To create my fabric collage quilts, I work in two similar but distinct ways. Most often, I will hunt for and cut out fabric shapes from larger pieces. This is the method I teach in class. Every once in a while, however, I take the bushels of leftover scraps (stored in vintage suitcases) that I have accumulated and use them as is, with as little cutting as possible, arranging the existing colors and shapes in a very serendipitous way within my design.

I first used this technique in “Samuelsaurus Rex” a portrait of my son, Sam. Most recently I worked this way to create “Kaloli Moondance,” a portrait of a marabou stork. Another quilt created this way is “Not-So-Goldfish.”

This quilt was an experiment of sorts. Early in my career I made hundreds of small fish quilts, making them by cutting and layering larger shapes cut from larger pieces of fabric. While they were often not realistic, they were very controlled. When I discovered this new, looser way of working I decided I would like to see if I could apply this scrappy technique to my old standby subject: a fish.

I had done goldfish before, so I decided to do a bigger, looser goldfish. With an inspirational book of fish open, I created a Franken-fish, free-hand sketching a design onto muslin that was inspired by the puckery mouths, the round bellies, and the flowy tails I saw—all features that to me said “goldfish.”

My design sketched directly onto muslin. I use pencil first until I’m happy with the design. Then I darken the lines with permanent marker to clarify the lines I want to follow.

Now it was time to dip into my stash of scraps. First I pulled out goldfishy colors: yellows for highlights, oranges for midtones, reds for shadows. Laying them out in an intuitive way, I ran out of those colors quite quickly. I was having fun working with shapes that I found, so rather than retreat into using my usual (reach for the pretty stacks of folded fabrics) way of working, I turned to expanding my color selection. When I ran out of red, I chose another dark color value. More and more different colors worked their ways in. I also considered the given shape of that piece of scrap fabric. If it was curvy it found its way into the belly. If it was straight it joined the other fin fabrics. If it was flowy I used it in the tail.

Notice that the scraps I chose for the body of the fish and its belly all had curves that help to define the shape.
In the tail and fins I could use a combination of straight pieces to define direction and flowy pieces to define the rounded edges and to give the appendages movement.
You can see that I quickly ran out of “gold” fabrics and other colors became just as prominent.

Because I was using so many “non-goldfish” colors, I decided that the name would reflect that, thus: “Not-So-Goldfish.”

Once I had finished the body of the fish, I continued using the same scrap-only technique for the background. In most of those previous hundreds of fish, the goal had usually been to create a quilter-style “trophy” fish, fish like you see stuffed and mounted on a board, only my trophies were created from wonderfully colorful and patterned fabrics. I’d usually create the fish separately, cut it out from the muslin foundation, then place it on background fabrics. Almost always, the idea was to make the fish stand out from the background.

This version of “Winged Butterfish” shows my tendency to have the fish stand out starkly from the background, often by using complementary colors.

With “Not-So-Goldfish”, I worked quickly, intuitively, and loosely in a more painterly fashion. The fish and background started to blend a bit, especially around the tail, and I decided to leave it that way with the outline not so distinct. In the end, I think the blurring of fabric and color gives the piece the illusion of motion.

Scraps, including those long stringy bits cut from the edges of quilts as they are squared up, worked their way into the background as well. Totally unplanned and unpredicted. It was serendipitous.

“Not-So-Goldfish,” 36 x 22, 2006, Susan Carlson.

Husband Tom tells me this way of working exclusively with smaller, irregular, leftover scraps would make a good alternative class, forcing students to be looser and freer since they couldn’t rely on their carefully folded fabric piles. I often find that limitations such as how I work, or limiting my color palette or the types of prints in my fabrics, actually inspire creativity. Limiting your choices narrows down the infinite options you are faced with. We have so much fabric it can be overwhelming. I see that all the time, students paralyzed by not knowing which one fabric to start with. 

I have also seen that quilters sometimes have a hard time making the first cut into their folded fabric. A whole piece of fabric is perfect as it is. A cut only mars it, ruining its perfection. Or so we sometimes see it that way. 

So pick an image and a color palette and scrounge for some scraps to use or just dip your hand into your scrap bag and see what comes out. Then let your intuition take over and see what takes form. It’s a great way to get out of any rut you may be in. Hmmmm, I’m feeling a little spring cleaning inspiration set in—clean up the old (scraps) and see what new (quilts) can grow out of them.

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