mandalei quilts

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Wordless… Wait, what day is it?

Wordless… Wait, what day is it?

Posted By on Feb 12, 2015

It’s been a little busy the last few weeks, with final book edits, shipping and receiving quilts and tops, and quite a few deadlines for various places.  I’ve been remiss in posting and sharing eye candy on my blog (although if you’re looking for that, check out my instagram feed over on the right!)

I just finished a sweet little wall hanging, which was two layers of batting (Quilter’s Dream Select and Quilter’s Dream Green).  It’s a sweet little top, and the request was for simple, quick, and pretty, since it’s for a house going on the market soon.  I used a combo of swirls and McTavishing to give a sense of heat waves, and some simple lines in the suns.  My purpose was not to make it so intricate people would look at it, instead of the house, but not be blah either, you know?

Hand appliqued by Sara L.

Hand appliqued by Sara L.

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This is Part 2 of my interview with Scott Murkin.  In Part 1, Scott talkled about his own background as a quilter and Certified Judge by the National Quilting Association, and the judging process for shows. The rest of his interview is below, and touches on modern quilts in traditional shows: Now that the categories have been dissolved at AQS, how do modern quilts fit in?  As always, I love good conversations, so please leave comments for Scott and for myself, and Scott can also be reached through email: smurkin at  triad dot rrdot com.

[Mandy] Modern quilting seems to be one of those things people “get” or they don’t. Because of that, how do you think modern quilting fits into juried quilt shows?

[Scott] It’s not clear to me that modern quilting is something anyone ‘gets’ or certainly I haven’t seen that everyone ‘gets’ it in the same way, even among those closely associated with the movement. The way these modern quilts fit into juried quilt shows is to me the same way that machine quilting came to fit into those shows twenty years ago. It was a bit scandalous at first and tongues wagged. BUT for many, many people it was the eye opener that there is another way to do things, and that way is neither better nor worse, but it is different and it is doable and it appeals to many people. Modern quilting is fulfilling that exact same role today. Sewists who felt put off by strict rules and formal styles can see that there is another way, and what was ‘out there’ today feels perfectly ordinary a few short years later.

The fact that there is some ambiguity about the concept of modern quilting is both a strength and a weakness. The strength lies in the inclusiveness that the more fluid definition allows. The more people who are involved in the movement, the more growth that it will see. From the viewpoint of judged shows, it can make the prospect of categorization very challenging, particularly when there are categories specific to modern quilts. Someone is going to have to be the final arbiter of whether a given piece meets the category criteria or not, and I have been involved in circumstances where this became rather contentious.

Why should modern quilters consider submitting their work to “traditional” shows?

The first reason is the altruistic one that is hinted at in the previous answer, which is to open the eyes of the quilt show attending public to the vast breadth of ideas that is included in the simple word “quilt”. By nature, I am a “lumper”, an includer, and I sincerely believe that this quilting sandbox is big enough for everyone who wants to play. By including modern quilts in traditional quilt shows it sends out this message of inclusivity and lets people who may be toying with the idea of quiltmaking know that they are welcome.

If one is engaged in modern quiltmaking in a more professional sense or even as a full-time business, then including modern quilt works in traditional shows is the quickest and easiest way to expand the market to those who may just dabble in modern quilts as part of their other work. Some portion of those exposed are likely to become wholesale converts. People can’t be expected to buy into something that they don’t know exists, and not everyone has the strength of will to go it alone—they need to see someone else doing it to know that it’s ok.

How is it possible to judge a modern quilt against something like the amazing “Stars on Mars” that won in Albuquerque?

I’m not sure that it is. In a real sense these are different objects even though they both technically fall under the rubric of ‘quilt’.

Is it possible to judge an afternoon of fun at the ice skating rink against an Olympic figure skater? This is not a value judgment—those are both FABULOUS things. But even though they both involve skating on ice, they are simply not the same thing and no one would think to compare them as such. Quilts designed and constructed specifically to show off prowess are always going to be different than quilts made to warm and comfort our friends and family.

There are some ‘high style’ modern quilts that keep the modern aesthetic while pushing into a higher level of sophistication. It seems likely that this is a hybrid area that we will continue to see grow. These quilts will likely be able to compete at that higher level in time. I think the analogy to machine quilting holds again—many people who had only ever seen very basic straight lines were shocked at the level of sophistication that could be achieved with this technique. The analogy is not exact because part of the modern aesthetic is eschewing excessive ornamentation, yet it is possible to have very sophisticated design within these restrictions.

Competing at the highest levels is simply not going to be well suited to everyone. Only a tiny fraction of traditional quilters compete at this level and it requires a very specific emphasis and mindset that is somewhat contrary to the modern quilting ethos. Olympic figure skaters rarely partake of an afternoon of fun at the local skating rink; they are too busy training for the next event. For many people this level of focus and discipline is either not attainable or not of interest to them. It can really start to look too much like work.

What do you find interesting/exciting/curious about the modern quilt style?

When any field hits a critical mass of participants, new possibilities open up. For quilters, more people making quilts means more lines of fabric, more books, more retreats, more workshops, more magazines and on and on. Modern quilting brings so many new people to the playground, that reaching this critical mass is much easier and then the growth has the potential to be self-sustaining.

It’s exciting to see new pathways to get to the same final product of a quilt. I love that modern quilting tends to focus on usable items, yet at the same time, the overall aesthetic is very design oriented. Moving design off the wall and back onto the bed, sofa and lap again feels like we are coming full circle. Sometimes items that are meant for utility can become too “precious” and we become fearful of using them for the risk of using them up. When we know that we have the skills to make a replacement item, we can lose some of that preciousness and live with that functional beauty around us every day.

I think one of the things modern quilters love, both new quilters and old quilters who have “come over”, is the feeling of freedom and fun associated with modern quilting. Pointing out that the rules don’t have to apply is very appealing because the pressure is off. How does this reconcile with getting modern quilting visible in a show?

Modern quilters have to be careful that ‘breaking the rules’ doesn’t become an easy excuse for sloppy workmanship. Workmanship criteria that are no longer valid, i.e. no longer have an effect on the durability or longevity of our work can and should be abandoned when they no longer serve us and just become arbitrary rules. But many of those workmanship criteria have real, demonstrable effects on the presentation and life of our quilted creations and it makes sense to invest ourselves in making our work better. Machine quilters didn’t gain acceptance by getting the standards lowered, but by raising their own work to such a high level that it could no longer be ignored. Part of the joy that comes from our work as modern quilters is developing confidence in our technical skills that permits us to take more chances with our designs.

Likewise, while design principles can and should be stretched to their limits, sometimes even to the breaking point, just putting things together improvisationally in no way guarantees a good design outcome at the end. Modern quilters have to be willing to assess what they are working on and fix design problems as they arise, learn from those experiences and be willing to abandon ideas that aren’t working out and go where the work organically leads them.

The judging criteria are not going to change to accommodate inferior design or workmanship. The competitive figure skater may decide that the wobbly landing on her triple axel is endearing and shows a certain charming vulnerability in her technique, but good luck getting the judges to buy that!

Are modern quilts more traditional or art?

This question is probably not answerable as it is written. Substitute any other medium for the word quilt and you will see why more clearly. “Are modern paintings more traditional or art?” “Are modern photographs more traditional or art?” These are simply not useful categories for most of us, and as our medium matures I think we will naturally move away from such facile and basically false divisions. Modern quilting has a very strong connection with traditional quiltmaking in that it focuses on objects made for use. The modern aesthetic as it is most commonly accepted existed for centuries before we attached that label to it. I find it easier to consider all quilts to be art and then focus the discussion on which ones are particularly fine examples of that art.

Why should modern quilters care about this? There is QuiltCon after all. To that end, is “modern” the right word for this style? I feel it may not be.

I have no idea whether this is the right word or not. As long as this label works to unite quilters and inspire them to keep moving forward in this never ending stream of quiltmaking, then it will serve. As soon as it is used as a fence to keep some people in and others out, then it is the wrong word (or the right word being used wrong?). Modern quilters would be well served to learn as much of the history of their medium as they can. It can be very stimulating to see how some of these same ideas arose at different times through history and where one’s own work might fit into that bigger scheme. It also prevents some reinventing of the wheel and can be just as inspiring to feel that you are adding to a long and honorable tradition as it is to feel like you broke down that box and took it in a new direction. QuiltCon is a great place to rally the forces and share your excitement with your own clan. There is also a real risk of this becoming overly insular and you end up ‘preaching to the choir’. Taking the modern quilt message to the larger quilting community is an equally important mission, and entering judged shows is one prong toward this goal.

I hope you enjoyed this interview with Scott Murkin, and find it as thought provoking as I did, and hope you, like I, see the jurying in juried quilt shows a little better. I hope we can keep this conversation going! Has this changed your thoughts on entering a quilt show, no matter what type of quilting you do?  Many, many thanks to Scott for his care and thought answering my questions.  Make sure you go check out his work!

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Over the last few years, modern quilts have been seen in categories at MQX, AQS, Road to California, and have a dedicated show, QuiltCon. With its second show kicking off in a week, and an announcement that it will become a yearly event at different locations, it seemed to me as though modern quilts were finding their place.  Recently, though, AQS decided to do away with the “Modern” category for its shows, and I thought it would be interesting to find out what this means for modern quilts and quilters.  Can a modern quilt compete outside of its own category? I asked Scott Murkin, a certified Quilt Show Judge for AQS if he would be willing to do an interview, and he said yes!

Scott was so generous with his time to do this, and I am deeply grateful.  He thinks deeply about quilts and quilt history, and uses that as a springboard for considering where quilting is going. This first part of the interview covers Scott’s background as a quilter, what it means to be a judge, and how judging works in a “traditional show.  Part 2 specifically covers modern quilts and their place in traditional shows.  I hope you’ll join me for both interviews!  I love good conversations, so please leave comments for Scott and for myself, and Scott can also be reached through email: smurkin at  triad dot rr dot com.

[Mandy] I would love to have an introduction about you and your interests and work.

[Scott] I grew up in a family of quilters and crafters in Illinois. My grandmother, great aunt and aunt made quilts and many other handicrafts. When I was in high school I would help my grandma cut out quilt patterns as progressive arthritis made this challenging for her. In 1994 my grandma passed away, my wife was expecting our second child and our daughter was getting ready to move into her first twin bed. Neither my mother nor my wife sewed, so I felt emotionally compelled to make a quilt for my daughter. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was just familiar enough to fake my way through that first quilt, although it took much longer than I expected.

Working on that first piece started a generative process of further ideas to explore and it wasn’t long before I was obsessed with designing and making patchwork quilts. I have now made more than 450 quilts ranging from those no larger than a postcard to queen-sized bed quilts. I have tried nearly every technique and style at one time or another. My design work for magazines is primarily updated traditional, geometric patterns with strong secondary designs. I have done a tremendous amount of work with free-formed curved piecing. I am proficient in both hand and machine quilting and my ongoing passion is the interaction of the quilting stitch with the quilt top and how to determine which quilting motifs will best bring a design to life. The change in texture from a quilt top to a quilt is pure magic to me and the magic hasn’t worn off after more than 20 years of observing it in action.

Why and how do you become a judge?

While there are different pathways, most of my judging colleagues started off either exhibiting or teaching (or both) and got drawn into the world of judging when someone somewhere admired their work enough to ask them to judge a show. Many shows will only hire judges from their roster of teachers to conserve on travel expenses. When I was first asked, I jumped at the chance and then freaked a little wondering if I knew enough to do a good job. I gathered all the resources I could locate to prepare for that first show and have continued to learn over fifteen years of experience and continuing education.

The National Quilting Association (NQA) offers both a judging seminar and a judging certification program. The judging course has traditionally been offered at the annual show, but this is actively being broadened so that it will be available more widely. The certification program is a way for active judges to show their proficiency and have that acknowledged officially. Certification is not necessary to judge, but it is a way to show that this skill has been mastered. The Northern California Quilt Council sponsors the West Coast Quilt Judging Academy which offers a certificate for successful completion. The Canadian Quilters’ Association offers both workshops and a certification program as well.

Judging is very physically and mentally demanding. It has been intriguing to learn that many of my judging colleagues have backgrounds in education or healthcare, fields where they are accustomed to processing large volumes of information very quickly and making a strong assessment based on that information. Judging is fairly objective and a person has to be able to honestly turn off personal preferences. Judging has nothing to do with what the judge “likes”— unless, of course, the judge happens to “like” well-designed, well-made quilts.

What factors are involved in judging a quilt?

Judging is a balance between workmanship and design.

Workmanship focuses primarily on the structural integrity of the quilt. Secure seams, straight lines (where intended), smooth curves (where intended), well-secured quilting stitches that hold the layers together securely without any excess fullness, straight edges (where intended), square corners and secure edge finishes are all part of this equation. While textiles are subject to the wear and tear of everyday use and cleaning, a well-made quilt should last a long time under general usage conditions. Workmanship that undermines the longevity of a quilt will be noted during the judging process.

Traditionally, workmanship could come across more as one-upmanship with award going to whoever could make the most perfect points and the tiniest stitches. Many of the judging principles that seem arbitrary at first can be traced back to something that historically affected the durability of a quilt. When battings were carded from raw wool or cotton, having stitches super close together kept the batting from shifting, for example. As quilting continues to grow, we have to decide which standards of workmanship really affect the final outcome and which are merely holdovers from another time. A good general principle is that if you are going to violate a standard of workmanship, do it egregiously enough that it is obvious to the judges that it was intentional. If you don’t care if points match, cut off many or most of them, not just a couple. If you don’t think your design needs to be squared up, make the shape wonky enough that it’s clear that this was a design decision rather than a flaw in workmanship. And in the end, it’s your quilt and you get to decide the workmanship standards for each piece. But that doesn’t obligate the judges to cut you any slack in a competition.

Design seems more subjective, and perhaps it is to a degree, but there are objective standards of design that apply to all visual media that can be used to eliminate as much subjectivity as humanly possible. The elements of design (line, shape, texture, color, value) and the principles of design (balance, scale, proportion, rhythm, unity, variety, harmony) are assessed in each piece, with most of the design weight being a balance between unity and variety. Too much unity and the viewer is bored, but too much variety and the visuals become chaotic, often appearing if two or more designs were crammed into the same piece inadvertently. While any artist may decide to emphasize certain design elements or principles over others, or even ‘break’ the design rule, the judge’s role is to determine whether those decisions successfully contributed to the design statement.

It’s common for workmanship and design to be weighted fairly evenly in many shows, but this is extremely variable and continues to evolve. “Traditional” quilt shows historically focused on technical expertise and the workmanship tended to be weighted a little more heavily, often because the judges found these areas easier to discuss. Shows that are meant to highlight a specific skill such as appliqué or machine quilting may still weight more heavily toward technical expertise. A show that focuses exclusively on art quilts or studio quilts may advise the judges to weight design significantly more heavily and consider workmanship only to determine between two very closely ranked pieces. If show sponsors don’t give specific direction (which is still common), I tend to weight design about 60% and workmanship about 40%. A perfectly stitched quilt with poor design benefits no one, whereas a quilt of stunning design may be able to overcome some technical difficulties to a degree. Obviously good design and good workmanship combine the best of both worlds.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Please make sure to check out Part 2!

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My friend Casey, of Casey York Design  sent me a note today asking if I had seen that my book is available for preorder on Amazon. The release date is early September, 2015, just in time for Fall Market!

I had not.

But here’s a picture of it!

Here's the blurb: "Travel the world without leaving your studio! Tour ancient Greece, Rome, and Israel by way of 10 modern quilts designed from classical art and architecture, while you savor the stories and photos that inspired them. Infused with the mystery of the past, these timeless projects will help you grow as a quilter and move beyond the basics. Explore advanced techniques, including curved piecing, Y-seams, scalloped binding, and more."

Here’s the blurb: “Travel the world without leaving your studio! Tour ancient Greece, Rome, and Israel by way of 10 modern quilts designed from classical art and architecture, while you savor the stories and photos that inspired them. Infused with the mystery of the past, these timeless projects will help you grow as a quilter and move beyond the basics. Explore advanced techniques, including curved piecing, Y-seams, scalloped binding, and more.”

Two of the quilts from the book were accepted into QuiltCon, so if you’re going, you will see them there! Come say hi, too, because I will have some cute buttons!

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You guys.  YOU GUYS.  I almost passed out over my coffee this morning when I was scrolling through facebook and saw someone post the cover of this magazine, and then my copy arrived today!


This quilt top is designed by Stacey Day of Stacey in Stitches.  Go check out her blog!  She’s got lots of interesting things to see, and I had a great time working with her.

When I was trying to decide what to quilt, I wanted to keep the sea theme of the fabrics.  The feathery frond int he middle reminds me of sea palms and anemones, and the pebbles reminded me of sand and pearls.  I did very simple quilting int he teardrop piecing because the fabric was busy and it would not be visible (these were simple waves, like ripples on the ocean).  It was a fun to blend my quilting with the pattern and fabrics. Thanks for this opportunity, Stacey!

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Over on her blog, Alison Glass posted about “Share your Handcrafted“, where in the days leading up to QuiltCon, people can work on and share projects made with her fabric line Handcrafted.  I usually don’t have time for challenges, but this time around, I had some projects that I wanted to do with her fabric and her wool, so yesterday I got started:

The background is a green linen, and I will be using the wool for other shapes.

The background is a green linen, and I will be using the wool for other shapes.

This is going to be a combination of machine turned applique (using Sharon Schamber’s Piece by Piece method, which Cristy shares here, and which I also used in one of the projects for my book), and wool applique.  I can’t wait to share the finished project with you!  Today, though, is a work day; I’m quilting for customers, and this will have to wait.

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