Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Varietals - A Monochromatic Improv Study

Here's a recent finish, the second in what I hope will be a series of three quilts all based on improvisational (free cut) hourglass units. This mini-obsession started with the
"Try a Triad" design challenge (still open!) issued by the Canadian Quilter's Association to make a modern mini quilt using only red, blue and yellow fabric. I really loved the resulting design and composition of my challenge quilt but the colours are not at all 'me'.   I decided to hit my Oakshott fabric stash and try a monochromatic version.

Varietals 25" x 25"

Oakshott fabrics are shot cottons, which means they are woven with two different colours of thread. One colour for warp, the other for weft. In the photo above, it may appear that there are more than 3 colours of fabric used. Had I been incredibly diligent about piecing the fabric with the threads always in the same vertical and horizontal orientation, the quilt would appear more uniform, but it wouldn't be as interesting, in my opinion. That is just one more delightful aspect of Oakshott fabric; it gives quilts added visual interest and depth because as you change your viewing angle on the flat, two dimensional artwork, the colours subtly change as the different threads some into view and the fabrics absolutely glow. 

These are the 3 colours I used to make Varietals. Iris is black + purple thread, Grape is red + navy thread and Mallow is red + purple thread.

The tricky aspect to all of this fabric awesomeness is photography. Everyone who loves working with Oakshott will tell you the same thing: it is really difficult to adequately capture the depth in photos. Every time I share one of my quilts in a show or lecture, I hear the same thing, "wow, that quilt is even more incredible in real life!". The best way to describe the sheen and depth is to compare it to Dupioni silk, another fabric you may be familiar with. In the case of Varietals, I could have made this quilt with regular quilting cottons, but with only 3 shades of one colour and no real value difference, the quilt would probably have a flat, less interesting appearance. 

In terms of construction, I first cut sets of squares in a few different sizes from each fabric. The squares were stacked and then free-cut on both diagonals using a rotary cutter but no ruler. Swapping triangles out, I then pieced a lot of improv hourglass units. For me, the challenge of quilts like this is the puzzle-piecing of all the units into a pleasing composition. These are techniques I teach in my Speed Date with Improv workshop. Here, my desire was to portion the quilt into three colour sections that blend toward the center. Keeping like-sized units in groups prevents the quilt from having a completely chaotic appearance. 

As an Aurifil Artisan, I am very lucky to have access to the 270 colours available for my projects. To add more dimension to the piece, I purposely didn't try to exactly match the fabrics, but chose thread colours that I thought would shine on the fabric. I've been using Aurifil thread for about 17 years now and have settled on 40 wt as my go-to quilting weight. I used to stick with 30 wt for quilting (and still do sometimes when I'm not quilting so densely), but I've come to love the look of 40 wt on closely-spaced straight line walking foot quilting. These lines are eyeballed using the edge of my walking foot as a rough guide, about 1/4" to 3/8" apart. I don't try to keep the lines perfectly straight, or perfectly spaced. After all, this is an improv quilt! The lines run at different angles for each colour section. My stitch length is set around 3.0 on my Juki. I've had quilt judges say that my stitch length is too long, but for a wallhanging that isn't going to get any wear and tear, I think this looks much prettier than tiny stitches where I really notice the holes more than the thread.

Aurifil colours from L-R: 2581 Dark Dusty Grape (on Grape), 1100 Red Plum (on Mallow)
 and 2745 Midnight (on Iris)

I used almost every scrap of the supersized Oakshott FQ's that I had for each colour (Oakshott is milled at 55" wide and cut by the meter, so you actually get a luscious piece of shot cotton that is 19.5" x 27"!). That meant a binding was out of the question, so this quilt is faced using most elements of this great tutorial on my friend Terry's blog.

I got the name from my visit to Naramata, B.C. at harvest time last fall. I'd never been when the vines were laden with grapes and it was a gorgeous sight to see!

Any day now, I'm going to find the focus required to start my third version, which I plan to make a bit larger and using 3 different Oakshott reds. I hope it will turn out as beautifully as this one!

Thank you to my friends at Oakshott Fabrics and Aurifil for the fine materials they share with me so that my projects can look their absolute best.


  1. I really love what you created here and know from experience the absolutely magical quality Oakshotts add to a project.

  2. When you end your quilting line in the middle of the quilt, do you leave tails and tie off?? back and forth?? What do you do?
    Thanks Krista ! I sure enjoyed your class Saturday!!!! You ROCK!!!


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