Monday, February 10, 2014

Time Line of a Quilt

Engagement Calendar from late '90's noting machine and hand quilting hours on same day

I've been keeping track of my quilting activities in American Quilters Society Engagement calendars like the one above since 1995. I'm an organization freak anyway, and it was about this time that I was getting really serious about my quilting, starting to keep records on the finished quilts per the recommendations of the day. But these calendar jottings became more than just a way to pin down the start and end date of work and how much time it took for the various stages. I'd jot down things like what technique I used and whether or not I liked it. Or I might note, like on the page above, that my husband had made a suggestion about something, and whether or not I'd taken his advice. As time went on, I also recorded quilt-related activities, trips, unusual weather, health issues that may or may not be keeping me from my work. In short, these calendars became diaries of my life as a whole, with quilting as its center.

I bring this up because I've just paged through years of these calendars searching for the documentation info on the recently completed half-square triangle quilt. I knew there were huge lapses between spates of working on it, and in reading the entries, it was easier to see why. I also spotted a major shift in time spent in the studio and how I worked. I've always had more than one project going at a time, but I'd forgotten how frequently I worked on as many as 4 different quilts in a single day.  There was a span of years where I juggled many balls each day, the activity coming across almost frenetic. All that changed once I moved out to Idaho.  I vaguely knew this had happened, but to read the details leading up to it all in one sitting made my conscious choice to simplify my focus sound less of a rationalization than I've been thinking it might have been.

circa 1875 charm quilt 80 x 80
So follow the time line of this latest quilt with me, and if you ever wondered why quilters stumble to answer the question "How long did it take you to make that?", this might help you understand. The idea for the half-square triangle quilt started with this picture of an antique quilt featured in a 1993 issue of Quilting Today. I was getting very interested in the history of antique quilts about then, as was the rest of the quilting world. I really can't remember if I saved it with the idea of making it someday (it did not come with pattern directions) or whether it was just to add to my growing files on old quilts. At any rate, I didn't follow up on the making part until April of 1999 when I used it as a way to try out a new-to-me "fast and accurate" method of making half-square triangle units for an entirely different project.

This method required layering two fat quarters together and cutting strips on the bias, so I went through my by-then fairly substantial fat quarter stash of reproduction fabric. I pulled quite a few and did the test run, thrilled that it worked as promised and leaving me with my first stack of units. But I had that other project to work on with its own half-square triangle units to make, so I placed the unsewn paired strips, the completed squares, the uncut fat quarters and my magazine cut-out with estimates of size and number of blocks into a shoebox for later. I did take one more day that year and one early in the next to cut more strips. In November of 2002, I got together with a couple of guild friends for a sewing day at which I asked their advice about the rest of the fat quarters I would need. They yea or nayed what I had brought until I had the 20 fabrics I'd need, all from a variety of reproduction fabric lines. I duly saved all the selvages as a record. It all went back into the shoebox, not to see the light of day for 8 years.

The Tetris Quilt by Sheila Mahanke Barnes 2014 - 64 x 74
So what did my calendar diary tell me about why this simple quilt saw so little progress since its fledgling start in 1999?  It wasn't that I didn't have time for quilting; my calendars show a lot of production. There were wedding quilts and baby quilts and quilts for friends or family just because. There were charity quilts big and small, and guild charity and raffle quilts that I worked on. There were quilts and blocks made specifically for contests which took time to track down, fill out paperwork for and prepare my entries for shipping. There were block exchanges with guild members and one with some cousins of mine. I got involved with a mini-group which met monthly to learn Baltimore Album style applique (a dozen completed blocks still tucked away in a bin). I made sample quilts for my friend's vending booth. I even machine quilted a friend's quilt in exchange for her husband's wood-finishing skills. I also spent a lot of time quilting up batting samples. Yes, it was full bore on.

And of course, if I wasn't actually home making quilts, I was off to quilt shows (sometimes to help my friend with her booth), shopping for fabric, taking workshops, going on retreats with friends. I organized workdays for my quilt guild and produced its newsletter for awhile. I learned the ins and outs of quilt software and later, of photo software, and of a new sewing machine to meet my growing machine quilting needs. While still doing a lot of traditional work, I was moving more and more into what could be termed as art quilts. I gained an interest in paint on fabric and spent time experimenting with surface design techniques. 

Detail of machine quilting - The Tetris Quilt
I could really see those calendar boxes fill to the brim, though, once I started teaching at the local quilt shops, demoing products and techniques, and presenting workshops at a few guilds. Not only did I make the samples for the stores plus step by step samples for the classes, I also worked up lesson plans and handouts and brochures. I'd forgotten just how many different classes I prepared for - some of which I never got the chance to teach, many which I only taught once. I remember the turning point when it stopped being fun and was taking me away from what I really wanted to work on. And yes, that comes through in some of the diary entries as well.

But life is not all about quilting, as reflected in other entries about disruptive relocations, snow to be shoveled, demanding pets, migraines, dental appointments, deaths. There were days I noted no sewing because of time I was volunteering to my church on a grant project. There were vacations (but not from quilting - I nearly always took something with me to work on) and house guests which provided breaks from the studio. There were impromptu motorcycle rides, racing to watch, and the hours of watching the horrors of the 9/11 attacks. In other When I'd get back in the studio, I'd forge ahead with whatever came my way, whatever idea suddenly seemed the thing to get going on, whatever outside influences caught my fancy. I started a blog to share it all. No wonder the bones of this quilt languished on a shelf in the closet - not really forgotten, but not high on the priority list that was always shifting.

And then suddenly, the entries stopped for a couple of months. It was 2006 and I'd moved back "home" to Idaho. When I finally got my studio set up, the entries no longer showed activity on multiple projects each day, but a more orderly look of days devoted to a single project. That conscious choice I mentioned earlier was to shut out the distractions that were keeping me from focusing on the art quilting I'd started dabbling in, and that meant no more guild involvement, no more hunting down shows to mail my quilts to, no more teaching and no more traditional quilting for awhile. Hmm, no work on the half-square triangle quilt then.

Eventually, I was able to bring some traditional quilting back into my life without it feeling like a distraction, and in 2010, I hauled my sewing machine and my shoebox to my friend's house in Hood River for a weekend of hanging out together. I was so excited about the progress I made while there that not long after, I spent time completing the remainder of the units. I neatly stacked the over 350 squares back into the shoebox because, you know, there were higher priority quilts to work on. And I was no longer multi-tasking in the studio like I used to. I was focusing mostly on preparing work for the local arts council exhibits, volunteering on its visual arts committee, and finishing up a wedding quilt years in the making. Then there was the 3 months with my friend at the Mayo Clinic in 2012 followed by yet another move.

The Tetris Quilt from the back
I was pretty emotionally spent by the time I was setting up my new studio space, not sure exactly where I wanted to go with my quilting and unsettled by changes at the arts council. I needed to work on something that didn't require a lot of thought, something that would be like comfort food, something that I'd neglected for too long but still really wanted to see finished. Of all the ufo's to choose from, the half-square triangle quilt fit the bill the best, was the farthest along. In late November of 2012, the shoebox came out, the squares got arranged on the design wall, and I spent many therapeutic days sewing them into a top and adding the borders. As 2012 turned into 2013, I picked out fabrics for the backing and got it all layered up for quilting. But once again it got set aside as I turned my attention to new quilts for ArtWalk and helping my friend finish her African quilt, picking up the pace in a way I hadn't for quite awhile, those calendar entries filling up the boxes with technique notations and emotions, struggles and death again. 

By July, I was itching to get going on it again and started the machine quilting. I nearly finished the quilting in August until my own health issues got in the way. But with another new year arriving, my drive to finish this quilt kicked in once more, and on February 6, 2014, it was finally finished, binding, washing and all. How many years did it take to make this quilt? Not counting from when I first got the idea, but from when I first pulled fabrics and started cutting, nearly 15 years. How many times did I move that shoebox from one studio to the next? At least 3, including a move to a different state. How many actual days did I spend time on it (be it 1 hour or 8)? About 49 days - less than two months. Mmm - now that's just a little depressing! But at least it's finally done, and in looking up it's timeline, I revisited so many memories, see more clearly where my creative journey has taken me, understand a bit better why I have no desire to return to that frenetic pace of life.   

1 comment:

Chris said...

Sheila, the quilt is beautiful. I love how such a simple pattern of half square triangles can make such a wonderful quilt. I might have to make one of these to use up stuff in my stash.

That is amazing on how you recorded all of this. How interesting to read it after the quilt is finished.