Category Archives: Books

Gwen Marston’s “Minimal Quiltmaking”

Since I’m on vacation I’m republishing a post from 2014. I did meet Gwen in California and can say she was shyly elf-like.

Original Post:

Gwen Marston has been recognized for many decades as an influential quiltmaker. She developed her style early in her career or, as art quilters like to say, found her voice. Amish and what I call primitive quilts have been huge influences on her work. She quilts much of her work by hand.

Gwen’s most recent focus is minimal quilts. These are featured in her latest book, Minimal Quiltmaking. This is a process oriented book that articulates an approach to quilt design, not a quilt pattern book.

By minimal Gwen means quilts that have been stripped to their essence – sparse shapes done in solid colors. She divides her chapters into hard edge, minimal color, and art inspired quilts.  While she features many of her own quilts, she also gives space to quilts made by others in a minimal style.  This is helpful as it shows other quilt personalities.

Gwen’s process is partly intuitive, but not improvisational. She often begins with a traditional basic form – medallion, log cabin, strippy – and builds from there. She also uses pencil and fabric sketches. While she may begin with a plan, she believes one should remain open to opportunities that present themselves during the construction process.

As Gwen points out, designing a minimal quilt is hard, and it gets harder when you set limits such as using only one color or only pale neutrals.

gwenmarston Minimal in NeutralsMinimal in Neutrals by Gwen Marston

gwenmarston TurquoiseTurquoise by Gwen Marston

In the two quilts above, you can really see the difference in texture created by hand quilting versus machine quilting.  The neutrals one was hand quilted, and I just want to run my hands over it. You can see how much hand quilting adds to the piece below as well. I can’t believe I’d be advocating hand quilting, since I do only machine quilting, but there it is.

gwenmarston Medallion IIMedallion II by Gwen Marston

Minimal Purple Kristin ShieldsMinimal Purple by Kristin Shields (above) is an example of a hard edged quilt that combines hand and machine quilting. That may be the way I end up going on some quilts I have in process.

To get to the bottom line, is this book worth spending $24.95? The answer may depend on where you are in your quilting journey and what inspirational resources you already have. If you don’t have many, the photos are well worth the money. And if you want examples of stunning hand quilting, you’ll want the book for the last chapter alone. If you already have lots of quilt calendars that feature glorious old quilts or books of Amish quilts, you may want to borrow rather than buy this book, though I hope you’ll have the chance to spend some time browsing through it.

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Idiosyncratic Quilting

It’s been a while since I bought a quilting related book, but I decided to spring for Paula Kovarik’s “At Play in the Garden of Stitch: thoughts that come while eyeing the needle.” Like the capitalization in the title, Paula’s work goes counter to standard practice. There are no feathers or flowers, lines are usually spiky, and her motifs often display a subversive sense of humor. In other words, she’s not to everyone’s taste.

I first saw her work at Quilt National in 2015, and again in 2017. Both entries are done on old linens and are whole cloth.

Paula Kovarik, Quilt National 2015
Paula Kovarik, “His and Hers Insomnia” Quilt National 2017

But, back to the book. First, let me tell you what this book is not about – specific FMQ patterns, step by step instructions, or student work. Instead, it’s about how Paula works and specifics of some pieces she’s made.

She doesn’t use fancy equipment. I didn’t see a longarm in the photo of her studio. She uses basic fabrics and old linens, and sews mostly with black and white thread. Her approach is process oriented – lots of practice that begins with working out design ideas on paper and proceeds to building up a story in stitch on cloth.

Doodling practice for “Glyphs”
Paula Kovarik, “Glyphs”

The book includes exercises to do on fabric squares after first working up ideas on paper. Other exercises address how to create focal points in the quilting (Paula calls them heroes,) add a bump, and one line drawing with thread. From what I gather, the last is best done after lots of practice on paper. Here’s my go at the fenceposts exercise. It was kind of fun, not something I often say about FMQ.

My thread doodling

I think the piece below is an example of one line drawing.

Paula Kovarik, “Do The Doodle”

I was surprised that Paula quilts with her feed dogs up. I tried it and found I needed to set the stitch length to at least 3; otherwise the resistance was too much for me. Another surprise was that Paula cut up one of her Quilt National quilts and used the pieces to make other work, including decorative masks. I have cut up quilts that didn’t work or I didn’t like, but if one of my pieces was in Quilt National I’d construct a shrine for it in my living room. I guess I’m not evolved enough to have such a “kill your darlings” attitude.

To sum up, this book can encourage you to jump in and take risks, and see quilting as process rather than product. It actually has specific ideas I hope to use in future quilting. I don’t think it will appeal to everyone, but sometimes it’s stimulating to see how a quilter can jump the tracks and live to tell the tale.

I’m linking to Off The Wall Friday.

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A Different Way To Collage

Almost all paper collage techniques involve glue – gel medium, glue stick, Sobo, wheat paste, rice paste, etc. Because my fine motor skills are subpar I usually end up with glue, and sometimes bits of paper, all over my fingers. So I was intrigued to read about another way to collage, thanks to Julie Fei-Fan Balzer. She hosts an online monthly art book club, and one of her picks was Gerald Brommer’s “Collage Techniques.” Her review highlighted a different kind of adhering process Brommer describes.

The secret to the process is gloss acrylic medium. You coat both sides of your papers with the medium, allow them to dry, arrange them to your satisfaction, and then iron them down using release paper between the iron and paper. The iron melts the medium. The joy is once you’re happy with your composition you don’t have to take it apart to glue it down.

Yes, it has to be gloss medium because it gives paper a sticky surface, and you’d better use release paper if you value your iron.

I coated many magazine pages with medium (it dries fast) and made several compositions on watercolor paper and bristol board. The base also needs to have a gloss medium coat. The finished product has a glossy finish and is best stored covered with a nonstick sheet like wax paper.

I have several coated pages left for still more compositions. Goody, yet another form of scraps.

I can recommend Brommer’s book for serious explorations of collage. It is old, published in 1994, and the author is no longer with us; but it brims with wonderful examples of all kinds of art collages. It covers design, approaches, and specific techniques. I consider it well worth the $12 I spent for a used copy.

I’m linking to Off The Wall Friday.

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Unconventional and Unexpected Indeed

Thanks to the Iowa Quilt Museum in Winterset, Iowa, I learned about the quilt collection of Roderick Kiracofe and his book “Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar 1950-2000.” Through Ohio’s interlibrary loan program I was able to borrow a copy, a good thing as Amazon has only one copy left in hardcover for $494.99 and five other book sources (including the author) say they’re sold out. I see there may be a new printing, so my fingers are crossed. You can buy it as an ebook, but my bargain basement Kindle is black and white only.

The book’s essays are better than the usual quilting book essays, but the real stars are the quilts. Most are from Kiracofe’s collection and represent his personal tastes. These are not the sort you’re likely to see at guild meetings. They are not pretty, they do not follow patterns, they are way off the reservation, and I love so many of them.

Here’s a baker’s dozen of my favorites, photographed from the book.

As with many of the book’s quilts, the maker is unknown. I love the light yellow and the gingham.
I love the seafoam green circles in the upper left, and the tan printed fabric strip at the lower right.
The turquoise vertical strips anchor the busy-ness of the squares.
You’d think the bold white and red print used in sashing would be too much, but it unifies and works well with the bold solid sashings.
The curves really move your eye, and then turn back in the last right column.
The unevenness of the string piecing transcends the block format.
I love the touches of red-orange at the upper left, lower right, and left end of the middle white propeller shaped piece. Gwen Marston made some quilts that look similar.
The pompoms used as ties unify and soften all the polyester knit fabrics.
What 9 patch wonkiness, yet the maker included two conventional 9 patches as if to say, I can make them regular but my way is more fun. The bold red, white, gray, and black fabric used diagonally carries your eye through it all.
The brown and dark green fabrics remove any pastel taint.
Not your usual grandmother’s flower garden. Check out the two red hexagons in the upper right orange.
Sparing use of brick red and yellows gives zing but doesn’t overwhelm.
The book’s caption says these are furnishing fabrics. The stripes and diagonal patterns make my eyes happy.

I only wish the makers of these wonders could have been recognized and compensated for their vision, but most of their names were lost long before Kiracofe bought them.

I am linking to Off The Wall Friday.

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Back To Quilting

I haven’t abandoned quilting amidst my printing and collaging. In fact, I finished “Whitewashed,” sewing straight line arrow heads with off white thread set at varying intervals.

“Whitewashed” 27 by 37.5 inches

After a long time (years?) without buying a quilting book, I bought Jacquie Gering’s latest walking foot quilting opus called “Walk 2.0.”

Of course I had to try out some of the quilting patterns, so I pulled out a top I made for Elizabeth Barton’s “Mod Meets Improv” class for a trial. I hadn’t planned to quilt this piece; in fact, I quilted only one of the four tops I made in the class. However, the top I chose, now upgraded to name status – “Pond”- has lots of negative space.

“Pond” pin basted and ready for first quilting line. I also steam pressed all the layers together to get them to stick.

I read through “Walk 2.0” and decided that I will never put in the amount of marking involved with some designs, but thought I could handle one named Apple Core. It requires one set of quilting lines in each direction for a checkerboard effect, and then another set of curved lines in each direction on top of the first.

The words “simple-to-quilt” caught my eye.

As of Thursday afternoon I’ve quilted about three-fourths of “Pond” and am waiting for cooler temps to finish it up.

“Pond” 32 by 32 inches
“Pond” detail

Now that I’ve come this far I wonder how it would look done diagonally. I also wonder whether two colors of thread would have worked better, possibly sewing the checkerboard with a lighter color thread. Neither will happen with “Pond.” I plan to bind it with a solid green fabric, but haven’t yet chosen which of two under consideration.

Speaking of quilts but totally unrelated to my work, I want to recommend a series of videos Lisa Walton is making called “Quilt Stories.” Each week she talks with a quilt artist about one of their works – its inspiration, techniques, and challenges. The videos are free of highfalutin talk and often humorous. Case in point, Betty Busby offers a pro tip – use a toilet plunger (clean) to wash out dyed cloth.

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Viral Reading

It’s a good thing I had lots of reading material checked out of my local library before it shut down. I’m a compulsive reader who will read jar labels if nothing else is available. And thank heavens one of the books I have now is the last part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series, “The Mirror and the Light.” It clocks in at 700 plus pages, but every word is worth reading.

Two of my books pertain to art: “Rex Ray” and “Landscape Painting Now.” As I wrote a bit ago, I’ve made three Rex Ray inspired pieces.

Oops!
Ready to Split
Not All Black and White

Because Ray was so prolific with commercial and fine art projects, the book I have covers only so much of his work. It’s broken down into collage on paper, collage on panel, and collage on canvas work. Ray made at least one small collage on paper every day for many years.

This is a wall of Ray’s daily collages.
Ray at his collage work table
“Collage Number 2751” painted paper and resin on panel, 24 by 16 inches, no date
Ray beginning work on a panel. He used a kitchen sponge mop to apply his base color. You can see a wood grain in many backgrounds as in the piece shown above.
“Leptogium,” oil, acrylic, and painted paper on linen, 76 inches square, 2006. I see potential for paper piecing and applique here.

“Landscape Painting Now” casts a much wider net. The opening essay by Barry Schwabsky notes that landscape painting hasn’t gone away in modern times, but has been reinvented by contemporary painters.

I’ve chosen my favorites from the book, though I’ll note that one of the artists, Jordan Nassar, hasn’t painted his work but has used tatreez, a Palestinian mode of cross stitch embroidery. The book’s authors note his “works are more akin to art than craft – with his use of a needle and thread in place of a paintbrush.” I heard that sort of special pleading before. I know the book’s title is landscape painting, but I wonder why this one exception was made.

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Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s “Playing With Purpose”

I’ve been aware of Wolfe’s work ever since she won first place at an early QuiltCon for her deconstructed double wedding ring quilt. She began her career as an artist, but branched into quilting. Over the past several years she has designed fabric, opened a quilt store, taught classes, written books, and become an active presence on social media. With her most recent book, a retrospective of her work, I learned she also managed to make the 125 quilts shown, mostly since 2008, in addition to all her other activities. And these are mostly large quilts, easily 80 by 80 inches. My guess is she’s made at least 100 more quilts. She does have many of them quilted by others, but even so…

Most of her work is exuberant and lively, with lots of color and scrappy fabric. She often references traditional patterns, but will put a twist on them. Sometimes she serves tradition straight up. I’m showing a few quilts from the book that were new to me.

Wolfe tried out different styles before settling on what is now her signature. “Cheap Hotels” from 2010 uses a more minimalist approach without a block structure. It stands out in the book because there’s nothing else like it.

“Stripes, Plaids, and Polka Dots” is reminiscent of Gwen Marston’s work, with its bold zigzag border treatment. The stars and sashing are made with Wolfe’s 15 minutes of play technique, while the subdued stripes and plaids of the squares give all that busyness room to breathe. The different sizes of the background yellow/beige squares lend a casual air, while the polka dots capture the eye and direct it around the squares.

“Summer of Stars” works due to the ombre fabric surrounding the center star. I’d love to get my hands on some of it.

The following two quilts are great examples of how fabric choices and placement can change the look of a quilt. It takes an eye for abstraction to discern such possibilities.

While I don’t like every quilt in this book, I appreciate Wolfe’s willingnes to always try out an idea and use lots of different fabrics. She doesn’t let fear of “ruining” something stop her from pushing further. Her philosophy is: “You have to make ugly pieces and then learn from them. You have to make something that is just so fabulous that you look at it and think, Wow! I can’t believe I did that! For myself, the failure and the successes are equally valuable.”

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Missing Gwen

Not many quilt artists span the quilting world from traditional to modern and minimalist in their work. Gwen Marston did. She took her cues from the traditional folk art quilts she studied, but breathed new life into the form.

Two weeks before her death I looked at her book, “A Common Thread,” that shows over 60 quilts Gwen made and selected for this volume. It contains few words, just photo after photo of quilts made from 1976 to 2015. Here are my favorites.

So playful with the exuberant center panel and curved borders, and then the sawtooth edge
Love the casual placement of the berry clusters and the idiosyncratic roundness of the wreaths.
Those pops of turquoise and the one orange dagger!
Utterly simple, in fabrics I don’t like, yet there’s such movement in the strings.
This quilt captures stillness, and the hand quilting is sophisticated in its simplicity.

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African Textiles Today

Chris Spring’s book “African Textiles Today” was a mind expanding read for me. First, the photos are gorgeous; second, there’s enough text to elucidate the photos without overwhelming you; and third, it includes a section on textiles as integral elements of African photography. As I came to understand, in Africa textiles communicate many messages, some literal. Below I’ve shown the textile first, then the author’s annotation about it. Since I photographed them from the book, the curve of the pages distorts the images.

Often a kanga (a piece of cloth) will have words printed on it. My favorite is this work from Tanzania that says “The mangos are ready.” Apparently this is an invitation from wife to husband to help himself.

It was a tough decision, but my favorite textile in the book is one created in Egypt as a tent hanging.

I don’t want to lose sight of how all the textiles are created, so here is one being made.

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Books Beside My Bed

When I can’t get to exhibits, shows, or talks I like to refresh my design sense with books that feature artists. Right now I have three in rotation by my bed: “Art Quilts Unfolding: 50 Years of Innovation,” “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” and “Quilt Artistry: Inspired Designs From The East.” The first two are recent publications, while the last is from 2002.

I’m about halfway through “Art Quilts Unfolding,” a large (about 350 pages) SAQA publication that aims to celebrate the emergence of the art quilt movement from the 1960s on. The growth in each decade is described, individual artists representative of that decade are interviewed, and there’s a gallery of representative work. The sequestering by decade falls apart somewhat in the sections that feature individual artists as examples of their work is shown over the decades. I’m sure it’s no surprise that most of the work is by SAQA members. I’m finding the interviews with individual artists to be superficial, more like magazine profiles. I would prefer a discussion of the artist’s thinking for a specific quilt. That said, the diversity of artistic visions is staggering. I appreciate the effort to include artists from outside the U.S.

Jean Laury, “Tom’s Quilt”

The Georgia O’Keeffe book focuses on how she dressed herself and her homes, and is lavishly illustrated. It goes with the current museum exhibit of the same name, but stands very much on its own. So far I’ve paged through to gawk at the photos, but have made little inroads on the text. I did learn that she sewed many of her early clothes, and was a meticulous seamstress. O’Keeffe had a knack for posing effectively, possibly due to lessons learned from her husband, the photographer Alfred Steiglitz. Like the SAQA book, it is long (320 pages) and heavy.

Wrap dress from the 1960-70s. O’Keeffe had several of these.

O’Keeffe in New Mexico wearing Calder pin

My third book is by Yoshiko Jinzenji, a Japanese quilt artist who I learned about recently. She began quilting upon seeing Mennonite quilts when she lived in Toronto, expanded her interests to Indonesian textiles, and came full circle with the textiles of her native Japan. Her process begins with dyeing thread, making the cloth, then sewing and quilting it. Her aesthetic is spare and minimalist, and she combines synthetic fabrics with natural dyes. She also combines hand sewing with longarm quilting. The quilt directions she gives are more like suggestions. I can’t see me ever making work like hers, imagine spending days boiling freshly cut bamboo, but it does me good to explore a different way. The staging of the photography is gorgeous.

I’d love to learn about design books that inspire you as I have access to most libraries in Ohio and know how to use my library card.

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