I have had a lot of people ask questions about the way I quilt, tips, advice etc, and so I thought it might be nice to share the way I work through a quilt project. I work intuitively. I do things my way, and they work, and it is so nice to see other people like that method too. I approach my fabric design work, the same way that I approach detailing all my architectural work.
I am a visual and tactile person – I collect ideas in my head, until they germinate into something tangible, and it’s usually a cumulative process of gathering pieces of fabric, trim, texture, proportion and a base idea into one whole. This might happen instantly, or take time and process over a number of months. I find that the process might start with one set of parameters, and evolve into an entirely different language as new ideas come into play. Eventually the end product tends to end up back somewhere near the original idea, just more honed, skilled, and refined.
I start with piles. Piles are never to be misjudged. There’s a reason my blog is full of piles. The piles are my sample boards, my mood boards, my inspirations. I constantly arrange and rearrange piles in my study. I gather colours and textures in the piles, see how the fabrics work together, and rearrange proportions. I might add or subtract as I feel, and as I get to know the pile.
With the Linen quilt, I gathered fat quarters, played with them thinking I might make a log cabin quilt. I then received a selection of quarters from Stephanie, in different tones, and was playing with them and another idea I had and suddenly the two piles merged on my desk, and the log cabin got thrown out in favour of something simpler which would let the colours and textures speak rather than the energy of pattern. I wanted to use linen as the base material, so in came some linen which was left over from my mother recovering her couches. I had been wanting to use some of the stamp printed twill tape I received from Abbytrysagain, and coincidentally, Stephanie tied up her bundle with the same trim, and that was it, somewhere on the quilt would be letter tape. And I love red dot fabric – and knew I had a load of some that could be used for a small quilt.
When I’m ready, I lay it all out somewhere inconvenient. There is method in my madness. If it’s laid out over things, I get to see how the fabrics work in drapes, how they fall, how they work together through light and shadow. I get to see how details might emerge, and how different amounts of each fabric might work better when they fall over, get bundled, and get hidden. It’s an architect designer thing. It just wouldn’t be the same to lay it neatly on a table without clutter with everything sitting flat – I never see my quilts as flat pieces. They are all 3dimensional objects. And from there I make quick sketches to a relative scale. I’m quite conscious most people do not work in inconvenient haphazard ways.
I might make three sketches all variations on the original to see how I like different combinations. They are quick line sketches, with bare notes. Occasionally I measure it out and assign value measurements against parts, but mostly I trust my eye and judgement and work from intuition as I cut. I might have overall measures, but I don’t work exactly. Does it need to be exact? Hell no. I like the fact there’s some give in it all, and there’s a certain free form quality to it all that can evolve as I sew, and allows me to change things as I go. I rarely follow patterns because of that – however I do use books to get ideas, but my desire to create something beyond a pattern means I could never truly follow something written down and set in stone. I have only 2 quilt books – and I have never made a quilt from either of them. However I consult them all the time for pattern ideas and textures and colour combinations. The two books are Denyse Schmidt, and Contemporary Quilts. There is another Japanese book Simple Quilt I have been trying to get hold of which is excellent for more contemporary quilts.
The linen quilt I knew needed to pay respect to a few ideas I’ve wanted to work with. The linen was the starting point, and the zakka style Japanese craft books which use linen with simple embroidery or details to achieve something extraordinary and unexpected. I knew I wanted to do embroidery somewhere. I also received a beautiful red and natural package from Manuele a while ago which included a very beautiful book on cross stitch alphabets. Very French, very elegant, thoroughly Need To Do. I had been waiting for the perfect custom project to use some of these scripts, and knew I wanted it to be about Pia. I have a need to get sashiko embroidery into too many of my projects, and hence the dragonflies. A little bit of whimsy, but it breaks up the linen beautifully. They’re subtle, but very effective. It’s all about the details, both subtle and obvious.
I love tags. I adore the little Gocco printed cotton tape tags I make and use on my work. Simple and effective (if you don’t have a Gocco, Sally has just done a fabulous post about how you can achieve a similar result which I have to say is a really tempting and neat way of going about doing it). I plan their location and use quite specifically. They are an integral component in the design process. I also wanted little intriguing things like ribbons to attach toys to easily while we’re out to be part of the quilt. The satin ribbon works well texturally against the linen, and they break up the regularity of the band of fabrics across the centre – sometimes apparent discord creates balance. The ‘Pia’ tag became an extension of my line of thinking, drawing influence from Japanese books again. I love the ideas of layering things, and having little bits of interest in the details.
And the backing. I debated this for weeks. I could have used simple cotton, and perhaps used the red dot fabric from the front again on the back. But I like to make the seemingly simple quite difficult for me, and just as I went down the sorry path of using the fleece on the other quilt I did for Pia because it stretched as I sewed it, I decided to use cotton jersey knit – which also stretches. But it is soft and warm against babies skin, and snuggly for use in the cot or stroller.
The wadding is pure cotton organic wadding. It’s lightweight, and sits well. Although it’s hard work to hand stitch through. Or maybe I just need tougher fingers. I wanted to do more hand stitching, but I ran out of energy. Actually I wanted to do a load of sashiko embroidery on it, and kept returning to it lying on the table hour after hour and waiting for that moment when you can’t resist taking up the needle and thread and diving in. I got close a few times, but was terribly worried I’d ruin the balance of detail. Balance – that’s a key point. Finding the right amount of small detail to large detail to pattern and space and the overall is critical, and unfortunately some people can do this, and some can’t. Learn by stepping back, assessing, and looking at it from different angles (literally) and observing what other people do who ‘get it right’.
The design process of my quilts is very flexible and allows for much changing of minds as I move through each stage. I think that taking a simple start point: for example ‘I want to do a quilt with fresh colours, and have some embroidery on it’ is the best way to start. Go with something you desperately want to use or try – a piece of linen, a piece of ribbon, a particular embroidery image. Then build everything around it, adding, subtracting, until you have something which really speaks to you. Throw in some different textures or patterns and see how that changes the composition. Look at how buttons and ribbons affect the selections – sometimes small amounts of something unexpected can really bring it all to life and tie a few things together. Don’t be frightened of throwing something apparently left of centre into the mix, but don’t think it has to be busy to be successful as a quilt: often simplicity and starkness work better. And finally, let the quilt happen the way it wants to happen.
Let it evolve.