Friday, December 21, 2012

Albert Small, hexagon master

Even more from my recently concluded patchwork independent study!
While leafing through a book in search of Gee’s Bend quilts, I happened upon an unusual quilt. It had the look of something woven, a rug or tapestry, or perhaps it was executed in needlepoint. Perhaps the artist made clever use of an ombre-print fabric, arranging it so that the colors seemed to pulse and radiate throughout the piece. What would you think, were you to guess at its construction–a rug? a tile floor? a fussy-cut quilt?

Nope. This quilt, measuring 86″ by 95″, is composed of 123,200 pieced hexagons, each 1/4″ in diameter. I AM NOT EVEN KIDDING. Six of these tiny hexagons fit beneath a dime! The quilt was made by Albert Small over the course of four years, 1941-1945, during which time he spent at least four hours a day, six days a week working on it. Small estimated he invested about 6,000 hours on this quilt, which holds the world record for most pieces in a quilt.
Albert Small emigrated to Illinois from England as a teenager, and grew into a somewhat eccentric adult: he had a large cactus collection, enjoyed painting and carpentry, and was a tattoo artist for a while. For work, he was a heavy machinist and dynamite handler at the Ottawa (IL) Silica Sand Company. Small took up quilting after his wife’s sewing circle, in response to his teasing, challenged him to make a quilt. He is pictured below with one of his quilts.

If you are unfamiliar with the method of piecing hexagons, generally executed via a technique called English paper piecing, allow me to further boggle your mind. Fabric hexagons are cut using a paper hexagon template, leaving the traditional 1/4″ seam allowance; they are then basted onto the paper and hand-stitched together, Y-seams and all. Piecing hexagons is a slow and painstaking process.
Small made two quilts prior to the one pictured above, the first of which consists of hexagons 1/2″ across:

While I don’t respond strongly to these quilts on an aesthetic level, I was immediately struck by the craftsmanship. After researching Albert Small further, I began to wonder how these quilts would be received were they pieced by a woman–that is, if the novelty of a male quiltmaker was removed. This is not to take away from Small’s accomplishments. But because patchwork is traditionally a female domain, male quiltmakers are often regarded as exotic.
Still, this, Small’s second quilt, is rather impressive:

Friday, December 14, 2012


This past semester, I taught myself how to make cold process soap. When lye and oils are combined, the oils are saponified--that is, the react with the lye to produce soap and naturally occurring glycerin. Extra oil is added ("superfatting") so that no lye remains. Water evaporates from the soap and the pH of the soap becomes more mild, and after a minimum of 4 weeks, the soap is ready to use! Oh, what a wait. I am still figuring out all of the intricacies, but in the meantime, here are some of my more photogenic soaps:

cedarwood, clary sage, rosemary soap with charcoal & poppy seeds

patchouli, lavender, cedarwood soap with cocoa powder & kaolin clay

I made the two soaps above with recipe #2 from Lovin' Soap! They are incredibly moisturizing and make for a lovely bar. The second soap utilized a pouring technique from the Soap Queen blog.

lavender & clary sage with ground oatmeal and cinnamon

carrot bastile with cinnamon on top

Bastile soap, by definition, contains a high percentage of olive oil. This soap is 95% olive oil, 5% castor oil for bubbly lather. I got the idea to use carrot puree from this post, and intended to add a tiny bit of clove oil but forgot! Oh well. It still has a lovely scent and will likely be a very gentle soap. I won't know for another five weeks, as it is still curing!

If you're interested in learning to make soap, I recommend working your way through the Soaping 101 series of video tutorials. After spending so much time sewing and entrenched in other fibers-related endeavors, it's nice to have an alternate hobby!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Amish quilts!

More from my recently concluded patchwork independent study!
When I set out to research Amish patchwork traditions for this installment of the blog, I had a lot of preconceived notions of what I’d find. Any quilt anthology worth its salt features one or two Amish center diamond quilts, worked in subdued colors, square and intricately quilted. Even the American Folk Art Museum in NYC has a collection of quilts, with a handful representing the narrow breadth of what we expect of Amish quilts. I did not expect to find quilts of this nature:

Possibly made in Holmes County, Ohio, United States, 1900-20

As it turns out, the Amish arrived at their own form of abstract expressionism, worked in cotton and wool, a handful of decades before the art world. In the mid-1800s, the Amish of Pennsylvania apparently picked up quiltmaking from their neighbors, and began making quilts composed of large fields of color. Latecomers to patchwork in America, the Amish quickly adapted it to their own aesthetic which was, and continues to be, dictated by their religious beliefs. Believing representational images to be sacrilege, Amish quilts are usually abstract and pieced rather than appliqued; the patchwork is kept simple to avoid a prideful display on the part of the maker; fabrics are solid although rarely prints are used as backing. The name of the quiltmaker is generally not known.

Lancaster County, PA, circa 1910-30, wool.

Pictured above is a stunning example of a center square quilt from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, one of the oldest Amish communities in the United States. Antique quilts from Lancaster County are most often constructed of wool, to which we can attribute their radiant glow: wool, unlike cotton, absorbs light. Lancaster County Amish quilts are also generally square in size, consisting of very few pieces (above: nine, plus binding), and tightly and expertly quilted with dark or matching thread that is meant to recede into the quilt. During WWII, when fabric was scarce, we see a shift away from wool textiles in Amish quilts.

Possibly made in PA, Circa 1880-1900, wool.

Above is an interesting variation on the traditional Amish bars quilt: the pink only borders the red bars on three sides, causing the bars to extend all the way to the binding. This is atypical of patchwork, Amish or not, antique or contemporary, and illustrates a subtle commonality among Amish quilts: the desire on the part of the quiltmaker to innovate despite design constraints. True, Amish quilts adhere more stringently to tradition than most other branches of quiltmaking. Considering these many constraints, I posit that the quilt, above, lacking a border on the bottom is a very daring decision–particularly in 1880.

Holmes County, Ohio, 1948, cotton sateen.

The largest Amish community can be found in Holmes County, Ohio, where the above quilt was made. The colors are interesting to me, particularly the pinky-purple against the blue, as is the simplicity of the design. This community is somewhat less strict than that of Lancaster County, a fact which is reflected in the quilts of the area. Holmes County quilts are generally made of cotton or cotton sateen, often utilize a black background, and feature more intricate patchwork and simpler quilting because of the piecing design… the above example notwithstanding. This holds true of many of the midwestern Amish communities, so it seems what we consider a typical Amish quilt is actually typical of the Lancaster County Amish.

Somerset County, PA, circa 1910-30, cotton.

The above quilt is one big log cabin block, and calls to mind the quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, which I’ll discuss in a later post. Considering the isolation of Amish communities, combined with their deeply-held religious beliefs which emphasize the importance of community over the individual, it is no surprise that Amish quilts share a distinct visual language.

Holmes County, Ohio, 1920-40, cotton.

But aren’t these quilts still surprising?

Holmes County, Ohio, circa 1900-20, wool.

The colors used in Amish quilts are the same used in Amish clothing, despite our association of black garments. (ETA: one long-lost source stated that bright colors, if not used for Amish clothing, could be found on the lining of vests, bonnets, and other garments, as well as undergarments!)

Amish dresses

Families would buy yardage by the bolt, so although quilts in America during this time period were often constructed from scrap fabric, Amish quilts usually contained a considerable amount of new fabric. Quilts were recognized as heirlooms and only used on special occasions; the Amish of Lancaster County didn’t even make doll or crib quilts. Above is a quilt typical of Holmes County, utilizing black and greys in the background and border.

Possibly made in Indiana, circa 1910-30, cotton sateen.

I found the above quilt to be another interesting cousin to Gee’s Bend quilts: note the improvisationally pieced log cabin blocks! The border is also unusual and reminiscent of the film Beetlejuice.

Midwestern US, circa 1920-40, cotton sateen.

This stacked coin quilt is interesting for the wiggly nature of its strips. Not only are the blue ‘coins’ not uniform in thickness, they are unevenly spaced on a black background.

Kansas, circa 1915.

And finally, pictured above, is my favorite example of an Amish quilt. It is a Roman Stripe or string-pieced quilt, popular during the Great Depression for its economical use of scraps. The strips are of slightly different widths, so that when the blocks are cut, shuffled, and rotated, the black and pink stripes don’t line up perfectly. This gives the composition a great sense of movement, further reinforced by the irregular stripes of the inner border. The quiltmaker arranged the blocks in three vertical rows, causing the blocks to seem to jump from an X shape to a closed diamond shape. This composition is powerful on its own, but takes on new meaning when considered within the context of Amish culture.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

textile production

Here is another installment in my patchwork independent study!
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Quilts are typically considered an American innovation, and while it is true that American woman have contributed much to the development of the craft, credit goes to English and Dutch colonists for bringing quilting to the New World. Prior to the 1700s, quilting was generally used to embellish and add warmth to garments, but was seldom used for bedding. Blankets were mostly woven, as yardage was costly, and any quilts that existed in the colonies were wholecloth and likely imported. These quilts were status symbols, indicating that the owner was either wealthy enough to buy a luxury item, or possessed enough leisure time to complete a quilt herself.

Wholecloth quilt, circa 1600, Int’l Quilt Study Center & Museum
Europeans first got their hands on Indian cotton fabric in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Indian textiles were prized for the fine quality of their substrate and prints. We can see the extent of the Indian textile influence in the word “calico” (which once encompassed most any cotton printed fabric), which derives from Calicut, an Indian textile production center. As the English textile market shifted from woven patterns to printed patterns, their style followed that of India, and Indian-printed fabric was still preferred over English. Toward the end of the 1600s and the beginning of the 1700s, English and French governments banned Indian fabrics, which led to further imitation of Indian patterns.

my block printed textiles, Surface I @ ACC
Fabric from this time period was generally block printed, a method we explored in Surface I. Pictured above is a photo of my own yardage from last semester. Although our blocks are linoleum and our dyes synthetic, the process has changed little over the centuries. Small details were added by hand and outlines were created by attaching strips of metal to wooden blocks, which could be an interesting tool for today’s surface designer. I can attest to the fact that the block printing process is a slow one, and it was eventually overtaken by faster methods of printing, such as copperplate (pictured below).

British copper plate printed textile, 1780-90s, V&A Museum
It is interesting to note the crossover between printmaking and textile printing methods. By the late 1700s, the first roller printed textiles hit the market. This process significantly reduced printing time, leading to a boom in production and causing yardage to be affordable to even modest households.

roller-printed textiles
The terrifyingly pink fabric pictured below would have taken many hours to produce by block print in any significant quantity, but it was printed efficiently via the roller system. By the close of the first quarter of the 1800s, most textiles used in quilts were roller printed. Innovations in textile production and printing methods very much influenced the trajectory of quiltmaking by increasing accessibility.

English roller printed textile, 1830, V&A Museum

Sunday, November 4, 2012

patchwork independent study: introduction

Hello all! I won't even make excuses this time. School keeps me incredibly busy, as does my newfound soapmaking hobby. I made my first batch of cold process soap last night and am totally hooked. It is the most fun you can have with lye, oil, and a stick blender. Trust me!

This semester, in exchange for one glorious credit hour, I am conducting an independent study on the history, evolution, and many iterations of patchwork... and am posting it all on my department's blog! I'll be reposting my slightly edited work here, since it's my intellectual property and all that, and I think you all might enjoy it. Ok here we go!

* * *

The history of patchwork is vast and richly detailed. In examining the many variations of quilts throughout history, it is also necessary to research what social and economic factors gave rise to these forms. Additionally, the development of the textile industry and the increased availability of material played an important role.

As a traditionally female endeavor, quiltmaking is inextricably intertwined with the lives of women; it provides a lens through which to examine the cultural and political currents of the time. In this regard, a quilt’s significance extends far beyond its functionality. Historically, the practice of quiltmaking provided a creative outlet to women whose lives were consumed with the business of running a household, and who had few opportunities to express themselves as a result. Quilting bees also provided a social outlet to women whose domestic existence was very often one of isolation.

Members Sewing Society, Apache reservation, NM. Smithsonian Institution.

While the practice of quiltmaking is no longer part of daily life, quilts still hold special meaning for many people. They are sentimental objects symbolic of their maker as well as the time and place of their creation, and often accumulate a great many stories over the course of their existence. For all of these reasons, I have been nurturing a great love of quilts for many years, and hope to share my enthusiasm with you over the course of this semester. Check back soon!

Monday, July 30, 2012

container garden harvest

It's been almost two months since my last post, and in that time my container garden has taken off.  As it turns out, two tomato plants, three pepper plants, and a handful of herbs is enough to keep this gal in business.  I harvested my first round of produce this week, and expect many more jalapenos to follow.

A few days ago I came home to find a handful of wooden stakes on my porch, along with a handwritten note that read "mater sticks".  My tomato plants had contorted in their effort to acquire more sunlight than my porch offered, so I tied them with jute to some twigs I rustled from my yard's perimeter.  A kindly neighbor had taken notice, and my tomato and pepper plants are now properly supported.  Sometimes rural living is rather nice.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

sweet home

I moved!  Again!  I now live in Smithville, Tennessee, population 4,500 and home to the famed old-time/bluegrass festival known as the Fiddler's Jamboree.  This is officially the tiniest, most rural place I've lived to date.  Here is my super-cute cottage:

Since the semester ended, I've been taking a break from fibers-related endeavors and have instead concentrated on other activities; mainly unpacking and reading as many non-textbooks as possible before summer classes begin.

Recently my gentleman friend started keeping several hives of bees, and I have been learning all about the plight of our pollinating friends!

I don't think I'll be setting up my own hive any time soon, but I was sure to include many plants of particular interest to bees in my container garden.

Above we have veronica (also called speedwell), coreopsis, beebalm and veronica together (all for the bees), followed by a pepper plant of unknown variety, thyme, and a tomato plant.

Flanking my front door I placed two lemongrass plants.  Somewhere long ago I read that lemongrass repels fleas and ticks; whether that is true I am not sure, but given that I live in tick territory now, I'd like to hedge my bets.  Next to the lemongrass I have flat-leaf parsley, which tastes marvelous!  Sitting on the porch I planted another mystery pepper, rosemary, and a tomato.  On the steps, for the bees: beebalm again (such odd-looking flowers!), sage (for me, but the bees are also interested), and Russian sage (purple) and coreopsis together.

Not pictured: lantana flowers in two colors (I don't know whether bees like these but they smell nice when cut), lavender, and creeping thyme.

If you want to learn more about bees, watch this lecture!  It's engaging without being too academic, and covers bee-friendly gardening.

For a more general overview, watch PBS's excellent Nature program, Silence of the Bees!  Bees are interesting creatures indeed, and I enjoy watching them busy themselves on the flowers around my house.  So... any beekeepers out there?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hexies > Algebra

Weird but true: I like Algebra.  Granted, I am taking remedial math, but it's kind of fun.  (Don't tell anyone.)  I managed to join three of my favorite hexagons the other day, between algebra and human development Superfun Studytime.  I think I'll just sew these onto a hoodie perhaps?  I am really into surprises, though, and am considering sewing them to the lining of my winter jacket... Maybe I'll decide before the semester is up.
[ETA: these hexies ended up patching a much-loved, much slept-on pillowcase. 2/10/13]