Monday, 23 November 2015

Red Sky at Night Quilt

When I first embarked on a quilt history adventure, I expected to find a tonne of resources on the internet. I heard snippets of interesting stories from blocks, slaves rescued, quilts donated, stories of war and weddings, that I figured it would be easy to dig up others. But just like we ordinary women make quilts in the present, as a gift, or for the sake of design, without much thought as to how it fits into a wider narrative, or what future generations will want to know about us, the million old quilts out there are often silent. I've written here before, while men's history is The History, the history of politics and war and civilisation, the history of women is often more like archaeology. We dig around and make inferences based on the tools they used, the magazines they read and the quilts they made.
But this escapade has not been in vane. While we may not have learned many women's names, not been able to read their diaries, or have their stories passed down through generations, we have gleaned beautiful things about them.

We know that when the sewing machine was first invented during the industrial revolution, around the 1850s, that women flocked to it, having previously spent up to 12 hours a day sewing and quilting. We know that quilt blocks became popular in America around this time, as an alternative to British medallion quilts, possibly because they were easier to sew in quilting groups, or because the repetition made them faster to come together. Quilting was a community endeavour, the space where women shared themselves and were known.
We know that quilts were the significant way women contributed to war efforts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. They were sent to soldiers, they made political statements, they commemorated victories and losses. They were stitched from extremely limited resources, and yet still made immensely beautiful. 
We know that women made quilts to celebrate birth, birthdays, engagements, weddings, leaving West, and to commemorate a death. Quilts became a family's way to tell their story.
As pioneers settled across the country, quilt blocks were shared and altered, often without names. It was the introduction of published patterns in journals and newspapers in the 1890s that canonised quilt block names across the country. It was a time of great depression, and quilting boomed as women made do ever so artistically with old sheets, flour sacks, and dress scraps.
Quilts were art as well as necessity, and they carried both titles beautifully and equally. They reflected everyday life, nature, history and literature, as well as political and social concerns. They celebrated the mundane churn dash, and cups and saucers, and riled against slavery and alcoholism. And in a simple mix of squares and triangles, they created several thousand variations of design. They were generous and they were genius.


You will need:

Red: Sixty 1.5" squares, two 9.5" squares cut in half diagonally for the corners, Four 18" squares cut into quarters diagonally for the side triangles.

White: One hundred 12.5" x 1.5" strips.

1. Lay out your quilt on point. Your quilt will have 41 blocks of 5 blocks across the top and 5 down the side. The extras will fill the spaces in between. Take note of blocks with more dark or light colour, and spread them evenly.

2. Starting in one corner, sew a white strip to the left and right side of your block. Press away from the block.

3. Take another white strip and sew two red 1.5" squares to each end. Sew it to another side of the block. This will be the corner. Press.

4. Sew a corner triangle to this white strip. Press.

5. Sew a side triangle to the white strips on the side. Press.

6. Take 3 white strips and sew red squares between them, end to end to make a line of sashing. Add to the first row.

7. You will now repeat these steps in diagonal rows through the quilt. First sewing strips between the blocks, then sewing red squares between lines of strips, then side triangles, before adding another row of sashing. I sewed these in rows as below before sewing my quilt top together.

I used Carolyn Friedlander's Doe Wide for the backing, and handquilted through the sashing, and in a simple echo of each block. I find hand-quilting easier with a queen size, though obviously much slower. I like the look of the thick, chunky perle on the red, but I also wonder if a simple cross hatch design on the machine would have worked well too. Washing it made some parts puffy rather than giving it an even crinkle, which I love. You can see in the picture above that there's a little overhang with the triangles. I trimmed the top before basting, but you could also wait till after. I washed the quilt three times with colour catchers before I felt safe giving it to my mum. There was lots of pink in those babies, and a little bleeding after the first wash, but it was gone by the third.

I made a single Dresden Plate for a side corner and considered making more, but I worried it would be too busy. I think it's sweet there on it's own.

It's a humbling thing for a Quilt Along to be a huge learning experience, rather than a raving 'success'. For me it's been a fumbling, scrounging, eye-opener, not a neat, organised package. But I'm not sure I could have come to quilt history any other way. And it's made me all the more certain of the need to tell stories through quilts and about them. It's been a winding path, but the next leg of the journey feels clearer because of it.

Thank you, thank you for your following, encouragement, and allowing the freedom to grow and fail and learn in this experience. Right back at the very beginning, I noted one of my reasons for doing this was to shake that quiet, persistent voice that quilting was an extravagant waste of time. If there is one great success in this, it is that. I never hear that voice now. And it's why I believe so passionately in understanding our story. Quilt making is not an excess or a passing phase, it is an old art form, once so highly regarded, and deemed necessary, and now pushed to the side as a hobby. I for one am honoured to be passing on the tradition. This Quilt Along has moved quilting in my mind from a bit of a sanity keeper, perhaps even a distraction from real life, to a calling. 

An InLinkz Link-up

This link up is open internationally!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Love in a Mist - Red Sky at Night Quilt

Our final block! And this week I got some unexpected, paid quilt design work (hurray!) and a sick baby (boo!) and so we're late again. This series has certainly brought out the best and the worst of me. It's confirmed my love of story telling, women's history, and research, and my deplorable weakness when it comes to routine, organization, and regularity. But as a good friend of mine says, there is no failure, there are only learning experiences. And I am thankful for this one, and for you who have followed along.
I left Love in a Mist until last because it looks like a super celebratory ribbon-star, and because, although it's a kind of cheesy name, it's a fitting one for a history of quilting.
This block was first published in Farm Journal, possibly as early as the 1890s, when published patterns were beginning to spread across the country in journals and newspapers. The patchwork quilt was experiencing a surge in popularity due to tough financial times, and the publication of patterns fed this boom. Women were invited to design blocks and submit them, or share old blocks passed on to them with their story. It was old style craft blogging in perhaps it's earliest form. In a country where most of its inhabitants were still living rural lifestyles, it was a way for women to connect, share their knowledge and grow their skill.
Before the 1890s, blocks were often given names like 'patchwork' or 'quilt block', but as publications became more popular, and in competition, titles became more creative. Love in a Mist makes me smile, because it's so cheesy. It's such a bold, happy design. Who gave it this name? And what did they use it for? A wedding quilt perhaps?
It is, as usual, these stories that have been lost in a mist, but if we have learned anything in this series, we know that quilts were made by women and girls for their families and friends to mark special occasions, to say goodbye, to hang in shows, or simply to warm at night. The practical and necessary nature of quilting, however, did not stop these women creating an incredible number of varied designs. To me, it reflects the very nature of creativity and generosity. We may have lost their stories, but we know they were thoughtful, they were conscientious, and they were artists.


You will need:

Red: One 4.5" square, eight 3 3/8" squares, cut in half diagonally, four 3" squares cut in half diagonally to make half square triangles.

White: Four 3 3/8" squares, cut in half diagonally, four 3" squares cut in half diagonally to make half square triangles.

1. Taking the white 3 3/8" squares, place them on point, and sew a 3 3/8" red half square triangle to two opposite sides. Press toward the triangles and sew two more to the other sides.

2. Trim to 4.5"

3. Sew the red 3" half square triangles to the white ones. Press toward the red and trim to 2.5"

4. Lay out as below.

5. Sew the little squares in the corners to the ones next to them. Press away from the triangles.

6. Sew these together. Press open.

7. Sew together in three rows. Press seams open.

8. Sew rows together.

Can you believe we're actually here? I can't! On Monday, I'll show you how I stitched the quilt together, and my photos of the finish. And I'll have a linky party open for the rest of November for you to share your progress from your blog or Instagram. There'll be a prize! Be sure to come back, especially to check out the incredible work of one talented 15 year old.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Cups and Saucers - Red Sky at Night

Here we are! Our second last block! I missed last week because of internet troubles and a traveling husband, and decided rather than trying to fight it out, I'd leave it to rest. It feels good to be back here today.
I've been thinking about which areas of quilt history are left to explore in our final posts, and this week I've been drawn to my books and information about slave quilting history. It interests me partly because of the overwhelming tie of 19th Century America to cotton, making it the centre-stage of both American wealth, and ethical and political debate. But also I find it fascinating, because while linked to White American quilt history, the African American slaves also formed their own culture and identity around quilting, heavily influenced by their African roots.

I guess I'd always assumed the African American slave women were responsible for sewing the bedding and clothing for the white household, as well as their own. But actually, it was far more complex or varied an arrangement. Sometimes the lady of the house sewed for her whole household and beyond, sometimes the work was shared. Sometimes slave women were allowed to sew in their free time to make quilts to sell. Quilts became an important part of African American culture because time, resources and rules often limited slaves from learning new skills for creative and intellectual expression. Reading and writing were often banned. Painting and other forms of art were extremely rare. But quilting was expected and necessary, and therefore became the canvas (apart from music, of course) for expressing culture, identity and creativity.

Quilting among slaves was often done together, to provide for the small community of families, or draw in extra income. It became an important symbol of 'togetherness' in a time when family and community ties were often tenuous, easily separated at the whim or need of their owner. Sometimes slaves managed to buy their freedom by their quilts, and sometimes, their creative skills just made them more valuable and sought after by wealthy families. Of course, sometimes these quilts were simple and rough, using what was on hand from worn out clothing and cotton left in the fields, and quick piecing techniques to make what was needed. But sometimes, as in the case of Harriet Powers, these quilts were a place to document their illiterate life, their history and myths.

PowersBibleQuilt 1898.jpg

"PowersBibleQuilt 1898" by Original uploader was Jreferee at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

I've never really been drawn to quilts like Harriet's above. But taking another look at it today makes me wonder how I can bring some of these techniques and story telling into modern quilting. Contemporary quilters have embraced the old blocks as their own. But bubbly pictorial applique remains in a category I have never associated with. Something altogether 'not me'. Harriet's quilt, however, draws on very old African techniques of applique, it was stitched over many night time hours in low light, it was sold very reluctantly for a meagre $5 in a time of desperate poverty. Harriet took great care to make sure the new owner understood each of the pictures, and cared for it accordingly, and she came to visit it regularly, to enjoy it again. It inspires me to make a kind of Great Work like that. Something that draws on old techniques and stories to tell who I am today. I'm going to have to mull over that for a while.


You will need: (after making this block, I decided life is too short to use half square triangles for Flying Geese! Feel free to use your preferred method!)

Red: Two 5" squares cut in half to make half square triangles, one 3 3/8" square, and eight 3" squares cut in half diagonally to make half square triangles. (These last ones are for your geese)

White: Two 5" squares cut in half to make half square triangles, two 3 3/8" squares, cut in half diagonally, and eight 3" squares cut in half diagonally to make half square triangles (also for your geese).

1. Sew your half white 3 3/8" triangles around the red 3 3/8" square as pictured below. First to two opposite sides, press, then to the remaining sides. Trim to 4.5"

2. Sew your white 5" half square triangles to your red ones. Press and trim to 4.5".

3. Sew your white 3" half square triangles to your red ones. Press and trim to 2.5".

4. Sew the 2.5" red and white squares together into red geese as above. Press open.

5. Sew the geese into pairs. Press.

6. Arrange your block as below. Sew into rows. Press seams open.

7. Sew the rows together.

The term "cups and saucers" reminds me of being a little girl, pretending to be a lady. In history, the everyday lives of women, especially the oppressed and illiterate, become stories told, not by themselves, but by their rulers, owners, journalists and politicians. But these quilts are uniquely theirs. And it's amazing we still have them, kept, and loved because of the reluctant sale of a slave woman trapped in poverty. It reminds me that I should never take my opportunity for education, for expression, for the documentation of my creativity for granted. I wonder what my quilts will say to the next generations?

Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Orphanage Quilt

If old WIPs make a satisfying finish, imagine all the good feelings brought on by finishing six at once! This quilt has been on my mind for along time, back when I asked my Do Good Stitches bee back in February to send me some scrappy improvised blocks. And then as they arrived, I added them to my orphan block pile, wondering when I was finally going to take the plunge and sew this thing together. To say it made me nervous was an understatement. This is not usually how I quilt. It's not a pile of squares sitting next to the machine and sewn together at random and it's not carefully laid out blocks that need concentration and working out. It sits somewhere in the middle, not in a happy medium kind of way, but in a road-less-travelled, throw-the-rule-book kind of way.

My orphan block box is a scraggly mix of leftovers from finished projects and abandoned quilts that started with a bright future but quickly resulted in disillusionment. It is a place of discomfort and guilt, bereft of inspiration.What else do you do with leftover blocks? It's times like this I realise that in my quilting life, more than anywhere else, I am a hoarder.

And it's a good thing I am, don't you think? I used only about half of my leftovers, but with the ones that made their way back to the box, I now feel a sense of peace and purpose. One day I'll do this again. Maybe it can be a yearly ritual. Like a jubilee. Setting those old expectations and dreams and "I don't know what to do with this so you can go here" into a quilt to start afresh with new projects and a little less guilt.

As I was showing my progress on Instagram, a few folks asked me to explain my progress, so I took lots of photos to give you an idea here. Like I said, there's no rules in improvisation. I went mostly by feel.

There's no way I could have achieved this without my design wall. I laid out the blocks, keeping in mind that I want to sew them together without going around corners. So I made them into bigger blocks of 2-4 pieces. Coincidentally, most of these were divisible by 3. That means they were 3", 6", 9", 12", etc, so a little mindful arranging made them fit together easily. When they didn't, I had strips and strips of leftover half-rectangle triangles from my Tent City quilt that I added to anything that was too small, and then trimmed back down if I needed to without worrying about keeping my points intact.

I sewed those bigger blocks into 3 large slabs and was almost going to sew those together when I realised I was out of wadding. This actually felt a lot like providence because I did have long, wide strips of wadding, leftover from other quilts mostly the perfect size for my slabs. The one that was too narrow, I sewed to another and pressed the seams open so it would fit.

I used a Quilt-as-you-go method I first came across on Maureen's blog, which I had only ever used with smaller blocks. I spray basted the quilt top slab to one side of the wadding and then quilted lightly over the two layers. Then I trimmed all the way around the excess wadding. And then I did the same with the other two slabs.

I trimmed the whole quilt a little again, just where there was uneven edges. Then using a 1/4" and my walking foot, I sewed the quilted slabs right sides together. I lay out my backing fabric and taped it to the floor so it would stay taut, sprayed and laid out the quilted top.

I then went back to my machine and first quilted either side of the thick seams to hold them down. Then I used a straight, meandering stitch, basically zig-zagging my way around the quilt. I wanted to try something different and more improvised than straight line quilting, but now that I'm done, I wish I'd stuck with my favourite! I used a mix of hand-quilting, thick variegated Aurifil thread, and my go-to white. It was a fun experiment, trying to keep with the improv theme, but I think simple, horizontal lines would have held it together more.

Undoubtedly, the very best part of quilt-as-you-go is when you suddenly remember that you can use you backing as your binding! I simply trimmed around the backing 1" from the quilt top edge. I then folded it in half towards the quilt, then over the edge of the quilt again, and top stitched. When I came to a corner, I folded the overhanging pieces to the left to make a little triangle. The I folded the same method, folding the fabric in half and then over again to make a neat mitered corner.

I'm not sure if I would usually use a binding this dark, I generally pick out a colour somewhere in the middle, but I love how this all hangs together. In a quilt with a lot more low volume than I usually try in scrappy quilts, I think it makes the darker tones shout out happily.

There is much joy in this quilt, in the trying something new, using something old, freeing myself of quilts hanging over my head, some for years. Some were hard to let go, like my Penny Sampler. I would love to make that quilt again someday! But for now, the colours stumped me, I was never sure about them. Other blocks were a relief to use, like the Ohio Stars and the leaves. The leaves were generously made for me by an old bee and the colours just didn't go together like I hoped. Oh, it's good to see how much I've learned about colour over the last five years! I also love the contrast and interest the lovely flowers add, but I was sad when they arrived late, lost in transit for weeks before getting here. I'm glad they finally have a home!

All in all, this quilt was made by about 20 people from about 15 old quilts! Because half were for do. Good Stitches, it'll be heading to a charity next. A quilt of previously hope-less blocks for someone struggling for hope. Gosh I love long-coming finishes! I love new starts, renewed confidence, and stories with happy endings.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Corn and Beans - Red Sky at Night Quilt

I was amused this week to discover that 'Corn and Beans', the name I've always had written next to this block in my notes, can only be called Corn and Beans if it's made from yellow and green! The block was first published by the Ladies Art Company, who sold mail order patterns, somewhere between 1890 and 1906. Then along came Carrie Hall in the 1930s, and claimed that if the colours weren't yellow and green, then the block was named Duck and Ducklings, or Hen and Chicks, or Shoo Fly, or Handy Andy. All of these names were, as far as we can tell, first published by Carrie Hall, but I cannot find out any more to the story. Did they all have colour codes? Or was she just recording the names she'd come across. Of course, the latter is more likely. Still, I've decided to be rebellious, and stick with my original name.

It got me thinking about rules in art. Which ones we break and which ones we keep. I've spent a little while recently looking through my old quilts, deciding which could be considered 'Modern', and if I'd enter them into Quiltcon this year. I've never really considered myself a 'Modern Quilter' in the strict sense of the word. I don't really improvise, I don't really use negative space, I'm not much into wonky. Am I only a Modern Quilter if I break the rules? Because the rules have served me, and others for a few hundred years. The more I make old blocks, the more I appreciate their timelessness. I like their sharp, classic lines that change mood depending on size or colour or contrast. I appreciate their inspiration and motivation, to tell stories, to fight against injustice, to warm their household.

So then I started thinking about what stories were important to me, what injustices I wanted to fight, what patterns I want to pass on so that others can tell those stories too. What shapes and lines express my concern for the politics of refugees? What celebrates the birth of my new nephew? What retells the old quilt stories that I want to make known so that we don't forget them? The ideas I've started to play with are inspired by the old techniques, much like modern music still uses a key signature, but they say something that's meaningful to me. They break rules, partly to play and see what happens and partly to make it my own. It makes me think that spending the year learning old quilt blocks and their history, has been a bit like learning classical piano. I now have the tools and ideas to compose my own music. I know what the rules do, and therefore which ones I can break.

I also know that back in the day, people changed block names all the time, so I'm keeping Corn and Beans!


You will need:

Red: Five 4.5" squares, two 2.5" squares, four 2.5" x 4.5" rectangles.

White: Five 4.5" squares, eight 2.5" squares.

1. First, take the red rectangles and small white squares. Sit a white square over the rectangle as above and stitch diagonally through the centre. Trim the small outer triangle and press outward.

2. Repeat with another white square on the other side. Sew in the opposite diagonal direction to make a red triangle.

3. Match your 4.5" white squares to your red squares. Sew all the way around them.

4. Cut through the squares along both diagonals. Open and press.

5. Trim to 2.5".

6. Lay out as below.

7. Pair the little squares together into twos and sew. Press and sew those together to make 9 patches.

8. Sew the patches into rows. Press seams open.

9. Sew the rows together.  

It's funny how many times I've wondered what I was thinking making this quilt this year, and how many times I've been so thankful for the process, for what I've learned. This week was the first time I'd likened it to learning my scales as a child.  I know I'm going to appreciate this all the more as I embark on my future projects. And we're on the home stretch! Only 2 more blocks to go!