The Evolution of a Quilt

Evolution is defined two ways:  the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth; or the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.

For the sake of this blog, I’m talking about the second definition – how to take a quilt from its bare basic, apply creativity and techniques, and develop it into something it wasn’t.  This blog is a personal one because it tracks the way I work, which is probably different from the way you do.  However, the thought process can be similar, and I hope it creates a spark in you to think outside the box concerning your own quilts and creativity.

Everyone’s path to creativity is a bit different.  But after years of teaching high school kids and then quilters, I think creative people fall into two groups – those who passionately throw themselves into making and those who almost freeze up from fear of failure. 

Believe it or not, I fall into the second group. I cannot find the adequate vocabulary to express how terrified I was to not follow a pattern’s directions.  For years, the quilts I made looked exactly like the picture on the pattern.  The color way might have been different, but it was the only difference between my quilt and the pattern.  Looking back, I think I was completely frightened of making a mistake so unfixable the quilt would be ruined. The thought of deviating from a pattern nearly caused anxiety attacks.

Yet, I quilted with a group of quilters who were perfectly fine with tossing the pattern out the window entirely.  The directions, for the most part, were simply suggestions and they freely substituted blocks and techniques. Their end result was often so far from the pattern, most people had no idea the pattern was involved at all.  At some point – probably around 15 years ago – I decided I wanted to do that.  Throw the pattern to the wind and see where the fabric would take me.  I wasn’t able to do this overnight.  It was a process.  Sometimes I made baby steps and at other times I felt my creativity take flight and soar.  I had to start somewhere, and knowing my proclivity for patterns, it only made sense I began with those.

These were the days before I owned any Electric Quilt program.  As a matter of fact, I’m not sure I even knew EQ existed.  I came to EQ entirely by accident.  My quilt teacher was selling her EQ 4 program and I bought it.  It was clumsy and difficult to use, and I think I finally just deleted it off my computer (it was a far, far cry from today’s EQ 8).  But patterns?  I had patterns and was very comfortable with those. 

For many of us, this is the starting point of any quilt.  It may the picture of a pattern on Pinterest, Facebook, or Instagram.  It may be found during a Google search or purchased off a website or in a quilt store.  However, this picture or pattern is the springboard to change.  It’s the starting lineup for creative expression.  It’s your Genesis 1:1 or your “Once Upon a Time.” 

It’s where most of us start.  Sometimes we will alter the pattern only so much, so the bare bones of the original quilt can still be seen.  At other times, we may be inspired by the blocks or the applique or the colors and then completely deviate from the pattern for the rest of the quilting process. It varies and with me, it’s really never the same process twice.   And I’ll be honest – sometimes I know immediately what I want to change and sometimes the quilt or the fabric tells me as I journey through the process of making it.  I’m working on one of those quilts now.  As soon as I saw the pattern, I wasn’t sure what I would change, if anything. 

I loved the quilt – all the swags and quilting were simply beautiful.  Added plus – the designer was teaching the class on how to make the quilt. 

I get asked fairly frequently why I still take classes (mainly by my husband who wonders how any group can sit and talk about a quilt for hours on end…I tell him it’s the same thing as guys talking about the fish that got away).  I take classes to learn something.  I firmly believe you can come away from any class knowing something new.  In this case, the designer – Kathy Delaney– was teaching some needle turn applique tricks I didn’t know.  But the other thing which immediately drew my attention was the applique.  It was fruit.  My applique quilts are overwhelmingly floral in their subject matter.  This quilt was different.  I wanted to make it, and in the beginning, I assumed I would follow the pattern closely.  But let me show you what happened long before I put needle to fabric.  This is one of those times where the quilt evolved more and more as I made each block.  The changes began as soon as I chose my background fabric.

Let me go on the record here as saying I don’t like solid backgrounds for applique. Those are dull, uninteresting, and don’t do anything to enhance the applique pieces.  So, I knew going into the project, my background would be some kind of print – either a low-volume white or a tone-on-tone.  Let me also  tell you, I am a big fan of P&B Textiles.  Big fan.  Huuuggggeee fan. They are generally my go-to fabric house when I’m searching for a background fabric for either piecing or applique.  They did not disappoint me.  I found this:

At my very favorite quilt shop, Pineapple Fabrics.  This is actually quilt backing fabric.  But for me, the color was warm and inviting and the undulating pattern would not overwhelm the applique.  I thought it would simply enhance it.  The backing fabric also made another fabric decision for me.  When compared with a light background fabric:

This background fabric shows up as a medium.   I immediately knew whatever fabric I chose to make my fruit with, it needed to be saturated with color in order to contrast fully against the background.  I raided my batiks and super-saturated quilting cottons to pull for my produce applique.

And the process began.

The pattern suggested cutting the unfinished squares at 13 ½-inches, and even though I was still uncertain exactly how I would construct the quilt top, I thought this was a great place to start.  After the fruit was centered in the middle of each square, I still had plenty of “breathing” room around it to either leave it as is or trim the square down a little.  However, this brought me to the next decision.  Kathy had beautiful crosshatching behind her fruit.  I could either deviate from that type of quilting and quilt small pebbles or tight meandering around the fruit or go with the crosshatch – which I really liked.  The only problem is, I hate to quilt crosshatching.  No matter if I am working with my longarm or my Janome M7, I am really not a fan of the actual work involved with crosshatching.  It’s a stop and start, circle around, backtrack, and go forward process. 

Still, I really wanted the fruit to be star of the quilt – not so much the quilting.  So… I made another creative decision.

I would pre-quilt my squares before I appliqued them.  Word of warning, this will not work for every applique quilt you want crosshatched, but I can make it work for this one.  The process is pretty simple, and I’ve explained it before.  I marked the 1-inch interval crosshatching on my square of fabric and then traced the fruit layout.  I backed the square with a thin layer of 80/20 silky blend batting, and using my M7, stitched the crosshatching.  Added bonus:  I found the pre-cut batting squares online at the Fat Quarter Shop.

Next, I had to consider the applique.  At this point in my quilting journey, I’ve used needle turn, back basting, freezer paper, reverse applique, and Apliquick.  Whenever I undertake an applique quilt, one of the first decisions I make is what type of applique technique will I use.  And often that’s not the same  technique the pattern designer calls for.  For me, the fabric, my timetable, and personal preference usually dictates which procedure I use. The original pattern used needle turn.  This would be difficult now.  The added bulk of the pre-quilted squares would make needle turn harder. Back basting wouldn’t be any easier.  I finally decided on Apliquick.  This was as much personal preference — this is my favorite applique technique – as it was practicality.  The Apliquick interface would effectively prevent any of the background fabric from shadowing through to the fruit.  It also would play nicely with the added bulk from the pre-quilted fabric.

With those decisions made, I began the applique process.  I tend to “assembly line” my work.  I traced the pattern and graphed out the crosshatching, quilted the background square, and prepped all the applique.  I worked through the first three squares following the directions (for the most part).  Then all of that changed when I found this fabric:

Which, in my opinion, happens to be the very thing I needed to pull my quilt together.  Now I had to make some more decisions – do I use the fruit fabric for the swags, or do I want to make some changes to the construction?  And believe it or not, this took some time, some contemplation, a few glasses of wine, some quality time on EQ, and some research.

Kathy Delaney’s Horn of Plenty for a New Generation

If you look back at Kathy Delaney’s original Horn of Plenty for a New Generation   pattern, you note it’s a square quilt, comprised of 18 appliqued blocks and 17 alternate blocks.  The applique blocks are trimmed to 12 ½-inches and in between the applique blocks are 9 ½ x 12 ½-inch alternate blocks which are quilted with a cornucopia design.  The border is scalloped.  I could complete my quilt this way except for two things:

  1.  Kathy’s quilt was quilted by hand, making the cornucopia easy to trace and quilt. I plan on long arming my quilt, which means I would have to digitize the cornucopia and let the long arm’s computer do the work.
  2. I really wanted more room to show off my fruity fabric.

So…the answer to these two predicaments was to add sashing to the quilt.  While this would definitely show off my wonderful material, it did propose its own set of issues.  It would leave me with only the 18 applique blocks.  While 18 is an even number, making it a bit easier to work with, the math would show that:

I could have two rows of nine blocks

Nine rows of two blocks

Three rows of six blocks or

Six rows of three blocks

And none of these make for an attractive layout.  I didn’t necessarily want the alternative blocks with the cornucopia, so I threw everything into EQ8 and came up with this:

Five rows, with four blocks in each row.  Which meant I needed 20 applique blocks and the pattern only produced 18…

Which meant I would have to come up with two more fruity blocks on my own.

After poking around the produce aisle at Publix, trying to seek inspiration and groceries, I decided to limit my search to fruits native to North Carolina.  This would definitely add a creative twist to my quilt and make it a bit unique.  I came up with this:

The persimmon.  I know it grows in other states, and there are wild persimmon trees (which used to be so abundant here) as well as cultivated ones.  As a child I remember my paternal grandmother would get these and make the best persimmon pudding.  This “pudding” wasn’t a pudding like you may be thinking – it looked nothing like a Jello pudding cup.  It was more like a really moist brownie in texture, but it had a cinnamon-y, ginger-y taste and went excellently with a dab of whipped cream.  The internet yielded lots of pictures of persimmons, making my search quick and easy.

The next fruit I decided to add was the paw-paw.  I don’t mean this kind of paw-paw…

I mean this kind of paw-paw.

This fruit is also called the Appalachian banana.  It grew wild here for years until development and deforestation made the tree scarce.  The fruit is green, small, and pear-shaped.  It’s sweet and has a creamy texture kind of like a banana.  Fortunately, biologists and botanists and all different kinds of plant lovers have come to the paw-paw’s rescue. Now we have cultivated the plants to the point you can purchase paw-paw trees and have your own personal crop.  This fruit was a little more elusive in the internet searches.  The world-wide web kept giving me pictures of papayas – which are also a wonderful fruit, but not native to North Carolina.

Let me drop in a helpful hint at this point.  If you a searching for a picture of something for an applique project on the internet, you can get hundreds of color images.  But for applique, we need a picture which isn’t as detailed. Let’s use the persimmon as an example.  When I asked Google to show me an image of persimmons, I was inundated with photos and drawings.  But what I really wanted was a simple line drawing of the fruit to make my applique pattern from. 

If you ask Google for a coloring book image of whatever you’re looking for, it will return line drawings.  In this case, I Googled “persimmons coloring book images” and this is what I got:

Which allowed me to easily create the persimmon applique block.

Likewise, there is an app for your phone called Adobe Capture.  This allows you to use a picture from your phone and create a line drawing.  You can load the picture to Capture and it will turn it into a black and white sketch.  So, all those pretty pictures you have in your phone?  Now they all have the possibility of becoming an applique quilt. 

My Pomegranates
Kathy’s Pomegranates
My Plums
Kathy’s Plums
My Apricots
Kathy’s Apricots
My Oranges
Kathy’s Oranges
My Lemons
Kathy’s Lemons
My Grapes
Kathy’s Grapes
My blueberries…not exactly what Kathy had. She had currants
Kathy’s Currants
My Cherries
Kathy’s Cherries — look at her skinny stems….
My Bananas
Kathy’s bananas
My Apples
Kathy’s Apples

These are some of the applique blocks I have completed, next to the pictures of the originals.  As you can see, I stayed true to the pattern for the first several blocks, and then began to stray.  The block with the blue berries was originally currants.  I looked at all the blocks and decided the quilt needed some additional blues, since there was only one other block with that hue.  The pattern has some yellow apples, but I will make these green. Yellow really fights to be seen on this background.  I struggled with the bananas (which pretty much must be yellow) and am still not happy with the contrast.  I didn’t want to go through the same struggle again, so I changed the Golden Delicious to Granny Apple.  Another block contained Logan Berries, which to be honest, I had never heard of until this quilt.  The pattern called for reverse applique with tiny slits in it for black fabric to peek through to give the illusion of berries.  While I can perform reverse applique with Apliquick, those tiny, tiny slits weren’t anything I wanted to deal with no matter what technique I used.  I nearly completely disregarded this block altogether and began to earnestly look for substitutes.  Then I found this fabric…

Which did all the work for me.  The print gives the illusion of circles, which when placed with a vine and leaves makes you immediately believe they are berries.  So, the Logan Berries stayed put. 

This quilt is not complete.  There is sashing to be dealt with and I’m still unsure of the borders.  However, every time I work on this quilt, it tells me something new to do.  It lets me know where to go and what to use.  I realize this sounds like some kind of mystical experience, but most quilters who have worked their art for a number of years will tell you, “The quilt wants what it wants…and it will tell you what it wants. Just give it time.”

How do you begin this process for yourself?  It varies from quilter to quilter.  Some quilters jump in with both feet and do things like this from day one.  Others, like me, will stick a toe in the water and take their time before approaching the deep end of completely tossing the pattern.  I can give you a few helpful hints, but your quilt journey is your own.  You know your own comfort level.  Go as slowly or as quickly as you want.

  1.  Take a picture of the pattern with your phone.  With the editing tools, change the picture to black and white.  Toss the colored picture of the quilt and use the black and white image to find your lights, darks, and medium fabrics.  This is often the first step towards individual creativity quilters make.  Believe it or not, it’s hard to mess up a quilt with fabric choices. 
  2. With this, make some not-so-obvious fabric choices.  I think this is easier to do in applique quilts.  Just like the fabric I found for my Logan Berries, sometimes odd fabric prints work great for grass or flower petals.  This is a bit more challenging for pieced quilts.  One of the first suggestions I would offer is to make a quilt which is not in your normal comfortable color range.  For instance, brown isn’t my “go-to” in pieced quilts.  However, I made a brown and blue quilt a few years ago and it did open my eyes to all the brown options available.  While it still isn’t my favorite color, I do use it more liberally. 
  3. Think outside the box.  If you can, don’t even be in the same room with box.  By this, I mean forego the obvious. For instance, let’s think about a floral applique block, such as this:

It’s easy to just to go for all the greens in your stash when making the leaves.  But what would happen if you threw in some blues?  Or pinks and reds in those leaves?  The block would change character.  Those blue, red, and pink leaves could be interpreted as either leaves or buds. 

What if you wanted to make a classic red and green quilt? 

That particular color combination can mentally set your teeth on edge because within those two colors there is a lot of shades, tones, and tints.  Sometimes they clash.  So, ponder this question – does it really matter if it clashes?  Sticking with two absolute colors in a two-color quilt can be kind of, well… flat.  Look what happens when you open the fabric field up to lots of greens and reds.

Remember, the pattern and its directions are just a starting point.  Unless you’re in a situation where the fabric is limited (such as a kit), this is just the beginning.  If the pattern calls for two different kinds of 10-inch blocks, this doesn’t mean you have to make their suggested blocks.  Use the blocks you love.  The only caveat is they need to finish at 10-inches. 

Finding your creative quilt voice takes time and patience.  Some quilters are like free-flowing rivers.  They seem to easily grasp what works for them and a quilt and move along with the process.  Other quilters are like me.  It takes longer to become more self-assured in your process and your journey.  Whichever type you are, it’s important to for you to go as fast or as slowly as you feel comfortable with.  There is no right or wrong.  Let the quilt speak to you and use this voice in the process.  In doing this, the quilt and the quilter will evolve.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

6 replies on “The Evolution of a Quilt”

Interesting post about your design process and appliqué. I’ve done only hand-stitched blanket stitch raw edge. Your appliqué is fabulous.
I recently bought an M7. Super nice machine, and I’m learning to FMQ. But I’m bummed there isn’t an easy way to get a scant 1/4” seam. I really think Janome should have made the O foot with guide modified for the scant.

I completely agree about the scant 1/4″ It’s driving me a little nuts. However, if you do decide to try machine raw edge applique, the M7 has an applique foot which is really great. It’s a clear, open-toe foot, but it’s small so you can really see where your needle is going and have a good view of how the fabric is feeding through. I ordered it a few months ago and it wasn’t expensive. I’ve started FMQ on the M7. How’s it going for you?

I enjoy and benefit from many of your posts, but this was an especially great blog post for me. You covered so much ground but in a concise & manageable way. I recently purchased EQ8 & will be taking a look at the Adobe app. I knew about the coloring book images trick, but had wondered about potential apps. I’m no longer part of a guild, so blogs like yours are so appreciated!

I throughly enjoyed this post and all your suggestions and comparisons. Thank you!

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