Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales, 2012, 36 x 53 inches

It’s time for another Quilt Story. For those who haven’t been following the blog for long, this is a series of posts where I talk about the quilts I have made—their origins, what I learned from them and what you might learn, why they’re special to me. Click here to see other Quilt Stories.

Since we’re leading up to Valentine’s Day week, I thought it would be a good excuse to choose “Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales,” a portrait of my son Sam—a subject who will always be near and dear to my heart. At around age 13 Sam had long hair and loved the Beatles. When a friend of his gave him a pair of round sunglasses, he looked just a bit like John Lennon. I took the following photo:

The photo captured some of what he was about at that age: calm and self-assured—with hair that I coveted. I got thinking about doing another fabric portrait of him. I’d done the first, it turned out, ten years, exactly one decade, prior of him at age three. The coincidence was too great to ignore.

By age three, Sam was a full-blown dinosaur lover, unabashedly correcting babysitters and adults alike in the pronunciation of dino names such as pachycephalosaurus, ankylosaurus, and parasaurolophus. By preschool he was doodling maps of Pangaea—and knew what he was talking about. Our little force of nature.
Samuelsaurus Rex, made in 2000. Read more about this Quilt Story here.

Of course, I realized immediately that I was now committed to making a portrait of him every ten years! He’s currently in college going for a BFA in Musical Theater. I can’t wait to see what photo or theme presents itself in another three years (though the music-themed prints are starting to pile up in anticipation.)

Pop Art

Thinking of how I’d like to approach this second portrait of Sam, the Beatles and that era of pop music and pop art came to mind, and with it Andy Warhol. Warhol is famous for his series of prints of celebrities’ faces in various colors. Celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Mao Tse Tung and, you guessed it, John Lennon. Often Warhol would create multiple prints with the same silk screen but with varying colors. He would then sometimes arranged them in a grid, like this:

Now that I had the idea of doing a Warhol homage, I needed to decide how many times would I repeat the image of Sam’s face. I could have chosen an arbitrary number, but I wanted there to be a certain logic behind it.

Sign Language

At thirteen, Sam was entering the age where PDAs (public displays of affection) from his mother would not be appreciated. So, while we and the dogs were allowed to accompany him the tenth of a mile to the bus stop each morning, the farewell hug and kiss as the bus rolled up were getting more and more elusive. Instead, we developed a hand signal.

Somehow the phrase “peace, love, tie-dye, save the whales” had become part of our family’s lexicon, a phrase we pitched jokingly into conversations about the environment or healthy eating or climate change when the tone grew too serious. (My husband delivered the phrase with a surfer-dude sneer.)

Somehow this became our farewell, but instead of saying it we came up with hand signals (check them out in the demo below.) As you can see, done fast enough, you could appear to be swatting at a fly—no reason to be embarrassed by your mom—except that she’s swatting at flies and looking goofy about it.

Anyhow: this farewell we shared (still share in fact now that he’s almost 20 years old—the same age his father was when we met!) had four parts to it: hence, a quilt with a panel for each of those four segments of our signal.

First Step

Sometimes I’ll free-hand draw my design directly onto the foundation muslin and work from there. In this case, I definitely needed to create a paper pattern of Sam’s face (see “Making a Pattern for a Fabric Collage Quilt”) that I could then slip under the muslin to redraw it four times, one for each panel. However, even though each would start with the same drawing, I was aware that each face would end up slightly different. The drawings provided guidelines, not template pieces. Nor would it be like a Warhol print where I’d be making repeats. In fact, I was excited to see how each would vary. I treated each face with its unique color-way as its own piece, not referring back to previous ones. I wanted each panel to be a portrait in its own right.

Work in progress. One down, three to go. This photo shows some “love” fabrics, plus what I refer to as the “messy scary stage.” As I tell my students, every piece goes through that stage, no matter how many you’ve done. You can see design that I sketched onto the muslin.

Theme Fabrics

Now the challenge—I love to set myself challenges in my quilts—was to figure out how to represent those four themes, one in each panel: peace, love, tie-dye, and save the whales. At the same time, of course, like Warhol, I would have to figure out what color scheme to use for each one.

I don’t often do this, but working in a variety of colors and needing to keep them and their values of light and dark straight (see “Why Color is Irrelevant”), I found playing a little on the computer with different color ways was helpful. I then kept the original photo, those colored print-outs, plus a black-and-white version handy as I worked.

I started with Save the Whales. It was the easiest and most obvious of the four. I had lots of watery prints, even some that had whales and dolphins on them. And they were mostly in blues, as you’d expect, so the color choice was made for me, in essence. Of course I still had to come up with ways to use those novelty prints in the piece. It was fun actually, working whales into Sam’s face and dolphins on his shirt.

Next I did Love, another one that made color and themes pretty easy. Red, pinks and oranges quickly came to mind, as did fabrics with hearts and flowers. I’d already been hunting fabrics for this piece by that time, and I’d found some that had the words “love” in them. Sam was in a phase where he wore (loved) skull-and-crossbones t-shirts, and I found a fabric with hearts, roses, and skull-and-crossbones on it. An added challenge was to see how many of those novelty fabrics I could use. So I gave him a badass “MOM” neck tattoo. He shrugged and agreed it was a good idea.

Then I moved on to Peace, which I had to give a little more thought to. What color best represents peace? I settled on green. Green seems peaceful and serene—and Sam had been quite the little tree-hugger—so leaves and vines came into play. I found fabrics with peace signs and one with the word “peace” printed in green. The Universe was looking out for me!

Tie-dye was toughest to figure out. Fabric that is tie-dyed usually has large starburst-like designs, making it difficult to cut into small pieces while retaining the overall tie-dye look. I happened to mention in a class I was teaching that I was having trouble finding fabric. Later on that day one of my students quietly gifted me her pile of (smaller scaled) tie-dye samples from another class she had taken. Those samples plus some batiks that were reminiscent of a tie-dye look made my fabric pallet (thanks again, Biddy!)

Now when I look at the four of them together, it’s almost like different aspects of Sam are coming through. The last one I completed, the tie-dye, is the one I think that looks closest to that mellow thirteen year old boy I knew.

Using Novelty Fabrics in “Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales”



  • I have heard you tell the story of this Sam quilt several times, but enjoyed hearing it again. It was fun to see the actual fabrics you used and the inspiration you derived from Andy Warhol. Besides being a wonderful artist, you are a wonderful storyteller and teacher. This quilt is a beautiful family heirloom for Sam. Thank you for sharing all you do.

  • The best, most personal video. I am so inspired by these wonderful interpretations of your son. Thanks for sharing the process.

  • I too have heard this quilt’s story before and yet I love hearing it again, and I love this quilt. The details you added with all those little pieces, especially the novelty prints, really make this quilt special. I aspire to achieve something this great some day. Thank you Susan for sharing!

  • Love your talent and technique. Been thinking about trying to do it myself but have lots of fears!!! I know you don’t use templates but I really just cannot imagine being able to cut out freehand some of the pieces to fit in certain places; for example the nose and the upper lip on Peace Love Tie Dye? It has the nostrils that look real and the curves on the lip; could I cut them out to look like that? Does it come with practice?

  • I loved this. I recently did a portrait quilt of me and my 3-year-old granddaughter, but in more realistic colors. Maybe next time I will try something a bit wilder, outside my box.

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