Alaska improv quilt detail

Every quilt has a story

One of the aspects of quilting that impressed the art deep into American culture is its storytelling nature. Every facet of a quilt is meant to tell a part of a story, from the blocks, to the layout, the fabric, the quilting…players in the maker’s memoir. When a quilt is extracted from a box, buried deep in a basement or attic for a generation, fascination ensues as the lucky finders wonder about the materials and workmanship. Who made this? Why these fabrics…this design? If they’re lucky, there might be a bit of information scrawled on the label: the maker’s and the recipient’s names, the date it was made and where. Every quilt has as story.

Some quilts stories are about a fabric or color combination or pattern that caught the quilter’s fancy. Others mark an important event or milestone. I made this quilt as a part of an Instagram swap with the theme of “Mini with a Story”. Typically, a mini swap is about using preferences and clues from the recipient to make a secret project they’ll (hopefully) love. This one, however, was different in that I got to use my own discretion to design a mini quilt to tell my own story.

“Out of Alaska”

This mini illustrates the first half of my life, and that of my parents and grandparents, under Alaska’s stunning sky. I incorporated a skyline of high rise building, magnificent in its own way, to represent the current leg of my journey in Chicago. The piecing is improvisational in nature, while a typical pattern can be lovely, I wanted to show my penchant for carving my own path. This is my story, after all.

I loved the adventure of creating a new material, piece by piece.  I worked in small sections adding bits and combinations to create something usable from scraps of solid and low-volume blues. The textures and the play of the shades of blue were a delight to work with. I started by laying out small cuts in the way I thought they might work for my scene, to act as a sort of sketch to guide the improv. I do I wish I’d used a greater variety of shapes; I think the combination of squares and rectangles worked well enough for this piece but when I recreate a version of this for my home I’ll definitely remember to vary the bits I used for the sky.

Alaska improv quilt layout

Once the top was completed, I used a combination of free motion motifs to bring the scene to life. In the sky, I used a line of lazy eights in a variegated thread to draw a line of dancing northern lights, and a shiny gold thread for the eight stars that represent Alaska’s flag. Throughout the sky I drew swirls and waves in two different shades of blue and on the buildings I used a flat black thread in a variety of angular meanders to portray the urban textures. The quilting is, by far, my favorite part of this quilt, both to create and to look at.

I used two fabrics to piece the binding, a navy speckled with white stars for the sky and a black and white grid to coordinate with the lower half.

Alaska improv quilt detail

I’ve done several mini swaps, the swap community on Instagram is a fabulous place to find quilty people, so this isn’t my first go-round with sending off something I’ve made. This is, however, the first piece I designed from start to finish, and it’s the first I’ve done specifically to tell my own story, so this one was a little tricky to let go of.

But, mail her off I did and nervously waited for my partner to receive it. Words can’t even describe my delight when I received word from my partner that not only did she love it, but would be hanging it in her husband’s office in honor of his own childhood in Alaska. I cried when I read that. What a perfect end to this quilt’s story.

Alaska improv quilt finish



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Building Creative Muscles

In order to grow and improve in skill and creative flow, practice is critical. This we know. But practice is hard, my friends. We’re all busy. Dang, the suburbs are crazy with the busy-ness they conjure. Life in the twenty-first century is a lot of things, and topping the list is busy. Can I get an amen?

There are a thousand things conspiring to keep us from practicing that thing which keeps our soul alight. Work. School. Family. Volunteering. Commuting. Sleeping. Being busy is exhausting.

So, then how do we practice?

Since my return to quilting a few months ago, I’ve loosely held a goal of sitting down just a few minutes every day. I used to think that quilting was something to be done in large blocks of time, a luxury not experienced in my new season of motherhood. My days of uninterrupted solitude had passed, and so I thought my quilting days were gone as well. But when I realized how important quilting and creating is to my soul, I also realized it only takes a few minutes to make an impact. “Just do something” I tell myself. You don’t have to finish anything, or even make any real progress. Just practice. This is tops for my list of new habits to embrace in 2017. #15minutesaday.

When we decided, rather spontaneously, to spend several weeks this fall, driving to Arizona and back, I worried about keeping up my creative practice. A sewing machine and stack of fabric isn’t exactly RV friendly. At least it didn’t fit well into our little RV with our two little kids.

So I improvised.

sketchingQuilting is a multi-faceted art form. It can be done quickly, with the main goal being simply to finish. That’s fine, I worked that way for a while when I started quilting. But that’s not where my heart has been this time around. This time, I can’t seem to leave a pattern well enough alone as I incorporate tweaks and edits to make the thing my own. Where I was once content to run a quick meander and call a project finished, now I’m much more interested in letting a top breathe and finding just the right motif to complement the piecing. But this motif-style quilting isn’t something I have much experience working in, so I’ve been reading and sketching and studying different styles. This is how I kept my flow going while we drove.

Across the plains, from sea to shining sea (just kidding, we didn’t actually make it to the ocean, but I’m pretty sure we saw all the plains), I sketched and traced and read tips from the pros. All in the name of muscle memory and training my eyes, hands, and brain to see and feel a new set of motions. I have visions of wildly quilting my future projects, but when it comes to laying thread to fabric…call me chicken.

Practice can take many forms.

My friends, it’s working! I have miles to go, I suppose I’ll never be an Angela Walters, but compared to the lazy stipple routine I had been comfortable with for so long, I’ve come a long way, baby! By hyper-focusing on the shapes and rhythms of this particular facet, I’ve gained new confidence and forward momentum. So there you go…just practice.