30 March 2019

Cosmos, Part 4

Welcome back to the fourth and final part of the story behind Cosmos! For me, the last stage of making an art quilt usually involves hand stitching, and that is what this blog post is all about.

The road that led me to work this way started with free-motion machine embroidery, which led to free-motion machine quilting, but it was not until I realised that I could combine machine and hand stitching that things fell into place and I felt I’d found my place in the world of art quilting. I feel that hand stitching is a wonderful complement to machine work, and above all it brings life and depth to a surface in a way that machine stitching can’t mimic. It is slow work, yes, but satisfying on so many levels.

So after I’d finished all the machine work, it was time to hand stitch the flowers. I’d already tried out my stitches on a sample so the outlines were pretty straightforward: 5 strands of embroidery floss for the flower heads and 3 strands for the stems. I really enjoyed stitching the flower heads and I made good progress.

See me hand stitch a flower on Instagram

When it was time to do the stems I hit a wall, though. It was mind-numbingly tedious to stitch seemingly endless straight lines and I had to figure out rewards for myself to keep going.

The long-term reward was the thought that as soon as I’d finished the stems I would be allowed to use the threads I’d dyed for the background.

The instant reward was that I allowed myself a break to think about the middle of the flowers. I did one flower, but wasn’t happy with how it looked, so I printed a number of flowers on paper, drew different versions of how the stitching could be done and auditioned them on the quilt.

See me audition the flowers on Instagram

This helped me decide how to deal with the flowers. The bottom version is the one I chose.

I can sometimes be extremely finicky with details, and in the following case I didn’t like the angle of the stitches on the flower to the left. So I unpicked them and tried slanting them the other way. The difference is subtle, but the one to the right feels right to me.

When the flowers were finished it was time to think about the hand stitching in the background. By now I’d realised that I was going to do a lot more hand stitching than what I’d originally planned. Partly because there was a bit too much unquilted surface after the machine quilting was finished, and partly because I’d come up with an idea that I was really excited about: I was going to stitch tiny seed stitches with black on black that would represent ‘dark matter’. It is believed that 95% of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy. It is called ‘dark’ because no one really knows what it is - yet. I wanted the dark matter on the quilt to be almost invisible too, so that you could only spot it when it caught the light, or if you touched the quilt.

Dark matter is more easily spotted if you sneak up on it from behind

As I said, I was really excited about the idea of dark matter, but it was hard going. It was even more tedious than the flower stems and pretty hard on my eyes and neck. And of course, when you work on something like this and reflect on the fact that you spend so much time working on something that will hardly even be noticed, you start questioning your own sanity, and why on earth you do certain things… So I took another break and worked on what I called ‘background radiation’, where I could use more cheerful colours and the stitching was easier. Head over to this post on Instagram if you want to know more about cosmic background radiation, but in just a few words, it is leftover radiation from the Big Bang. I wanted to depict it as lazy wavelengths that went diagonally over the nebula in the background.

When the background radiation was finished there was nothing else to do but to roll up my sleeves and finish the dark matter. By now I’d had time to think about my situation, and one thing that I’d come to realise was that the reason why I love to work with textiles, even though it’s so much slower than if I’d paint the same motif on canvas, is the tactile nature of fabric and fibre. It feels good in my hands. I mentioned my eyes earlier, and being a visual person the thought that I may lose my eyesight one day pretty much freaks me out. Working with the dark matter, though, suddenly brought a sense of comfort. Hand stitching on fabric can be like braille, and if there comes a day when I can no longer see what I stitch, I can feel it instead.

And just like that the last particle of dark matter was in place and all that was left was to square the quilt and finish the edges. When I make art quilts I like clean edges and therefore I usually finish them with facing strips. And, of course, I wanted the facing to complement the quilt, so I spattered white paint on black fabric for stars before I cut the strips.

Finally, I attached a hanging sleeve, and I will soon design a label with the title and date as the final detail.

So that was it. It’s been a long journey and I will have a short break before I get started with the next quilt. But I already have plans, and those who follow me on Instagram and Facebook will know that the theme for my next art quilt will be ‘Black Hole’. I’m very excited to find out where that will take me.

Thank you so much for following my journey! I’m not sure when I will write the next blog post, but I will continue to post regular updates on Instagram and Facebook, so I hope to see you there!

All the best,

23 March 2019

Cosmos, Part 3

Welcome back to Part 3 of the story behind Cosmos! Today I’m going to tell you about the machine quilting part of the process.

After I’d assembled the quilt top it was time to consider how I was going to quilt the piece. There was not a straightforward answer, and I decided to let the question about the background simmer while I concentrated on the flowers. I knew I wanted both thick and thin lines in the flowers, because that’s how I like it when I draw with ink on paper, and the question was whether to use only machine stitching (the quicker way) or to use a combination of machine and hand stitching (the slooower way). So I stitched up a couple of samples to help me decide.

It soon became clear that I preferred a combination of machine and hand stitching. Firstly, because it would take many rounds of machine stitching to achieve the contrast between thick and thin lines that I wanted, which would introduce a risk of puckering. Secondly, because hand stitching brings life into a surface in a way that machine stitching can’t mimic. So I prepared myself for a long-haul.

Even though I was going to hand stitch the stems, I also machine stitched them to stabilise the layers before the handwork. And since the stems were intertwined, there were a lot of starts and stops that couldn’t be avoided. I usually prefer to tie off thread ends and bury the knots inside the quilt, because it looks neater, so there were a lot of thread ends to deal with. In hindsight, though, it would have been wiser to just stitch a few tight anchoring stitches and cut the thread ends, as the anchor points would have been hidden by the hand stitching later. It’s all a learning process.

When the machine stitching on the flowers was finished it was time to get serious about the background.

The thing about quilting the background that had me scratching my head was the stars that were scattered all over the fabric. I didn’t want an overall filling pattern with stitches that would go across the stars. So I needed to come up with something else. Also, I wanted something meaningful that complemented the theme of the quilt. So I thought why not use mathematical symbols or equations for the quilting? I went to the library and got out a book about astronomy and started looking for the right thing. And this ‘thing’ turned out to be Jeans mass.

A nebula is an immense cloud of dust and gas in space, and there is a critical point at which the external pressure on the cloud becomes too high and the cloud collapses, starts to contract and form new stars: Jeans mass or Jeans instability (named after the astronomer James Jeans) describes this state. This was perfect. There were different formulae to choose from and I picked out a few that I felt would work for the quilting.

Again (no surprise here...), it was quite tricky to find a composition that was both practical and pleasing without taking too many creative liberties with the equations. It would have been easier if everything had been set up in neat little rows and not jumping up and down so much. But that’s life in a nutshell, isn’t it?

To help me quilt the equations I used the method of stitching through tissue paper, which is excellent for complicated imagery. With tissue paper you don’t need to transfer any markings to the fabric and the stitching is clean and neat when you remove the paper.

Before you remove the paper, though, you need to secure all your thread ends to protect the stitches. I like to bring all the thread ends to the back of the quilt, tie them and bury the knot inside the quilt.

Did you hear me sigh? This is not my favourite part...

And after an insane amount of stitching and tying off thread ends, the machine quilting was finally finished!

That was all for Part 3. The next and final part will deal with the hand stitching. I hope to see you again then!

15 March 2019

Cosmos, Part 2

Welcome back to Part 2 of the story behind Cosmos! Today I’m going to talk about how I designed the flower motif and master pattern for the applique, and how I assembled the quilt top.

The cosmos flowers on my balcony were of the species chocolate cosmos, and although I adored the colour and scent (they do smell of chocolate!), I soon realised that what I was really after in my design was the more common species with bigger petals.

So I returned once more to cosmology – the study of cosmos.

When I had drawn enough flower heads to choose from I scanned my favourites and played with the size until I hit the right proportions. To help me with that, I printed, cut out and shuffled around the flowers on the fabric I’d created until I was happy with how it looked.

The arrangement of the flower heads may sound simple enough, but bear in mind that I also needed to take the, as yet, unexisting flower stems into account. The tilt of the flower heads had direct consequences for the direction of the stems. In fact, finding a pleasing composition for the stems proved to be a lot trickier than I had thought. I made good use of my eraser.

When I was happy with the rhythm of the stems it was time to refine the drawing and to ink it. After that I had my master pattern and was ready to start with the applique.

I like to work with fused applique, and in this quilt I wanted white flowers on a dark background. I knew from the start that the best solution for this design would be to use reversed applique, i.e. to fuse the dark background onto a white fabric instead of white flowers onto a dark background. That way the white would stay pure as there would not be a dark fabric underneath it. Also, it would have been quite difficult to cut out and manoeuvre the long, thin and entangled stems without fraying the edges. The background applique pieces would be easier to handle. So I drew the design onto paper-backed fusible web and ironed it to the back of the background fabric. And then I started cutting up my beloved nebula fabric…

To keep track of all the pieces I used masking tape to attach them to the master pattern.

When all the pieces were cut out, it was time to arrange them on the white fabric and to use an iron to fuse everything into place.

Finally, I transferred the lines in the flower heads onto the white fabric with a permanent pen. I was now ready to start sewing.

And that is all for now. Next time I will continue the story with the machine quilting phase. Thank you for visiting and I hope see you again!

9 March 2019

Cosmos, Part 1

Hello! I’m delighted that you are visiting my blog. Maybe you’re here because you’re curious about my latest art quilt? It's called Cosmos.

Making this quilt has been a long process, and from the start I decided to be open about how I work so that those who were interested could follow along on Instagram and Facebook and see how things evolved in real time. Regular posts on social media also functioned as a diary for me personally and were something that spurred me on in my work.

I have decided to write a series of blog posts about the whole process as a recap that ties everything together for both those who have followed me from the start and those who have joined at a later point, as well as for me personally. This first post is about the background story, the inspiration, my philosophy in art making and the first stages, where I dyed the materials I was going to use. The following posts will deal with design, machine quilting and creative hand quilting.

I made the decision to make this quilt on 2 August 2018, which means that it took me about 7 months to finish it, or 5 months if we disregard the 2 months when I needed a break and did other things. But the process had started in my head long before the actual decision to make a new quilt.

About 1.5 years ago stargazing and astronomy entered my life in a more structured way than before and when summer came I thought it would be fun to have cosmos flowers on my balcony. I adored their elegantly long and thin stems and it didn’t take long before I got out my sketchbook. And an idea started to quietly evolve in my head: a quilt with cosmos flowers as well as Cosmos, the ordered universe.

And then, weeks later, one night just as I was falling asleep it was if someone had pushed a button in my head, and I got out of bed and furiously scribbled down a rough sketch with ideas. Looking at that sketch now, it doesn’t look that much like the finished quilt. But this is often how my process starts: with messy scribbles on the nearest piece of paper.

When I make art quilts I like to colour my own fabrics, because that gives me creative freedom to do whatever I want. I’m not limited by the materials the shops have to offer, only by my own skills, and skills can be learned. In fact, learning new skills and gaining new knowledge is a strong driving force in my creative process. I love to learn new things.

So I started by experimenting with ice dyeing and fibre reactive dye as I wanted a soft and organic pattern in the area that would become a nebula (deep space object ACL 1, as I called it, a pun on the cataloguing systems used by astronomers). This was easier said than done with the type of dye I was using. It took me 4 attempts to get a result I was happy with, and only by ditching the ice and returning to the tried and true method of low water immersion dyeing.

The next step was to define the nebula. I started by cutting out paper roughly the size and shape that I preferred for the flower heads and arranging them on the fabric. I marked the outer edges of the nebula, first with string and then with basting stitches, to help me in the next step: overdyeing with black.

When it was time to add black, I thickened the dye for better control of where it went and used both a brush and my (gloved!) finger to distribute the dye. I removed the basting stitches at the end, to make sure they wouldn’t leave marks.

I then let it all dry before steam fixing the dye in a diy home steamer. (Instructions for making your own steamer can be found in this excellent book by C. Soderlund & M. Testa.)

After washing and drying the fabric I used thinned white fabric paint to spatter stars all over the surface. This is one of my favourite things to do: it’s pure magic to see how a shower of white paint can transform a surface into a starscape.

Then it was time to create a backing fabric. For an art quilt I prefer to dye the backing fabric too, as I consider it part of the whole. I decided to try ice dyeing with the same dye one last time. It didn’t work. However, I decided to use the fabric even though I considered it a failure, and afterwards I was very glad I did. The fact that it is very pale means that all the stitching can be seen easily on the back of the quilt. I decided early that the stitching should be mostly tone on tone, which means that a lot of my hard work can barely be seen on the front, unless you go very near the quilt. But the back bears witness of it.

Finally, I also decided to dye matching embroidery thread, partly because I wanted to try dyeing my own threads, and partly because it ensured that the thread would match the fabric perfectly.

That’s all for now. Next time I will talk about designing the flowers and creating the quilt top. Thanks for visiting my blog and I hope to see you here again soon for the next part of the story!