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 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, 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.