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Quilting is a Language

*This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase the referenced book, I will receive a small commission.  Thanks for reading.  Enjoy!

THE QUILTING BRAIN

The Quilting Brain is an amazing thing.  I think most of us take it for granted.  Common traits among quilters, crafters, and artisans include the ability to “steal” an idea- to see how something is put together & pull an idea from it.  You might not go home & make the exact same thing, but you take something from it & make it your own.

I had a boyfriend who worked in a professional setting & loved to collect unique ties.  He was crazy about them.  He was also the first one to introduce me to the theatre.  We went to see Les Miserables.  One day at our annual Fall Foliage Festival in Bedford County, PA (if you’ve never been- it’s well worth the trip- people travel from all over the US!), I saw a vender selling homemade men’s ties.  I decided that if she could make them, I could make them!  I went home, asked my dad for an old tie that I could take apart to make a pattern out of & went to work.  On the first run through, I did not know to cut it out diagonally on the fabric & ended up with a tie that twisted like a corkscrew!  Hilarious!  Thank goodness for moms who can come along & tell you what you’re doing wrong… I got the cutting problem straightened out & started major tie production.  Eventually, I started to embroidery them as well.  He really flipped out when I presented him with a stocking full of homemade ties at Christmas.  But that’s a quilters brain for you.  I want it- therefore I will make it!

Les Miserables hand drawn & hand stitched on a handmade tie.

Creativity like that can’t always be taught, but I think it can be learned.  It comes from thousands of hours of labor & experience.  When I began learning Spanish, the first thing I learned was to read the words & recognize them in print.  It was surprising to realize that I also had to learn to hear the words & that hearing was separate from reading.  It was the 2nd step.  The final step in fluency was being able to speak because you have to be able to both hear the language, think in it & respond in a very short amount of time.  (I was actually shocked when I first learned that I would one day think in Spanish & not just always translate English to Spanish & vice versa.  I didn’t realize that it would become a part of me.) It takes more practice than you can imagine.  You practice reading.  You practice writing.  You practice hearing.  And, you practice speaking.  If you practice enough, you begin to think in the language; it becomes a part of you.

THINKING IN THE LANGUAGE OF ART

People who are artisans- whether they quilt or sew or paint- don’t realize that they are learning a language- that they can think in quilting, but it becomes a part of them as much as any language.  It took me nearly 40 years to recognize that the reason that I see & react to the world so differently, so incredibly uniquely is because I am completely immersed in the creative process- I think in quilting- I think in art.

How do you think in quilting or art though?  One way is by approaching many facets of life using the design process.

The design process broken down simply is this:

  • Gather up all of your options (materials/patterns/etc.) & survey possibilities (like free writing in creative writing class)
  • Eliminate what doesn’t fit & begin to focus
  • Choose pattern/design/fabric/etc.
  • Begin project
  • Problem solve throughout the project

I follow this process at work.  In sales, I gather up leads for potential clients to work with.  I keep a large file (several boxes actually- kind of like a fabric stash!!!) & when I’m running low on appointments, I go through the box & pull out all of the ones that I might want to work with.  Then I eliminate the ones that can’t afford my services, followed by the ones that aren’t as likely to advertise at that time of year, until I’ve whittled my selections down to the right ones to chase.  Then I problem solve through the process of trying to land the account.

I fall back to the design process when I have any problem to solve, really.  What are my options?  (Gather up all of the possibilities.)  Sweep away the stuff that is too hard, too expensive, ridiculous, etc.  Reduce, reduce, reduce, until I can choose a solution.  Implement.  Repeat the process to further problem solve.

The design process spills over into a lot of avenues in my life and I’m proud to say that it’s a really practical & useful skill set that I have gained from my quilting & art adventures!

SEEING COMPONENTS & POTENTIAL

Another way that you can think in art is by seeing how things fit together & using that knowledge to pull anything apart, extract what you need & create something new.  It’s an incredible talent that seems to be innate to most artisans; so we typically take it for granted.  It’s part of that language of art-  an integral part of how we think & process life.

I was totally guilty of taking this part of the language & the talents I have gained from years of making art in various ways for granted until I went to college.  I was not a little bit surprised to find myself among a dozen PHD candidates who expressed amazement & stated that they couldn’t understand how I could alter an item of clothing by making my own pattern or take a couch that had been kicked to the curb, strip it, figure out how it was upholstered & how to reupholster it, when to me, it was just “common sense.”  It was easy to look at things and see how they worked or didn’t work- what I could or couldn’t do with a given material & what might work on a proposed project if I tried because I had done it with so many materials & so many projects before.  Skill sets & experience easily transferred over to new things.

Blouse gone wrong goes purse!

MISTAKES ARE OPPORTUNITIES

But, of course, it didn’t always work.  One time I ended up making myself a purse out of a blouse that I cut out with the stripes going the wrong way on one panel.  But that’s another thing that the quilting brain does- it sees possibilities.  That ruined shirt made out of fabric that I could no longer get more of at the store still contained brand new fabric.  WHY waste it?!?  ;-). Mistakes are opportunities.

ARGUMENTS FOR & AGAINST

Some might argue that this is not a language that I’m thinking in, but a skill set that I’m applying to various facets of my life.  I think the bell could toll both ways.  Because the skill sets that I’ve gained affects the way that I think & approach life, to me it has become a language.  I also state this because the things we make convey meaning outside of words & to be immersed in the making of those things means thinking outside of words- it means to think in quilting or art.

I picked up a book last night about Scandinavian embroidery & was fascinated to learn about the custom that some of the folk women had at one point of keeping an elaborately embroidered bed made up at all times for show & nothing else.  It was a status symbol among them.  It conveyed meaning.

LANGUAGE AFFECTS PERCEPTION

So- yes.  I think it’s possible to think in quilting.  I believe that art is a language & that it can shape the way that you see, think & interact with the world.  There are some fascinating Ted Talks on the subject of how different languages affect the culture’s perception of the world.

One of my favorite examples notes that in the US where we speak English we generally have 1 word for snow- and will add just a few adjectives such as wet or dry.  However, the Eskimos have 21 words for snow!  They live with it for much more of the year.  They interact with it more intimately.  Of course they see more types of it.  My bet is that there are names for crusted snow verses drifted snow, dirty vs. pure & so much more.  (If I recall correctly, the Ted Talk references this example as well, but I heard it in a different talk years ago.)

Another example that I love comes from my days in Spanish class, as well as the Ted Talk (linked below) that I recently viewed on YouTube (not an affiliate).  In Spanish- there are no words that assign blame to the individual who forgot something.  The literal translation of: “I forgot my keys.” is “The keys, they forgot me.”  What’s interesting is that English speakers are much more likely to be mad at the person who forgot the keys and made everyone late, whereas Spanish speakers accept that sometimes things forget themselves!  (Here’s the link to the Ted Talk for anyone who wants to watch it: How Language Shapes The Way We Think)

Languages really do shape how we see the world & the decisions that we make.  When we immerse ourselves in quilting & art, it becomes a part of us- it becomes a part of how we think & see things.  It is entwined into our vocabulary & vision.  I believe it can only change us for the better.

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Planning Your Quilt…

It has been said that the hardest thing about painting is getting started.

“It is so fine & yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.”  

Paul Cezzanne

Quilters face no less of a challenge.  Painters have a couple dozen colors to choose from; quilters have hundreds of bolts, patterns, techniques & variations to throw into their decision making process!  (I say this being both a quilter & a painter & knowing the challenges of both.)

So, here’s the deal; the design process is MESSY- and that’s okay!  First you become a hoarder- then you flip to minimalism!  What do I mean by that?  Well, when I’m designing a quilt, an event, my website or anything else, I start by gathering up everything (+ some!) that I could possibly want to include in the project & then I start organizing what I have & eliminating bit by bit until I get down to the simplest form of the design that I can create & have a concrete direction to go in.

EXAMPLES

It works with shopping.  You throw everything you want into your cart & head for the dressing room.  Trying things on will eliminate a huge portion of the pile.  Then you sort out what’s left by what you can afford in the order of what you love the most, right?

It works with drawing.  You start out with the general shape & keep erasing, redrawing & making small changes until the picture becomes what you want.  You change, first this line, and then that one.  Sometimes a line even becomes a smudge or a smudge becomes the ghost of a shadow.  You might even change the composition at some point or decide to draw something different entirely.

It works with writing.  Remember elementary school when they told you to write a rough draft & then edit & re-edit?  That’s the process we’re working with here.

When you’re trying to figure out where to start- you start with the most general idea & the most details/quilting materials you can gather up!  And then you work backwards eliminating bits & pieces until you have a simple & clear plan/project!

STASHING/ PATTERN CHOICES

So with quilting- you start with the hobby of STASHING.  Yes- it has been decided- building your stash IS a separate hobby from actually using it!  When I’m designing a project, sometimes I shop my stash & sometimes I hit the local store; usually I end up doing a little of both…  Either way, I start out gathering up ideas & that means first sorting patterns or pattern ideas & then sorting stash fabrics & hitting up the local store.  But let’s look at pattern decisions first.

When I’ve sorted through my top patterns or ideas, I can consider:

  • Is there a time line/ Is it a gift with a deadline?
  • What’s my budget?
  • What’s my goal?  (Do I want to master a new technique, play with a favorite color palette or fabric, or run with a new design or pattern?)

It’s smart to consider that if my budget is small or my timeline is tight, choosing a big project (while unfortunately tempting & likely to occur!) is not necessarily smart.

  • Do I have fabric in my stash that I can use or do I need to buy more?
  • If I use fabric in my stash, make a mistake & need more- can I obtain it or will I have to change or scrap the project?
  • Do I know all of the techniques in the pattern I want to make or do I need to take a class or look up a tutorial?
  • If I make an unfixable mistake, is that going to affect my timeline- particularly if it’s a gift- & do I have a backup plan?

The biggest part of planning a project- & getting past the stupor of a blank canvas- of not knowing where to start- is asking yourself the right questions.

By: Christy Grace Collins
My Yo-Yo Stash! (Yes, I have a fabric stash and bins & bins of yo-yos that I have pre-made for whenever the mood strikes. Hence, I also have a Yo-Yo Stash!)

This works with picking out the fabric, too.  Your eye will naturally go to patterns & colors that you like, but do they always go together the way that you want them to?  That’s probably the biggest frustration for inexperienced quilters.  Many companies have picked up on these insecurities & put together both patterns & colors into fabric families that work well together.  The matching is done for you as long you stay within the product line, which usually includes pattern books as well.  That’s a good place to start, but it’s not a good place to stay.

CHOOSING FABRICS

If you want to learn how to pick out the best colors & patterns for your quilts possible, you will want to ask yourself a few more questions

CONTRAST: Does your quilt pattern have any places where there are dark & light fabrics next to one another creating a contrast?  It should tell you that you need a certain amount of a darker fabric & another amount of the lighter one.

FABRIC PATTERN SIZE:  How large are the pattern pieces in comparison with the pattern on the fabric?  This is important. A large pattern on the fabric will be lost on small pattern pieces. This is why I always choose a very small or blended pattern for my yo-yos. Look closely at the yo-yos in the picture above- you will see very subtle patterns- not giant, bold ones.  When the fabric is gathered, any picture or large design is lost anyway, and it just looks like confetti if there are a bunch of color blocks in the fabric. So, for my Yosaic™ Quilting I steer clear of large patterned fabric.  However, larger patterns for something like a block or stripping are great.  They also work if you’re cutting the block out to specifically include the pattern on the fabric- such as a bird or scene.

TYPE OF FABRIC: Are you picking out the same types of fabric?  Flannel typically doesn’t go next to a batik in a quilt because they won’t iron the same, lay the same or sew the same.  With some things like crazy quilts, you can mix fabrics, but typically, if you’re making a batik quilt, you should be sticking with all of the batiks with the outside possibility of some cottons.  Your local quilt shop can help you to understand all the different types of fabric & which one is best for your pattern or project.

WARM & COOL COLORS: This deserves a post- or several posts(!) all by itself.  Warm colors vs. cool colors?  How do you even know if a color is warm or cool?  On one shopping trip, I was looking for brown fabric & my mom brought me a bolt that she thought would work.  I shook my head & told her that there was too much yellow in it.  She looked completely baffled & pointed out that it was a brown on brown print!  Where in the heck was I seeing yellow?  I explained that one of the dye colors in it was yellow & that it had a warm tone.  I was looking for a cooler toned brown- something that was more on the blue side.  It really threw her- & it’s probably throwing you right now, too.

Don’t worry!  You don’t have to know THAT much about warm & cool tones to learn how to see the difference between warm & cool fabrics & to know which to use in your project.

Color Wheel Choices-Warm Against Cool
Fall Wreath

Warm colors are the ones that you see in the fall & spring- particularly in the fall when the leaves are changing- think of warm sunshine, burnt orange, blood red, pumpkin, the hazy blues of the fall sky, the warm greens of the leaves before they change.  You can also think about it as any color that you would describe as warm- like the warm sands on the beach. Conversely, cool colors we typically describe using words that denote a feeling of coolness- refreshing turquoise ocean, icy blue winter sky, etc.  They’re also the colors that you typically see in winter & summer: winter white, grey skies, electric pink bathing suit, fuchsia flowers in the islands.

Now, here’s why that matters: a warm subject placed on a cool background creates a contrast that is as dramatic as light against dark!  It POPS!   There’s contrast that draws the eye & makes the subject more vivid.  So, if you want a comforting, homey effect with your quilt, you might want to go for all warm colors- that blend & flow into one another- like farmhouse creams, browns, & greens.  Use all cool colors if you want something that is as cool as the island breeze.  But, if you want your medallion to stand out in the center of the quilt or your appliqué in the block, use a contrast of either light against dark or warm against cool tones.

I will write more posts at a later date that go into more depth on these subjects & give more examples…but here are 2 for right now.  The butterfly below has those beautiful warm tones set against a summer blue sky.  The wreath above also has those same fall oranges, reds & browns.  Set against a grey wall, it pops!

To remember the difference, think about opposites: every other season we change from warm to cool colors.  Winter & summer are cool & spring & fall are warm.  With some practice, you will figure it out- & your quilts will thank you!

COLOR WHEEL

You can also print color wheels from dozens of places on the net & take those with you on your shopping trips.  Anything that is at an opposite point on the color wheel is going to compliment its counterpart.  For example- red is directly across from green; so red & green go together.  Find one color you like & look for what’s exactly opposite it.  That’s your best chance for a good matching contrast, although many other colors will work & your local quilt shop owners always have a good eye!

By Christy Grace Collins
Yosaic™ Butterfly Quilt

PRACTICE RUN:

Quilting can be a big investment & deliberating on which fabric to pick & whether or not it’s going to work can leave you in a stupor at your proverbial blank canvas.  So, if you’re not sure if what you’ve picked out is going to work, no problem!  Do a colored pencil version first.  Make a copy of your pattern.  Get colored pencils that match your fabric & do some coloring to check your color choices.  You can also cut out a tiny version of your pattern with the fabrics you’ve got to see if you like what you’ve got before you make that big commitment with the rotary cutter!

It’s not as intimidating if you break it down into questions to answer & individual steps to take.  You’ll be making amazing quilts in no time!

 

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