Saturday, February 11, 2006

Training Wheels


Since I've not had anything original to show for a bit, I thought this might be a good time to talk about the value of patterns. This is a shot of a design from Suzanne Marshall's quilt "Rhapsody In Bloom" that was started in a class with her. I was getting it prepared for hand quilting about the same time as I started this blog and before I was ready to start the hand quilting on my nephew's Lone Star. Next to it you can see sources for a few quilting designs I added in the corners. Click on the photo for a larger view.

I took her class for two reasons: first because I'd been looking for a class on hand applique to see if I was on the right track and to pick up some pointers, and second because I am a real fan of Suzanne's Art Nouveau influenced designs. I wanted to learn while working on a piece I could be enthused about. I'd passed up other workshops with well known teachers precisely because I did not like the project for the class. What I did not anticipate was that her class would also teach me things about using color. By studying her quilt and following her suggestions for fabrics, I was pushed to expand my idea of what works together.

Since "arriving" in the art quilt world, I've noted that there are some out there that totally disdain the use of someone else's pattern for any reason. Why use someone else's idea, they reason, when you can draw up your own and have a totally original piece with no worries about copyright infringement? While there's validity to this argument, I think it ignores the fact that not every aspiring artist comes out of the box ready to create. There's a learning curve here, steeper for some than for others. Some pieces are learning tools, some for our own enjoyment or to gift, and if we're really lucky, some will be worthy of exhibition and even selling. That last category is the one that should show total originality and independence from the work of others. The other two, learning and gifting may be the perfect place to work from someone else's pattern.

Patterns can be like training wheels on a bicycle. They can provide support while we get our balance, but unlike a tricycle, those extra wheels don't totally hold us upright. There's some room for us to wobble without totally crashing, and a warning when we lean too far. Eventually, we get the hang of staying upright while peddling and steering and can dispense with the training wheels altogether. Others may never get the hang of it, or need longer to gain experience and confidence in the process. A few will not like the training wheels at all, finding them too constricting, and would prefer a few tumbles over not being able to push the limits of their skills right away.

By using a pattern like training wheels, you can concentrate on a particular aspect of the work instead of being overwhelmed with the responsibility for every aspect of it. For instance, by using the Rhapsody pattern and general color scheme, I could hone in on the applique process and experiment with mixing different greens and reds effectively. I also could study over time the intricacies of her design and why it worked. By replicating good design, I think we add to our own design sensibility, by osmosis if nothing else. As long as we don't try to pass it off as our own, I think using patterns, as is or with our own tweaks, is a great learning tool.

Before I got into quilting, I did many other forms of needlework, almost always from a kit or someone else's pattern. I seldom changed anything about these projects, not even a color here or there. It wasn't until I started working with fabrics in quilts that my design sensibilities kicked in. I can't help but think that all those years of using someone else's designs taught me things without being aware of it and instilled a certain confidence I otherwise wouldn't have had that helped me with my own designing. At first, I was still using patterns, but now I was substituting colors, altering sizes, changing sets, creating different borders. The pattern became a jumping off point, and in some cases, saved me time by giving me the basic information about block dimensions and template pieces. Yes, I could have drafted my own patterns, but why waste the time if someone else had already done it? Eventually, I began coming up with original designs, but I still find occasions when referencing a part of someone's pattern saves me valuable time.

And that brings me to my final thought about the value of using patterns: for the most basic information, and for things in the public domain, and for pieces not destined as original works of art, why re-invent the wheel? Take those feather motifs I'll be quilting in the corners of my Rhapsody above. Sure, I know how to draw feather motifs. But since this piece is a learning piece that will only be displayed in my home, I saw nothing wrong with using a pattern from a book that was just the right size and feel. Our medium of quilting is time consuming enough without needlessly adding to the time it takes to move from idea to completion. A little help from a pattern when appropriate is nothing to be ashamed of.


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