"musings"

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



KonMari Your Sewing Space

Konmari your Sewing Room

So much is being said about Marie Kondo and her Konmari method these days. Haven’t heard of it? It is a decluttering/home organization philosophy. What makes it different from most - at least as far I see it from reading the book and doing my own clean up efforts - is the breakdown into categories of items, as opposed to by room, and the whole notion of sparking joy. She says you shouldn’t keep an item unless it sparks joy. It isn’t really about getting rid of all your stuff and living as a minimalist, but about keeping what truly makes you happy.

We are sewers and quilters, arguably everything we have for creating sparks joy - eventually. That being said, the amount of stuff many of us accumulate in the pursuit of a joyful hobby can indeed be overwhelming. That applies whether you have a dedicated room (s) in your house for sewing or a corner of the bedroom. It is easy enough to say to put your stash on a bookshelf or store projects in the bins under the bed, but like the Konmari method espouses, it is worth asking yourself whether it is worth keeping.

Cheryl Arkison Konmari Studio Space

To organize your sewing space inspired by KonMari I make the following suggestions:

  • Breakdown your stuff into categories.

  • Say goodbye to things that no longer hold your attention or appeal to your current taste.

  • Embrace the space you have and work with its limitations.

Let’s talk categories first. Under Konmari our sewing supplies would fall under one broad category called Komono. It is a really broad category. For sewing supplies we are giving them their own categories. These are the ones I recommend and some tips for sorting/purging.

Thread storage
  • Stash Fabric - go through every bin/shelf, stack, pile. Remove what you don’t like anymore, even if you think you might use it one day. Chances are there will be another purple fabric you will buy down the line. Trim any dangly bits. Fold or refold. Go with what works for your own storage, just be consistent in how you do it. Also, do it in a way that makes sense to you. If you don’t you will not maintain the system.

  • Scraps - I am a firm believer in storing scraps by colour, with some discretion for size. Then again, I did write a whole book on just that (with Amanda Jean Nyberg - Sunday Morning Quilts). If you’ve never sorted your scraps just doing this can open up potential. If you’ve always sorted scraps and never used them, consider passing them along.

  • Thread - Sort by fiber content and use. For example, I have some poly/cottons or poly for garment sewing and all my cotton for all my quilting work. I may have a pretty rack that shows them by colour, but that is only for my all cottons. And my Valdani and thick ones for hand stitching are all together as well.

  • Notions - As a quilter I don’t have much this way myself, but garment sewers are likely to have zippers, buttons, bias tape, and much more. Or applique quilters might have a collection os fusibles. Whatever it is, bring it all together. Bought a big role of Wonder Under and used it once? Pass it on, you can always buy more if you start a different project. Some of these lose their viability too. I like zipper pouches for smaller notions grouped together and a drawer in my cutting table for rolls of paper and such.

  • Tools (including machines) - Rulers, oh the rulers! And the templates and the sewing machine feet, and 4 rotary cutters. Unless you are a minimalist or beginner you probably have far more than you need in this department. Look at them all together and pick out the top 3 rulers you use. The rest you can probably pass along. Same for rotary cutters and scissors. One for daily use and maybe a travel/back up set. Sewing machines and their accessories are expensive. Personally, I have 3 machines. That is really 2 too many. One will do the job. But I will keep them all - one I use when I travel/teach and the other is technically my mom’s. Ask if the collection all gives you joy and decide for yourself.

  • Patterns and Books - Even I, the improv quilter, have a collection of patterns and books to rival most. I love my books so much, and the built in bookshelf my husband made me. Go through and decide if they are something you have or will ever pull down again, otherwise donate them to the guild library. As for patterns, let it go! Made it once already and loved it, fine, but will you make it again? Think you might make it? Is that going to be this year or ‘sometime’? If the latter, let it go. As for storing, I suggest finding a drawer or bin or bankers box that will hold them all together. No more looking for a lost pattern. And those PDF sewing patterns you printed? Roll them up and put them in poster tubes or even paper towel rolls.

  • Quilts Under Construction - This is the time to really ask the question about whether the project sparks joy. Every few months when I visit my list I ask myself the question. Sure, there are a mountain of projects on the list, but I am keen to get my hands on all that stay on the list. The rest I have passed on to guild members or repurposed the fabrics. It’s totally okay to admit you don’t love the fabric, the process, the project anymore. Free yourself from that creative baggage.

  • Finished Quilts - I realize that not everyone has a stack of quilts to worry about. Being in this game for as long as I have (20 years!) the stack of finished quilts has really grown. So many have sentimental value or are gifts for my immediate family. Many are ones I made for publications in books or magazines. All get used at some point - whether on a bed/couch or in a trunk show. But the time comes when the racks are full and I need to say goodbye. It is purely a sentimental decision at this point, but I do have a stack for giving away. Friends and family first then some charity donations.

Quilt Book storage

Our sewing supplies hold the potential for joy more than the joy itself. That is completely valid. No one, even a Konmari expert (of which I am not) is telling you to get rid of all your stuff, to buy only for the project at hand. (Although I saw a thread on Reddit that said exactly this!) All of this is about getting a handle on what you have and being able to access it - as well as the joy it can bring in the process of sewing - easily.

While I have a dedicated sewing space now for the longest time I did not. Taking over the dining room table, kitchen counter, and any spot of storage in an old house was how I built my quilting career. And the second, the absolute second I was given any more space I filled it. Sewing supplies are like any liquid - they will fill the available container. If you find your stuff overflowing what you have then it is a good time to empty the glass and start over, before you are flooded entirely.

Honest craft room

What about the things you decide you don’t want or need anymore? What are you supposed to do with them? Unless it is the tiniest of scraps (which I often leave out for the birds and squirrels) you can donate or sell most of what you are getting rid of.

  • Try your own destash sale on line or have a quilting garage sale. Join forces with a friend or two to make it even bigger.

  • Look to local charities for donations or larger organizations like Victoria Quilts, Quilts of Valour, or Project Linus. Always check with each organization first to see what they want or need.

  • Have a supply swap at guild. Give it away to someone who is interested.

  • Donate to a Home Ec program.

  • Ask around online for beginner or low income quilters to share your wealth.

Whatever you do, don’t get hung on how much you paid for it originally. If you goal is to clean up your supplies and keep what gives you joy then your goal is also to get rid of what doesn’t help in that matter. Besides, you aren’t throwing it in the garbage, you are finding it a new home with someone who will likely find joy in it.

Sewing Room Cutting Table Scrap Storage

A friend recently sent me this article on minimalism and creativity. It is me to a T. Is it you? Ultimately, I believe that clutter is the killer of creativity. I realize that some folks love the piles and the messy desk and will claim that kind of space their favourite. To each their own. But I am a firm believer in empty spaces providing opportunity. It is why I don’t have an inspiration wall, why I store my fabric behind closet doors and not on open shelves, why I like bins and baskets contained, and why I like large furniture wherever possible over small carts and shelves standing next to each other. When we have space to create, space to breathe, then we have the space for creativity to blossom.

Don’t think of Konmari in the sewing room as a tragic event, that you are saying goodbye to creativity along with your stuff. Hanging on to a million things that you might use isn’t feeding your creativity at all. It’s actually weighing you down, maybe even causing you stress. Why do you think people are always shocked when I talk about my Quilts Under Construction list, it stresses people out entirely. And when we are heavy creativity has no room to breathe, there is no space for the imagination to soar.

At the heart of Marie Kondo’s message is that we should only keep what sparks joy. Ultimately, it is your space, your sewing. Do whatever works for you, what brings you joy.

Cheryl Arkison Sewing Room





A Year of Quilt Play

Scrap Quilts Under Construction

There I was, going through the mess on the cutting table, minding my own creative mess. Company was coming and tidying was in order. My blue clipboard emerged. This is my all purpose clipboard - it holds the Quilts Under Construction list, it travels with me to gigs for newsletter sign ups, it holds notes and sketches made during classes. It also holds the list of finished quilts each year. For whatever reason that particular list was on top.

4 quilts. And one was a mini. That was the last quilt I finished, back in July.

My first reaction was a bit of sadness and shock. That lasted for about 30 seconds though. I moved on to a bit of anger. How could I only finish 4 in the year?! Just 4! I know why and that is what brings the anger. Chronic back pain since April has meant that basting quilts is out of the question and sitting for long periods of time is also out. I’d always hoped that I could use a rented long arm and get some done but I don’t have the time to do that with our family schedule. All those things combined into anger, full confessions. Let’s be clear, though, not about the unfinished quilts, the anger it about those situations. But that is life and being angry won’t do me any good.

So perspective kicks in. I’ve been sewing nearly every single day this year. Some days only for 10 minutes, some days I get a whole hour. Sewing is what saved me from rage and frustration this year. Sewing kept me sane when pain and stress and constantly moving kept fighting for dominance.

Heather Ross Fabric

I worked on… let me count them… 22 different quilts this year. I feel like it might be more than that, there might the odd day where I played on one random quilt under construction or another.

Some started from scratch, some were old playtime pieces. These became quilt tops:

Improv Curves

Others were just consistent work that will eventually, probably, result in a quilt. Or something I decided to try, just playing.

I played with scraps, sorting and sewing. I taught classes and those samples became something. I tried ideas I had.

Mostly, I created for the sake of it. Sure a quilt at the end is nice, but mostly I sewed for the sake of sewing and what it does for me. Keeps me sane in a crazy, angry, busy, intimidating, and stressful world. Process matter so much more than anything else.

Maybe I will finish more quilts in 2019, maybe not? Either way, I will be sewing.

Quilt Sketch Uppercase Fabric

Confessions of an Unconventional Quilt Teacher

Quilt Teacher

I am just back from a two week teaching trip through the Maritimes. On top of the feeling of homecoming in Halifax, the exploration of new to me cities and islands, and the joy of end of the day solitude I had a glorious time teaching! Yes, we call these bizcations in my house, but the business part comes first. That is, the business of inspiring quilters to creative action.

My style of quilt teaching is not to come in to a class with a pattern and a timeline to finish a project. While I can completely appreciate that there are many students who want just that, it isn’t the kind of class I like to teach. Rather than 20 versions of the same thing at the end of the day I want to see 20 different things! My style is to come in, teach a technique or pull an idea out of you to make. The goal is for you to see what you can do with your own skill, time, and imagination. No two quilters are the same, no two projects are the same, no two classes are the same.

For sure, I concede that this isn’t for everyone. I know that a small majority of quilters want to come out of class with a thing at the end. Something to show their partner to prove the worth of their time in the class or something to share at guild to demonstrate the joy of the effort of bringing in the teacher. I get that, really. But that just isn’t the type of teacher I am.

The work of the Maritime Modern Quilt Guild in the Improv With Intent class

The work of the Maritime Modern Quilt Guild in the Improv With Intent class

The first thing I tell my students is that what they make in class doesn’t have to be anything. Not even a mug rug or a Meals on Wheels placemat or pillow, let alone the start of a quilt. It can just be some fabric you sewed together. Ultimately, and more importantly, the class is about showing up. Just being there: embracing your own creativity, good company, and the process of quiltmaking. I want everyone to learn, but mostly, I want everyone to play.

The second thing I tell my students is that we are there to jump off a cliff. Not to worry, though, I am going to hold your hand every step of the way. Improv work, the bulk of my classes, does not come easy for most. It takes a leap. But with me in the classroom - or church hall - you have guide on the creative journey.

As a quilt teacher I see myself as three other things on top/in conjunction with quiltmaking guide: performer, playground supervisor, and therapist.

Performer

Unfortunately, I don’t get a spotlight or pyrotechnics for each class I teach. Sounds systems are nice, but not necessary (as anyone who knows me knows what I mean). Stages can sometimes be found in the room. You see, when I am in front of a group of quilters I consider myself a performer, not just a teacher.

It only took one class for me to realize that a teacher that sits at the front of the room sewing her own stuff is quite possibly the worst kind of teacher. I’ve been in those classes, as a student, and I will admit, have been that teacher at times. It is the worst. You, the student, paid money to be there, took the time to be there, hauled all your stuff to be there. If I am not going to give a thing to take home at the end of the day then I sure as hell better make the day worth it for all for you!

You can be guaranteed of stories, some bad jokes, ideas, hand holding, stunt sewing, and more. This is on top of the stellar quilting techniques we do. Hopefully no pyrotechnics though - cotton is flammable.

Playground Supervisor

At my kids’ elementary school the teachers take turns supervising recess. They walk around in reflective safety vests so everyone knows who they are. Just enough supervision to stop a fight or bandage a skinned knee. Mostly they stay out of the way and let the kids do their thing. And what are the kids doing? Playing made-up and real games, sitting in groups gossiping, tackling each other, looking for four-leaf clovers, creating yet another version of tag or grounders, or generally enjoying not having to think for a little while. Recess is the best.

I like to think of my classroom as the playground. We are there to play! To explore, to experiment, to try something new, to figure something out. It’s like taking the basic rules of tag but having a million iterations. We still use a 1/4’’ seam allowance, we still press, and squaring up happens eventually. After that? Well, we are only constricted by our fear and perceived limitations.

By no means am I the quilt police, but maybe I should wear a bright safety vest next time I teach, just so you know who I am?

Therapist

This is a stereotype. The more traditional the guild, the harder it is for most participants to relax and play. We are just so used to playing by all the rules and sitting nicely. When I say it is time to get dirty and throw some rules out many people balk. It just isn’t what they are comfortable with/used to/approve of/like. I get that. It’s normal, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean, however, I won’t encourage you to try something new just for today.

When people are struggling with what I am trying to teach or the space I am creating to play I don’t like to leave them struggling. I will sit down and have a chat. We’ll talk about the why of their quiltmaking and why this particular approach is so hard for them. I’m coming to realize that it makes me a bit of a therapist. (Minus any degrees, training, or certification.) I can’t offer any real life solutions to real life problems, but I can hold their hand as they talk about their quiltmaking journey.

What I can also do fairly well now is understand why they struggle with my approach. The response, then, is unique to each quilter. Sometimes a few personal, encouraging words is all that is needed. Other times I might literally hand them the fabric and tell them where to sew as a start. And for those running full throttle with the play and improv techniques I teach it might mean a high five or chest bump, or even a slight pull back. No matter what, I’ve got your back. I’m here for you.

Quilt Teacher Cheryl Arkison

Inspiring quilters to creative action is my biggest thrill. It is the mission of my work, as cliche as that might sound. It is a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to be in front of a crowd full of expectations. I do not take the job lightly and always try my best for the group in front of me. So you know, I appreciate every opportunity you all give me. From the big classes to the tiny guilds, from the exotic locations to the small church basements. No matter what, I am here for you.