Friday, February 28, 2014

Luckiest Mom, Creative Blocks, Edible Art, etc.

I am the luckiest mother in the world.

My daughter drew me this. It's in the style of The Quiltmakers Gift, a lovely childrens' book illustrated by Gail De Marcken. It blew me away. My daughter has worked very hard to improve her drawing skills, and now she's amazing! 

Meanwhile, my son walked into a bead store. That sounds like a joke, but he really did, and that's not his natural habitat. And he bought and shipped me a vial of delicious (mostly) green beads. I don't even want to open it. I'm going to wear the container around my neck, like the crazy, grateful, lucky mother that I am.


A friend just sent me a link to a sampling of different artists' perspectives on overcoming creative blocks, from the  'Brain Pickings' newsletter/website. I found the ideas fascinating!

They also show a sample of each advising artists' work, which is wonderful. 



Some friends and I  are planning to enter this unique art challenge:

It raises money for British Museums!!! I'm all in favor of British museums, though I rarely attend one! (Once, in 1999, to be specific). What's not to love?



Simple yet brilliant multi-use knitted cowl

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Do the Wave - Cutting Improvisational Curves for a Denim Jeans Quilt

So fun! So easy! And dare I admit it - so au courant! Freehand rotary cutting curves, then stitching pieces together without pins, have been trending for several years in the quilt world, widely popularized by Ricky Tims, Debbie Bowles, and the improvisational and modern quilt movements. 

[Update, 2/22/14: I learned from quilter Alison Schwabe that the technique goes a long way back, to Canadian quilter Marilyn Stoller, who developed it in the early 1980's, and taught it to legendary quilter Nancy Crow, from whence it spread. Marilyn's description of the history is here; See Alison's comment below, and the responses, for more historical context.]

On the other hand, quilters have been working with old jeans forever. Gees Bend brought new attention to the beauty of worn denim.

I love working with denim not only because of each garment's past life, but also because the blues and whites are so soothing -  an oceanic calm interrupted only by the occasional explosion of a machine needle, sending deadly metallic shards flying past my eyeballs when I make the mistake of attacking a preexisting jeans seam without protection, because I was too lazy to stand up and search for my Jean-a-ma-jig. (They're small, cheap, and easy to lose. And/or wear safety goggles when stitching through factory jeans seams. A denim needle helps a little, too.)

Oh well. Nothing's perfect, unless you engineer ways to completely avoid machine stitching through most or all preexisting thick seams, as I did for today's quilt,  

The writing in the middle says, "Ce sont des vieux jeans," which is French for, "I took art history in college." 
(Seriously, it means, 'These are old jeans,' a la Magritte.)

There's a waistband along the top: 
...A crocheted edging along the bottom...
...A blue key metal and blue glass beads hanging from a belt loop. 
If you're garage sale-ing (sailing?) for jeans, say yes to the skirts, too. Skirts (if they're longish) give you a much larger usable area than pants, and the seams usually aren't as thick. The back of this quilt is cut from one skirt, and I didn't have to piece it at all - those are the original seams, all fairly  thin:
I used an Edge Perfect rotary blade and a cotton tee shirt yarn, to create the blanket stitch edging all the way around, which served as a base for the crocheted bottom edging.

Want to give it a shot? Here's the general idea: 

These directions will steer you toward a quilt that totals about 28" long x 22" wide

If you want about as many stripes as mine (10), start with at least 3 pairs of jeans. Use both front and back for maximum different shades.

1. Cut 9 rectangles from pants legs that range from about 6-8" across and 23" high. Don't incorporate existing thick seams; or, keep them in the middle of the strip or at least 1-2" from an edge. (Curve cutting and stitching would be completely messed up by a thick seam, causing unwelcome needle explosions.) Cut the 10th/topmost piece from the rear waistband of a pair of jeans, about 6" high (or whatever works). Mine isn't symmetrical  - the center back of the jeans isn't centered on the quilt. 

2. Lay the strips horizontally across your desk in the order you want them. Mix up shades (dark/light/dark), or do a gradation, whatever! Don't be afraid to use the backs (except on the topmost piece, which incorporates belt loops.)
3. Take pieces 1 and 2 to the cutting board. Again, lay their long edges together.  Lift piece 1 and bring it upward, so about 2" of it lies on top of piece 2. Good sides should still be facing up for both of them.
4. With a sharp rotary cutter, cut a gentle curve through both pieces, staying within the overlap area.
Discard the two narrow leftover strips. Now you've got two pieces. 

5. Bring both larger  pieces to your sewing machine. flip piece 2 on top of piece one, good sides together. The curves don't match at all! That means you're doing it right! Don't pin. 

6. Starting at the top, with a scant quarter inch seam, stitch as far as you can go with the edges matching.  That probably won't be very far. Stop with the needle down whenever the top and bottom start to diverge.

7. Adjust the fabric in your hands - holding the top in one hand and the bottom in the other - bring them together so that the two right edges meet at the needle and for an inch or so in front of the needle. Hold the ends a few inches back. Take a few more stitches until the sides diverge again - stop with the needle down, and adjust so the sides are together for another inch or so. stitch and repeat.
8. Stop sewing, readjust the two pieces so they match only directly in front of the presser foot, and sew a little bit more until the pieces' edges diverge again at the presser foot.

 9. When it's done, it's a mess - so press open with plenty of steam to make everything as flat as possible. It takes real wrassling, please don't blame yourself (or me).

10. Bring unit 1+2, and piece 3 to the cutting board. Repeat the overlap with 2 and 3, and the wavy cutting procedure. Your waves should always be gentle - dramatic cuts and sharp corners won't work with this technique.

11.The topmost piece includes the waistband, which serves as the top edge of the quilt.

12. Once you've pieced the background, the edges won't be even. That's okay! Just use your rotary cutter to cut waves along both vertical edges. The waves on my two vertical sides paralleled each other, for a ribbon-like effect. 

13. Embellish each segment (or leave some/all blank!) I cut random abstract shapes from denim and appliqued them with straight and zig-zag machine stitches. Tracing paper will help you draft a design that fits each curves. 

14. To incorporate cursive writing: Place a large piece of tracing paper over the stripe you want the writing on, and trace the stripe. Then put the paper on a flat surface. Hand write the lettering so it fits the space with at least a half inch below and above to the bottom and top of the area it's intended for.  

15. Go over your lettering again, thickening the lines, by drawing a line within and outside each of your original lines. Use those as a pattern to cut out the lettering from denim. Cut holes in the letters that need them (like "e's", "a's" and "o's"), and glue-stick, then stitch the words to the quilt with a free-motion foot. 
16. Don't forget buttons! I used only blue, to maintain the soothing monochrome. A colorful assortment would have been even more fun. (Alas, l'esprit d'escalier. Hmm, could have used that phrase, too.)

17. Place the front, good side up, on backing fabric - I used the opened denim skirt shown above - and pin the layers together. This quilt has no batting. With regular scissors, cut gentle waves down the two vertical edges. 

18. Cut the top edge of the backing a half-inch higher than the front. Fold it inward and stitch it to the finished top edge of the waistband.

18. With the Edge Perfect blade in a rotary cutter handle, go around the two sides and the bottom, about 1/2" in from the edges, pressing hard to cut through both layers. If there's a thick preexisting jeans seam, skip it - you don't want to break the blade. Use an awl later to create those holes.

19. Do a blanket stitch through all the holes, using embroidery thread or the yarn of your choice. 

20. Crochet a decorative edging along the bottom, and/or on the sides if you want it there, too.

21. Hang from the belt loops. How? Hmmm. After all the photos above were taken, I was trying to figure that out. I thought about tying bandanas around them, (as I did for an earlier denim project), but that was a little too cute. So I came up with this: 
I locked simple metal split key rings to belt loop, then crocheted over the rings in the same yarn used for the edging. To hang, one needs 6 custom-spaced nails in the wall. Alternatively, the rings could slide over a single dowel, held on the wall by one nail at each end. 

Want to see more improvisational curve quilts? The art quilts of Marilyn Stothers, the parent of this  technique, are here. Alison Schwabe's gorgeous quilts, many of which incorporate this technique, are here

Mastering improvisational curved piecing  can open up new worlds of creativity for you. There are many other tutorials, and three of my favorites are: 
  • Alison's two-page technique summary, which you can get by contacting her (or email me - I have her permission to distribute.)
  • Debbie Bowles' tutorial. I love her 'Cutting Curves from Straight Pieces' book. Very simple, very graphic.
  • A great tutorial from the wonderful Nina Marie Sayre, here.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Tessellations Quilts, From the Sublime to the Doodled

Tessellations are shapes that snuggle together without gaps or overlap, can go on forever, and can make fascinating interlocked designs. Among the best known are the tiles at the Alhambra Palace in Spain.
The (relatively) modern world’s most admired tessellator was 20th century Dutch artist M.C. Escher who was heavily influenced by the Alhambra. His intricate and imaginative compositions contained creatures like fish and birds, sometimes morphing from one to the other. 
Several contemporary quilters are accomplished and original tessellators. Perhaps best-known is Jinny Beyer, who, in 1999, published easily the most complex quilt/craft book ever written: Designing Tessellations, The Secrets of Interlocking Patterns. In this Ph.D.-worthy tome, Beyer found that two existing scientific notation methods didn’t meet her needs, so she improved them, plus discovered some new ways to tessellate. Here's a Beyer stunner with gradated trees that read right side up and upside down. 
One of the amazing things about her work is that most things are pieced, a non-trivial accomplishment, because tessellated shapes' outlines rarely conform to e-z cutting or piecing methods. (Find her patterns and books at

Another flippin' genius quilter-tessellater is Raymond Houston, who has developed accessible and enjoyable games that create abstract geometrical designs with straight lines, and, more recently, curved, flowing Celtic knots. Thrill to his work at (Houston fuses his knots, as seen here. His pre-Celtic work is here.) 

There many are other tessellation quilt patterns and books - please feel free to recommend your favorites in the comments.

Here's my humble contribution to the genre. I'm calling this quilt 'Fish, Fox, Feline, Flowers, Pink Flamingos and Beyond.' Each of those entities is quilted into the top.

Because everything I do is e-z, it's based on a fun tessellations game practiced by grade school students - cutting pieces off from a shape and taping them to the opposite sides. I was launched by this terrific tutorial by awesome art quilter and blogger Kay Sorenson. After cutting the basic shapes from paper (which resemble leaves), I went off in a different direction.

 I created “characters” for the shapes, a la Escher, and arranged them on-point, which dramatically reduced the need for pinpoint cutting accuracy, and made the quilt relatively easy and quick to fuse (since most "pieces" don't need fusing in place - they're pink background fabric.)
(OK, I regret the pepto-bismol hue. Next time: Blue.) The characters are straight-line machine quilted into each piece.

The reverse can be a high-contrast thread drawing that evokes an Escher sketch (or an Etch-a-Sketch, for those of us who are not drawing geniuses). Here's my reverse side:

If you would like more guidance than in this blog post, I wrote up detailed step-by-step directions in a 15-page pattern, here. The most fun part is brainstorming ideas for the paper-cut shapes. Invent and sketch your own creatures, or borrow ideas from my two-dozen plus candidates, which also include:

This is a fun activity to do in partnership with talented draw-ers, and/or an artsy-craftsy child (or child at heart). They will love playing with cut-out paper to make magic tessellating shapes, then doodling the characters into them. 

Want more tessellation eye candy?  There's plenty in the ‘Tessellation Quilts’ section of Flick’r. 

UPDATE: You can also make your shapes into cookie cutters!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

More Upcycled Denim Jeans Valentines

In my last post, I showed this valentine made from upcycled jeans (dedicated to Pete Seeger):
Well, I can't seem to stop! Here are some more. The first one works as a keychain. The key goes into the pocket. I stuffed the larger heart, and crocheted an edging. 
The key can also hang out....

The next heart has it's own waistband hanging hole....
The heart part is detachable and has a pin backing.
Next, instead of white buttons and lace, this one celebrates metal, for a bit of a steampunk look. It actually was cut from the zipper area of a pair of jeans. (Shades of Erica Jong!)
Too much fun!
Here's another steampunky zipper inclusion heart:
It includes genuine vintage broken watch parts (purchased for a ludicrously large amount of money at a bead show), plus buttons, beads, rick-rack, and the zipper in its original position.
UPDATE, 2/8: Here's what I'm wearing to a Valentine's party tonight:
Too bad I can only wear it 1-2 days a year.

General directions for embellished valentines like these are at the bottom of the last post.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Denim Valentine Embellishment Tutorial: I Heart Pete Seeger.

Ahh, sweet mystery of life. 
It's more than a kitschy old song. It's a slew of interesting questions, one of the more trivial being, why, every February, does a non-frou-frou person such as moi experience irresistible compulsions to make stuff like this?
Answer: Um, this year, it's because of Pete Seeger. I stitched this up Friday night while watching/listening to the terrific 2007 film 'Pete Seeger, The Power of Song,' on VHI.

We lost Pete last week, at age 94. What an amazing person. I saw him in concert in the 1980s. In life, as in the film, whenever he threw his head back for a full-throated cry - whether "wimoweh," or "we shall overcome"  - the light of heaven shone on his face. Seriously, and I'm not the sort of person who generally sees heavenly light strewn about. Pete was so principled, intense, and talented that I bet that light shone on him when he hummed 'Row Your Boat' in the shower.

(Another huge musical talent who throws back their head to a degree that is almost alarming is Taylor Swift. I don't see any ethereal light on Taylor yet, but she's 70 years younger than Pete, so there's still time.)

Quilting and sewing are unlike singing. in the sense that fiber artists generally don't throw our heads back, even when things are going really great. Au contraire, we mostly adopt a semi-fetal position, and, rather than heaven, we rely on man-made, often expensive sources of artificial light. I hunched over this valentine on the couch for a couple of hours while listening to the Seeger movie.

It's a hanging heart ornament/brooch/necklace/potential sachet/pillow, though at almost 4" high, it's a bit huge as jewelry. Here's one way to make it:

1. Cut out a denim heart  from a pair of old jeans.

2. Cut a piece of stiff interfacing to very slightly smaller. The interfacing should have fusible on both sides (like Peltex 72F or Fast2Fuse), or you can also put paper-backed fusible web on sides of non-fusible stiff interfacing, or onto plain old felt.

3. Fuse that interfacing (or felt) heart behind the front denim layer. You'll be sewing through these two layers. (If using felt, keep the iron temperature in the medium range.)

4. Using a sturdy thread, such as quilting, button, beading, or upholstery thread, stitch embellishments to front.

From the top down, my embellishments included: White glass beads, slightly bigger than seed beads; vintage lace; vintage pale pink grosgrain ribbon; vintage tiny mother-of-pearl buttons, some held on by pink glass beads; tiny white rick-rack held on by glass pink beads; faux pearls; silver glass bugle beads. A special carved mother-of-pearl button is on the upper right, surrounded by holographic plastic vintage seed-shaped pearls.
5. When everything is secure, place the heart on another piece of denim, and cut that piece about 1/2" larger than your finished piece, all the way around. I used a pinking shears for a decorative edge.

6. From the back, fuse the backing denim in place. Option: Have the wrong side of the denim facing to the front, to create a color contrast surrounding the front heart. (That's what I did).

7. Stitch a pin to the back side.

Option: Add a chain or jump rings to the center front or back, to hang it. I used a cut-off fragment of a chain.
Spiritually, Pete, this valentine is for you.  Thanks for what you sang, all over this land. 
UPDATE: More denim valentines are in the next post, here.