Intuitive Designing

Back in 2018, this blog’s annual theme was Quilt with Excellence.  We undertook a series of topics that emphasized the basics and spent a great deal of time on them.  From a former teacher’s viewpoint, I knew the more the basics were emphasized, the better the outcome of any project.  During this time, I wrote a series of blogs about design and the Golden Ratio.  I am happy (and excited) to say that these posts remain some of my most popular, averaging 165 hits a month.  They’ve been read and re-read to the point there are some murmurings about a book. 

The issue some quilters have with the Golden Ratio is the math. The GR is an irrational numeral – 1.618….. The dots mean this number literally goes on forever, never ending, and that can be a difficult concept to wrap your mind around. We shorten it to 1.618 to work with sashing and borders, or we can half it to .618 and work with it this way. In these blogs (and I will post the links at the end of this blog), I explained how these two numbers worked ensure that the borders and sashing are in perfect proportion to your blocks.

Math can be intimidating.  It’s the language of computers and science. As a former chemistry and physics teacher, I’ve dealt with my fair share of arithmetic.  I tell quilters what I used to tell my math phobic students — “Math is your friend, because numbers don’t lie.”  However, even with calculators, a lot of quilters are just a little put off by trying to figure out how to “math” their own quilts.  I want to talk about Intuitive Design with this post and how you can use it with your quilts.  So set any math-y issues you have aside and hear me out.  No math is involved beyond this point.

What comes to mind when you hear that phrase “Intuitive Design?”  When I first heard it, I immediately thought about Art Quilts. 

Not my art quilt — this is for illustration’s sake.

I’ve only made one Art Quilt, and truly had a blast making it. Art Quilts are great because a lot of what is considered standard quilting “rules” go out the window.  These quilts may only have two layers.  They may have no binding.  They may be lop-sided.  And while quilters as a whole would frown on this in any other quilt, it’s quite acceptable with an Art Quilt.  In fact, as you gaze on this Art Quilt you may think that there is really no math or concrete design work involved at all.

And you would be dead wrong.

Let’s examine that quilt and the quilts we’re making and see what makes up design.

There are tons of tools on the market that help quilters design their own blocks and quilts.  Some quilters use graph paper.  Others use EQ (Electric Quilt).  There are the Golden Calipers for sashing and borders.  There are specialty rulers and color wheels.  But that’s not what I want to look at.  Shove all those tools back into the notions drawer (except maybe keep the graph paper out) and let’s examine Intuitive Design and how we engage it every time we make a quilt.  When we realize what it is, we can tune into it and use it better. 

First step:   Look around you.  Why are you wearing that pair of pants or skirt or top?  What makes your favorite chair your favorite chair?  Why did you choose that particular focus fabric for your favorite quilt?  Better yet, what part of the quilt store do you gravitate towards first?  If I asked these questions to 20 quilters and account for the law of averages, probably 15 of those asked would indicate color is the answer to these questions.  And choosing your color palette is one of the first steps in design.  Color in and of itself can evoke strong emotions or memories.  For instance, this red:

Brings to mind this logo:

What makes your favorite color(s) your favorite color(s) is a personal thing.  It’s no secret my favorite color is purple*, and I tend to gravitate towards that end of the color spectrum.  But I also favor either deeply hued colors or clear, bright ones.   It should be no surprise that Henry Glass and Fig Tree are my favorite fabric design houses.  I would encourage you to take note of what colors you repeatedly gravitate towards.  While I like purple, I do realize that I can’t paint every room in my house that color or make every quilt out of purple material.  When I began this process for myself, I had to back off a bit and see what colors I chose to go with the purple in my quilts.  For years I thought green was one of my least favorite colors.  Nope.  Green resonates throughout my home, my wardrobe, my office and my quilts.  Then again, it’s no secret that green and purple play well together.  Commit these choices to a written journal, pictures on your phone, or a Pinterest board – somewhere you’ll have easy access to them as you plan your next quilt.  Side note here – I do collect paint chips from the hardware store in the colors I like the most.  I don’t raid their collection, but do leave the store with about a half a dozen.  They come in handy in planning the colors for a quilt.

Second Step:  Look at what shapes you use again and again.  This one is a bit harder and you have to really think about it.  Let’s start with furniture. If we were furniture shopping for your living room right now, what kind of couch would immediately catch your attention?  Would you be drawn to the type that are more square-ish or rectangular-ish with sharp, 90-degree angles?  Or would your rather have something with soft corners and plump, round cushions?  Like color, shape can either make us happy or turn us off.  For instance, this shape:

Is not a popular one.  It’s not going to pop up in a lot of furniture or quilt designs because it reminds us of a coffin.  However, this shape:

Gets a lot of positive play.  Dishes.  Salt and pepper shakers.  Glasses.  Cups.  Cars. 

Art itself is the sum of shapes.  A flower is broken down into ovals and circles.  A sketch of a dog begins with circles, ovals, and rectangles.  All art can be broken down into rough sketches of basic shapes. The challenge we face in quilting is taking a one-dimension element (fabric) and producing a block with three-dimensional characteristics.  Applique is the easiest way to do this.  However, when you’re working with a pieced block – one with absolutely no applique – a quilter must consider how the shapes relate to each other in size, volume, perspective, and balance.

Before you start worrying too much about that challenge, or pull out a calculator to use the Golden Ratio on every part of your block – relax.  The great thing about Intuitive Design is that we do it naturally.  Somehow, wired into our brain is that 1.618 figure.  Visually, we tend to realize when a border is too narrow or that sashing is just a bit too wide.  The term most quilters use is off-balance.  Understanding and using that GR is important when designing your own quilts; however,  in most other quilt-related issues, your instincts are right.  Go with those.

The third step in Intuitive Design is texture.  Frankly, in other art forms, this is more easily achieved.  It’s a tad more difficult in quilting, because most of the time we use fabrics that are just that – flat fabric.  There are times when we can alter this.   I’ve always encouraged applique quilters to use whatever fabrics fits what they’re trying to convey – see-through fabrics for ice, wooly or furry fabric for animals, etc.  And Art Quilts can use a myriad of mediums to contribute to the desired appearance.  However, these are the exception.  With most quilts, quilters are dealing with 100 percent cotton material that is absolutely smooth to the touch.  This is where we rely on fabric manufacturers to supply us with material that gives the illusion of the texture we want.  Remember my earlier blog on ugly fabric?  How I encouraged you to look at fabric differently?  Look for material that gives the illusion of what you need – leaves, pebbles, clouds – whatever your block needs, take the time to find the appropriate fabric that gives the appearance of the texture you’re trying to convey.

By using color, shape, and texture, a quilter can add both dimension and fun to a quilt.  The best thing is most of us do in intuitively.  Go with your intuition.  Don’t doubt it.  Sure, we’re going to make mistakes, but that’s how we learn.  And how we make better quilts.

It’s here I really tried to insert the link for my blog on Sashing and the Golden Ratio, but for whatever reason, WordPress was being hard to get along with. If you’re interested, you can find it in the archives – it’s dated July 26, 2018.

Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting,

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam.                                               

*True story about me and the color purple. A few years ago, my husband was having our offices repainted. He asked me what color I wanted my office. Without hesitation, I said, “Purple.”

“That’s not a business-y color,” he replied. 

“I like purple.  It makes me happy.”

Without missing a beat, he told the painter to paint my office a light gray.  The painter gave him a long look and left to purchase the paint.  I left for the day too, determined to make a stop at Target to pick up purple office accessories.

The next day when I opened my office door, the walls were purple — a lovely shade of lavender.

That painter is one smart man.

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