Thursday, August 30, 2007

Working in a Series - How did THAT Happen? - Susan Leslie Lumsden

Yikes Stripes!

If you had asked me six years ago if I’d be working in a series, I would have told you firmly NO WAY! I get bored doing the same old thing over and over. That’s why I don’t do traditional. That’s why I’d never do production work. BORING! So how did I get to the point where I’m using the very traditional bull’s eye as the basis for most of my quilts?

Well first let me tell you about the first time I saw the bull’s eye and what intrigued me about it. I was in the bookstore at the Museum of American Quilters in Paducah, KY. I was flipping through a book of various quilting blocks and one block in particular caught my attention. When I saw how it was done, I felt a thrill that just made me giggle. Two major elements about it got my attention 1) very stingy use of fabrics— you “rob Peter to pay Paul” and 2) no matter how thoroughly you plan there is ALWAYS an element of surprise.

True confession time— I didn’t even buy the book. I got the gist and just went home and played with the concept. My very first project using the concept turned out to be the initial quilt in the Roots of Racism: Ignorance and Fear exhibition—“The Value of Diversity”. That exhibition toured the US for two years and then went on, with close to fifty other quilts, to adorn the walls of the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Pakistan for three more years. The next two were also created with that exhibition in mind—“Closed Society” & “Whites Only/ No Coloreds”. It was very exciting to attempt to explain a concept primarily with color and pattern.

Since then I have done over 60 quilts using the bull’s eye design as a starting point. Why? First— I just love the thrill I get when the surprise element hits. It makes me giggle and that is what it is ALL about! But the sustaining reason is that by not having to re-invent the wheel each time, I can focus on other elements that might otherwise get less attention. Each time I do a project I have SOME lesson or skill I am trying to expand. I never do a quilt just to be doing the next one.

Last year I did a few quilts that started with a handful of feathers a friend gave me from her chicken yard. Because I began with the bull’s eye design as a known starting point I was able simply to focus on the colors and their relationships. And what amazing colors they were! I had NO idea that chickens could come in so many colors and have such exquisite variations in texture and sheen.

Then I wanted to play with various surface design techniques. I stamped, foiled, silk-screened, beaded, discharged, painted—you name it. Because the individual blocks didn’t always show much of the surface design I had played with, I added those elements to the backs, as well. In fact, the backs became my playground— recess, as it was. The blocks required tight control on the assembly— to make sure those corners matched. The quilting often required tight control as well—but on the backs I can stretch out and play, play, play! Over time, I have become almost as well known for my backs as those silly circles.

Another major point in making a case for working in a series is time. By doing something where certain elements are replicated, the time it takes to create a quilt is dramatically shortened. I set up a dedicated cutting mat to make quartering my blocks very simple and very consistent. I always use a favorite 6” bowl for drawing my circles. I always make my blocks 8” square. When I cut a single 8” block from my fat quarter or half yard piece of fabric—it doesn’t take any longer to cut two pieces than it does one. That means I have a nice stack of already cut blocks and circles to pull from if I’m playing with an idea.

Since I often dye my own fabrics, I can focus on the blend of colors and not even have to think about how they are going to go together. I can just go with my gut instinct and choose for color and pattern. Since I have a general expectation of the final direction, I can be pleasantly surprised by the actual color relationships that happen.

Do I get bored? NEVER! Even If I get so carried away making blocks in a particular color scheme that I wind up with 2 quilts made from half the blocks each— I still quilt them very differently. Often I’ll take on a very feminine persona for one and a very masculine one for the other-—just to see how a different approach can affect things. This happened recently with “Shadowplay/male” and “Shadowplay/female”.

So next time you are thinking about how to add a new technique, a new skill, a new challenge to your game, consider starting by using a block or technique you have already mastered and just add those new elements to your game. You’ll immediately know exactly where you have increased your skills and simplified the expansion process.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep using the bull’s eye technique. I guess until I no longer find myself asking—now how could I do that just with the circles?
Susan Leslie Lumsden was one of the 2007 Niche Award winners in the
Professional-Fiber category. To learn more about Susan and her work:

1 comment:

Barb Forrister said...


Working in series really does have a way of making you grow. Thanks for sharing your experience. You're right, when you do something you love, you're never bored, just excited with each new prospect.