Disconnected Threads, Part II

>> Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Note: This is the second part of my thinking aloud about simplicity and modern quilting.
Part II: Commerce and Quilting

As I noted in my first post, several bloggers have lamented and critiqued the noticeable increase in the sale of simple quilt patterns. There are certainly a slew of quilt patterns on the market that are relatively uncomplicated and possibly over-priced. I chose my words carefully: relatively, because the degree of complication certainly depends on the individual's experience and comfort level, and possibly, because cost is similarly dependent on perception of value.

Now a little background and a couple caveats. My mother taught me the basics of sewing; she showed me how to reattach buttons, operate a sewing machine, and piece together fabric. (Theoretically she also demonstrated how to hem pants, but I still prefer to ask her to hem my pants because I find it tricky to do by myself, or perhaps I am a touch lazy when it comes to certain matters. Anyhow...) After acquiring these skills, I became fascinated with quilting and, over the past (baker's) dozen of years, I've taught myself everything I can currently do through reading books, asking questions, perusing blogs, and ripping out a lot of seams. I've never taken a formal class and I've never purchased a stand-alone quilt pattern. I have, however, bought bag patterns and would consider buying clothing patterns if I ever figure out how to read garment patterns.

That said, I don't think there is one single way to learn how to sew or quilt. I recognize that different learning styles apply to sewing as much as they apply to school. In my early days of quilting, graph paper and colored pencils were my best tools. I used it to mock-up and reverse-engineer quilts on graph paper. Then I cut out fabric and sewed the pieces together. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. But as a math professor insisted in college, failure teaches as much as success. Indeed, failure is generally a pre-requisite to success.

In this sense, I would suggest that anyone learning how to quilt ought to plunge in and try, imperfections be damned. That said, some direction is necessary, and I would therefore suggest that, given the wealth of information on the internet, to start by trying some free tutorials. In particular, I'd send someone to Oh Fransson (for basics and patterns) and Crazy Mom Quilts (basics and patterns on her sidebar). For someone interested in traditional quilt blocks, the Modify Tradition blog would be a great resource. For some more modern options, Moda Bake Shop offers a plethora of tutorials, many of which demonstrate new techniques for conventional and improvisational quilts. (While this is sponsored by Moda, there is no requirement to use their fabrics and pre-cuts. Any fabric can be cut into 5" squares (charms) or 2.5" strips (jelly rolls) or any other staple "ingredient.")

These are just a few links that I would offer because I think they're especially clear. But there are plenty of other options out there as well, as the number of starred posts in my Google Reader attests. I would also advocate a trip to one's local public library to check out books on quilting. Some of the books may be old, but my local library stocks newer books as well. After borrowing a book, one might realize it's worth owning, at which point, buy it! Likewise, a trip to a used bookstore, a thrift store, or a yard sale might yield books to use as resources for very little money.

All of these suggestions assume that one has limited, rather than unlimited, funds and these will provide the best value. I think books are more worthwhile than stand-alone patterns because they usually include more than one pattern and they show a variety of techniques. But I also think books are most useful for learning how to reverse-engineer a quilt: being able to move back and forth between the final product and the individual stages ideally assists a new quilter in understanding the connections between steps and thus how to envision a larger quilt from smaller blocks (or how to break down a larger quilt into smaller blocks). Multiple examples only makes this more likely to happen. Thus even if money is no issue (and, please, if that's the case I know a graduate student who would happily avail herself of your sponsorship), these steps build and develop designing, sewing, and quilting skills.

Having said all this, why should I care if someone is selling a pattern to a strip quilt or a pinwheel quilt or rail-fence quilt or any number of straightforward (to me) patterns? First, I think it's ethically dubious to market and sell a pattern that is available elsewhere for free. No one can or will stop this sale, but this sort of commercial enterprise takes advantage of people who may not be aware that they could find a free tutorial in blogland. Of course, no one is forced to buy the pattern but selling something that can be easily attained for free remains problematic to me -- as Michelle has pointed it, it smells of a swindle. Second, I think it's intellectually questionable if not completely dishonest to sell a pattern that -- if easily available online for free -- hardly "belongs" to the pattern writer. It may not be copyrighted and thus it may be legal to sell it, but that doesn't make it right.

I've developed some tutorials (and have some in the works....that machine-binding tutorial will be posted one day), and I recognize it takes time to produce them. Nevertheless, I have posted free tutorials -- much to the chagrin of my far-more-entrepreneurial brother -- because I think it contributes to the larger crafting community. I know that sounds idealistic, but I truly believe that there is and should be give-and-take. As a result, I'm far more likely to buy a pattern (well, a bag pattern anyways) from someone like Rae who posts tutorials for free as often as she sells them.

In my mind, encouraging learning and encouraging other people to enhance their skill-set serves a communal good, and I want to contribute to and support that. There is much to be said about valuing an individual's time, and pattern/tutorial-writing absolutely times time and effort, thought and thoroughness. But given the choice, I will prioritize community over the individual, especially when the individual (person or pattern) is merely recreating something already available. I can't make anyone follow my personal ethic, but I can question the need -- by some, though certainly not all -- to commercialize the basics.

Quilting is part of the larger web of global commerce. This has positive dimensions, such as the availability of beautiful fabric world-wide and the ability of new designs and ideas to traverse oceans. But it also has negative, even pernicious elements, in which craving financial opportunities outweighs participation in fertile, free exchange of knowledge. As I see it, the latter represents a better option, a means of contributing to the larger common good. It's not curing cancer or eliminating world hunger, but it is a chance to, in the words of one of my favorite children's books, make the world a more beautiful place (Miss Rumphius).


Disconnected Threads, Part I

>> Monday, March 28, 2011

image from here

Note: I had every intention of finishing and posting these thoughts last week, but life (in the form of wonderful friend coming to visit) intervened, so I'm late to the party, and not fashionably so. Nevertheless I'm posting this as a record of my thoughts and welcome your thoughts and feedback as well. I'm also going to separate this into two posts, given the length.

There have been a number of posts this (last) week grappling with the role of simplicity in modern quilting/design and in the commercial quilting economy.  Sandi led off with a provocatively titled, but quite fair and reasonable, post, "The Dumbing Down of Quilting," which she followed up with several more posts surveying what her readers do and want to do as well as a plan of action via a forthcoming skill-building series on her blog. I give her a lot of credit for publicly raising issues that I've heard others whisper and silently grumble about (can one really grumble silently? perhaps "softly" is more accurate). Michelle noted her own frustration about the sale of simple patterns, many of which are available through free tutorials or could be worked out with a little arithmetic; she's added some important questions here. Michelle also pointed me Ali, who expressed frustration about the sale of patterns that one could reverse-engineer and to Carrie, who has an important post that links the issue of "dumbing-down" to business matters.

I think these posts all raise important questions about modern quilting and the modern quilter. But I think they sometimes conflate issues that are not necessarily linked: a simple/challenging spectrum (and the correlated matter of simple for whom and simple according to what) and the relationship among quilters, blogs, and the commercial sewing industry.

Part I: Simple/Complicated 

I enjoy making simple quilts, and I enjoy challenging myself to learn new techniques. I also think looks are deceiving, and what appears simple may be complicated -- if not in execution, then in design. For example, this quilt is one of the most interesting ones I've seen pop up in my google reader of late:

 Image from here.

Let's take a look at it more closely. On the surface, the design is pretty simple: a column of paired half-square triangles surrounded by a solid (as I write this, I realize my non-sewing blog-reading friends might be smirking at this "quilty-babble"). I can figure out how to make this, and in fact I plan to make a version of it later this spring (emphasis on plan). But what makes the quilt work is a combination of wise decisions about color (in this case, decisions that started with a photograph), about layout, and about quilting. In fact, Lynn is an experienced quilter who has shown skilled precision piecing, curvesquilting, and applique in addition to "simpler" and improv-style quilts. I think her stunning Zinnias quilt is only possible because of her skill and experience in other areas. In this sense, I think we need to separate "adequate-simple" from "stunning-simple." I think I'm pretty good at the former and have a long way to go in terms of the latter.

Likewise, I think it's important to disaggregate simple-looking from simple technique, simple skills, simple color choices, etc.

A charm-square quilt is simple in a number of ways: it uses pre-cut squares (no cutting or fabric choosing necessary) and it relies on straight-stitching and chain-piecing (only requires knowing how to sew a 1/4" seam). The quilting could be complicated, but the one I made and linked to is rather straightforward: vertical and horizontal lines on either side of all seams. It's simple but it's a great exercise in layout because it does matter how the squares are arranged: the distribution of color and print size can -- and will - make or break this quilt.

Similarly, a strip quilt isn't too complicated to put together: cut a bunch of strips of coordinating fabrics, sew, and voila, a quilt. It's especially easy if it's no wider than 40" as you don't even need to piece strips together. But again, it does require aesthetic decision-making about fabrics that work together, about how wide to cut each strip, about how to place colors relative to one another, and about sewing a consistent 1/4" seam. The quilting can be really straightforward or, as in the first strip quilt I linked to, it can provide an opportunity to test out a new design, in that case stars.

To be clear, both of these types of quilts are simple in design and technique. They offer wonderful opportunities for beginners to piece their first quilt, and they're fantastic go-to quilts for more experienced quilters who want to make a quick quilt or showcase a fabric line (I plan to make a charm-square quilt for myself out of Kate Spain's Central Park line because I really like it). They're not complicated and they're not technically advanced. I think pinwheels -- the block labeled "intermediate" in the Sew Mama Sew post that rankled Sandi -- are similarly basic, part of the building blocks of more advanced -- in technique and design -- quilting. But any of these can be done well or poorly, using weak or strong technique, and drawing on bland or striking fabrics, and that distinction is, to me, quite important.

Part II: Commerce and Quilting...Coming Soon


Items of Note

>> Thursday, March 24, 2011

The good....Natalie received my dqs10 pojagi panel. Check out her blog post for, among other things, super-cute pictures of her cats debating how they feel about the new art in their home. She also documents our one-sided conversations over the past couple of months, in which I posed questions or posted pictures and hoped she would respond, while she responded not knowing how gratified to hear from her.

The important...

Modern Relief is at it again, this time raising money for Japan via a quilt raffle. The raffle will take place April 4, and you "buy" tickets to it through donations to Mercy Corps. As I know people in and with strong connections to Japan and I know people who have worked for Mercy Corps, I really like this combination. I've emailed the coordinators about donating a quilt and, pending their word, you may be able to win a two hippos original quilt.

The complicated....I started what became a long post about challenging questions about the spectrum of easy/hard, simple/complicated quilts, but it's become too long for this post, so I'll post it separately soon.


The Big Reveal

>> Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's finally finished! I'm really pleased with the way this string quilt turned out.  I followed this paper-piecing method (which also happened to be the method used by a small group quilt-along I joined). While there are quicker ways to piece a string block, this method creates a pattern out of the red center strings that I don't think is possible from the quicker methods (perhaps I'm wrong?).

Although the blocks primarily use black and white fabrics, I threw in a few more red prints for some variation. I tried not to overthink the fabric choices within each block. Aside from not repeating the same fabrics within a block, I picked up a strip of fabric and attached it. If I sued a red print, I hewed to two per block and one per side, though I didn't necessarily use a red print (aside from the center solid).

The wind made it challenging to get a good picture of the back of the quilt, and this was the best my wonderful assistant (who wanted to be invisible) and I could get. Michelle helped me out by sending me some black and white blocks that made their way to the back of the quilt. Originally I envisioned using string blocks on the back of the quilt, much like I created the column of blocks here, and using a completely different pattern on the front. Once I started making the string blocks, however, I opted to continue making them and using them on the front. When it comes to quilt design, I change my mind all the time. It's the one area of my life in which I fully and truly embrace going with the flow and ditch planning.

The free-motion stippling on the quilt almost killed me. It certainly killed a lot of thread, some of which stayed in the quilt and much of which got ripped out. The red solid is "Christmas Red" from Moda, and it's a cheery, bright red. I used it for the binding as well, which I think helps frame the quilt. At 60" x 72" this is a large lap quilt, and I hope this quilt is well-used for many years in the future.

My sister loves red, black, and white and used this color combination for her wedding. In addition, she and her husband have a large black dog (who growls at me every time she sees me and, really, dislikes anyone who is not my sister or her husband). While this leaves me less than fond of Snoop, I figure the quilt will hide her fur fairly well.


DC Modern Quilt Guild

>> Monday, March 21, 2011

On Saturday, I ventured over to Ebenezers Coffeehouse* to join the DC Modern Quilt Guilders (guildfolk?). And I mean join quite literally as I exchanged 4 quarters for that lovely membership card above. Despite my mental note to stop by the bank, I managed not to accomplish that task before arriving which meant I only had loose change. But Natalie seemed ok with my monetary complications.

I met some wonderful quilters. While this was my first guild meeting, I've been to other craft meet-ups, and I'm always impressed with the distance some folks travel to get there. It indicates how much meeting people in real life and forming communities really matters. Natalie demonstrated how to hand-piece hexagons. I'm months, if not years, late to the hexagon trend, but I was very grateful to learn how to make them.

I'm living a bit nomadically for the rest of the month and then I'll be in New York for 2 months later in the spring. During my nomadic sojourns and time in the big apple, I'll be without a sewing machine. When I was in NY two summers ago, I learned the hard way that I need to be able to sew. Admittedly, I don't need to sew like I need to drink water and eat, but it's pretty close. For me, sewing is part-relaxation, part-creative time, part-therapy. Going without is tough. But this time, I'll bring paper hexagons, scraps, scissors, thread, a needle, and a pin and have something to do with my hands. What exactly I'll make is still unclear, but I'm trawling the web for inspiration. I'm certainly open to other hand-sewing ideas (or the old sewing machine that belongs to your great-grandmother's friend's grand-niece in Brooklyn who wants to loan it to a random stranger for a couple months, that would work too).

*DC has very few good, local coffee shops; Ebenezers is one of the few good ones. I recommend it if you're looking for a nice place to work, read, or meet up with friends. It's right by Union Station, so convenient for meeting up with your traveling friends as well.


Pojagi Complete!

>> Thursday, March 17, 2011

I finished up "Bom," my pojagi panel for DQS10. I finally decided to approach the binding as a rolled hem. I realized that I couldn't iron a quarter-inch seam, but I could iron a half-inch seam. As a result, I ironed the half-inch and then folded the edge into the fold and ironed again -- the same way I make handles for bags. This worked well and will be my new go-to method.

The picture makes the two shot cottons look more starkly different than they do in person. What's neat in person is that, depending on the light, the panel can look like it contains 4 different fabrics. Because the warp and weft of the fabric use different colors, the orientation of the piece of fabric alters which thread color looks stronger. The lighter green therefore sometimes looks more blue or more yellow, while the darker green looks more bright green or more gray-green.

As the picture shows, it's cherry blossom season in DC. Since my partner loves Japanese fabrics, this seems like perfect timing. It also means that spring is truly about to arrive, and I look forward to the realization of the weatherman's prediction of mid-60s and sun today and mid-70s tomorrow on Friday. Now I will be inside most of the day at the archives, but I'm hoping to duck outside for lunch at the very least. While spring is not my favorite season, it is DC's finest season, and I will enjoy the advent of what I like to call "chaco weather" earlier than it arrives in the Midwest.

The cherry trees were, of course, a gift from Japan to the United States. For those looking for a way to help Japan as it recovers from the recent earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis, google is helping coordinate donations to reputable groups as well as help people locate loved ones.


Get Thee to a Post Office

>> Wednesday, March 16, 2011

It's been a motivation-less morning, which apparently leads me to use Shakespearean pronouns. I mean, did Shakespeare ever get burnt out or lose the will/discipline to get things done? His output was pretty tremendous, after all. Whereas I'm feeling burnt-out, work-wise. I know it happens to the best of us, and I'm pretty aware of the causes of this malaise, but I'm still trying to strike the balance between pushing through and stepping back for a break. 

(It probably didn't help that I stumbled across this treetop adventure/ropes course website, as I love high ropes courses and zip lines. That seems like a lot more fun than work. Want to come and play in the trees?)

And then there are the more basic things I need to do. Like going to the post office. I have one package ready to mail and a couple others on the horizon. The coasters above are part of the ready-to-post parcel (because I like British English today), and they're an extra treat to apologize for the extreme tardiness of the gift-to-be-mailed (lateness upon lateness might be the theme here). 

I have yet to decide whether I prefer to finish coasters by wrestling with binding or flipping-and-top-stitching. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. In the absence of a definitive opinion, I'll stick with my current ad-hoc method, which is to say, I do whatever I feel like doing at the time. I'll show the full set soon, but suffice it to say I had fun playing with the scraps from the larger project to make these coasters.


Coming Soon

>> Sunday, March 13, 2011

I've held on to these Modern Meadow prints for a while now, but I finally took the plunge and cut into them. I have a box of fabric collections and combinations that I know I want to use but sequester to look at and pet but never cut set aside for the perfect project. It's a good feeling to use them, since they exist to be used, and I'm liking what I've come up with thus far (it's a belated wedding gift that I hope to finish, send, and share soon).

I'm also using this project as a chance to photograph and write up my machine-binding method. I know there are plenty of tutorials out there, but I also know there are people seeking options. Since I only machine-bind my quilts, I've experimented with a lot of different methods and have developed mine out of an assortment of tips and tricks shared by others. It only seems fair to spread the wealth.

A question for those who might use this tutorial: do you prefer a detailed blog post or a printable document? I can see benefits to both, and I'm debating the best way to do it. If you have preferences or experience with making and posting pdfs v. writing out a blog post, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Spring Ahead

>> Saturday, March 12, 2011

It's a good thing that NPR informed me that we're springing ahead, time-wise, tonight because I might not have realized it otherwise. Clock-switching also wreaks a touch of havoc on my sleep patterns as I'm one of those people for whom light is the best alarm clock. Actually I'm pretty good at setting and responding to mental alarm clocks (my ability to wake up 3 minutes before my alarm goes off is both a blessing and a curse), but light is the key factor in my rising. In a dark room, I can sleep in. Otherwise, it's not going to happen. Now this doesn't mean I pop out of bed immediately, because I don't; rather, I lie in bed, semi-awake listening to Morning/Weekend Edition, thinking, or, if more awake, reading (a decadent treat). So whenever the time switches, it takes me about a week to get used to the new light situation (more or less) after which my circadian rhythms adapt to the slight day-by-day changes quite easily.

But speaking of spring, I've also made progress on my pojagi DQS10 quilt. It's almost done. I need to decide how I'm going to add a label, which is a DQS requirement, in a way that doesn't detract from the design. I also need to decide how to finish the quilt -- whether I want to add a more traditional quilt binding or whether I'll fold the edges in and sew, sort of like a hem, but also more in line with the pojagi technique. I think the latter would be more fitting but I'm not sure I trust my ability to iron and sew the edges in a straight line. I might practice first and see how it goes.


Bom: Pojagi Progress

>> Monday, March 7, 2011

According to trusty Google translate, "bom" is the phonetic version of "spring" in Korean. I'm not really clear on whether "bom" refers to the season spring, to a fresh water spring, to springing up from the ground, or perhaps all of the above. Perhaps one of my readers will enlighten me. I looked up the Korean word for spring because my current project (for DQS10) evokes spring, with its green colors. As previously noted, my partner really likes Asian prints, motifs, and craftwork, and I decided to make a pojagi wall-hanging. I'm not sure if I'm more excited about the new technique I've learned (I'm using the first option described here) or with the shot cottons I picked up for this quilt. Shot cottons are special in that the warp and weft use two different colored yarns which result in a piece of cloth that can look multicolored or more textured. I opted for 2 greens: the darker green uses green and blue threads while the lighter one is actually a composite of yellow and blue (which appear green, per the color wheel I first encountered in elementary school art class).

This image, which highlights how the seams help make the art, also gives a glimpse at the shot cottons work. You can see the grain-like pattern in each rectangle, which is created by the different colored threads. (The darker part of the rectangle at the top is the most recent fabric attached but not yet finished.) I chose to sew with gray thread because I didn't like how any of the green thread I owned looked with both of the colors. I also like the gray for its sturdy-work quality, as pojagi was originally a utilitarian wrapping cloth used by workers or the commoners in feudal kingdoms.

It took me a few tries to get the seams correct and even more rounds to feel comfortable with the technique (and not need to refer to the tutorial on my computer each time I ironed a seam). But once I got going, it moved pretty quickly. I still have plenty of work to go, but I like how it's shaping up.


High Tech/Low Tech

>> Sunday, March 6, 2011

I spend most of my work day in the archives right now, seeking out sources and material for my dissertation. (Except on Friday, when I was felled by a stomach bug. But that's enough about that.) Researching in the archives mean a lot of flipping through documents and skimming or scouring them for relevant information. It also means taking a lot of pictures. One of the benefits of the digital age is the possibility (in some, though not all archives) of photographing material which saves money (photocopies are expensive -- in archives, they often run from 25-40 cents a page) and time (I don't transcribe everything right there and can return to the original document later). This also means I set my camera on a table while flipping carefully turning pages. And sometimes I look up and catch a random, abstract image that just looks cool. And might be an interesting idea for a quilt. Like the image above. We'll see.

I've spent the past couple of weeks quilting my sister's wedding quilt. Yes, weeks. In the process, I've probably ripped out 1/2 - 2/3 of the stitches because they had gaping loops on the back. I expected a transition, shall we say, from my old machine to my new one, but I thought free-motion quilting would be easier: I have a better foot (more metal, less plastic), the feed dogs drop, and the automatic tension setter worked great for piecing. Ha. I was wrong. But I couldn't figure out why I was having so much trouble.

Until today, when I finally figured out that the problem was not the tension or the type of needle but an unforeseen consequence of dropped rather than covered feed dogs. My new machine has all sorts of metal, which is generally a good thing as it's more durable than plastic. But the sharp metal edges of the area where the feed dogs lie is a problem (that's the area right behind the see-through bobbin and right below the foot/needle in the picture above). As I moved the quilt, stitches were getting caught in the metal edges and messing up pretty much everything. Not only was the quilt getting caught far too frequently, but the caught section often yielded knots on the quilt and random threads getting pulled out.

I created the most low-tech solution possible by taping a piece of paper, actually a piece of a used envelope, over the feed dog area. This solved the problem. I finished quilting the last 1/5 of the quilt in 1 hour. I do know how to free motion quilt after all! But quick solution notwithstanding, I'm not sure why this is an issue. Janome is a reputable manufacturer so there's no reason for this type of nonsense (that said, I continue to really love my machine). I'm now awaiting some fabric to bind the quilt; hopefully I'll be able to show the whole thing soon. I also have multiple baby quilts in the work for friends' offspring due over the next few months as well as a doll quilt for DQS10 to complete, so lots to do.

But first I'm off to find myself a chocolate-chip muffin, or the ingredients to make some...


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