Are You Up For A Challenge?

I’m always up for a challenge!

I mean, I like small challenges in my daily life—solving a problem, figuring something out, overcoming a difficulty, meeting a goal.

But even more, I love an external challenge–a set of standards or constraints, presented to a group of people, to see how they respond individually.

For instance, a number of years ago, we did a family fitness challenge. Four of us each put in $125 and set a 3-month time limit. The plan was to see who could exercise, for at least 30 minutes, for the most days in that time frame.

Two of the four participants exercised every single day for three months and shared the prize! And, of course, even those of us who “lost” won because we did far more than we would’ve, without the challenge.

Challenges are a big deal in the crafting world. Sometimes, these challenges are pretty straightforward—for instance, my quilt guild’s challenge last year was to make a red and white quilt and to incorporate, somewhere, two specific red and white print fabrics, which we were given.

Other challenges are more . . . challenging. One of the most intriguing I read about was a Beatles challenge, where each quilter chose a Beatles’ song to provide inspiration. My blog pal, Snarky Quilter, chose Paperback Writer and made her quilt a depiction of a pulp novel.

If you read a lot of craft blogs, you’ve probably come across a lot of craft bloggers who are participating in challenges and reporting back in their posts. Whether the crafters are knitting, embroidering, or quilting, challenges seem to draw us in.

What’s the appeal?

Part of the fun of a challenge is personal—I feel like I’ve done some of my most creative work in response to a challenge. Having guidelines and limitations is both constraining and liberating!

The best part of the challenge, though, is the unveiling, when the participants come together and show how they’ve each addressed the challenge. It is always fascinating to see how different people interpreted the guidelines and all the different directions creativity can go. A challenge creates a sense of community while celebrating individual creativity.

We went to the Vermont Weavers’ Guild show last weekend. We saw a number of lovely hand-woven pieces but, for both of us, the best part of the show was the display of challenge pieces.

The weavers had each chosen a postcard of an Impressionist painting and used that to inspire their choice of color and weaving pattern. The towels were displayed with the inspiration cards.

I loved the idea that practical, earthbound kitchen towels were inspired by transcendent works of art!

We spent a lot of time at the three racks of towels, choosing favorites and talking about what the weavers accomplished.

Seeing this challenge also got us thinking about ways we could use art as inspiration. It was fun to think about our own favorite paintings and consider ways we could use the colors. Don thought he might go the direction of Monet’s water lilies while I would look to the work of my favorite painter, John Singer Sargent. Wouldn’t these colors be pretty in a towel?

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Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent

One never knows where the next challenge is coming from, in life or in craft. Our life challenges may weigh heavily, tire us out, bring us down. Happily, our craft challenges can do just the opposite–lift us up, energize, give us new insight.

Have you participated in a favorite artistic challenge? Have you blogged about it? If so, consider leaving a link in the comments!

The Crafter’s Conundrum: Get It Done or Get It Right?

There comes a time in every crafter’s life, when they need to make a choice: get it done or do it right.

What is your stance on imperfections in the things you make? How do feel about the mistakes you make?

Do you look for perfection? Does your eye zoom in on the tiny error? Do you lose sight of the beautiful forest because of one misshapen tree?

Is there a difference, in your thinking, between an imperfection and a mistake?

Everyone who makes things, who uses their hands to create, faces these questions regularly.

Normally I have a high threshold for imperfection. I adhere to the philosophy of American glassblower, Simon Pearce: “The human hand can’t do anything perfectly, and that’s the beauty of it.”

I seek out imperfections in handmade items. I get a big charge out of seeing the quirky evidence of loving hands in other people’s work.

In my own work, too, I’m pretty relaxed.

I don’t like waste, of materials or money or time. I try to take the attitude that seems to have been present, by necessity, in earlier generations of crafters—will it do the job, in spite of the flaw? Yes? Then leave it be.

Of course, if I am making something for a special gift and hope for it to be cherished, I apply a higher standard but, generally, I’m very practical.

But then this quilt happened.

red white quilt

The top is finished now and it looks nice but only after I fixed a pretty big mistake.

I started the quilt to practice the new technique I had learned—paper, or foundation, piecing.* I also saw it as a way to address the challenge my quilt guild had posed this year. We were to make a red and white quilt and we had to incorporate two print fabrics.

So, I made the 8-inch pieced blocks and was sooooo careful to get all the small pieces aligned correctly.

After I got the blocks made, I had to sew them all together. I did half of the top before I realized that I had set two of the blocks wrong.

The whole point of the quilt design was the diagonal line of those print fabrics running across the quilt . . . and it wasn’t happening.

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See how the top left block has the print fabrics in the wrong corners?

In two blocks, the prints were in the wrong corners. If it had been only one block, maybe I could’ve justified leaving it alone. But two, evenly spaced, was too much.

And the head of quality control agreed.

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It forced me to think about my attitude toward mistakes and to consider the difference between an imperfection and an outright mistake. There are plenty of small imperfections in this quilt and no one will notice those except me.

But the setting of the blocks was a big ol’ mistake. I needed to acknowledge it and fix it.

So I spent parts of two days doing just that.

And while I worked, I pondered mistake making and thought of my patron saint and asked myself, “What would Pollyanna do?”

I looked for the good in the situation:

  • It could’ve been much worse. I still had half the quilt top to put together and I caught the mistake before I made it many more times
  • I am unlikely to make this particular mistake again, in any quilt I make.
  • I was using a fairly long stitch and it was easy enough to pull out.
  • I own a seam ripper, at which I am, now, quite the dab hand, and another tool that made the job manageable. I’ll tell you more about that someday.
  • The deadline for the quilt guild challenge is still a few weeks away. No need to panic.
  • Mistakes like these keep me humble. Getting humbler every day . . .
  • That which does not kill us makes us strong.

Making, and fixing, mistakes, in whatever arena, works our resilience muscles, I think. If we are to be good at picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, and starting over again, we need to have practice doing just that.

Little mistakes, faced and fixed, give us practice for surviving the bigger mistakes, the slings, the arrows, we will inevitably face.

And knowing the difference between acceptable imperfection, which can be embraced as simply human, and larger mistakes, which must be set right, is equipment for living a better life.


* Sometimes auto correct gets it right!

As I drafted this post, I meant to type “paper piecing” and got “paper peeving” instead. And, indeed, this quilt has peeved me no end!

“Cot to Coffin” Quilts: A Display of Pride and Passion

IMG_1627I wrote quite a lot, early this year, about a quilt I was making as part of a challenge held by our quilt guild. As you will see, this quilt challenge clearly moved many people.

The time and creativity and energy and passion that went into making these quilts was evident and inspiring. These quilts were made to honor our ancestors, our region, our home, our people.

The quilts were made in response to a challenge set by our local guild to create a “Cot to Coffin” quilt, as a way of commemorating the men who fought in the Battle of Plattsburgh, in the War of 1812.

The Battle of Plattsburgh took place in September of 1814 and was considered a turning point of the war. Local volunteers have been anticipating this bicentennial for a long time!

To refresh your memories, the quilts were supposed to be made to measure 70 inches by 30 inches, with the idea that they could’ve been carried to battle with the foot soldiers. The quilts were a size that could be used as a blanket or, if the soldier should die, could be pressed into use as a burial shroud.

We were asked to use fabrics, patterns, and techniques of the types available to women in early 1800s America.

During the week of the Battle of Plattsburgh bicentennial, forty-two quilts were displayed in the City Hall. The quilts were made by women and men, experienced quilters and absolute novices!

This quilt, made by a retired art teacher and the first quilt he has ever made, translates the portrait of naval leader Thomas Macdonough to fabric.

This quilt, made by a very experienced quilter, commemorates Crab Island, in Lake Champlain, the site of a field hospital during the battle and mass burial ground of both American and British casualties of the war. The quilter embroidered everything by hand, including the names of the men buried on Crab Island around the border.

IMG_1643 IMG_1644Other quilts used patchwork designs that were popular at the time and reproduction fabrics to recreate the look of quilts that could’ve gone to battle with husbands and brothers and sons.

One quilt, instead of honoring the soldiers of the battle, honored the volunteers who have, for years, honored the soldiers of the battle. This quilt contains the signatures of the Battle of Plattsburgh volunteers who pulled out all stops to make the bicentennial a huge event!

IMG_1649I especially loved this quilt, made by a cousin I don’t even know! It incorporates a stylized family tree design, honoring 200 years of the Wright family, the family of my maternal grandfather.

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My great-grandparents!

IMG_1655 I almost forgot to take a picture of my own quilt, which focused on a song written by Catherine Macomb, the wife of one of the leaders of the battle! I heard very kind feedback from people who viewed the quilt. The quilt was also pictured in the local newspaper, in a story about Catherine Macomb’s song!

IMG_1658This was a new quilt-making experience for me, tying my work to a larger theme and purpose. I was, frankly, completely surprised at how much I was moved by the whole endeavor. It is so obvious, from viewing the quilts on display, that others were as inspired by the challenge as I was!

For more on this challenge and my quilt, visit these earlier posts:

A Quilt for All Reasons

1812 “Cot to Coffin” Quilt–The Plan

1812 Quilt–A Letter to Catherine Macomb

1812 “Cot to Coffin” Quilt–Progress Report

O, Frabjous Day . . .

O, Frabjous Day . . . .

IMG_7757Callooh! Callay!

The “Cot to Coffin” quilt is done!

IMG_7729I began this quilt in late January, in response to a quilt challenge my guild was doing. A number of guilds have done these challenges, as part of the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. I’ve written several posts that give more details about the planning and process, if you’re especially interested you can click on links throughout this post.

My personal goals were to a) make something that was meaningful to me, b) try and use fabrics and techniques consistent with what a woman could’ve used in 1814, and c) make hand quilting a big part of the design. Very few quilters in my guild quilt by hand and I wanted to honor the process.

I based the quilt on the words of a song reportedly written by Catherine Macomb. Catherine’s husband, Alexander, was the field general of the land campaign of the Battle of Plattsburgh in September of 1814. The words of the song describe Catherine’s feelings as she watched the battle and worried for her husband’s safety.

I embroidered the words to the song, “The Banks of Champlain,” and the title, and finished that by the end of February. (You can click on these photos for a closer look.)

I used the design of the Great Seal of the Untied States as a focal point; I read that patriotic designs were popular among quilters in this era. I embroidered the outline, with the intention of adding detail with the quilting.

I finished the top on March 23, basted it, and started quilting. By mid-April, I decided that my basting stunk, pulled out hours’ worth of hand-quilting, and re-basted using Sharon Schamber’s method.

I finished the quilting on June 18. Most of the quilting is done with off-white thread on the off-white fabric. On the red borders, I used a variegated brown thread and outlined the flowers in the print.

My favorite parts of the process:

I love the design and all the connections it made for me.

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I loved (loved!) doing the embroidery! That came as a big surprise—now I’m thinking about other projects that incorporate embroidered words in similar ways.

IMG_7745 I loved the hand quilting. There’s something about making those tiny stitches and seeing the fabric transformed that really makes me happy.

IMG_6942 IMG_7885My least favorite parts of the process:

As always, the basting. But this new method I’ve learned helped a lot.

I didn’t enjoy the parts I did on the sewing machine. I sewed the long seams by machine and, even though I am very happy with my new Singer Featherweight, machine sewing still gives me agita.

The part I was most ambivalent about:

The deadline. I’ve never made a quilt under deadline before and the deadline was a source of a lot of anxiety. It didn’t help that the whole time I was working I thought the deadline was June 30 but then, about two weeks ago, I read the small print and learned the deadline was August 31!

So the deadline made me super nervous, but it also meant I got the quilt done MUCH more quickly than I’ve ever finished a quilt before (the last one took 17 years to finish).

This quilt will hang with others—some traditional, some non-traditional, some made by experts, some made by school kids—in a public space in Plattsburgh during the Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration in September, 2014. I’ll probably share some photos of other “Cot to Coffin” quilts with you then.

Thanks so much for accompanying me through this project and letting me show off the final product!

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1812 “Cot to Coffin” Quilt–Progress Report

IMG_6218I’ve finished another stage in my “Cot to Coffin” quilt for the War of 1812 Bicentennial challenge!

The quilt top is complete!

The top consists of three sections—a large panel with embroidery of the Great Seal of the United States, a section with the title of the song, “The Banks of Champlain,” and a bottom section made up of six embroidered verses of the song.

The three sections are bordered with narrow strips of a blue-gray fabric and finished with wider bands of a deep red paisley fabric.

Reproduction fabric

Reproduction fabric

Both fabrics are reproduction fabrics consistent with colors and patterns used in the early 1800s (according to the quilt shop owner anyway!)

My plan, originally, was to render the design of the Great Seal in white-on-white quilting only. As I progressed and made choices about fabrics, I began to doubt that choice. From a distance, the quilt would’ve looked blank on top, with only the panels with the words showing up.

So, I decided to embroider the simple outline of the Great Seal in the same stitch I used on the rest—the most basic embroidery stitch there is, the back stitch. I will fill in the details of the seal design with quilting.

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The faint pencil marks will be quilted

To transfer the design, I got it blown up to the desired size and put the fabric panel over the design and traced it. I did the same with the words to the title of the song.

As I’ve said before, I transferred the verses of the song to fabric using the freezer paper method. I used a font in Microsoft Word called Edwardian Script for all the lettering.

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Each verse is embroidered this way

I sewed everything together on my brand-new old Singer Featherweight, which I love beyond measure!

From this point, I need to layer the top with the batting and backing fabric and baste them together. Then I will get started on the quilting, which I’ll do by hand—I’m not sure yet what the design will be.

This project started when I heard about the challenge at meeting of the quilt guild on January 16. Doing the embroidery and making the top has taken about two months and I have about three months in which to do the quilting, in order to meet the deadline.

It might just happen!

1812 Quilt–A Letter to Catherine Macomb

IMG_5925Dear Catherine,

My name is Kerry. This will seem an odd letter to you, since I am writing across the years from 2014. I’m writing about the song you wrote, as you watched your husband, Sandy, fight in the War of 1812.

It’s nearly 200 years since you wrote your song, “The Banks of Champlain,” to express your feelings about the Battle of Plattsburgh. You may be surprised that I know your song but, in fact, it moved many people and your words live on.

It was published in a book in 1842 and people sang it and passed it on by word of mouth—it was that memorable.  Then, in the mid-1900s, more than 100 years after your death, a famous man recorded it.

What does that mean, “recorded it”? Well, it’s complicated; let’s just say this man, Pete Seeger, sang your song in a way that meant people could listen to it any time and anywhere they wished.

I like the song so much, I spent several weeks embroidering the words on a quilt that I am making to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh. In a way, I felt I got to know you very well during the time I spent stitching. I thought about some of the ways our lives are similar, and ways they’re very different.

I have so many questions I’d like to ask! Were you really in Plattsburgh, watching, as the battle was waged? How frightening that must’ve been. Where were your children? I know that you had twelve little ones, including an infant born just a couple of months before the battle. Were they with you? Where did you live? How did you manage?

As I sewed by the fire, I imagined you sewing by the fire. What did you turn your hands and thoughts to, while your husband and Thomas MacDonough made their plans? Did you make a small quilt that Sandy could carry with him, as he fought? Did you have a little cat who played in your lap and wanted to bat your thread? I did.

IMG_1309You wouldn’t recognize Plattsburgh now, although some of the houses would look familiar. There are streets and buildings with the names Macomb and MacDonough on them! Both men are considered heroes here.

Some things, though, haven’t changed at all. The lake and the mountains are still beautiful. Autumn is still glorious. The War of 1812 brought, eventually, a lasting friendship with the peoples of England and Canada.

Sadly, another thing that hasn’t changed is that we still go to war—men and even women, now. We haven’t fought on American soil since a civil war in the 1860s. I won’t tell you about that—it would break your heart.

No, now we seem to fight wars in far-off places. My husband fought in a place in Southeast Asia that you may never have heard of. Right now, even as I write this, Americans are fighting in wars.

We don’t stand and watch our loved ones fight now, as you did, but that doesn’t stop the worry and fear. And the death.

In fact, the same famous man who taught me your song wrote another song about war. In that song, he asked, “when will we ever learn?”

It’s a good question, isn’t it?

Sincerely,

Kerry

­March 3, 2014

Plattsburgh, New York

_________________________________________________________

 Notes on the embroidery

As mentioned in a previous post, I transferred the words of the song, in the font I chose, using the freezer paper method. I made the printing color quite faint and the embroidery stitches cover the printed words nicely.

I started the embroidery of the song on January 23, 2014, and experimented with different color threads and different stitches for a couple days. When I made the decisions about what I wanted to do, I set myself a stint of doing at least one of the 24 lines each day. I finished on February 25.

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1812 “Cot to Coffin” Quilt—The Plan

IMG_5789I wrote recently about a quilt I’ve started. I’m going to use this blog to chronicle my progress, mostly so I have all the details in one place. If you’d like to read along, I’d love your company, as well as any feedback you have!

I’m making the quilt as part of a challenge to design quilts to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The rules for the 1812 quilt challenge are basically that the finished quilt has to be 70 inches by 30 inches (the so-called cot-to-coffin size) and that it be made with an eye to the use of fabrics, techniques, and designs that might’ve been available to quilters in the early 1800s.

My own desire was to make something that featured hand quilting and that would let me incorporate the words of a song I love, which happens to be about the War of 1812. This song, “The Banks of Champlain,” is said to have been written by the wife of the commander of land forces in the Battle of Plattsburgh, as she watched the battle from shore.

Two men, Commodore Thomas MacDonough and Brigadier General Alexander Macomb, are given credit for the American victory in the Battle of Plattsburgh, which was fought on Lake Champlain and its shores. It was Macomb’s wife, Catherine, who apparently wrote the song. The song, as I learned it from a recording by Pete Seeger, has 6 verses. You can find the words at the end of this post.

My plan for this long and narrow quilt is use a large white-on-white quilt design at the top. The Great Seal of the United States was first used publicly in 1782 and, according to one of my quilt books, patriotic designs were popular in the early 1800s.

I found a simplified version of the Seal online and took the page to my local office supply store, to have it blown up to the size I want. I will put my off-white fabric panel over this and trace the design to be quilted.

colorsealThe bottom half of the quilt will be composed of six panels, with the verses of the song hand-embroidered on them. I’ve been working on these and will show you more when they’re done in a few days! I used the freezer paper and printer method I wrote about earlier to print the song words on fabric.

Between the Great Seal on top and the song verses on the bottom, I’ll embroider, in larger letters, the title of the song. At this point, I’m experimenting with process pieces, to figure out how I want the embroidery to look. I have printed the words out in a large font and will, again, need to trace the shapes onto the fabric.

When the embroidery is finished and I’ve traced the Seal design on the fabric panel, I’ll piece these elements together, with fabric sashing and borders, to make the quilt top. I haven’t chosen the fabric for sashing and borders yet and suspect that may be the hardest part of the whole project for me. We do have a local quilt shop that sells reproduction historical fabrics so that should help!

This is where I am so far. I have everything sketched out on graph paper and have been holding myself to embroidering at least one line of the song each day. More soon!

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The Banks of Champlain–attributed to Catherine Macomb

 

Twas Autumn and round me the leaves were descending

And naught but the drumming bird tapped on the tree

While thousands their freedom and rights were defending

The din of their arms sounded dismal to me.

 

For Sandy, my love, was engaged in the action,

Without him I value this world not a fraction,

His death would have ended my life in distraction

As mournful I strayed on the banks of Champlain.

 

Then turning to list’ to the cannons loud thunder,

My elbow I leaned on a rock near the shore.

The sound nearly parted my heartstrings asunder,

I thought I should meet my dear Sandy no more.

 

But soon an express all my sorrows suspended,

My thanks to the Father of mercies ascended,

My Sandy was safe and my country defended,

By freedom’s brave sons on the banks of Champlain

 

Oh the cannon ceased firing, the drums were still beating,

As far to the northward our foes were retreating.

My friends and my neighbors each other were greeting,

With songs of delight on the banks of Champlain.

 

New York, the Green Mountains, Macomb and MacDonough,

The farmer, the soldier, the sailor, the gunner,

Each party united had pledged their honor,

To conquer or die on the banks of Champlain.