Quilt Italia article translation:
As I write this for Quilt Italia, I am in our cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of northern California. It is April 2017, the daffodils are up, it is snowing, and the rivers are at flood stage. This place and others along the length of the range are what has inspired my (so far) 6-year quilt project called The Contact: Sierra Nevada, Dyed & Stitched. It has been a long learning process from my first quilts in the 1970s to now. I was initially drawn to quilting by the optical puzzles, the geometric intricacy, and the soft textural quality of hand quilted traditional quilts.
In the late 70s, I started dyeing fabric to get more colors than were available in the stores, and by the early 80s, I was using only my own hand-dyed fabrics, and practicing different appliqué processes. I worked on perfecting dye painting with precision and did many whole cloth silk quilts. Flowers or landscapes inspired many of the pieces, and all were entirely hand quilted. By the late 90s, I had learned a lot more about dyeing, and also added freehand cutting/piecing and machine quilting to my construction processes. Much of the inspiration was man-made structures and things I see on the landscape. By the 2000s I began to really use my hand dyed fabrics in ways I had never dared before, as they inspired the composition I would use. I began using raw-edge appliqué to create the shapes and lines I wanted that could not be done with piecing or dye painting. I finally learned how to use a longarm sewing machine, which revolutionized the amount and kind of quilting I could do. I went back to making large quilts when I moved into a larger studio and later bought my own longarm machine (instead of a car). The progression of styles and subjects can be seen in my book, The Quilter’s Book of Design, Expanded 2nd Edition.
In 2010 I was invited for a solo exhibition, and I had three years to make all new quilts. It took a bit of time for me to realize that all of them would be about the Sierra Nevada, all of them would be 7 feet tall, various widths. I decided to explore as many facets of the place as possible: family history, geology, gold mining, sunsets, forest
fires, high elevation landscapes, and on and on. Some quilts are representational, some are abstracted, and some are pure imagination, things we can never see. There were 14 quilts for that exhibition in 2013, and this year, there are 32 quilts in an exhibition at another museum. A few of them turned out to be square quilts, including two bed-sized quilts, wedding gifts for family members. I have been totally focused on the topic, and even though I have published a new book about them, I am still working on new pieces. I plan, sew, and dye fabric for my quilts--doing something on one or the other of them almost every day I am at home. The rest of the time I am working in my mind.
When I start a quilt, I often I have extensive notes, many related photos, lists of possible titles. I usually have some small sketches, which I resolve into one before I start to work. I always dye more fabric than I need, so I have plenty of choices. I always decide HOW I will construct the quilt AFTER I have the design idea. I always start
sewing BEFORE I know exactly what it will look like, and I always learn something in the process.
After that, the similarities end. I may dye a whole cloth design--several times, until I get one that I want to stitch. I may draw the composition out, actual size on large paper, and make patterns to fit the exact composition, then dye the exact colors I need for each area of the design. I may scan the sketch into the computer filling in different
colors and values before I dye the fabric. I think about what colors I feel like using for a particular design, I look at the real subject of the quilt, and I look at the colors with each other. I may spend a couple of weeks dyeing sample pieces to find a way to work that makes the specific patterns and textures I need, then I will dye some much larger for use in the final quilt. I may select 20 or 30 pieces of fabric that I think might fit the quilt, then audition them on the wall one by one and with each other, constructing as I decide.
After the top is finished, I think about the back and the quilting…with a goal of having the thread colors and the stitching designs also make an interesting back. Sometimes I sketch on paper how I will quilt an area before I start. I use a thin, flat cotton batt except for bed quilts when I use a washable wool batt. Sometimes I hand
quilt all or part of it, sometimes I embroider by hand or machine over the quilting. Quilts as an art form have a world of texture in them and the lines and patterns created by the stitches need to contribute to the composition.
My advice to share with readers in Italy is to always chose a subject you are interested in, always chose techniques that you want to do, always chose colors, shapes, lines that you yourself like. Then stand back and be able to change your mind.