I Want to Live in a Sundance Catalog

I want to live there.  I want to live in a world where I am about 6 feet tall.  I want to pause elegantly on a cobblestone street and smile mysteriously at nothing in particular.

I want to always have a bouquet of flowers in my hands or in the background of my earnest gaze, filling my world with color. I just paused for a moment, maybe to listen to a sweetly singing bird, while I gather fresh vegetables and fresh flowers at the Saturday morning outdoor market. In Guatemala.

My clothes are all embroidered. Not in a kitschy way, but in a swingy, carefree Boho jumble of flowers —  on my jeans, my shirts, my belts, and yes, on my shoes.  I have just the right amount of bangles and baubles. Not too many, but always enough to make you think that I’m never seen without a perfect accessory. Turqoise is my fave, but basically anything with a piece of leather attached to it will do.

Welcome to my home, where even the easy chair has a touch of colorful embroidery.  The quilt on my bed is hand-stitched, makes no difference who made it or where. Don’t envy my iron accessories or rough-hewn wood furniture. It all just flew in through the mountainous/desert/woodsy scene out the window where it was created naturally by the forces of nature, and simply appeared on the weathered Uzbekistan rug.

It’s time for me to grab my jaunty, fringed, leather bag and head out to meet my friend in the mountains.  He’s a lumberjack, with one day’s worth of beard.  He and his friends are busy chopping logs in front of the cabin where we all gather to wander in the snow wearing textured sweaters, bulky cabled hats and scarves and heavily embellished fingerless gloves.

I must enjoy the moment. Before long, I’ll be off to the beach, taking my melancholy barefoot stroll, sandals in hand, gauzey, fluttery sundress and waves rolling in behind me.


I want to live in a sundance catalog.

Where everything and everyone is aesthetically beautiful. And no one is grieving or devastated or angry.

And the biggest question of the day is whether to put my hands in my pocket or lean against the warm stone wall with the sun shining down and the bougainvillea framing my view.


And So This is Christmas…

And what have you done? Another year over, and a new one just begun.   –John and Yoko

Bah Humbug.

Sigh.  This time of year I don’t want to hear any more holiday songs. (Unless of course it’s “Celebrate Me Home” by Kenny Loggins, which I can listen to over and over and never get tired.  Here you go…a crazy live version.)

Not to be confused with Same Old Lang Syne by Dan Fogelberg, which I listen to for one week every year (between Christmas and New Year’s) and tolerate for its simple wistful loveliness.

But John Lennon haunts me.
Every year at this time, he asks what I have done and reminds me that I’m another year older. And the haunting part is that he’s not. He is timeless now, with his music still playing everywhere.

What HAVE I done? What have you done?  The only thing I have to show for this past year is my work.  So here’s a little gallery of this last year’s finished projects.  And some that might be not-so-finished.

“A very Merry Christmas. And a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.”


What Inspires You to Create?

You’ll find no shortage of social media out there:  Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter.  Every single one of them is loaded to the brim with lively “inspiration.”

People tell me, “It’s where I go to get good ideas.”

Yet, social media is a double-edged sword. So many things come our way to discourage us on our way to creativity and inspiration.

Short list of inspiration-killers:

–Someone will always be better than you at whatever it is you want to pursue. They have more time, more money, more resources, more experience, or more years of life ahead of them.  And let’s face it, they often have better ideas.

–You’ll waste time on social media.  Yes, you will see pretty things.  But you are more likely to get discouraged than to be inspired. It’s the nature of the beast. (By the way, that’s also the reason that new studies are showing that the more time kids spend glued to their phone, the more likely they are to become suicidal.  This is especially true for teenage girls.  Don’t think adults are so very different.)

–Life gets in the way. We’re busy and pre-occupied with raising our children, working, caring for other family members, getting side-tracked by every day chores, like home repairs, grocery shopping, health issues (our own or that of loved ones.)

So what can we do?

Some ideas:

  1.  Take a walk in nature.  Get to the woods, the trees, a botannical garden, your own backyard, a local forest preserve, any place not overly occupied by humans.  Notice the birds, and the other tiny things. The change from flower to seed, the turning of the seasons, the smell of the air, the sky on any given day. Listen. Is wind rustling? Which birds do you hear? Are you near water?  Crashing waves or trickling creek? Is it starting to freeze? What patterns do you see?

2. Visit some place new. Extensive travel to other countries is fantastic, but we’re not all willing and able to do that. I recently drove a half hour from home to a tiny shop that sells Polish Pottery.  I’d never been there. The owner was a bubbly young lady, and had just moved into a new building.  The shelves were filled with bright, cheerful pottery, hand made by women an ocean away. Lovely.

3. Learn something new. This could mean anything for you. Attend an exhibit. Take a class at the local community college or park district. Or easier yet, read a book.  I recently saw a statistic that said that 30% of college graduates never read another book once they finish school.  80% of families have not purchased or read a book in the past year.  How is this even possible? I’m not entirely sure I believe the statistics but the trend is discouraging. We already know that reading books makes people more empathetic. Where are we headed?

A book suggestion to get you started:  Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.

It’s a peak into his journals and famous works, as you also travel through life with someone totally committed to his art. Think you already know everything about him? I bet you don’t. Some of his geometric studies would make fantastic quilt patterns. Granted, he lived in a time when diversity, architecture, aesthetics, craftsmanship, and great art were all honored and appreciated at the highest levels of society.

Let us recommit ourselves to advancing the arts, in ourselves and in our society. Get out into real life. Experiment. Enjoy a visual and auditory feast.

And step away from social media for just a bit. It will be there when you come back.

I promise.

Of Endings and New Beginnings

The quilt shop where I worked closed this week.

I don’t think very many people understand what a small quilt shop does for a community.

Yes, we sold machines and fabric, notions, patterns, doo-dads and what-nots.

But that’s not what a quilt shop is all about.  We also provided support.  And inspiration.  And education.

And friendship.

We loved our customers and became close.  And they came to visit us when they had enough of the outside world, when they needed a place to unload, to unburden, to be among like-minded people.

We celebrated with them and mourned with them. And they with us. We all grew together and processed life through cloth and fabric, needle and thread.

The purchases?  They were just an extension of all that wholeness. We didn’t close because we weren’t doing well.  On the contrary, the shop was doing great.  But sometimes life intercedes and the owner was unable and unwilling to deal with the crushing demands on her time from her home life and work life combined.

I could go on about the number of quilt shops in this area that have recently shut down, or the economy, or the aging of the quilt-making market.  But I know better.  I’ve been around long enough to see that to everything there is a season.

I was fortunate enough to work there from the time that my son started first grade to the time he entered high school.  What a season!  From crayons to perfume…or deodorant, in this case.

I know that these things are cyclical. The market will re-emerge in a different way. Our customers will find their way to new and exciting shops and relationships, and the world will keep turning.

I will never stop sewing. In fact, I have some new and interesting plans for this blog. Endings provide the catalyst for new beginnings. Stay tuned.

Straigh line quilting on domestic machine

Here’s the quilt I was working on from my last post.  Completed, just need to add the label. Crazy squiggly lines through the color, straight and narrow through the grey.

The ombre blue on the back turned out to be exactly what I wanted.
Ombre modern quilt back
Colorful binding signals the end of this project.  But we never really finish our work as quilters, or as artists. We’re always ready for the next project.

I’m ready. Are you?

Chicken Soup and Embroidery Software

It’s a chicken soup kind of day.

My son came home after his first few days of high school with a nasty cold.  I’m not surprised.  The place is a breeding ground for experimental teenage germs.

On top of that, the weather turned cooler today…for how long, I’ve no idea.  But it’s cloudy and cool right now.

Furthermore, like everyone else in the sewing industry, I read Nancy Zieman’s latest blog with a heavy heart. Whether you watched her show or not, you know Nancy.  You buy her notions or you attend Quilt Expo in Madison. I’ve learned many tips from Nancy along the way, but my favorite line was this: ” I sew at least one quilt a year for charity.”  She never said “You should…”  She told us what she did, and then she did it, among all the other wonderful charitable contributions she made within the industry (and outside of it).

So, yes, it’s a chicken soup kind of day.

While the soup bubbled away, I sat down with my laptop and organized some of the Halloween designs I want to make in the very near future.

I use Bernina Embroidery Software 8, and I’m planning on making tiny pillow-like ornaments to hang on my Halloween tree.

The designs I’m using came from urbanthreads.com, a favorite of mine for cute and/or spooky embroidery.

It’s hard to see the design in this shot but it is a single thread color of a cat.  I used a feature that people rarely take advantage of in the ‘design” menu. Click on “background” and change the background color in the hoop.

Now you can actually see what the design will look like stitched out on dark grey or black fabric. In the prior shot, you can see where I added stitching in a square around the outside.  Before I stitch that, I will add a square of fabric and a ribbon for hanging.  I’m not stitching out today, but I promise to share when I do.

In this design, I’m stitching the profile of this cat, but it has multiple thread changes for each cat.  For some reason, the.exp file I’m using has changed all the colors from shades of purple to random colors.  I did not take the time to fix the thread colors on screen because I will just use the correct ones as I stitch out.

The important thing to note here is that on the side, in the color film, I used the “Sequence by Color” tool.  This way, I’m able to stitch all the same colors at once instead of changing threads each time for each color on each cat. Whew!

It makes a big difference in the amount of time it takes to stitch out.  Also, I will have to cut the jump stitches in between each thread change, as I have the thread moving around quite a bit.


Still, I have loaded all this onto my USB stick and am ready to stitch as soon as I prep some fabric, stabilizer and fabric for the backs of these cute little ornaments.

Can’t wait to get started, but I won’t have time for a couple of days.

My Halloween quilt is complete, and ready for its debut! Stay tuned. It may be early September, but it’s already time for a cool change.

Women, Sewing and Art

We had some family in from out of town this week, and a day-long trip to the Art Institute of Chicago was on the agenda.

Let me start by saying that I checked with the information desk and they had no problem with me taking a few pics and posting them to a blog.  So that’s what I did.

As you know, the Art Institute is an overwhelming and inspiring experience. After a bit of roaming, I came across a painting of a woman sewing. On a whim, I took a picture.

(Just as an aside, I hate when I see people running up to a painting and taking a picture.  That is not how it is meant to be enjoyed. Look at it. Study the brush strokes. Discover the color palette. Contemplate it. Enjoy it. But whatever you do, don’t run up and take a picture and then run to the next.  That’s silly.  Lecture over.)

That said, I decided to record what I could of women sewing.  A few samples:

Renoir was the first I happened to see. It’s lovely…with such movement.  I did, however, study her hands.  What was she sewing that was so bunched up?  That’s not really how one would hold something for embroidery or detailed stitching.  Though her right hand is perfectly positioned to pull a needle through the fabric, her left is a bit awkward.  The white lace near her left arm is, I suspect, entirely an afterthought.  Go ahead, hold your finger over that piece of white lace. The whole painting recedes into mid-tones. While it is still gorgeous, it lacks enough contrast to draw your eye somewhere.  With that touch of white, your eyes go directly to her work and her hands, and it even lights up her face.

This one is done by Camille Pissarro around 1895.  Titled “Woman Mending.”  I studied her hands once again.  She might very well be sewing.  Or she might actually be knitting in some way.  Her project is rather amorphous.  Yet, I recognize her expression.  I have the same one when I’m trying to figure out what I did wrong.  After these two paintings, I started to wonder if male painters truly understood in any way how women work. They recognize that women are doing SOMETHING with fabric or yarn. The detail is so precise in every other aspect…down to the carvings on the leg of the table.  But what this woman is actually doing?  Based on this painting, it’s a mystery.

Ahh. Diego Rivera, 1936.  The Weaver.  As we move into the 1900’s, we see that women’s work becomes a bit more of a fascination.  It’s not just pretty things in a young woman’s hand, but a skill, a craft.  He even pays homage to her by including the tools of her trade. He admired this woman, I’m sure of it.

This last one I saw was from the 1800’s, St. Rose of Lima. She was a patron saint of the Dominicans, and the story says that she embroidered to raise money for her family and for the poor. In this painting, she is creating the symbol for Christ. (This pic is taken from a pamphlet I brought home from the museum.) I love that her work is clearly shown, and that her sewing was her employment.

I hope you enjoyed this little jaunt through the Art Institute. If, like me, you haven’t been there in over 20 years, I encourage you to visit again with new eyes.  While you’ll see plenty of women as subjects — in portraits, as madonnas and mothers, lovers and muses — these are the women I found that had a project. A purpose.

A reason to create.


Dueling Woolies, and a Couple of Tips

I’ve been working on these two wool hand embroidery pieces. One is for the shop, the other for home.  By the time I finish them, I will either have gotten wool completely out of my system, or I will have started a dangerously addictive habit.  I really like working with wool and have learned a couple of things.

(An acknowledgement of the patterns:  The first comes from a Moda book called Moda Mini Marvels. The second is a Wooly Lady pattern called Kaleidescope. Sadly, it no longer seems to be available.  But check out their site as they have many more patterns and kits that are similar.)




Tip Number One:

Use a long-arm stapler to attach the pieces of wool and hold them in place while you stitch.  Seriously. Skip the fusible. Skip the pins. They add bulk and distortion and take all the fun out of the smoothness of attaching wool to wool.  I  was struggling with it and our tech came over and said, “Do you want to know what the Australians do?”  Now, honestly, who doesn’t want to know what the Australians do. She suggested the stapler and I was struck by the simplicity and brilliance of the idea. Why didn’t I think of this?  Try it.

Tip Number Two:

You need this tool.  Clover Press Perfect Roll & Press. Your local quilt shop will have it and if they don’t, ask them to order it!  If you ever do piecing, this is one of the best investments you can make. I work in a quilt shop and try a lot of tools.  I like them for different things, and we all get addicted to different gadgets…it’s part of the process.

But the project I’m working on requires 1 in. half square triangles, finished size 1/2 in.  I need 84 of them.  That’s a lot of sewing, cutting and pressing of tiny pieces. But this little roller works SO WELL!  I did not need to use the iron once…it lays the seams so flat. Get it, try it, find out for yourself.

I continue to carry on, with more fun projects on the horizon.  But I find that at this time in my life, a little handwork is cathartic and soothing. I like my wool to be bright and cheerful, but who knows?  That can change at any time.  When all is said and done, we’re all evolving, aren’t we?

If I Were Tolstoy’s Editor

“We are forced to fall back upon fatalism to explain irrational events (that is those of which we cannot comprehend the reason). The more we try to explain those events in history rationally, the more irrational and incomprehensible they seem to us. Every man lives for himself, making use of his free-will for attainment of his own objects, and feels in his whole being that he can do or not do any action. But as soon as he does anything, that act, committed at a certain moment in time, becomes irrevocable and is the property of history, in which it has a significance, predestined and not subject to free choice.

There are two aspects to the life of every man:  the personal life, which is free in proportion as its interests are abstract, and the elemental life of the swarm, in which a man must inevitably follow the laws laid down for him.”  –Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

I did it.

I finished reading War and Peace.  And I loved it.  (You can read about my failed start.)

In fact, after reading it, I was tempted to go back and start re-reading from the beginning, in order to capture more of the nuance, the brilliance of Tolstoy’s staging, foreshadowing and character development.

The book is 1386 pages long. And I would not cut a single word…except possibly one tiny little change.

If I were Tolstoy’s editor, I would have asked him to leave out Part Two of the Epilogue.  I can imagine the conversation between the artist and the editor:

Tolstoy: But I wasn’t finished!  All of this NEEDED to be said!  It’s the entire reason I wrote the book!

Editor:  My friend, the story was over.  Leave the rest to the reader. The novel is magnificent.  In their thoughts they will ponder your piece of work for years to come.  They will write books themselves about your epic.  Let it end.

Tosltoy:  I will not.  I insist on the last part.

Editor:  What if we include it at the end as Part Two of the Epilogue…a kind of Author’s Notes?

Tolstoy:  Hmmph.  Whoever heard of Part Two of an Epilogue?

I can imagine this conversation going on for many months.  I recently read somewhere that it took Tolstoy over a year to write the opening scene.  (It introduces many of the characters.)

I find it hard to believe that anyone living today could weave such a tapestry of thought. The best-selling novels currently in production, while gripping and suspenseful, take me about 2-3 days to process.  War and Peace took me 3 months.  I savored it.

On the cover of the book, Virginia Woolf writes, “There remains the greatest of all novelists–for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?”

I am afraid very few readers take the time to read novels like this any more.  Do kids still read this in high school? When I tell my own friends or acquaintances that I have just finished War and Peace, in the hopes of meeting someone else who may have read it, I am met with raised eyebrows and shaking heads.  They back away slowly.  The general consensus is that I either have nothing else to do with my life or that I am just plain weird. Now it’s possible that I am weird, but I assure you, I have many other things to do in my life including working, raising a teen, caring for an aging parent.

As Churchill once said, “Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

Celebrating art is life for me. I do it in between trips to the middle school (and sometimes read in the middle school parking lot). I create in the evening, and at work.  I think of things to make while lying in bed, in the shower, preparing a meal.

What is life if not to celebrate art and the work of fellow artists and artisans?

By the way, I finally finished the red scarf I started well over a year ago.  It’s not a masterpiece.  But it was made with patience and persistence.  And I eventually gifted it to my sister, who accomplished a huge goal.

Bravo. Prodolzhat…


So You Think Improv is Easy?

When I was in college, I found myself in an Improv class.  I’m sure I wanted to take some sort of communications credit and the class was full, so in order to fill the elective, I took the only other alternative:  Improvisation.

I was terrified.

I prayed that the class would be an intellectual discourse on the history of theatre, comedy, acting etc. Nope.

The teacher asked us to introduce ourselves in this way:  The first person just had to say his name.  The second person had to say her name and the name of the guy before her.  The third person had to say her name and the name of the two people prior. You can see where this was heading.  Twenty-six people in (of COURSE I sat in the back), we were all giggling awkwardly, and, I’ll be darned, even the last person remembered everyone’s name. (Now, if we got up and moved around, or…heaven forbid…changed clothes, all bets were off.)

Our next task in the class, was to gather in a large circle. One at a time we each had to pretend to open an umbrella, hold it over our heads, and close it again.  Simple, right? The first few people did the obvious.  Then one person added a shake before they closed their “umbrella” and it suddenly seemed more real.  The next person added a twirl over her head, and before you know it, we were all really seeing each others’ umbrellas. Adding little tiny details mattered when it came to believability.

For our final grade, each person had to produce a skit.  It was the student’s responsibility to:

  1.  Describe a scenario.
  2. Cast characters from within the class.

That’s it.  The skits only lasted 5 minutes or so, but I never laughed so hard during finals as I did during that class.  Something about Improv brings out the silly in people.  It’s like playing, but it’s a lot more about interaction with others.  One of the main tenets of improv is you must always accept another’s reality. So if someone says “What about the kids?”  you can never say “We don’t have any.” (This example is taken from the book “Something Wonderful Right Away” by Jeffrey Sweet.)

All of this brings me to improvisational quilting…or improvisational piecing, which comes first. I wanted to do something freeing, use up some fabric and make something that has not been done by anyone else…at least not in the exact same way.

In order to do this, I had to set up a couple of rules for myself, much like the final in my Improv class:

  1.  I had to use the colorful jelly rolls of ombre fabric.
  2. I am not allowed to square everything up into even-sized blocks. It has to be more free-flowing than that.

That’s it.  Those are my two rules.

As you can see, the fabrics themselves have movement.  The colors are cheerful and I had plenty to work with…at least to start.

I can safely say that I have no idea where I’m going with this.

But I love it.

The challenging part comes in the curves and Y-seams.

If you’re not used to sewing curves, it can be daunting as there are just so many variables to keep nice and neat. It takes a little bit of thoughtfulness.  Just like improv acting.  Go with it. Try it.  Don’t say no to the crazy seam.

It might just create “something wonderful right away.”



War and Peace and Knitting

War and Peace and KnittingRight before my mom went into the hospital for the last time, I began reading War and Peace. Honestly. I was about..oh, maybe 100 pages in. I had it at the hospital with me.

That was last February.

(I should mention that I love the Russian authors.  War and Peace is one of the great Russian novels that I haven’t read yet. Tolstoy is very different from Dostoevsky, but if you are looking for characters that embody the totality of the frail human condition, you can’t beat the Russians. They understand pain.)

Anyway, after she died, I put the book down and couldn’t look at it again until summer.  At that point I decided to throw it into a box headed for charity. Then I fished it out again. Then threw it back in. Fished it out. I wasn’t ready to walk away completely.

So it’s been sitting on my bedroom floor ever since.

At that same time last year, while in the waiting room at the hospital, I also started knitting a red scarf.

Now you should know a few things:

  1.  My mom taught me to knit.
  2. I am not very good, but find it very relaxing.
  3. I do OK with a simple pattern, but I don’t really know how to un-knit if I make a mistake.
  4. I made a mistake.

Not right away, you understand. I didn’t make the mistake in February.  Like War and Peace, I put the knitting project down and couldn’t look at it again.

The day after the election, I picked it up and tried to knit.

But I did it wrong.  Somewhere along the line, I was supposed to knit and I purled.  And where I was supposed to purl, I knitted.

An experienced knitter would know how to go backward, to reverse the stitches and fix the problem.  I can remember hundreds of times when my mom would rip the yarn out. But I am afraid to do that.

I am afraid I won’t be able to pick up those ripped stitches and continue.

I am left with something that feels like garbage and I don’t know how to fix it.

If I could go back in time and change it all, I would. If I could just abandon both projects I would.  But something in me longs for continuity, for clarity, for perseverance, closure, fortitude and maybe just a teensy bit of hope.

Now what?