Painted Hills Art Quilt
I had never seen a total eclipse. And I really wanted to. In August, 2017, my brother generously hosted a family reunion at his Central Oregon ranch, right smack dab in the path of totality. The house is small, so the clan gathered in tents and trailers to share the rare event. The visit inspired Painted Hills Art Quilt.
The day before the eclipse, we ventured to Oregon’s nearby Painted Hills, and I couldn’t stop taking photographs! The unique landscape with vivid natural colors called to me and insisted that a quilt be made to emphasize line and value. I pondered how to do it – appliqué, fused, curved piecing, straight piecing, templates, foundation paper piecing? I considered my options and decided on appliqué. After drawing it out (and thinking about it with each pencil stroke), I decided that appliqué, fused or stitched, would not capture how I felt about this landscape.
Back to the drawing board, I pulled out a couple of books by Ruth B. McDowell and dusted off my memory of a workshop I had taken from Ruth over 15 years ago – and never finished the project! But I knew that this method would be perfect for what I wanted to achieve, even if my technique wandered a bit from Ruth’s intent.
If you have ever attempted to make a “Ruth McDowell quilt”, you know that the process includes lots and lots of planning before you take the first stitch. The first step was tracing the major seam lines suggested by the photo in such a way as to make the final piecing go together more smoothly, trying to avoid drawing myself into a corner with inset seams.
Once I had my tracing from the 8- by 10-inch print, I took it to a copy shop that had a large-format printer, enlarging my diagram 250%. That gave me a final map about 25 by 20 inches – pieces large enough to work with. Mostly. Some pieces still turned out to be kind of tiny, but I wanted to make the map work.
Colored pencils and highlighters helped me divide the map into manageable sections that could be pieced together as the quilt grew. It would have been nice if all of the piecing lines corresponded to the elements of the landscape, but that was unlikely. So the labeling if each section, and each piece within every section, be labeled clearly. I gave each section a letter designation, then added numbers in a logical piecing order. So I would first sew piece A1 to piece A2, then add piece A3, etc. But not yet! No sewing yet – not ready to select fabrics, as much as I want to. Too soon. Must add hash marks to each and every piecing line to guide construction. And determine where each piece would fit in a light-to-dark value scale and label every piece before cutting into the pattern.
If I lost track of which piece went where, a world of frustration awaited me. So it was very, very important to keep the original marked piecing map intact. It guided me throughout the process. To make templates, I taped two pieces of freezer paper together to make a new, full-size tracing. The freezer paper diagram would become my templates. I wanted to be able to see how each fabric choice affected the composition, so I traced onto the shiny (back) side of the freezer paper to give me reverse image pattern pieces. This allowed me to adhere the templates to the backs of the fabrics so I could pin individual pieces to my “master plan” and see how the colors and patterns would flow in the finished quilt before stitching. Less unsewing!
I needed fabrics in a range of values for this landscape, from very light to very dark. As any quilter knows, the super-lights and uber-darks are less plentiful. So once I had my colors selected, I needed to supplement what I already had to get a good range. All the pieces are small, so shopping for fat quarters was enough.
Then I arranged the fabrics for each section (sky, faraway mountains, vivid painted hills, grassy foreground) in value order. Value can be tricky – yellows get me every time. And I tend to conflate intensity with value. So I used my smartphone camera to help. I arranged fabrics in what appeared to me to be value order, then snapped a pic and converted to grayscale. I rearranged, then snapped again, repeating until I had the order right.
Then I was ready to put fabric to the design! I picked the foreground section to start because I knew that the first section I worked on would probably be the one that would need the most changes. (I was right – more on that later!)
Pinning both color and grayscale photos of my inspiration near my map guided me as I selected each piece of fabric for color and value. Ruth McDowell’s books provide detailed instructions on how to construct each section, then join them to create the quilt.
I enjoyed watching the quilt evolve, section by section:
I continued to built my landscape, section by section. So I made a purple mountain, then added pale blue and yellow mountains in the distance. Then came the clouds and a fun floral sky! With the pieces sewn together, I was ready to show my quilt top to a group of friends for critique. They loved it – except – the pieces of foreground with the little red and teal flowers glared with distraction. When those pieces were covered, the rest of the piece came together. So with some creative cutting and substituting, I achieved a happy composition ready for quilting. The resulting Painted Hills 1 hung in a juried art show with paintings, photographs and digital art.