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Threads eLetter

From the pages of Threads Magazine

Inspired Crazy Piecing

Create order from the chaos of random piecing

by Sylvia Einstein

Crazy-pieced sashing was added to the white-background blocks in "Charivari" (59 by 59 in., 1986) to create geometric order from the exuberant crazy-pieced blocks. Photo: Scott Phillips.
Start with a pile of fabric scraps left over from various projects and sew them together in no particular order to make a quilt. Sounds like a recipe for chaos, right? Well, curiously, it's not. To be sure, crazy piecing -- randomly joining odd bits of fabric -- is not as orderly a process as making planned geometric blocks. But as you can see in the crazy-pieced quilt at right, it's possible to cause strong visual patterns to emerge from the fun and freedom of random piecing. My approach to crazy piecing has evolved with its own set of techniques and design rules that alternate moments of apparent chaos, when the process seems out of control, with moments of imposed order. The process is sometimes nerve-racking since I'm not sure where the pieced blocks are taking me, but that's half the fun because there are always surprises with this approach and, in the end, order.

Something old, something new
Crazy piecing came into its own in the late 1800s as women hand-stitched the somber silk and velvet scraps from their Victorian finery into elaborately embroidered quilts and coverlets. Nowadays most crazy piecing is done with ordinary calicos, small prints, and solid cottons, often taken from selected yardage rather than miscellaneous scraps, which is pieced by machine and embroidered by hand or with decorative machine-embroidery stitches.

The tendency in contemporary machine-sewn crazy piecing to use wedge-shaped pieces joined with straight lines contrasts with the aesthetic of Victorian crazy quilters, who preferred chunky shapes, discouraged straight lines, and used embroidery to disguise a fabric's straight edges and give the illusion of gentle curves. But in most traditional and some contemporary crazy piecing, the fabric scraps, often chosen for their muted colors, are applied to a muslin foundation cut either to the size of the whole quilt or in blocks to be assembled later. And as a rule, the randomly pieced blocks are randomly joined as well, with no attempt made to create an overall pattern in the quilt top.

Points of departure -- My technique for crazy piecing departs from both the contemporary and traditional approaches in three important ways: First, instead of solids or small prints in subtle colors, I use bold, large-scale prints in strong colors. Second, I don't add any embroidery. And finally, instead of sewing scraps to a foundation fabric, I sew them to each other, then trim the pieced scraps into the desired shape with a transparent template. As I'll explain below, this method allows me to change my mind at any time about how the fabrics are placed in a block since they're not "nailed down" to a foundation.

Visually, my work returns to its Victorian roots with chunky shapes rather than wedges, and "disguised" straight lines. Without embroidery to "fool" the eye into ignoring straight seams, I rely on the strong colors, motifs, and "negative spaces" in the prints to blend across the seams, creating interesting new shapes that distract the eye from the straight seamlines. And finally, once I've randomly pieced a number of blocks, I begin looking for ways to arrange them so that the colors or patterns of the scraps within the blocks create an overall design for the quilt top. Once I've found a design plan I like, I'll modify some of the existing blocks, or maybe intentionally piece new blocks to reinforce the design.

Rules to piece by
The two essential elements in my crazy piecing are the technique that I'll describe later in "Build a block," and the design rules I follow that both create and control the chaos of this process. I never start a quilt with a plan for its overall design, which emerges only after I've completed a dozen or more blocks. So in the beginning, the only tether I have for reining in the chaos are my two design rules: Simply stated, the first rule is to look for ways to disguise the straight lines by visually connecting the colors and shapes of adjoining prints across the seamline. The second rule is to continually return to the underlying geometry of the template, which is often a square.

Fabric first
If you would like to try my approach, start with a selection of brightly colored prints with large motifs and contrasting backgrounds (home-dec and vintage fabrics are a good source of such prints). Include some prints with spacious, light backgrounds, especially white, which adds "air" and a look of transparency to the blocks. Look for motifs that have a strong graphic or abstract quality and that create equally interesting shapes in the background, and try to include prints with squiggly lines, especially ones that are black. Now add some low-contrast prints with undefined or smudged shapes. Then throw in a few bits of outrageous color that might look like mavericks but will add excitement to your quilt. Don't think too much about the fabrics you select. Choose them intuitively, finding fabrics you like without concern for whether they "go with" the others. If you choose them because you like them, they're likely to work well together. Select two or three fabrics that you can repeat throughout the quilt, which creates a visual connection in the finished quilt.

Create scraps out of whole yardage by cutting strips of uneven widths, sewing them together in pairs, then cutting them unevenly into smaller pieces.
Working with scraps forces you to deal with what you have on hand and discover creative solutions. As well, working with scraps rather than purchased yardage frees you to play and experiment with the process, without feeling pressure to produce a "masterpiece." (If your scrap bin is wanting, you can often get free scraps from custom dressmakers and home-dec shops.) If you start with uncut yardage, get rid of the fabric's orderly edges by turning it into "scraps" before you start piecing. To do this, as shown above, cut strips of different widths, sew them together in pairs, then cut them up unevenly. In effect, you're intentionally relinquishing control of the fabrics.

Being practical -- If you're making a quilt that you hope to wash, to avoid the tangle of frayed threads you'd get by washing scraps, preshrink the scraps by misting them with water and then steam-pressing them. Or better still, plan to dry-clean the completed quilt.

Build a block
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If you were to look over my shoulder as I piece a block, here's what you'd see: I select some fabrics and a see-through template the size of the blocks I plan to make--from 6-1/2 to 12-1/2 in. square (see Quilting resources), which will become the geometric underpinning of the quilt. I superimpose this template over the block as each new piece is added, trimming away the edges to maintain the block's shape.

I begin the block by sewing a number of pairs of scraps together without regard for what's happening to the prints' motifs. But even though I intend to visually blur the seamlines, it's important that they're actually straight, which prevents buckling in the quilt top caused by slightly curved seams. So each time I start with a scrap, even if its edges look straight, I trim and straighten them with a ruler and rotary cutter. I use a short stitch length (2 mm) so that the stitches won't come out when I trim the pieces; and as I add pieces to the block, I press the seams open (instead of to one side) so they'll lie flat, which also prevents the stitches from hanging up on bulky seam intersections during machine quilting.

I work quickly and intuitively at first without attempting to "make something happen," but my eye is always looking for connections of colors and shapes across the seamlines. I avoid joining strongly different values along the whole seam because this accentuates the line I'm trying to blur. I vary the rhythm of the contrasting fabrics in the block by adding prints with closer values and less distinct lines. And I vary the sizes of the pieces within the block, especially avoiding the "chopped liver" effect I'd get from using too many small pieces. As the block progresses, I like to look at it again and again to find and build on new visual passages and connections.

When I get to a corner that needs just a small scrap, I might leave it unfinished for the time being so that I can go back later and add whatever I think it needs. Or I might stir things up by adding something outrageous. If I decide later that I don't like the corner, I can chop it off and replace it. Sometimes when I've already decided on a block's corner, I might discover something visually more interesting, shift the template, and recut the block, adding more pieces to fill it out.

A game of chance
I make 12 to 16 blocks and plan to use the ones I like best since not every block will be successful. Eventually I start to see things happening in the blocks, for example, diagonal lines of color that start appearing in one block after another. When this happens, it's tempting to settle on these as visual themes for the rest of the blocks. But if I impose an idea on the work too soon, I limit the possibilities I haven't yet discovered. I force myself to endure the anxiety of not knowing exactly where all this random piecing is taking me because my experience assures me that eventually something does happen. Granted, it's not an easy or predictable way to work, but that's just why it appeals to me.

With a dozen or so blocks completed, I put them up on the design wall and start rearranging to see where they'll lead me. If I hit upon an arrangement of the blocks that works but want to continue exploring the possibilities, I take a picture of the arrangement so that I can reconstruct it later.

The pinwheel pattern brought order to "Harlequin's Somersault" (36 by 36 in., 1997) when the author combined portions of the light blocks with dark-colored, pieced scraps given to her by friend and quilt maker Judy Becker. Photo: Scott Phillips.
Returning to tradition -- For my overall quilt-top designs, I often return to traditional quilt designs for inspiration: the idea of traditional sashing between blocks became the unifying visual order in "Charivari." When working on a quilt, before I go to sleep I try to think of other design ideas to try--putting the blocks on point, sashing them, or maybe cutting them in half and putting them with another fabric. The original blocks that eventually became "Harlequin's Somersault," for example, were recut and joined with scraps from another project to create the overall pinwheel effect in the top.

My potholder theory -- If a top isn't working, don't despair. There are lots of things you can do with unsuccessful quilts: trade them with other people, cut them up for new crazy quilts, or make potholders from them (if I don't like the potholders, I give them as gifts!). In short, forget the top you hate--if it should be thrown away, get it out of your mind and studio. This will free you from the responsibility of turning an unsuccessful top into a masterpiece. Then you can start another quilt.

I hope you'll give this approach to crazy piecing a try. And even if you don't plan to complete a quilt, I guarantee that you'll have fun and learn from the experience--and you might even turn out a whole quilt!

Sylvia Einstein of Belmont, MA, is an internationally known quilt artist and teacher.

Photos except where noted: Toni Toomey

From Threads #72, pp. 39-43
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