improvisational piecing

Sewing Scraps with Chronic Pain

Log Cabin Scrap Quilt

For months I could only sew standing up so I would be in the sewing room at 3 am, hoping for relief. Beats letting the insomnia and pain wreak havoc on my brain. Full confession, I generally sleep without pajamas. This means I might find myself in the nude sewing away. I know, I’m weird, I embrace it. So one night I am in there - pain high but feeling some mental relief as I make little log cabins. I did not hear anything but the snip of the scissors and whirr of the stitching. Which means I did not hear my husband come into the room. To be fair, he was checking on me after waking up and not finding me in bed. But at that moment I completely startled. He should be thankful I dropped the scissors out of my hand on the cutting table before I turned around. I may have screamed too.

And that is how quilts get made in my world.

Log Cabin Improv Quilts

Anyone who has worked on scrap quilts before knows how the scraps multiply in the night, like gremlins. You think you’ve made a dent in them but no.

It’s also how I’ve come to refer to my chronic pain: there are Gremlins living in my lower back. When they feel extra precocious they travel down my leg. And yes, some times they multiply at night.

This particular quilt is one I distinctly associate with my pain. I started it a year ago, which is also when my pain started. Not a coincidence. But it is also one that has given me tremendous relief, both physical and mental. Whether it is sewing naked in the middle of the night or my standard morning make, the relief has been palpable when working on this quilt.

I’m not sure people understand the toll on our mental health when chronic pain or illness are in the picture. While I have general anxiety and the odd panic attack, my mental health is generally okay. Nothing to really worry about on the whole. I do think that my Morning Make has a huge impact on that. A regular practice of self care does wonders, as does the benefit of being completely present in something. That is, it all worked well until I started living with the pain.

Improv Log Cabins

Those same gremlins often feel like added weight when I am just trying to hold on to a cliff’s edge, making it harder to hang on or even preventing me from pulling myself up. I’ve cried and yelled more this past year, I’m definitely angrier. I won’t lie, some days are truly awful. If it didn’t hurt to lay down I wouldn’t get out of bed those days. Maybe, in that way, the way the pain is ends up being a blessing? I’m not going to walk around the neighbourhood in the middle of the night, but I can sew. So physical and mental health topped up at 3 am. That’s the way, at this point, I choose to look at it.

Depression is very real and quite debilitating for many, many people. I’m extremely thankful that I’ve had bad days and even weeks on end where it feels like that Bill Murray movie, Goundhog Day. Over and over again the same crap. That being said, I manage to keep myself going. Walking the dog and sewing. Getting outside and creating. Deep breath, we can do this. At least this week I can.

At the end of the day, too, you have to laugh. When my husband scared me that night he walked into a strange scene for sure. He alerted me to his presence with a “what the hell are you doing?” which was a valid question as I sewed naked at 3 am. And then we laughed. Belly laughs with all their jiggles in this situation. And for that brief moment the gremlins fell off my back.

Scrap Quilts



Teeny Tiny Scraps Shadow Box Craft

teeny scraps quilts

“How small is too small?”

Whenever I am speaking on scrap quilting, no matter the audience, this is a guaranteed question. I think people are looking for either A) someone to tell them it is okay to throw out fabric at some point or B) that they aren’t crazy for keeping every little bit. And both of those people would be right.

My default answer is that I will keep pieces as small as 1-2’’ square. And little triangles left from making binding or other blocks. Definitely keep those. Not to mention all those stringy strings of fabric shedding bits of thread, I always keep those.

Then there are the trimmings. Because the bulk of the work I do is improvised at some point I need to trim and square up blocks or components on a quilt. I might be left with very useful scraps or a mess of threads and what used to look like fabric. While finishing up my last quilt top the dazzling array of bits left behind were just as inspiring to me as the blocks themselves. So I spent 5 minutes - yes, that is all it took - putting together this fun scrap project.

teeny scraps from make waves quilt


TEENY TINY SCRAPS SHADOW BOX CRAFT

Supplies

  • Fabric trimmings, thread bits, and tiny scraps of fabric

  • Clean Shadow Box Frame in any size

Instructions

  1. Fill shadow box with trimmings. Arrange in a colour order, if desired.

Notes

  • Take a little time to make the front side of the scraps pretty. The back of a fabric is really just another fabric in the collection, so it isn’t a big deal if it shows. Just be happy with the way the top layer of scraps looks.

  • It might be tempting to jam in ALL the trimmings, but unless you have a latch on your shadow box frame it won’t stay closed. Experiment with just the right amount to be full yet still keep closed.

Now my project happens to match the last quilt top I finished, because it was that quilt itself and her gorgeous colours that gave me the idea. But this has the potential to be a whole different kind of art project. In a way it reminds me of the sand paintings that some people can do.

So, to answer the question: nothing is too small.

teeny scraps Shadow Box Craft

Make Waves Quilt Top and Vacation Dreams

make waves quilt top 1.jpg

My obsession with this quilt is strong. From a random suggestion in a phone call to a live online quilting class to this. If I had a long arm or a clean floor this one would already be in the quilting phase.

It started with the planning for The Thursday Club with Marisa Anne Cummings. I’ve known Marisa for years and we were chatting about the class I would teach with her. She said something about the water and I quickly sketched a block. When I went to test the design it worked exactly as I sketched. Well, after we filmed the class - which you can still catch - I became obsessed with making more an more blocks. For me, this is normal.

Make Waves Thursday Club by Marisa
Make Waves Quilt Thursday Club by Marisa

It made a dent in both my scraps and stash as I searched for all the colours of all the prints. I didn’t want too much repetition so it was a deep dive in to the fabric closet.

On a related note, I am thinking of a new class on using prints in your quilts. Thoughts?

It took me a bit to come to the final layout. You can read more about that design wall play. Some days I only moved two blocks. It had to be just right. And now it is. It makes me think of sunsets at the beach. Or sunrises. Take your pick. But it has me all dreamy for sand and the crash of the waves and a Tequila Sunrise. So basically, it is a vacation in a quilt.

Alas, it is heavy competition season for my girls and we are at the pool, not the beach. And I make them help me take quilt photos after practice.

Thursday Club Make Waves Quilt

And you can still catch the class if you want to make your own sunset or just like the block. It comes together quickly and by the end of one block you will be the master of improv curves! Catch it here.

What it really means to PLAY on the design wall

My absolute favourite part of making a quilt is the getting it all to work together part. For me, this means design wall play. Generally, I have a whole bunch of components and have to come to a lay out that I like. It would be different if I planned it all in advance. In that case the design wall would only be confirming what I intended. That just isn’t how I work.

More often than not I start out making a quilt without knowing I am actually going to make a quilt. An idea, a technique, a colour story. Anything can get me going. At the beginning, however, I don’t really know that it is will be a quilt. It is just something I want to try. Even if I have full quilt intentions, I have no idea how it will actually turn out. It could be awful or a different idea can come in to being. What is most important to me is to be open to the process.

Take my most recent project as an example.

I started off making sample blocks to promote my class with Marisa Anne of Creative Thursday fame. The Make Waves block is for the Thursday Club, an online class I taught earlier this month. With waves being obviously blue I made all my samples in shades of blue. Then Marisa suggested that I add in some other colours because not every one likes blue. (I know! Right?)

At this point I had no intention of making a quilt from these blocks. It was just fun times, a good sample. I honestly expected the blocks to sit around for a few years until I rediscovered them and then maybe made more.

Then I saw that yellow block, that pink one, the teal, the blue. I immediately thought SUNSET. More specifically, OCEAN SUNSET.

Make Waves Multi.jpg

And boom! I immediately starting making more and more blocks, picking colours of the sunset. Just running with the idea, no clear plan for a quilt just yet.

After I made a dozen orange and coral blocks I stopped to take stock. What exactly would I need? How many blocks should I make? Am I focused more on the sunset than the ocean now, or vice versa? Deep breath before I dive too deep. So I sketched a picture.

Make Waves Sunset Sketch.jpg

Nothing fancy, mind you. I just coloured the sunset of my imagination. An image search showed many, many variations on the theme of that red/orange sky and a dark foreground. The emphasis should be on the sky, not the water. This led to a more formal plan.

My goal was 2/3 sunset and 1/3 water. Since I’d already started with blocks squared up to 9 1/2’’ x 9 1/2’’ I kept that. If you know me at all, you know I don’t make small quilts, so my finished sized is typically over 80” square. It just so happens that that is the perfect size for a double bed and Oh! Guess what size bed all my kids have? Well then, 9 blocks wide gives me 81” finished. And 9 blocks tall gives me an even split into thirds. That meant I needed 54 blocks for the top part and 27 for the bottom. There, quilt math done.

Over the course of a few weeks I got the sunset blocks done. I did precisely zero planning for how many blocks of each colour. I just cut a bunch of fabric - first raiding scraps, then stash - and made blocks. All blocks are improvised, but with the same technique of gentle curves and number of strips. I did save yellow for last, assuming I wouldn’t need as much because that was my sun. It’s up to the design wall play to make them work together. Of course, I am open to deleting some blocks and making others, if that is what is called for.

Then I had to lay it out on the design wall - where the fun really begins. And frankly, it doesn’t truly end until I start sewing things together and commit to the layout.

Here is the first go around with all 54 blocks.

Make waves layout A.jpg

It feels choppy, like the colours aren’t flowing. I’m never going to have a perfect gradation, but this is too far off. I also don’t like that one random bit of yellow in an orange block. It needs to be managed.

On to the next try.

make waves layout B.jpg

Much better. The pink is more on the one side and the orange on the other, but without there being a defining line. But a few blocks stick out too much to me, I want more flow. And that pesky yellow strip is a bit more under control.

Still need to play.

make waves layout C.jpg

Closer yet. I think the pink has too much of a vertical dividing line now though. I may need to wrap the pink around the orange a bit more. And maybe have all the lights be at the top?

This is how it currently stands on my design wall, which means I am not done yet. I’ll know when it feels right. I usually, involuntarily, squeal and jump when it feels good. Then I sleep on it. Now matter how perfect I think it is I do not sew it together as soon as I think so. I always sleep on it. Then I do two things. 1. Look at it is bad lighting. If it still looks good, it’s probably a winner. And 2. Take a picture. Not just to compare to previous iterations like I’ve done here, but because then it is like looking at it far away on the wall. That’s when colour and shape become prominent.

The key thing is to not rush it. Something the perfect layout is the first one you do. No need to doubt that! Sometimes it is the 10th or 20th. Don’t doubt that either. By embracing the process of quilt making, but thinking of this as play and not work, you are giving in to creativity.