Thursday, May 28, 2015

Lessons to Learn

For thirty years, I (Teri) was a fourth and fifth grade teacher. I have always loved children, and it was a privilege to have spent three decades in a classroom, learning alongside my many students. I am convinced that I probably learned more from my nine- and ten-year-old students than they could have learned from me. It was, at the very least, a mutual exchange of lessons, though they likely didn't set out to teach me anything. 

About ten years ago, I had a class that I really had to work to challenge in math. They were bright and creative, and a lot of fun to teach. Our initial discussion of symmetry launched a class project: to design quilt squares. I told them if they designed the blocks, I would make them. We discussed different ideas of what kind of quilts we would make and who would receive them. We settled on patriotic quilts that would be donated to soldiers, as many of the kids had family members who had served in the military. In the midst of these discussions, one student's cousin (who had been one of my former students) was in a bad car accident, and we decided one of the quilts would be for her.

At the time, I was a relative newbie in the quilt world. I had only been quilting for about five years; I didn't even own a sewing machine until 1996. Unlike many quilters, I did not grow up having learned to sew, except for the required home economics assignments. My mother didn't quilt or sew, one grandmother crocheted, and the other did some mending. I have to go back a couple of generations to find a quilt made in my family, but my great grandmother was no longer stitching when I knew her. Still, I loved fabric and stitches, and went about learning how to quilt. I had just enough skills to think I could make any block my students designed. And then MY lessons began...
My students designed the blocks and colors, and chose the fabrics they wanted to use. Some of their designs were basic and simple, and I confidently pieced them together. I approached this block's construction by dividing the design into a sixteen-patch, with squares and half-square triangles. Most, however, were not that straightforward. I had to do some serious study and planning to figure out how to approach making a number of these designs, and I found my skills to be much more limited than I wished they were to accomplish the task.  But I forged ahead and did my best, learning many techniques along the way. I also learned what skills I needed to practice and perfect! (Like matching points and appliqué.)

I used paper piecing for the center horizontal section of this block in order to achieve accuracy of the triangles. For a few of the blocks, I machine appliquéd units onto a pieced block. This is not a method I would use today, but at the time, I had limited appliqué skills. I had committed to 27 blocks and two quilts while teaching full-time, living with a houseful of teenagers, with only about 5 months left of the school year. So I cut a few corners to complete the blocks as efficiently as possible. For the most part, I am pleased with the results, but I have learned a lot in the past ten years and gained many skills which would ensure a better result today. Still, I am proud of my effort, as I learned as much about my craft as my students did about math. Above all, I was inspired by the creativity and enthusiasm of my students.

The corners of this quilt were carefully planned for the recipient of the quilt. The buttons and green fabric were cut from her favorite jacket, and the stripe was the jacket lining. She loved flip flops and purses, so we included those fabrics.  I will say that I shed a tear or two cutting up her jacket, hoping that it would give her comfort being wrapped in it in quilt form.

When the quilts were finished, we revisited our discussion of symmetry, and reviewed each block for different kinds of symmetry, like reflection and rotational symmetry. I'll spare you the math lesson, but here are a couple of examples, and you can Google it if you are interested.
Reflection symmetry
Rotational symmetry

One of the greatest lessons I learned while making these quilts is that every stitch I make is an opportunity for me to expand my skills. Life is full of chances to learn new things if we are only willing to take some risks and try something different. Many of the blocks I made for these quilts were not perfect, but the quilts were filled with love, and we all learned valuable lessons, not only about math and quilting, but also about the goodness of giving.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Out With the Old and in With the New

Up until recently, I (Kara) had a completely different career.  I made Irish dance solo dresses for a living and had been doing so for about 9 years.  In 2004, my oldest daughter Kaitlin started taking Irish dance lessons.  She loved it, and I loved that she was taking part in a cultural aspect of our heritage. As she began to compete, we learned more about the different costumes and what they meant.  Every Irish dance school has a "school" dress, which is kind of like the school's uniform and in the lower levels of competition, that is what is worn by the dancers.  Once a dancer reaches a certain level of competition, she is eligible to wear a "solo" dress. This dress is usually a one-of-a-kind dress, made specifically for that dancer according to her tastes and personality.  These dresses can cost from $500-$3500, depending on the maker.  Once I found out how much they cost, I decided I had better brush up on my seamstress skills so that I could make one for Kaitlin.  That was the beginning of my new career.
Designing and making the dresses was challenging and enjoyable from a creative standpoint, and I had some amazing customers along the way.  However, as Teri and I began talking about our new quilting and embroidery endeavors, I realized that I would not be able to do both.  Each dress takes about 4-6 weeks to complete, and that doesn't include design time.  So I hung up my dress form (figuratively not literally, although there were times...) and dove back into the quilting world with Teri.

My sewing world looks a bit different now even though much of the terminology used in quilting and dressmaking is the same.  I thought it would be fun to compare the two.

Old Stash

New Stash

Old Tools
New Tools

Old Albums
New Albums

Old Sketches
New Sketches

Old UFOs
New UFOs

Old Completed Projects
New Completed Projects

The terminology remains the same, but the look is quite different.  I still can't believe that it is my job to sit and stitch!  The jobs are different and the income is too, but it's worth it for the joy that I've found on this new road that Teri and I are traveling.  Thank you for taking the time to read about our journey.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Turning to Him

Turning to Him hangs above the fireplace.
This is the story of a simple guild challenge quilt that became so much more. It hangs over our fireplace, and I (Teri) enjoy looking at it daily, but it is something greater than just the design and the colors, a testing of new skills and old. In fact, for several years, I was sure I could never produce another piece that I thought could "measure up," and a bit of a creative dry spell began. Happily, I've overcome that! This quilt now inspires my creativity.

Challenge fabric, by Robert Kaufman
Several years ago, our local quilt guild was celebrating its 20th anniversary, and for its challenge, we were given a piece of fabric from which to produce a project. I knew of several people who rather disliked the fabric and couldn't imagine making anything of beauty from it. I, however, loved the warm, earthy colors and the ombré effect of the hues. At the time, I was taking an online class to learn how to use my Electric Quilt design program, so it seemed a good time to play with those new skills. Because the fabric had the spirals in its design, I wanted a pattern that reflected that motion. After searching the block library, I found the twisted log cabin block and thought that might work well. I had a great time playing with the designs for the blocks and borders. While paper piecing is not my favorite, these blocks were screaming to be paper pieced for perfect accuracy. The outer border was created using careful measurement and templates. (Proof that we really do use that math we learned in school!)

My favorite part of any quilt process is selecting the colors and fabric for the project. Studying the spirals in the base fabric revealed the four color groups that would move from light to dark, mimicking that ombré look: green, cerulean blue, brown, and gold to red. That last "leg" was my challenge. The first three colors were straightforward, but I had two colors left—a gold and a red. Finding six shades and values for either could be difficult, so I chose to blend those two into one movement, going from cream to gold to red, using a fabric with both gold and red in the middle. The lightest and darkest of that "leg" became the triangles for the outer border. 

Fabric selection: my favorite part!
With my friend Barb, (the same friend who helped me with my grandson's Dr. Suess quilt described in Thing 1 and Thing 2,) I set out for the quilt shops. My stash had provided a few of the fabrics I would need, but we had to visit three shops to complete the job. I can be pretty picky when it comes to color; I had to be sure the greens were the right hues: not too yellow or blue, but just right. In the end, the piles looked like this.

Making this quilt was a joy. I loved seeing the colors come together. Every free moment I had, I found myself in my sewing room, even if it was only to stitch a few seams. I couldn't wait to see this top complete. With each finished section, it did not disappoint; my vision on the computer screen and paper was coming to life in fabric. I was seeing the movement that I had hoped to see, replicating the turning of the spirals in the base fabric. 
Center of quilt, with each block turned a quarter turn.
Lower right hand corner of quilt
When it came time to plan the quilting, my LEAST favorite part of the whole quilt process, I opted to stitch the twisted blocks in the ditch and echo stitch the chevrons in the border. I am not skilled at free motion quilting, but the spirals seemed to need something spiral in their quilting. I decided that the best alternative for the inner border would be to stitch beads in each of the rectangles making up those spirals. And of course, I had to make the colors of the beads and rectangles match. It was surprising to me how calming and enjoyable I found that process to be; it might have actually been the first time that I found hand stitching to be quite comforting! (Odd, as most of my work is now hand work. At that point, however, I far preferred machine work.)
Glass beads hand-stitched in the border fabric, matched to color.
As I stitched, I found myself humming along to the song that seemed to be stuck in my head. (I always have a song running through my brain!) I watched the turning spirals in the fabric surrounded by the turning motion of the twisted log cabins, and the hymn "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus" seemed to turn endlessly in my mind. At this time, my oldest son was about to be deployed to Iraq—never an easy thing for a mother. I guess it was gnawing at me a little more than I was acknowledging to myself, for this song just would not let go. The night before he left to go overseas, I was working on the label of the quilt. I realized how anxious I was and knew I could not carry that through the next months of his deployment. I had to trust that my son would be okay. I wrote a poem which I printed on the label for the back of the quilt. The next day when he called me to say he was about to board his plane to head to Iraq, I read the poem to him. He assured me that whatever happened, he would be fine. I found an enormous peace, knowing that God is in control of all things, even if they aren't always easy for us. I am reminded of that truth each time I look at this quilt.  
Quilt label on back

On exhibit in Harrisburg, PA, with my mom
I am happy to say that I entered the quilt in the guild challenge and won first place. It also was accepted at the Mancuso Quilt Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that fall. I must confess, it was fun to see people studying the quilt in the exhibit. It even got my parents to the quilt show! My son returned from his deployment and is now married and has the grandson who enjoys his Thing 1 and Thing 2 quilt. 

I learned a lot about design and construction while making this quilt. But for me, the reminder I receive from the quilt is priceless: I may be able to control the colors and precision of my quilts, but ultimately, I am not in control. For that, I am thankful.

Cornerstone of the quilt

Black and white filter to determine color value
FUN TIP: Did you know that the black and white filter on your phone camera is a useful tool for assessing the values of your fabrics? It makes it clear which colors are your darks, mediums,  and lights. (I was almost afraid to change one of my photos to black and white, but thankfully my eye wasn't too far off the mark.) When choosing fabrics, I now always use this to double check to make sure the values are what I want them to be. I wish I would have known this trick when I was selecting fabrics for this quilt!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Unfinished Objects of the Past

There is something thrilling about finding an old quilt that speaks to you.  I (Kara) have to restrain myself from jumping up and down with excitement when I find an especially unique one in an antique shop. I have that same feeling when I find old quilt tops or blocks. Through the years I have found quite a few unfinished objects left behind by someone else. It pulls on my heartstrings to look at the time and effort that someone took in starting a quilt and wonder what it was that stopped it from being completed. I can imagine all sorts of tragic scenarios, but if I look at my own UFO (un-finished object) collection, the reasons are not quite as interesting.

Life has a way of stopping our forward progress on some of the quilt projects we start. The reasons are many in my own life.  Many of the UFOs I have are projects I started as a result of a class I had taken, but then soccer games, dance class, and cooking dinner got in the way.  Sometimes it got put on a shelf because of my quilting attention deficit disorder, i.e., some other fabric or pattern caught my eye.  Those are my UFO reasons, but what were some of the reasons someone from the past wasn't able to finish her quilt?

As a life-long thrift store hunter, I am always on the lookout for that great find.  I've never found a vintage finished quilt, but I have found four quilt tops.  They are all so different, as I'm sure the stories behind them are.  The first top I found was this fan quilt.
It's not very square but someone took a lot of time piecing it together.  We actually had this up on our wall for a while early in our marriage.  I had high hopes of quilting it someday but...see paragraph two. 
It is machine-pieced, and I have always thought and hoped that it was pieced with Uncle Joe's worn shirts, sister Lydia's dress and maybe Grandpa's pajamas. Someone with greater expertise than I might be able to give a more accurate story. Regardless of its story, it never made it to the quilting frame.

This Grandma's flower garden was found as is and has been hanging out in my cedar chest for about 10 years.

Because it is in one long piece it appears to be someone's very ambitious project. I don't know if there were more blocks finished and they just never made it to the thrift store, or if someone got tired of piecing all those hexagons and gave up. It is all hand-pieced; (is there even a way to do this pattern on the machine?) My thought was to separate this long piece and re-attach it into a more rectangular shape.

When I found this beauty, I'm pretty sure I squealed out loud in the thrift store. It's hard to appreciate its beauty from my pictures, but it is a lovely hand-pieced Dresden plate. Please excuse the furry model.
It is made of some beautiful feed-sacks in the sweetest prints.

This was a well planned quilt and every bit of it was put together by hand. Was this quilt made for someone in particular, or was it a showcase for some incredible hand-piecing skills?

To me, this quilt needs to be hand quilted to do it justice. I hope that someday I can hand it over to Bellwether Dry Goods to finish this quilt's story.

This last quilt is from a more recent time judging by some of the fabrics but it is no less interesting.

This was also a thrift-store find that caught my eye.  I fell in love with it, and so did my daughter who would like it quilted for her. I hope she's not holding her breath on that one.

The cheery colors and unique prints really make this quilt top special.

 The red and white sashing fabric is fun, and I would like to find something like it to finish this for my daughter. The quilt has some stains, but the brightness of the fabrics hides them. I'm not sure if these fabrics are from pieces of clothing or if they were part of someone's fabric stash, but the maker must have enjoyed color.

So this is my collection of UFOs from the past. In a perfect world, they would already be quilted with labels on each. But until then, I will look on them lovingly and hope that I can finish their stories someday. Have you inherited or purchased someone else's UFOs? We'd love to hear how you received them as well as see pictures.