Portraits of Place in Crazy Quilts

Allison Aller © 2010

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The reason I call these "portraits" is because these finished pieces reflect not just the visual representation of a place, but also the stitcher's feelings about it and love for it. Your stitches integrate with the photographic image on fabric to create a rendition of your subject that is yours alone. It doesn't have to be slavishly realistic either, neither are many portraits! What matters most, I think, is that you have passion for the place you are portraying. Each of these has some kind of crazy pieced or embellished border, since I can never stray too far from crazy quilting!

This is not a technical article, but more of a description of the process that I used to create these place portraits. Links for relevant technical tips and supply sources will be given at the end of the article.

Here are the basic steps.

Preparation of the Print onto Fabric:

  1. Choose a photo of your home, garden or a landscape that you wish to have as the central image of your portrait.
  2. Transfer your photo onto fabric. There are many ways to do this and, in fact, several whole books on this subject! What I like to do is print my digital photographs onto commercially prepared cotton or silk fabrics that are ready to run through my printer and accept the pigment inks I prefer to use. (Epson printers use pigment inks and HP uses dye-based inks.) I have found that the dye-based inks fade too much over time to be satisfactory. The products I like best are EQ Printables for cotton, and Color Plus Textiles for silk. Be aware that the cotton is harder to stitch through than the silk, as it is tightly woven. The silk, however, does not yield as vivid as a print.
  3. Once the image has been printed, rinsed, air-dried and ironed according to the package instructions, I find it extremely useful to interface the back of the print with fusible knit interfacing. This stabilizes the printed fabric before stitching.
  4. In order to prevent "over-handling" of the print while stitching on it, I like to machine baste 3" strips of muslin around the perimeter of the print. This is temporary, but will prevent the edges of the print from being stretched out or frayed by handling during the stitching process.

Embroidering Your Portrait:

The main concept to keep in mind when choosing your embroidery threads is the relationship of the scale of the threads to perspective in the portrait. What I mean by this is this: the farther away or in the distance of the photograph the area you are stitching on, the thinner your thread should be. The thickest threads belong in the foreground of your portrait. This helps to create the illusion of depth in your scene. I never embroider anything in the sky; in real life, of course, the sky is so much farther away than any landscape element that it appears totally flat....so I like to keep it that way in my place portraits. Flat, flat, flat!

Also, it makes sense to start your embroidery in the background areas, and then move to the midground with your stitching, and finally, to embroider the very foreground area.

Let's have a look at some projects.

My first attempt at using this approach was for a quilt called "The Home in the Garden."

Here is the photograph I used. It's my garden in July!

I cropped it, printed it onto cotton, and began developing it with embroidery. In this picture, the evergreen on the left, the tree behind it and the pink sweet peas on the left have been stitched.

Here is the embroidery a little further along. You can see I have sketched out where the outer edges of the finished embroidery will be. I have used stitches with the most dimension in the foreground--French Knots and Bullions for flowers, while simple Detached Chain Stitches and Fly Stitches work well for foliage. Straight Stitches in the proper scale and color work well in mid to background stitching. An interesting phenomenon is that the viewer's eye and brain will "blend" the photographic and stitching details so that the mind really reads this as one consistent image.

I like to frame my portraits with crazy piecing and stitching, but I try not to let that get too busy, so that the portrait in the center keeps the viewer's main focus. Staying with one color in the piecing helps, as does keeping the seam treatments simple.

The final size of this piece is 16" X 16".

This next project is shown actual size. It is a 2" covered button!

The stitching is obviously all in the foreground; you will notice (if you look closely) that the trees behind the cottage were not stitched. That would have brought them too much into the foreground, no matter how fine a thread I had used.

I used this same subject, the old family cottage, for a couple other portraits.

In the first photo, you can see the initial embroidery of this small scene. I went for a more "impressionistic" look this time.

As always, the foreground stitching was added last.

The finished piece, measuring 8" X 8", again had a simple crazy pieced and embroidered "frame," with an inner border of rocks that were gathered from the beach below the cottage. This piece is mounted on foam core.

The next cottage portrait was much more elaborate. I used a larger printed central image, which was 10" X 13". There were also other printed photographs integrated into the piecing around the central image, which formed more than just a frame, but a much larger compositional context for the center. This was technically quite difficult!

I started with many prints laid out roughly in the positions I thought I would be using them.

Fast forward now to where the quilt is pieced and the outer piecing is starting to be embellished. Notice that some of my piecing seams were deliberately designed to act as tree trunks and branches, once they were embellished.

These buttonhole leaves were inspired by the great work of Lisa Boni. She makes the best buttonhole leaves ever!

The final embroidery of this central image was fairly light-handed. I outlined all the major architectural shapes of the cottage, highlighted the flowers in the border in front of it and did lots of Straight Stitches in the grass in the foreground...and also spent three days making all those buttonholed leaves.

Each project and image will guide you as to what kind of embroidery needs to be done: you will discover that for yourself.

This whole quilt took about four months to make. It measures 30" X 30".

This summer I decided to do another garden portrait, again using the procedure described at the beginning of this article.

One difference in this project, called "High Summer," is that once it was finished, I mounted my embroidered central image onto fusible craft batting before appliquéing it over my crazy pieced "mat."

This gave me a nice smooth edge, "stretched" the embroidery so that it was flat, and caused it to be just slightly raised above the surface of the quilt.

Here is "High Summer" completed. Again, the frames are kept to a single colorway in order to showcase the central embroidered image.

This is 18" X 22".

Finally, I want to mention that there is an alternative to inkjet photo transfer that I sometimes use to get my image onto fabric. Transfer Artist Paper, or TAP, is an updated version of the old t-shirt transfer paper. You reverse the image you wish to use on the computer, print it onto the TAP, and then iron it onto your fabric. You get a sharp print easily with really good color...the only hitch is that it is harder to stitch through than inkjet printed fabric.

"June" was made using the TAP. It is small, about 10" X 12".

If you are inspired to try this approach with a "place portrait" of your own, I would really love to see it. Drop me a jpg and a note about your project at aaller@gmail.com.



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