Friday, July 7, 2017


Sometimes I feel like a magpie that carries sparkly things back to her nest to hoard. My sparkly things are stories. One of my favorite things to do is to get people talking about themselves so I can hear their stories. I love reading memoirs. I grew up listening to Paul Harvey and I am a faithful listener to Mike Rowe's podcast. I am also a family historian. I research not just for dates, but for the little nuggets of personality and personal history that are recorded, sometimes accidentally. One of my most exciting research discoveries was the day I figured out why my husband's fourth great-grandfather was referred to as "the horse thief" by the generations after. It wasn't what you would think, either. Who would want to be remembered as a punchline to a joke that time had forgotten? You better believe that I wrote that one down for the ages. I found great personal satisfaction in vindicating Peter Fisher and am secretly hoping for a high-five in heaven.

My dad's cousin Bob is also a family historian and in the last few months I have discovered pictures, stories and memories that he has shared. Things that, despite my magpie tendencies, I had never heard or seen before. Definitely treasures. The next three quilts are united not only in color, but also in thought and intent and are based on what I learned. I'll share some of the stories from my dad's family along the way, too.

The inspiration for this first quilt came while my husband and I were sitting in matching rocking chairs on a veranda gazing out at a verdant green forest. We were camping, so unfortunately we were only borrowing the view, the chairs and the veranda. If there is a rocking chair in my future, hopefully there's a pair of them parked outside on the porch somewhere with a great view of something beautifully green. 

The chair thing was what made me start thinking about my grandparents. One of the things that I found in Bob's submissions was a poem that my grandma wrote after Grandpa's death ( I will share it later in the post). In it she describes how hard it was to see his empty chair. It's so easy to want more and more and more. On that quiet spring evening, I thought of them and how grateful I was that the chair next to me was filled with the right guy, and that we could enjoy the simple and free things of life together.

I came home from that weekend and drew a full-scale model of "Love at First Glow" out on butcher paper, then paper-pieced in an improvisational way on top of my templates. I used an analogous color scheme and played with the values to make the triangle/pine tree shapes glow.  I got better at it the more of them I made. I am not ashamed to admit that I finished piecing the quilt, thought "I can do better" and redid ten of the blocks. Even with my remaking, I finished just in time to enter the top into the Pantone Quilt Challenge where it won! Hurray! I got the email today, though, that it was not accepted to the Modern Quilt Guild showcase in Houston. Boo. In the end though, yay or nays aside, this quilt is a winner for me because it says exactly what I meant to say in the way I meant to say it.

Love at First Glow finished at 45" x 53." I used Aurifil invisible thread to do the matchstick quilting and the super thin batting from Quilter's Dream. It is finished with a faced edge.

My grandparents were an unlikely combo. When they met, Grandma was already a teacher and accomplished musician. She was considering a scholarship that she had just received to study at the Julliard Conservatory of Music. Grandpa had just returned from World War I and wanted to be a farmer. After a blind date, she picked him. She taught school, elementary and English (my dad grew up having his grammar corrected daily and enjoyed passing on that bit of his mother to all of us), and taught music lessons in their small farming community. After their children were grown, Grandma decided to go back to school. She received her masters degree at age 61 and was working on her doctorate in folklore (she was in her 80s!) when my grandpa got sick. Grandma was one class away from graduating and had her dissertation completed. She picked him again. "At this point," she said, shrugging, "all they can do is put it on my headstone." Grandma's dissertation was published as a book entitled, Wood Stoves and Woolen Stockings when she was 90 years old. She never did get the doctorate.

After Grandpa died, Grandma wrote this poem:

Life is so lonely without you
I look at your empty chair
I sorrow and wait for your coming
To take me with you, over there.

So call for me early at morning
When no one would bid me to stay
Come with your arms outstretched, dear
And together we'll steal away.

--Ann Godfrey Hansen

I tried to make a scrap quilt inspired by this poem in my last post. I couldn't make it say what I wanted it to so I stopped. I had to try again. "Over There" is what I came up with. I constructed it using strings left over from the piecing of the previous quilt. I did not use any foundations. Instead, I used Gwen Marston's method of cutting the desired block size out of paper and using that as a template to cut the strings to the appropriate lengths. There is not much waste and there is no paper to remove after. Win, win. This quilt finished at 24" x 24." I used green Aurifil thread to echo the strings in random patterns and left the text and orange parts unquilted. I am so glad that I had some of that text print in my stash!

Grandpa was the yin to Grandma's yang. He was irrepressible, kind-hearted and open. He told just as many stories as she did, but his were funnier. When he was a young boy, his mother taught him to quilt just to see if he could sit down for a minute. He could do both, barely. How I wish I could have one of those blocks, if they even survived! Grandpa always had a brown flannel quilt on his lap with me on top. I remember him counting his fingers in Danish, pausing dramatically at the fingers with partial amputations from farming accidents to say the Danish word for "half" before continuing. A few years ago I talked to someone who spoke Danish and asked them to count to ten for me. The familiarity of it, even after all these years, brought me to tears. 

I asked my mom how Grandpa died and from the way she described it, it sounded like cancer. She mentioned that near the end, the only thing that tasted good to him was 7Up and it sparked an immediate idea for me. He brought an incredible amount of joy to a little girl. I'm all grown up now and I hope I can give it back in the quilt version.

"7UP" finished at 40" x 40." I constructed it with 3.5" blocks and 2" blocks, which tile together really well and make random arrangements easy to execute. To replicate bubbles, the centers are the same in every block and are the lightest value in the quilt, effectively creating a hole. I love the energy that emerged from the jumble. It makes me feel happy, which is what I was going for. I used matchstick quilting with invisible thread and finished the edges with a facing. I didn't want to put a hard edge around the quilt to contain all of my bubbles. If I ever get this one into a show and run into some difficulty with the name, I think I'll go for "Irrepressible." That one's for you, Grandpa.

Thanks for reading along. I appreciate it!

Linking up to Finish it Up Friday at Crazy Mom Quilts.

Thursday, April 20, 2017


For the last year, I've been looking at my disorganized bin of solid scraps (aka the stringy wad of shame) and trying to come up with an idea of what to do with them. I would look, consider, feel overwhelmed and guilty and then quickly come up with something else to piece to distract myself. No ideas were coming and I felt stuck. I really, really, REALLY hate stuck.

The turning point for me was a desire to clean up. I knew I didn't have any ideas about what to do with the scraps, but I thought at the very least I could organize myself better. I spent two days at my ironing board, unwadding, trimming strings, pressing and neatly folding. I was genuinely surprised at how much I liked it. Somewhere in the middle of all that organizing, they stopped being guilt-inducing scraps and morphed straight into fabric. And, as we all know, fabric is fun.

The first quilt that emerged from my cleanup was "Accentuate," and it was inspired by a childhood memory. As many of you know, I am from a small town in Idaho. In the summer before my fifth grade year, my mom took me to "town" to do some school shopping. I walked into the Fashion Center and saw a pair of fuschia purple overalls that stopped me in my tracks. Of course they fit, of course I had to have them and of course there was no shirt in the store that would work with them. A sweet clerk, overhearing my despair that nothing matched my beautiful overalls, quickly came to the rescue. "Sweetie," she said, "Stop thinking about matching. You need to accentuate!" She scanned the racks, pulled out a turquoise shirt and a teal belt and brought them over. I was in love. For the rest of the year, I carefully worked out my laundry schedule so I could wear the outfit every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Those colors are just magic together and I found as I went through my scraps that I had many different variations of those shades. Apparently I still like them!

All that nostalgia put me in a fun frame of mind, so I started piecing simple purple shapes (with belts!!) and setting them in the deep teal color. I made the decision to use all the teals, and just tried to have fun making new shapes in the background. I also used all the purples with the hope that it would look like I was aiming for depth instead of desperation. My three color quilt ended up using 10 different fabrics. "Accentuate" finishes at 37" x 37." I used Quilter's Dream Request batting and Aurifil monofilament thread to do matchstick quilting.

The best part is that I went shopping right after I finished this quilt. I found a sweater that I loved so much in the same radiant orchid shade I'd just been working with. I asked the clerk if the sweater came in any other colors, and she pulled out versions in teal and black. I thought it was rude to laugh the way I was in front of her, so I had to pull out my phone and show her a picture of the quilt. I feel so much better having these colors back in my closet!

I went back to my scrap pile and found that I could still identify fabrics from specific quilts. I had a lot of scraps left over from "Heading West." I love that quilt, but I have a lingering dissatisfaction that I chose to do the matchstick quilting with a gold thread. The positive is that the thread gave the finish a soft glow, but the negative was that it dulled my color work. I decided to do a reprisal of "Heading West" and try quilting it with monofilament thread. I made an 18" square to turn into a pillow cover. I posted it during the Instagram Quilt Fest last month and got about triple the likes I've ever had on a photo. I think that means that the monofilament experiment was a success!

One of the prompts from the Instagram Quilt Fest last month was a "fast finish." I decided to play along and turn one of my nothings into a something. I made a block last year using Kona Highlight that I never did anything with, partly because I'd had a construction issue and ended up with a bubble in the middle. I pulled that block out of my parts department and tried to think about how I could fix it. In the end, slicing through the bubble was the only way to move forward. I made two improvisational cuts through the center of the block, flipped the inner pieces toward the outside and turned to my solids scraps for inspiration. I filled in the gaps of where I'd cut with some pieces of a garnet colored fabric that was left over from piecing "Accentuate" and sashed each piece with blue. I also decided to hand quilt. I used Aurifil 12 wt. for the quilting and some hand-dyed thread from Weeks Dye Works to do the seed stitching on the garnet fabric and on the purple squares. I knew that I was going to run out of the color I was using to do the seed stitches in the cross, so I tried to run out in a strategic place. I had to fill in the center of the cross with a slightly different shade, but I ended up loving the subtle glow it gives. This quilt finished at roughly a 20" square.

I created this next quilt from some Handcrafted prints and scraps from my solid bin for a challenge from Curated Quilts. Participants are linked to a Pinterest board for color and design inspiration. I enjoy creating when I'm given parameters--in some ways it takes the pressure off. The inspiration board had a lot of architecture and lines, so I attempted a mosaic quilt with some fusible web and a pair of tweezers. This tiny quilt is only 11" square and was so fun to make. Basically you fuse your fabric down on a background piece of fabric (I used black) and purposely allow the background fabric to peek through like mortar would. I fused the fabric in place and stitched along either end of the fused fabrics with black thread. It was fun not to have to account for seam allowances when playing with the patterns in the fabric. I also discovered that this method works really well with batik fabrics because you don't get as much fraying. This challenge doesn't close until May 1, so there is still time to participate if you are interested. Follow the link above for more details.

I love to listen to music when I sew, and I have a new favorite song. It's called "Me and You" by Sara Watkins and I may have listened to it on repeat for a few days. In the song, there is a stanza that captivated me:

"Central Valley sunshine
Run out of town
Make your head all funny
So you stick around
Dusty roads
Make dirty feet
I remember you
I remember me"

The line, "Central Valley Sunshine" stuck in my head on a looped track until I dug in the bin for fabrics that evoked what I imagined it to look like (I've never been to California). I used a combination of solids and nearly solid prints. Originally I was thinking that I would make striped units, and I did. I liked them, too. I was eyeing up the design wall and thinking that one of my striped sets looked a little clunky, so I tried slicing it down the center longwise, flipping one piece 180 degrees, and sewing it back together so it looked like a checkerboard. I may have liked the stripes, but I loved the checkerboard. Naturally I had to slice up all of the striped units and make checkerboards instead. Depending on the width of the strips, the shapes created when recombining varied dramatically. I had a great time experimenting with the widths and the shapes. I love how one simple method can lead to such a variety of effects.

"Central Valley Sunshine" finishes at 42" x 42." I used Quilter's Dream Request batting and quilted it simply in straight lines with silver Aurifil thread. I ended up using a piece of voile I had in my stash as the backing, since voile comes in wider widths than regular quilting cotton I was able to avoid a seam down the back. I also lucked out and had a piece with a linear motif, so I quilted it from the backing side and used the pattern as cheater lines. The part of my brain that embraces improvisational piecing is the same part that struggles making straight lines, so I take all the help I can get.

Would you like to hear the song for yourself? Here's a link.

 Finally, I'd like to end with the quilt that was the namesake for this blog post. "Spark" started as a failure and an accident. I was playing around with another idea that I'd had and devoted an afternoon to piecing some shapes with my blue scraps. It was not a success. Normally I'm an optimist and am prone to reworking and reworking until I like something, but this experiment I was not feeling AT ALL. I put the blue pieces of fabric back in the scrap bin and pulled out a medallion quilt that I've been slowly working at for the last month or two. I added coral rows to the center and had to put it away again because a lovely accident had just happened. I tossed a strip of leftover coral fabric on top of those blue scraps and fireworks lit off in my head. The coral pieces just rocketed off those cool blues and I knew I had to make that quilt. I had many small scraps of blue, so necessity was the inspiration for the tiny squares. I built this quilt out like a medallion quilt and tried to judiciously add scraps of coral when I thought the quilt needed them. I also had a good time hiding subtle shapes in the blues. If you haven't taken the Gwen Marston classes from, I'd highly, highly recommend them. She made a comment in one of the classes (I don't remember which one), that if you have the opportunity to put blocks together in such a way that you create a new shape, that you should probably take it. Looking back at the last few quilts I've made, I can see myself trying to take that advice. It's definitely altered the way I think about "backgrounds."

"Spark" finishes at 38" x 38." I used Quilter's Dream Request batting and quilted it with Aurifil monofilament thread in a matchstick pattern. I know I do that a lot, but it is because I love texture and I love highlighting the piecing. I've found that the more quilting lines there are, the more visible the piecing is. 

To sum up, what is my advice for using your scraps? Don't be an obsessive idiot like I was and wait for inspiration to strike BEFORE you begin. Fate favors the prepared and inspiration flows more freely for me when I am working. Touching the fabric, sorting it, remembering what exactly you have all helps to release the creativity and can be the SPARK that gets the fire burning.

Thanks for reading!

Linking up to Finish it up Friday at Crazy Mom Quilts..

Friday, February 17, 2017


Is home a place or a feeling? Both, neither...I don't know. Maybe it's a memory so deep that it becomes an integral part of who you are and how you process the world. That's how it is for me, anyway.

In December when Pantone announced that the color of the year for 2017 was Greenery, I wasn't thinking any deep thoughts. My only thought was that it might be fun to try a quilt in a limited palette, and that it might be even funner still to use the new green. I had a vague idea of doing a crib-sized quilt with different sized quarter log cabin blocks, so I sketched out a quick picture, pulled out three shot cottons in Blue Jean, Sprout and Ice and started piecing. (Actually, for the sake of complete honesty, I had the doors to my solids cupboard open, auditioning different combinations when yardage of Blue Jean fell out and landed on my feet. I decided not to argue with the universe and use it with two other shot cotton friends.) I had such a good time piecing that I finished all the blocks before I put them up on the design wall. That turned out to be a momentous decision because when I finally laid out the quilt I got to see the whole hot mess in its entirety. 


Quilting has taught me a lot about myself. For one, that my instincts are far better than my plans and also that I am apparently incapable of walking away from a project that I've spent a lot of time/fabric on. I ended up with at least six 10.5" blocks in my first attempt, so I used those to start playing with different configurations on the design wall to try to "save" this quilt. When I placed them in alternating orientations, on point, all the tension eased. I knew why, too. I'd made the mountains of my home in Idaho.

There are no mountains in Iowa, so a harvested soybean field sufficed.
 This is the view from my mother's sewing room. I took this picture while I was doing some early morning quilting during our vacation two years ago. It's a little greener than usual because they'd had a wet spring. The similarities between the two pictures are really uncanny.

I ended up ripping out and expanding the blocks that were too small and cutting down the blocks that were too big (and naturally, I saved the pieces that I trimmed off...more on those later). I was able to reuse all of the original blocks and only needed to piece two more quarter log cabins to finish this quilt top.

I chose to quilt this with simple horizontal lines. I felt quite a bit of angst about it, too, since I am the queen of straight-ish quilting. Last year I entered a quilt in the state fair and had feedback from a judge that my quilting lines really needed to be straight. I disagreed then and still do. I just don't get how military precision with perfectly straight quilting lines marries with a care-free, liberated, wonky, improvisational top. This quilt may have improvisational elements, but it definitely wasn't whimsical and straight-ish lines just weren't going to cut it. It was then that I discovered a large cut of striped fabric in my stash. I totally used the stripes as my backing and quilted the whole thing using my pre-marked cheater lines. I will be buying a large quantity of striped fabric in the near future because this. Worked. Out. Great.

"Home" finished at 47" x 72." It was made using Quilter's Dream Request batting. I quilted it with Aurifil invisible thread (I even had that in the bobbin since I quilted it from the back) and some 50 wt. Aurifil thread that perfectly matched my striped backing fabric.

Making "Home" was a nostalgic process for me and I felt like I wanted to keep going with the story. Holding the green fabric one day, the thought popped into my head that I should do a rattlesnake quilt. Rattlesnakes are not a joyful memory for me, but they are a powerful one. I sketched out several versions of the block until I found a design that replicated the diamond pattern of rattlesnake skin. I pieced the blocks improvisationally and then cut them down to the size I needed. I really like the look of natural variation. I emphasized the scales by using a dark blue thread with a lot of contrast. The pattern is not exact, the colors are not exact, but the FEELING of this quilt (especially once I'd quilted in the scale texture) was enough to give me full body shivers more than once.

"Rattlesnake" finished at 39" x 45." It was made using Quilter's Dream Request batting. I used Aurifil thread and my new favorite trick of echo quilting my backing fabric. Can you believe I had a diamond patterned fabric in my stash? I finished this quilt with a facing.

And this is the ONLY time I'd like to see a rattlesnake hanging from a tree.

 My mother has intense feelings of fear about rattlesnakes, so I guess I come by it honestly. In the mountains it is easy to avoid them by making some noise and staying aware, but all bets are off when the snakes come down off the mountain into yards and neighborhoods. Our farm is largely protected from this because we are just below a natural barrier (there is a canal that separates us from the foothills). In all my life, I only remember two rattlesnakes on our property. My mom still worried about it, though. She worried enough that my dad promised her that if she was ever in a position that she had to take care of a rattlesnake by herself, that he would give her $100. I don't mean to offend anyone's sensibilities with this story, but to be clear, "take care of" is not a euphemism for rehoming.

About 4 years after my father's passing, that day arrived. Mom was home by herself enjoying a new batch of Mama Kitty's babies on the porch when she spotted the rattlesnake in the grass. There was no one to call and some kittens to spare. Putting her personal feelings aside and almost choking on the fear and revulsion, she did what she needed to do. She was still nervy and shaking, trying to catch her breath in the easy chair inside, when the doorbell rang. Though no relation to us, there is a business in town that shares our name. As it turned out, my mother had just bought new windows from them and had inadvertently overpaid. The owner had decided to personally return her overpayment, and handed over a check for a little over one hundred dollars with an unknowing smile. He was invited in for a drink and the story and left shaking his head at his role in it. You gotta give my dad points for style.

I just couldn't stop at "Rattlesnake." I had to tell the rest of it and make "Dispatched" as a companion piece. I used up all the bits and pieces I had produced in making the first two quilts, including the strips I cut off of the pieced blocks when I standardized their size. Piecing improvisationally, I tried to replicate the feeling of the event. I think I got a pretty accurate representation.

This quilt with a sunset backdrop was a visual metaphor I just couldn't resist.
 "Dispatched" finishes at 25"x 24." It was made using Quilter's Dream Request batting and quilted with Aurifil invisible thread. To avoid even a whisper of a bobbin thread peeking out in the light blocks, I used it in the bobbin as well. I finished this quilt with a facing.

I'm still thinking about what it takes to make a home. I do know that I never intended to sew the hills of my childhood home into a quilt, but when the fabric tumbled out at my feet, I took it, and then the quilts took me. I am surrounded by corn, by prairie, by my little family in Iowa--but my home will always be in the mountains.

Thanks for sharing the trip with me.

Linking up with Finish it Up Friday at Crazy Mom Quilts.