15 April 2008

A Room of One's Own

When Kevin and I were house hunting, we played a game. In each house we viewed, if we came upon a room we liked as an office or studio, we would claim it. "My room," one would call out and the other would have to keep looking. It was like playing Shotgun with real estate instead of the front seat of a car.

My criteria for choosing my room was simple: preferably it would have hard floors, plenty of storage space, and a source of natural light.

When we first toured the house that would become our home, I didn't claim my current studio, even though it met all my criteria. The people who lived here before us had a lot of stuff and that room was a maze of bookshelves aligned against the walls and dividing up the middle of the room. Because of that, it was hard to tell exactly what the room was like. Kevin claimed it.

When we moved in and were walking through our first house together, Kevin said to me, "I don't know why you didn't call this room. Why don't you use it as your sewing room?"

That was an incredibly generous offer from my husband and one I immediately agreed to. My studio is large (at least 14' x 20') with hard floors and sliding doors to the outside. There was plenty of space to set up a sewing table and a cutting table and a desk. I installed wire drawers in the cubby in the far end of the room to store my fabric. A six-foot high bookshelf and overstuffed chair for reading completed the space. It was comfortable and it was organized and I was very lucky to have it.

Fast forward five years. My quilting supplies and fabrics had overtaken all available space and I was starting to feel overwhelmed. I realized that I haven't been using the space as effectively as I could. I've been using this wonderful space as a glorified sewing room with lots of storage. I sew in there when I have a project to work on, but I haven't been using it as creative space to think and dream and imagine and create.

The change in my thinking started the day I brought my laptop into my studio. Normally, I keep my laptop on a corner of the dining table in the kitchen. On days I'm working in my studio, I am constantly running up and down stairs to check my email and take little internet breaks. But the day I brought my laptop in with me, I noticed an incredible increase in my productivity. I realized then that I didn't need an artificial barrier between my creative work and the rest of my life, but that I could incorporate everything to find better balance.

Decluttering has helped as well. Much of the stuff I owned was clogging my space and my creativity. It was hard to find the pearls among the swine, so to speak, when gorgeous batiks were mixed with threadbare yard-sale fabric. By ridding myself of the swine and keeping the pearls, I changed the creative energy I feel in my studio.

Furthermore, I only had one working space in my studio--the table that holds my sewing machine. Although, I have both a desk and a drawing table in there, both were unusable because they were covered with stuff. The drawing table was a staging area for my UFOs and the desk was a catch-all for everything else. I decided to clear off my drawing table and use it as a desk, drawing table, and place for handwork, such as beading. My desk became the UFO staging area. This works well for me because the drawing table looks out into the rest of the room, while the desk faces the wall. (I tend to be a bit claustrophobic, so prefer wide open views.)

Here you can see the view from my drawing table, with my sewing machine, television, and my reading chair in front of the sliders. It's a cozy space, not overly tidy, but comfortable and I am surrounded by my favorite things.

(I have to make a note about the television. The husband and I are big footie fans (that's soccer) so we have DirecTV. We only have one receiver hooked up to a television, so for the past year, I have only been able to watch DVDs in my studio. But just last week I realized that we can hook the DirecTV line into our cable system and I can watch TV in my studio. This is huge! On Sunday, I worked on a project all day while watching the afternoon's La Liga matches (that's Spanish football; aka soccer). The TV is showing the Almeria/Villareal match!)

Here's a view of my cutting table, my drawing table, and the desk behind, heaped with UFOs. I love the cheery colors of the silk rag rug, made from recycled saris.

And this is the storage part of my space. The wire drawers contain my stash, while the banker's boxes hold overflow fabric as well as lots of other treasures. My bookcase is close by for inspiration.

I really love my room now. It's more functional, neater, more organized, and suits my style of working. I can sew on something for a bit, then take a break and check my email, all while watching footie. What more could a girl want in a room of one's own?

12 April 2008

A Stitch in Time

My friend Cynthia's mother stopped by yesterday to show us her newest project: a queen-size, knitted coverlet using crochet thread on little, tiny knitting needles. I don't think I can properly express just how immense a project this is. It's 14 knitted panels with a dense diamond motif of 72 rows, repeated many times. I believe it will take 33 balls of crochet thread at 600 yards per ball. It's not a project for the squeamish or faint of heart.

And yet, there is something very appealing about working on a massive project like that.

I used to always long for the new. New projects, new experiences, new tastes. I wanted novelty. I wanted excitement. I wanted something different. I'd be working on one project while dreaming of the next. Heck, I'd even start thinking about dinner while I was still eating lunch. I was afraid that by focusing on one thing, I'd be missing out on all the other possibilities out there in the world.

What I didn't realize is that by focusing on the possibilities, I was missing out on the present moment. I was missing out on my very life.

Since I've begun practicing mindfulness, I rarely get bored. Not because I'm always doing new and exciting things, but because I try to pay attention what I am doing. When I pay attention, I discover that each moment is indeed new, even if I'm cleaning the bathroom for the 100th time or eating lentils and rice for the 4th time that week.

Last night, I started hand quilting a piece from seven years ago. I haven't hand quilted in over 6 years because it was slow and unproductive, compared to the efficiency of machine quilting. But this hand-pieced, hand-appliqued quilt was screaming at me that it needed to be hand quilted.

Quickly I rediscovered my rhythm and after an hour or so, my stitches regained their consistency. But more importantly, what I rediscovered was the simple pleasure, the mindful meditation of hand quilting.

In each moment of hand quilting, there is a little something to requires attention. The positioning of the needle for the first stitch. The sensation of the needle just beginning to prick your under finger. Shifting the thimble position and the quilt hump to bring the needle back to the top. Slightly pushing on the thimble to take another stitch. And another. And another. Concentrating while you pull the needle through. And then beginning again. And again. And beginning yet again.

My project is not that large, just a 54" square wallhanging, but there is something appealing in knowing that it is there. That every night or two, I can spend twenty minutes or an hour in quiet contemplation with my needle and thread, my thimble, and my quilt.

That's why I find Cynthia's mum's project appealing, rather than scary. It's there. It's constant. It's a ongoing reminder that you don't have to start something new each moment, but that instead, if you take the time to pay attention, each moment is, in and of itself, new.

11 April 2008

Right Brain/Left Brain

It's funny how sometimes you see something everywhere. Like when you buy a new car and you see other people driving it all over town. Previously, you never noticed that car, but once it is in your consciousness (and your garage) you become aware.

The same thing happens to me online. Over the past few days, I keep encountering articles and videos about right-brain/left-brain research.

(Briefly, the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for verbal, logical, sequential, mathematical, and detail-oriented functions. The left-brain seeks structure, order, and patterns. The right hemisphere of the brain is associated with simultaneous, imagistic, holistic, and intutive functions. The right-brain seeks out symbols and images.)

I first encountered Dr. Anne Adams, a scientist suffering from frontotemporal dementia, which is a brain disorder that changes the balance of activity between the frontal and posterior brain areas, resulting in "torrents of creativity." In 1986, she quit her job as a scientist to begin painting full time. This radical shift in careers was due to the disorder, which, at the time was still undiagnosed.

What fascinated me about her work is that much of it has a patchwork, quilterly feel. Although her disorder affected the activity levels of the frontal and posterior areas of her brain, I believe her work shows a strong left-brain tendency. Many of her paintings display patterns and strong internal structure.

One of her pieces, Unraveling Bolero, is a bar by bar analysis of Ravel's Bolero, that uses color, shape, and scale to visually interpret the underlying structure and order in Bolero. Fascinatingly, Ravel and Dr. Adams were both in the early stages of symptoms of frontotemporal dementia when they composed their works--Ravel's Bolero and Dr. Adams' visual response to it.

My next encounter was a talk given by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). Dr. Taylor is a neuroanatomist who was working at the Harvard Brain Bank when she suffered a stroke. Surgeons removed a golf ball size blood clot from her left hemisphere that was pressing upon the language centers of her brain.

Even as she was experiencing her stroke, she had the presence of mind to recognize the rich possibilities involved in a Harvard-trained brain scientist experiencing a stroke from the inside. Her talk is touching and funny and provides great insight into the different personalities, as she describes it, of the right and left hemispheres.

(I highly recommend watching this video. It is relatively long, clocking in at 18 minutes, but is worth it. I had encountered links to it before, but had never watched it because I don't have the patience to watch videos online. But after seeing it once, I want to watch it again.)

Finally, I encountered another blog post about the right/left brain phenomenon. Unfortunately, I can't find that link anymore, but I do have a link to something it linked to. (How's that for a confusing and ultimately uninformative reference?)

This article contains a dancing figure that is spinning. The direction of the spin is linked with your own brain's tendency toward right or left dominance. Go take a look at it and see which way it spins for you.

Most people are left-brained and they see the dancer spin counter-clockwise. Right-brained people see her spin clockwise. Supposedly, if you focus, you can get her to spin in the other direction, but I have never been able to do so.

I had read that article several months ago and she was spinning counter-clockwise. Try as I might, I couldn't get her to spin in the other direction. I wasn't surprised because throughout my life I know I have been strongly left-brain dominant. I was, however, a bit disappointed because I thought that my creative work might have shifted my dominance a bit.

It's funny how in my mind, at least, the right-brain is more attractive. I think it's because I am getting tired of the rule-based, factual, detail-oriented style I have used to control my life. Over the past year, I have begun to question my rules and assumptions about how to live.

Instead of rigidity, I am trying to be flexible. Instead of applying one-size fits all rules to everything, I look at each situation holistically and try to determine the best course of action. Instead of micro-planning each detail of my life, I have broad goals. Instead of controlling everything, I am just trying to be present in each moment.

Yesterday, I looked at the dancer again, and surprise, now she was spinning clockwise. And try as I might, I couldn't get her to spin in the other direction.

I'm of two minds about this. My left-brain is reading this as a finality and is screaming at me, saying "You're right brained now! You're right-brained now!" But my right-brain is saying, "Isn't that interesting? Your dominance changed over a couple months. I wonder if it will switch back. Probably. I bet it switches a lot more than you are even aware of."

I think I'll listen to my right-brain. Whatever my hemispheric dominance at the moment might be, I think I've found a set of guiding principles (rather than fact-based rules) for my life. Whether they are predominantly right or left brained doesn't matter. What matters is how I apply them in my life and whether they work or not.

(In a future entry, I'll write about my path as a quilter and how I think that relates to my hemispheric dominance.)

09 April 2008

Less Stuff?

A box full of silk flowers. Unfinished quilt blocks from a yard sale. Thirty-year old patchwork primers. Six yards of knit fabric in Wedgewood blue. A milk crate full of old quilting magazines. Ten yards of plastic pearls. A Hawaiian lei. Three heaping handfuls of black ribbon cut into 6-inch pieces. Roll after roll of wired ribbon. Two yards of gold pleather. A shopping bag full of curtain remnants. A grocery bag full of costume remnants.


Piles of it. Boxes full of it. Drawers overloaded with it. Floor space heaped with it. Shelves creaking with it.

Simply too much.

I am starting to realize that I don't solely own my things, but that they also own me too. While my things serve functions or provide me options, there are also energy costs associated with each thing I own.

For example, I own a bread machine. It takes up roughly 16" of counter space. It sits next to the stove, so periodically I have to wipe it down to remove spatters and oil. These are the energy costs associated with my bread machine.

But, I use it at least twice a week to make homemade bread, baguettes, coffee bread, and pizza. Eating homemade bread and feeling the satisfaction that comes with that enhances my life. On balance, the costs involved with owning and caring for my bread machine are outweighed by the benefits of eating fresh bread all week.

The same can't be said for everything.

In my large studio I have lots of stuff. It has expanded beyond my existing storage solutions. Working in there is difficult. It's hard to find things. To do anything, I have to move around piles and boxes.

As my aesthetic and artistic vision is changing, I've noticed that my relationship to the material objects I have collected for my work is also changing. My new work, come June, will be simpler, using combinations of fabric and stitch. I don't envision using many found objects or embellishments. Many of the boxes of things I have collected over the past years feel irrelevant to me. And yet, there they sit, cluttering up my work space and distracting me from the materials that are still relevant.

Walking into my studio doesn't leave me inspired. Instead, I just feel tired. The energy costs associated with the stuff I have collected for my creative work are huge.

I've talked about my stuff before, but in an uncritical way. Everything was clumped into one category of stuff whether it was ultimately useful or wasteful. But now, with a clearer vision of both the energy costs of owning things and the future path of my artistic pursuits, I can look at my things critically and assess their usefulness.

Yesterday, I began the difficult task of cleaning up. Four hours of work resulted in three trash bags ready for the garbage and several other bags ready to find new homes. I wasn't ruthless. Decluttering is a bit like pulling off a bandage. Sure, you can yank it off and suffer, but I find it easier and less painful to slowly encourage it off.

As useful as my work yesterday was, in no way do I assume that I am finished. There will be future decluttering sessions, for certain. But I'm going to be gentle about it. I'll live with what I've accomplished and note how my creative energy changes. Next time, after realizing how much better I feel unencumbered by clutter, I bet I'll be willing to part with things that were borderline today.

08 April 2008

UFOs Again

I had family in this weekend so had little time to blog or do any creative work. I've inspired my mother to learn how to sew, so we spent Sunday in my studio--she was working on pillowcases while I was finishing a set of Bargello placemats, which is a leftover UFO started as a class sample.

That got me to thinking about my UFOs, which are currently heaped on my drawing table. I've lost count, but I think that I've finished eleven projects since the New Year. This has been a slow and steady progress, teaching me a lot about patience, time management, as well as really increasing my free-motion quilting ability. But while I am making good progress, I know I have plenty more to go.

I just took a quick turn around my studio and counted the obvious UFOs. I came up with 14. This includes only traditional quilts and/or unfinished class projects. This does not include any unfinished art pieces, which I have put into a different category.

Fourteen is a lot. It's taken me three months to finish eleven pieces, and I picked a fair bit of low-hanging fruit from the pile. I am really trying to stay focused on the task at hand, but I am finding new creative energy and the desire to start something new with each UFO I finish. How do I manage the competing desires: completion of old projects and creation of new works?

When I made my resolutions in January, I wanted to finish one UFO a month while concurrently working on creating new art pieces. But the sense of satisfaction I got from finishing inspired me to keep plugging away on the UFOs. My single-minded focus has helped me progress quickly, and I'm glad for that, but it is time to reassess that decision.

Rather than continue finishing UFOs until none remain, which could take the rest of the year, I think I want to set a deadline. I'll continue my focused work on UFOs until a certain date, at which point I shift focus. With the seasonal shift from spring to summer, an anniversary to celebrate at the shop, and an annual trade show to attend, June feels like a natural transition to me.

What I envision now is taking my list of UFOs and prioritizing them. Then, over the next two months, I'll work my tail off trying to finish as many as possible. Whatever projects remain unfinished will sit for a while until I am established enough in my new work to not be distracted by them. Once June arrives, I'll transition by finishing my unfinished art pieces. By the middle of July I should be mentally and creatively ready to start new work.

04 April 2008


A friend recently sent me this excerpt from a Singer Sewing Manual from 1949. People on her discussion list were making fun of it, but she thought it was both sensible and wise. I agree.
"Prepare yourself mentally for sewing. Think about what you are going to do. Never
approach sewing with a sigh or lackadaisically. Good results are difficult when indifference predominates. Never try to sew with a sink full of dirty dishes or beds unmade. When there are urgent housekeeping chores, do these first so your mind is free to enjoy your sewing. When you sew, make yourself as attractive as possible. Put on a clean dress. Have your hair in order, powder and lipstick put on. If you are constantly fearful that a visitor will drop in or your husband will come home and you will not look neatly put together, you will not enjoy your sewing as you should."
It's easy to laugh at this dated advice directed to housewives vacuuming in heels and pearls. But, once you look past the writing style and 1950's imagery, there is a lot of wisdom contained in this little snippet.

We lead hectic lives, trying to balance competing needs and demands for our attention. We multi-task, attached to our cell phones and laptops, while we shop online, cook dinner, monitor the laundry, and greet our spouses. The idea of waiting to sew until our houses are clean and we are neatly dressed (with powder and lipstick, no less!) seems archaic and impossible.

But, I'm finding the basic principles in this advice to be true. I'm more productive in my studio when I am relaxed. And, for me, a relaxed mind comes from having a clutter-free and relatively clean home.

Fortunately, this is a fairly common experience. My husband and I have worked hard to downsize our belongings so that our house is fairly minimalist. And my weekly cleaning schedule means I don't have to think about whether to vacuum or clean the bathrooms. Like the old saying goes, "I vacuum my house once a week whether it needs it or not."

It's taken a fair bit of work to get to this point, but now it feels comfortable and natural. I enjoy the mental freedom that comes from having systems in place and from having created a home that works for us.

Full disclaimer: although my house is minimalist and clutter-free, my studio is most decidedly not. But, one of my resolutions for this year is to take these cleaning and decluttering systems and apply them to my studio. It's slowly happening. And I feel an increased level of creative energy and freedom with each layer of cluttered accretion I remove, even if I'm not wearing lipstick and heels.

If you are still working on decluttering and developing systems for your own home, check out Leo at Zen Habits' great post A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Home. I only discovered Zen Habits a couple months ago, but it has quickly become one of my favorite blogs. It's worth reading his archives.

03 April 2008

Notes to Myself

Max the Cat woke me at 5:00 AM, as he so often does. I sent him downstairs with his food bowl and returned to bed, fully intending to sleep for another hour or so. (I was up well past bedtime last night. Liverpool played yesterday, so I wanted to watch the game after a long day of work and teaching.) But, for whatever reason, instead of falling back to sleep, thoughts about quilts and classes and UFOs started drifting through my head.

I started a notebook the other day to track of "Notes to Myself." Little reminders of quilt and class ideas, book titles, blog article possibilities, and so on--those little thoughts I have throughout the day. The idea is to keep the notebook with me, so I can record the thoughts when I have them.

So now would be the time to grab my notebook and jot them down. But, I had left it jammed in a bag of quilts in my studio. So I rested in bed for another 15 minutes, decided it was hopeless, and got up. My house is chilly, so rather than run downstairs and find my notebook, I decided to curl up with my rag quilt on the recliner and record my ideas on my blog.

  • Screenprinting. Look into screenprinting on fabric to decide whether to take the class at Pro-Chem in Fall River, MA in August
  • Hand quilting. Learn how to hand quilt using my thumb. Ask on Quilt Art mailing list for book/video references.
  • Silk Dupioni. Ask on Quilt Art for guidance on working with Silk Dupioni. Look through Cynthia's silks to see if she has anything to expand my palette.
  • Drawing. Clear off drawing table in studio. Get light. Begin working through "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" in the morning. Ask Jen for any other drawing references.
  • UFOs. Make list of all UFOs and current status. Prioritize. Determine which ones I want to finish during the UFO rush, which I can finish over time, and which ones I can discard as unfinished.
  • Patterns. Make list of all patterns and current status. Prioritize.
  • Machine quilting designs. Start binder collection of FMQ designs.
Ah. That feels better. Perhaps I do have time to return to bed for a few more Zzzzzs after all.


01 April 2008

My Changing Aesthetic

As I have been practicing mindfulness in my creative work, I have noticed a change in my aesthetic. I started quilting simply because I loved playing with color and shape. Even before I knew about quilting, one of my favorite things to do was to draw interconnected patterns with my crayons. So discovering quilting, which at its most basic is just playing with color and shape, was like finding a piece of myself and clicking it into place.

My early sampler and applique quilts were the result of lots of play--cutting out and auditioning fabric in different positions and combinations. I loved the challenge of combining different fabric colors and prints to create a beautiful and dynamic quilt.

My love of color transferred to embellishments--I discovered how threads, yarns, colored pencils, and beads add additional layers of depth and beauty to my work. Soon I began to look at the fabric as merely a base for further additions.

I started collecting boxes full of ribbons and yarns, chiffons and tulles, fleece and fibers. My stacks of embroidery and embellishing books soon towered over my quilting books. Heavy machine quilting and free-motion embroidery became essential elements of my quilts. I would stand in awe in front of the most heavily embellished pieces at quilt shows.

But in my practice of mindfulness I am finding less can truly be more. We are decluttering our home and lives to reflect a more thoughtful and simple lifestyle. And the quiet contemplation I am engaged in is now changing my creative work.

I find myself returning to my roots and simplifying. I'm less interested in commercially-printed fabrics and more interested in batiks and hand-dyed fabrics. (In fact, I am really interested in learning how to dye my own fabric.) While I still love machine quilting, I am becoming seduced by the idea of using hand quilting stitches to provide a "hands of the artist" touch to my work. And, at the Lancaster Quilt Show, I found myself standing in awe in front of simpler quilts using only fabric and stitch to create a composition.

I am comfortable enough with who I am as a quilt artist to recognize that my own aesthetic goes through stages. My changing preference is not a value judgment on the relative merits of different styles of quilting. But it's intriguing to me to see that the effects of practicing mindfulness and simplifying is not limited to my personal life, but that its changing my relationship to my creative work as well.