• Creative, Artistic, Original, Voice

    This editorial is about creativity – or lack thereof.  As a teacher and designer, I am constantly confronted by students who disparage themselves as not being ‘creative’. This is a notion I try hard to dispel for perceiving yourself as un-creative can paralyze and stunt your  imagination.

    The creative process as pertains to art and design can be represented as a square; there are four facets to the process – creativity (or imagination if you prefer), artistry, originality and voice. In this essay, I will address each of the four aspects individually. Back in the 60’s the term ‘square’ had negative connotations; it meant you were inflexible, old-fashioned and unable to appreciate the unconventional; most young people did not want to be thought of as a square. Well guess what – as an artist it is ‘hip’ to be ‘square’.

    The first facet is creativity: let’s get one thing straight – we are all creative on some level. Creativity is a fundamental characteristic of being human. If mankind was not creative we would have died out long ago unable to compete with stronger, more durable creatures. Humans as a species are not exceptionally strong, especially when facing another being that is – like a bear, we are ‘smart’ however (most of the time). In hand to paw combat with a bear, we would lose. If we had to rely on physical strength alone to fell a tree, move the log and build a house we would still be living in caves. Not to get sidetracked but this brings to mind a very interesting book I read some time back – ‘At Home’ by Bill Bryson. It is a fascinating treatise on how our homes evolved from cave dwellings to modern structures, innovations such as chimneys, staircases, indoor plumbing and glass windows… when did they appear, who invented them and why.

    Back to the topic at hand, it is our creativity that allows us to tackle a problem and come up with the tools and processes to solve it. If you have ever had to make a substitution when you were cooking a meal and ran out of a specific ingredient (and jumping in the car to run to the store and buy more does not count my gentle readers), or if you needed a sewing stiletto you did not have and discovered that using a large needle pushed into a cork served the same purpose, or came up with an arrangement that allowed you to stack one more box of fabric in a closet or even used an empty tin can as a pencil holder… you were being creative. Have you ever improvised a bookshelf by laying planks across cinder blocks? Come on folks, raise your hands, I’m sure when you were a student in a dorm or a young adult living in your first apartment you had to improvise at least some piece of storage or furniture.

    This is creativity; setting out to accomplish a task or goal enlisting tools and materials to help us accomplish something we would otherwise not be able to do.  So accept the fact that you, as a member of the human race, are intrinsically creative.

    Moving on to the next facet – when many people claim they are not ‘creative’ what they actually mean is they are not ‘artistic’ – there is a difference. Even then, what is Artistic? A dictionary might define it as someone or something that displays a skill or inclination in art which in turn begs the question – what is Art? Most people think of ‘art’ as something that is aesthetically pleasing but not all art is pleasant. Some art is jarring or disturbing; art often conveys a message and that message is not always agreeable, sometimes it is something we would rather not hear. Just because we don’t like the statement does not mean it is not art. So art is really an expression of one’s thoughts and soul; something that we all have, pleasant or not. Granted, some of us are more skilled at presenting our thoughts and ideas in a form that can be easily received and interpreted by others and that is where artistry comes into the equation.

    Art can be imitated. Just because one can reproduce a piece of artwork faithfully does not automatically make one artistic. Duplicating a work of art takes skill but a good technician can acquire the skill plus the technological tools we have at our fingertips can do that for us. You can open a photograph in a photo editing program such as Adobe Photoshop and apply a filter that will transform that photo into a skillfully rendered pencil drawing. Does this make you an artist? Perhaps on some level – having the vision and the expertise to use these tools signifies some level of talent but is it the same as another person picking up a pencil and using their hand and fingers to transfer to paper what their eye sees and brain interprets?

    This brings me to the third facet – Originality. This is perhaps what most people actually mean when they say they are not creative or artistic. We are all creative to some degree in our thoughts and souls but the question lies in our capability to express them for others to see. A writer can put pen to paper and record their thoughts but the artistry and skill of assembling those words into a composition that enthralls the reader makes the difference between a mundane scribe and a gifted author.

    We all take inspiration from everything that crosses our path; our minds are like stuffed filing cabinets full of all the experiences we’ve had and things we’ve seen. Some of the data lies buried so deep that we may not even remember the experience.  Sometimes I get an idea, a design that just blossoms in my head and to tell the truth, I cannot swear if it is an original concept or a faint memory of something I saw, perhaps even as a child reawakened in my brain.

    Assimilating other’s ideas is not necessarily a bad thing (though copyright infringement is); take language for instance. A collection of people establish language one word at a time, naming things, sharing terms and the structure of words so as to communicate with each other. If, in pursuit of individuality, we all invented our own proprietary words for objects and ideas no one would be able to talk to anyone else. To digress from my topic again for just a moment, I highly recommend another  book by Bill Bryson – ‘The Mother Tongue’ which is a fascinating dissertation on our language and how it evolved to what it is today.

    But back to my subject, what sets us apart even when speaking the same words is our ‘voice’. What makes it possible to hear a program narrated by James Earl Jones and know without seeing him or his name credited? It is the unique timbre and inflection of his voice. Artists also have a voice and this is the final facet of Creativity (with a capital ‘C’). When a artist explores and creates enough work, a unique pattern may start to emerge, some intangible thing that others can perceive, this is their voice and it may bridge across various mediums.

    In some cases, the artist may not even be aware of it. I think of my own work as varied, all over the map yet I had an experience once that proved that I must have an artistic voice. I brought a quilt to show at a guild meeting and hung it up on the display wall. I was standing and conversing with a group of people about 30 feet away from the display when a guild member I knew but only casually walked into the main door and I saw her scan the wall of quilts on display. It was a very large meeting room filled with over 100 people and she was at the opposite corner from me but I saw her eyes zero in on my quilt and she began making a beeline straight for it. She was scanning the room as she walked and when she saw me, still halfway across the room mind you, she pointed at the quilt and then at me with a questioning look; I nodded. When she arrived, I asked her how she knew it was mine, I thought it was so different than anything I had made at that point and she said ‘yes’ but it was different in a way that only I could have done.

    To summarize my essay, Creativity, Artistic Ability, Originality and Voice are an integral part of expressing ourselves in a manner that others can see and appreciate. If you look deep inside of yourself, you might find you are more creative and artistic than you thought. It might be hidden away in a small locked room, down the stairs, through the corridor, past the sign saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’ (homage to Douglas Adams); but it will be there, it’s just a matter of finding the key to unlock that door.

    And now – because most people like to see pictures and not just read text, here is a picture of my cat ‘helping’ me with a new quilt I’m working on.

    Koshka ‘helps’ me by pre-testing my latest (in progress) art quilt for softness.

  • Texture #4 – Pile it on!

    Texture #4– Pile it on!

    Now for the final chapter on texture; this is Texture with a capital ‘T’.  In this chapter we will explore embellishment to add texture to your quilt/ fiber projects.

    In bygone eras, embellishment was mainly the empire of the Crazy Quilt. Most of the time it was embroidery but beads and other artifacts were sometimes added. Years ago, my guild hosted a speaker on Crazy Quilts who spoke of a Victorian era crazy Quilt that was embellished with a stuffed squirrel – yuck!

    Now, we live in the era of embellishment and there are entire magazines devoted to this art form – Embellishment (a publication from Australia) is completely devoted to embellishment and other publications such as Cloth Paper Scissors, Quilting Arts, Threads and Stampington & Co. frequently feature articles about embellishment; the art of ‘adornment’ has broken free from the world of Crazy quilts.

    Though I had played a bit with embellishment early on – my second quilt incorporated an old mink coat pieced into the pattern – my first serious ‘conscious’ exploration into texture was a friendship quilt I made from blocks from my small quilt group. I had just finished a two and a half year project overseeing and making a somewhat traditional raffle quilt for my guild, and I was rebelling against flat and square. The theme was the beach retreat we took twice a year and after piecing the blocks together into an asymmetrical arrangement, I added a ‘fringe’ of seaweed made from Dupioni Silk along the top and bottom edges and a second ‘fringe’ along just the bottom made from drilled giant Sea Urchin spines, I also knotted some fishnet from Pearl Cotton and sewed seashells all over the quilt, The Sea Urchin spines add a particularly intriguing element as they clink musically if the quilt is moved.

    A friendship quilt made from blocks made by my small quilt group. Note the ‘seaweed’ dangling along the top and bottom, the fishnet along the bottom and the fringe of sea urchin spines that tinkle like wind chimes along the bottom. The quilt is also embellished with seashells stitched here and there.

    This gave me the idea to explore the idea of quilts that make sound and my next noisemaker art quilt was a Sashiko panel along the lines of Japanese Noren (ceremonial curtains that hang in a doorway) that has lengths of Bamboo segments in a fringe along the bottom edge. This panel, that I titled ‘Zen Wind Chimes’ also makes a lovely sound when the panel is stirred by a breeze if hung in an open window.

    Sashiko Komon (clan crest) stitched on antique Japanese indigo cloth with a fringe of bamboo ‘culms’ that clink against each other if the panel wafts in a light breeze.

    The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting him back; though I do still make more traditional ‘flat’ quilts, I am bolder about adding 3-dimensional embellishments to my art quilts. Buttons, beads, seashells… needle lace and fabric confetti  – there is no better way to create lacy foliage to a landscape quilt than with confetti , and my Garden Window Nature Scrolls often sport berries made from beads, 3-D leaves and even some Maple samaras (the seed cases children often call ‘helicopters’) made from heavyweight painted and inked watercolor paper. I am also exploring the sea life found in a tide pool starting with my dimensional bead and embroidery Sea Anemones.

    Thinking back, at first I thought I had not really done much tree dimensional work but when I started to contemplate what images I would like to include in the post, I realize I’ve used texture in my quilts far more often than I’d imagined

    And now for some shameless self promotion: if you are interested in learning a few of these 3-D techniques, I will be offering a couple of classes upcoming over the next few months and into next year at various venues shown below.

    Cedar Ridge Quilts Button Fantasia:

    Button Fantasia – Hand embroidered medallions frame buttons on a pieced background with wool applique

    a delightful way to showcase any solitary buttons you might have left over in your sewing box or, if you are a serious antique/decorative button collector, to display your treasures.

    Ocean Waves Quilt CampTwin Rocks Landscape:

    Twin Rocks – a strip pieced/appliqued landscape featuring lacy dimensional waves

    this is my strip-pieced/appliqué landscape technique with a new twist – creating three dimensional waves on a seascape using a variety of materials such as lace or confetti.

    Cedar Ridge QuiltsEmbroidered Folk Art Ornaments: these chubby stuffed little gems are made from hand embroidery on wool and are embellished with sequins and beads. Choose a cat, a peacock or a sweet little winged elephant.TIP: They need not be made into ornaments, they can also be used in wool applique projects.

    Montavilla Sewing Center (Gresham) – Reversible Appliqué Tide Pool:

    Reversible Applique Quilt ‘Rock Stars’ the ‘other’ front side.
    Reversible Applique Quilt ‘Rock Stars’ – front side.

    yes, you read that correctly – reversible, not reverse appliqué. This easy technique makes a two sided quilt that can be displayed from either side which in a way makes it 3-D in my opinion.

    Art & Soul Retreats – I will be offering several classes at this event:

    • March 12, 2019: 3-D Fabric Pebbles:
      3-D fabric Pebbles

      These are remarkably easy to make and with the right fabrics can look astoundingly real.

    • March 15, 2019: Stumpwork Sea Anemones:
      Tide Pool quilt – Stumpwork ‘Sea Anemones’

      Often called the flowers of the sea, these creatures come in many brilliant color combinations and the texture of these embroidered and beaded projects has to be felt to be believed; they are so wonderfully tactile you can’t resist running your hand over them.

    • March 16, 2019: 3-D Fabric Leaves:
      3-D Ginko Leaf

      Wonderfully ruffled and curled, these dimensional leaves can be used to embellish quilts, purses and bags, clothing and some artists even make jewelry from them.

    I am also teaching the Stumpwork Anemones class in Florence later this August but that is a private class to a small quilt group and not open to the public,

    And finally, my Art Journal Quilt classes held at three different locations – Pioneer Quilts (the first Friday of each month), Montavilla Sewing Center (the first Wednesday of each month at the Gresham location) and Sewn Loverly (the second Friday of each month). These classes vary from month to month and are not always on some sort of 3-D embellishment but those techniques are sometimes the focus of the classes.

  • Texture #3 – Surface Tension

    Texture #3 – Surface Tension

    This was going to be my third and last installment in my ‘texture’ series however, as I started to write, it occurred to me there was yet another category of quilted texture to explore before I move onto the final chapter. This third chapter I have decided to call – Surface Tension (and I am not referring to the thread tension of a sewing machine here).

    Surface Tension is a scientific term that refers to the elasticity of a liquid that forces it to occupy the smallest surface it can, this is what confines water into a droplet or seek its own level. Water is inherently ‘sticky’ and anything that has mass but is too light in weight to break that sticky barrier will lie on that surface without falling through.  This allows lightweight insects like Water Striders to skim across the surface of a pond literally ‘walking on water’.  Likewise, something trying to rise from beneath the water’s surface has to contend with that constraint, it must be strong enough to defy gravity and break through that surface tension. Look at a close up of a Water Strider and you will see the slight weight of the creature does distort the level plane of the water where its legs touch; it’s just not heavy enough to break that surface tension as shown in the photo below.

    Attribution – By Praveenp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

    So – what has all this to do with quilting? Think of the fabric layer that forms the quilt top as the surface layer of water, anything restrained below it like batting may press upwards in an attempt to break through that layer but is unable to do so. Rather, it causes a bulge in that surface and that is what creates the texture caused by the stitching that compresses the batting along the quilting lines, this is the batting trying to break through the surface tension of the quilt top. This is also why you don’t get nearly a nice a ‘sculpted’ texture when you appliqué with fusible web. No matter how soft the product claims to be, it still adds a layer of stiffness to the fabric that makes it resist the bulge you might otherwise get without the adhesive layer. Instead of sinking down into a depression produced by the stitching, the thread tends to lie along the surface of the fabric causing very little distortion but it is exactly that distortion that creates the lovely texture that captures light and shadow.

    One form of quilting that takes this textural distortion to a higher level (pun intended) is Trapunto. This is a method in which specific areas on a quilt are stuffed or padded to make them more prominent than the rest of the quilting, this the most effective if used on a whole-cloth quilt or in areas of negative space with no piecing, appliqué or even a busy print to interfere with the beauty of the padded quilting.

    Trapunto – Early 18th Century Italian. Attribution – Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



    Detail – United States, 1846 Cotton and glazed chintz, pieced, quilted, stuffed and appliquéd in ‘broderie perse’ Attribution – Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    There are several methods for doing Trapunto; in the historic versions, the quilted shapes were actually stuffed either by slitting the back of the quilt and inserting bits of wool ‘fluff’ through the slit then sewing that shut – which left the dilemma of how to preserve the integrity of the quilt; or in some cases the threads of the backing fabric were ‘teased’ apart then bits of wool tucked into the breach and then the threads painstakingly pushed back into place – yeah – like I’m really going to do THAT! With these methods, care must be taken, the shape needs enough stuffing to fill it well and prevent shifting/compacting of the filler resulting in a wool or cotton ‘ball’ bouncing around the space but also to avoid overstuffing which can cause unsightly bulging and distortion on large shapes. If the design involved channels of parallel quilting, yarn would be threaded into the layers with a needle and then the protruding ends clipped off very close to the insertion points, there was even a version of this where a cotton cord was stitched to the underside of a fabric with a backstitch that crisscrossed behind the work and created a raised line with a better definition due to the backstitch outlining the cording on the front. This method was particularly favored in England during the Elizabethan era. It was often applied to garments such as caps and vests where the cording and dense stitching gave the item both beauty and stability.

    Los Angeles County Corded Quilting, detail of a man’s waistcoat c. 1760. Attribution – Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


    In contemporary times, other methods and innovations have arisen for working trapunto. John Flynn developed a Trapunto Stuffing Tube. You stuff pre-cut bits of batting into the end of the tube then slip the tube between the layered quilt and ‘inject’ the batting in place as you work your way up the quilt. Check out his You Tube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpEro6cPfBY. His technique is better suited to quilting by hand, If you like to quilt by machine, the most commonly used method of Trapunto is to apply a preliminary layer of batting stitched to the backside of the quilt top using water soluble thread to follow the design to be padded and then trimming away the excess batting close to the stitching. The quilt is then layered with batting and backing in the normal method and then quilted along all the design lines including those previously stitched by the water soluble thread. After completion, the quilt is washed to remove the water soluble thread thus padding the areas with the double layer of batting rising above the level of the rest of the quilt. The benefit if this method is that the extra padding will remain flat with the batting less likely to ball up and shift than loose stuffing would. See this technique demonstrated at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDjw4Wo37ew

    There is a second ‘cheater’ Trapunto by machine method where the quilt is layered with a higher loft batting and after the Trapunto motifs are quilted, the surrounding areas are densely stitched to compact them. This exaggerates the puffiness of the open areas in contrast with the densely quilted areas; the work appears to be ‘double-stuffed’ but in actuality is just one layer of batting accentuated by the compacted areas. I have tried this method myself on a small artistic project and it was fairly easy to do.

    My own ‘Cheater’ Trapunto

    Technology permeates all aspects of our lives these days; it makes you wonder what innovations lie on the quilting horizon. When we remodeled a home years ago we found a product that was ‘insulation in a can’ – you inject this liquid into the open space you want insulated and the liquid expands and fills the area with a foam that hardens. I see a similar product is being used by construction companies to raise and level concrete slabs. How about a liquid batting that you could inject into a quilt that would expand into a soft spongy fill? Anyone want to take that idea and run with it?

    Look for the final chapter on texture coming soon; until then – May your stitches be short and neat, your life be long and sweet and your fabric stash be enough to keep you quilting.