Friday, August 20, 2021

Adventures in Dye

It's been a long time and I'm so happy to be sitting at the computer and writing out a blog post! Of course I have a huge backlog of quilts to share!

Last fall I got an unexpected rebate check from my insurance company. I decided to invest it into turning a "someday I'd like to..." into a checkmark on my quilting bucket list. I ordered 25 yards of unbleached muslin and all the chemicals I needed to hand dye my first batch of fabric. Carol Johnston's DVD "Color By Accident: Exploring Low-Water Immersion Dyeing" was tremendously helpful to me.
As I think I've mentioned before, I have four children. My older three elected to do online school and I knew that I would be pulled in a lot of different directions to help them succeed. My sewing room is tucked away in a corner of the basement and is too far removed to be a base of operations. The kitchen sink, however, is the center of the house. From there, I could effectively manage my troops and get them to meetings on time, answer questions and monitor assignments. Dyeing all this fabric was a tremendous boon for me because in the middle of all that activity/controlled chaos, I could still move forward and make progress on something that was important to me.

It probably surprises no one that I started with blue and purple! I used two colors of dye, Deep Navy and Ultraviolet, to dye 25 yards of fabric. I weakened the dye to get lighter values and I mixed the two dyes in different proportions to have colors that related to each other. This is the palette that I got. I found it to be very versatile and fun to work with. I love that hand dyed watercolor look so much!

In fact, the watercolor look was what inspired my theme for this set of quilts....watery disasters! Just like dyeing fabric at the sink during online school kept me going, listening to a grown up read me a book was just what I needed. Many of the quilts in this series were inspired by audio books that I listened to with the theme of watery disasters. Inspiration doesn't generally just strike me out of the blue. I'm usually inspired when I'm curious, problem-solving or pondering something. Listening to these audio books gave me something to think about and I was able to distill those thoughts into a shape or a feeling that I wanted to explore in a quilt.

Let's start looking at the quilts!

29" x 29"

I was listening to The Finest Hours, the story of the dramatic rescue of sailors on 2 tanker ships that broke apart in a terrible nor'easter storm off Cape Cod while I made this quilt. Coast Guardsmen went out in 35 foot boats over the Chatham Bar in monstrous 70 foot seas to rescue the sailors. Dramatic, inspiring stuff. I lived in Weymouth, Massachusetts for 2 years. (That is South Shore Boston on the way to Cape Cod.) This book definitely brought back some memories!

The audio book was the inspiration for this quilt (down to the snowflakes on the backing), but it's nowhere near the cold, wild ride Bernie Webber and crew took to save lives. Their willingness to serve, even in the worst of circumstances, was truly inspirational.

My favorite part of this quilt is the way the colors work. You know that feeling when you have a peppermint in your mouth and then suck air in? It feels just like that to my eyes. 

"The Advancing Mist"
~42" x 42"

To continue my audio book theme of watery disasters, I listened to David McCullough's The Johnstown Flood. I admire his historical writing so much. This quilt is based on this book.

The Johnstown Flood occurred in Pennsylvania in 1889 after a dam broke upriver. More than 2,000 people were killed in the flash flood that ensued. The book describes the towns impacted before, during and after the flood. You also find out more about the dam's construction, why it broke and who, ultimately, was responsible (or not). There are countless heroes, victims and a really breath-taking study of all the varied facets, good and ill, of human nature. I dare you to read and/or listen and not think about what it means to have moral duties and what it means to be a member of a community.

I used fabrics that I hand dyed and an improvisationally pieced sawtooth to convey the destructive tumult. The flood waters went through several ironworks that had fires blazing, so survivors recounted that the advancing water was a black spray of blurriness, also called a "death mist." The flood waters also picked up a great quantity of barbed wire from the ironworks and sent that crashing downstream.

I used ruler-free piecing and left the quilt edges in a natural shape. It is quilted with monofilament thread.

The interesting thing about this quilt is that it generated an enormous amount of triangle shaped scraps. I had to trim to match the angles for each piece of fabric that I sewed on, so each triangle in this quilt left a smaller triangle of scrap. I was able to use up these pieces in two additional quilts that I'll share later in this post. As is often the case, I like the scrap quilts more than I like this one.

41" x 41"

This is another quilt inspired by audio books that I was listening to. My theme has been "watery disasters" and the book that inspired this quilt was Isaac's Storm (a story of the unnamed Galveston hurricane from 1900) by Erik Larson.

I'm not going to sugar coat it, this book was difficult to listen to. The description of the storm and tragic aftermath were horrifically detailed as was the utter and complete failure of any type of warning system.

Well-documented squabbles were happening in the US government about who had the power to call a storm a hurricane and who was authorized to forecast one. Warnings from Cuban forecasters who knew they had just experienced a hurricane (the same one) and accurately predicted a strengthening path through the Gulf were actively suppressed.

In the end, no one had any warning and by the time anyone had the vaguest inkling that something was coming, it was already too late. It was truly a heartbreaking read.

I chose concentric boxes as a reference to a hurricane and used 18 of my hand dyed fabrics to piece it. It is quilted with monofilament and finished with a faced edge.

"My Kind of Crazy"
42" x 42"

This quilt is a little bit of a departure from my audio book theme of making a quilt based on a watery disaster. I made this while participating in Project Quilting. The theme was "Crazy Quilt." I love traditional crazy quilts, but I had no desire to make one.

I thought about what the elements of a crazy quilt were, and then tried to incorporate them into something closer to my aesthetic.
  • Made with precious fabrics, often scraps
  • Includes irregular shapes that can be angled
  • Includes decorative thread and hand embellishment
I used the scrap bits of hand dyed fabric I had collected thus far and some of the last of my favorite deep purple from a cut up Goodwill shirt. I used the shirt to piece in the angles. It is machine quilted with Yenmet metallic thread and embellished with 12 wt. cotton along the binding.
My theme was chosen for me based on the challenge I was participating in, but I did listen to an audio book while I pieced it. You may have noticed that all the books I'd listened to so far were sad. Um, me too. I desperately needed a break, so I listened to a shoot-'em-up spy thriller. In it the hero was wounded and survived by floating out of Paris in the Seine.  A true watery disaster? Maybe not, be good enough for me. 😁 

"The Waves"
22" x 23"

This is one of those triangle scrap quilts that I mentioned before.

The book that inspired this quilt is 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin. This book is the story of a fisherman who lost engine power and his radio in a terrible storm off the coast of Mexico. He could see the mountains from where he was, but was unable to get to shore. He spent 14 months drifting in the Pacific Ocean, traveling 7,000 miles in 438 days before he landed in a small island in the Pacific and was rescued.

On the surface, it's a survival book. However, I found it to be a story of physical and mental resilience. Alvarenga (the fisherman) concocted elaborate stories for himself about the truck he would buy and would mentally wax every inch of it. He'd take detailed walks to the store to buy fresh tortillas when he was hungry. He would imagine himself rocking in a hammock to sleep better.

It's impossible to read his story without thinking of your own coping mechanisms and imagining what you would do to stay sane. I know I would sing. The song that I kept being reminded of was "The Things I Regret" by Brandi Carlile (here's a link if you want to listen). Alvarenga also thought of his regrets, chiefly his estrangement from his family and vowed to fix those relationships if he survived. He did both.

This quilt was made from the larger triangle off-cuts from "The Advancing Mist." I quilted it very heavily in a free-hand wave pattern with monofilament thread.

31" x 31"

I just couldn't walk away from this batch of hand dyed fabrics without  knowing what else it could do. Most specifically I was interested in the combination of hand dyes with recycled dress shirts, scraps and stash (thus, the name).

I had thought I'd make several different block shapes for this quilt, but once I saw all the wonderful new shapes that were created as the triangles were sewn together, I felt satisfied leaving it with one.

I also decided to use one more surprising element and quilt it in metallic thread. I included one picture in full sun so you could see it in all of its sparkly glory.

I was very pleasantly surprised to get a blue ribbon for this quilt in a piecing category at the Iowa State Fair. Every year I buy 10 entry tags and the 3 quilts that I did the "Meh, they probably have no chance but I'm going to enter them anyway because I'm contrary and I like them" were the blue ribbon winners. So funny. 

40" x 33"

I really thought I'd be done with these fabrics with the last quilt, but then I was inspired by a really strange thing. I was watching "Somebody Feed Phil" with the kids and vicariously enjoying the foods and sights of Copenhagen. At one point Phil mentioned that a feature of new Nordic cuisine is to use local ingredients that are often sourced from the area directly around the restaurant.

That comment made me think of the pile of half-rectangle triangle scraps from "The Advancing Mist" that were still on my cutting table. I had thought that they might be a little too small for even me to consider using, but listening to him made me change my mind.

Freshly inspired, I decided to make a Copenhagen quilt with the scraps located right next to my sewing machine. I vaguely remembered that there is a color called Danish blue, so I looked it up, color matched and began by piecing a small strip to all of my triangle units. I used spray baste to temporarily affix the units as I drew out an architectural wave shape. I simultaneously quilted and qppliqued the pieces down with more waves and more blue. I even used fish for my backing!

If you've never seen "Somebody Feed Phil," you can find it on Netflix. It's one of my favorite series. Watching it will make you want to give someone a hug and I'll gladly consume any media that makes me feel like that. 

So that's what I've been up to. It's been a crazy year and I've been so grateful for my sewing machine, an online library and a stash of fabric to work through. I know that it's helped me keep my head in the game and be there for my kids and my husband. 
I also wanted to mention that I tried a new quilting thing this spring. I was asked by the Lake Superior MQG to put together an online trunk show/presentation about using scraps for one of their programs. I wasn't sure about the whole Zoom thing, but they were so nice and enthusiastic that I've embraced it and presented for other guilds. I've had a great time virtually connecting with other quilters.
The presentation is called "Unlocking the Joy in Scraps." I talk about my process, color/value, storage and how to be inspired by what you have in front of you. If you're interested in me "visiting" your guild, you can email me at 

Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend.