Thursday, July 26, 2012

Circular Quilts, New and Old

As a quilter for nearly 20 years (!), I have a particular passion for quilted circles, medallions, mandalas, Mariner’s Compasses, radiating stars, kaleidoscopes, and such. Circles make some of the most fascinating quilts, not to mention quilt books and tools  –  so, of course,  I collect ‘em all! Some of my favorite approaches to circular quilts:  
  •  I’ve probably made a half-dozen quilts using Marilyn Doheney’s 9-degree circle wedge rulers, including the quilt at the top of this story. With this system, you strip-piece fabrics into sets, then place a wedge-shaped ruler in different positions on the set, and cut out wedges. The design possibilities are so infinite that a quilter named Sheila Finklestein wrote an amazing book called “Magic Quilted Mandalas,” showing a multitude of results that can be achieved by placing wedge rulers like Doheney’s onto striped fabrics – exclusively. If Finklestein had gotten into using multiple fabrics, not just one or two with stripes, the book would have turned into Wikipedia. Using Finklestein's approach, here's the center of a baby quilt I made using a single striped fabric for the central circle:
  • Similarly, Cheryl Phillips’ “WedgeWorks” books use a 15 degree ruler, strip piecing and wedge-cutting at different angles to create satisfying circular stars.
  • Bethany Reynolds’ bestselling and user-friendly“Stack’n’Whack” approach has quilters using the lines on their clear acrylic rulers to cut wedges. (This is a chuppah/wedding canopy I made using her techniques):

  • Gail Garber’s spectacular “Stellar Journeys” book uses wedges which can be created by  paper-foundation piecing, or piecing from templates.
  • Ricky Tims’ ‘Kool Kaleidoscope’ approach has quilters strip-piece fabric sets, cut them out with templates, then join sets, to make complex repeating wedges.
  • At the top of the complexity and technical challenge scale, there’s Paula Nadelstern, queen of the kaleidoscope, with her incredibly intricate, plastic template-based construction.
  • Far at the other end of the precision spectrum, I’ve enjoyed Dianne S. Hire’s book, “QuiltersPlaytime,”  which includes directions for  creating funky imprecise medallions, made with the wedge shapes that are strip-pieced and cut by eye.  
  • (I have not yet read, but high on my wishlist are RaNae Merrill’s two books about spiral mandala quilts).
So, speaking as a circular quilt geek, I was pretty darn excited when I received a review copy of C& T’s book “Circle Quilts;Create Dramatic Medallions from Strip-Pieced Rings,” by Colleen Granger.
Like all the quilters named above, Granger is an innovator. She’s come up with a new way to subdivide a circle: Rather than creating wedges that start in the middle and extends to the circle or star’s outer edge, many of her circles are constructed in concentric rings. Each ring consists of repeated paper-pieced arcs. Completed arcs are sewn together to form the entire ring; and consecutive rings are topstitched together, using invisible thread and a small zigzag stitch, to form the medallion.

When rings are laid together, the colors line up to form unique designs. Like the image on the cover, many are angular, high-energy, and very striking, reflected in names like ‘Tornado Alley,’  and ‘Shazam!’ All three have unusual asymmetric lightening-like jagged shapes emanating from the center, some in a spiral. If I’d first come across these quilts at a quilt show, I would probably have stared at them for a long time before finally giving up hope of figuring out how they were done!

The book provides black-and-white drawings of each quilt, which you can color in, with spaces to glue fabric swatches.  The drawings, with their unusual subdivisions, are also works of art in and of themselves; it’s fascinating to look at the drawings and figure out how the color and shape placement in each individual ring relates to the next ring to create new shapes.  

There are also a couple of floral-feeling circle projects, including “Blooming Garden” and “Flower Dance,” which create the illusion of curves, when in fact all the piecing is straight lines.

Another interesting touch is that some the centers are constructed from many pieces. (Rather than just appliquéing one circle in the middle.) There are helpful tips for getting multiple seams to meet neatly at the center.

And there are directions for what Granger calls “power piecing”. The technique is copiously illustrated with photographs, which is a very good thing, because foundation paper piecing can be very confusing!

I’m wild about her ‘Labyrinth’ quilt;  it’s made up of tiny squares, but they’re not cut individually; for this pattern, the quilter makes strip sets, and those are pieced into arcs. She describes the (fun)‘brown bag’ method for randomly choosing strips for this project.

There are plenty of extras. Granger provides directions for finishing a round quilt; or, for setting the circles into a square or rectangular setting. There are also directions for mitering borders, and for four different pieced zig-zaggy borders that reflect the “lightening bolt” feel of the circles.  There’s a ‘Shazam’ pillow project, with instructions for adding piped cording, and installing a zipper (something quilters don’t practice much, so explanations are appreciated.)  There are directions for creating bias and straight cut binding; for making labels, and for creating hanging sleeves for circular and rectangular quilts.

An interesting detail: Granger says that, with her round quilts, “I insert stainless spring steel in my bindings to help hold the quilts round and taut.” I never heard of that before, but she refers the reader to her website www.sewlittletimequilting.com.  There, I found a product called “Quilt Shaper Light," stainless steel that is threaded into the binding to hold the quilt stiff – Pretty interesting!?   

I hope she writes a new book, soon, because I want more! More about how she develops designs, and more quilt patterns too!  

In sum, this book is fun, clear, brilliant and innovative - a worthy addition to the best circular/kaleidoscopic/medallion quilting literature, with excellent, clear directions that confident beginners and advanced quilters can use and enjoy.

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