Sunday, September 11, 2011

Improvisationally Challenged

After spending most of the day in bed popping Advil Cold & Sinus, I can finally lift my arms above my waist and keep my eyes both open and focused simultaneously.  Unfortunately, it's after four o'clock in the morning now, so "awake" isn't terribly convenient.  (Stupid antihistamines).  Nevertheless, I've been laying here thinking about my shortcomings as a quilter.  Specifically, my utter lack of ability where improvisational piecing is concerned, and my incapacitating fear of combining bold prints in close proximity.  (I have others, of course...  These are just the few featured today in my drug-induced stupor).

Juli Ann's fabric picks for this month's "Meet Me In St. Lou Bee" Blocks.

My lovely friend and fellow St. Louis Modern Quilt Guild member Juli Ann recently asked us to mix improvisational piecing with some really beautiful bold prints for this month's "Meet-Me-In-St. Lou Bee."  The blocks were due today at our monthly STLMQG meeting, which I sadly had to miss.  :(  I realized, though, as I "tweeted" my pending absence to friends this morning that mixed in with all of that disappointment was the teensiest sigh of relief.  At the time, I thought I was just relieved to spend the day in the horizontal position, but the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that I was actually really intimidated by having to share my blocks with the ladies this month.  I've seen previews of many of their blocks on Flickr in the past week or so, and mine just don't seem to fit.  As a teacher, though, I know that the only way to really improve at something is to let the experts help you work through your mistakes.  I had hoped to do some of this today (yesterday, now, I guess) after our meeting, but alas, I wasn't really fit to maneuver heavy machinery across the river.  So, in an effort to swallow a heaping spoonful of my own medicine, I'm posting my blocks here for the time-being, along with my thoughts on what's wrong with them, and a request for any tips/tricks you'd be willing to share from your own experiences mixing prints and piecing improvisationally.  For the record, we were shooting for blocks similar to these posted by Alissa Haight Carlton of Handmade by Alissa:

Here goes.

Block 1:  Cage the Songbird

Generally, I do a lot of quilting with solids, and like a lot of contrast in my quilts, so the idea of the shot cottons paired up with the white appealed to me.  Beyond that, though, I was stuck.  I wanted to fussy cut the bird, and a few of the spirals because of their graphic nature, but I think the result is a little too matchy-matchy compared to the rest of the blocks I've seen, all of which seem more varied and vibrant than mine.  As an example, I actually fussy-cut little snippets of the brown/pink/red fabric and pieced them together to frame out the spiral in the top-left-hand corner while avoiding the giant, fluorescent orange floral in each.  The bit of orange you do see there has been pieced in purposefully, as I had the intention of tying the orange back in later (which never actually happened, due to the complete explosion of pink across the rest of the block).   See what I mean?  (Poorly-) planned improv.  Just doesn't seem right to me.

Block 2:  Empty Garden
(aka Elton John - The Melancholy Emoticon)

I don't know WHAT the hell happened here.

I liked the notion of off-setting the frames to the side, and I'm good up to the layer of Tula Pink framing out the gold.  What happened next is anyone's guess.  

The weird little strip of red in the middle was inspired by this quilt top, which I love, by the amazingly talented Karen of Blooming Poppies, but after working this in, along with the tiny little spec of red in the bottom white border, I just kind of forgot about it.  I had wanted to tie in little bits like this throughout the entire block, but then I revisited some of the bee blocks on Flickr, and realized that this was really not looking at ALL like the "wonky-log-cabin/drunk-love-gone-crazy" direction in which I was supposed to be heading.  So, I finished piecing the last few borders, trying my best not to butt any two disparate prints side-by-side.  When I stepped back to look at it, though, this is all that I saw:


Melancholy emoticon.

Of course, when you combine that with the flowery frame surrounding the gold square, you have what looks like a melancholy emoticon wearing a vintage Elton John monocle.

At this point, I was really depressed.  Juli Ann is an artist by trade.  Her quilts are somehow both bold and striking, but quiet and beautiful at the same time.  She has an amazing aesthetic.  She was also the first friend I made in the quilt guild, the person who most put me at ease during a sudden social-panic attack at Laura Gunn's house, and considering my natural inclination to keep to myself in large groups, probably the only reason I get to enjoy spending time with this wonderfully funny and talented group of ladies each month.   I wanted so badly to make her something strong to add to her quilt to thank her for all of those things.  Instead, I slid these two unhappy blocks into my 2-gallon Ziploc bag, and let out a long, frustrated sigh as I settled into the futon for the night.  Sad songs say so much.

When my alarm went off at 5 AM the next morning (this would be Friday), I flicked on the light and stared at the mass of scraps I had left on the table from the night before.  Too dejected to pack them up for her just yet, I headed to the bathroom to shower up.  There's no fan in the bathroom, so the mirror is constantly fogged.  I took a washcloth and wiped it clean, starting in the top-right corner, and working my way log-cabin style around to the middle.  I went upstairs, and used up the rest of the waffle batter from Emma's birthday breakfast the day prior to make breakfast for the kiddos.  Put out a soft stick of butter, and reached in the pantry to find a brand-new bottle of Log Cabin syrup.  Got to work, ran to my boss's office where he was showing a colleague a bizarre set of greeting cards the University had issued him last spring with Abraham Lincoln on the front.  Abraham Lincoln.  Who grew up in, you guessed it:  a log cabin.  It was pretty clear the quilting universe wasn't done messing with my head over this little fiasco.

When I got home from the parish picnic late Friday night, I was already feeling under-the-weather.  Between my fever, chills, and the constant loop of "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" cycling in my head, things were looking kind of gloomy.  In an effort to redeem myself and salvage some small part of the day, I sat down at the old Kenmore with Juli Ann's scrap pile and just started sewing.  Not really thinking about much of anything, just pairing up scraps from smallest to largest in a quick and wonky log cabin.  I don't know if it was the sinus meds or just the fact that I was starting with scraps (so if I screwed up now, no pressure, right?), but whatever the reason, I think I like this last block the best:

Block 3:  Wonky Cat

I know the print-matching isn't necessarily the best here, but considering it was all that I had left, I'm actually okay with it I think.  I do like the wonky nature of this block.  It feels closer to the others that I've seen, which makes me think it will work more harmoniously with the rest and not stand out as an eyesore the way the others might, I fear.  Either way, this was a tough bee month for me.  If I had it to do over again, I think I'd make them both log cabin blocks, but pair the fabrics to show a little more contrast.  As it is, the piecing here is a bit lost in the shuffle.  Regardless, I have to thank Juli Ann for the learning experience.  And, everything else for that matter.  :)  I'm happy to re-make these if need-be now that I have a little more confidence in the process.  Still can't say that I'm comfortable working with such varied prints yet, but, you have to start somewhere I guess, and I'm still standing.


What do YOU consider when mixing bold prints together?  How do you approach improvisational piecing?  Not rhetorical.  I'm really asking.  :)