Honestly, I don’t remember when I started my recently-completed “Vertigo" quilt, but it was at least a couple of years ago. It started with the fabric, scraps of black and white prints. My library quilting group in Greenwood was having one of its periodic fits of interest in black and white quilts, if I remember correctly, and that’s why these prints were on my mind. I have a nice little clutch of such prints in my stash; they live in the cupboard with the brights because to my mind, the two ideas (brights and black & white) go together so naturally.
Isn’t this a sight? Drool on, fellow quilters.
I had a bright appliquéd quilt-in-progress that needed a background, something muted in colour but strong enough in pattern to hold its own in competition with the appliqué. I shouldn’t say it was a quilt-in-progress: I had little more than an idea and the main motifs when I began this background. I won’t go into the details of the main motifs here, because they’re still in the unfinished parts bin and the right place to talk about them is when they’ve been turned into a finished quilt. Suffice to say that I made a lot of large leaf shapes from chevron strips of bright prints angled to mimic the veins in a leaf. I worked and worked to piece the background together, and after literally weeks of piecing, I had enough done that I could place the leaf motifs on top.
The scraps were in a little bin of their own, and for once I decided to begin sewing them together just as they came out of the bin, without any more trimming than what was needed to give me a straight edge to work with. As I worked, I began to notice one particular angle was making its presence felt, and as I created small units of made-cloth, a square foot or two in size, I found myself moved to preserve that particular angle as a design element. The bit of constructed fabric that started this idea is the one in the upper left corner below: I decided to preserve that top edge as a horizontal, which set the orientation for all other elements in the composition.
Making it all fit together wasn’t easy! I had in essence four different orientation lines for the outer edges of the piece because I wanted each edge to look as if it was a complete thought, not a cut-off afterthought.
Time passed. Sewing happened. I worked and worked to piece the background together, and after literally weeks of work, I had enough done that I could place the leaf motifs on top.
By this point, the background had outgrown my design wall. One of my few desires for improvements to my life (which is pretty darn excellent as it is) would be a larger design wall (dare I say, a larger studio?)
It was at this point that I decided to audition my bright leaf units. Urgh. All wrong. The background was by now so strong that the leaves, despite their intense saturation of colour, couldn’t quite compete.
Dog’s breakfast territory. Total chaos. I needed a complete change. A flower?
The flower was so banal I had to rip it off right away. And why did I put that black paper silhouette of a raven up over the background? I’d used the paper raven as a design aid in composing my raven quilt, and the negative image left behind was so cool I just couldn’t throw it away (I still have it). I guess I was just playing.
Oh, this was a frustrating day. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to make the mental leap from “this background is too strong to be a background” to “this background is strong enough to be a quilt all by itself."
So there I was, with a partially-pieced quilt rather than just a background. But I didn’t know whether this composition would be interesting, even tilted off square as it was, when finished into a rectangle. It was my dear husband who had the brilliant notion that I not make it a rectangle, but consider it nearly finished at this stage and allow the bottom and left edges to align with the angles I’d already established on those sides. Bingo. As soon as he voiced it, this idea felt totally right to me. I wanted to make a statement with this piece. I wanted it to be a bit challenging, a bit uncomfortable, a bit unexpected.
But it seemed obvious to me that something so weirdly off-kilter needed a strong border to rein it in, not least because in places there isn’t much contrast between the fabrics on the edges of the quilt and the (presumably) white wall on which would be displayed. You wouldn’t think, would you, that it would be hard to choose a background: after all, everything goes with black and white, right? The auditioning began.
I moved from neutral prints, through black-and-coloured prints (singly, doubly, triply), to batiks, and finally solids.
I love black and white and blue together, but this blue is too intense, and the border too wide. The black and white retreats into insignificance in this mockup. Also, somehow that brilliant blue made too cheerful a statement. I needed something more retiring and more sombre.
Black and burgundy proved to be the answer. Why two different colours? I can’t tell you, except that it felt right that something so chaotic needed something a less predictable than a one-colour border. And less predictable than one colour per side. I played with the idea of breaking the colours in places other than the corners.
At seven feet wide at the widest point, this piece bumped up against the limits of the size of my design wall.
I sewed the borders on. I took it to a meeting of the Grand Forks Quilt Connection: we generally sew most of the day during a meeting, and the senior’s hall where we meet has lots of resin folding tables that make wonderful basting surfaces when pushed together. I got the quilt basted. And there it sat, full of basting pins, for a year. I thought and thought about how to quilt it. Last summer, I got the centre quilted, using a slightly wonky triangle spiral. This design required a huge amount of concentration, because it was so easy to get myself caught in a corner without a way to escape. I was intrigued to see that often I’d find I’d made a hexagon, without thinking about it or intending to.
On the other hand, it was a bit freeing to quilt this wild collection of prints, because none of the stitching shows very much, except where the background is predominantly black.
I finished the quilt centre, and then the quilt sat again. Now I had those borders to quilt. And given that the borders are solid fabrics, the quilting there shows up more than it does in the centre. The challenge here, given the narrowness of the borders, was to quilt them in a way that didn’t come out too evenly. I wanted to preserve the unpredictable variability of the stitching lines that I’d established in the quilt centre.
So. Finally, the quilting was done. I had a deadline, because I wanted to submit this quilt to a juried show. I finished the quilting with three days to go. I cut and sewed facings on all four sides, which was a bit tricky on the corners with odd angles. I spent hours hand sewing the facing edges to the back of the quilt. I finished that stage the night before the deadline. The next morning, I decided to wait to photograph the quilt, because the sun was full on my photography surface, aka the doors of dh’s shop. Good thing I didn’t wait too long, because I decided to check the submission deadline time, and realized with horror that I had an hour and a quarter to move the photo site to the back of the studio and wade through the snow to get the quilt up on the wall, get the photography done, edit the photos, and drive into Greenwood to use the library’s wifi to complete the submission. I made it, with ten minutes to spare. What an adrenalin rush. I couldn’t have done it without the huge help from dh, who climbed the step-ladder and hammered the push pins into the studio siding, through the white sheet background and then the quilt itself (sorry, quilt).
Okay. Take a breath. Are you ready for the quilt? Here it is.
The light is terrible, I know. The sun was shining right on the camera on the left (dh had to stand to my left to block the sun from the camera), and the snow reflected a ton of blue light onto the quilt in shadow on the right. Not ideal, by any means, but I was out of time for any alternative. See the snow? It’s about two feet deep, which made it even more challenging to photograph the quilt: I had to stamp down the snow directly below it to keep it out of the frame of the photo. The quilt top was as high as it could be: dh couldn’t reach any higher. Of course, when I got home from Greenwood the sun was behind cloud and conditions for photography were much improved. Oh well.
As you can see, the birds have found or made holes in the siding of the studio and made them into nests. The squirrels have created condos in the walls and in the ceiling.
So that’s how this quilt came to be. Now for the name. Why “Vertigo”?
As I said earlier, I decided to run with the off-kilter design elements in this quilt and make them the main story. Not long after I made that decision, I saw parallels between the discomfort this quilt produces in those who view it and a couple of major health issues that were affecting my family. One is Menieres disease, a disease of the inner ear that affects balance, which has plagued my aunt for many years. The other is the stroke that felled my father after his heart surgery in 2016. For both of them, impairment to perception was (and in my aunt’s case continues to be) an impediment to daily life. The brain damage he suffered after his stroke made any kind of normal life impossible: he never left the hospital until he was moved to hospice a few days before he died. My father was amazingly lucid and engaged during the four months between his stroke and his passing, but every day we saw evidence, in things he said, of how much trouble he sometimes had perceiving his situation correctly. And my aunt finds her friends and family holding on to her every moment when she’s walking for fear she’ll lose her balance and fall. So if you happen to have the chance to see this quilt in person, please take a moment to view it from the perspective of those whose perceptions have been affected by accident or disease: I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with this kind of disability. This quilt is meant to create, in a small way, something similar in terms of disturbance and imbalance.
It’s not a cosy quilt, but it means a lot to me, and I’m glad to have found a way to honour the patience and humour and courage with which my father faced and my aunt continues to face health challenges.