Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Quilty House Portrait: A Labor of Love

I've made a lot of cityscape quilts, and I always have a blast doing them. Here's one, "Nonsense Town." 

And here's a closeup of some of the buildings. Let's look at that orange one. 

With a single plaid, I suggested zillions of windows. The other buildings, similarly, have relatively few pieces representing hundreds of windows.

Below is an even simpler example, a potential skyscraper made from two print fabrics. It would take 4 minutes to cut out and sew together. The darker perspective side gives it a nice dimensionality. Modern skyscrapers require so little time to represent so much living/office space.

And here's a 14" pillow I just finished for a dear friend, who I've known since 2nd grade, portraying her charming childhood  home. This took freaking months.

We started with some old photos, including this one: 
Online, we found more photos, though none with a good head-on view....
She also sent me a lovely sketch that a friend had made 40 years ago. Unfortunately for me, the artist  opted for geographically-accurate foliage in some of the trickier areas, perspective-wise, so it didn't give me a lot of guidance.
I came up with my first draft of a pattern by tracing the dark, ancient photo, with her standing in front. (The disruptive lines are the tree.)

I wanted to include her, but she nixed that. So, after several drafts from several angles, here's the simplified drawing : 
(I moved the tree. It ended up disappearing completely.)

The tracing and drawing was done in my graphic design program, CorelDraw (but you could do this all on paper). Then I upsized it to about 14", which required four sheets of letter-size paper. I taped them together, taped the whole thing to a window, and started tracing pattern pieces. 
I traced every element of the house onto a new piece of paper. I cut them out, flipped them to the back, and traced them onto the back of paper-backed fusible web.  Here are just a few.
We also had to work out the colors. Since computer color is unreliable, I sent her to the hardware store to look at paint swatch cards. She sent me 8 of them, with notes. 
From those I picked a palette. Most are solids, but there's a faux red brick novelty fabric, and the plaid on the bottom represented the grid under the porch. I chose pieces a little darker because I knew the house would need contrast for its many different sections to show. 

My friend had some more specific requests. She wanted a Dutchman's Pipe on the porch, and since I had no idea what that was, she sent me photos.

Layer by layer, I traced each piece, cut it out, and pressed it in place, on top of an applique press sheet. When everything was just barely fused in place, it was time to choose a background. I set the house on a couple of different candidate skies and took photos to send her. This one's dramatic...
But perhaps a little bleak; good for a Wuthering Heights pillow. 

I liked this one, but the batik didn't really go with the flat house colors: 
I liked this rainbow/unicorn sky, and my friend is a very colorful person. 
And more. The one she selected was also my favorite, with puffy white clouds. I think it gives the house a dreamlike quality, appropriate for a nostalgic memory project. 
After fusing the house onto the large sky square, I stitched everything in place, using a machine satin stitch, or, for the tiniest pieces, straight stitch (like the dark strips of the porch railing). 

The windows needed panes - I hand-embroidered those with white pearl cotton, using a backstitch.  I also hand embroidered the heart motif in the top red triangle, and the other red trim areas.  
I called my friend to find out what color her doorknob was and what side of the door it was on. For that, I used a vintage metal shank button.  She also mentioned the mailslot on the door, which I hadn't seen in any photos, so that was a last minute addition.
And she requested a lilac bush on the left. 
The lilac blooms and bush were cut with pinking shears, fused in place, and then freemotion stitched. I chose a fantasy aqua color because a more botanically-accurate dark green was in the house on that side.

So speaking of fabrics, how many separate cut, fused and stitched pieces would you guess went into this house? I'm counting around 70, not including the background sky. 

(There's one more fabric on the pillow's back, a different sky, because I ran out of the puffy cloud fabric on front. The  pieces are overlapped, with hook-and-loop tape holding them in place.)
This project was a labor of love. It made my dear friend very happy, which was the point. I learned a lot that will be very useful. But it does leave me with a burning question for you and me: If a client (who was not a lifelong friend) wanted a 14" pillow with a portrait of their gorgeous, detailed, gingerbread-style home, how much would you charge? 

Interested in portraying much more real estate, much faster?  Check out my new book, "Quilted New York; Celebrate the City in Color and Fabric," at

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Tallit Commission: A Time for Machine Embroidery

Here's my latest commission, and although I live in California, and the client lives in the southeast USA, it was made with help from one of the best Judaica machine embroiderers on the planet, Marilyn Levy of Ontario, Canada. It's a tallit (prayer shawl) for a young man's bar mitzvah. 

Like all my commissions, this one started out with a  discussion with the young man's family. They wanted cotton, with a leafy design, in blue and grey, so I drew up choices.

They liked #1 best, the simple vines. What was most unusual - and why they needed a custom tallit instead of one off the rack - was that they wanted Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 on the atarah, the long rectangular band that marks the collar.

You know this verse: it begins, "To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven." 

An atarah is optional - store-bought shawls sometimes carry the embroidered prayer for donning it. But I've never seen one with this particular verse. 

Initially, the family hoped we could fit in the entire verse, which is a long paragraph. They wanted the letters big enough to read from a distance. I make a sketch to show them what this might look like. 

That convinced them that just the first line might be better. They wanted it in Hebrew and English. I told them I could only do this job if I brought in a subcontractor. I contacted my friend Marilyn Levy, a.k.a. "the TALLITmaaven," who graciously agreed to help. So now we had a three-way, international collaboration, with the family telling us what they wanted, Marilyn showing us what's possible in embroidery, and me getting everyone on the same page and doing the construction.

After much back and forth, here's a printout of Marilyn's design; the family was happy with the size and fonts she chose. (The straight lines help with placement; it's not part of the design.) Full size it was about 22" long.

I printed it out onto paper, cut out the lettering area and taped the two pieces together. I used that long paper strip to block out the area of the tallit where it would lie, and started sewing the other elements in place around it, while waiting for Marilyn to finish the fabric version. 

Marilyn did a gorgeous, flawless job with the atarah, as I knew she would. 

A little closer: 

She also embroidered the boy's name a few times, so I was able to cut those out and place them inside the tallit, inside a kippah (hat), and inside the quilted tallit case I made to hold everything. Here's the front of the case. The secret to quilting those lines so straight....
....was that I used my walking foot to quilt it from the reverse side, a star print, following the lines of the stars in three directions. Below you can see the print under the top flap. Lower down, the silver thread that shows against the blue was in the bobbin. One of the name tags is on the lower left (I blurred the name for this post.) 
I also made a pair of kippot with the same blue fabric, with grey binding.
The one on the left is reversible, but the other one, not so much, because of where the name tag went, as you can see below. (I didn't want to set the name lower, fearing it would interfere with the fit.) The hat pattern is from my book, The Uncommon Yarmulke (sold in my etsy shop at I used the "large, 4-panel" pattern on p. 19, which fits most teens and adults.
On the tallit, I freehand machine stitched veins on the leaves, and 6-pointed stars on the "pinot" (corner squares), with silver metallic thread. The leaves contain Decor Bond, a midweight fusible interfacing, which  gave them a bit of depth and stabilized them for embroidery. There's also Decor Bond backing the corner squares, which makes them strong for their duties holding a satin stitched buttonhole to surround the tzitzit, the ritual macrame strands, in place.

Like so many commissions, this one was not without its moment of terror. Marilyn put the package with the atarah and name labels into the mail, and headed off on vacation. After a week, the package vanished from the tracking system. I couldn't find it in the Canadian or the US mail. It didn't turn up on its due date, a Friday. My incoming US mail alerts showed no sign of it.

I lay awake that night, imagining the worst. What if it never showed? What if I had to do the embroidery myself, by hand? I decided to give hand embroidery a shot, just for my peace of mind. I spent the weekend doing the best hand embroidery I could possibly do, using Marilyn's paper printout as my model. Here's the result.

The closer you get, the messier it looks. This: 

Versus this: 
The handmade version is charming and might work for a compassionate blood relative; but it's not a job for a client. 

Thankfully, on Monday, Marilyn's atarah appeared, seemingly out of nowhere (according to two country's tracking systems).  I was thrilled with it.
The tallit and its accessories reached the family with plenty of time to spare. But you know how you sometimes find yourself buying fabric for the last quilt you finished? That's what sort of happened to me after this project. 

In this case, I started looking at embroidery machines, thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could do this?" 

And then I answered myself. Machine embroidery is a complicated hobby and/or business. The cost and complexity of an embroidery machine is just the beginning. 

Then there's the knowledge, skill, time, and money required for acquiring and understanding lots of software; designing, sizing, adjusting, stabilizing, hooping and rehooping required for large, complicated designs including bilingual Bible verses on atarahs; not to mention mountains of threads you have to buy, and thread changes you must perform. Most of these things are so clearly not my strengths. But partnering with Marilyn who loves all this and does it so well - that was my idea of fun! 

I also vowed to learn a little more about hand-embroidery. I enjoyed doing it, even if the results were not suitable for formal occasions. I do wonder if flawless hand-embroidered  lettering - especially Hebrew lettering - in a reasonable amount of time is possible. If you've done it, I'd love to see and hear about your approach! 

To learn more about Marilyn's gorgeous Judaica, go to her website, More examples of my (mostly not machine embroidered) tallitot and their backstories are on my website, at

Monday, January 9, 2023

Sock Creature Do-Over for a Baby

Back in 2006, when my kids were in grade school, I became obsessed with the book, "Stupid Sock Creatures" by artist John Murphy. I made a bunch of them, including this entity, with a single two-button eyeball.

Well, now I have a grandson, so I removed the single choking-hazard eye, and replaced it with two embroidered felt eyes.

He's a little less weird, and a lot less dangerous.

There are now three books in Murphy's sock creature book series, and I'm warning you; making them is addictive. Even more addictive is shopping for the materials. You'll find yourself as I did spending hours in Target's sock and glove aisle, looking for the loudest most fun pop-art accessories! 

With Murphy's approach, the heel of the sock easily becomes the derriere, and they sit up nicely (with something behind them).

Murphy is a very interesting guy and you can learn more about him, his influences, and his thoughts about making a living as an artist, here. 

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Celebrate New York City! Make a Quilt!

My favorite things in life (aside from people) include most foods; most quilts made by someone other than me; and many aspects of New York City, which is sorta my ancestral homeland. 

So I am thrilled to announce that after a lifetime of gestation (plus a year of actual work), my book, "Quilted New York; Celebrate the City with Fabric and Color" is in print and available! 

Here’s the proof, my new book in my old hand, wearing my Dad's even-older ring (I think my grandmother gave it to him in the 40s). My Mom’s ring is on my other hand. I wish they were here, because New York City played a big role in their lives.

The book has detailed directions for making 11 structures inspired by iconic NYC architecture. There are two quilt patterns, one for this quilt, which I call "Color Block New York." (It can be about 70" square, more or less, depending on border choices.)

And for people with less wall space, there's "New York Condensed," which is about 60" square. 

My Dad's mother, a turn-of-the-century immigrant from Poland, settled in a one-room tenement apartment in Williamsburg (at 182 S. Third Street). Her husband abandoned the family, so she raised two sons alone, toiling at a sewing machine in a leather pocketbook factory. It’s such an irony that the sewing which wore her down brings her granddaughter so much joy. I understand how much luckier I am than her; the unconditional love she showered on us despite so many years of hard labor is one of the reasons I have the luxury of enjoying recreational stitching.  

My Mom was a death camp survivor from Radom, Poland, who moved to Brooklyn after the war. 

New York City gave both of them refuge and an excellent education. Dad earned an undergrad degree from NYU, and a graduate degree at Columbia U's Teacher's College; his tuition was paid by the GI Bill because of his combat service in WWII. I don't know how Mom paid for Hunter College, but it couldn't have been expensive, because it was public.

When I was in elementary school, we'd visit my Bubbie (grandmother), in that Williamsburg apartment. To my frustration, our parents absolutely forbade my brother and me from playing on the tantalizing fire escapes.

So New York always felt like my homeland. One building in my book is a tenement, complete with fire escape, in honor of Bubbie. (I took artistic liberties with the color).

It's my hope that the book will appeal not just to fans of The City, but also any quilter interested in portraying any city. 

First, because the book teaches my unique piecing technique for architecture, in which most raw edges are turned to the back during piecing, so you don't have to rip seam ends after the building's pieced. This method works well for all kinds of architectural appliques. 

Second, even though most of the buildings were inspired by particular New York structures, there may be similar buildings near you.

For example, the Empire State Building shares the wedding cake profile of many of its peers across the country that were built in the 1930s. Here's one of my depictions. 

The next structure was inspired by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the edge-turning-during-piecing technique works particularly well for so many post-modern buildings like this that have cantilevered sections hanging out beyond lower sections, with no supports at the ends, an engineering as well as a piecing and applique challenge.
Making my version of the Freedom Tower (gold below) was a little like making pants, because the base piece was so long. Next to it is a purple-ized Chrysler Building variation, with arcs of triangles.
And so forth! The book invites you to either follow along with detailed directions, diagrams, and measurements; or if you prefer, improvise your own variations. 

Learn more about the book at my shiny new website, here. Where can you buy the book?

1. Ask at your local quilt shop. Tell them they can order it from me, or via the wholesaler Ingram Books. (If you ARE a quilt shop, please contact me for more information, at

2. Order it from a local bookstore: Go to, and enter your zip code, to find a local bookseller who will order it for you (from Ingram).

3. If you'd like a signed (printed) copy; or a digital PDF edition, find both in my Etsy shop.

4. And, yes, it is on Amazon here, as well as other online booksellers. 

Please do feel free to email me with any questions!