“Pictorial Art Quilt Guidebook”

Over the past year I’ve become more aware of quilts based on photographs. Quilters have copied famous photos in fabric. This seemed to arouse controversy at the recent Houston show, where Dorothea Lange’s iconic sharecropper photo was colorized in fabric and thread. At issue was whether this should be considered an original design.


Some print photos on fabric and thread paint them. Yet others digitally manipulate photos, print the results, and combine them with other fabrics. Then there are quilters who make landscape and portrait quilts using a photo to create a pattern.

Leni Levenson Wiener’s new book, Pictorial Art Quilt Guidebook, should  speak to the last group.  I’ve made only one quilt using a pattern I adapted from a photo, so I’m no expert on the techniques involved. However, if I were inclined to make another quilt from a photo, I think I’d use this book.

Wiener packs an incredible amount of information into 127 pages, including patterns for two projects. She covers fabric selection for this type of quilt from the all important perspective of value (a face done in purples will work as long as the values are correct,)

old woman_Wiener

and gives tips on how to build your stash for this type of quilt. She walks you through the creation of the quilt shown on the book’s cover from the initial photo to the completed quilt. She shows examples of fabric value choices that don’t work and explains why.

For the technically challenged (my hand is raised) she gives a clear explanation of how to use the free GIMP photo software to make a pattern and directs you to a free website to print it out at the size you want. Of course there are other ways to make a pattern from a photo and enlarge it, but it’s nice to have alternative methods.

All her explanations are copiously illustrated with photos, which look really helpful for understanding how to create the pattern and number the pieces according to their value.

Although this seems a finicky process, Wiener encourages you to be adventurous in fabric selections and depart from your photo to make a better design. The hard work is in the fabric selection for each element (what she calls a group of pattern pieces). Once that’s settled you glue the pieces down for each element, going easy on the glue, place them on the background, and then sew around the pieces with a free motion zigzag stitch. There’s lots of detail about making freezer paper patterns, and no, Wiener doesn’t use fusibles.

Wiener often eschews batting, but sews the elements and background to canvas. This means quilting is nonexistent in some of her pieces, which could be a problem if you like to enter your work in quilt shows. She likes to either wrap her finished pieces around canvas stretchers or finish raw edges with a zigzag stitch.

Even if you never want to make this type of quilt, Wiener’s book has valuable information about fabric print scale and the need to combine different scales for interest and nuance; and useful discussion of fabric choices for portraying land and sea, animals and people.  One tip I picked up was to collect fabrics in the color complementary to my favorite one.

My only caveat (other than lack of discussion on the best scissors to do all that cutting, my hands hurt just reading about it) is that the cut edges of many print fabrics will look white. This isn’t a problem with batiks and hand dyes, as they have no wrong side. The lack of color right at a piece’s edge may bother some quilters. I suspect the same folks might also be bothered by the fraying along the edges. Wiener has made that part of her look, and it lends spontaneity to her work.

The Void  _ 19.5 h x 24.5 w   2008The Void, 2008


Filed under Books

7 responses to ““Pictorial Art Quilt Guidebook”

  1. Thanks for the really nice review of my book! I want to assure all your blog readers that you can use batting to submit your finished art quilts into quilt shows that still require three layers–I just find I prefer a more “graphic art” (flatter) look to mine. But the whole point is I want to show you the ropes and then you can make the technique your own by adding or subtracting anything you like or don’t. And by the way, I also prepare the pattern for you if you want–and for readers of this blog–just tell me “I read it on the Snarky Quilter” and I will do your first pattern at no charge. Go to http://www.leniwiener.com and find the Pattern section. Thanks again!

  2. Pam

    Thanks so much for this Joanna. Though it is highly unlikely that I will ever do a pictorial quilt, I think it imperative to learn about different techniques. You just never know how a new technique will figure in your own work (I’ve already checked out the GIMP software). I’m looking forward to reading more about the “Migrant Mother” controversy. That should open quite a few eyes. In the meantime read “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits”. It might help us all understand this issue a bit better.

    • You’re welcome. I’ve been working on learning GIMP and can do basic tasks, but because it was developed by volunteers, using it isn’t intuitive. I’ve borrowed some library books to figure it out, but then I couldn’t figure out the books! The Lange photograph controversy seems to be about whether the quilt should be considered an original design. My personal take is it shouldn’t be, as the only change was to colorize it. (and make it far less powerful) Thanks for the book tip.

  3. Another useful and informative book review! I’m curious how you feel about the quilt based on Lange’s photo–do you have issues about its originality? I don’t find it as moving as the original photo, which, to my mind achieved a sort of perfection. But I also don’t have a problem with the quilter doing it–the photo is so familiar to us all that the quilter’s work seems more an homage than anything else.

    • Yes, I do have issues with the quilt’s originality (and with the quilt getting an award for original design,) but not with the quilter’s right (within copyright limits) to copy it in a quilt. I’ve been pondering pictorial quilts in general, especially those that are exact copies of photos. If the quilt maker took the photo, edited it, and then copied it in a quilt I suppose I’d say the quilt design was original. Where I waffle is when someone else’s photo is copied, verbatim so to speak, in a quilt.

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