Free Spirit Quilt Top


This is how high I got up the ladder before my fear of heights set in!

I've spent the last two weeks working as hard and fast as I can to get this quilt top done in a timely manner for Free Spirit. All that's left is to applique a big white logo across the top and quilt it, and then ship it off to Charlotte, to Free Spirit HQ, so that they can take it to Quilt Con West next month!


So I thought today you might be interested in hearing a little about my work with Free Spirit?

In about September last year, I was approached by Free Spirit's marketing department in an email saying that Anna Maria Horner had recommended me as someone who might be interested in mapping some virtual quilts for her upcoming lines. The email was such a surprise, as I'm sure you can imagine, that I had to read it three times to see if I'd understood it correctly. And I didn't understand it. What was mapping? And what were virtual quilts? Anna Maria Horner knew who I was? And if I wrote back with these questions, was I giving myself away that I was completely in the dark, and therefore, possibly the wrong person for the job?

I took the plunge, politely, but excitedly replying that I was very interested, if they could just let me know exactly what I was interested in.
It turns out 'mapping' is designing, using the pictures of the fabric designs. I would design a quilt (actually, three or four quilts) on my computer with the images of the fabric line and submit them for consideration. They would get back to me with their favourite, and I would write a pattern for them.


I really enjoy the work. And if I may say so, I think I'm good at it. Though, that's not to say I haven't had to learn a lot. It's a very different process writing a pattern for a quilt before you've made it. My usual quilting process involves a lot of trial and error at the best and quickest way to put together blocks or quilt tops. I can't go through that process here. Often I tend towards scrappy quilts that play with value, rather than two-colour blocks, which makes cutting instructions really tricky. And I don't think I have ever, ever, sat down and thought about how much of each print I need and what exactly I need to cut before diving into a quilt. I usually just start cutting until I feel like I have enough, which is usually only about half of what I need. I sew it together and then start cutting again. And I guess, most importantly, while I'm making the quilt, I often make changes, because of how I feel about it now that I'm working with it, or because I've built on my original plan.

But quilt design on a computer is a completely different animal, and it's one I've learned to really love. I've had to learn that even in a scrappy quilt, I should use a similar amount of cuts per print, making the pattern much easier to read, and to write. I've learned, as I come up with new blocks or layouts, to ask myself "Could I actually describe that to someone? How?" and, "Do I even know how I would put that together?" It's easy to get creative with lines on a computer. It's a whole other thing to sew fabric together in the same way. The whole process has felt like learning a new science, or a new language. It's like the grammar here is different to the way I'm used to speaking, but I can find other ways to get my message across.

I've been amazed to see old designs I discarded on a previous job, suddenly come to life with a completely different line of fabrics. It's helped hone a sense of what brings different fabrics out, what do different styles need to look beautiful.

The lovely folks at Free Spirit have been so kind and open to me learning these things, happy to answer my questions, and I am very grateful for the opportunity. I've worked with lines that are exactly my taste, and I have more ideas than I can use. And I've worked with lines that are so different to what's in my stash, but the challenge of making something I'm really happy with has been so satisfying. I wish I could show them all here now! But I'll wait until the quilts have been shown at Quilt Market.


And then, about six weeks ago, I was asked to design this quilt, a special request for the Free Spirit Booth at Quilt Con West in Pasadena next month. Actually, again, I designed three quilts. I mapped the cityscape at the top of the post, the medallion quilt above, and the one I'm making. My brief included using a colour gradient, from purple to aqua, and the Free Spirit Logo in white. I really, really love the other two quilts, but I'm so glad they chose this one. It does make me feel like a Free Spirit. And it's also the simplest design, a good thing for me because I'm making it on the other side of the world.

Still, it's taken about twice as long as I anticipated to sew it up. I've always been terrible at guessing such things, and my optimism got the better of me here too.  I've been so fortunate that Tim is at home these days, able to look after the kids and the food and our other needs. Working from home is a challenge! But it still feels like a gift that I can tell my kids, who have walked right past Tim in the kitchen to come ask me for a sandwich, that that's Daddy's job this week. Oh, and to have my very own coffee connoisseur in the next room!


And my very own Quilt Critic. Here he is telling me what I didn't quite achieve in the design. We've been married ten years next month, and I'm glad I've learned to appreciate his feedback, and then still hold it up confidently against my own! And I love this quilt. I really love it. I can't wait to start the next challenge of appliqueing the logo. I can't wait to use some very new, yet to be released, wideback cotton for the backing! And I can't wait to see it hanging in the Free Spirit booth at QuiltCon.

Will you be there? Will you take a photo for me?

New Day, New Year.

Today is the first day.

Tim's at the dining table reading about earthquakes with the kids. And I have escaped to my air conditioned cave to sew and write a blog post.
When we were at university, Tim and I used to joke about how his degree (in engineering) would get him a job, and mine (in history and Russian) was great for dinner parties. But when suddenly, a little over a year ago, the north wind blew, and two souls, feeling dry and a little lonely in suburbia, got a call about a house in the country, it didn't take much, if any, convincing for us to pack up our house and move to the land of the deep breath.


We've been living in Canowindra, NSW for 13 months and it's golden hills and deep silence (except for this time of year, when the cicadas are celebrating their yearly riot) have affected us deeply. Here there is no academia, no race, no big shopping malls or beeping horns. I have enjoyed a year off comparing myself to that model on that billboard, or that family in that big house. There is hard work, there is a connection with the seasons, there's an optimism, and a kind of submission to the whims of the weather. If you've read the Little House books, you'll know what I mean. "Surely this year, it will rain. Surely this year, our hard work will pay off."

I like living here with these people, and these hills. Every so often there'll be a remark about having to go back to 'real life'. But I wonder if we've stumbled upon it here, where we know our neighbours and work with our hands.
This time last year I changed my blog name to reflect these other changes. Tales of Cloth became what I was hoping for, a place of stories and connection, of colour and learning. I didn't have as much time for it as my dreams needed to be fully realised. But I had time to sew and to read. When Red Sky at Night came to a close, my year did too. And suddenly my mind was blank. I had nothing to write about. So I let it sleep for a while.



Sometime during the second half of last year, I was approached by Free Spirit to design some quilts for Anna Maria Horner's upcoming lines. Yes! I made up some 'virtual quilts' and submitted them. They liked my work, and asked me to design with some other lines. And then that work led to more, until finally, last month, I was asked to make a huge quilt inspired by the Free Spirit Logo for QuiltCon 2016! Having spent the whole year in the history books, and working a lot with red and white, working in this way has felt like an absolute gift. It's interesting and challenging and fast. And I'm soaking up every bit of it.

One of my submissions for the QuiltCon 2016 quilts that wasn't chosen.

Around the same time, Tim and I started to reflect on this new 'real' life we'd stumbled upon. His Masters was drawing to a close (though even now drags on beligerantly), and our work here with Cornerstone was rich and fullfilling, but low student numbers were taking its toll on the community finances. Surely there was some way we could make the most of my connections with the quilting community, that could provide some unskilled labour for the young adults who stay here with us, work to pay their way, and study the Bible. We think we've come up a corker of an idea. But I won't share it now. All that just to say that we've caught that kind of farmer's optimism, "The harder I work, the luckier I get", and like ducks, we're paddling away behind the scenes to bring something new and colourful to the quilting community.

And that's why I am here! And Tim is out there learning about earthquakes. It's why, when I finish writing, I'll start sewing, instead of cutting up apple. 2016 will be a year of working together, of trying new things, of argueing, I'm sure, whose turn it is to do bath time or cook dinner. But nothing new is ever smooth, and I feel hopeful for a year of working at something that is meaningful and interesting to both of us.


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.

RED SKY AT NIGHT QUILT TOP CONSTRUCTION:

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!


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.

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!

CORN AND BEANS 12" BLOCK TUTORIAL

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!