“In its simplest form, a quilt is just some fabric and a little thread. It’s up to you to decide how to put it together.” YLI ad in QNM, March 2000
Whether a quilter chooses to work from a pattern or creates a quilt from her imagination, it still requires talent and skill to choose the combination of fabrics and to maintain the sustained commitment to accomplish each of the steps to finishing a quilt. Our April quilt show was a vivid display of our pride in our accomplishments.
Often, we quilters are presented with a challenge to our skills in trying a new technique or process. I had not considered making a quilt based on a photograph I’d taken until this idea was presented as our guild challenge for the 2015 show. To begin the process I reviewed my favorite photos stored on my computer and in the camera. First I remembered the delicate yellow ladyslipper photo from spring 2012. Then I considered a photo of the gentle rattlesnake meandering across a garden bed with the amazing colors and textures of the her skin. Still not sure what I wanted to attempt to recreate as a wall quilt, I took a few artsy pictures of a white coral necklace (from my mother) placed around a curvaceous seashell. In reviewing my favorite photos I was also drawn to one of a spectacular sunset. Each of these I seriously considered. The technical construction elements of each did not excite me.
That guild challenge had been announced in mid 2013, but I had not decided on a project. The challenge required that the wallhanging not be smaller than 30″ x 30″ or larger than 40″ x 40″, and it must contain a circle somewhere. Two item not in the photo could be added. the instructions asked for a recognizable representation of your photo. The “artsy” photos were taken in February, 2014. Still not inspired! By summer I picked the dramatic picture of a western Steller’s Jay I’d photographed high in the Rockies in October, 2011.
The raucous Steller’s Jay catches everyone’s attention in Colorado and other parts of the West. The shiny black head and brilliant blue body is a breath taking sight on wing. My photo captured this jay against the winter backdrop challenging me to recreate in fabric and thread all I observed.
In making my selection, I was drawn to the strong contrasts in the picture, and to the diagonal play of light across the surface. Another big influence on my choice of this photo was my memory of how much effort I had put into composing the photo itself! That bird had led me on a merry chase.
Since I’d not attempted to recreate a photo before I read about the techniques that various quilters used and described. I decided to take the original high resolution photo to a office supply shop and have it printed 32″ x 32″ in gray scale. This gave me a pattern to work from and a sense of the values (lightness and darkness) for every element. I began with the pieced background carefully emphasizing the diagonal pattern of grasses and of the light. I kept the original blowup intact and traced the body and feathers from there. I cut patterns from the tracings and choose the fabric carefully. I added detail to the feathers by drawing the bars on with a Pigma Micron pen. I used both machine and hand quilting to add more details.
In studying the enlargement, I noticed tiny snow crystals clinging to the upper beak where my avian friend had been pecking in the snow. I sewed glass beads there and added lots of beads along the path of light along the ground. The leaves and dried grasses were a challenge and the deadline to finish was near. To add detail, I used embroidery thread for the eye and the toes, and some of the grasses. I finally found the wrong side of a pale green fabric to simulate the dried leaves and appliqued them in place. Other items like a few twigs, some odd buttons and even some ash shavings helped to make the texture of the rocks and duff recreating the landscape this jay thrives in throughout the year.
I learned much about the body structure of this particular bird often referring to several bird books to get a clear image of parts I could not see clearly–especially the grasping toes which I created with applique and then black embroidery thread. Along the way I decided to add all the information I could find about the habits and habitat of the Steller’s Jay as part of my quilt. In my photo of the quilt it is difficult to read the information I wrote in my 1950s public school script, so I include it here:
“Steller’s Jay Cyanocitta stelleri: A large black and blue perching bird with a tall crest and a long, powerful bill. These jays are a noisy, bold, intelligent and mischievous. Coloring: Females and males look alike. Juveniles resemble adults. Foreparts blackish; wings and tail deep blue, underparts lighter blue, mantle of grey. Corvid foot and legs are sturdy with strong grasping toes. Size: 12″-13 1/2″. Prefers conifers where it builds nests of large twiggy bowl. Eggs: 3-5, greenish, spotted. Range: Alaska to Nicaraga and west Texas. Food: almost anything edible. omnivore. Relatives: Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and other Jays: Corvidae“
Narrowing our choices of what to sew is a large part of our adventure as quilters. A little bit of thread and a variety of fabric can keep us entertained for days and days. We learn more about ourselves with every quilt we sew. As the Irish saying I once heard mentioned on NPR goes: “Please yourself and at least one will be well satisfied.”