Sunday, January 31, 2010

Permission to Create

Here's a story that will inspire some of you. I was reminded of this recently because my small quilt yahoo group is working on a challenge this month to make a little quilt, any quilt, from my book Prairie Children and Their Quilts. A little while ago I received a letter from an 88-year-old woman who wrote to tell me that she picked up one of my books, American Doll Quilts (my first book), and had been inspired to make all of the quilts and projects in it. Then she sent a photo to prove it. What fun! Can you believe she made ALL of the quilts, one by one?  It was such a sweet, warm letter and she was so proud of what she'd done that I answered her and thanked her for being an inspiration to ME. She wrote back to tell me that now she's starting on the quilts from Prairie Children, and I wished her luck. I'm pretty sure she'll finish. It made me wonder what keeps some of us going so long, inspired to create?

The doll quilts that 88-yr-old Doris made.

I came relatively late to quilting, but I like to think that I may still be quilting myself at the age of 88 or 90.  Unlike so many other quilters, I didn't have the quilting legacy passed down to me. There are no family quilts; I am the first to make them as far as I know. Years from now someone will find them in a trunk and wonder about the woman who made them.

My mother was never very "crafty" herself when I was young, but I remember feeling good when I made things out of paper, scissors, crayons, glue, string or yarn. My specialty was little books made with pictures I either drew myself or cut from magazines and read to my dolls. Funny, the paths we end up taking--50 years later I'm still cutting out inspiring pictures from magazines but I eventually got a little help with the books.

My mother always encouraged me and smiled proudly when I showed her my projects, giving me implicit permission to create. But I don't think she ever felt she had the time to do anything creative herself. Her spirit was focused more on cooking, housekeeping, and other endless chores. This was before Martha Stewart became a household word and we learned that yes, there could indeed be creativity in cooking and keeping a house. I know she sewed a little and when one of my sisters took up sewing, I learned too.

My four sisters were a bit older than me--the oldest being 15 when I was born (can you say accident?)--so I essentially grew up with 5 "mothers" to encourage and nurture me. I became an aunt at age 11.

This turned out better than it looks here--she ended up coming around and being my friend.

When I was 18 and on break from college one Christmas I went out and bought a Simplicity pattern and made doll clothes for her Barbie dolls, and remember knowing somehow that the sewing fed my soul after the stress of going through finals. I still make little doll dresses, just for fun.

I clearly recall that uplifting feeling I got from being creative and sometimes try to tell my 16-yr-old daughter to just make something, anything, when she's stressed or feeling down about herself, when her finals loom or college planning takes over her world, to help feed her soul.

In high school a friend taught me to knit and crochet and when I started going nuts making things my mom became so fascinated with my "granny square" vests, macrame belts and crocheted floppy hats (I grew up in the sixties, did you guess??) that she let me teach her to crochet. After raising a family of 5 girls for lo those many years she finally gave herself permission to be creative and I noticed a calmness in her personality. Soon she had made afghans for everyone in the family and had a lot of fun making numerous silly crocheted toys, ornaments, etc. Playing with yarn.

She never knew my kids or my dogs, but they definitely feel something comforting when they cuddle under those simple afghans she made, I can tell.

I bought my mom a needlepoint kit once and then she quickly got into that too, like she'd missed playing for years and was catching up. It was fun to watch and it made ME feel so good, to know that I was the one who got her started making things, instead of the other way around. I think she had a lot of creative energy in her that she never allowed to come out until she was older. Too much time spent taking care of others, not enough time for herself. She passed away at a relatively early age (33 years ago this weekend) and I know for sure I would have gotten her to quilt at some point, but I started pretty late myself so we never had time. She didn't teach me to quilt, but she taught me to be true to myself and follow my heart.

I'm teaching my daughter (and probably my son too, come to think of it--he takes lovely photos and has fun writing poetry and song lyrics) the importance of making time to be creative, connecting to the process and letting it feed your spirit, giving yourself permission even when you think you're too busy. Not worrying too much about whether or not it meets someone else's standards or whether it's "perfect." If you wait for that, you'll never do it.

So I keep this silly hat around that I made when I was in college (yes, we really wore hats like this in the '60s, and no, I sure wasn't alone) to remind me of how I started on the path, how much I've always loved making things, even if they're silly, and Caitlin wears it sometimes. Maybe I'm hoping I can pass on the "creative hat" to her through osmosis? If nothing else, it sure looks cute on her.

American Doll Quilts, the book that started it all for me, is now out of print and I hear it's hard to find. I have copies I'm hoarding (see previous post about this problem I apparently have, LOL) but you can always download an e-book version at the Martingale & Co. website, here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Inspired by Fabric

My sewing room is a mess right now. But sometimes good things come from messes. I'm looking at the quilts I made for the new book and I'm grateful I was able to choose fantastic fabrics to make them, thanks to some of my favorite designers (and yours--more later). Some of the Civil War reproduction fabrics (my favorite) that are available today at quilt shops are so incredible it's hard NOT to be inspired to make gorgeous quilts. The best reason to browse.

Choosing fabrics to make my quilts is probably my favorite part of quilting. I love working with scraps or lots and lots of different fabrics. Most quilt shops sell reproduction fabric in fat quarters, charm packs or bundles. In addition to shopping at my favorite shops, I try to attend quilt shows where there are vendors and buy fat quarters or bundles from them too. Bundles "speak" to me because you can always pick up a couple of them quickly if you don't have a lot of time to shop. Also good because I like to use LOTS of different fabrics in my scrappy little doll quilts.


And sometimes, even if you're experienced, it's just plain easier to have a bunch of fabrics all pulled together from different designers and different lines that you might have missed on your own. I don't know about you, but it can get overwhelming looking at so much fabric and trying to choose even just a couple of cuts.

Also, I'm not afraid to go into a quilt shop and ask them to cut 10 different 1/4 or 1/8 yard cuts of different fabrics for me. One time I think I actually bought twenty 1/8 yard cuts. And the good thing about reproduction fabrics is that they're timeless.


True, fabric lines get discontinued pretty often to make room for the new ones, but I'll still always have enough of those reproduction fabrics that I love to give me that antique look we all crave. Some I've saved from years ago that will be just perfect for when I'm inspired by a certain block or antique quilt. I hoard  my favorite scraps and actually have some very small pieces from certain lines that I just can't part with in a quilt yet. (Oh no, you don't think they'll make me go on that A & E  show Hoarders, do you?) They're just waiting to be used in that perfect quilt. Maybe Dear Jane? Probably a good thing I saved them then, I think.

If you're wondering, like most designers, I take my time playing around with color before I make a decision about what fabrics I'm going to use in a quilt. So, experiment. I think the more time you spend looking at different quilts closely and deciding what it is you like about a certain quilt the easier it gets to choose fabrics for your own. Study pictures in books or go to quilt shows. Look at samples in shops. Ask yourself (and wait for the answer): What is it about that quilt that I love? I'm drawn to just about any quilt with blue in it and I use it so often I almost consider it a neutral. Simple, scrappy quilts with lots of blue PLUS pink or red make me drool, like this antique  spools quilt:

I don't know,  I wish I owned this quilt. Hey, wait, MAYBE I CAN REPRODUCE IT!!

There is such a wide variety of reproduction fabrics available today that you can reproduce almost any antique quilt. We had a small quilt challenge using this same block in SmallQuiltTalk last year. I didn't have time to make a quilt--only got as far as these 2 little blocks. Oh well, I'll finish someday. And maybe it'll turn into that big antique quilt above, ya think?

We really have to hand it to all of those quilters who spend the time designing and reproducing antique fabrics to make the wonderful fabrics we use in our quilts. Isn't this a sweet photo of Jo Morton, one of our favorite designers? I took it last year at Quilt Market. My husband also took one of the two of us together but my eyes were closed and I had a funny look on my face so I won't let you see it. NOT inspiring. Such a nice lady--she gave me her newest book and I gave her mine.

And, since we're talking about  inspiration, I surely couldn't make my quilts without Judie Rothermel's amazing fabrics . . .

That's her lovely wavy striped fabric on the cover quilt of Remembering Adelia. I spent quite a LOT of time trying to find a perfect border fabric for that darn quilt. Four different shops until I saw it and knew immediately that was IT. What luck to find just the perfect Civil War stripe. And blue, too. 

The quilt was made in 2008 and the fabric is no longer available, I'm told, but I still have some I'm saving (okay, yes, hoarding) to use in a doll quilt. Fabric lines change too fast sometimes. But I've seen others make it with a different stripe and it still turns out quite well.

Keep your scraps, you never know.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Return to Cranford

Last night my daughter and I were pulled back into nineteenth century England as we watched the last episode of  "Return to Cranford" on Masterpiece Classic, after being entranced by the original "Cranford" series about a picturesque village in 1840s England which aired on the same PBS channel several weeks ago. Have you seen it?

OMG, the cast is wonderful (Dame Judi Dench, for one) and the series so beautifully adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford novels. I was drooling over the fabric in the costumes and the awesome scenery the whole time I was working on quilting a small quilt. That was inspirational. I love seeing depictions of nineteenth-century life.

"Cranford" begins with the story of 2 sisters, Matty and Deborah, in their 50s or 60s, never married, and prominent figures in the town. Love some of the dialogue. A young woman assists a doctor in a difficult operation and he praises her as having been "the equal of a man." Deborah frowns and says: "No woman should ever be said to be the equal of a man. She is superior in every way." LOL

Deborah rejects the suggestion she read "The Pickwick Papers," a new book by the radical new writer Charles Dickens. She is too refined and will only read the proper classics, thank you veddy much. But Matty is the kinder, gentler one who brings the town together at the end after the railroad threatens to change their isolated world.

In the first part of the series, "Cranford," which is now on DVD,  the arrival of a single eligible young man in the town (Sweet Dr Harrison) sets the entire village in motion. My daughter likes to call this series "Sex and the Village" because of all the little trysts going on in this sleepy little town, but in a very proper manner, mind you. The dialogue is witty and the costumes and scenery gorgeous.

Well worth catching if you haven't seen it and can get it on video.  Next week, PBS is airing Jane Austen's Emma!


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dear Jane--One down, 224 to go

Last year I vowed that THIS year I would begin working on a Dear Jane quilt. I know I don't have time to work on this quilt right now, but--here's my first block. I couldn't wait. I'll bet some of you are surprised I actually even got  THIS far, LOL . . . .

I bought the Dear Jane EQ software on sale with a gift card from my sister and just had to take a look at it to see if it worked, you know.

I had a lot of fun poking through my scraps, and then printed out the block pattern on freezer paper and hand pieced it all early one morning. It's not perfect, but pretty darn near, for me. The hand piecing went very well (I love hand piecing and hand pieced a small quilt to go in my next book). Of course, the block I chose was pretty simple--I'm going to ease myself into them and not do all of the easy ones first so I don't get burned out too fast. I've already picked out some scraps for the two blocks I'm planning to do next. I'm excited to make more after February, when I'll be finished working on the book and will have more time.

Here's the good part. My daughter will be a high school senior next year and has recently expressed interest in visiting colleges out east this year so--yay!--I may be able to stop in and see the real Dear Jane quilt at the Bennington Museum in Vermont.

Can you believe it? What timing. When she asked if we would take her to just look at a couple of eastern schools I could tell my husband was almost ready to say "No," because we both doubt she'll actually go that far away for college (and think she'll end up going somewhere in the Midwest to be closer to home) but I am a quick thinker and put my hand up and said "Wait, let her talk . . ." secretly thinking that this was my chance  to sneak in a trip to see the "mother quilt" just when I am about to begin working on one like it. Probably couldn't justify the trip any other way. Thanks, Caitlin!

Stay tuned. One block down, only 224 to go . . . Oh my.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Baby, It's Cold Outside!

This week it's supposed to warm up a bit, but boy it's been cold here in northern Illinois!  I am in nesting mode inside, working on finishing up the book--making little projects that aren't quilts, quilting some of the small quilts and getting those patterns written. Four of the 5 large quilts are all back from the machine quilter and just need bindings put on. They look fantastic and I'm really proud of the colors and patterns I chose. Think you loved the quilts in Remembering Adelia? I think some of these are even better, just my humble opinion.

Speaking of nesting--we have a pair of cardinals visiting our feeder regularly. I love seeing the male's brightness against the snow. The females are a more subdued brown color. Cardinals are “mate feeders.” Sometimes I spot the female waiting in a tree--then the male cardinal will pick up a seed at the feeder, fly over to the female bird, and feed her.

Puppy Ophelia (Princess Lia for short) would like nothing better than to cavort with the birds in the back yard. We have a large dog run on the side of the house that's closed off to the back yard--mostly to keep muddy paws at bay, if necessary, when the snow melts, and also because she's so small I'm afraid she could slip through an opening in the fence somewhere when no one's watching. A dog on my block got out of its yard recently and was hit by a car, so I take no chances--my dogs are pretty much supervised when they're out in the back.

If Lia had her way, she'd go out every 5 minutes or more most days, especially if it's cold and/or snowing, and so I pretty much let her wear her sweater all day because I'm tired of taking it on and off. But for some silly reason (??) I don't WANT to go out in the back yard every 5 minutes with the dogs, can you imagine? So I let her out on the side in the run often enough and she watches the birds and squirrels through the fence, and then when I eventually do let her out in the back to play, she's not sure why they all scatter. Why don't they want to play? Better yet, why won't MOMMY play all day??

Back to birds--don't forget to feed them. They need some fat in their food more than ever now to help keep them warm in the cold weather. A little bit of sugar is good for energy also and won't hurt them.

Sweet Suet Recipe for Wild Birds
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
1 cup Crisco
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour
1/2 cup honey
A handful of bird seed or oiled sunflower seeds
1 cup chopped dried berries or raisins

Heat the Crisco in a saucepan on low heat. Mix all ingredients into the pan. Remove from heat and spoon the mixture into a muffin tin, pan or Jello mold and cool. If using a pan, cut into squares and freeze until needed.

Make a hole for hanging--insert a piece of a drinking straw into the warm mixture. Remove the straw once the mix is solid and cooled, thread with wire or thick yarn and hang.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Life After Deadline

I've got a pile of books on the table next to my bed, waiting patiently for me. Every now and then I pick one up and glance at the cover and then the back, then put it down. I know I'll never get my work done if I open it. Have to make my book deadline first. Ah, deadlines.

Working at home isn't all it's cracked up to be. I must constantly strive to be organized, focused and self-disciplined in order to get things done. Not that everybody else with a job doesn't have to be organized too, I guess. But I can't leave my work at the office--it's always there, night and day, a constant reminder of everything I still need to do. And very often distractions rule the day some days so then I'm up late. I DO get to work in my jammies if I choose, so that's a perk.

Setting goals for myself is something I need to do on a very regular basis. Then I break them down and set goals within THOSE goals to be able to really accomplish things. And the goals need to be constantly reevaluated. Even the little ones.

But first thing, when I'm finished with the book in February, I resolve to read more. I used to be a great reader but now I find that I get so busy with quilts that I don't make the time for reading the way I used to. And I miss it. I know that if I get involved in a book I won't want to put it down though so I guess I'm just preserving my attention for the quilt work that requires all of my attention right now. Then I'll be able to spend time at one of my favorite places:

When I was a child, sometimes all I wanted to do was read--especially during the summers off. My mom would point to the sunny sky and say--"Go play outside, it's too nice to be sitting inside." But it was nice to get inside a book too and so I ignored her for as long as I could, then compromised by sitting out on the back porch with my book. Reading was like a vacation. I remember being about 10 and begging my mom for the independence to take my first outing all alone with a friend and her little sister--we walked 6 blocks to the library all by ourselves, no grownups.

Going to the library was a weekly treat back in the day when my kids were young. Sometimes more than weekly if one of them had a question I couldn't answer or explain--Are birds really dinosaurs? Where does the sun go at night? Do dogs dream? Let's go to the library and find some books about it. Now we just look it up on the internet--not as much fun, but quicker. (Do I sound old or what??)

So here are a few of the books on my reading list for this year:

I've been waiting a while for this one--just released so I couldn't put it on my Christmas list. I'll probably spend my Christmas Barnes & Noble gift card on it tomorrow even though I won't read it for another month:

Gail Godwin is one of my favorite authors and one of her books is high on a list of my top 5 favorite books of all time. According to Publishers Weekly, in Unfinished Desires, "Bestselling author Godwin brings readers back in time to the early 1950s in this endearing story of Catholic school girls and the nuns who oversee them. Godwin captures brilliantly the subtleties of friendships between teenage girls, their ambivalence toward religion and their momentous struggle to define people—especially themselves. Poignant and transporting . . ." As a true sentimentalist (yes! It's a real word!), you can see why this is right up my alley.

The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg
Not a quilting fiction book, but a contemporary novel where the main character happens to be a professional quilter. Elizabeth Berg is one of my favorite authors and I thought I had read all of her books except for the latest one, Home Safe, but I somehow missed this one from 2006, so it will be a nice treat to read it. "Bestselling novelist Berg explores memory, love and forgiveness in her flawed but moving 12th novel. At her annual family reunion, Laura Bartone, a 50-something 'quilt artist,' is forced to confront the secrets that have long haunted her family. Her emotionally unstable sister . . ."

I've never read How to Make An American Quilt and have not seen the movie. Time to catch up.

Other books on the list for my soon-to-come reading reverie:

Inside of a Dog offers "a thoughtful take on the interior life of the dog, a topic often left to poets and philosophers." The author "ponders more basic questions about the pet dogs of the American living room: What's with the sniffing? Why do they bark? Oh, and do they actually like us?" This was a great Christmas gift from someone who oviously knows me well . . .

A Three Dog Life-- Booklist:  "In these exquisitely written essays Thomas reflects on how her marriage had to be reinvented after the night her husband, Richard, took their dog, Harry, out for a walk, and Harry came home alone. Richard had been hit by a car and was lying bleeding in the street. The traumatic head injury he suffered didn't kill him, as attending police had predicted it would, but it rendered him susceptible to large-scale memory loss, hallucinations, and such wild rages that Thomas was forced to commit him to an institution. Lesser events have destroyed relationships, so it would not be surprising to learn that Thomas abandoned Richard. She didn't. Instead, she sold their New York apartment, moved upstate to be near him, and acquired two more dogs to keep her company. What's more, she can't imagine life without her husband."
I'll probably cry when I read it. (Maybe I shouldn't say this . . . but my husband sometimes forgets things at the grocery store . . . )

Not to worry, puppy . . .

I usually read anything by Anita Shreve or Alice Hoffman. I picked these up at the library's used book sale for fifty cents last summer and put them on the pile. The title Blue Diary intrigued me. Nice cover, although you really shouldn't judge the book by it I'm told. But for fifty cents . . .

Oprah LOVED The Pillars of the Earth and so did my sister-in-law, so I asked for it for Christmas LAST year but haven't read it yet. This is going to be the year. Some have called it a medieval Gone With The Wind (Wait, it's about monks?)

I got The Devil in the White City for my birthday last September. It's about the incredible, actual events (murders) surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of London in 1888. "The magical appeal and horrifying dark side of 19th-century Chicago are both revealed through Larson's skillful writing." I saw a PBS special not long ago on the Chicago World's Fair and it sparked my interest. Non-fiction, who knew.

My husband said perhaps I'd get more reading done  if I didn't spend so much time on this blog thing . . .