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.





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.

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.