Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Quilting with Gwen

Do you have a quilting idol? I do. Her name is Gwen Marston. When I first took the book Liberated Quiltmaking (first published in 1997, but re-issued twice since then) out of my guild library about 10 years ago, I was immediately enthralled by the photographs and technique illustrations. Her work was unlike any I'd ever seen.  There was a folk art/Amish/Gees Bend charm to her quilts that captivated me.  I admired each photograph and hoped that one day I would have the technical confidence to try my hand at such a different style of quilting.

Quilting with Gwen Marston
Quilts and hand quilting by Gwen  Marston

In my opinion, Gwen, and possibly a few others like her, paved the way for so much of the modern quilt making movement that is steam rolling through the quilt world and internet today. Solids? Stitch and flip corners? Slice and insert strips? Wonky strip borders? Improv triangles? Wonky stars? Alternate grid patterns? Liberated medallions? She was doing it all in the late 90's.  Every one of her many books is an inspiration and an illustrated guide to her quilt making journey from folk art quilts to improvisational masterpieces.  I cannot recommend every one of them enough.  Liberated Medallion Quilts and 37 Sketches are my two favs.  Minimal Quiltmaking is also a visual treat.

I was sad to learn Gwen had given up her Beaver Island, MI week-long quilting retreats two years ago as it had been my hope to attend one at some point.  Occasionally I would hear about her teaching workshops in the Seattle area but the timing never seemed to work out for me. Finally, this past weekend, I got to spend two days with Gwen. Two of the best days of my quilting quest to date.

Gwen Marston, March 2015
A portion of Gwen's 37 Sketches exhibit

The first day workshop was called Small Studies and was based on Gwen's 37 Sketches work. She brought about 2/3 of her sketch quilts with her for us to admire and taught us some of her working small techniques. We spent the better part of a day sewing with nothing larger than 3/4" to 2 1/4" strips. I never work that small!  She demonstrated her techniques for achieving wavy, skinny inset strips, impossibly skinny/pointy spikes, inset tiny squares and improv equilateral triangles.  When she pieces 1/4" finished checkerboards, they are not strip-pieced and cross-cut. Oh no. Gwen keeps 3/4" squares in "a beautiful antique Spode dish" beside her Featherweight (all of her quilts are sewn on a Featherweight and hand-quilted) because they look so pretty and they are so fun to sew together.  Seriously, I could have hugged her about 10 times that day.

Quilting with Gwen Marston
Gwen talks about her various binding techniques. These quilts are finished in the style she learned from the Mennonite women. The finished edge is about 1/2" wide. Two opposite sides are bound first, then the other sides are bound and raw edges tucked under at the corners.

Quilting with Gwen Marston
"I had to be brave when I made this one [indicating the center block] - this is not the most exciting block, but the triangles in that radical colour combination? And those red circles?...I didn't know how those were going to work out!"

Quilting with Gwen Marston
She quilts without marking "so that the lines tell their own story...and isn't that more interesting?"

I wish I had a tape recording of some of my favourite quotes from Gwen, like "save everything, it might come in handy later", or "cut from the straight of the goods", or "ask me if I care about show bindings".  Everyone was encouraged. Everyone felt their work was valid and progressing. She's a pro. I could not be more happy that she's been recognized by the Modern Quilt Guild and invited to be the Keynote Speaker at QuiltCon 2016 in Pasadena, CA.  Gwen's a completely relaxed and comfortable teacher; her years of experience and sharing are evident. She credits the Mennonite women that invited her in and taught her the power of sharing years ago when, as a young mother, she found herself in a new town without quilting friends.  She also spoke about her inspiring friends Jean Wells and Freddy Moran and the projects they have done together, sharing ideas while respecting each other's style and direction.

Quilting with Gwen Marston
Gwen and I with my two small studies on the design wall.

I made a point to try each of the piecing techniques Gwen had demonstrated and use them to create two small studies of my own. They'd represent a diary of sorts from my days with Gwen.  The second day was very special as there were only 10 of us sewing with Gwen in a private studio on a rural farm just south of the border.  I continued my work from the previous day and complete two small quilt tops not much larger than a piece of paper. I used the brand new Oakshott Scandinavia shot cottons that I had received from Oakshott recently. This is an unusual palette for me and I love the results. The subtlety of the fabrics let me focus more on technique and shape and removed the added mental energy of worrying about putting bolder colour combinations together.  That can come later!

Quilting with Gwen Marston
Quilt and hand quilting by Gwen Marston. Black thread! Why not?

Gwen Marston, March 2015
Small study & it's big sister, with Gwen 

I loved that Gwen shared two of her "big sister" quilts that evolved from her small studies. She is working only small these days, nothing larger than about 30-40" square. She hand quilts all of her work and says anything larger is just too cumbersome in her hoop. Plus, her house is stuffed with quilts and she finds it easier to travel with just one suitcase of quilts when she's teaching now.  She was very interested and asked a lot of questions about machine quilting  that "the moderns" are doing.  By the time she got about 10 sketches into her 37, she stopped quilting them entirely and just bound the small quilt sandwiches with a single fold binding.

Quilting with Gwen Marston
Gwen explains that this entire quilt was made from tossed scraps she salvaged from one of Beaver Island week long retreats.

I feel so incredibly lucky that I had these two days to learn so much from Gwen, to see her work in person and to finally hug my quilting idol. She's the bees knees. And she likes cows.

Quilting with Gwen Marston


Lise-Lotte said...

I love your two studies on the wall. How wonderful to meet one's idol. A gift that she is who you thought as well.

Adrianne @ On the Windy Side said...

Oh man, I'm very envious that you got to spend time with Gwen, but glad for you too. It sounds like an amazing time. She used to come out to NZ reasonably regularly to teach but I think it's too long of a trip now. Getting into a class with her is the main thing that would make me want to come to QuiltCon in Pasadena but I don't think its on the cards after my trip this year.

Tammy said...

Oh, Krista, I know what you mean. I was lucky enough to be able to meet Gwen a few years ago at a two-day hands-on workshop she conducted in Bellingham. There were only about 12 of us so she was able to spend quality time with each. She's not only a wonderful quilter, but a wonderful person. I was blown away by her art and her willingness to share her knowledge. A lovely lady. I wish the Beaver Island retreats were still going as well. I'm so glad you finally had the opportunity to meet her.

Debbie said...

Very very cool!

Arita said...

Such a great post. I am so glad that I was able to make it for a day. She is such a lovely and caring women and teacher.

felicity said...

Super cool for you. This is a wonderful recap too. Thank you!

MariQuilts said...

Lucky girl.....sounds like an amazing time. I love Gwen's work as well!!!

Silverthimble said...

Awesome post! You did a great job of capturing Days 2 and 3!!! We were truly blessed to be a part of such a fabulous weekend with Gwen!

Marlene said...

Your two studies are great. What a fantastic experience for you. I keep getting her book 37 Sketches out of the library and absorbing her talent. May need to purchase it.

myrtovl said...

I love her work and I have most of her books, you are such a lucky girl !

Lynz said...

I love everything about this post! Your enthusiasm, the fact that your idol was just lovely, Gwen herself, her quotes, her quilts, the Mennonite ladies, YOUR studies. Everything! Plus, I'm not super-familiar with her work so thank you for making me want to check her out more thoroughly!

Gene Black said...

How fun! A lot of that is very Gee's Bend like in freedom of design. I wish you had shown closeups of your studies. Please share those too.

paulette said...

What an uplifting, inspiring post!! Your enthusiasm just radiates off the page! I too love Gwen and her 'work'!!

textilejunkie said...

Thank you so much for sharing the details and pics from this experience. I think I would faint if I got to meet, much less take a class from Gwen. What a thrill and clearly a wonderful learning experience.

Elsa said...

Oh, I was lucky to take a class with her at Sisters a few years ago. Only a day class but learned a lot. She's got so much to teach and I just loved being around her!

Kitty said...

This is such a sweet post! It looks like you had an amazingly fabulous weekend, and I agree with the above commenters who said how wonderful it is that your quilting idol is as wonderful as you imagined. Gwen sounds like not only a wealth of knowledge and inspiration, but also a sweet and joyful person to hang out with. Who doesn't like cows? :)

Dianne said...

This post just makes my heart happy!

Unknown said...

wow thanks for the recap of your class i can pretend i was there. i was lucky enough to hear her give a quilt talk in Houston. She is the real deal. Debbie

Heather said...

Wow! Lucky you! This is exactly how I felt when I took Jean Wells' class last December, it was incredible, and so eye opening. I signed up to take a 5 day class with Jean in November, I can't wait :) I can't wait to see what all of this inspiration will do for you.

LethargicLass said...

I am definitely more than a little jealous but glad you got the chance!

Helen said...

What an amazing experience!! I'm very envious, once in a lifetime meeting!

Linda said...

You had a wonderful experience! So glad you finally managed to meet up with your heroine, Gwen. I have admired her for years too. Own several of her books and frequently make blocks and quilts in her style . A few years ago I was very lucky to do a One Day Workshop with Gwen at the Quilting a group I belong to in NZ. A day I have never forgotten. Like you, I found her to be an excellent and gifted teacher. Her colours, the standard of her work and quilting are unbelievable!

Leanne said...

You are so lucky to have had the chance to do this, and I am so glad for you that you did. She is one of my quilting heros too.

Mishka said...

Very sad to hear of her passing. Your post is beautiful. May we all be inspired.