modern quilts

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.

From Demo to Quilt - Improv Curves

Improv Curves Modern Improv Quilt

As a quilt teacher I need to be constantly demonstrating techniques and ideas to my students. You can show a million quilts and quilt blocks, but nothing replaces the actions. A couple of years ago I had the brilliant (in my head) idea to keep a set of fabrics for each class to use for demos. Everything coordinated instead of random scraps. That way, I would eventually have a set of blocks to turn into a quilt top without having to actually stop and make a quilt top.

Frankly, it really was a brilliant idea. The main components of many quilts have come this way. Like this one for slabs. Or this one for for Improv Log Cabins. Or even this one for Slabs and Low Volume work. Because I teach technique more often than specific quilts I only get a few of the blocks or components done each class. But in time, they add up. That was exactly what happened with these bits and pieces.

Teaching modern quilting

With so much potential the exciting part came - not that I don't love teaching, I adore it. What gets me jazzed in the sewing room is the challenge of taking seemingly disparate parts and finding order and balance in them. Playing on the design wall to find just the perfect composition will always be my favourite part of quilt making.

It took about a week of mornings and the odd evening to get something together. There was seemingly endless futzing to get a balance of colours, shape, and pattern. One can do that truly forever, with a solid fear of commitment. My strategy is to hone in on a part that I love and definitely don't want to change then work my way around it to show it off. It isn't always as perfect as I hope and you have to keep that Tim Gun refrain on constant repeat: Make it work. Make it Work. 

The whole quilt wasn't as big as I had hoped. I have such a hard time not making at least a double sized quilt. Alas, I ran out of fabric. No more background, no more of the orange, and only a bit of the purple left. C'est La Vie.

Modern Improv Quilts

And now I get to pick a new set of fabrics for when I teach Improv Curves/Fun Ways with Drunkard's Path! Let me know if you are interested in a class.

Dear Quilting Industry: Simmer Down

Quilters Stash Closet

As we pull in to our neighbourhood, home from the pool or errands or whatever my kids inevitably start talking about the things they will do when we get home. Can we watch TV? What is there for a snack? I have homework. Does Dad have to work tomorrow? Can I go over to so and so's house? It is relentless. The demand for attention, the inability to focus on what is front of us right now - a conversation in the car together - and the creation of more chaos when a bit of order, first, is needed. It is exhausting.

Life is full of competition for our attention. The kids are in battle with our parents, the news is in battle with the laughter of memes, the dog is in battle with our partners. And around and up and back again. How we don't all live with a crick in our neck from the constant twists of the head to watch something, the next thing, is beyond me. 

Fabric and the quilting industry is no different. Hundreds of lines, with probably 10-20 different fabrics in them, launch each year. Actually, each season. Then there are the patterns to go with each. Not to mention the thread, the latest notion, and the world of bags, crafts, and garments. It is all enough to make one feel like they are spinning in a vortex of colour, not knowing where to stop or look.

And I didn't even mention social media. 

Those of us working in the industry have been saying for a few years that it is getting worse and worse. The churn through of inspiration, the saturation of the market, the sheer volume of stuff is overwhelming even for us. It makes the hustle more exhausting as you try to find a way to differentiate yourself. Yet we too are contributing to the noise.

I always think of the Grinch and Boris Karloff saying "Oh the noise. The Noise. Noise. Noise. Noise."

Quilt Books

Book publishing has already slowed down. You just don't see the volume of quilt books hitting in the market anymore. Two weeks ago we all saw the news of Free Spirit shutting down. Now it will have a new owner.  Brick and mortar stores are closing, and others are opening. Ecommerce still expands and contracts 

All of this could truly be a market correction. The quilt industry has nearly tripled in the last 20 years. That is a lot of years of buying, not just new quilters. The economy is still not great. I know my own disposable income doesn't get spent on  fabric even though as a professional I can write it off. How many other people are in the same boat?

I have three other theories regarding the consumer side, while others have addressed the supply side of the quilt market.

... One, all those new quilters, the twenty somethings who led the Modern movement, now have kids, and sometimes parents, to take care of. Our time and money disappeared. We are quilting less obsessively, if at all. Not to mention, #2 below.

... Two, we have enough fabric. Plain and simple. Many of us got caught up (still do) in the need to stock up on the latest and greatest, to build our stash of celebrity designers fabrics and products. Those stashes are now sitting there. There is that old joke about she who dies with the most fabric wins, right?

Some folks destash, others let it languish in the closet. This is regardless of the age and the situation we are in. Many of us can now shop at home first. Those large stashes have essentially created a quilt store in our home. That means we aren't necessarily hitting the stores to stock up anymore.

... Three, I'm seeing a move away from consumerism. It might be the recession, it might be a increase in environmental awareness, it might be simple exhaustion at the churn of new product. Regardless, I think a lot of us are buying less new stuff simply for the sake of buying less. This translates to a rise in upcycled material, thrift store purchases, and using what we have already. This also ties into what I am seeing as a backlash against new, new. new. 

Tag Fabric Names for Snow Quilt

Personally, I've been feeling a shift over the last year. At first it was because we were tight on cash and I needed to not shop so much. (Kid's sports, yikes!) It continued because I wasn't seeing much new stuff I eagerly wanted. Or rather, nothing was standing out to me. I also launched my own fabric line in there and 20 bolts of fabric suddenly in your tiny space is A LOT of fabric. To be perfectly honest, I have a large stash. At least for the last 10 years or so. And I always shop first from there. But if I went to the store because I needed a particular shade of blue, I would buy 4 different fabrics to fulfill that need and fill the blue bin. It was a lot of consumerism. 

At the beginning of the year I cleaned out the stash. The closet was full of falling over piles, bins that wouldn't close, and a heck of a lot of fabric I wasn't and will never use. So I went through each colour, purging and refolded. It only took a few evenings after the kids went to bed, not the big deal I made it out to be in my head. I now have a large blue IKEA bag ready for donation and a neater closet. Was it ever liberating!! I've been in a quilt store twice since then and only bought what I needed because that was the easiest thing to do. Perspective is a wonderful thing.

None of this, however, helps the quilt shops or the suppliers. Or my colleagues in the industry trying to make a living. This market correction is going to hurt some people, I have no doubt. People will leave the industry, things will get leaner. This isn't always a bad thing, but it sure can be ugly. It also doesn't guarantee that quality is the winner. If social media has taught us anything it is that those who know how to play the game, with or without the rules, are likely to win.

Aurifil Wonderfil Thread

I've been asking myself a lot of questions about the hustle lately for exactly these reasons. As I said before, I'd love to write another quilt book, but that may not be in the cards. I'd love to design more fabric but I have a lot of work to do there on improvement and I need to be comfortable with putting more product out in the world. I'm not ready to leave the industry, but it is definitely time to redefine my role in it. And I don't think I am alone in this process, from the consumer to the supplier level people should be doing this.

In the meantime, I've slowed down. Life is insanely busy between kids and the family business (outside of my own work). The only time I really sew is for that Morning Make habit. Let me tell you, slow is good! I love all my quilts under construction but I am starting to focus more. Working on only one or two at a time. Trying to spin less, take more deliberate action. Instead of walking in the door of my sewing room and asking a million questions about what comes next, I take off my shoes and move thoughtfully, getting things done little by little.

As I say to the kids every time they start off in a frenzy: Simmer Down.

Ballet Blue - A Donation for The Blue Gala

Blue Quilt Calgary Murals Instagram Worthy

Ballet Blue

72'' x 72''

When the fact that you have 3 bins if blue fabric combines with a request for a donation quilt for an event called The Blue Gala this happens.

It actually started when I pulled out some scraps to make a sample strip set for a class I was teaching. Just one block. But then the donation request came and the block was sitting there, demanding my attention. It was rather bossy, actually. And before I could stop myself I spent my mornings making more strips sets and cutting more blocks. I fell in love with the process as much as the final result.

Sew strips together, cut a block on point. Take the scraps and add more strips, cut more blocks. I became obsessed with minimizing the waste after cutting. And when the blocks are together I loved the lines the precise squares brought back. I always say with improvisational piecing that at some point you have to add the order back in. This quilt ends up a great combination of improv and precision piecing.

Blue Gala Silent Auction Quilt Donation

I digress...

When I posted the quilt top a few months ago the amazing Dara at Stitched Quilting Co offered to quilt it for me, a donation of her services to the cause. Thank you so much Dara! That girl loves her free motion work and it shows. She added depth and even more movement to the quilt.

This quilt will be part of a silent auction at The Blue Gala. All proceeds go to Pancreatic Cancer Canada. I am thrilled to support the cause for two reasons. One, my son is part of the ballet school, H/W Ballet, hosting the event and will be dancing. More important than that though, is that my father in law was taken from us too young and very quickly from pancreatic cancer. In tribute to him, I make and donate this quilt. 

If you are local or looking for a good Saturday night out you can come join us at the gala. If you aren't local but are interested in bidding on the quilt shoot me a note. I will also be on Instagram Stories that night, watching the bid. After I watch my boy dance, of course.

Blue Gala Quilt Binding Carolyn Friedlander Archtextures.