as I worked on this quilt, and I love these colors, which remind me of spring flowers. This quilt celebrates Spring, which after several false starts, seems finally to have come to Pittsburgh.

Interleave #4: Sine of Spring
24″x31″ machine pieced and quilted commercial batik cotton fabric

Self Portrait

As part of my sabbatical project, I  have been continuing to contemplate ways to visualize privacy. My De-identificaiton quilt featured digitally-printed photos de-identified by their extreme magnification and by splicing them together with other fabric. Another approach to visual de-identification is pixelation. To pixelate an image, we superimpose a grid on the image and replace each cell with a color representing the average of all the pixels in that grid cell. Although pixelation has been shown to be highly vulnerable to automated re-identification, it is a widely used method of obscuring images to make them more difficult for humans to recognize.

I have long been intrigued by the Salvador Dali paintings, Lincoln in Dalivision (1977) and Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko) (1976), which in turn were inspired by Leon Harmon’s grey photomoasic of Abraham Lincoln (1973).

Recently, Ray J released the single “I Hit it First” with a pixelated photo on the album cover. The photo was quickly recognized as a 2010 photo of bikini-clad Kim Kardashian.

Original portrait

While working on my Big Bright Pixels quilt, people kept asking me whether there was a hidden picture or message. There wasn’t. But that did get me thinking about doing a pixel quilt with a hidden image. But what image should I pixelate? I had recently used a pixelated face in the logo I designed for the Privacy Engineering masters program, and a face seemed a natural choice given that faces are commonly pixelated to protect privacy in news photos. (Other body parts are also frequently pixelated, and I love the censorship towel, but I digress.) I settled on pixelating a face, and briefly considered using a face of a famous person before deciding to use my own face. I selected a blue-haired portrait, photographed by Chuck Cranor.

Pixelated portrait

Pixelated portrait

Pixelation can be done trivially with a computer using standard image processing software packages or by rolling your own. I started working on my pixelated quilt before I started programing in Processing, so I used Photoshop to pixelate a headshot of myself. The initial pixelation was nice, but I wanted something more colorful and also higher contrast so that the differences between colors would show up better when printed on fabric (digital printing on fabric tends to dull colors). I experimented with adjusting the contrast, brightness, and color settings in Photoshop until I came up with a brighter and more colorful pixelated image. This was the image I sent to Spoonflower for digital printing.

Pixelated portrait with high contrast and color manipulation

Pixelated portrait with high contrast and color manipulation

By the time the fabric arrived I had gotten busy with other quilts, and I was also a little disappointed in how the printed fabric looked, so I left the fabric sitting out on my table in the STUDIO for a while. I decided that the dulled digital print needed some more punch, so periodically I cut a fabric square to match a pixel in the fabric and pinned it in place. I cut some of these squares from translucent polyester organza, adding some vibrancy and shimmer to the pixels over which I layered them. I cut other squares from lace, commercial batiks, and printed fabrics that were more intense versions of the hues in the digital print. I ended up covering about 20% of the pixels with other fabric.

Back of quilt top with vertical lines sewed

Back of quilt top with vertical lines sewed

After a few months of staring at the pixels I finally decided to sew the quilt together. I used a shortcut technique to sew the quilt together without actually cutting apart the squares in the digital print. I folded the fabric along one of the vertical lines, catching the pinned squares in the fold, and stitched along the line with a quarter-inch seam allowance. I repeated this approach to sew all the vertical lines and pressed all the seam allowances to the side. Then I folded the fabric along one of the horizontal lines and repeated this process. The end result was a pieced quilt top that appeared to have been pieced out of 130 2.25″ squares (2.75″ with seam allowances). Theoretically this approach should have resulted in precisely pieced seams; however, some of the lines are actually slightly off and the rows and columns did not come out quite as square as I had hoped they would.

Pieced quilt top

Pieced quilt top

I layered the quilt top over batting and backing and used a spiral free-motion machine quilting pattern to quilt the whole thing free hand. I did the quilting in several sessions as I had time, doodling spirals until my hands got tired. I used several different thread colors to roughly match the color of the thread with the pixels I was quilting. I decided not to bind this quilt, and instead made an envelope and quilted all the way to the edge. There is a little bit of stippled hand quilting done with perl cotton surrounding my signature in the lower right corner.

So now the quilt is done and I’m pretty happy with this self portrait. Most people who have seen it do not recognize it as a self portrait, which is ok, and sort of the point. On the other hand, Golan said the blue and purple hair was a dead give away for him. I had not actually started out with the intention to make a self portrait, but ultimately I think the piece works better for me as a self portrait than any more accurate likeness would.

 

Self Portrait, machine pieced and quilted 23×30.75″

 

Computational thinking

I’ve been sitting in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry for months as the only artist not using a computer to create art. I’ve deflected the numerous suggestions from the STUDIO folks to add computer power to my art by attaching my old mechanical sewing machine to a robotic arm. I also haven’t laser cut any fabric or created any Arduino-controlled blinky quilts. I still might do some of those things, but I’ve been having too much fun just spending time making quilts. The truth is also that although I am a computer science professor, computer programming is not actually a great love of mine. I can program, but I would rather supervise student programmers than do it myself.

I’ve also been doing a lot of improvisational work this year, trying to be more spontaneous in my art. Rather than pre-planning an entire quilt up front, I’ve been trying to design as I go. However, when I started working on the Interleave series I realized that some planning was going to be needed in order to develop quilts in which a third design emerges from interleaving two separate panels.

For Interleave #1 I did some paper prototyping with tape and scissors. For Interleave #3 I decided I wanted to play with creating curves from straight lines. I grabbed an image of a sine wave and pasted it into a powerpoint file and started drafting quilt designs from dozens of thin rectangular strips. Each design variation involved a tedious process. Golan Levin noticed what I was doing and suggested that I create the designs in a programming language called Processing. I mumbled something about not knowing Processing, and Golan offered to get me started. In about 10 minutes he had written a simple Processing program that drew sine waves filled with color that could be adjusted by dragging the mouse. He emailed me his code, expecting me to finish what he started.

It took me, the computer science professor, another five hours to finish what Golan, the art professor, had started. Golan is actually a much better programmer than I will ever be. But by the time I had finished I was hooked on Processing and could see the utility of writing code to produce a quilt design, even if I was ultimately going to use a traditional quilting process to make the quilt. I added lots of parameters to the program and implemented slider bars to control them — frequency, amplitude, offset, number of colors, etc. By fiddling with the slider bars I could try lots of design variants in a matter of minutes, and save copies of the designs I liked the best (annotated with the parameter values so they could be reproduced).

I started out with nice symmetrical intertwining sine waves forming footballs, slender vases, and squat snake pots where the sine waves overlap. Then I discovered new shapes that could be created by offsetting the sine waves in each panel different amounts. These asymmetrical shapes, like flames in the wind, were even more intriguing and dynamic than the snake pots. So I experimented with asymmetric design variants and eventually settled on a design to render in fabric.

Next came fabric selection. I chose nine commercial batik fabrics and one shiny woven fabric from my stash. The visual texture of the batiks provides an added dimension beyond the flat solid-color image in the computer-generated design.

The next problem was figuring out how to construct this quilt. With two previous Interleave quilts under my belt, I was starting to get a feel for what techniques are most effective. However, this is the first quilt where I attempted interleaved curves. I considered piecing two panels with sine waves and slicing them — basically the process I used for the previous two Interleave quilts, but without any curves. But curved piecing can be tricky, and it occurred to me that this quilt could be created entirely from straight lines. My approach was to cut strips of fabric a little bigger than the width of the colored bands, and a little taller than the height of the quilt. I sewed them together into two tubes with five bands each. I then created a full-scale paper template for the sine waves and used it to cut open the tubes in a stair-step sine wave pattern. Then the tubes were ready for slicing into one-inch strips and sewing to the quilt batting and backing. This time I prepared the backing with half-inch marks, carefully aligned, to make it easier to align and sew the strips. I used Fairfield Soft Touch Cotton Batting as I had in Interleave #2.

With the backing properly marked, the sewing went fairly quickly. It was exciting to watch the design emerge one row at a time.

I think the end result is quite striking. My first foray into writing code to aid my design process was successful. I don’t think I will use this approach for every quilt from now on, but I am eager to try it with some other ideas on the Interleave theme.

Interleave #3: Waveforms, 2013
24.5″x24.5″ machine pieced and quilted cotton fabric

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Bright Pixels

This post is long over due. I actually finished this quilt around Thanksgiving, but I didn’t get around to sewing a hanging sleeve onto the back until a couple of weeks ago — so I couldn’t hang it up and take a photo until recently. But I got distracted with other projects, including some not-so-sabbatical-related projects. But now it is done, and photographed and posted.

I already blogged about this quilt while I was working on it, so just a brief update here. After my first blog post on this quilt, Aleecia McDonald pointed me towards Gerhard Richter’s Cologne Cathedral stained glass windows. My quilt takes a very similar approach to Richter — similar sized squares, similar colors. But besides the difference in medium (glass vs. fabric), the algorithm for selecting colors is rather different. Richter used a computer program to execute an algorithm designed to produce something that would resemble random static. My algorithm was less precise, and just executed in my head. My goal was to create something more like a color gradient with random variations. Nonetheless, these pieces strike me as rather similar. I love the scale of Richter’s windows as well as the use of glass as a medium.

So there you have it… Big Bright Pixels.

 

Auction Quilt

For the past several years I’ve donated a small quilt for the fundraising auction at the local public elementary school that my kids attend. I’ve just finished this year’s auction quilt, a small 24-inch square wall quilt called “Interleave #2: Sunset over water.” This is the second in my series of Interleave art quilts, and it seems likely there will be more. (See my last post for Interleave #1’s story.)  The quilt will be auctioned off on February 16. Contact me for details if you are interested in bidding.

Interleave #1 had a lot going on, with primary-colored improv-pieced panels spliced together before being sliced into 24 pieces and sewn back together again. For Interleave #2 I made the panels out of only six pieces of fabric each, and I sliced them into only 12 pieces. But there is still a lot of texture here, as most of the fabrics I used are multi-colored commercial batiks. I cut the slices 1.5-inches wide so that they would end up 1-inch after accounting for seam allowances. In order to keep everything lined up nicely with proper spacing, I had to cut a .5-inch strip after cutting every 1.5-inch strip. These narrow strips are not actually used in the quilt, but they do make for some colorful ribbons that are too nice to throw away.

This time I used Fairfield Soft Touch Cotton Batting. I found it made the quilt-as-you-go quilting a little bit easier than the Thermore I used last time because the fibers don’t puff up as much. I also marked the ends of each row directly on the batting with a fabric marker and used my new 36″ clear plastic ruler to make it easier to keep everything lined up. Unfortunately, I made a mistake while marking that I didn’t notice until I was almost done, so gave myself a bit of an extra challenge and wondered why I had to keep correcting things that weren’t lining up. The fact that the strips were cut on the bias (and thus fairly stretchy) added to the challenge of keeping everything lined up.

This quilt is finished with some meandering free motion machine quilting in a colorful variegated thread. I debated whether or not to add the quilting to this one. I think it looked fine without it, but the quilting pulls the whole thing together nicely.

Interleave#2: Sunset over water, 24×24″ machine pieced and quilted

Winter break projects

In between family activities I worked on some artsy activities over winter break. My mother taught me how to crochet (but I haven’t made anything other than practice pieces), and I worked on some Spoonflower fabric for a couple of future projects (stay tuned!).  I spent most of my time on a small wall quilt that involved cutting fabric into lots of small pieces, sewing those pieces together, cutting them up, and sewing them back together again.

My inspiration came from some images of quilts by Kent Williams in the January 2013 issue of American Quilter. I like the way Kent creates the illusion of shape by sewing together thin strips of fabric and I wanted to try the technique. But thin strips of fabric are hard to sew precisely. I also recently read an article in the December 2012 Quilting Arts Magazine by Ann Brauer in which she explained her quilt-as-you-go approach for making quilts out of thin strips of fabric. It occurred to me that Ann’s method might simplify the construction of the quilt I envisioned. (I’m actually not entirely sure about Kent’s method. I’ve only found tiny photos of his quilts – not enough detail to reverse engineer his process. I did observe that the short edges of his strips are all butted up against the next strip at 90 degree angles, suggesting his technique for cutting the strips is different than the one I describe below.) I worked out that with 1/4 inch seam allowances, if I cut the fabric into 1-inch strips, half of each strip would be lost to seam allowances. Thus 1-inch strips from two panels of fabric could be interleaved, allowing the designs from the two panels to be superimposed without distortion. I decided to add improvisational piecing to the mix to add an extra layer of interest to the design, and because improv piecing is fun.

This quilt was a lot of fun to make but it required some courage to keep cutting up what looked like a perfectly good composition with the expectation that when I sewed it back together according to a vision I had in my mind, the result would be even better.

The first step was to make four 26-inch single-color square panels, each improvisationally pieced from about a half-dozen fabrics. The panels were each beautiful on their own, and lovely when placed together. I hesitated to cut them up.

I did some paper prototyping to convince myself that my slicing plan was going to work, and also to experiment with some of the details. I cut up photos of the single-color panels and reassembled them into red/blue and yellow/green panels. Then I tried positioning the red/blue panel perpendicular to the yellow/green panel, and sliced them both into 24 strips. I wasn’t entirely pleased with the results – the red/blue panel didn’t show strongly because the lines separating the colors got lost between the slices (left image). I cut up another red/blue paper panel, this time rotated 90 degrees. I liked the result (center image), but now the shapes in the two panels were superimposed and didn’t interact in interesting ways. In my third attempt (right image) I shifted the red/blue strips until they created an interesting overlapping pattern (and indeed this is the effect I love in Kent Williams’ quilts).

 

 

 

 

 

My next challenge was figuring out exactly where to slice the single-color panels to make the red/blue and yellow/green panels. Originally I was going to slice them at somewhat random angles, but my paper prototyping convinced me that I would get better results if I selected the angles purposefully and made the panels mirror images of each other. I figured out the ratios I wanted and actually did a bit of algebra to work out exactly where to make the cuts. I did the slicing and reassembly and had four striking bi-color panels. This time I was really hesitant to slice them up again, but I sauntered on and prepared to begin cutting up two of the bi-color panels.

But before I started slicing, I needed one more prototype to test out the quilt-as-you go technique. I grabbed some scrap fabric and sliced it into one-inch strips. But what kind of batting to use? I decided I wanted a fairly light batting, and nothing fusible (lately I’ve been enjoying the convenience of Hobbs Heirloom Fusible Cotton/Poly Batting). I had some pieces of Fairfield Soft Touch Cotton Batting and Thermore Ultra Thin Polyester Batting, which both seemed like reasonable choices for the project. I cut a small sample of each and tried both. The results were fine either way. The Thermore (on the left of the above sample) resulted in a lighter weight quilt that felt less stiff than the cotton (on the right). But both looked about the same once they were inside the quilt.

I decided to use the Thermore in my quilt, mostly because I had a piece already cut that was about the right size. I cut out some backing fabric for my quilt (blue fabric with primary-colored fish that I bought years ago to make baby quilts) a little bit larger than the batting and layered the batting on top of it. I had been planning to use the edge of each previous fabric strip sewed as a guide for sewing the next strip, but my prototype revealed that would likely lead to skewed  lines after a few strips. So I used a fabric pen to mark guide lines along the left and right edges of the backing fabric every half inch.

Then I setup an assembly line. I layered a red/blue panel over a yellow-green panel on my gridded cutting mat and made a one-inch slice. I then placed one fabric slice on the batting, used a straight edge to align the slice with the guide lines, and pinned it in place. For the first strip only, I did not immediately sew it, but placed the second strip in place and sewed them together. I pressed open the second strip, cut more strips, aligned the next strip, sewed, and repeated over and over again. I waited in suspense until I had sewn enough strips that the pattern started to emerge, and I could see the quilt in my mind take form in fabric. But it wasn’t until many, many hours later after all 48 strips were cut and sewn in place that I had confidence that this quilt was going to “work.”

Now, the quilt is finished and bound. Overall I’m pleased with the result. I like the interweaving images. I like the third layer of images from the improv piecing. I like the fact that it looks like you are looking through Venetian blinds. Sometimes when I look at it I think the contrast between the adjacent interleaved strips is too much and creates some visual dissonance. I would like to try this technique again with lower-contrast fabrics. I wish I had cut and sewn some of the strips straighter. Would a bigger rotary cutter, longer ruler, or different batting help? I wonder how it would look with fatter strips. What if they were cut diagonally? I’m contemplating a more purposeful placement of fabrics in the single-color panels. I’m pondering doing this with curves and with photos printed on fabric. So many ideas…. But first I have to decide what to do with the other two bi-colored panels.

Interleave #1: Venetian Lines – 23.75″x23.75″ Machine pieced and quilted cotton fabric.

 

 

 

P3P is dead, long live P3P!

I didn’t attend the W3C’s Do Not Track and Beyond Workshop last week, but I heard reports from several attendees that instead of looking forward, participants spent a lot of time looking backwards at last decade’s W3C web privacy standard, the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P). P3P is a computer-readable language for privacy policies. The idea was that websites would post their privacy policies in P3P format and web browsers would download them automatically and compare them with each user’s privacy settings. In the event that a privacy policy did not match the user’s settings, the browser could alert the user, block cookies, or take other actions automatically. Unlike the proposals for Do Not Track being discussed by the W3C, P3P offers a rich vocabulary with which websites can describe their privacy practices. The machine-readable code can then be parsed automatically to display a privacy “nutrition label” or icons that summarize a site’s privacy practices.

Having personally spent a good part of seven years working on the P3P 1.0 specification, I can’t help but perk up my ears whenever I hear P3P mentioned. I still believe that P3P was, and still is, a really good idea. In hindsight, there are all sorts of technical details that should have been worked out differently, but the key ideas remain as compelling today as they were when first discussed in the mid 1990s. Indeed, with increasing frequency I have discussion with people who are trying to invent a new privacy solution that actually looks an awful lot like P3P.

Sadly, the P3P standard is all but dead and practically useless to end users. While P3P functionality has been built into the Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) web browsers for the past decade, today thousands of websites, including some of the web’s most popular sites, post bogus P3P “compact policies” that circumvent the default P3P-based cookie-blocking system in Internet Explorer. For example, Google transmits the following compact policy, which tricks IE into believing that Google’s privacy policy is consistent with the default IE privacy setting and therefore its cookies should not be blocked.

P3P:CP="This is not a P3P policy! See 
http://www.google.com/support/accounts/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=15165 for more info."

Ceci n'est pas une pipeGoogle’s approach is both clever and (with apologies to Magritte) surreal. The website transmits the code that means, “I am about to send you a P3P compact policy.” And yet the content of the policy says “This is not a P3P policy!” Thus, to IE this is a P3P policy, and yet to a human reader it is not. As P3P is computer-readable code, not designed for human readers, I argue that it is a P3P policy, and a deceptive one at that. The issue got a flurry of media attention last February, and then was quickly forgotten. The United States Federal Trade Commission and any of the 50 state attorney generals (or even a privacy commissioner in one of the many countries that now has privacy commissioners to enforce privacy laws) could go after Google or one of the the thousands of other websites that have posted deceptive P3P policies. However, to date, no regulators have announced that they are investigating any website for a deceptive P3P policy. For their part, a number of companies and industry groups have said that circumventing IE’s privacy controls is an acceptable thing to do because they consider the P3P standard to be dead (even though Microsoft still makes active use of it in the latest version of their browser and W3C has not retired it).

The problem with self-regulatory privacy standards seems to be that the industry considers them entirely optional, and no regulator has yet stepped in to say otherwise. Perhaps because no regulators have challenged those who contend that circumventing P3P is acceptable, some companies have already announced that they are going to bypass the Do Not Track controls in IE because they do not like Microsoft’s approach to default settings (see also my blog post about why I think the industry’s position on ignoring DNT in IE is wrong).

Until we see enforcement actions to back up voluntary privacy standards such as P3P and  (perhaps someday) Do Not Track, users will not be able to rely on them. Incentives for adoption and mechanisms for enforcement are essential. We are unlikely to see widespread adoption of a privacy policy standard if we do not address the most significant barrier to adoption: lack of incentives. If a new protocol were built into web browsers, search engines, mobile application platforms, and other tools in a meaningful way such that there was an advantage to adopting the protocol, we would see wider adoption. However, in such a scenario, there would also be significant incentives for companies to game the system and misrepresent their policies, so enforcement would be critical. Incentives could also come in the form of regulations that require adoption or provide a safe harbor to companies that adopt the protocol. Before we go too far down the road of developing new machine-readable privacy notices (whether comprehensive website notices like P3P, icon sets, notices for mobile applications, Do Not Track, or other anything else), it is essential to make sure adequate incentives will be put in place for them to be adopted, and that adequate enforcement mechanisms exist.

I have a lot more to say about the design decision made in the development of P3P, where some of the problems are, why P3P is ultimately failing users, and why future privacy standards are also unlikely to succeed unless they are enforced. In fact I wrote a 35-page paper on this topic that will published soon in the Journal on Telecommunications and High Technology Law. Some of what I wrote above was excerpted from this paper, and I’ve also posted a preprint of the whole paper for your reading enjoyment. If you are contemplating a new privacy policy/label/icon/tool effort, please read some history first. Here is the abstract:

Necessary But Not Sufficient: Standardized Mechanisms for Privacy Notice and Choice

For several decades, “notice and choice” have been key principles of information privacy protection. Conceptions of privacy that involve the notion of individual control require a mechanism for individuals to understand where and under what conditions their personal information may flow and to exercise control over that flow.  Thus, the various sets of fair information practice principles and the privacy laws based on these principles include requirements for providing notice about data practices and allowing individuals to exercise control over those practices. Privacy policies and opt-out mechanisms have become the predominant tools of notice and choice. However, a consensus has emerged that privacy policies are poor mechanisms for communicating with individuals about privacy. With growing recognition that website privacy policies are failing consumers, numerous suggestions are emerging for technical mechanisms that would provide privacy notices in machine-readable form, allowing web browsers, mobile devices, and other tools to act on them automatically and distill them into simple icons for end users. Other proposals are focused on allowing users to signal to websites, through their web browsers, that they do not wish to be tracked. These proposals may at first seem like fresh ideas that allow us to move beyond impenetrable privacy policies as the primary mechanisms of notice and choice. However, in many ways, the conversations around these new proposals are reminiscent of those that took place in the 1990s that led to the development of the Platform for Privacy Preferences (“P3P”) standard and several privacy seal programs.

In this paper I first review the idea behind notice and choice and user empowerment as privacy protection mechanisms. Next I review lessons from the development and deployment of P3P as well as other efforts to empower users to protect their privacy. I begin with a brief introduction to P3P, and then discuss the privacy taxonomy associated with P3P. Next I discuss the notion of privacy nutrition labels and privacy icons and describe our demonstration of how P3P policies can be used to generate privacy nutrition labels automatically. I also discuss studies that examined the impact of salient privacy information on user behavior.  Next I look at the problem of P3P policy adoption and enforcement. Then I discuss problems with recent self-regulatory programs and privacy tools in the online behavioral advertising space.  Finally, I argue that while standardized notice mechanisms may be necessary to move beyond impenetrable privacy policies, to date they have failed users and they will continue to fail users unless they are accompanied by usable mechanisms for exercising meaningful choice and appropriate means of enforcement.

Big, colorful quilt with no name

At the beginning of October I started a quilt project, inspired by the oh-so-colorful paintings of Loretta Grayson. I happened upon a photo of her gorgeous colorful crocheting on Facebook, and then went to her blog and finally to photos of her paintings. After a few days of being mesmerized by all that wonderful color I sorted through my fabrics and found the 40 or so brightest, most saturated, near-solid fabrics in my collection. Then I began cutting them up into piles of 4.5-inch squares. The original plan was to assemble the squares into a colorful 8×8 grid, and then superimpose some dark spirals. I started with the warm colors. Then I thought maybe I would make two 8×8 grids (one warm colors, one cool colors), cut away some shapes from one, and reverse applique it to the other. Once the two 8×8 grids were assembled, they looked quite striking sitting next to each other, taking up half my table at the STUDIO. But imagine how more striking they would look if the whole table was filled with color. So I made two more grids, and sewed them together. And then I had a 16×16, 64″ grid, and no more room on the table.

Several people have asked me how I decided which colors to put where. And why are there yellow squares and green squares off where they seem not to belong? I started with a warm quadrant and a cool quadrant. I had sorted my squares chromatically and I formed each quadrant row by row by introducing several adjacent colors into a row and then carrying them through with less frequency into the next several rows. That sounds confusing, but I had an algorithm in mind as I laid out the squares. The quadrants emerged as rough gradients, somewhat in order by hue, with some variation so as to provide more visual interest and some contrast between adjacent squares. I positioned those quadrants diagonally opposite of each other, and then constructed the remaining two quadrants to blend the warm and cool colors. But again, I wanted some contrast and I added some of those unexpected squares to help move the viewer’s eye around the quilt.

I’ve also been asked how I sewed all those squares into rows with the corners all matching up. Actually, not all the corners match up exactly, but many of them do. I do not have the patience to cut everything as exactly as I should, and I’m all for fast piecing techniques that minimize the need for pinning. I chain pieced each row of eight, first in groups of two, then sewed them into groups of four, and then finally the row of eight. The hard part was keeping the squares in order. I solved this problem by marking small numbers in the bottom right corner of each square with a ball point pen. I pressed the seam allowances all in the same direction, reversing the direction on alternating rows.Then I pinned two rows together, butting the seams together, and sewed. I added on rows until I had a quadrant. After all four quadrants were done, joining them together was just more of the same.

When you step back from the quilt, it looks large, bright, and pixelated. Was I thinking pixels when I created it? Not specifically. But I have been ruminating on some privacy-related ideas that involve pixelating faces, so maybe my subconscious was thinking about pixels. There is no hidden meaning in this one (maybe I shouldn’t tell you that, it will spoil the fun!); it is really just about color.

The STUDIO is a large room, but you can’t miss a 64″ square blast of intense, saturated color. So the quilt-in-progress started to attract attention from the various people who wandered into the room. I have had some lovely conversations with various musicians and artists who wandered by. But I was at a loss for how to quilt it. I took a photo of the quilt top, pasted it into a Powerpoint file, and auditioned various quilt patters by drawing lines over the photo. I also brought the quilt top to a Pittsburgh Fiberarts Guild meeting and asked for advice. The guild members suggested circles, swirls, anything to contrast with the regular grid. But in the end I disregarded their advice and decided to quilt straight lines. Lots of straight lines, running in every direction and in different colors. And by hand.

I do know my limits, and hand quilting little itty bitty stitches on anything larger than a handkerchief is probably not something I would have the patience to attempt. But big stitch quilting is less intimidating. I estimated I would need about 2,500 inches of quilting, which I could probably complete in 10-15 hours. So, I made plans for how to tackle this task.

But first I needed to assemble the quilt into a quilt sandwich. For a 64-inch quilt, this requires about 4 yards of fabric for the back. I hate wasting expensive fabric for the back of a wall quilt that will never be seen, so I buy clearance fabric for this purpose — the bolder and gaudier the better. My stock of backing fabric was running low so I ordered some lovely bright fabrics from Hancocks of Peducah at $3.99 a yard. It took a week or so for the fabric to arrive, and I was away for the STUDIO for much of that time anyway.

Finally back at the STUDIO I cut two 66-inch pieces of my wonderful citrus clearance fabric and sewed them together to get a wide enough piece for the quilt backing. Then I unrolled my largest piece of batting and discovered I had previously taken a big chunk out of it and now it was only about 50 inches wide. But I had just pieced the backing, so why not piece the batting as well? I dunno… never tried it, will it work? The Internet came to the rescue and I learned that piecing batting is actually pretty easy, thanks GirlReaction Crafts for a very clear photo and explanation!

Having assembled the quilt sandwich I’ve now begun quilting. Each 64-plus-inch line of stitching is taking me about 15 minutes to execute, using blue painters tape as a guide. After a few lines I switched to wider, two-inch painters tape, which was easier to lay down straight. Twelve lines in, I think this plan is going to work.

Next problem, what to call the quilt. I’m taking suggestions (if Marissa Mayer can crowd source her baby’s name, why not crowdsource naming my quilt?).

 

Sabbatical ramblings

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update, and I’ve got a bunch of random things to say… so forgive me as I ramble.

I’m working on a quilt that is bigger than I am now, so no, it is not done yet. It’s been in the works for about a month now, and maybe I will tell you more about it in my next post.

I’ve been distracted by some not-so-sabbatical-conducive activities, like start a new masters program to train privacy engineers. Really that is not the sort of activity one should do on sabbatical. But in order to have a new program start next fall, the program had to get approved and we needed to start recruiting now. Besides work on the curriculum and lining up faculty, there was some political wrangling to do. Now all we need is students. Tell your friends to apply.

I’m trying my best to stay out of my office when it is not Wednesday. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. But my students are helpfully chastising me whenever they see me in my office on a day other than Wednesday.

The STUDIO organized a bus trip to the World Maker Faire in NYC at the end of September. That seemed like a good sabbatical activity, but the thought of an overnight trip (the bus was leaving Pittsburgh at midnight) with a bus full of students was not appealing. Yes, I did a red-eye to Barcelona earlier this year, and a few hours later put on a suit and spoke in front of an audience. But I flew business class. I may be too old to sleep on a bus and end up remotely coherent the next day. So I decided to spring for a plane ticket, two actually… I brought my 11-year-old son with me too. Getting to the airport in the morning turned out to be an unexpected challenge (who knew that busses stop running 2 hours before the Great Race starts?), but after that we had a great day. Maker Faire is full of cool stuff as far as the eye can see. I was on the lookout for LEDs suitable for sewing into quilts, and I did get some good ideas. Shane was enthralled by all the 3-D printers. We watched battery-powered go-carts race in the rain (the rain ponchos I had stuffed in Shane’s backpack came in handy!), and enjoyed a display of dozens of mentos-laces soda bottles spraying their contents high into the air.

I’ve had my big screen movie debut in the feature-length documentary CODE 2600. In October we hosted the Pittsburgh premier at CMU and I moderated a panel discussion with the filmmaker. I actually have a very small part, but the rest of the movie is good, and I’ve got my own IMDb page now.

I ran my second 5k race, Run Shadyside. I’m really not a runner. I don’t run fast. A nine-year-old neighbor ran faster than I did. I don’t run when it is hot. I don’t run when it is cold. But I ran the whole way, and I finished. I even “trained” for a few weeks beforehand. It is cold now. I probably will not run again until Spring.

Eight weeks into my hair dye experiment, most of the blue had faded, leaving me with streaks of greenish grey hair, with a few bright turquoise streaks peaking out. It is a mystery to me why some strands stayed blue while the rest faded. They do, after all, reside on the same head. I wasn’t thrilled with the faded look, so I headed back to my hair dresser for another round of blue. This time there was no need to bleach my hair so she went straight for the dye, and left it in a really long time in hopes that it might last longer this time around. This resulted in turning the bleached hair a very dark indigo blue and the surrounding brown hair a dark navy, almost black. In low light, my hair looks black, but in the sun there are nice indigo highlights. Now almost two weeks into the second round of blue, it is still very dark.

A really good sabbatical activity at the end of October was chaperoning a fourth-grade field trip on RiverQuest. Normally I don’t have time to spend the day on a field trip, but I’m on sabbatical, so why not? It was a beautiful day on the water, the fall leaves were gorgeous, and the trip was really interesting. I took a lot of photos. The kids learned a lot about the health of the three rivers. They collected water samples and ran various test on the water, collected mud samples and looked for macro invertebrates, and collected plankton samples and tried to ID various plankton and microorganism. It was really a fun day!

Another project, nine years in the making, is a new kitchen for our house. I never liked the kitchen from the time we bought the house. But it took a while to figure out what I wanted instead. After much planning, construction has begun. We have now survived 10 days without a kitchen. There’s a lot you can do with a microwave and a toaster oven, but cooking without a sink is kind of a pain. The contents of our kitchen, pantry, and mudroom have been spread throughout the house.  Our old kitchen has been stripped down to its bare studs. Our contractor was somewhat surprised by how the walls are being held up. A beam expert will advise next week….

People often travel a lot on their sabbaticals, but since this is a staybatical, I’m trying to keep travel to a minimum. I actually made it through most of September and October without leaving Pittsburgh. But at the end of October I headed to Williamstown, MA to give two invited lectures at Williams College. I enjoyed my visit, and got back before Frankestorm arrived. Going to Williams was also a good excuse not to go to Uruguay for a privacy conference.

 

 

This post is brought to you by the letter B

I finished a little quilt this week. No deeper meaning in this one. It is the letter B. Or if you rotate it 90 degrees counter-clockwise it is an autumn landscape with two ponds, or a pink crocodile winking at you in the water.

This is a 12-inch square made as part of the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh‘s Artabet project. Members of the guild are making letters that will be photographed and used to create alphabet wrapping paper. There will also be an exhibit of the letters this spring. Some people asked to do their initial. I didn’t request any particular letter, so B is what I got assigned.

This quilt is mostly about shape and color. The negative spaces are as important as the positive spaces. I was aiming for a composition that was appealing even if you don’t care about the letter B, which I don’t.  I also wanted a quilt that demonstrates the techniques I like to use and my personal style.

This letter B is bright, bold, bodacious. It speaks with bravado. And yet, it is also playful (bouncy? that’s the closest synonym I can find that starts with B). When this B enters the room, heads turn.

I designed the shapes in Illustrator and printed a template, which I traced onto freezer paper. I cut out the freezer paper pieces and ironed them onto the fabric and cut around them loosely. The pink/orange part of the B is improvisationally pieced from scraps of pink and orange batiks. There are three light blue fabrics, one green, one violet. I assembled the pieces using reverse applique. For example, I loosely cut the B and layered it on the dotted blue fabric. I stitched along the edge of the B and then cut away the excess pink and orange fabric. Then I zigzagged over the raw edge. I couched (couching is sewing yarn or cord to fabric by zigzagging over the yarn) an orange and rainbow twisted yarn on the edges of the B. I filled the B with free-motion machine-quilted stipples and some random hand quilting. The blue area has straight-line machine quilting and french knots. There is some embroidery in the violet area. I attached a mitered French binding on the edges.

So there you have it: the letter B.

 

De-identification

When I applied for my sabbatical, I proposed to explore visualizing privacy concepts through art. It sounded like a plausible way to tie my research interests to my sabbatical plan, but I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to do that. Well, I have now finished my second sabbatical quilt, and it is actually about privacy. And there is a long story to go with it.

When I was at SXSW last spring, I saw a Japanese startup at the trade show that was handing out 30x lenses you could stick on your smartphone. They wanted people to use the lenses to take close-up photos of their skin problems and upload them to a social network called Beautécam. I was somewhat horrified by the concept, but happily accepted a 30x lens and hurried off to another booth. When I got home I stuck the lens on my Android phone and started taking photos. Once I got the hang of using it (it has a very short focal length) I was amazed at the detailed photos it took. I took a bunch of photos of fabrics and flowers with very nice results.

Using the lens made me think a lot about privacy. Given my research area, I think a lot about privacy anyway, but this creepy skin-care lens seemed well suited for visualizing privacy concepts. I tried to understand why the intended use of this lens had such a high “yuck” factor for me. For one thing, 30x closeup photos of skin are actually not very attractive, even if your skin is flawless, which mine certainly is not. But most of us don’t get really close-up views of very many other peoples’ skin, because that usually requires being in uncomfortably close proximity to those people. We all learn to keep a certain distance away from people out of respect for their personal space. Just how far that distance is seems to vary somewhat by culture.

In order to be in focus, an object must be within about a millimeter of the end of the 30x lens. So using this lens to photograph skin requires pressing the lens against the skin. Taking pictures of flowers with the lens requires shoving the cone-shaped lens into the center of the flower, and in some cases, gently prodding the flower into the center of the lens. So, there is no way to use the lens without invading the personal space of the person or object you are photographing. Of course, flowers don’t care, but I like the metaphor.

The flower images and the privacy metaphor especially intrigued me, and I started thinking about how I might use them in a quilt. I assembled a panel of some of my favorite flower images in Photoshop and uploaded them to Spoonflower, a company that prints digital images on fabric. About a week later Spoonflower delivered a yard of Kona cotton fabric with my images printed on it. The images looked soft and lovely on the fabric, although the colors were not as intense as in the original. After I machine washed the fabric a little more intensity was lost. Clearly the images would need embellishment to regain some of the vibrancy of the originals.

After pondering the images on the fabric for a while I decided to take advantage of the lossy images and use the fabric for a study of visual de-identification. I selected nine of the images and set out to create a 12-inch block featuring each one. I went to my fabric stash and pulled out a large stack of fabrics (mostly batiks) that blended with the colors in the flower images. Each block has these ready-made commercial fabrics spliced together with my custom-printed fabric. On some of the blocks I overlaid polyester organza, a shimmery, translucent fabric. In some blocks, I retained large areas of the flower image, with small strips of fabrics spliced between. In other blocks the flower images are chopped into small pieces and interspersed among the commercial fabrics. I put each block together improvisationally, as a mini-quilt unto itself.

I assembled nine blocks and then sewed the blocks together into a very colorful 3×3 square. I pondered what color to use to bind the quilt, and eventually decided it would look better without binding. So I decided to try the envelope method of binding in which the front and back of the quilt are layered facing each other (with the batting layered on top), sewn around the edges, and turned right-side out through a slit in the backing fabric. The slit gets covered over in the end by the hanging sleeve. The result is a nice clean, modern-looking edge to the quilt, rather than a picture frame.

The next decision, was how to quilt the piece. I decided to use a mix of techniques — free-motion machine quilting, straight-line machine quilting, hand quilting, and embroidery –and use the quilting to both add color intensity and to further de-identify the flower images. Each block has its own quilting pattern that spills out into neighboring blocks. There are fun spirals, circles, petals, and stipples free-motion quilted in bright colors. There are yellow, red, and lavender French knots, liberally sprinkled throughout. And lots of hand and machine quilted lines.

Looking at the finished piece, I see a lot going on. There are nine separate compositions that are loosely tied together (not as well as I had hoped, actually, but perhaps that’s part of the point). There are flower images rendered difficult-to-identify by the unusual close vantage point from which they were taken. These images are further obfuscated by slicing and reassembly, overlays, and stitching. The edges of images are mixed with their neighbors so it isn’t always clear what pieces belong with which images. But if you saw the original flowers, you could probably eventually re-identify most of the images. (Perhaps I will do another quilt on “re-identification.”) It is a lot like personal data de-identification, in which data is removed and digital noise is introduced, but in the end the de-identified data might be re-identified given sufficient contextual information.

Blue hair and work Wednesday

me with blue hairThis was the first official week of my sabbatical, after the summer-long soft launch. I celebrated by getting my hair dyed blue. Not all over blue, just blue highlights in front. Not shocking, you-can’t-miss-it sky blue. Rather, deep cobalt, almost indigo, make-you-look-twice-because-you’re-not-sure blue. There are a few streaks of turquoise mixed in too… I think that’s how the dye stuck to my grey hairs. The blue gets more obvious in the sunlight and when I flip it back. If I have to go somewhere where suits are required, I won’t look too terribly out of place.

I’ve gotten some interesting reactions. Some of my colleagues were confused by it. “What’s that all about?” “That’s not permanent is it?” Some people see me and exclaim, “Your hair is blue!” But for the most part, the blue hair is getting rave reviews. I’m pretty happy with how it came out, except for the fact that I have to keep wiping blue smudges off my forehead.

Some of my friends, who know I have enough purple apparel to clothe the Northwestern University marching band, have asked, why blue? Why not purple? In short, this was  a decision delegated to my  hairdresser. I have learned that I have neither the time nor the skill to coax my hair into doing anything remotely similar to what I want it to do. But my hairdresser has succeeded in getting my hair to do what she wants it to do. As long as she gives me instructions for maintaining my hair that require no more than three-minutes a day to execute, I can keep my hair looking more or less (ok, usually less) the way she wants it to look. And she wants it to be blue. We had a conversation that went roughly like this:

Me: I’m doing a sabbatical this year at the art school.

Hairdresser: Wonderful! You need an artsy hairdo. We will dye your hair blue.

I didn’t even ask her what shade of blue before she began applying bleach and wrapping my hair in little foil packets to remove the natural color, as apparently blue dye doesn’t do much for brown hair. Within the hour I had white-blond highlights. She then applied dark blue gloop to the highlighted hair, wrapped it back up in foil packets, and the next time I saw my hair it was blue.

Of course, if you have blue hair, you have to document it. Who knows, I may never have blue hair again, depending on how annoying the blue forehead smudges get. So I setup for a photo shoot in my son’s bathroom (it has blue walls and good natural light through the window, and the mirror is an added bonus) so I could capture my blue self-portrait. There’s not much room to setup a tripod in a bathroom, but I got it wedged in managed to shoot a decent self portrait.

So, with hair dyed blue, I spent the week enjoying the energy of a campus filled with students once again, content in the knowledge that I would not be teaching any classes to these students this year. I sat outside and watched them play frisbee. When a soccer ball came my way, I kicked it back. And I sat it the STUIO tying French knots on the quilt I was trying to finish this week for a competition deadline (I made the deadline, more on the quilt in my next post). But unlike the past 8 years, I did not spend the last week in August scrambling to finish a syllabus, polish off lecture slides, and get ready for a busy semester.

My sabbatical is actually a 75% sabbatical. I did promise to spend 25% of my time doing research and advising my students. And so, I have designated Wednesday as work day in my office (or in meetings). Ok, the reality is that I cannot get all my work done in one day per week, and I cannot force all meetings I need to attend to schedule themselves on Wednesdays. Indeed I spent a good chunk of Monday in meetings, and arrived on campus at 8:30 am on Friday to get a quick meeting out of the way before heading to the STUDIO. But I did manage to spend most of Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday quilting this week. And on Wednesday I had 13 meetings. In fact, I have 11 standing meetings with my students and research groups scheduled every Wednesday for the rest of the semester. (Except for next week when I’ve cancelled them all so I can go to a conference on Wednesday.)  Oh, and I’m co-directing a new masters program in privacy engineering (more on that later too).

My kids started their schools this week too. Only two days so far. Once we determined that  our school bus stop was not actually located at the corner indicated in the letter from the school district, everything has gone smoothly.

Improvisational quilting

Finished! While waiting for the storm to pass this afternoon I put the last few stitches into my first sabbatical quilt, and called it done. “Improv Quilt #2″ is (obviously) the second in my series of quilts that take more of an improvisational approach than I’m used to.

I have experimented with a lot of quilting techniques, but most of the quilts I have made were fairly well planned out before I ever started cutting any fabric. Indeed, many of my quilts have been drawn out in great detail in PowerPoint (because it is fast and easy to change color schemes), or sketched in pencil and all the pieces enlarged and traced onto fabric. I like having the ability to experiment with color and design before I “commit,” but it does make the sewing process less interesting because most of the design decisions have already been made. Piecing becomes just a mechanical process, and I start fixating on all the flaws: the corners that don’t quite meet, the squares that aren’t quite square, all the ways the finished quilt deviates from the plan. I’m not quite patient enough to take the time necessary to get everything perfectly lined up, although sometimes I rip out the flawed seams and try again.

So two years ago I decided to try being more improvisational in my quilting. In “2hip 2b square” I made freezer paper templates from an enlarged pencil sketch. But I selected the fabric as I went and pieced it without a guide before trimming it to match the templates. It was a transition piece for me: I was able to hold onto my templates, but still save many design decisions to be made while piecing.

Last year I decided to take improvising a step further when I started the improv quilt series with “Improv Quilt #1.” For this quilt, the only planning I did in advance was selecting the 10 “sunset-colored” fabrics. I made up the rules that all shapes had to be convex quadrilaterals and two shapes from the same fabric could not touch each other. So, basically all the shapes had to be four-sided boxes, but the sides did not have to be parallel. I cut and sewed, and cut up what I sewed, and sewed more things to it. And eventually the pieces got to about the right size so I trimmed them a bit so I could sew them together and the whole thing would fit into a square.

I enjoyed the improv technique and decided to try it again in a different color scheme. This quilt was designed around the blue batik fabric with the red dots. I selected 7 other fabrics from my stash that would collectively complement the red dot fabric. As it turns out, I selected all batiks except for some blue silk, which adds a bit of actual texture (the batiks all have a lot of visual texture). And I used the same rules as before and started sewing and cutting, but this time on the old Pfaff sewing machine I borrowed for the STUDIO. This project also served as a warm-up to get used to sewing on the Pfaff. Part way through I decided I needed more contrast so I added just one little strip of the yellow and green striped fabric.

Once the quilt top was pieced I started machine quilting lots of parallel lines on the Pfaff. While it is inferior to my Bernina in many ways, the Pfaff’s dual feed foot is actually a really nice feature, and perhaps better than the walking feet used on most other sewing machines to sew multiple thick layers without the layers shifting or bunching up. But as much fun as I was having sewing straight lines, the red dot fabric was posing a dilemma. I didn’t really want to sew lines through those dots.

Improv Quilt #2 detail with French knotsI went to a lecture by fiber artist Susan Brandeis, and was intrigued by her non-traditional techniques. She had brought several small pieces that were quilted with embroidery stitches. So the next day I watched a Youtube video on how to make French knots and then made a few rows of French knots in red perl cotton in the center of the red dots. My original plan was to make some French knots here and there, but I really liked to effect and making knots was somehow kind of addicting. So I started making more knots, and more, and more. And eventually every red dot in that quilt had a knot in its center. It creates a beautiful texture, and everyone who sees it seems to want to touch it. I used more red perl cotton to add texture to the red shapes with running stitches, placed strategically to match the grid design in the fabric. And I used purple perl cotton to add a stippled pattern to some of the blue shapes. I took the quilt home and did some free motion quilting on my Bernina before finishing off the last few shapes with more parallel lines. There a couple of shapes left unquilted to provide some contrast. This quilt has lots of texture, both visual and physical.

Usually I select one fabric for a double-fold French binding. But I couldn’t decide which fabric to use for the binding. I wanted more yellow/green, but thought outlining the whole quilt in it would be too much. So I opted for a binding pieced from leftover scraps of the fabrics in the quilt. I had a slight mishap when one of the seams ended up exactly in one of the corners, rendering it impossible to achieve a smooth mitered corner. I had to undo a couple of inches on either side of the corner and surgically splice in another piece of fabric after the rest of the binding was already attached (yes, this must be why I usually don’t piece bindings). Once the binding was attached I added hanging sleeves to the back, and then done! Another successful improv quilt.

As I was working on this quilt, I also realized how well it goes with the tiles I recently picked out for my kitchen renovation… perhaps I will hang it in the kitchen.

 

Soft launch

I’m a few weeks in to the “soft launch” of my sabbatical. Officially the sabbatical starts with the fall semester at the end of August. But things slow down in the summer so I’m trying to spend two days per week sabbaticing, at least for the weeks when I am in town.

My sabbatical is a “staybattical.” With 3 school-aged kids and a husband who wasn’t keen on the idea of relocating for a year, a sabbatical in some exotic foreign place was out of the question. But just because I am not going anywhere, doesn’t mean I can’t do something different, interesting, exciting, mentally liberating, intellectually restorative, relaxing, and totally awesome. I am spending my sabbatical as a fellow at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry in the Carnegie Mellon School of Art.

The first question everyone has been asking me when they hear this is, “What will you do there?” And the answer is, of course, “Art.” I have some ideas and a little bit of a plan — I had to write something on my sabbatical request form — but actually I don’t have too much of a plan. And that’s sort of the point. I want to do some quilting, I want to play with some e-textiles, I want to do a project related to privacy (that was the part I promised on my sabbatical request form), and beyond that, we’ll see…. I am just really excited to have the opportunity to spend a year being an artist and trying new things with no particular plan (while still getting paid).

A bird’s eye view of the STUDIO. On the right you can see my workspace with sewing machine.

According to the STUDIO website, “The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University is a laboratory for atypical, anti-disciplinary, and inter-institutional research at the intersections of arts, science, technology and culture.” So that seems to allow for pretty much anything.

Art has always been an interest of mine. When I was an undergraduate engineering student I minored in fine arts. I remember fondly the hours spent in the art school, and how different the environment was from the engineering school. I loved my art classes, both for the art, and for the perspective it gave me on engineering. I’m hoping that 20 years later, the experience will be just as enriching.

The STUDIO is a huge two-story high rectangular room with a recycled rubber floor and lots of tables and large Macintosh monitors. There is a construction project going on right now to make the entrance handicapped accessible so its also kind of a mess. I’ve been given 4 tables with which to carve out my workspace. I put two of the tables up on bed risers to make a tall table for ironing and cutting. I have an ironing blanket, a cutting mat, and a design board made from old conference posters covered in black fleece (the STUDIO is definitely a reuse/recycle sort of place). I have an old Pfaff sewing machine borrowed from the Drama School’s costume shop. I also have a cabinet to store my supplies and a wonderful window seat.

So, after a few weeks of spending 1-2 days per week in the studio, I have succeeded in setting up my space, locating and borrowing a sewing machine, touring the costume shop (when I picked up the sewing machine), and piecing a 2 ft x 2 ft wall quilt. I have also acquired an Arduino and several programming books. Since I am, after all, a computer science professor, I think the other folks in the STUDIO are expecting that I will write lots of code. However, for the time being, I seem to be the only one in the studio who is not writing code. There will be plenty of time for writing code. But for now I need to make something I can touch. The need to make tangible things was actually what got me started quilting in graduate school almost 20 years ago, and it is, perhaps, that need that has inspired me to keep at it.