Monday, October 13, 2014

Oh Iowa!

When the leaves started changing awhile back, I had an undeniable urge to do a fall quilt. A few months ago I found the logo designed by Stuart Ash for Canada's centennial celebration. The design is nearly 50 years old, but it still feels modern. I loved the graphic quality of the design and decided to do an homage. I replicated the shape with an equilateral triangle ruler and some of my favorite "nearly solids" from my stash.

For the border, I used graph paper to make a paper piecing template. I was inspired by the Streak of Lightning style. Once I had the proportions and angle the way I wanted, I made a reversal tracing using the kitchen window (we are REALLY high-tech here). I made the corner blocks by playing dot to dot with the edges of the border pieces. This particular shape reminds me of a 60s style mirror that hung in my brothers' room and seemed to suit the vintage modern vibe.

I quilted this in a straight line, pivoting design. Using the equilateral triangles made it a simple design to mark. I broke out my brand-spanking-new cone of medium gray Aurifil to piece and quilt this project. I finally decided to stop pretending I didn't have a quilting problem and to just buy the cone. The first step is admitting you have a problem, right?
The field of soybeans has already been harvested. I can see this tree from my kitchen window...I have always loved it.

It had just started to drizzle when I took this shot. I love the way the drops are suspended on the fence.
I love fall. I love the colors, smells, sounds and tastes of it. When we first moved to Iowa from Boston, my husband's grandmother sent us an envelope full of fall leaves because she just knew that we wouldn't see any here. Sweet, but not true. Yes we have fall leaves AND harvested fields AND rolling hills AND the most beautiful golden orange shade of light that you have ever seen. Iowa takes my breath away every autumn.

We are lucky enough to live about 25 miles away from an Amish community. At least two times a month I take the kids with me out to an Amish grocery store. It is an incredible opportunity to get fresh, local produce in bulk for fantastic prices. It is also a surprise because you can never be quite sure what you are going to get. Last time I bought TWO bushels of apples, green beans, red peppers, Napa cabbage, radishes, golden heirloom tomatoes, watermelon and squash. What a harvest-time bounty!

I took this picture just outside the market. These apples were $0.39 a lb, the watermelons were $1.69 and the squash were 2 for a $1
After the market, we stop at an Amish bakery on the way home. Depending on our mood, we either get the glazed doughnuts or kolaches. This week we decided on kolach.

I got black raspberry this time. See what I mean about the golden orange light?

We passed 3 self-serve mum trailers on the way to the store.
I feel like since I've started taking pictures of my quilts, the way I look at the world has changed. I drive slower, I look harder and I see beauty everywhere. Wherever you live, and whatever the weather/season is today where you are, I hope you see it too. Have a beautiful day!


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Bear on the Wall

So many of my quilts are "memory" quilts, and this is no different. I am drawn to bears--not because I particularly love bears, but because I associate so much with them. My mother had a dear friend named Faye that she taught with for many years. They shared many things together, including an affinity and love for art. Faye did a lovely oil painting of a grizzly bear lumbering over a log with a towering, craggy mountain in the distance. She gave this painting to my mother and it hung in the dining room for years. That bear certainly was a silent witness to a great deal of my history.

Forget being the fly on the wall, that bear was there for announcements, pronouncements and a whole bunch of laughs. I will share one of the best.

My mother became the de facto caregiver for an older woman who lived across the street. Mom got her groceries, ran errands for her and was always available for a good chat. One particular Thanksgiving, mom invited Lou over to our house for dinner. She showed up that day dressed in her best. Silky floral shirt adorned with a gigantic rhinestone sunburst pin, a freshly coiffed purplish red wig and fire engine red lipstick carefully applied into a large, exaggerated moue. Dinner was fun. Lou regaled us with stories of her days waitressing and kept us all in stitches. It all went really well until she leaned forward to get seconds. "Oh hell," she muttered, dabbing furiously at her shirt, "I got my tit in the gravy." The silence that followed that comment was thick and heavy. It felt like every molecule of air had gotten sucked out of the room.  Everyone suddenly had an intense interest in the food on their plates and the scrape of silverware seemed unnaturally loud. I was very young, but I knew something outrageous had just happened and I watched my family to see how I should react. My dad was biting his lip, my mom looked a little put out, and my teenaged brothers looked like they were about to explode. Dinner carried on. We swallowed our laughs until after dessert when we could truly relish the infamy.

That's what memories are, right? A moment that blossoms into an infamous EVENT. That particular memory certainly lives on. Try spilling something on your shirt at my house if you have any lingering doubts.

So, my house needed a bear on the wall. This pattern is from Juliet at thetartankiwi. She has a 12 inch bear, and this 30 inch bear (plus a lot of other animals) for sale in her Craftsy shop. (The pattern is for the block only.)   I used some parchment paper to draw the border design for paper piecing.  I taped down the paper on my cutting mat and used a pencil and one of my rulers to draft the pattern.  Parchment paper is mostly see-through, so it is easy to see the grid lines underneath. Plus, you can roll it out in whatever length you need. I use it quite a bit. I never have it in my kitchen because it's always in the sewing room!

I had so much fun picking the fabrics for this project that I wanted to do a reprisal with my scraps. Paper piecing yields a lot of funky shaped scraps that I am loathe to throw away. Rather than sort them out and put them in the "I'll get to them someday" bin, I decided to make a matching pillow sham with "made" fabric. I just sewed these little bits together until I had bigger pieces. I squared the bigger pieces to 5" and dog eared the corners with alternating 2.5" squares of cheddar and turquoise. I finished it off with matchstick straight line quilting. I don't know if I am happier that I have a matching pillow or that I used up the scraps. Probably both.

I am definitely happy to have a bear on the wall; one that will be a silent witness to new pronouncements and new memories. Who knows, maybe he will be one of the best ones.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


I'm a sucker for a cute bird and I do think it's genetic.

My mother taught first grade forever. FOR-EV-ERRR. I'm going to say around 40 years. For many of those 40 years she collected things for her bird unit. A teaching unit is an excuse to pepper the school day with the subject of your choice. In reading? You're reading books about birds. In math? You are doing addition problems on a bird themed paper using bird cutouts to help you solve the problem. In social studies? You are looking at the map to show where birds migrate. In science? Well, in science you are going to diagram, hold, touch and examine anything bird related. My mom became a serial collector of abandoned bird nests and somewhere along the way, it became our family's hobby to help her. We raised Christmas trees so, luckily, we had plenty of places to look. My favorite nest that we ever found was the tiny little hummingbird nest made out of horse hair. The nest that was my favorite story was the oriole nest my brothers found.

 Rick and Mike (I did not change their names. I'm thinking this is a story they will want to OWN for perpetuity. If not, WHOOPS, you should have been nicer to your baby sister.) were the proud owners of a pair of .22 rifles. One fall day they headed up into the mountainside to practice target shooting with their guns. On the way home, Rick spotted a Baltimore oriole nest in a Siberian elm tree. Oriole nests are different from other songbird nests. Instead of building a nest on top of a branch, the birds build them so they dangle from a branch like a large grass purse. This particular nest was hanging about 20 feet above the ground. Now, I wasn't there, so I can't claim to quote the conversation exactly, but I can just imagine what it must have sounded like--a twelve year old and fourteen year old boy standing underneath a tree; plotting, debating and arguing about how to take down that nest. Finally, Rick (the younger boy) decided that he was going to shoot it down. Faster than Mike could call him whatever an older brother would want to call a little brother that came up with a plan like that, Rick raised the rifle to his shoulder and fired. The nest, still attached to the 2 cm wide branch (now with a bullet hole in it) dropped to the ground. Mom got to proudly display that nest to at least 20 years of first graders AND my husband gets to blanch every time one of my brothers says, "Come go shooting with us, Matt." Ahh, priceless.

I made this quilt for my Aunt Roselle. She is the one responsible for the lovely embroidered bluebirds. My responsibility was to set them into a twin size quilt and coordinating sham without messing them up.

I had to think about what I wanted to do with these blocks for a week or two. Part of my problem is that I really, really, REALLY don't like sashing. It took me awhile to come up with something that could highlight and accent the bird blocks while simultaneously existing as NOT SASHING. In the end, I decided that a half scale repeat of the background pattern done in an accent color was more patchwork than sashing, so I went with it.*

I set the birds in an alternating grid of 30s reproduction blues and tonal whites. Although the thread in the embroidery is more of a dusty rose, I chose a selection of modern cherry reds to surround each bird block and provide an outer border. I thought the quilt design needed a harder contrast than could be accomplished with dusty rose fabric. I am happy with the mix of colors and fabric styles and I don't think the bluebirds will be locked in perpetual combat with the reds. There's just enough white to tone it down and keep everyone happy.

The bluebird block in the pillow was set in half square triangles in a blue peppered cotton and a fun red from Bonnie and Camille. I used a solid and a tonal solid (with no white!) so the pillow wouldn't just blend right into the quilt. I also parted with one of my vintage red buttons for the back closure.

This quilt is headed back home to Idaho, where the deer and the orioles bluebirds abound. I hope you like it, Aunt Roselle!

*No sashing was harmed in the making of this blog post. And? That last quilt you did with sashing? I love it. It's awesome. Better you than me. :-)

Monday, September 1, 2014


Every once in awhile a fabric can completely catch your attention--stop you in your tracks and DEMAND that you take a longer look. I saw a picture of the Cotton + Steel booth at spring quilt market and found Mustang...and stopped looking at anything else. There was something about that print, especially in the Olive colorway, that evoked so many memories for me.

My dad loved horses. I was raised around them and on them. One of my dad's favorite past times was to go to horse auctions to do some "homework." We only bought one of our horses (a mare named Lady who was in foal with my horse Freckles) at an auction, and that was completely unexpected. We had to borrow a horse trailer to even get her home! The best horse auction we went to was Fort Ranch. The ranch is located out in the no mans land between The Great Salt Lake and I-15. It was a long and beautiful drive to get there. Sagebrush, rocks, golden clay hills, deep blue sky, and the azure shimmer of the lake on the far horizon. Since the ranch was such a distance from "civilization," the owners included a free lunch before the sale began. They served hot dogs, giant vats of baked beans, chips and ice cold pop and watermelon, both chilled in icy watering troughs. I remember hanging over the edge of the fencing, stuffed to the gills with that excellent lunch, and looking at the mares with their foals milling in the paddock.

Here's Dad, me and Freckles
This quilt is an homage to those memories and to my Western roots. I may live in Iowa and love the rolling hills and misty green landscape, but I will always be a Westerner. It's not just a place, it's a personality, an attitude and a world view that is completely unique.

I sketched out the design for this quilt in the car on the way to St. Louis. The block is based on a rendering of a block I saw in Maggie Malone's 5,500 Quilt Blocks. I redrafted the pattern on graph paper to yield a massive 18.5 inch block. Part of the block is paper pieced (the star points) and the rest is pieced traditionally with half square triangles and squares. I think the real awesomeness happens when the blocks are pieced together and the secondary patterns emerge.

I decided to use all Cotton + Steel fabric for the construction of the quilt top, and I used fabrics from three of the lines. From Mustang I used Arrows in Navy, Olive Mustang and Olive Star. From the Basics line, I used Pink Cheeks XOXO and Night Owl XOXO. From Moonlit, I used Navy Arrows and Aqua Arrows. I love the way the fabrics work together. I ran my phone's battery completely down choosing fabrics for the quilt and calculating yardage requirements, but by the time our family hit the St. Louis Zoo, I had a quilt design and a burning desire to make this quilt. Right. Now.

I quilted this using a 40 wt. Aurifil thread in leaf green with a straight line pattern. Originally, I started out doing a free motion design with spiky triangles in a caramel colored  50 wt. thread. I wasn't sold on the design after I completed one bobbin worth of quilting, but I persevered, hoping that it would grow on me. It didn't, so I spent 4 hours ripping out two bobbin's worth of quilting. It was worth it. The real problem with that design is that it fought with the horizontal lines formed with the arrow fabric and the thread was just wrong. Everything about the quilt is bold, so why try to be matchy-matchy with a fine weight thread? I am glad that I buy thread the same way I buy a lot of my packs!! I never would have chosen to buy that particular leaf green color, but it was perfect for this quilt.

The backing is a Michael Miller print that I found on the sale table at my local quilt shop. It looks like a gold bandana with a turquoise accent! Perfect! I pieced the "belt" using some of the extra scraps from paper piecing the star points.

Once, someone said to me, "I just don't understand why everyone thinks the West is so beautiful. It's just brown hills. What's so great about brown hills?" I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To me, stark is just another word for graphic or bold and that is exactly what I like. That and homemade beans and memories of home.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sweet and Sour

I taught elementary school for seven years before I stayed home with my kids. For 3 of those years, I was a resource teacher. I guess technically I was the "special education" teacher, but I have never been a fan of that term. One of the students I taught was Mike* (not his real name). I taught Mike his fourth grade math lessons in my room where it was quiet and highly structured. Mike needed a lot of review and I needed to find a way to repeat the concepts enough times that he could master them...without driving either one of us batty. We would start our time together with review problems. I gave him a math problem, I watched him solve it and retaught concepts. As soon as he got ten correct solutions, he could go to my treat bucket and choose a snack before we went on to that day's lesson. I made an effort to keep a large variety of interesting treats in the bucket, but for Mike, variety was not an issue. Every day he would choose a War Head (a hard candy heavily dusted with citric acid) and every day the routine was the same: unwrap, pop in, gag, gag again, blink back tears in watery eyes, get a drink, walk back into the room and pronounce "THAT was AWESOME!!"

Can you see why I was thinking about those pucker-inducing candies the whole time I was making this? I can't really put my finger on the color combination that feels so tart to me (maybe the turquoise and yellow?), but it does. All of the fabric in the mosaic squares came from my scrap bin and orphan charm square jar. Making this was like taking a walk down the memory lane of past quilts.

I used 7/8" strips of a solid gray fabric to sash around my little pieces. I kept building until I had a block that I was happy with, then I added strips of the peppered cotton to each edge. I cut each of my blocks down to 20 inches tall. I started out cutting the blocks down to 18 inches wide, but I changed my mind after I got it up on the design wall. The proportions just seemed off. I ended up trimming the blocks to several different widths and used the calculator on my cellphone to make sure that I ended up with a rectangular quilt! To me, that is the best part of working with improv blocks...those moment to moment decisions when you can completely change your mind based on how something "feels!" I love quilting that way. Bad things (aka ugly things) happen when I over think. If you are interested in a tutorial for this method, please refer to Elizabeth Hartman's website Oh, Fransson!

The background fabric is a lovely gray from Studio E's peppered cotton.  I love the heathered look it has! The two different colored threads make you want to touch the fabric. I think it softens the hard edges of the mosaic design. I quilted the peppered cotton in a squared off meander design using So Fine! thread. It was such a great color match that you almost have to get your nose down on the quilt to see the thread. It just appears to be fantastic texture. The mosaic blocks were finished with straight line quilting in a salmon colored Aurifil thread.

I had this backing fabric in my stash. It coordinates perfectly with the color scheme and in a brilliant stroke of irony is from the "Sugar Pop" line by Liz Scott. There's the sweet!

This is a happy quilt. I was happy when I made it and I'm happy looking at it now. Not just happy, but dare I say "AWESOME!?!" We'll just skip the watery eyes bit.

This quilt is for sale in my Etsy shop.


Monday, July 28, 2014


The best part of Instagram is the steady stream of inspiration, ideas and like-minded people you can gather (Here is a link if you'd like to follow me). Last week I saw a notice for the start of the Sea Breeze Mini Quilt Along from Gnome Angel. I really liked the simple, graphic design of the block and decided to do my own version. I super-sized it to a 16 block extravaganza of some of my favorite fabrics.

I have a love affair going for shot cotton and peppered cotton. I genuinely enjoy working with solids because I love bold designs. Shot cotton and peppered cotton are the best of both worlds. Solids, with benefits...bold and graphic, but truly works of art in themselves because of the color play in the weave (both are constructed out of 2 different colored threads, woven together).

In the interest of full disclosure, though, I will tell you that there are several small downsides to working with both of them. Shot cotton must be delicious because every sewing machine I've had wanted to eat it for lunch. Yes, you can start with a leader (a scrap piece of fabric that you begin sewing with). Yes, you could also take a firm grasp of the excess thread from the top spool and help pull the fabric from the back. The way I ended up doing it is to start every seam about one inch from the edge. I would finish the seam, flip my piece over, and after taking a few back stitches to secure the line of stitches, stitched from my previous starting point all the way to the other end. That helped to minimize the warping of my half square triangle points AND the cursing in the craft room.

Peppered cotton has a heavier hand than shot cotton. It is luxuriously silky, but it also unravels on the cut edge with handling. I went over the back of my piece several times with the scissors and even with the lint roller, but I can see some thread varicose veins behind a few of the cream half square triangles. Since I am keeping this as a piece of wall art and it was life, not laziness, that led to said varicose veins, I am prepared to live with it. I am also prepared to gently edge you out of the way if you get your nose too close to the quilt on your next visit. I do have limits.

Both shot cotton and peppered cotton have "personalities," but I find the results to be worth little inconveniences during construction.

The last picture I have of this quilt is one of the best. The last two quilts I made were miniatures for my guild's quilt challenge. On the night of the guild challenge I was my typical why-do-I-always-do-this-to-myself nervous wreck. All the butterflies in my stomach died an abrupt death when a single member of the program committee decreed that all unlabelled quilts should not be considered for our competition. The guidelines for this challenge were the same as every other year, "the quilt must be bound, three layers, quilted and labelled." Unlike every other year, this year they were actually going to check for labels. Well, you guessed it. Mine weren't labelled. I wasn't trying to be subversive, I had just given both projects an envelope style back so that they could have a dual display option and it honestly never even occurred to me to label my little pillows. The worst part of the night was after the judging when we had to come up in front of the assembled mass and claim our projects, revealing ourselves as the maker and receiving our accolades. One of the nicest women in the guild handed me my project and said with authentic anguish, "It wasn't labelled." I went home that night with a broken heart. Not because I didn't win, but because my work was defined by deficiency.

As I am wont to do when I am troubled, I searched my mind for the perfect story I could tell myself. Something to give a negative experience meaning and channel my emotions into something constructive. It took me a few days to get my sass back and remember this little gem. My dad was a colorful and interesting man, and as such, had colorful and interesting friends. One of my fondest memories of childhood was the steady stream of friends that stopped by at our farm for a chat. Every time a new visitor arrived, Dad would say, "Miss Jill, why don't you go ice us up a beer." And, every time I would reply, "Dad, we're all out (we didn't drink) and I'm pretty sure you don't put ice in beer." He would shake his head regretfully and ask for a Diet Coke instead. This ritual never got old no matter how many times it was repeated. Afterward, I got to sit in the cool shade of our patio and listen to the stories. One time I remember my dad asking about the personalized license plate on Fred's (not his real name) new truck. Fred told Dad that when he went in to register his new vehicle, he had gotten some guff when he had opted not to get vanity license plates. "What?" the registrar asked in disgust "You're not personalizing? Only a real nobody would get a new truck and not spring for personalized plates." So, ever the sport, Fred decided then and there to get vanity plates. What did they say?


Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? I can't tell you what an immense sense of relief I felt sewing this on the back. It helped me feel better and reminded me of something important. Who gets to define me? NOBODY. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hand Work

I am not so good at just sitting. I have learned from countless drives from our home in Iowa to my mother's house in Idaho (1,250 miles), that I arrive at our destination in better spirits and my husband arrives loving me more if I have something to do. This year I was thinking about my guild's mini quilt challenge so I looked for an English paper piecing project to hand stitch while we were on the road. I found one called Star Hexie on Sew Mama Sew. I reduced the pattern pieces (it IS a mini, after all) and packed myself a charm pack of Mama Said Sew.

I hadn't been sewing very long before I started thinking about how to set the hexagons for the finished quilt. I can say with confidence that the only reason I finally settled upon appliqué was that I knew my mom would help me. My mom is the undisputed queen of needle turn appliqué.

I can prove that last claim, too. This is a quilt that my mom made for my youngest daughter. Mom planned a spring visit around an applique workshop by Angela Lawrence and the birth of my daughter. Both of those events were SUPPOSED to occur within a week of each other. Instead, Mom ended up doing an extended baby watch with me and I ended up with a 9+ pound baby! Needing something to do (maybe it's genetic?), she started a pattern that she'd gotten at the workshop. The awesome thing is, she was forced to use my fabric. Mom calls my fabric "wild." I think that the real wild thing is to see Loulouthi (top middle, if you're looking for it) in this context!

 This picture was completely an accident. Mom got distracted by a darling baby girl while she was laying out some of her finished blocks for my inspection. I am beyond pleased to have Miss E and the beginnings of her quilt in the same shot!

I made hexies the entire way to Idaho and the entire way back to Iowa and I STILL had a few more to do once I got home. I marked out where the hexagon middle would go on my background fabric so I could have help on the needle turn appliqué. Before I left, my mom showed me a technique that helps give each leaf a sharp, pointy tip. Mom stitched on two of the black leaves for me.

You may notice that her right hand is not like yours. When she was 14 years old, Mom was in an accident. A group of friends from her school were driving up the canyon to have a barbeque and a bonfire. Mom was sitting in the back of a grain truck with some of the others and her older brother was driving ahead in a Jeep. Going for a laugh, the driver of the grain truck started purposefully edging the tires up the walls of the canyon. There were screams and yells and laughs as everyone in the back of the truck was thrown off balance. The last time he did that, the motion was severe and abrupt enough that everyone was violently thrown to one side. That time the screams were real. Feeling the vehicle starting to tip over, Mom grabbed on to the side of the steel bed and hung on. The heavy truck fell directly on her right hand, severing an artery and crushing her wrist and thumb. Hearing the thump, her brother turned the Jeep around and arrived at the scene so fast that the dust still hung heavily in the air and the tires still slowly spun on the overturned vehicle. Her brother and friends dug her hand out from under the truck in blood-soaked clay. One of the boys had just received a life-saving merit badge from the Boy Scouts and put it to use. He used a handkerchief and a belt as a tourniquet and stopped the bleeding. He saved her life.

Mom's brother drove the Jeep home to wake up their dad. Her father arrived at the small hospital in the next town over and watched the doctor working on his daughter. Dr. Smith tried to reattach the tendons and stop the bleeding. He attempted to place stitch after stitch to no avail. The doctor turned to her dad and told him that the damage was too severe and that there was just too much gravel in the wound. He had no choice but to amputate. "No," her father barked in his stern voice, "Keep trying." He saved her hand.

Over the course of a year, Mom had nine surgeries. She contracted an infection so severe she nearly died. At one point, to develop a skin graft, her hand was literally attached to her belly for six weeks. She had to learn to write with her left hand. Gravel and heavy black thread from Dr. Smith's stitches worked their way out of her hand for months after the accident. So much effort was expended in saving the use of her thumb that her wrist was not set and it knit together in a haphazard fashion, giving her only millimeters of movement in her right hand. When I was in high school, my dad took my mother to one of his appointments and asked the orthopedic surgeon to look at mom's hand to see if she could get back a little motion in her wrist and to have help mitigating some of the chronic pain. After looking at the X-ray, the doctor came back in the room shaking his head ruefully. "There is absolutely nothing I can do for you," he said. "Be grateful you have a hand."

And she is. I am, too. That so much much beauty can come out of a part of her that saw such ugliness is an inspiration to me. That she was brave enough to even attempt needle turn appliqué as a hobby, knowing that her injuries would change everything from the way she held a needle to the way she placed a stitch with a wrist that doesn't move is an inspiration to me.

What's holding you back?