Making a house away from home

Okay, it’s time to share some photos of the quilting class I took at John C. Campbell last week. The class was taught by my buddy Mary Lou Weidman (center, in the photo below), a Washington-state quilter I got to know when I interviewed her for a story in American Patchwork and Quilting.


She and I hit it off on the phone, and the conversation I told her would probably take 15 to 20 minutes ended up lasting an hour. A few emails later she asked me to join her in Houston for Quilt Market. I was stunned, and being a basically shy person I told my husband “I could never do that! I’ve never even met her.” He wisely said, “You can’t NOT do that!” and he was right. Not only did I get to know and love Mary Lou and her wonderful friend Mel, attending Market opened numerous doors opened for me. She knew that would happen and in her very open-hearted and generous way, she wanted to create opportunities for me, a near stranger. I am incredibly grateful.

All this is to say that Mary Lou is definitely a “friend in fabric,” par excellence. But she’s also a teacher who travels the country at a crazy pace, teaching quilters who frequently take classes from her multiple times. So when she told me about John C. Campbell, I thought it was the perfect chance to finally learn her methods.

Mary Lou is all about having fun. But she’s also a trained artist, and I learned not only to put together a quilt using her free-form “Hoochy Mama” block technique (you can see some in the picture third from the top), but to think about value and contrast in choosing fabrics. I learned that there is a method to her madness. Carol, a second-timer in Mary Lou’s classes, commented that Mary Lou’s seemingly wild quilts really do have a definite color scheme and though it took me awhile to see it, Carol is absolutely right.

After spending a week with Mary Lou I learned to step back and consider how a particular fabric or color worked with others around them. Her quilts, which might have seemed to me at first to be a happy accident, or created by someone on the fly, are actually pieced and stitched with a studied attention to the relationships of color, pattern, value, and contrast. While Mary Lou does design as she goes, she’s also got a clear sense of what does and doesn’t belong in proximity, and how to balance sizes, shapes, and patterns.
Another thing I love about Mary Lou is that while she thinks hard about how to make the best quilt, she’s not a stickler for perfection. When it came time to stitch together individually created houses, adding a piece of fabric or better yet, a “strata” of pieced fabrics to make them fit was just fine and often could be used to design advantage. This was not an easy thing for many of my classmates to do, and it was challenging even for someone like me who is a staunch advocate of the School of Good-Enough Quilting, (initiated as I was early on by my friend Anne). But as you can see, our quilts grew throughout the week as we became bolder and more willing to go out on a limb. I’ve included just a couple class members quilts along with my own. To see more, you can check Mary Lou’s site at Mary Lou and Cherries Too.


My quilt became a half-Iowa, half-California house, and I’ll have bits of each place incorporated. I chose to include the owl who hoots in my backyard daily on the Iowa side (he’ll eventually be sitting on a big tree) and plan to applique the Golden Gate Bridge, which I could see from my Berkeley home, on the Calif. side. Ambitious, perhaps…I’ve included an early photo and one from the end of the week, so you can get an idea of the way the houses changed as the week progressed.

The idea with these quilts is that in the windows and doorways we’ll applique people or pets or things that are important to include in our houses, so there is still much to be done on them all. But you can see we got a great start. And we kept reminding ourselves that while Mary Lou can whip out a quilt in two to three weeks, others have worked on these for years at a time…it’s important to remember the process is as important as the product.

One quilt that was different than the rest belonged to Jessica, a student host and class member who was making her first quilt. (She’s the “youngster” on the floor in the group photo.) She used all Hoochy Mama blocks and completed a pieced front and back. (It’s the one with green stars and orange border.) Susan (whose quilt is fourth from the top of the page and includes her dog Murphy, and who also can be seen sitting behind her sewing machine, amidst her stash) offered to take it home and quilt it on her longarm…such a kind and generous thing to do, since she told me earlier that she had 35 quilts waiting for her to finish at her shop!

In addition to meeting some wonderful folks (including Mary Lou’s assistant, Kathy, about whom I’d heard so much) we had terrific facilities: great lighting, comfortable chairs, a big table to ourselves, and windows on two sides of the room.

Movin’ On

One of my favorite things about travel is the way it dispels stereotypes. It’s so easy to make assumptions about people, or rather about an entire group of people.
I used this stereotyping to my advantage when I went to college in Minnesota: the mystique of the hip California girl was strong and when people I met during that first week of school would assume I surfed or smoked pot, I would smile enigmatically, indicating (I thought) that I was well-versed in those fields, although I had never engaged in either activity.

More recently, stereotyping has been the bane of my existence. As a transplanted Iowan, I’m incensed by the lack of knowledge most Americans have about this state: the idea that all Iowans are farmers (and all farmers are uneducated); the assumption that “salads” in Iowa always involve jello and marshmallows; the constant jokes about hogs and corn fields.

But I do understand why people create stereotypes…it’s easy. It means you don’t have to think very hard about something or someone. Seeing things in black and white, can be so much simpler than digging into complexities. And at a time when trying to decode health care reform or grasp the beliefs of Shiites and Sunnis, much less figure out what’s healthy to cook for dinner and whether Glee is appropriate fodder for eight-year-old minds can leave one exhausted on a daily basis, digging in and holding tight to stereotypes can make life simpler.

As my trip to the John C. Campbell Folk School this week proved, it’s always best to have those simple viewpoints challenged. I’ve spent only small bits of time in the south, and to make life simpler, I bought into many Southern stereotypes: people who are small-minded and not bright, (some of those same assumptions people make about Iowans, I notice). And once again, being among the people I labeled has proven how wrong a stereotype can be.

I learned about the school when my friend Mary Lou Weidman mentioned she was teaching there and it turned out to be something that my husband and I could do together: I could take a quilting class from Mary Lou and Paul could partake of the musical offerings. It offered the opportunity to spend two days driving and talking (“windshield time”), to sample a variety of barbecue, and to learn something new. The trip was all of that and more.

One of my favorite things about John C. Campbell is that at meals (the food is very good) you are encouraged to sit with new people each time. I talked with book arts folks from Pennsylvania, jewelers from Edmonton, spinners from Georgia, woodturners from Alabama, bakers from Florida, and blacksmiths from North Carolina. Being surrounded by people as obsessed with their craft as I am with sewing provided a level playing field from which to start conversations, and they took off from there.
You are encouraged to avoid talking politics and religion, and interestingly few folks asked about what you did in your “real life.” The focus was on the craft of your choosing, and those conversations led to many others. And those conversations, as well as the relationships that developed in my quilting class, definitely broke down stereotypes, as the obvious was affirmed: people in Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia are just like people in Iowa and even California: we love our kids, we enjoy watching birds at our feeders, we read and talk about good books, and we love the satisfaction that comes from making things and sharing them with others.

I’ll talk more specifically about the class in another posting, but these are some pictures of John C. Campbell Folk School and the week’s activities (including a show of classwork on the last day).

Aging gracefully

Trained experts can tell the age of a quilt by looking at the fabric. Depending on the fiber composition, the colors used, the kinds of thread or technique or pattern, it’s possible to tell how old something is. But I don’t think you need to be an expert to guess when this fabric was made. Think hard about when these slightly psychedelic mushrooms would have been all the rage.

Yup, these fabrics hail from my mid-teen years and were two used in the first pieced item I ever sewed. My friend Sue Hughes and I made patchwork granny skirts in high school—mine was purples and browns. We meticulously cut out and stitched jillions of tiny squares…no rotary cutters, no strip piecing. I would give anything to have a photo of us modeling our creations, but one has never surfaced.

While on a quick visit to my folks in late Dec., I was helping my mom sort through the shelves of her sewing room and found these pieces. The memory of what they were was instantaneous, despite the fact that I probably sewed with them 40 years ago. Fabric is like that…it can be such a connection to the past. My mom stitched each of her daughters patchwork pillows with scraps of dresses she’d made us many years before, and those fabrics, too, resonated. Perhaps I spent too much time smoothing the skirts’ cotton between my fingers rather than paying attention in school, but whatever the reason, I remembered wearing those textiles. Fabrics create such connections…between people, between parts of our lives, between friends and family. I’m so glad I found these scraps and despite the fact that my mom had saved too much stuff (and I’ve inherited that trait) I’m really pleased she’d never pitched them.

I’ll be away for awhile…going on an adventure next week that will be all about quilting. Pictures to follow.

Putting off til tomorrow…


I’m not procrastinating (really) but while writing one of my current projects one thing led to another and I stumbled across this blog. Check out the amazing work on Red Pepper Quilts. The blogger lives in Melbourne, Australia, and claims to have two teenagers (although in her profile picture she looks more like the mother of two toddlers).

I’ve had the pleasure of writing a couple of pieces about Australian quilters and designers Cath Derksema and Kristen Junor, aka Prints Charming (in the winter Quilts and More and the February American Patchwork and Quilting). Kristen and Cath talked about the way that their designs weren’t constrained by a long quilting tradition and that their color sense was influenced by Australia’s young culture and blue sky. Red Pepper Quilts seems to evoke that same spirit. Bright colors mixed with solids, graphic patterns, straight-forward quilting. I’m going to give her Pieced Scrap Border Quilt tutorial a try.

Happy New Year!

Okay, so the photo is from Christmas, rather than a reflection of the new year. Pearl was smitten with the tree and gifts, but only when we were in the room, so it was easy to prevent any true mayhem. It seemed to have to do with gifts that fit easily in her mouth (although she was quite taken with a wrapped package of lotion—the fragrance seemed to draw her attention, though I’m sure it smelled nothing like the aromas that typically interest her on our walks).

The holidays were grand—family, candy, wine, friends, games, snow, travels, birthday parties, saris, champagne, ginger snaps…I did little writing, no blogging, and just a snippet of photography. So sadly, I can’t show you the flannel pajama bottoms that I made for my daughters and son-in-law: one plaid, one polka-dotted, and one Amy Butler’s new Love (I ended up with both the Paradise wine and the periwinkle when I cut the wine pair too short for my nearly six-foot daughter…guess I’ll just have to make a pair for lil’ ‘ol me.)

So, that’s it for now. I’m working on a fun story about another blogger and she had this Blogging Without Obligation logo attached to her site and so I decided I’d add it to mine…but of course it’s not currently working. So check out the link: I like in particular the part that says that you shouldn’t feel about your blog like you feel about your treadmill.