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So You Want to Make an Art Quilt?

Before I begin talking about art quilting in general, I want to point out a site that has beautiful discharge examples. It’s at artquilt.se/2010/02/discharge-in-layers.html. The pieces are so effective because of the different levels of bleaching done within one piece, leading to different colors or lack of colors all together. It’s definitely worth a look.

I have talked to women who have made beautiful traditional quilts but they would also like to start making art quilts. They find making the leap intimidating. The difference to me is that with an art quilt you develop your own design rather than follow someone else’s instructions. If you want, you can start small, change only one little thing. I think of it as getting your toes wet when you’re on the Maine shore, instead of jumping in all at once.

One way to start is to change the kind of fabric you’re using. No, I don’t mean creating quilts entirely out of linen, although I do use a lot of different kinds of fabrics in my pieces. But cotton is easiest and there is a huge amount of variety. Personally I went from solids and calicos to batiks and wild designs. You can try some new colors, although I’ve never made a good piece with fabric colors I didn’t like. You can paint and dye fabric. I have to admit that when I do this I always like the results, but it’s never what I started out to do.

Ask yourself what techniques you enjoy doing, or which ones you’d like to try. Knowing a lot of techniques can’t take the place of having a vision for what you want to do. But once I settle on a theme for a new piece, I like working through the techniques I can do to decide which would be best in this case. Two techniques I can do and relax at the same time are piecing and hand applique, and I use them a lot. Anything you’ve done in traditional quilting can come in handy for art quilting.

I’ve read a lot of books by art quilters who swear by keeping a sketchbook with them at all times. I’d say it’s worth a try to see if it suits you. I myself get mad every time I read it in another book. That’s because I can’t draw, don’t enjoy drawing, and don’t want to spend good times outside distracted by what I should put on paper. But over the years I have done more drawing, and I have improved. So the sketchbook is probably a good idea, but I’m still not going to do it.

An idea I’ve often read about that I do agree with is having a design wall in your home. If you’re lucky enough to have a studio, you may find room for a couple of design walls. I hang and attach a sheet to my dining room wall – the only space available – and often hang up one or more pieces I’m working on. It makes a real difference. It’s easier to pick up things that don’t really look good, especially if you forget it’s there and look at it when you’re not expecting to see it. The parts that aren’t so good leap out at me.

Sometimes I get stuck with a piece and have to put it away unfinished. For years I’ve had a bag of dark green fabrics, canvas and cotton and other types, which I’ve wanted to use to develop an imaginary map. I had in the past painted two maps, burned some other green fabric for borders, and marked longitudes and latitudes with markers. I still really like the idea, but it never came together for me, no matter how much I lay pieces side by side. Finally a month or so ago I decided I would never work out how to use the whole pieces. It was time to cut things up. And it was only the first cut that was painful. I’m done with the piece now and it’s at the photographer’s to get a good picture of it (mine are truly bad). I don’t know if it still looks like a map, but I do like it. I’ll get a picture of it up when I get it back.

So starting an art quilt may be as simple as taking out unfinished pieces and trying to look at them with a new eye. I have a bag of old embroidered tablecloths and tatted doilies, some with stains and some worn away. I’d like to make a modern quiltwith them, but haven’t figured out how yet. I’ll let you know if it develops. But that’s what I’m trying to say – you may have to take out pieces, study them, and put them back quite a few times before your mind has that ‘aha’ moment. I am always grateful in moments like these after I’ve made the first cut. Then I’m committed and somehow Ihave to keep moving forward. I’ve been known to throw out something I’ve started if I’ve come to hate it. But I can’t throw out older work that people I don’t know have worked on. It seems like they deserve more respect than that.

If you’re stuck for ideas, Pinterest.com is a wonderful place to explore. I don’t want to copy anyone’s work, but I find a lot of taking-off places by seeing wht other people have done. And your ideas don’t have to be based on a quilt top. I’ve made quilt art pieces based on beautiful vases and even once a pair of my favorite earrings.

I used to work occasionally with a woman who inspired me. We’d usually see each other only once a year, and I didn’t necessarily even always like what she was doing. But I was very impressed with the way she had of always finding a way through problems to get where she wanted to go. There is a solution. It may not be the one you first thought of. Your piece may end up entirely different from what you had intended at first. This is the freedom of art quilting. Let it go where it wants to go. The work of the quilters of Gees Bend illustrates this wonderfully. When I was making traditional quilts, I couldn’t understand the attraction of quilts made in what was called the African-American style. Now I love their work, and also love the idea of ‘building’ a quilt as you go rather than plotting it out all ahead of time. The books published on the quilters of Gees Bend are definitely worth studying. There is also worth in creating quilts with only the fabric you have on hand, but I’m afraid I often fail miserably at this. Buying new fabric is half the fun!

Sometimes in life it’s necessary to follow rules. But I think of rules in art quilting as merely suggestions. If you like the idea go with it. If you don’t, ignore it. In fact if someone tells me about a ‘rule’ in art quilting, I almost always ignore it. Once a very good quilt teacher who I admired a lot told me you weren’t supposed to iron finished quilts. Well, why not? I don’t even like to iron but for a while, I just had to do it. So there! There is one rule that I apply to myself, but again, ignore it if you want. I want anyone looking at my pieces to know I have the ability to do the techniques involved in quilting. So the top may be crazy, but I want to show that I know how to finish a piece. I may use wild colors but I want them to look like they go together, in some universe at least. I don’t want people’s first reaction to be “What a mess” even if I want to be messy in parts of a piece.

I hope parts of this blog help you. If you’re a little stuck, let me know what the problem is. Or send a picture of where you’re at. Sometimes all that’s involved is looking at things in a slightly different way.

Continuation of Removing Color on Fabric with Bleach

First off, some details I should have mentioned last time. When using Clorox spray it’s a very good idea to wear a face mask. All the books suggest it and I figure it’s in the can’t hurt / may help category. I don’t think you have to worry about this with bleach pens or decolourant, because particulates aren’t in the air.

Also, I’ve come across two very good suggestions for after a piece is bleached. They are so that the bleach will set and stay the way you want it. I have to admit that I have some pieces I bleached about 15 years ago and did not follow these directions, and they haven’t changed at all. But another purpose of doing it is to soak the pieces as soon as they reach the level of color change that you want. And I have sometimes gone past a really good shade towards mud because I didn’t rinse the fabric.

The process is easy. Have two buckets of lukewarm water near where you are working. Add some soap detergent – I use Synthrapol – to one, and anti-Chlor to the other. The anti-Chlor container will have instructions on how much to use, and you can get both products from Dharma Trading Co. Once you have used the bleach and like what you see, and after you have removed the freezer paper, rinse the fabric by dunking and agitating it in soapy water. Then wring out and soak the fabric in the anti-Chlor solution for 15 minutes. Once you rinse out the fabric and let it dry, you can iron it at your leisure to set the pieces.

Chlorine products will work on cotton, linen or rayon. They don’t work on protein products like silk or wool. Sometimes I use predominantly cotton fabric and it doesn’t bleach – this is mostly a matter of trial and error. I have read that sometimes the way the fabric was dyed in the first place interferes with the bleach. I only know that sometimes I spray a fabric that seems to be cotton, and it doesn’t change color.

I want to show you pictures of the process of spraying bleach and using freezer paper as a resist. A resist is anything that will get in the way between the bleach and fabric. It can be a leaf, cheesecloth, gutta resist solvent. The latter is made to act as a block between paint and the surface. But most often I use freezer paper – it will stick to cloth when ironed shiny side down, and come up easily when you’re ready to remove it. And it’s easy to shape with scissors into whatever you want it to be. My examples here will be circles and birds, for no particular reason.

Below is an example of freezer paper with circles cut out of it before it is ironed onto fabric:

I apologize if this is all too self-evident, but sometimes it’s easier to understand pictures than text. Now it’s time to iron the paper shiny side down. In this case I’m using black fabric and a dry iron. I’m also ironing on the circles cut from a long, narrow piece of freezer paper. Leave at least several inches between freezer paper pieces.

Now it’s time to spray – I use a plastic bottle with a spray nozzle, with a mix of about 60% water and 40% bleach mixed inside. Just do a couple of quick squirts around the circles and within the open circles in the long piece of paper. Then wait. Within a few minutes you should notice a change in color. It’s better to walk away while this happens – I always find it too much of a temptation to squirt too much if I’m standing there watching. If you don’t notice a change, or you’d like more of a change, give a few more squirts. You don’t want the paper to get too wet because the bleach will work its way under the paper and you won’t end up with nice circle, bird or whatever shapes.

When I got to this point above in spraying, I didn’t think there was enough bleach, so I sprayed a little more:

I was happy with the above picture and with the color the fabric changed to, and hopefully your fabric will change to a color you like. When this happens, remove the freezer paper and dunk the fabric into the soapy water as mentioned above. And that is the process of using freezer paper as a resist on fabric. Below is a picture of the fabric after I removed the freezer paper.

You may want to do this with a project in mind. I’ll remember that I have this piece and wait until I think of something I want to add it too.

Let me know if you have questions or suggestions if you have better ideas on how to do this.

Removing Color From Fabric

As hard as I work sometimes to add color to fabric, I also enjoy removing it. I have most often used household bleach, but have also used Jacquard deColourant and bleach pens.

Since this process takes away color, it makes sense that it works best on darker fabrics. I don’t think I’ve ever tried it really light cloth, but I haven’t been limited to black and brown. Try dark reds, pinks, oranges, greens, blues. Not every fabric changes with bleach or decolorant. I’ve read that it has something to do with the colors used to dye the fabric, but the only way I’ve found to find out if it works is to try it.

My process is not very sophisticated but it goes like this: I spread several sheets of newspaper on the kitchen floor. I choose up to 30 pieces of fabric I want to test, and cut a piece about 3″ by 6″ long. I used to do 3″ by 3″ but I discovered the bleach often covered the whole piece and then I couldn’t tell which original piece it came from. Once everything is down, I fill a spray bottle with about half Clorox bleach and half water – maybe a little more water. Then I spray about two times on the end of each piece of fabric, and wait. My temptation is to spray more, but this often completely wipes out color and the result is dingy. You’ll start to see as the results are produced that maybe you want to spray just a little more on some of the pieces.

I better talk about safety. The books that give instructions say to use a face mask while doing this. I don’t but I’m sure it’s a good idea. I do this rarely, and leave the door open and so far I’m fine. But it’s better to use the mask.

After about five minutes, look at the pieces and see what you’ve got. I always like some of them and am indifferent to many. One or two I actually love. Black usually produces a dark red/brown that is very attractive, and the same black can turn to an attractive tan with another squirt or two. You can get a small range of differences on one piece of fabric.

You can eliminate fabrics where you didn’t like the change, or where there was none. I throw away the 3″ by 6″ pieces I don’t like. The others I wash out and let dry, and store them with the original fabric. I’ll talk about some projects next.

There are other instructions the books will give you about what to do with the fabric after it’s been bleached, so the bleaching stops where you want it to. I sometimes do this but usually just run through water, and I’ve never had a problem with the color changing, even after years on a wall. But it’s better to at least know the correct procedure. Once I find the book with the information, I’ll add it here.

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