Improv with a plan

I am a great fan of improvisational quilting. I love the fact that there is no math involved, I can freehand cut my fabric and it’s like working on a puzzle to fit it all together. So much artistic freedom.

Improv quilting is a new adventure for me. It has been around for awhile. Here in Western Australia we have improv and modern Quilters with lots of talent. You should check out Meg Cowey’s work ( and the Contemporary Quilt Group ( Most of my interest is in representational fabric art and mixed media collage so I had to relax my inner critic and embrace non matching anything! So liberating.

I began this black and white quilt in response to a call from Curated Quilts magazine ( for black and white quilts. They liked the quilt. They are going to show it online, but it didn’t make it into the magazine.

So, my plan was a modern improv quilt that was black and white and used the great stripe somewhere….and all the fabric had to come from my stash! I drew the design out on paper and started making. I changed and swapped and reordered the design until it all came together. Very satisfying. Not at all quick ☺️. It took some time to quiet that inner critic.

I also love big stitch hand quilting and try and add it to most quilts I make. I think it really added another layer of texture and line to this quilt.

I would like to explore this a bit more, maybe making each element a little more crooked, or a bit straighter or incorporate more pattern? What would you change while keeping the black and white and stripe?

Improve with a plan black and white
Detail showing hand quilting

Dyeing for some colour

I make a lot of my own fabric nowadays by dyeing, rusting, painting, printing and stamping surface designs onto plain white cotton, linen, rayon and silk. Plain white homespun has a nice texture but a lower thread count than some other cottons and experimenting with various weights of cotton fabric can bring exciting results. A high thread count would be found in fabrics like batiks and we all like the bright clear colours of those fabrics. A really low thread count would be hessian. Of course you don’t have to stick with white and the enormous amount of colour choice can make your head spin. Just remember that the fabric colour you start with will influence any colour that you mix with it. The underlying colour can make it easier mixing colours. Try adding yellow to blue fabric or blue to red fabric.

You do have to wash the fabrics to remove all the sizing etc from the surface, the stuff that makes the fabric look all shiny and new. Water initially beads on unwashed fabric. Even if you buy prepared for dyeing cloth it should get a wash. I wash my cotton and linens and rayons in very hot water with a mild detergent in the washing machine then dry it in the sun (or use the dryer). Either is good. Then when its dry I give it a soda ash soak, then dry it again in the sun – no dryer for the soda ash. (It will ruin your washing machine and dryer) Then its ironed and folded and ready for the next time I’m inspired, or I need a particular colour or pattern.

I like sun dyes. They are heliographic or sensitive to sunlight. They are permanent and areas shielded from the sun will be lighter than the rest of the fabric. You often hear people talk about sun printing. This is where sun dyes are applied to fabrics, found objects or stencils are laid over the dyed fabric and then the fabric is exposed to the sun. Any area of the fabric under something will be lighter, leaving an image of the object on the cloth. Once you start sun dyeing you find you can’t stop as the results can be quite perfect, especially with plants and leaves from the garden. You can even cut out shapes or words with freezer paper and iron it onto your fabric before you paint your dye and get interesting results. Just peel the freezer paper off when the fabric is dry. You can use contact paper as well. Which ever type you use, make sure there’s a really good seal – the dye can sneak under the masks. There are often many serendipitous moments when dyeing.

Painting on fabric is a fabulous way of adding detail in representational work or in finding just the right shade of a colour without getting out the dyes. Any acrylic paint or fabric paint will paint fabric. The difference I have found is in how stiff the fabric is after painting it. I don’t use mediums when I paint on fabric. I find that anything that stains my clothes with stain the fabric. Adding to much water to the paint is the reason that the paint bleeds into areas you don’t want it.

Fabrics can be washed after heat setting them. Most paints are heat set with your iron or clothes dryer and washing the fabrics will soften them. Fabric paints will look darker when they are wet and will dry lighter. Making abstract paintings on fabric in your chosen colour scheme will give you many options when fussy cutting for projects.

A stitched line

I recently had the good fortune to see the work of Marjorie Coleman. The exhibition was here in Perth and showed Marjorie’s work from the last 10 years. I was captivated and could see how important line is in art. It would have to be the most versatile visual element.

Marjorie managed to use a simple straight stitch to draw and sketch with her threads against a variety of backgrounds from silk to heavy linens. She managed to convey form, texture, movement and expression with her straight stitch, varying placement and length to tell the story.

The simplicity of the stitching meant that I was not distracted by techniques. I was able to focus on the content and context.

I have previously talked about working in a series and Marjorie has done that beautifully with her “Search for the Tree of Life”. This is a series of 10 works that explore different ways of searching leading to different situations as the searcher travelled.

Some of Marjorie’s work. The Tenants was one of my favourite pieces. Marjorie made this while thinking about what happens over time on a limestone wall in a public walkway.

If you get the chance to see Marjorie work in person you will not be disappointed. Check out the link for more of Marjorie’s work.

“Do you have a body of work?”

I make art because the process of making makes me happy.

I was recently asked the question: “Do you have a body of work?” And I found myself saying no, not really. That got me thinking about why I don’t and should I really do anything about it. So I thought I would talk about what I found when I researched this question. I will talk about art in general, as I work in both textiles and paint.

A body of work is a unified, cohesive, coherent collection of an artists work.  Usually it is about 15 – 30. It can demonstrate a mastery and expertise in a particular style or subject or media. A body of work draws attention to your art instead of showing how versatile you might be. If I’m going to exhibit my work I will need much more.

So I asked myself a few questions.

  • What is the one thing you love to make?
  • What subject matter interests you?
  • What style of art interests you?
  • Does it matter to me as an artist?

What I found out was that I love making representational quilts and I love painting people and landscapes. I am very interested in the beauty left behind after something (usually a manufactured thing) is abandoned and left to decay. I’m also interested in making my painting more loose and intuitive and exploring painting the landscape.

So the thing then is I might need to work in a series. A series usually has a very obvious something that ties all the works together. You create a collection of art that has a common theme. That might be colour, subject, message – environment- politics, whatever you decide it will be. Then you set some basic rules for yourself and you get started. The only way to develop a unique voice is to make lots of art.

Making rules for yourself as you tackle a series of works doesn’t mean that your “creative flow” is imprisoned. Maybe we need a better word than rules, but I can’t think of one. They will keep you on track and focussed. You’re not tempted then, to pursue every interesting new thing outside your focus area. (rather like Dory – “ooh shiny”. That sound so like me!) Rules are simple things like – the format of the works, the size, the materials you use or the subject matter. It might even be that you will make something every day.  From what I’ve found in my research is that having no rules leads to a fragmented, disjointed body of work.

Many famous artists worked in series. Monet painted water-lilies, haystacks and the Rouen Cathedral. Picasso had his blue period. Degas drew ballet dances and jockeys. Rembrandt painted self portraits consistently over time. Ruth de Vos‘ textiles are all about children and eucalypts. Pat Forster’s textiles are all about fractals. I am finding it helpful to study other artists work and see what rules they may have applied.

The idea of working in a series is not boring sameness and repetition. In fact its the opposite. The process, I believe, is about exploring, investigating, examining ideas, themes, techniques, issues. It’s not the same exact thing done over and over again, but rather stated and restated in different but connected ways.

I really believe that there is no right way to make art. There is a wrong way and that is never trying, never doing. Sometimes I find that I have put barriers up that are nor there and I need to just get to work and make something. And now I will make a series!


New York City Subway Tiles

I was fascinated by the subway tiles while we were in New York recently. They caught my attention first because some were older than others. Then I noticed the different coloured bands around the designator tiles at different stations and on different lines. So as you do when you want to find out something we went to the New York Public Library to investigate.

Couldn’t help wondering “who you gonna call?” as we entered the Library. So many people about taking photos, with the local filling many of the spaces for study.

We joined the Library and requested our books in the Architecture Library. Beautiful small study space away from the crowds.

I found that William Barclay Parsons and Heins and LaFarge were the two companies responsible for the tiling of the subway in the early 1900’s. Parsons believed that the subway should be beautiful and chose ceramic tile. Heins and LaFarge agreed that ceramics are beautiful but thought they should be utilitarian as well – rapid and easy identification of a persons whereabouts. So together they came up with the plan: Name the station and name the neighbourhood.

Station names would be spelled out surrounded by decorative borders and some stations would have symbols identifying the neighbourhoods; ceramic beavers in Astor Place, The Eagle Shield 33 at 33rd, Robert Fulton’s Steamer paddling up the Hudson at Fulton St, Dutch Colonial house protected by old wooden stockade at Wall St (that’s how it got it’s name) and Spanish Ship bringing Christopher Columbus.

All the designs were elegant, elaborate, flowery and projected out.


Around 1911 Squire J. Vickers followed the plan regarding identification and neighbourhood, but his work was flat and rectangular. He believed it was more practical if the designs were flatter – there would be less dust.

Station names would be white tile with coloured background but framed in simple rectangles with a border of individual coloured mosaic tiles laid flat on the wall. He thought “the irregularity is quite necessary for if it was regular the charm would be lost”.

Vickers abandoned neighbourhood symbols but elaborated on city scenes which he took from historic prints; A tavern on Canal St, Peter Stuyvesant’s house on Whitehall St and Brooklyn Heights waterfront on Clark St.

Some were designed by Vickers and others by J Van Everen and Herbert Dole.

In 1930 ornamentation was abandoned altogether. There was still coloured tiles – violet, blue, green, yellow and red – but they formed flat bands running the length of each station. Colour was now code with wide bands at express stops and narrow bands of alternate colour at local stops.

Colour Chart of Stations


Vickers explained the coding, “50th St is violet, 59th is blue and the 7 locals to the north are also blue. In the stations south of 42nd St 2 shades of the same colour are used . In the stations north of 42nd St the colour is used with a black border. A person on a north bound train who observes a blue band with a black border knows he’s in a Central Park zone.”

The abstract geometric feel of the tiles suggests that subway design had finally surrendered to the machine age. For the following decades no new decorative ceramics were added to the subway.

Today the ceramics are being restored and not removed. Some stations art is being added to.



I have been experimenting with Gyotaku (pronounced Gi-u-tak-u). Gyotaku means fish stone rubbing. It is a traditional Japanese technique or method of printing fish. It dates back to the 1800s and was used by fishermen to record the “catch of the day”. The prints were made using ink and washi paper (rice paper) and is still used in Japan and other countries today. Many practitioners of the art use a non toxic soluble ink and then when the print has been made they wash and eat the fish!

I love printing and printing with a real fish was intriguing. I chose a herring from the local fish shop but I had no intention of eating it after! I decided to try it with fabric paints and with acrylic paints, but I have ordered some inks and will try it other ways as well. Maybe with different species and definitely with an octopus! Silk would be nice.

My research showed that their were two ways to print the fish. Chokusetsu-ho and Kansetsu-ho.

Kansetsu-ho is a painstaking approach which yields very delicate, detailed images. It involves adhering the rice paper or silk fabric to the fish with rice paste. The fish details are seen in relief and the ink is applied carefully through the paper/silk with applicators. Its a form of indirect printing.

Black and white are traditional colours and frequently a red seal – “chop”- is added to denote the artist.

I chose to start with Chokusetsu-ho.

You start by cleaning/drying the fish with paper towels and place the fish on a clean surface. Support the fins spreading them out by placing folded paper or bits of Styrofoam under them, then the fish is inked leaving the eye uninked. Rice paper is then applied to the fish and you rub around and along the fish using your hands, then pull your print. When the print is dry, the artist carefully colours the print and paints in a detailed eye. There are many YouTube videos available to see this method.

Not too hard I thought. I wanted my print on fabric, so instead of the rice paper I used white cotton and fabric paint instead of the ink.

(One mistake I made was not having my fish gutted at the fish shop. You do need to remember this step. It caused problems later after a few prints were pulled. I found out that the cavity can be stuffed with soft tissue that helps retains its nice round shape. So if your going to try this, gut your fish and clean it well.)

My lovely Herring
Place the fish on a clean surface. Gather your supplies.


paint your fish then carefully move it to another clean surface


place your fabric over the fish and gently rub it all around, pressing the fabric round the shape of the fish, extra rubbing on the fins.


Then pull your print and maybe a ghost print as well. Here are my prints and ghost prints.


Prints using acrylic paint in a warm blue. I wiped some of the paint off the fish before the print was made.


This is what happens when you don’t move your fish to a clean surface after applying your paint. Lots of print noise around the fish.

Not a bad first attempt and there will be more, and I hope better, prints to come. I’d like to try a smaller fish…..sardine?….whitebait?……what about prawns…..oh octopus!