Sunday, July 1, 2012

Birth of an Eggplant with Ruth McDowell as midwife

Earlier this month I got to take a class from Ruth B. McDowell ( in Kallispell, Montana. I've admired Ruth's work for years, and have been on the waiting list for a class for more than a year. This was an amazing opportunity, since Ruth is retiring from teaching.

Line tracing from the photograph
Photo of Ichiban Eggplant flower in my garden
"Changing ... Leaves some things behind"
SG Hilsenbeck, 2008
Preparation: Besides travel arrangements, plans for my husband to come later in the week and extra days to be spent sightseeing, fishing etc (Montana is a new state on our life-list), there was also preparation for the class. First, an image to be turned into a small quilt. I had several in mind but opted for this one. My goal was to translate this into cloth, aiming for a finished size of about 17x25 inches. Second, a pencil tracing of the image, to ID the main lines. Notice that in the tracing, I left out all the underlying foliage (mustard greens, etc). I wanted to hi-light the beautiful dark purple stems and the light green leaves. Third, I packed an entire small suitcase with fabric from my stash, in greens, purples, yellows, etc.  
Fourth, but actually done several years ago, it was important to already understand how Ruth's freezer paper method works and to have some experience putting pieces together. I made this little quilt by carefully following the instructions in Ruth's book.

First Days of Class: The first days of class focused on taking the image and turning it into something you can actually sew. Ruth did an absolutely amazing job of reviewing an image from each of 17 students and making suggestions for how to 'de-construct' the image into sewable sections.
Students in class
 Del Thomas (, also in the class, took this picture of several of us students, including me (standing) mesmerized by Ruth's magic.

The following pictures show Ruth's general suggestions for breaking up my image (left), my careful full size drawing, with all the sections and pieces meticulously labeled, and the final tracing on freezer paper (sections and pieces traced on shiny side) with major sections outlined in hi-liter on the paper side.

Ruth's Mock-up
Full-size drawing on tracing paper
Freezer Paper showing sections on
paper side.

This process was quite demanding -- requiring careful thought about how to things will be sewn together, thought about where colors will go, and great attention to detail. What a luxury to have an entire day, or more, to really concentrate on this. This would be hard for me to do at home, squeezing a little time here and there from in between other demands.

Next steps: With the full size drawing in hand, it was time to turn to fabric. What fun auditioning little bits to see how they would look. Experienced members of the class seemed to able to pick fabrics and immediately iron onto the freezer paper templates and pin up on the wall (Note: a design wall, with a full-size copy of the drawing on which to pin-up each piece (make visual designs visually...) is a must!). I opted to waste a little fabric by pinning up snippets, to see how they would look, and then go for ironing and actual cutting out, once I was generally happy with the choices. Ruth also suggests pinning up nearly everything before sewing, so you can really see how it will look, and make changes before you go down a path you will regret.

Starting to audition fabrics.
 With the photo as a guide, here I have pinned up little bits of candidate fabrics to see how it will look. I'm especially liking the flower. The strips of dark purple just give the impression of how the contrast will work with the stems.
Starting to pin-up prepared pieces

Beginning to audition possible outer border fabric.
Close-up, showing prepared pieces pinned in place.

We left the border fabric choice until the end, and after looking at quite a few, Ruth helped find an interesting fabric that hi-lited the green and purple of the design and was similar in 'value' to the center background. This also illustrates the need for a really deep stash, OR to live in a great quilt shop. The class was in the back of the Quilt Gallery in Kallispell, and it could not have been more convenient to pop-up to the front of the store to 'look for something else'. They even ran a tab.

Finishing the Top: I'm quite a slow, methodical piecer. In fact, I'm pretty slow on all the parts of the process. On the other hand, I savor each step, and generally only work on small to moderate-sized things that I can finish in my lifetime. I have actually made one large king-size quilt, but it was too much like sewing a circus tent, and I do not plan to repeat the experience. But I digress. Considering my snail-like pace, I made amazing progress on assembly of the top during the last two days of the class.
About half of major sections sewed, before packing up.

Back, showing seams
Front, showing finished top (18x24.5")
@SG Hilsenbeck, 2012

After an hour or so for several evenings, and all day last Saturday, the top is entirely put together. Amazingly, I did not lose any of the little pieces (ziplock bags are wonderful), I did not sew anything in backwards or upside down (color coded tic-marks, like being rich or thin, you cannot have too many), AND miracle of miracles, it lies flat.

Plans for quilting and finishing: I haven't decided exactly what to do yet, so this will have to wait until next time. When I step back, I'm quite happy with much of how the image looks and less thrilled with other parts. Rather than micro-analyzing or perhaps trying to tweek, I view this as a learning experience. Quilting will be the next part of the experiment. Thinking of this as the small experiment that it is takes some of the decisional anxiety out of the equation. I feel freer to try things out and then I know can to do better next time.

1 comment:

  1. One last comment (and then I must go to bed)...I took a four-day class with Ruth some years ago (8?) and it was a highlight of my quilting life. I finally did finish my quilt, but I know a lot of my "inspiration" came from being in the same classroom as Ruth. She's a master! I do love your flower, and think it came out quite well. I joke that I think I purchased every yellow-green fabric within a 20-mile radius of my house. I still love that quilt, though. (It's on my 100 quilts list: "Heart's-Ease" if you are curious. We both love purples, apparently, in our Ruth McDowell quilts.)