Cultivating Creativity

I am a sucker for applique.

Of all the quilting techniques out there, my favorite is applique – by hand or machine, it doesn’t matter.  There is something infinitely freeing about it.  It gives the quilter the ability to back away from triangles, squares, and rectangles and produce something realistic.  Instead of lines and sharp angles, you can have curves and circles.  There’s more color play with applique as you strive for bouquets of flowers in every color of the rainbow. In short, applique is fun.  More fun than piecing.  I asked Google how many applique quilt patterns were out there in stores.  It couldn’t give me an answer, although Pinterest helpfully volunteered it had over 900 applique quilt pins.  In this blog, I want to explore a couple of things.  First, how to turn a picture into an applique pattern, and second how to use something I call quilted applique.  This process may take more than one blog, but I don’t have any worries about that.  We’ll start with the basics and move on from there.

A lot of folks think quilters have to be ultra-creative people.  Color choice and design should be as natural to them as breathing.  I’d like to squash that little erroneous piece of information right now.  While most quilters are to some degree creative, extreme creativity isn’t necessary for the process.  And most quilters who have quilted for several years will tell you their creativity expands the more they quilt.  All that’s really needed to get started is the ability to read and follow directions.  Everything else will come with time and practice.  Each applique quilt you construct will not only make you a better quilter, but it will also give you the confidence to go a little further and dig a little deeper in the creative process. 

Another erroneous school of thought is applique quilters must have a huge stash – I mean just look at all the colors we use in flowers and leaves, etc.  It must take hundreds of fabrics to make some applique quilts.  In all honesty, it’s not about how much fabric you have, but that you have the right fabric.  Overall, applique may use several different fabrics, but usually the applique pieces are on the small size.  Sometimes (as in the quilt I’ll be working on later in this blog), you may use less than a fat quarter for the applique.  The largest fabric requirement will be the background, binding, and borders.  Which brings me to this point – one of the best things about applique is that it doesn’t take a lot of fabric.  And one of the worst things about applique is that it doesn’t take a lot of fabric.  Why?  This means you only need a little money to develop a huge applique stash with pieces an eighth of a yard or less…which can lead to storage issues.  Cultivate your applique stash carefully…which brings me to my next point…

Also cultivate your creativity.  If you’re one of my readers who think you don’t have any real creativity, I also want to squash that little negative and erroneous school of thought.  Everyone is creative in some way.  Creativity is a part of everything we do.  It plays a part in how we dress, how we cook, how we plant flowers…even the way you balance your checkbook.  No one escapes this life without having some form of creativity.  However, what I really want to do is help you grow your creativity.  There are lots of ways to do this, and no one way is right or wrong.  I want to offer some general suggestions and then you need to fine-tune them, so they work for you. 

  • Take walks.  This is a two-fer.  If you need to take so many steps per day as part of your fitness routine, you can grow your creativity and increase the number of steps all at the same time!   However, as you walk, I want you to pay close attention to a few things.  Notice the sky.  Notice it’s not all one shade of blue.  Neither are the clouds all one shade of white.  Look at the grass, leaves, and stems.  Observe they are not all one shade of green.  As a matter of fact, some of them are not green at all.  Some are brown.  Others are yellow.  Look at the flowers or trees in bud.  A rose isn’t all the same color red or pink.  Dandelions are yellow, orange, and white.  Take pictures of a few of these.  When you get back home, enlarge these pictures on your phone and look closely at all the shades, hues, tints, and tones.  It’s even better if you can upload the pictures from your phone onto a computer and look at them on a large screen.

If you can’t take a walk, Google some images of flowers, leaves, and butterflies (actual Google photos are better than paintings or drawings for this exercise).  Notice the leaves aren’t all one color.  A purple pansy can be numerous shades of purple.  Nothing nature produces is all one solid color.  Neither is anything perfect.  Leaves can curl or be lopsided.  The petal on a flower can be a bit crushed.  Notice all of the imperfections nature brings to the table, yet we don’t get upset at them.  We accept them as part of the whole.  When we focus on the rose or the leaf, we don’t necessarily zero in on what’s wrong with it.

  • Doodle.  Draw.  I don’t mean major works of art and certainly nothing to hang in the Louvre. I mean little swirls and curlicues.  Straight lines and curved ones.  Cartoon-ish figures.  Graduate to flowers and animals.  It really doesn’t matter.   However, what all this doodling is doing to your brain is highly important.  It’s engaging your memory to reproduce something you’ve seen (perhaps on your walks).  And repeatedly drawing your favorite curlicues and swirls trains both your brain and your hand to draw and redraw them from muscle memory.  This is important – trust me.  I’ll tell you why in a bit. 
  • Be disciplined in your pursuit of creativity.  I realized, even as I typed this, that discipline and creativity sound like polar opposites.  Zone of truth here – when someone mentions the word creativity  to me, I tend to picture someone in long, flowy, multicolored skirts with gray hair down to their waist, flowers in their hair and beaded necklaces and bracelets.  My mind conjures up this person who is free-thinking and artistically uninhibited who can take paints and fabric and create these wonderful works of art right off the top of her head – gorgeous works which everyone loves. 

However, except in rare cases, this is not how creativity works (although I totally could get behind the long, flowy skirts and gray hair down to my waist and beaded necklaces and bracelets). Creativity requires discipline – the ability to work every day at your art.  Just like any other talent we want to develop, creativity takes steady practice.  The more you do it, the better you become at it.  Picasso got up and painted every day, whether he felt like it or not.  At his peak, Beethoven practiced 14 hours a day.  And while it would be disingenuous to think any of us could practice our quilting 14 hours every day, it’s not so hard to work in a few minutes here and there or a few hours on the weekend to work at the craft we love so much. 

In my opinion, I think all of us are born as creative beings.  Unfortunately, the school system can work that right out of us (I can say this freely, since I am a former educator).  We are taught to follow the rules, color inside the lines, and hold our pencils and crayons a certain way.  Some of these learned behavior literally strangles the creativity right out of people.  Rejuvenating, revitalizing, and resurrecting our creativity comes with the freedom of realizing there are no rules.  There is no right or wrong.  What you like is right. 

I’ve taught quilting for years.  I was a French heirloom garment instructor before that.  And I think I can say with a lot of honesty, a fairly large number of quilters get stymied on color theory and placement.  They will read books, articles, and blogs.  They will invest in apps for their phones and color wheels.  After all these years of teaching, I want to let you in on a secret:  Nine times out of ten, most of what is involved in color theory, etc., is already innately built into our brains and intuition.  Yes, all the information on color theory and placement is exceedingly helpful, but you’re already engaging most of the principles.  Don’t get hung up on somebody else’s set of rules. 

Another thing which can kill creativity is not believing in yourself.  Don’t compare your creative journey with someone else’s.  Some people seemingly can turn their creativity tap on at will and it rushes out at that person’s bidding.  Some folks (like me) find their creative journey slower and more methodical.  Don’t judge the way your process works with anyone else’s.  Each method and journey are different for each person.  Neither is ever wrong.  It’s what works for the individual.

Negative self-talk is also a sure creativity killer.  Whenever I hear any quilter say, “Oh, I could never do that,” or “There is no way I could ever make a quilt that beautiful,” I cringe.  Sure, you may not have the skill set now, but in 18 months or two years, you may be perfectly able to make the quilt.  Allow me to share with you a personal experience I had several years ago when I was an educator.

Some of you may know, teachers are required to take so many enrichment classes every so many years to keep their teaching certificates up to date.  These classes can be related to the direct subject matter you teach, or it can be information about things you would like to integrate in your classroom.  One particular summer, I was late getting around to signing up for a class at my local community college.  The only thing left was creative writing – which I did hold a personal interest in but wasn’t so sure I could integrate that into physics and chemistry.  However, it would fulfill my certificate requirements, so I signed up and paid the fee.   As I settled into the first class, I was wary the tiny, conservatively dressed, gray-haired lady leading the workshop could teach any of us anything about creativity.  Frankly she looked like a woman my grandmother would be very comfortable sharing a church pew with on Sunday morning.  Then she volunteered the information she was writing a book about the brothels in California during the Gold Rush.

Well, that certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.  Sunday school material, maybe.  But Houses of Ill Repute? No.

I had a lot of fun in that class.  I wrote a children’s book about kittens.  But the main thing I came away with was this:  When you jump into your creativity zone, you have permission to set the very critical part of you – the part which doubts what you’re doing, worries about what other people will think – outside the room.  Ms. Berensby told us she would physically set a chair outside the door of her office and tell the critical part of herself to take a seat and make itself comfortable.  Then she shut her office door and got to work.  The actual act of this somewhat ridiculous motion set her creativity free. 

You may need a chair and a closed door.  Or just maybe you and the critical part of yourself just needs a come-to-Jesus meeting.  I’ve learned to let everything go the minute I step inside my quilt studio. 

As you develop your creativity, you’ll change as a quilter and as a person.  The biggest changes you may note are these:

  1.  You realize every mistake is a potential success, even if you have to start over.  Several times.
  2. You let your mind and eyes look outside the box.  Sometimes you don’t even acknowledge a box.
  3. You don’t mind digging through the trash, the scrap bins, or anywhere else you think you can find what you need to make your quilt perfect.
  4. You play more with your art.
  5. You’re not afraid to try new things.
  6. You realize it’s the process which counts, not the finished product.
  7. Most importantly, you learn to persevere.  That doesn’t mean you don’t mess up, get mad, or even have a good cry now and then.  It means after the crying has stopped, you go back and try again. 

Wow!  I’ve written slightly over 2,000 words and haven’t even begun to talk about the applique process I want to use for this blog.  Next week we’ll start by looking at some apps which can turn your pictures into line drawings and how to simplify them.  And then we’ll talk about fabric.  Meanwhile, take a walk, doodle, and be creative…everywhere… Spread that stuff like sunshine.

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


6 replies on “Cultivating Creativity”

I was told in 10th grade that I had no artistic abilities. Then, in drama school, I forgot my lines and was told I’d never be an actor. So, I stopped. Everything.
When my kids were little, we took them to the Amish Country in Pennsylvania. I walked into that quilt shop and it was my “come to Jesus” moment! I knew I couldn’t afford to buy one of the quilts, so I decided I’d learn how to make my own. The rest, as they say, is history. I don’t design my own, but I sure do my own color combinations and that satisfies my soul.

Oh my goodness. This is perfect. I’m going to share this with a people. We may not be able to do what someone else does, but we have to realize that what we’re creating is our own.

Great post! I can’t wait for the rest. I love appliqué and I’m always open to some mind freeing ideas about creativity.

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I hope everyone likes this “new” applique. Other applique artists have done similar techniques, but this is the first time I’ve seen it taken to a level which uses current technology.

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