My first book Little by Little was the outgrowth of a class on making miniature quilts that I taught periodically over a couple years through a quilt store where I was working. It was a teaching gap that needed filling at the time, and it appealed to me. Regularly in the quilt store I was engaged in consulting about colors and yardage for quilt projects. Many times the customer wanted to do a bed-size quilt for a child, or for someone’s wedding; and after a short discussion it was clear that the person often had little or no sewing or quilting experience.
The basics of quilt construction used to be passed from mother to daughter and have not changed since the first pieced quilts were made hundreds of years ago. Tools and techniques have improved, but the fundamentals of cutting pieces of fabric and sewing them together to create designs remains the same. What has changed is the size and complexity of a quilter’s first quilt.
I had studied art in college, and had relatives who were professional artists. What my customers were undertaking was the equivalent of a painter attempting a five by seven foot canvas, or a sculptor working on a five foot statue.
It is helpful to realize that when art students begin to paint, they work on small canvases about 20” x 30”. They make many small paintings as they learn to control the colors and to create balance and composition. They would shudder at the thought of using their precious paints and exposing their souls on a 7’ x 9’ canvas. Even experienced artists make small studies for each major painting.
Transfer this concept to the making of a quilt. Planning the average-size bed quilt, 90” x 108” is an intimidating job. The cost of fabrics is considerable, and the time investment in selecting colors, and then in setting the color pattern within the chosen blocks, is enormous. Consider instead making a small quilt, a small study, both to audition your fabrics and to hone your piecing skills. Now you can see the interaction of the colors and plan their placement in your quilt.
The ideal is to make several small quilts just to play with the fabrics colors and patterns. Doll and small quilts are such an art form and planning exercise. They spring from snips, scraps, and gleanings and produce gems of color, composition, motion and whimsy.
[The two quilts below illustrate this. Lucy’s Ninepatch is a study of red, rose and white, a limited color palette for traditional blocks, set off by a wide rose paisley border to add more color and movement. Zephyr uses a wild color palette in the block pattern, with a complementary solid red/blue boarder.]
The creation of these modest quilts exercises the nonverbal side of your brain and improves your ability to work with color, not to mention enhancing your skill at sewing the quarter-inch seam and at matching corners. These may be and should be humble quilts, childish in size but significant as experiments in technique, composition and color.
[These two quilts are studies in color gradation. Trip tests strip piecing ability in a traditional Around the World pattern with a simple floral border. Star is a trial run at the daunting Lone Star block, again through strip piecing. The wide border makes a small practice block into a satisfying small finished quilt.]
In the last ten years my husband and I have been watching our grandchildren grow. Among other things this means being surrounded with cardboard bricks, wooden blocks, Legos, Lincoln Logs, crayons, colored pens, chalk, and reams of white and colored paper. The process is always the same; a sketchy drawing, a simple arch, a ten piece Lego figure, a Lincoln Log wall; and then a more elaborate drawing, a block building, a Lego vehicle, a Lincoln Log house; and on and on to more elaborate and more complex levels. And when they get to the kindergarten level it starts over with words and spelling; the “I luv yu nana”, to the three sentence story, to the full page letter, or the multipage fairy story. It is the same with us even though we are older. We need time to learn our medium, to play with our materials and ideas. We need dozens and hundreds of little experiments. For quilters, that’s what modest quilts do for us.
If you are an experienced sewer, but a novice quilter, do two or three or five modest quilts, to get to know the territory. If you are an artist, a person who is at home with color and design, but not an experienced sewer, do three or five or seven modest quilts and get to know how fabrics work through a sewing machine, stretch on the bias, bunch at the seam.
Small quilts with simple shapes are the easiest to make, yet have a humble charm all their own. Their simplicity makes them perfect quick projects. The pastime of cutting out little patches of fabric and sewing them back together again is fun, formative and yes, even addictive. But the same can be said of doing crossword puzzles or playing bridge.
Every quilt is a story. It is your story of color and light, of pattern and design. The best way to get proficient at telling those stories is to start many of them, complete some; and complete a few really well so that you have the experience of knowing what works, what is just right, what is just the way you want it to be. Do small or modest quilts and you will know when to extend and expand your effort to the 7’ x 9’ project.
Here are some more modest quilts. I hope they inspire you.