We’re not calling it a retrospective. However, this October through December, the New England Quilt Museum (NEQM) in Lowell, MA, will be hosting a show of my work. There will be, give or take, 40 quilts that span the last twenty-plus years. I’ll post more info about dates and quilts as it’s finalized. Since I’ve made quilts that won’t be able to be included, and I’ve got more quilts in my head to yet be created, we won’t call it a “retrospective.” However, it doesn’t hurt to do what the word literally means: look back.

As the show approaches over the following months, I’ll take a look back at the quilts that are selected for this upcoming show through my series “Quilt Stories.” I did this in the lead up to my Specimens exhibit at the Houston International Quilt Festival show in the fall of 2016 as well. In “Quilt Stories” I reflect on quilts I’ve made: how I made them, why I made them, what challenges I faced, what I learned, and so on—their “stories.”

NEQM Curator, friend, and colleague, Pam Weeks and I are still debating which quilts will be in the show (aside from the Specimens quilts) but one quilt sure to be included is Pam’s all-time favorite, “Twilight” (above), created in 1994. Inspiration for “Twilight” came on the heels of my previous quilt “Elements,” which won Best of Show at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Living With Crafts exhibit in 1993.

With that success—the personification of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water—I decided I was interested in continuing the “celestial” theme and “alternate colors” for faces, for the next summer’s Living With Crafts exhibit. I explored the nine planets for a while, their mythology, and personifying them some way as well. This was back when we had nine planets (Thanks for nothing Neil deGrasse Tyson!). But I narrowed it down to the celestial bodies of the sun and moon. I like sun and moon imagery—for example, my sun and moon face quilts in my 2010 book Serendipity Quilts—though “Twilight” was destined for much more depth and detail.

The challenge I set for myself was how to depict personifications of the sun and moon in a quilt. It made sense that the sky would be their setting and the time of day would be a point at which neither is dominant—such as twilight. Rather than making the spheres themselves into faces, it occurred to me to create angelic beings to represent the spheres. Once I had that idea, I did a sketch (below), but decided the angels needed to also carry the sun and moon through the heavens.

My sketchbook with the original sketch for “Evening’s Descent,” later named “Twilight.”

Since I work from photos—and this was quite obviously fantasy—I asked a couple of friends, Susan and Gordon, to pose for me. They both had lovely long hair which I thought would be appropriate for heavenly couriers.

With some fabric to drape over them like robes and a couple of play balls from the department store, I posed them similar to what I had drawn in my sketch. Susan had to lie atop a folding table and dangle the ball off it. Gordon had to be propped up on the floor. Then I took a couple of clamp-on utility lights to shine in their faces so I could get the shadows and highlights right. This was pre-digital cameras and I took about two rolls of film to ensure I’d have all the photos and angles I may need. They were really good sports and I did get the shots I needed to base the quilt on.

Somewhere tucked in my house or studio I have the original photos of Susan and Gordon, but after an exhausting (if not exhaustive) search, neither I nor Tom have found them. No doubt I’ll run across them in a day or so after this posts, as I did with the in-progress photos for “California Dreams,” a quilt portrait of my sister Heidi. I updated that Quilt Story a couple weeks later and will do so for “Twilight” if and when I ever find those elusive photos.

I did, however, find photos I forgot even existed: “Twilight” as part of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Living With Crafts exhibit (above), and me and my mama (below) at that exhibit in 1994!

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Before I even began working on “Twilight” I ran into the biggest problem I faced with the quilt: finding fabrics.

Specifically, I had a really hard time finding yellows that were bright enough to represent the luminescent sun (and then appear to be reflected in the figure holding the sphere). I needed fabrics that would make the sun glow and I wasn’t finding them.

It’s hard to imagine (or perhaps admit), but I’ve been doing fabric collage long enough to see a major change in the variety of fabrics available. Back in 1994 when I made this quilt, the fabric industry for quilting cottons was fairly conservative. Colors tended to be subdued. And patterns were small and tended to be repetitive. For example, many of the fabrics I used for “Twilight” are calico-like prints or nearly solid colored, fabrics I wouldn’t necessarily reach for today, but that’s what I had at the time.

Take a look at two of the yellow/orange fabrics below. In order to extend my fabric pallet, I used both sides of these prints on the Sun Angel. Most of you will not be surprised that these fabrics are still sitting in my stash.

For the purpose of this blog post, I pulled out some fabrics (below) that I would choose now, if I were to create “Twilight” in this day and age. In comparison, the colors and values could be said to be similar, but my, how prints have changed.

But back in 1994, what came to my rescue were some hand-dyed fabrics. If memory serves me right, I found them at a quilt show in New Hampshire, where Tom and I were living at the time. A vendor had some brilliant yellow cotton pieces that I could mix in with some other fabrics to become the glowing element of the sun.

To add an extra shimmer, I included some non-quilting fabric, a semi-sheer rayon, using both sides (below).

Sometimes I get asked if I hand paint or dye the fabric I use in my collages. Well, I don’t paint or dye fabrics myself, but I do use them when they’re what I need to get the look I want. So, in the background of “Twilight,” is more hand-painted fabrics (below) for the sunset—a subtle gradation on cotton, and a bolder blend on velvet, painted by a friend of mine.

And since I was already stretching the acceptability of “quilting” fabrics, shouldn’t angel wings be composed of metallic fabrics? I thought so too. And yes, I still have some of that original shimmer and shine in my stash (below).

“Twilight” 1994, 70 x 43 inches

Looking Back

Sometimes people ask me if I ever remake a quilt. I don’t. I don’t find it inspiring to repeat or copy my work. When it’s done it’s done. I feel that every quilt represents not only the subject depicted, but that moment in time when it was made. And I appreciate each quilt for that very reason.

But in these “Quilt Stories,” I do find it interesting to take a good look back to see what I did, and speculate how I might do it differently now. In considering “Twilight,” what strikes me is how much fabric has evolved in the 28 years since I started working in fabric collage. The brighter colors, bolder prints, printed batiks, wider ranges of value in fabrics today would all lead to a much different look.

For instance, I’d now use the larger prints in fabrics to soften transitions between color values—such as on the Sun Angel’s arm. With small prints and solids, “Twilight” has sharper delineations of the fabric pieces. That look certainly works for drapey robes though. So yeah, it would look different, but yeah, I’m still happy with how it looks.

I always felt that in fabric collage, I paint with fabric. But because fabric has changed over time, so has how I work with it. In fact, if fabric hadn’t evolved to include more variety, I may have gone back to using actual paint on fabric and vary it myself, like I did pre-collage in the 1980’s.

For ‘Twilight,” I’m grateful for the means and inspiration to have created it in 1994 and I also appreciate the wonderfully rich palette of fabrics that’s so easily available to me in 2018.

16 Comments

  • Road Trip! I think there will be a caravan (or two) of quilters from the NH Seacoast traveling to Lowell! Can’t wait!

  • Hello Susan,
    Your work really leaves me spellbound, how I wish that I had taken up this technique of yours years ago, but I am really trying hard to catch up, however the lack of fabric choice in my stash is holding me up at the moment, but the gekko is coming on nicely anyway. thank you so much for all your sharing, I just LOVE Saturdays , with your newsletters , they give me all the “punch” that I need. Sandra Tavel

  • I loved getting an up-close look at “Twilight” and hearing some of its story. And I have those two orange fabrics in my stash, too! Congratulations on the upcoming exhibit. It will be a wonderful treat for all who get to see it! Mississippi is too far away for this one, so I’ll vicariously enjoy through pictures. Stay warm!

  • As Maria said, “Road Trip”! Wonderful to learn that your work is to be showcased! I hope to see it.
    “Twilight” is fascinating as I was sewing in the 90’s (and much earlier, truth be told) and remember some of those fabrics! You’re so right about the variety of choices available to us now. So, how is it that I am still fumbling for that “just right piece”? 😉

  • I so appreciate how your share your art and your creative process so freely. I wish it were possible to travel to see the show in the fall, but distance and other commitments get in the way.

    Thank you so very much.

  • Thank you for such in-depth comment on your wonderful pieces. I am Australian, have purchased your books and live in hope that I can, one day, travel to complete one of your workshops. In the meantime however I learn something more every time I read a new blog. Regards, Barbara

  • You blow me away, I can never get enough of your wonderful work. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, techniques, tutorials, we are so lucky to have you making and teaching as you do, wish I could take a class with you….sure looks like fun. A very faithful follower. Sandy

  • Awesome and inspiring work! I’m happy you’re getting the accolades you deserve. Love the stories, they are inspiration for all us wannabes! Thanks for sharing.

  • “Twilight” ia absolutely stunning! Just coming up with the concept is impressive, but the result is beautiful. I really enjoyed the story. Looking forward to more. (And I have a few of those old yellow/orange prints myself! lol)

  • Wow! What an honor, Susan. I’m one of those loyal
    Followers who love your quilts and your blogs as well as your classes. I Have decorated my sewing studio around your magenta beetle quilt! It’s wild! Even have a little tree that lights up…another one of your ideas. Hope to see you in San Luis Obispo in June.

  • Thanks Susan for a great article. What a challenge it would have been to do that amazing quilt with the limited fabric choices you had! Would you ever release it as a pattern???? Thanks for all your generous sharing.

  • Thanks for the introspective look at a piece of work from years ago. You provide a lot of detail, as always, about how and why things were done the way they were.

    I do believe you were the one to introduce me to the idea of using the flip side of a fabric. It’s still a good trick!

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