Colorwash Cross

Watercolor Quilting
Why Not Try It?

by: Kathy Somers

* Do you like to do jigsaw puzzles? If so, watercolor (or impressionist) quilting could be just your bag. Are you a traditional quilter looking for a way to express your artistic side? In my humble opinion, this technique offers the best opportunity for artistic expression available to quilters. Are you a fabric collector? If so, then watercolor quilting was made just for you.

* What's all the hubbub about? Watercolor quilts look impressive, no matter how you view them. As the maker of one, you give the impression that you know what you're doing, with very little skill necessary. The piecing is as easy as sewing squares together and fancy quilting is not necessary or, in most cases, desired.

* Watercolor technique is adaptable, too. Used as a background for, say, an appliqué, it can give a source of light (or shadow) to your work and give the impression that it's three dimensional. Contrast can be used to create shapes in the piece. A full size quilt can be made of individual watercolor blocks. Watercolor quilts can even be strip-pieced.

Click here for an article about strip-piecing watercolor quilts...

* The most important facet of this technique is collecting the proper fabrics. You will need a lot of different prints and it helps to keep your eyes open for appropriate fat quarters at all times. Fabric collecting for Watercolor quilting is an ongoing process and your collection should be constantly changing and growing. Look for busy, multicolored (at least 3), small/medium scale prints. They should appear to blend or 'gray down' from a distance of about 10-15 feet.

* I strongly recommend that you read the books 'Watercolor Quilts' by Magaret and Slusser and 'Colorwash Quilts' by Deirdre Amsden. They will both give you an idea of what kind of fabrics to look for. For different slants on the same technique, also read 'Watercolor Impressions' by Magaret and Slusser, 'Impressionist Quilts' by Gai Perry and 'Watercolor Magic' by Deanna Spingola.

* Don't let the above books scare you. The technique can seem overwhelming at first. However, taken step by step, it is one of the easiest quilting techniques that there is. If the fabric collecting seems overwhelming, try starting with prepackaged watercolor squares, available from most quilter's mail order houses. These can then be supplemented with fabrics on hand, as well as those that you might find. It will also help to give you an idea of which fabrics work and why.

* Once you have amassed enough of the proper fabrics, they will need to be cut into 2" squares for most purposes. Accuracy really counts here, so be as careful as possible when cutting. When they are cut, they can be sorted, which is the second most important part of the technique. If sorted properly, the rest of the technique becomes very natural and easy.

* First, I sort into lights, mediums and darks, using nothing but gut instinct and initial first impressions. I don't think about it much but make snap decisions, knowing that I will catch myself later if I goof up. Then I take each of these piles and do the same, sorting each into lights, mediums and darks. I then have nine piles: Light-light, medium-light, dark-light, light-medium, medium-medium, etc.

* I then do a process that I call 'scanning'. I lay out all nine piles, in order, on a long table or floor. I overlap just slightly, but am able to see most of each fabric. I stand back and squint at my piles. If any of the fabrics stand out or 'catch my eye', I know that something is wrong. It needs to be moved. I move it back and forth, often trading it with another fabric until it fades into its pile. Then I know that it's in the right place.

* When done, you will need something to put your squares in. I use nine baking trays with 1/2" sides. These stack nicely and take up less room than, say, pizza boxes. They are labeled with numbers 1 through 9, 1 being the lightest. As I add fabrics to my trays, I look for the tray that it blends into the best.

* Next, you will need a design idea. For your first project, a simple background with a source of light would be appropriate. I find it helpful to outline my quilt on graph paper and shade it in the way I want it to look. This gives me a placement guide to go by, so I know where the darks and the lights go.

* You will also need some flannel to hang up on the wall as a design surface. The gridded flannel, available from most quilter's mail order houses, works best, although any flannel will work. Decide where your source of light goes and concentrate your lightest fabrics here. Do not be concerned about exact placement yet. Stick them up quickly and confidently, going from your light-lights to your dark-darks, radiating out from your source of light.

* Once placed, the fun begins. Allow yourself at least a few days to play with it. I often take several weeks for the next step. Stand back from your quilt and 'scan' it like you did with your piles. Squint, turn the lights down, use a colored filter or whatever else helps you to best determine any fabrics that stick out or 'catch your eye'. If any stick out, trade them with one of the next lighter or darker fabrics until it blends. This will migrate all lighter fabrics toward your source of light and darker fabrics away from it. Squares can also be turned so their lighter side is toward the source of light. Keep working at it until you are completely satisfied and it all blends together.

* Sewing the squares together is simply a matter of stacking each row, in order, and sewing it to the previous row without cutting the threads. Stack from top to bottom and don't turn your squares. Soon, you will have a lacy 'net' of squares. Press so the seams will run in alternate directions (One row up, one row down - this is important!) and your seams will 'lock' together when sewn together. When sewing rows together, sew first from top to bottom, then from bottom to top, etc. This will keep it from becoming lopsided.

* You can use your creation as is or as a background for appliqué. Floral appliqué looks wonderful on these backgrounds. Silhouettes also work quite well. Stand back, look at it and decide for yourself. Often, you'll be so fascinated with the effect that you might want to leave it as is.

* Choose a border that compliments your piece and doesn't compete with it. Remember, you are 'framing' your artwork. A plain border usually works best. Quilt simply so as not to detract from the effect. The quilting should serve to blend the squares, not outline them, so outline quilting is usually not appropriate. Let your quilting cross the seam lines. Meandering machine quilting works very well with watercolor quilts.

* When you are done, hang it in a prominent place and stand back. People will be so impressed by your talent and skill that you'll have to hide your grin behind your hand. Only you will know how easy it was....

Please send questions, thoughts or suggestions to:

Click here for an article about strip-piecing watercolor quilts...

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