Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Channeling Aristotle: Using Ancient Design Principles for Better E2E Quilting

Good morning, Lovelies, and Happy Tuesday!  

I often see quilters -- even seasoned professional longarm quilters with years of experience -- crowd-sourcing ideas for quilting designs on social media and in online forums.  You know, "how should I quilt this," "which thread would you choose," and "which panto design would look good on this quilt?"  If the quilter has a computerized machine, there are additional questions about what size to scale a particular design for quilting as well.  My interior design background kicks in whenever I'm faced with these kinds of choices, so I thought I'd take a moment today to explain how the principles of color, pattern, line, and scale influenced the way I quilted this Disappearing 9-Patch baby quilt.  

39 x 53 Disappearing 9-Patch Baby Quilt

Choosing a Quilting Design: Always Start with Function

When meeting with a new interior design client, the first questions I'd ask were always about their functional needs for the space.  How many people live here?  What are their ages?  Do you have young children or pets?  Do you entertain frequently, and how often do you think you'll redecorate?  The answers to these questions influence every recommendation I will be making to ensure that the finished project not only looks amazing, but is also going to work for their lifestyle and hide pet fur if they have pets, with stain resistance/washability if someone sits on a juicebox that the toddler left in the couch cushions, etc.  I look at a client's quilt top the exact same way, so my first consideration is always the quilt's intended function.  

This baby quilt will be donated to the NICU of one of our local hospitals, so I knew I wanted an E2E (edge-to-edge, or pantograph) design that would be cheerful, with quilting density sufficient for the quilt to hold up to laundering in a hospital setting -- yet I'm not going to "quilt it to death," because it's important for this finished quilt to remain soft and comforting.

Quilt Top Loaded, Ready to Quilt

After Function, Read the Design Cues in the Fabric

Having decided that a moderate density E2E design is most appropriate for the intended use of this particular quilt, I turn my attention to the aesthetic style of the fabrics in the quilt top.  Going back to my interior design analogy, this is like taking inventory of everything the client already has in their living room that they want to keep, whether it's artwork, fabrics on furniture that will be staying in the room, etc.  All of these items contain design elements that need to relate to and make sense with whatever new items I'm recommending for the space, just like the design elements of a quilt top's fabrics and piecing or appliqué design need to relate to and make sense with the quilting design for a successful finished quilt.  

Reading the Quilt Top: Style, Pattern, Line and Scale

So, what design cues can I "read" from this particular quilt top?  It's a 39" x 53" Disappearing Nine Patch baby quilt made from 'thirties/feed sack reproduction prints, with a block size of 13" set in a 3 x 4 layout.  The style of the fabrics is vintage '30s through '40s, yet the Disappearing 9-Patch block is a modern rather than a traditional pattern.  The scale of the reproduction print fabrics is very small, yet the scale of the 13" blocks is quite large, especially in relation to the overall size of the quilt top.  The piecing design has strong, straight geometric lines with an asymmetrical pattern of squares and rectangles.

Inspiration: What do you Love Most and Want to Amplify?

I could have chosen a modern, geometric quilting design to draw even more attention to the modern piecing design.  Instead, I opted for a quilting design with curving lines and a vintage influence to amplify the "voice" of the fabrics in the quilt top, softening the piecing lines and bringing the design elements I'd "inherited" in the quilt top into balance.  My inspiration came from a vintage family quilt of my own -- have I shown you this quilt before?

Vintage 1944 Quilt Made by a Family Member

I inherited this Dresden Plate quilt from my grandmother, the one I'm named after (she's the "Grace" in the center of the lower-left plate in the photo above).  Not sure who actually made the quilt, but the names of my mother's aunts, uncles and cousins are hand-embroidered in the center of each of the blocks.  The prints in the Dresden plates were likely to have been feed and flour sack prints that were collected and saved throughout the '30s and early '40s -- the original fabrics that inspired the reproduction prints in our baby quilt top.

Do you see that flower with triangular leaves, hand quilted in the space between the Dresden plates?  I wanted a digital E2E quilting design with a simple, round-petaled flower design similar to the quilting motif from my vintage quilt.

Inspiration: Hand Quilted Floral Motif from Vintage Quilt

The quilting design I chose is called Baby Girl Lace B2B, designed by Anne Bright.  The shape of the flowers and leaves in the design are similar to the flower and leaf shapes on my vintage quilt, and I knew the flowing curves of the vines would help to soften the strong geometric piecing lines of the quilt top.  This design does have a considerable amount of backtracking -- places where the machine has to travel back along a previously-stitched line of quilting to get to the next part of the design -- and that meant my machine would need to run at a slower speed to stitch this design accurately, but I felt the extra time would be worth it for this quilt.  

Baby Girl Lace B2B, designed by Anne Bright

The Golden Mean: Scaling the Digital Design to Fit the Quilt

One of the things I love the most about computerized longarm quilting is having the complete creative freedom to resize any design right at my longarm machine, as easily as you'd change the font size on a Word document on your home computer.  The paper pantograph designs I used for edge-to-edge quilting before adding IntelliQuilter to my machine are like "One Size Fits Most."  Because hand-guided quilters are tracing over a pattern that is printed onto a long roll of paper, whatever size is printed on the paper is the size that gets quilted onto a quilt.

Sizing a Pantograph: What Would Aristotle Do?

Thousands of years ago, Aristotle came up with the philosophical idea of the Golden Mean -- the desirable middle way between the extremes of excess and deficiency.  This 
Golden Mean concept derives from the pleasing proportions of things found in nature, such as snails shells, and is defined mathematically as the ratio between 1:1.618.  The Golden Mean is closely related to the Fibonacci sequence, and these ideas about scale and proportion have influenced human architecture and design for the past 2,500 years.  Because these are the proportions we see everywhere around us, throughout nature as well as in the man-made world, these are the proportions that we most easily recognize as looking "correct."  

Now, if you want to, you can absolutely get out your calculator and start doing the algebra or whatever to make sure your proportions are exactly that magical 1:1.613.  More power to you, you mathemagician, you!  But honestly, once you've trained your eye to recognize and work in these proportions, you can just eyeball it and use the "Rule of Thirds" as a rough guide to choosing pleasing proportions in design.  

Most Things Look Better in Thirds

Simply stated, the idea behind the Rule of Thirds is that proportions based on divisions of three are the ones that are going to be visually pleasing to most people.  This doesn't mean that I necessarily want my overall pantograph row height to be 1/3 or 2/3 of the size of my quilt block, though. Instead, I focus on a prominent element within the quilting design -- in this case, I chose the larger of the floral motifs, and resized the pantograph so that particular flower would be approximately 1/3 of the size of the largest square patches in my quilt top.

Scale of Quilting Design Influenced by the Rule of Thirds

When I'm resizing a quilting pattern on my IntelliQuilter tablet, I can zoom way out to view how the pantograph will layout in rows across the entire rectangle of my quilt top, or I can zoom in to view the True Size of the design -- so that the flower I see on my tablet display is exactly the same size the flower would stitch out on my quilt.  Previewing the design this way makes it easy to check my proportions visually.  I was also paying attention to the size of both flower motifs in relation to the width of the white rectangles of background fabric.  I knew that the quilting design would be most recognizable against the white on white Swiss dot background fabric, and I wanted the smaller flowers to "fit" in those spaces well enough that you can easily see that they are flowers.

This is What it Looks Like When the Scale is Off:

Quilting Design is Scaled Too Large and Does Not Relate Well to Fabric Prints

In the photo above, I was testing a new digital design prior to using it on a client's King sized quilt, so I chose a charity top that was waiting to be quilted and stitched out the new design, Serendipity, at the default 12" row height similar to what it would be if this was a paper pantograph design that I was following with a laser pointer.  The thread choice and quality of stitching is beautiful and I love this design, but it's not the ideal choice for THIS quilt top because the flowers in the quilting design are a completely different style than the floral fabric prints, and they kind of fight with one another. However, because of the large scale of the quilting design, it's difficult to tell that there are flowers in the quilting design at all.

From the Back, You Can See the "Fantasy Flowers" in the Quilting Design

The finished quilt is lovely and perfectly serviceable, but those big flowers in the quilting design don't show up at all from the front.  It looks more like a leafy vine design than a floral pattern.

Floral Motifs Get "Lost" when the Scale is Too Big for the Piecing

Compare the brown floral quilt above with the default pantograph size to the custom scaled design on the 'thirties print below:

Striving for that "Pleasing Middle Way"  Between Extremes

To my eye, taking the time to thoughtfully select and scale a quilting design ensures that the my quilting shows off the quilt top to its best advantage, without detracting from or upstaging the fabrics or the piecing design.

What About the Backing Fabric?

I was given an unbleached muslin backing for this quilt, with little flecks of cotton seeds still in the fabric weave.  Anytime I have a solid backing fabric, I know that the quilting design will stand out even more dramatically on the reverse side of the quilt, for better or for worse.  I love how this sweet, vintage-inspired floral quilting design dresses up the plain muslin and makes the back of the quilt almost as pretty as the front.

Final Considerations: What Will It Look Like From the Backing Side?

Other Decisions that Make a Difference: Batting & Thread

Having chosen the quilting design and resized it to complement the quilt top, there are a few more design decisions yet to be made.  This quilt came to me with a COM (Customer's Own Material) needle-punched cotton batting that had already been purchased, but when a client asks me for batting advice, I'll make a recommendation based first and foremost on the functional requirements of the way the client wants to use the quilt (bed quilt, traveling trunk show for guild presentations, show quilt, etc) and then narrow down the options to a specific batting based on aesthetic considerations (is a flat, puckered "antique" look best for this quilt, or is it a modern design that needs more loft and less shrinkage).  Finally, the last decision to be made before starting up the machine is the quilting thread itself.

Thread Possibilities: Glide/Bottom Line/So Fine Polyester vs. King Tut/Aurifil Cotton

I use a lot of Glide 40 weight trilobal polyester (the fat, shiny cones in the photo above) in my longarm machine, and the subtle sheen of that thread complements the vast majority of quilts that come my way.  However, shiny quilting thread would detract from the vintage vibe I'm working towards with this quilt.  I chose 50 weight So Fine matte polyester thread (one of the matte cones near the back of the shelf) from Superior Threads instead because it mimics the look of a cotton thread but is much stronger, even in a skinny 50 weight thread.  And I definitely wanted to use a skinny quilting in this project because, all other things being equal, thicker quilting threads result in stiffer finished quilts.  Also, remember when I mentioned that there is a lot of backstitching in this quilting design, along those long, swirling vines?  With my skinny thread choice, you can barely see where the quilting lines are double stitched, but if I'd used a heavier weight thread, the back stitching would stand out like a sore thumb and detract from the design.  The thread color choice was easy -- white quilting thread is what was used in the vast majority of vintage and antique quilts.

39 x 53 Baby Quilt with Baby Girl Lace E2E Quilting

I love how this quilt turned out -- on to the next one!

If you or someone you know is looking for a longarm quilter to help you push a UFO across the finish line, I'd love to work with you.  To learn more about my quilting services, click here.  

I'm linking up today's post with some of my favorite linky parties:


Midweek Makers at Quilt Fabrication

Wednesday Wait Loss at The Inquiring Quilter


Needle and Thread Thursday at My Quilt Infatuation  

Free Motion Mavericks with Muv and Andree


Whoop Whoop Fridays at Confessions of a Fabric Addict

Peacock Party at Wendy’s Quilts and More

Finished or Not Friday at Alycia Quilts

Off the Wall Friday at Nina Marie Sayre

 TGIFF Thank Goodness It’s Finished Friday, rotates, schedule found here: TGIF Friday


Vicki in MN said...

So nice to see you enjoying your new addition to your long arm!

TerryKnott.blogspot.com said...

Adjusting the scale made such a huge positive difference! Nice quilting finish!

The Joyful Quilter said...

Yes, Rebecca. Sometimes size DOES matter! LOL!!

Nancy @ Grace and Peace Quilting said...

Love how it looks on the muslin back!!!

Kathleen said...

I love this perfect explanation of quilting choices...and who knew it could be so mathematical and precise! Thanks for linking up to tips/tutorials!

Marti said...

That pretty baby quilt even looks baby soft. I love your explanation of how scale matters and it is perfect in this quilt.

Kathleen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andree G. Faubert said...

Hi Rebecca, thanks so much for taking the time to explain these concepts and considerations. I would probably make roughly the same decisions but mostly based on intuition than knowing why. This really helps. Thanks so much. Your quilt is really lovely. It was also cool to see the what not to do - as you said, the darker quilt did look like it was just about the leaves. Take care.

Nikki said...

Thank you for sharing your thought processes when quilting. It has given me much to think about!

LA Paylor said...

wonderful post. WWAD is hilarious... kind of like, asking my engineering husband what to do to my quilt. Well, sometimes he has a great idea...

Pat at Bell Creek Quilts said...

thanks for sharing your methods and insights! very educational!

Alycia~Quiltygirl said...

Thank you for sharing your thought process! i like the way you look at things

Kathleen said...

Thanks for linking up to TGIFF too!

Bernie Kringel said...

Good morning Rebecca: This was super interesting. I have never sent a quilt to a long arm person but it was cool to read through the thought process behind choosing a design. Your explanation was so clear and easily understood.

Allison said...

This was a fascinating read - thank you for taking the time to share it all. I'm not a long arm quilter but so many of your explanations can be applied to the choices made about quilting whatever the method being used.

Jennifer Fulton Inquiring Quilter said...

So many thoughtful choices! This was a delightful read. Thanks for sharing on Wednesday Wait Loss.