Sunday, April 28, 2013

Polka Dot Fabric: the New Sugar, Salt, Fat

For many years now, my first-resort host or hostess gift has been 9-patch quilted 'potholders' (or 'wall art', depending on how uppity I'm feeling).
The slightly wonky example above was stitched by my daughter - I led her Girl Scout troop in making them last year. They're easy, fun, and I always enjoyed using a wild variety of 4" novelty fabric squares, ranging. in the case above, from the sublime (raspberries) to the ridiculous (Reese's). 

They're always welcome - everyone needs a new and entertaining potholder. My friends use them for pots, hang them as art, or both.
My friend Petra mounted this one on a stretched canvas that she had splashed with paint, a la Jackson Pollock, but less, discussed earlier. Note that Petra does not eat kosher.
But last month, while continuing to wrestle mightily with my lifelong sugar jones, I splurged on a copy of the new bestseller, 'Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.'  The main point is right there in the title, but this book, by New York Times reporter Michael Moss, fills in the details with fascinating, horrifying anecdotes about the scientists, the business people, the research, and the money. I laughed, I cried, I read sections out loud to my husband, Just like junk food, I couldn't put that book down. 

On quilts, junk food is fun. In bodies, not so much. That's not news. But the book led me to a quilt-related revelation: There are more than enough paid advertisements for crappy (excuse my French) processed pseudo-foods out there. The world certainly doesn't need me to make even more, quilted, complementary advertisements for junk.

After all, I would never give a recovering alcoholic anything that featured this fabric (however delightful): 
On the other hand, I don't want to make a solemn potholder. Can good health, entertainment, and art be reconciled in the quilt world? (let alone the real world?)

I needed a fast answer, because a few days after reading the book, we were heading out on a 5-day-trip, staying at friends' houses. Normally I'd make more nine-patch hostess gifts, but this time, enough was enough. I craved something fresh. 

Fortunately, just as today's supermarkets offer better produce than ever before, there are also now many more excellent produce fabrics. Lifelike, mouthwatering, 100% vegan fabrics, like this garlic (used earlier).
Check out RJR's Farmer's Market line for a huge collection. Similarly, Fabri-Quilt has 'Farmer John's Marketplace'.  Timeless Treasures has 'Farm Fresh.' Equilter carries an awesome number of produce fabrics by various manufacturers. I happened to have some 6" circles of high-quality quilters' food fabrics leftover from a completely different quilt project. I dug them out. Here's one. 
I put the circle on another virtuous food - in this case, brussels sprouts (The selvage says it's cabbage, but I feel strongly that it's brussels sprouts.)
Better, but not yet thrilling. 

Fortunately, I had recently purchased a bundle of assorted polka dot 'charms' - 5" squares - in a variety of color combinations.
I decided to make them into rectangular accents, symbolizing nothing really. Just to spice things up. 
Now we're talking!  Extrapolating from the work of Freddie Moran, I long ago decided that polka dots are the new black - they go with everything. Or should I say, polka dots are the new sugar/fat/salt? Like sweet, fatty, high-sodium processed cheeze sauce on frozen broccoli, polka dots make everything more delicious - but unlike the sauce, they can't cause weight gain. 

Here's the back of the potholder above:  
Fresh figs. My mouth waters every time I look at this awesome fabric. 

Next, bananas on collard greens/chard. OK, maybe not the tastiest combination in the real world, but the fabric for both involves yellow crescents. The yellow polka dots speak to them. 
The back: 
Next: Mixed nuts on pretzels. I know pretzels aren't healthy....but they could be worse.... and gosh, the color went so well with the nuts.
OK, my willpower lapsed. The back atones for the sins of the front:
I had a Chinese food fabric circle so I surrounded it with my favorite chopstick fabric. In this one, the polka dot accent is a long isosceles triangle. 
Pretend the rice is brown.
The back: 
Bags'o'rice. Continue to pretend it's brown rice.

It occurred to me that these shapes might make interesting quilt blocks too. Here's how the potholders  look laid out in a four patch:
Whatcha think? Is there an entire quilt in these shapes? (Maybe a lollipop quilt?)

I finished the four potholders in time, we went on our trip, and they were very well received by our  hosts and hostesses. I felt good about leaving them with a useful item that is also a subliminal pep talk to eat (mostly) clean.  Everyone lived happier and healthier ever after!

Or did they? 

That was SUPPOSED to be the happy ending, but while writing this up, and making a few more, I had a headslapper of an idea: The polka dot band can be a handle! For the one below, I fused the polka dot band to another piece on the inside, then stitched it to the potholder only at the ends. 

Ta daaaa! Next is one I made with lime green polka dots on lavender. 
The other new and different thing about this project is that my friend Linda gave me a big strip of Insul-brite to use as batting. (Normally I used 2-3 layers of cotton batting for a potholder). Along with the promise of better heat protection, I like that Insul-brite is very stiff, yet thinner than 3 layers of cotton batting. So if you do hang these up, the corners won't flop. Thank you, Linda, for saving me from floppy corners!

All this leaves me wondering about you, Dear Reader: Do you make quilts that have helped you adopt healthy habits or discourage bad ones? If so, I'd love to hear about it. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Quilts for Boston

In the wake of tragedy, quilters organize quickly.

Quilt blocks and/or supplies for people affected by the tragedy are requested.
Details here:
Flickr group here:

UPDATE (4/1). Flags for Boston project here:

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Artist Trading Cards: You Know You Want To

I participated in a thrilling Artist Trading Card exchange last week. Several participants became alarmed when they looked at my cards and realized that I cut into an actual dictionary - a disintegrating, 1960 student dictionary, I hastily explained in my defense.

The idea of libricide appalled me, too - at first. But  since discovering ATCs and their ilk, I've become much less squeamish. I only cut into out-of-date reference books, falling-apart books, or bestselling books of which used bookstores have far too many (How many paperback copies of Angels and Demons are at your nearest thrift shop? I counted nine in mine.) When in doubt, I check Amazon or ebay, to make sure I'm not about to eviscerate a Gutenberg Bible.

The base of an ATC is a stiff material of your choice, cut to  2 1/2" x 3 1/2".  Depending on how strong you need it to be, you can cut it from a Cheerios box, or buy pre-cut mat board, watercolor paper, chipboard, etc. Blank ATC packs of various materials are sold online or at an art supply/craft store. 

For this set of ATCs, I used Kraft-tex which is like a cross between fabric, leather and interfacing. It takes paint beautifully, with a misty dappled effect, and allows all kinds of watercolory techniques (learned from  Sherrill Kahn). I sprayed the Kraft-tex with water, then did mostly horizontal strokes with blue, purple and green shades of Dye-Na-Flow, letting the colors run together. Once dry, I cut the Kraft-tex into card-size pieces, and stenciled a seagull onto each, with shiny opaque silver acrylic paint. 

Then I found a comfortable spot in the middle of the floor, surrounded myself with bead and button boxes, Crafter's Pick The Ultimate Glue (my current fave for the 3-D embellishments), a glue stick (for paper and fabric), toothpicks (for precision glue delivery), a wire cutter (for snipping shanks off plastic buttons), a scissors, an X-acto knife, and ye olde dictionary, open to the "aero" page. 

Here's where the real fun began: Seeking definitions to fit my embellishments, and vice versa.  

The definitions had to be cut with an X-acto knife (or small sharp scissors), because the lines are so crammed together. The next card has a vintage propeller airplane button.
Below the next bird is a square chunk from an old French map:
 Here's a floating, lacy, metal UFO (broken earring?)
At one point, I became bored with the "ae" section of the dictionary, and flipped randomly to the fl's, where I spotted the soothing illustration below of a flageolet. (Never flog a flageolet, which is an offshoot of the flipple flute family - I kid you not). I also adhered a tiny woven label that says "Sweet Dreams." My  friend Kay gave me the label. I wish I had 100!
What I do have a 100 of is that question mark bead on the lower right. I found a pack at a store a few months ago. Those poor identical little beads, peeping out from behind the plastic, looked so lost and pathetically quizzical, that, of course I brought them home. Now I'm gluing them to everything but my forehead. It's the all-purpose existential embellishment, without the commitment or blood of a tattoo.
(Deja vu? Yes, you've already met that gal's identical twin, on my Elvis toy sewing machine.)
Once everything was glued down, I gave the cards a couple of coats of matte Golden Gel medium, brushing it carefully around but not on top of the 3-D embellishments. It created a nice even surface, and took the shine off accidental glue smears. Unfortunately, it also took the shine from the silver gulls. With not enough time to repaint the birds, I quickly learned to love grey, signed and dated the backs, and was good to go.

So easy!  So fun! So you-don't-have-to-be-an-artistic-genius! And that's not even the best part! The best part is the swap. This particular event was set up by a friend of a friend. I only knew one participant, and met 5 such interesting people, and learned so much from them through their art. We ate and drank yummy things, socialized, asked questions, and enjoyed each other's wildly diverse cards and ways of thinking. Thanks, Jenny, for putting the whole fantastic event together!

Now you know you want to do this, right? If you don't have enough like-minded friends, ask about swaps at your local art and/or craft store. Or go to and type in "Artist Trading Cards." Some groups trade through the mail; others arrange face-to-face meetings in specific cities. There are also lists of local exchanges at

If you're primarily into fiber arts, you might find that this article I wrote a couple of years ago for Quilt Life magazine helpful. It is mostly about making fabric ATCs, especially from quilty UFOs. (In this case, the acronym stands for non-aeronautic Unfinished Objects). Some of the links listed in that article are extinct, unfortunately.

A final tidbit: ATC makers don't sell them. If it's called an ATC, it's individually made for the sole purpose of trading. If you make a card to sell, call it an ACEO, which stands for "Artist Cards, Editions and Originals." Zillions of ACEOs are sold online. Just search ebay.

PS: I have no financial affiliation with any of the products mentioned by name in this post, except that I did receive a free roll of Kraft-tex in exchange for a completely different project. I truly  love the stuff.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Craft Wars and Challenges: Even When You Lose Some, it's Winsome

Competitions and challenges can be a great way to exercise your creative muscles. They're also an opportunity to enhance your humility, because what are the chances that you'll actually win a prize? But if/when you lose, how sad will you be?

These questions came to mind during the recent Quiltwoman end cap competition. in which, as it turned out, the odds were 8-to-1 in my favor. Yet I still managed to lose - their winning entry was so good that even I voted for it. (You'll see it soon). But I did have a wonderful time creating.

It all started a couple of months ago when, a pattern publishing and distribution company, put out a call for people to brainstorm what they should do with their mountain of plastic 'end caps':

Each end cap is about 4" across and 1" high. I gather they come from rolls of printer paper. The winner of the creative challenge would get their design turned into a Quiltwoman pattern.

Although I'm primarily a quilter, I'm also secretly a mixed-media wannabe. That's why I can't even throw away empty thread spools. So this contest called my name. I wrote away for an end cap, and assumed hordes of other people were doing likewise. Let the wild rumpus begin!

I did add few rules of my own to the challenge. In the spirit of recycling, I didn't buy anything new for these projects. (Not a huge sacrifice, considering that I have a store's worth of craft supplies in my home.) And I refused to paint the end cap. Too messy and potentially environmentally incorrect. Thus, as you'll see, I relied on color schemes that involve a lot of black.

I started off using an X-acto knife to cut green floral foam to the size of the little compartments; stuffed it in and inserted short blossoms into the foam pieces. I circled the outside with a polka dot ribbon.

 Those are real flowers. With the compartments watered, the blossoms actually  lasted for days!

Next, with the same color palette - black and white and pink all over - I made a paper clip desk caddy.

See the heart-shaped and star-shaped ones clipped to the top edge, in the photo above? Paper clips these days are practically jewelry. I rested the end cap on a round of milk carton caps.

That brought me to the most obvious quilt-related use for the end cap: as a pincushion. I did a color wheel pincushion, with a grey "modern" touch. It serves as a color theory reminder. I cut circles of fabric in each color, stuffed polyester stuffing inside, and smushed them down into each compartment.

Then it occurred to me that it could also serve as a needle organizer. So I made little banners with needle categories written on them.  I think this is how it my end cap might end up forever, because I actually need one of these!

Something I don't need is a fascinator. But I have a good friend who is obsessed with them. A fascinator is a British inedible confection that aristocrats place upon their heads at jaunty angles for weddings and, uh, maybe fancy horseraces? Ascot? Astor? Astoria? Isn't that in Queens? Whatever. Thus emerged Fascinator #1:

The end cap is wrapped in a wide satin gold ribbon, with a pouf of sparkly tulle and tinsel and a lush artificial rose. A clear plastic comb would be wired onto the bottom:

I would never actually wear it, but my daughter's American Girl doll did not protest:

Trying to think British, I remembered that I had some well-worn vintage artificial birds. Thus, Fascinator #2:

Meh. Boring. So I added some metallic sparkly ribbon and yarn scraps, and painted the plastic eggs (I'm willing to paint very tiny things):

Hey, wait a second - turn it over and the end cap will be more like a nest! And the compartments could serve as faux eggs! So I stuffed the compartments just as I had in the modern pincushion above, this time using different blue fabrics reminiscent of eggshells.  The outer structure of the nest is green floral wire that I crocheted into a nest shape, with yarn scraps woven throughout. 
That tough old bird has one eye and no tail; I had to photograph it just so. This thing isn't a fascinator; it's a paperweight and/or alternative pincushion/needle sorter.

The concept of holding stuff turned into an idea for a Tower o'Sewing Stuff. The levels are made of empty plastic thread spools, alternating with large plastic jar lids and the end cap.

Here's the bottom layer:

The base is a black jar lid (wrapped with ribbon). There's a thread spool in the center, wrapped with wide red grosgrain ribbon. The cupcakes are plastic milk carton lids, wrapped with rick-rack or ribbon. They're stuffed with poly batting and silver lame, and those are red round glass beads held on with flower-headed pins. They serve as mini-pincushions.

In the next picture, the red tier at the bottom is a peanut butter jar lid, encircled by rick-rack; it has thimbles and buttons resting on it.
On the top tier, leaning out of each compartment is a bobby pin that has a vintage white shank button with a metal center, and a Featherweight bobbin. 
Emerging from the top spool is a pouf made from circles of recycled produce bags (from Trader Joe's ginger and oranges, I believe), plus a circle of white tulle. Shooting up from the center are white and silver wires holding a needle threader (far left) and red, clear, black and white buttons. 
I imagine this as a centerpiece for a quilter's party. Quilters attending this imaginary party could, at the end, divide up and take most of the tower items as little gifts.

And that's it! Boy, did I have a good time! By the time the contest was over, I was calling that end cap My Precious and wearing it around my neck, slogging toward Mordor.

Quiltwoman showed each entry on their Facebook page, without naming the makers. The first one they showed was the ultimate winner. As soon as I saw it, I knew I was out. Here it is.  Over several days, the rest of the entries were shown, one by one. They were all mine. All of them! And then it ended! Could it be that only two people entered?

When the winner was announced, I was very happy for her - her project was beautiful, practical and  professional -  but also a little sorry for myself. There was no runner-up announcement. No medal for "Most Frivolous," a category the fascinators would surely have swept, or "Most Winsome," which should have gone to my poignant, one-eyed, tattered birds, or even just for "Most."

But I really had a terrific time doing it. I hated for that contest to end. So by now, you are saying to yourself about challenges like this one:
a. A contest like the that sounds great! I should try it! Or,
b. That kind of competition sounds too stressful for me. Or,
c. Both a and b. Or,
d. Get a life, lady!
If you answered a. or c., and you're a fan of fiber or mixed media arts, there are so many different kinds of challenges out there that you can join online. The vast Quiltart listserv is a terrific way to hear about challenges. (See their old challenges here.) Quilting Arts magazine challenges are here. Cloth, Paper, Scissors magazine has a challenge announcement page here. If you're interested in getting published in a magazine, here's another page to explore.

And last week, I received an email about a duct tape design competition. Oh joy! I'm thinking a one-eyed bird might look snappy in a duct tape tuxedo....

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Beyond Charming - Embellished Hoarder's Bracelet from Jeans

I wore this bracelet yesterday to a crochet gathering. It was my first visit to the group, and, though not crocheted, it immediately became a conversation piece. One person who examined it proclaimed, "Now that's a charm bracelet!"

Before her declaration I would have described it as an extreme embellishment wearable mini-quilt. I became fascinated by 'encrustation' four years ago after reading an article by quilter Frances Holliday Alford titled 'Outrageous Embellishment,' in the 12/07/1/08 issue of Quilting Arts magazine. 

Alford piles objects on top of objects - charms, toys, buttons - in strange and fascinating ways. You can't stop looking. She lays them down so close that it's difficult to see the background. Compared to her encrustation, my project is restrained!

As a base, I used a strip of aged denim, starting at about 4" wide by about 11" long. It's folded the long way in thirds, so it's only about  2" wide finished, and there's a 2" strip of interfacing inserted inside. All the pieces are stitched on with grey pre-waxed Silamide (size A), through a layer of denim and interfacing, before the sides and ends were folded in to the middle back.

I added not just beads, buttons and sequins, but also snap halves, hardware washers and nuts, a ball chain lamp pull, single earrings, broken vintage rhinestone shoe buckles, and, of course, a piece of a bobbin [bobbins = best embellishments ever]. Old and new, as long as it was mostly silver in color, it qualified. 
(Come to think of it, the silveryness gives it a shot of steampunk). That sandal in the center of the shot below is a scrapbooking tchotchke. The oval above it is a sew-on beveled mirror. There's an alphabet cube bead next to the sandal.
In keeping with the upcycling theme, I finished the inside with a strip from a blue patterned men's necktie, fused in place. It covers the seams. 

As I was working on it, I thought not only about Alford's work, but also about "folk art memory vessels." (Google it, you'll be glad you did.) Renowned quilt artist Terrie Mangat made some amazing quilts inspired by memory jars, including this one.  I saw a genuine memory jar in person, a decade ago at a flea market, and still haven't recovered from its greatness. 

So try some extreme embellishment! You'll not only have a ton of fun, but it will take a significant bite out of your junk drawer!

I admired Terrie's fabric in an earlier post.
Update II: Shared on Nina Marie Sayre's Off the Wall Friday. Check it out for creative quilt art!