How to Make an Art Quilt, Again

One of the most-read posts I've made on this blog has to do with my process of making an art quilt. Interesting enough, the piece I was working on (a large Virgin/pomegranate figure) got stuck in the middle, even as I was writing about the process.

Did I tell you about that? Nope, don't think so.

I finally finished the piece after about 5 months of mulling and muttering, just in time for it to go into an invitational exhibit at the Kerr Arts and Cultural Center. Then, as is a sneakly (surprises me, every time) and productive little pattern of mine, I quickly made two other related pieces, spin offs from the theme that emerged as I was mulling and muttering (and as you  will see, slashing off about one half of the original quilt).

These are all inspired by the story of Persephone, her acceptance of her role as Queen of the Underworld, her visit over the River Styx and her mother Demeter's weeping over the loss of her daughter.

The colors are off in these photos, silly me, I shot the pics with the pieces on the new brilliantly chartruese walls in my hallway, which taught the camera some weird color tint, and I couldn't quite adjust them back. So, that's a good reason to go to Kerrville to see the originals, right?

Then, as I prodded along on my also stalled-out-for-months online course, TEXT ON THE SURFACE, I finally made it the next to last chapter and did another stab at describing my process of design and production.

Here it is. Hope you enjoy this flurry of self-examination on my part, and that it inspires you to consciously think about and write about your own process of work and how you got there. If you post something on a blog or website, please leave a link in the comments, so we can share each other's insights and an appreciation of the diversity of our creativity. So here it is, straight from the auxillery info in the course:

How I make an art quilt (and why I got that way):

Let’s start with the history - I come to quilting from an art background, as a painter. I never have learned proper quilting skills I fear, though I am getting better with piecing and bindings and the like!
Even in my undergraduate studies as a studio art major, I was drawn to stitch  -- my senior project and exhibit was actually an installation or large stained canvases and stitched and sewn stuffed sculptures that were made from paper bags (need I mention that I was in art school in the late ‘60s).
I formally entered the world of textile/fiber art with I started studying with Jane Dunnewold and with the guest artists she brought to the Southwest Craft Center (now Southwest School of Art and Craft). I started dyeing and printing fabric and then had to have something to do with it. Not being a garment mater (due to bad early history in Home Ec in the 8th grade) I thought I would try making wall hangings -- and I had done a lot of collaborative fabric stitched pieces with kids during my career in arts and education. I took a weekend workshop from Sue Benner and discovered for the first time the world of WonderUnder, and that I did’t have to be good at sewing to make a quilt. And that I didn’t have to bind the edges.

So that set me free and I developed my approach over the past 12 years. When I turned 50 I decided that if I was ever to be a “real” artist and do my work, I had to stop working full time for other companies, nonprofits, etc, and just leap on faith that I could support myself somehow as an artist. So far, it’s worked.

So, on to the work:
I start always with an inkling of an idea or story or theme, then I play with colors and textures. piling up fabrics that catch my eye and please my color sensibilities. Most of the fabrics I use are recycled from something else, then dyed, stamped, stenciled, screen printed, etc. I use a good deal of ethnic embroidery, embellishments and pieces of hand-woven fabric from indigenous people around the world. Almost all of these treasures I find at thrift stores.

The majority of my dyed and printed yardage also starts with recycled fabrics -- table linens, dresses and skirts, botls and scraps tucked away at flea markets, old cotton sheets and even mattress covers and old quilts for the batting layer. I like it that the fabrics I use have history, stories I don’t even know about. I do buy some new shantung silks from Indian sari stores, usually overdyeing the original color with a wash or glaze of something else. I also purchase bolts and bolts of fusible webbing, new batting and, sometimes, felt for lining small quilts.

My art quilts are totally non-traditional. I fuse every layer, then free motion quilt them, catching the edges of all the fused pieces. In order to make the quilt as flat and unwrinked as possible, I often”build” the quilt on the batting, designing as i go and fusing as I go, cutting the shapes (sometimes from patterns drawn on the fusible web paper) while still adhered to the release paper or backing paper. I don’t generally have an allover design on paper, but sometimes I work from smaller studies, adapting the design to the new scale.

My stitching is usually very loose, though I like to use it as a kind of drawing tool, adding veins to leaves, lines to hands, sun rays, flower details, wind currents and waves. I put the feeddogs down and use an machine foot with a round opening and put the setting on darn, with everything else on “0”. Probably  my favorite stitch  pattern is a looped back on itself spiral. I really think of the quilting as a kind of scribbling over the surface of the quilt, adding the design element of line and texture. I sometimes take large pieces into the local quilt shop and rent their longarm machine (I’m lucky to have such a resource that is very reasonably priced -- $10 an hour) and do a lot of quilting to get the piece connected with one color of thread -- usually a varigated one -- then I get the quilt home to my Bernina and add more detailed quilting.

When the whole piece is quilted, I take another look, then go in with hand stitching, embellishments occasionally, and over printing with screen-printed patterns or details for more texture -- or to add a little energy to any boring parts of the quilt. I don’t like to have areas that are too quiet.

I use the same techniques on fabric paper/cloth paper as I do with fabric and I like to combine unusual fabrics, papers, photos on fabric, etc. This use of a wide variety of materials is probably one of the signatures of my style. My smaller pieces are often wrapped and stapled around wooden internal frames, built of white wood, nailed and glued. I then blind stitch a backing fabric over the back of the piece, which finishes it more like a proper quilt. I started doing so at the recommendation of Arturo Sandoval who critiqued some of my work when here in San Antonio for a workshop at the Southwest School of Art and Craft. He convinced me that while painters don’t need to finish the back of their canvases, we who are working out of the quilting tradition should do so, because it is just part and parcel of the tradition.

My neighbor Rick Murray is my construction expert. He makes the internal wooden frames that I stretch my smaller pieces around. When I use the frames, I don’t put a fabric back on the pieced quilt. just the batting layer, since it is often a piece of recycled mattress pad from the thrift store!

Like Benner, I finish the edges of my larger, none-frame-mounted pieces with layers and layers of zigzag stitiching around the cut edge of the finished piece. I don’t trim and cut a piece until it is quilted and when I work for a particular size to enter in an exhibit I make the quilt a couple of inches larger in every direction, then cut it to size at the end. I stitch the edges with varied colors of threads and change the width and stitch count often as I stitch around the edge. This is the boring, or shall I say, meditative part of my process!

Answer these Questions: Find your Path as an Artist


A disclosure – this list of questions to ponder was adapted from one written by my psychologist friend and colleague Dr. Cynthia Herbert about observing children  -- part of our  NEW WORLD KIDS book. We adults need to make and reflect on the same observations about ourselves in order to find our paths as artists, to locate our visual poetry and sweet spots. Of course, what we're saying in the book is that as great a thing it is for adults to discover their passions and paths at age 30, 40, 50 or older, wouldn't it be great if we helped kids find, respect, analyze and deepen their strong suits at age 14, or even 4? It can happen!

Feel free to copy and paste this list or go to my public file to find a downloadable pdf file here.

Each of us is absolutely unrepeatable.

How do you look at yourself with new eyes, outside of the daily get-dones and to-dos? It helps to have a certain distance, an anthropologist’s viewpoint even. Step beyond judgment (this is good stuff; this is bad) into a position of value-free observation. It often helps to use comparative information--sometimes it’s easiest to see your own unique combo plate, when its sitting on the table next to someone else’s menu choices.

Here’s a checklist to help you observe, collect and compare. Start with observation. Ask a friend or colleague to use a camera to catch your typical actions and behaviors, or just reflect and write. Or try setting up some self-portraits that capture the real you. Answer the questions from your present life AND from memories of what you were like as a child. Are there parts of the “real you” that have faded from sight? Been dampened by circumstance or age?

How do I sound? What’s my voice like? Do I hear clumping or tiptoeing or trotting through space? Do I have soft or strong sound qualities? Am I talking fast or mulling things over before I speaks? Am I a story always in the telling, or a dramatic announcer of all things important?




How do I move? Am I a whirlwind at the center of any activity or a slow observer who has to watch before jumping in? Do I have wings on his feet and a kinesthetic grasp of each and every movement through space? Or not? Do I have a facility with hand-eye coordination, or am I a person whose favorite exercise is mental gymnastics? Do I fidget and wiggle my way through the day, daintily twirl at every opportunity, or cut through space with conviction, ignoring obstacles and rules at every turn?


What is my rhythm? If I clapped a rhythmic score, would it be regular and evenly paced? Or erratic and unpredictable? Would I be a march or a tango? A jive or a three-ring circus? Am I fast, slow, somewhere in between? Surprising or forthright?

How do I use my face and eyes? Am I an open book? Or a mysterious stranger who seldom lets my emotions show? Is drama the operative word? Or is methodical my method? What happens when I meet a stranger? Am I out there or on the sidelines keeping score?

How do I present a public face? Is it different from the private life behind my front door? How do others respond to me?

What kind of roles and functions do I take on? Alpha dog? Follower? Listener? Starring role? Backstage director? Conformist? Devil’s Advocate?

What makes me laugh? What makes me funny? Where’s my funny bone?

What brings me joy? What is sure to bring a smile to my face?

What questions do I ask over and over and over again? Am I a “What?” or a “Why?” a “How do I?” or a “What if I?”

What makes my different than anyone else’s? One-of-a-kind?

Another way to collect information about yourself is to note preferences – the things you collect, choose, concentrate your efforts on. Here’s a second checklist of observations and inventories to make.

What catches my eye? Movement? Color? Light and shadow? Strong patterns? Interesting shapes? Or is it all about touch? Or movement? Or telling the story?

What holds my attention? What things do I do for longer than other people seem to do them? Music? Putting things together? Routine chores or tasks with repeating actions? Puzzles and brainteasers? Walking or running or other movements?

What do I surround myself with? The choices of clothing, of possessions for my home, for regular activities? Is it other people? Color? Music? Animals? Things to build with? Stuff that moves?

What qualities do my favorite free-time activities have? Are they all big or small movement activities? Do they have procedures or linear rules? Do I see strong sensuous qualities, tactile elements or sound and motion? How about emotional or analytic components?

What do I collect, naturally? What gets picked up on the street, from a dollar store? Rocks and shells? Magazines, bugs, or little glittery bits of foil and glass? If I could make a collection of anything, would it be hats or robots, ribbons or sports equipment? Do I find and save magazine pictures, maps or cartoons? Character dolls or jokes? Stacks of fabric and threads or antique lace?


What kinds of things -- especially in a new place or space – am I most likely to comment about or remember? The people or the colors? The sound or the story? The size or the materials? The construction and engineering or the aesthetics and theatrical sense?

What do I pick up? Save? Store? Look up on the internet or follow up from a TV or radio show?

What are the qualities of the materials I like best? Track these favorites through the sensory alphabet! (Line, color, shape, movement, space, texture, light, sound, rhythm)

COLOR: Are these materials colorful or monochromatic? What kinds of colors? Bright or subtle? Dark or bright? Contrasting or soothing? You may HAVE to have that new box of watercolors or oil pastels, while another person just needs a big black permanent marker or a Chinese calligraphy brush and ink.



TEXTURE: How do the materials you like feel to the touch? Are they smooth or nubby, plastic or hard, malleable or rigid, natural or manmade? Is that collection of glass jars on your window a textural necessity or a set of shapes to arrange with little hidden dramas in your mind?

SHAPE: Do these materials – clothes, games, collectables, art media, favorite objects -- have definite shapes? Or are they ambiguous or amorphous? Are they simple in contour or intricate? Do they have structural parts or components? Is a morning in one museum gallery or a day in the sand at the beach the ultimate entertainment?

MOVEMENT: Do my favorite materials move? Or have movement implicit in them? Is there a rhythm to them or to their use? Is the movement smooth, fast or floating? Humorous, serious or unstable? Do I simply have to move no matter what or where?

SOUND: Do these favorites make sounds? Either by design or by my use? What kind of sound quality – musical or percussive, wind or string, whistling or thudding? Is there a definite rhythm to the sound produced? Do I make sounds with things that no one else would ever think to turn into an instrument?

RHYTHM: Are these materials stacked, stackable or patterned? Put in order or grouped? Repeated or reorganized over and over? Put away in categories or lumped together any old way? Is there a rhythm to her play, a beginning, middle and end? Does patterned work or games with words or rhymes have a particular charm?

LINE: Do these favorite materials have a linear quality? Are they curved or angular? Strongly directional, repetitive or meandering? Is there always a storyline going on, a movie in the mind?


LIGHT: Is this material one that has qualities of light, dark, opacity, transperancy? Do I like to play with light and shadow?

SPACE: What spatial qualities do the materials have? Are these favorite materials two-dimensional or three-dimensional (ie, given a choice do I choose clay or paper-and-pen?) What’s the scale I like best to work with – a desktop or a playing field, tiny miniatures or large brushes and a 6-ft tall roll of paper? A wall-sized quilt or multiples of mini artist trading cards?





What spaces and places do I prefer for my free time? Am I always on the porch or in my bedroom or other private space? Alone in the backyard or in the kitchen with everyone else? Do I need a run in the park to stay healthy and sane? Is time alone essential? Or is time spent with a group mandatory and energizing? Am I always planning parties or trying to avoid them?

When we interact, is it playful or serious? Directive? Organized? Improvisational?

When we work together on a task, do I stay on track or need to come and go? Do I need a process or a product? Do I have to know why, or why not? Where’s the payoff?

When we play, do I want to be the boss of you? Or want to watch and follow? Am I open to coaching or resistant to change? Do I worry about getting it “right”? Am I making up new rules as we go along? Or sticking to a strategy?