Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What It Looks Like

I was invited to write about my creative process for a blog hop by my friend Judy Coates Perez. Judy makes some of the most beautiful images I have ever seen on quilts. Check out her cool work at

We all have challenges in our quiltmaking practices. My biggest challenge is trying to focus on what a quilt will look like. The problem is, what it looks like is not my primary concern when I start out on a new quilt project. My primary concern is what I am doing, or what I am trying to do. Here is what I mean.

I am starting on a new quilt project, one of a series I have returned to again and again over the last 35 years. My idea has been to ask myself what it would look like if I rethought or redesigned classic quilt patterns. This one is my new version of Bethlehem Star. In the very first batch of antique quilts I ever saw there was an early Bethlehem Star made of printed chintz fabrics from about 1830 or so. It had cutout corners at the bottom to fit around the posts of a four-poster bed. The star was the common design made of diamonds, sometimes called Lone Star, with eight large points made of many small diamond shaped patches.

Since then I have seen thousands of similar stars, from the solid fabric stars of the Amish and the Sioux to the scrappy stars of Alabama and on through the pastel stars of the 1930's. Yesterday, I decided to make my own large star pattern, but to do it with my favorite medium: bias tape. From the beginning of my project, then, it was something I was going to do, even though I had no idea how I was going to proceed or what it was going to look like.

My next step was to select fabric to start my creative juices flowing. I  pulled out some Yukata cottons with space themed prints and tossed them on the floor. Then I found some pure white I had washed and ironed for another--untouched--idea, and tossed that down beside the yukata cloth. Hmmm. I rummaged around and found a wild orange and green print off some clearance shelf somewhere and tried it with what I already had. Nothing yet. Then, underneath a plastic bag of felted wool sweaters and a chunk of black batting, I found yards and yards of a hand dyed lightweight cotton with a brown background and little black "cracks" with pink smudges here and there. Since I am planning to quilt this by hand, the light weight appealed to me. And the little cracks in the universe got me thinking along a whole new line. I folded up everything else and filed it away.

From my drawers and drawers full of bias tape I pulled half a dozen colors and laid them across the brown cotton. I liked the way the brown reminded me of the original chintz Bethlehem Star I was keeping in mind while I worked. But none of the colors of the bias tape were sparking anything else. Then I saw a spool of 1/2" white I had bought on eBay once for $2.57. 100 yards of white bias tape--enough for about 34 Chanel suits! It gave me plenty of contrast against the brown. Perfect.

Now, onto the star. I had no idea how to proceed. Should I make large spikes? Overlapping circles? Spoke-like straight lines? Then I thought of the pictures I had seen of actual stars themselves, and thought about how they looked almost like fluid...and then I saw in my mind that I could use short pieces of bias sewn down at random but clumped together into a roughly circular, gigantic star on the space-like brown.

"I wonder what that would look like?" I  asked out loud, and then I started sewing. The photo above is where I stopped for the day after a few hours of sewing. I imagine it will take a few full days before I have enough white lines to know if I am getting done.

That is how I work. I  find out what something is going to look like by making it. I know that many people prefer to know what it is going to look like before they start. But for me the gamble that I might not like what it looks like when I am all done is worth the gamble that I might love the surprising effects I cannot forsee when I start. Primarily, however, I am just excited to have a concept that makes me want to go to work. If I try make something beautiful, or something historic, or something that will be easy to teach, I find my mind wandering, and I end up feeling like my heart is just not in it.

I need the feeling of exploring unknown territory. That is what it looks like to me!

Joe Cunningham

Monday, November 17, 2014

My Quilt Retreat of the North

Up in the spectacularly beautiful Hood Canal west of Seattle is the St Andrew's Retreat Center. When my partner in this retreat project, Patricia Belyea, found it and described it to me I thought it would be perfect for my concept: beautiful location, excellent hospitality, fantastic food, facility only large enough for the twenty people I hoped would sign up. It was. This was the second year of the retreat, and it has turned out to be one of the best things I have ever done. Participants ranged in age, background and technical abilities, the weather cooperated, people made work in a completely individual style, even when they followed my precise instructions. Next year there will be two sessions to accommodate all the people who want to sign up. 


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Textile Society of America Symposium

A couple of weeks ago I was on a panel of men speaking at the TSA Symposium in Los Angeles, discussing something called "The Male Mystique." The other men on the panel were intimidatingly well qualified for this, and I enjoyed seeing their work, hearing their views. But the real reason to be at the TSA Symposium was to attend other lectures and to learn about things I never imagined.

Like the picture above, taken during a lecture on central Asian textiles. It shows an "Ink Painted Wool Tapestry...woven by the Mongours, a Chinese minority living along the Yellow River during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)...(who) practiced a religion called Manichaeanism after its founder Mani, who was born in Babylonia and lived in third century Persia...(they) believe that the universe is divided between the forces of Good, exemplified by light,  and the forces of Evil, demonstrated by Dark..."

I hardly know where to start. Let's start with the idea that this is nearly a thousand years old, and its design looks like something from mid-20th century Europe. Or how about the idea that the design vocabulary is only vaguely Chinese, which you can see in the little curlicues in the cloudlike formations, but that the peacocks in the foreground come from somewhere with which I am unfamiliar. Then the alternating bands of dark and light, or Dark and Light, which yet do not strictly alternate in a symmetrical way, but seem to be intertwined.

For me it is positively thrilling to see something like this, to encounter a civilization I never knew existed. And who is Mani? What does the rest of their art look like?

This is why it is worth all the travel and expense to attend one of these conferences. The people who are doing the deep study will share it with you and open your eyes to new worlds.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

New New York Beauty

I am often asked about my creative process, something I often feel I do not even have. I mean, I am amazed that after all these years making things I still end up feeling like I don't know how to start a new one. For this quilt I started out where I often start: without anything in mind.

I just pulled a bunch of fabrics off my shelf and tossed them onto the floor. Any fabrics that seemed to go well together I rejected. I do not like the look of things that are too coordinated, too harmonious. Eventually I found myself with these three fabrics, which were not particularly friendly with each other, but seemed to have a sort of energy when I laid them side by side.

First, I cut some random pieces from the bacon-like stuff on the right, without any clear idea what I was doing. Suddenly I remembered that I had been wanting to make a new New York Beauty. "Perfect!" I said to myself, "These two pieces would give me the contrast I need for the long, sharp points." As I worked along at building a row of points, I saw that I could keep all the greenish yellow on one side and all the pink stripes on the other.

This is my secret technique. I just start working on something whether or not I know what it will be. Sometimes I end up with a mistaken, misshapen, problematic thing. But usually by the time I am solidly started, I have a sound idea for where to go and how to get there.

And that is the hardest part: believing that an idea will appear.

Sometimes, you have to plan ahead. Sometimes you start out with a clear idea. But sometimes you can start out without either a plan or a concept, and those things will materialize.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Making Paintings Art

I have been obsessed lately with the idea of cutting up paintings and making them into quilts. Friends have been donating paintings; I have been finding them at the thrift stores; taking them off my own walls. The strange, electric shock of running a rotary cutter across someone's artwork is the kind of intense sensation hard to get in a standard quiltmaking project. 

On this quilt, just out of the machine, I have combined the cut up paintings with another of my recent ideas: paying homage to the great quiltmakers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This one contains a quilted version of the only known picture of Harriet Powers, maker of the fantastic Bible quilts that can be found in the Smithsonian and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. (

In thinking of a way to honor harriet, I got thinking about the memorial arches like the Arc de Triomphe. I realized I could combine my obsessions if I just made the arch out of paintings, with all the metaphorical implications that might follow. The sky above her is lit with stars. 

Harriet herself, once a slave in Georgia, is on a pedestal in the middle, in an image I drew with a digital pen and sent to my Fusion longarm:

I feel like I am starting to get where I want to go with this series. At the moment I am collecting new paintings for another quilts, but the painted canvas is so hard to work with I may give myself a break and use regular fabric for a change. I'll just have to generate my own electricity.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Protesters, Sleeping

Five or six weeks ago I saw a picture in the newspaper--said the last guy in San Francisco to actually subscribe to a couple of newspapers--of the protesters in Kiev sleeping on the floor of an occupied government building. It was a big jumble of sleeping bags, blankets, quilts and coats, interspersed now and then with a peaceful face of one of the protesters sleeping. I loved the image, because the sleepers looked so angelic and because the image was mostly blankets! Blankets! I always think of what I am doing as making a blanket, which is why I always make them big enough to sleep under...big enough to wrap up in, against the coldness of the universe. The idea of these dedicated patriots, who were putting their lives on the line, that even they had to just lie down and sleep sometimes, I found unbearably poignant.

So, I decided to make my own picture of the sleeping protesters. With my robotic long arm machine, I could draw the faces into the computer and drop them into the white spaces of my jumbled up fabric. For the rest of the quilting, I studied the barricades and used as many of the same materials as I could, quilting them with free motion on the long arm, all the tires, sand bags, fences and blocks. The firewood and cables. The sticks and rocks.

In a way, the only thing I did was to take the idea of a quilt with alternate plain blocks and make it crazy style. In that way, you can see how this quilt came straight out of traditional ideas. But the quilting would never have been possible without my robotic machine, a Handi Quilter Fusion. I love getting to know it and finding out what it can do. It is a thrill every time I walk into my studio.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Susan McCord: Greatest Quiltmaker Ever.

Susan McCord lived in Indiana during the second half of the 19th century and made a bunch of fantastic quilts, 13 of which are owned by the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Her most famous quilt consists of strips of fabric entirely coved by small leaves on vines, each leave composed of minute scraps. You can get the idea here:

All Susan's quilts are worth study, each one original and each one exemplifying the freedom with which 19th century quiltmakers could approach the job. When each woman was free to interpret or invent patterns her own way, creativity abounded. They created the template for the approach to quilts we still use.

For this quilt I wanted to picture Susan McCord feeding her chickens, because I thought that if I could find a time tunnel back to 1880, I would probably find her doing some daily chores, not making a quilt. The quilt is picture here just off the machine, my long arm, where I quilted it with my own interpretation of her leaf design:

The title of the quilt is "Susan McCord In My Time Tunnel." It is all made with bias tape on a background made of hand printed fabric imported by Maiwa of Vancouver.

If you would like to know more about Susan McCord, you can still get Barbara Brackman's book on her at: