Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Flannel Pancake

Some words just go together. Peanut butter and jelly, ham and cheese, salt and pepper, sugar and spice. Universal pairs...cosmic twins...common markers for culture, place and language.

Other pairs are uncommon, unlikely and a dang good story.

Thanks to my Grandma McKay, whenever I think of the word "flannel," I also think of "pancakes." In elementary school, I checked out a book from the library about pranks. Around the same time grandma came for a visit. In what turned out to be a most fortuitous question, I asked, "Did you ever pull any pranks on grandpa?"

Oh my.

She giggled, wheezed and wiped streams of tears from her eyes. In between gasps and shoulder shakes she told me how she'd cut out circles of white flannel the night before her planned attack. After pouring pancake batter on the hot griddle, she placed the flannel circles on top and hid them with more batter. With a straight face she served them to her even straighter-laced husband.

"What did he do?" I asked.

"Nothing!" she chirruped in a near shriek. "He just kept cutting, and cutting and CUTTING!!!"

At least 40 years after the fact, she was still so pleased with herself. How could she not be? Thus, that is how flannel=pancakes in my world.

For this quilt, flannel scraps=improvisational piecing. I had lots of scraps left from a flannel quilt I had just finished that I decided to do something with. That "something" ended up being a grab-a-piece-and-sew-it-somewhere kind of project. I love making something out of nothing! (I also loved not having to come up with yet another bin to store flannel scraps in if I am being completely honest.)

When I do improvisational piecing, I start by making a block. Once I like it, I measure the height of the block and make a lot more that are the same height. The width doesn't matter at all. I join these blocks together and stop when I think I've made the quilt wide enough. Then, I make another block that I like, measure how tall it ended up and repeat the process. For this quilt, I also pieced together strips of fabric in shorter heights (like 4") to sew between rows. I think it helped to disguise where the blocks and rows are even more. If you're wondering, this quilt has 5 rows.

Last Christmas I ordered a box of Aurifil thread that was on sale. I didn't read the description closely enough and ended up with 12 spools of 12 wt. thread. Whoops. Rather than return it, I did a little research to find out what I could use it for and discovered big stitch hand quilting. I thought this flannel quilt top would be a good project to practice on, and I was right. All of that improv was a very forgiving canvas for hand quilting. I also discovered during last year's brutal winter in the Midwest that sitting under a flannel blanket that you're quilting is one of life's great pleasures.

I quilted this in the same free-wheeling style that I pieced it. I didn't mark it other than sketching designs with my friXion pen that I quilted over in some spots. FriXion pens have ink that disappears completely when ironed. I found that I worked better without a hoop and without a thimble. My other grandpa once said that the only thing he could do with a pair of gloves on was pee his pants. After trying multiple thimbles and truly giving a good faith effort, I can see his point. I have two sizable callouses on the first two fingers on my right hand. I also have started on my next hand quilting project, so I guess it's all good.

It took me 9 months of quilting to finish. I picked it up for 15 or 20 minutes at a time a couple of days a week. I can definitely tell where my first quilting attempts were. Once I was nearly finished, I looked back at the uneven, large stitches of those early days and wondered if I should unpick them and redo it. In the end, I decided that the stitches were descriptors of a journey and that I liked the added "character."

And after all, it isn't just about the flannel in the pancakes, it's the way you tell the story that makes it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


What's scarier than a Halloween quilt?

Being married to a trained driver's education teacher. For real.

The one perk of cheerfully cheating death is the stories he can tell AND the adventures he's had. One of the best happened on one of the "final drives." To make it more fun, my husband allowed the students to choose a destination to drive to on one of their last sessions together. One of the most interesting locations he was ever taken to was The Black Angel.

In one of our local cemeteries there is a memorial with a black angel. This particular memorial was commissioned by a woman to stand above the graves of her teenaged son and second husband. Tragically, her son died young from meningitis and her husband died within a few years of their marriage. Somehow, over the years since this memorial has been erected, it has been imbued with multiple meanings and become something of a curiosity. The color has been the subject of much of the controversy. Some think that it turned black because it was murder, not meningitis that did her son in. Others think that it turned black because she swore to her deceased husband that she would always be true to him and she was cursed for forgetting that graveside promise. Still another theory is that the mother was a nasty sort and that the statue was struck by lightning the night she was buried. I guess it's just not as fun to consider that a bronze statue exposed to the elements for 100 years might do something funky. Mystery aside, I find the statue hauntingly beautiful and an excellent location to take pictures of some mysterious girls.

I've had the Nightshade line by Tula Pink in my closet for a couple of years now and I really wanted to do something with it. I found an old quilt block in a quilting encyclopedia I had and did my best to redraft it on graph paper. Needless to say, it was a complex block and it took me quite awhile to draw and color. I took it to a copy machine to make more copies because I just didn't have the will to draw it again. That ended up being a good thing, because I could easily rearrange and spin the blocks until I got the orientation right. Once I was happy with the design, I taped it to another sheet of graph paper and added an additional row of piecing on all sides to complete the pattern. I kept that sheet next to the sewing machine while I put the blocks together.

This is one completed block with the addition of the extra border row on the top and the right. Even though it measures 55" x 55," there are only 4 blocks in this quilt!

I added more fabrics to Nightshade to make this quilt. I used Tula Pink prints from Fox Field in addition to prints from Modern Quilt Studio, Angela Walters, Moda and even a print from William Morris (I dare you to find it!). My favorite is Robert Kaufman's quilter's tweed in hot pink. I also used shot cotton in artemisia and ice. I love the grayed down palette.

I quilted this in a cross hatch with a swirling stitch that is one of the utility stitches on my Janome. I was going for spider-webby. I used Aurifil 50 wt. in medium gray. You can really see the pattern on the solid black I used for the backing.

The Nightshade girls mirrored The Black Angel perfectly. Mysterious? Yes. Scary? Not so much. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Blogger's Quilt Festival: The Bear on the Wall

In my original post, I made a joke about keeping a bear on the wall, so I thought I would take some pictures of our old friend in his "natural habitat."

I think he is settling in nicely.

Final stats:
This bear block was designed by Juliet at  Tartankiwi. This is the 30" version.
The quilt finishes at 36" x 36"
It was quilted using one of the zig-zag utility stitches on my Janome with Aurifil 5012.
I used 3 different Anna Maria Horner lines (Pretty Potent, Loulouthi and Innocent Crush). There's also Denyse Schmidt, Art Gallery, Michael Miller and Kaffe Fassett because sometimes more really IS better.

Linking up with the Blogger's Quilt Festival, small quilt division.

Blogger's Quilt Festival: Mustang

I took one of my dearest quilt friends out for another photo shoot today.

 ...And I decided to take Mustang, too.

I thought that the first round of pictures I took for this quilt out on an old barn (here's the link) were great, but I think I like these better. This quilt was made for a day like today.

I also got some feedback from the original post that a picture of the block would be appreciated. I am happy to oblige!

The final stats on the quilt:
Each block is 18.5"
The dimensions are 55" x 72"
Quilted in straight line with Aurifil 1147
Finished in August, 2014

Linking up with the Blogger's Quilt Festival, large quilt division.

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.

Friday, August 8, 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.