Monday, December 7, 2009

Threading Your Way Through the Quiltscape Guided by Sarah Smith

A few blogs ago I reviewed a few books that I had found to be especially outstanding. Top of my list is Sarah Smith's Thread Work Unraveled. It is a reference book that I keep near my sewing machine and refer to whenever I need to shop for thread, needles or other sewing necessities. But her book does not do justice to this quilt artist's talent. She isn't 'just a teacher' or 'just an author.' Sarah Smith creates beauty and inserts meaning and emotion and then quietly stands out of the limelight so that the focus is on the art. Today, I hope we can focus a bit more on the artist as well as her art. -- Dawn

FREE GIVEAWAY: Sarah has generously offered to provide one of her original patterns to the lucky winner of a giveaway here at Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles. Please include contact email information or where I can locate said information. Those entering the giveaway need to leave a comment here on Sarah’s guest blog about your favorite thread, favorite needle or a problem you are having with needle or thread or both. Sarah’s available to answer questions and may give more extensive answers on her own blog at a later date. Your comments can be added up through Dec. 20th. The winner will be chosen on Dec. 21st.


When I teach, I always want to be able to do a brain-transplant from me to my students so they can know all the stuff it has taken me decades to learn so that their learning curve is shorter than mine. Since Vulcan-mind-melds don't yet exist (at least as far as I know), I'm hoping the book will be the next best thing.

Folks often ask what is the best thread, and how do I get results like yours. The answers are the dreaded "it depends on the look you want" and (twice as bad as a four-letter word, the 8-letter P-word) "practice."

The single best thing anyone can do is buy decent thread (not the cheap stuff in the 8 for a dollar bin). Follow that with: Just do it; just quilt!

You WILL get better, and other folks will think you're amazing long before you think you're even so-so! Just do it!


Photos 1 and 2: Earth and Turquoise inspired by a quotation by N. Scott Momaday. The piece features turquoise, beads, silk bombyx fibers, tulle, commercial cotton batiks, and extensive thread stitching, as well as leather lacing, sticks, rocks and wild turkey feathers. First photo a close up, second photo full size view. The quilted portion is approximately 28x28 inches. Overall including feathers length is 54 inches.

Let me add: It never hurts to start at the beginning. For me, the beginning is a good needle, followed by good tension. If you are using a dull needle or one that isn't suited to your thread and project, you simply won't get good results no matter how fine the thread or your quilting skills. Then, you need to understand your machine so that you are working in harmony and not fighting one another. There is a whole section and project in the book to help you with this.

The shoe analogy works: when you go hiking, you don't wear satin pumps. You need hiking boots-- the correct shoe for what you are going to do (have you seen how many of those TV female cops are wearing spike heels? sheesh! NOT in real life...they need to be able to run!). AND, you need the correct shoe size. If the shoe is too big, your foot flops around and gets rubbed and sore; if the shoe is too small, blisters! The same thing applies to needles and thread. This is how you can end up with wobbly stitches or frayed, breaking thread.

Photo 3: Tea. Size: 16" tall by 19" wide. Fusible applique, painting and intense machine quilting. (above) Tea is a morning still life, with my mug, teapot, creamer, cereal bowl and book. In 2006 I wanted a play day with a quilty friend, and I wanted to see my friend Teri Austin, so I signed up for a day-class with Teri at the 2006 Maine Quilts show. Instead of doing the teacher's pattern, as usual I wanted to do my own imagery, so I prepared this picture to work on in the class. At long last I have finished it, and I love it! I hope you do, too.

When starting a quilting project, the first thing I do is figure out how the quilt will be used. If it is a wall quilt, anything goes. But if it is something that will be washed, you want to select a thread that will stand up to washing (as in, metallic isn't the best choice for a baby's quilt!) and lots of use (think kid-forts and quilts used to carry cats and small dogs...ahem....).

Once you've picked your thread, select a needle that is suitable to the thread and the fabric, in both type (Denim, Topstitch, Embroidery, Quilting--which by the way is better for piecing than for actual machine quilting...it has a very small eye that tends to fray the threads!) and size.

There are many good resources out there. In addition to my book, which specializes on thread, you may want to find a good book on machine quilting (Harriet Hargrave's and Diane Gaudynski's books are my favorites). If you do lots of machine applique --Janet Pittman's and Harriet Hargrave's are on my shelf. The major thread companies sometimes have information on their websites. The education tab at Superior Threads has a wealth of information.

Thanks for inviting me to guest blog, Dawn! Here's to happy quilting and LOTS of thread!


You may have noticed that not only are Sarah's quilts gorgeous and exquisitely made, they come with good stories behind them. Her Bijagos Warrior (which won an Honorable this year at NQA-Ohio) is no exception.

Sarah writes: In the summer of 1982, I worked as a volunteer on the island of Bubaque, in the Bijagos Archipelago off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, under the auspices of Operation Crossroads Africa. Guinea-Bissau is a former Portuguese colony nestled just south of Senegal, on the westernmost part of the bulge of Africa.


One day, a boat was leaving to go to a neighboring island-not a common occurrence. This man was on the boat and immediately caught my eye. Even then, when Bubaque had only had electricity for two years, it was unusual to see men dressed in a traditional manner. To me, he represents a vanishing way of life, and I wanted to capture that as well as his physical beauty.


Bijagos Warrior was one of only three quilts in the 2005 statewide Maine Quilts show to receive an "Exceptional Merit" ribbon. Quilts are judged on a scale of 0-100; blue ribbon quilts are those earning 90-96 points (average of the 3 judges' scores). Exceptional Merit are those earning 97-100 points. This year's judges were Elly Sienkiewicz, Pepper Cory and Joyce Becker, so I'm especially thrilled to receive this recognition. Size: 40 x 60 inches; completed June 2004. You may have seen this quilt. It was juried into the Pacific International Quilt Festival, Santa Clara, California, 2004. Juried into the American Quilter's Society (AQS) 2005 show in Paducah, Kentucky. Maine Quilts 2005; Exceptional Merit award winner. Juried into The Best of New England Quilt Guilds, The New England Quilt Museum, Lowell, Massachusetts, January to April 2006. Published in the Janome International Digest, Fall/Winter 2004, and in various quilt show publications in a Janome advertisement, 2005. Also included in the on-line video promoting Janome's new 11000 sewing machine. Art Quilts Maine show, Saco Museum, Saco, Maine, April to July 2007. The National Quilt Association show, Columbus, OH, June 2009. This guy really gets around!

And there's more!

Ask anyone in the United States what is the first they think of when thinking of Maine, and they'll say lobsters. Lobster buoys are everywhere along the coast... bobbing in the water, tied to traps on the dock, piled in heaps in the yards of lobstermen. This piece is a riff on the buoys; the ones in the original photo were an easily-seen red and orange-y yellow... a bit bright for most homes! I wanted to do color studies using value -- light versus dark -- to render the close-up view of the buoys.


The center quilted panel is 10x10 inches, mounted on commercial batik over stretcher bars. The finished pieces are 16 x 16 inches, and one inch deep (fabric wraps cleanly to the back, which is clean finished and ready to hang).

With These Hands, inspired by Rodin's sculpture "The Cathedral," this portrait of my hands uses every thread I own that approximated my skin tone, even pool blue and gray for the veins. I free-motion embroidered the hands onto Thermogauze vanishing muslin and a layer of tulle in a hoop, trimmed and padded it with two layers of batting and appliqued. I quilted all the things I do with my hands.: "With these hands, I love, sew, design . . . ." I used a similar quilting technique to make the hands in "Earth and Turquoise," which is in the Orbs gallery. 14x14 inches; made in 2004. Created for and a finalist in the Quilting Arts Magazine Calendar Challenge for 2005. 
Fields of Gold, just won an award in Houston! The center portion of this piece was designed as a project for my book: Thread Work Unraveled. While it was hanging on the design wall, my friend Lisa Walton sent me a metre of her inspiring hand-dyed fabric--gorgeous green, gold and rust. I pinned it up on the wall, wondering how I could use it for a journal quilt. You can visit Lisa's website, Dyed and Gone to Heaven, and yes...she ships worldwide!

Then inspiration hit: the green and gold section meshed perfectly with my little "sunset trees." Then, my friend Deborah's quilt, Fields of Gold, worked its way into my subconscious. As I mulled over how I would quilt the hand-dyed portion, the lyrics to the Fields of Gold song by Sting popped into my head, and images of bowing grasses were replaced by wheat blowing in the wind.
Shown at Art Quilts XIII, the Chandler Center for the Arts, Chandler, Arizona, October to December 2008. Juried into the Contemporary Colorations II exhibit at the National Quilt Association show, Columbus, Ohio, June 2009. Size: 18 1/4 by 20 3/4 inches.





23 comments:

Michigoose said...

Nice job! I just bought Sarah's book, but have yet to read it....too many people at my quilting group were flipping through it to buy it themselves!

Thanks for sharing this.

nancy hinds said...

Love the stories behind the quilts!
Wish I could see them all up close and personal!
nancy hinds
covington, LA

Dolores said...

The old treadle that I own does not like Mettler thread. Gutermann and Coats and Clark are fine though. I don't know what it is but that is the only machine that I have that is picky. I love Sarah's work.

Maggie said...

awesome work. I love Auriful thread. 50 wt for piecing, 40 wt for machine quilting
Maggie
mhanni1045@rogers.com

Lisa said...

Great post! I love Superior Threads for quilting. I'm still learning. I'm working on getting my tension perfect with my free motion quilting. I get compliments on my quilting but I know it needs work.

Anonymous said...

I love Superior threads Lava line for thread painting. King Tut is my favorite to use on my long arm.

peggy bass said...

I love Superior threads Lava and King Tut. Each time I make a new quilt top I learn something new.

BarbR said...

I've been slogging along with my Mettler threads for several years now. I am at the point in my quilting that I want to break out and try different things. I have Sarah's book on my Christmas wish list so I can begin to learn about different types of threads and how to use them. I really enjoyed seeing her quilts. Barb on Oahu

ritzy said...

I love Superior Threads' "The Bottom Line" thread. I use it in the bobbin and on top and it gives me a seam that doesn't have extra bulk.

Lynn said...

My biggest thread problem has been with metallic threads (Sulky)...I find that putting them in the bobbin helps and sewing on the back of the art quilt, but can't always do that. Wider threads work best in needle. I like a Jean Needle or a metallic needle best. Lynn lyn_fred1@comcast.net
http://artquiltsbylynn.blogspot.com
Your work is awesome.

tesuque said...

My machine and I are quite comfortable with a wide variety of needles and thread, as long as the machine is clean and oiled, and I tweak my top and bobbin tensions. Oh, and I do have a couple of different threading options.

Linda Robertus said...

Thanks for this piece. Sarah's book is on top of my wishlist! I love Aurifil threads and King Tut, also use a lot of metallic threads (usually Sulky) and do not have any problems with them.

wlstarn said...

I drive a Singer 401, circa 1958, and it loves mercerized cotton thread, although it will handle almost anything. I did a whole quilt, about half of which was black & white prints, with coats & Clark's mercerized cotton in Rainbow. Looked aewsome until I wet-blocked it and the thread ran. Colorfastness has become an issue, as I cannot get the color back out of the white areas. And it's pink and cat-pee yellow!

Paule-Marie said...

I love Superior threads. Every one that I have used has been great. I have used Masterpiece for piecing, quilting, and machine embroidery. The trilobel polyesters are great too. Most of the time, I prefer it to rayon. I also use Sulky Blendables. They have such a wonderful assortment of colors

Lis said...

This has been a great read. I'm a fairly new quilter and am only just realising how very important the threads are. I've always used Gutermann as that's what I can get easily but am going to be a lot more selective from now on. Thanks for all the tips.

Gina DeLorenzi said...

I find the 50 weight DMC Brillante d'Alsace, cotton is perfect for Stitch Painting. The colors are muted yet still clear and blend beautifuly when the effect wanted is natural and/or nature based. The thread works especially well since the stitch painting techniques include small circle stitching, jump stitches and haphazard stitching, all with the pressure foot down. I learned these techniques from Amy Chamberlin of Plano Texas. Gina Delorenzi

Gina DeLorenzi said...

I find the 50 weight DMC Brillante d'Alsace cotton is perfect for Stitch Painting. The colors are muted yet still clear and blend beautifuly when the effect wanted is natural and/or nature based. This thread works especially well since the stitch painting techniques include small circle stitching, jump stitches and haphazard stitching, all with the pressure foot down. I learned these techniques from Amy Chamberlin of Plano Texas. Gina Delorenzi

Robin said...

Superior Threads make so many wonderful threads and I love to use them. The King Tut variegated rank at the top of my list.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful information.
Robin, so. IN
indyqltr@hotmail.com

juanita said...

I felt like I'd "died and gone to heaven" when I was directed to this site. So many interesting articles and links. Sarah Smith's work is wonderful and lots of good commentary in this article. I love hearing about non-traditional fiber artists and their work.
thank you

Sarah Ann Smith said...

WOW.... get swamped for a couple of days and SO MANY kind comments! THANK YOU!

For Barb R in Hawaii, I have used Mettler for eons, and many of my earlier quilts use it for the quilting. When I want a matte finish, I still use both the 50 and 60-wt, the latter when I want something particularly unobtrusive (for example, for background quilting)!

For Lynn---try a Topstitch size 14 needle for working with Metallic threads, I find it is even better than using a Metallica needle! ALSO, make sure the bobbin thread is something very smooth and slippy..NOT cotton! The cotton "grabs" the metal in the metallic, and can give you fits. Of course, if cotton in the bobbin is working for you, for heavens sake don't change! But if it isn't working as well as you'd like, try something like The Bottom Line, a very smooth poly, or even a clear monofilament in the bobbin and see if that works any better.

I'll add another comment, but this one is long already! Cheers and thanks, Sarah

Sarah Ann Smith said...

For Linda: hope Santa is good to you --Grin--!

For MichiGoose: thanks for sharing your copy of my book...good word-of-mouth is the best!

Cheers and thanks again to all, Sarah

Quiltsmiles said...

I'd love to own this book. Sarah Smith's techniques on thread play could be a great source for future projects. I favorite thread I've used to date is the razzle dazzle thread I used in bobbin work for a jacket I made. Very easy to do adn quite a nice sparkly effect on the denim I used.
JAne

Karen said...

Gorgeous work!! I like Superior threads and Auriful. I need to take more time and play more! LOL