Friday, November 25, 2005

Grunt Work

Before I would allow myself to proceed with my willow leaves inspiration, I needed to complete some machine quilting on this lone star quilt - a very belated wedding gift for a nephew. That's the way I've always worked, several projects going at once, but in different stages of completion. Needing to get one to a particular stage before allowing me to start up a new one. In this case, the lone star will be both hand and machine quilted, and the hand quilting could not proceed before a minimum of machine-quilted stabilizing was done. Hand quilting is evening work; machine stitching of any kind is day work. I must finish all the machine sewing of a kind before I'm willing to change the set-up/needle/thread for a different kind. These are arbitrary designations set by my personality, among other things, and while originally thought to make me more efficient, they often hold me back. But I digress...

This stabilizing stitching was just stitching in the ditch along seam lines within the star and along the border with invisible thread - nothing very creative there. It requires a certain amount of skill, but not extraordinary skill. Any good technician can achieve it. It requires a certain amount of physical labor, wrestling that big quilt through the small opening of my machine. It becomes boring after a time, the hum of the machine hypnotizing, and it is easy to lose both concentration and enthusiasm which leads to stitches that jump out of the ditch or become uneven. It becomes grunt work.

I first made this connection to grunt work when showing my process to a friend who had received one of my quilts as a wedding quilt. He knew nothing about sewing, let alone quilting, but my obsession with it coupled with the gift led him to want to know more. He wanted to see all the steps from conception to completion. So I showed him about choosing a block (perhaps with special significance to the recipient), selecting colors and fabrics, playing with sets. I showed him how I used my computer program to help with that as well as figure yardage amounts and print templates. I demonstrated cutting the block units and deciding the best way to join them. As I sat at my sewing machine ready to chain stitch squares together, I concluded with, "Well, and the rest is just stitching all the pieces together...grunt work, I guess." I think it was the first time I'd thought of it in those terms. But if you think about it, every creative endeavor has its share of grunt work. In many cases, the artist turns this grunt work over to craftsmen to carry out, then takes the work back to add the final creative touches. Other artists perform every step themselves. For some the grunt work is physically impossible. For others, it is just one more pleasurable part of the process.

Once I got past the first few embroidered leaves for my willow piece (see previous post), I found myself getting in a groove not unlike the one I'd just experienced with the machine quilting in the ditch. Although not as physically demanding, it was certainly mind-numbing and not particularly creative. The creative part had already been done - shapes marked on fabric, threads selected. Nothing left but the grunt work and I wasn't sure I was enjoying it. Stitches would suddenly stray outside their boundaries. My mind wandered off. How many more of these dang things are there? A tiny voice whispered, "This is why they make computerized embroidery machines."

In order to make grunt work palatable, I think you have to enjoy some part of it, be it the sound of the machine or the rhythm of the hand-stitch. I love both, fortunately. I also love seeing the design come to life as work progresses. This is what I was latching onto with the machine embroidery. Yesterday, I made it a little more interesting by experimenting with blending threads. For this piece I am restricting my thread choice to rayon because of its shine, and I soon discovered I had a limited selection of browns and golds. By running two threads through the needle, I expanded my options and created variations I could not anticipate. That was a bit creative and certainly more exciting than just watching a leaf emerge in a pre-determined color.

I finished the last of the leaves today, re-stitching the last one three times before being happy with the color. Trust me, removing embroidered stitches is no fun, but the first two color choices simply weren't right. It was rip them out or never be easy with the piece. I want to try this again with a different set of threads, but my best sense is that this is not a technique I love. Useful, but not my favorite. I'll post a picture tomorrow after I've removed the stabilizer.

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