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.



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.