18 March 2007

What I'm working on now

I wanted to do something with those luscious wools I cooked up at the OCAC natural dyes workshop before they acquired that aura of "too special to cut into." The soft yellows, greens and browns reminded me of a photo I clipped from the paper several months ago and stuck in my "inspirations" file. It's an aerial view of fields separated into quadrants, really just a simple four-patch, but very textural. So I started with that idea and then began improvising, using a combination of piecing and reverse applique. The blacky-gray and dark green strips are, respectively, hand-dyed by moi and hand-dye-look commercial cottons.

This is a much more muted palette than I typically use. I thought at first it needed a touch of lime green (doesn't everything?) to zing it up. But what it really wanted was some of the lovely soft brazilwood red wool I'd dyed at the workshop.

It still needs quilting to bring it to life. I'm thinking of doing some seed stitching with variegated perle cotton (I have a skein in colors that would coordinate perfectly). Regular machine quilting would probably be swallowed up in the loft of the wool, though it might add some interesting surface texture.

I'm not sure it still reminds me of fields; something about it also suggests media -- four TV screens or computer monitors, with a border of slides, photo negatives or perhaps movie film -- though I would've chosen entirely different colors if I were doing a "media" quilt. Oh well; it'll probably tell me what it wants to be during the quilting.

17 March 2007

Double Irish Chain

Five or six years ago, I won my quilt guild's Block of the Month raffle. You get one chance for each block you submit; I made two, and ended up with mine and everybody else's -- 22 blocks in all, almost enough for a queen-sized quilt. The pattern is called Double Irish Chain. I'm not much into traditional quilting these days, but the compulsive, checking-items-off-lists part of me was whispering insistently "Finish it!"

That's easier said than done; "finishing it" involved piecing two additional blocks, which was insanely tedious. NPR, my default studio sound track, barely put a dent in my boredom; I had to resort to my iPod and full-out rock 'n' roll. Then I had to sew the blocks together, four across and six down, lining up all those tiny squares along the edges. Matching seams and corners is exacting enough when you're piecing your own work, but each quilter interprets a standard 1/4-inch seam somewhat differently. Ergo, a 15-inch block might actually measure anywhere from, say, 14-1/2, if you're generous with your seam allowance, to 16 inches if you're skimpy. Reconciling the individual variations means ending up with seams that are stretched in some places and wavy in others. No matter how much "easing" you do, some squares just won't line up. There's a reason I don't do much traditional quilting anymore.

But the worst is over. Too late, I realized that one contributor made a big mistake in assembling her block. There it is, the only one with a tiny white square surrounded by blues, just to the left of center. If I'd noticed in time, I would've moved it to a less conspicuous spot. Oh well; I remind myself that quilting is a folk art and imperfections add character. I was such a novice when I acquired these blocks that the possibility that someone else might actually have put theirs together incorrectly never entered my mind.

Now that I step back and look at the top, it's actually an intriguing pattern with a lot more interest than I expected, thanks largely to the various contributors' fabric choices, their individual interpretations of "medium" and "dark" blue. I'm thinking it wants a triple border in different shades of blue. That'll go fairly quickly, once I get in the mood to sew something mindless. I have plenty of blues in my stash, and matching seams won't be an issue.

The big issue is how to quilt it. A queen-sized quilt is at the outer limits of what my sewing machine (and its operator) can handle, though it's not completely out of the question. I'm certainly not going to hand-quilt it, not in this lifetime, anyway. I know I could shop it out to someone with a long-arm machine, but I'm resisting the idea because then it won't be 100% "mine".

I'm delaying the quilting decision for now. We really don't need another queen-sized quilt. But I don't want to give it away, since it's a keepsake from my old guild, and so many of the signed blocks are from good friends without whom I wouldn't have gotten sucked into quilting in the first place. I'm considering alternative uses. Shower curtain? Room divider? Table cloth? This is so not a crisp blue-and-white house. A friend suggested overdyeing it (light green or violet might work), which I thought was a brilliant idea, but it seems sacrilegious, somehow. I'm mulling the possibilities.

12 March 2007

Power Spots

Cats have an innate ability to track where we humans focus our attention, and an uncanny knack for interposing themselves between us and there. (Sometimes, I suspect, levitation is involved.) The goal, of course, is to reassert themselves as the center of the universe and the sole purpose of our existence.

This is a big "duh," but I thought it worth documenting, especially since Stella Luna and China Rose recently provided such textbook examples. I post these shots knowing that you might never (again) accept a cup of coffee, let alone a meal, at my house.

Cats and quilts, especially quilts in progress, are another manifestation of the same phenom. The attraction is almost magnetic.

But books and newspapers are the classic example of the feline ability to find the power spot. Abbie, not pictured, is a master at getting between me and whatever I'm trying to reading. He's on my lap, on my laptop, even as I type. Years ago, a friend postulated that cats can read, and that they have a specialized eye for this purpose located somewhere near their anus. That would explain it.

08 March 2007

Red and White

The lawn in front of Eliot Hall at Reed is covered with small flags. At first glance, it looks like a dusting of snow. On second look, you can discern scattered concentrations and dots of red.

Each of the 112,000 white flags represents six Iraqis who died in the Iraq war. Each of the 3,000 or so red flags stands for a dead American soldier.

At the edge of the lawn are bundles of additional flags; a sign invites you to plant some of your own.

Red and white make pink. My first camellia blossom is out. Spring is stirring in Portland, and that obscene war goes on.

05 March 2007

Dyeing the way you live

I spent most of the weekend at the Oregon College of Arts & Crafts, immersed up to my elbows in Judilee Fitzhugh's workshop on one-pot natural dyeing. "One-pot" means that the entire process -- cooking up the dyestuff (usually plant material), mordanting, and dyeing -- happens in the same pot. It's easier and less messy, in some ways, than Procion (tm) dyeing, and generally less toxic, though it takes more prep and the results are less predictable. The leaves, stems and flowers of the same plant might all yield different colors; time of year and water source figure in as well.

A mordant, for those of you who haven't been hanging out around the dyepots, is a substance that helps bind the dye to the fabric (though not all dyestuffs require the extra help). Simply using an aluminum, copper or iron pot will often provide enough mordant to do the job. We used powdered alum, as well as a copper vat and a nicely-rusting iron pot. Different mordants skew the results toward darker or brighter shades; iron, for instance, "saddens" or grays the color. (This process goes back to medieval times, and some of the terminology, wonderfully, does, too.)

An amazing array of vegetable matter will yield worthwhile dyes. Queen Anne's lace, dahlias, daffodils, rhododendrons, manzanita and madrone are all good dyestuffs. There are dozens of books on the subject; I picked up a lot of information (some of it contradictory) browsing through Judilee's collection. You can dye with turmeric, saffron or annatto -- which has been moldering in my spice collection for years -- rhubarb leaves, which are poisonous when ingested, red cabbage, spinach or chard, and of course coffee grounds or old, cold tea. Hey, throw it in your dye vat before you put it in your compost bin!

For the workshop, though, we used three colorific crowd-pleasers that come pulverized and pre-packaged: osage orange, logwood and brazilwood. They tend toward yellow, purple and red, respectively. We also stewed up some walnut hulls (brown) and a mess' o' Japanese knotweed (red-brown). I even brought in some of those hateful spiky seedballs from my sweetgum trees, hoping to find some redeeming value in them. Nah.

Judilee mixed up some freeze-dried indigo, by popular request, just to have on hand. The proximity of a vat of indigo, ready to go, is very alluring, and I ended up with more blue fabric than I'd intended. We also used the indigo to overdye some of our yellows to a lovely green. Ironically, despite the grass-stained clothing of our childhood, not many dye plants yield a good clear green.

There were only three of us in the workshop, me and two women named Amy, which made it easy for Judilee; she already knew me, so everyone else had to be Amy. A class this small gave us all room to experiment, ask questions and compare results, and made it so much less of a hassle to find space to work and to hang dripping pieces of fabric. And it was quiet. It felt luxurious. On Friday in particular, when it rained hard all day, it was lovely to stand over a steaming dye vat, thinking that I had nothing to do at that particular moment other than what I was already doing.

Anyway, we dyed a variety of silks, from organza to dupioni (yum), plus some wool that I'd bought at Mill Ends and shared around (that's the wool hanging to dry in my laundry room at home). I dyed the rest of the cream-colored, rose-patterned damask tablecloth that I used last year in my Mom Quilt. One of the Amys brought in hemp, which took the dye well, too. By the end of the class, each of us had an enviable stash of fabrics in a range of gorgeous, lush colors, as well as some yarn and thread that we'd wound and dipped, plus a few skeins that Judilee had prepared for us.

Weeks ago, when I registered for the workshop, I couldn't see myself stewing up vatfuls of miscellaneous stalks and stems on my own stovetop, but I figured that this would be a good opportunity to find out what natural dyes were all about. The workshop not only met my expectations, it fired my imagination. I am my mother's Saran-Wrap-washing daughter, after all, and the idea of using stuff that's free for the picking, pruning or scavenging is very appealing. Plus there's the hippie granola Berkeley/Portland sustainability thing -- reduce, re-use, recycle -- which has been part of my psyche, if not always my practice, ever since I can remember. So I came home yesterday and ordered two natural dyeing books. Now I'm eyeing my rhododendrons.