We’ve got an amazing new featured project for you today, one that spans generations of work, pulled together a family of crafters, and traveled back and forth across the country in its journey to being made!
Stitcher Jeanette and her two sisters created this quilt together as part of a thank you to a cousin who had spent many hours gathering treasured history of their family. What started as the idea of a simple wall hanging transformed into this stunning ancestry quilt as the sisters sent it back and fourth across the country to be made.
Jeanette tells us the fascinating story of its creation…
Talk about what inspired this. What’s the story behind this quilt? How did it all get started?
One of our cousins spent most of her adult life gathering genealogy that she compiled into a 500-page book, complete with photos, maps, and copies of all the documents she had found in her quest. She recently sent these to each of us and our parents (who are in their nineties). We were very touched and so happy to be able to pass on this knowledge to our adult children and their children given that we had no real “roots” to share with them, as we grew up moving around as “Army brats.”
My two sisters and I wanted to show our appreciation to her and conspired to make the wall hanging. The concept changed several times as we looked over options – everything from a “throw” to a book cover. We finally settled on a wall hanging.
Did embroidery inspire the parts of the quilt? How did you choose your designs?
I had no idea what the wall hanging should look like but imagined it filled with symbolism. My youngest sister, Jennifer, was trained as an artist but has not worked in that field for many years, so instead of drawing she told us what she “saw” when she thought of the quilt. She could “see” a raven, clocks, and a tree. I wasn’t sure what a raven had to do with genealogy but honored her vision and did some internet research. Lo and behold – in Welsh culture, the raven is a symbol of wisdom and the keeper of ancestral knowledge. How perfect!
Talk us through all the embroidery… which designs did you use?
Keeping my sister’s vision in mind I did an internet search for any form of art depicting a raven that I could find. As a last resort I included machine embroidery in my search for raven and found the Urban Threads site. When I saw the Clockwork Magic design set my jaw dropped open. Not only were there ravens but also clocks, gears, keys, etc. in that amazing design set. I chose the ravens, keys and pocket watch for the main designs I’d use. Then I found your Roots and Branches design and thought I’d gone to heaven.
How long did it take to make it all?
If we had lived near each other and not experimented so much I think between the three of us we could have finished the quilt by working on it several hours a day for a week or so. As it was, we conceived of it in September, started “piddling” around with experiments in October, began stitching in earnest in November and mailed it to our cousin in January.
Starting, I still didn’t know how I would incorporate the Urban Threads designs into a wall hanging, what size it would be or any other detail. None the less, I found an 18×22 piece of green Asian fabric that I thought would look great with the black of the raven and proceeded to embroider one of these. The raven looked great but I didn’t use enough stabilizer and it altered the dimensions of the fabric, so I cut off a piece of that fabric and tried again. I still wasn’t happy so did another raven on an even smaller portion of that fabric and when I looked at them spread out, and the concept for a layout appeared. This was the beginning of the evolution of the project.
In the course of the process, I experimented with designs from the design pack and pinned them with the background fabrics to some brown flannel. The tree took the longest to embroider since it is so rich in thread play. At this point I felt I needed to pass it on to my other two sisters, both of whom live in Colorado, to see how they would interpret the piece and add their touches. All of us work full time and the mail was pretty slow during the holidays getting back and forth across the country, so you have to take that into account.
Once the incomplete pinned together work got to my sister, Jacqie, she conceptualized the gold cotton borders that could have writing on them. She and Jennifer spent a good portion of Thanksgiving weekend experimenting with writing tools and finally found that a plain Sharpie worked better than designated “art” pens. Jennifer wanted to practice writing first but Jacqie insisted that she use her unrehearsed, natural, printing in keeping with the “raw” look that we were going for. She and Jacqie spent more time selecting phrases from the genealogy book than actually writing it but it was a warm, interesting experience for both of them. We think the sizing still present in the unwashed fabric actually helped prevent the ink from bleeding.
Once Jacqie sewed borders onto the brown flannel and sewed raw edge applique on the other shapes, she experimented with trying to machine quilt (combining top, batting and backing with sewing machine) the piece. When she was done she mailed it back to me in Texas. There were several agonizing days where we feared it was lost in transit but it did show up, albeit a few days late!
Once I got it back, I had learned my lesson with the stabilizer problem on the ravens so I made everything that was going to be appliquéd on stabilizer plus a thick Pellon interfacing. This made them stitch out beautifully. I colored the white edges of the Pellon with permanent colored felt pens which also added to the dimensionality of the object.
Inspired by the writing on the borders, I used a piece of the gold cotton to transfer some of the photos from the genealogy book with inkjet transfer paper. This was a first for me also. I found that selecting “mirror” image in my printer properties made everything come out just right for the transfer. I was skeptical about how this would work, but the photos looked appropriately ghostly for the topic. I did a simple decorative machine stitch around them to set them off.
The other fabric pieces were added to cover up boo boos I made when experimenting with adding extra puffiness behind the front pieces and were simply heat bonded on. Had I not been afraid of dragging the project out too long, I might have done this differently but there comes a time when all good things must come to an end and we wanted to get this to our cousin while she is still young enough to enjoy it!
Any challenges along the way?
I’m a novice machine embroiderer so I made several mistakes I won’t make again. When embroidering the Roots and Branches I was working on another part of the project and didn’t notice that it wasn’t signaling me to change threads. Ouch! After some research it turns out that PES format probably isn’t the best one to use as the commands may not translate well into my machine. Fortunately, your website allowed me to revisit my purchase and download another format without charge (I’m using SEW and HUS most of the time now).
Also, we had thought I would finish quilting the piece on my long arm machine, but as I studied it, I realized that this would not “add” anything to it, so I elected to stitch around the shapes instead. In the process I knocked the beads off several times and finally resorted to not only sewing them back on but using fabric glue as well. Lesson learned – put jewels, etc. on AFTER all the sewing is done.
What were people’s reactions to the quilt and to all the embroidery?
We have been awed by the reactions of people who have looked at this. None of us feel as if it is something WE created but something that was created through us. Even in the initial stages people seemed taken with it – someone insisted my sister pull it out of her bag in the fabric store and show it off when they saw the edges peeking out. My mother and father spent quite a bit of time poring over the unfinished piece. My father couldn’t get enough of reading about his ancestors and my mother was awed by the embroidery and embellishments.
Everyone comments on the quality of the embroidered stitch-outs. The raven’s wings are three dimensional – you can almost see the feathers. The tree is an amazing blending of colors and layers – people seem to feel compelled to touch all the designs and feel them. I am particularly fascinated with the overlay of mechanical parts on the raven’s wings and the gears on top of and behind all the designs in this set.
Our cousin has emailed us repeatedly telling us of family members she has shown it to in Georgia, where she lives. She seems very pleased!
What’s your next project going to be?
My sisters and I now want similar pieces for ourselves so we’ll be making them to honor both our mother and our father in the future. I’m running scenarios through my head, thinking about these Urban Threads designs and others – I’m envision letting the concept pick the embroidery and the embroidery enhance the concept. Thank all your artists and digitizers for inspiring us!!!
Thank you, Jeannette, and your amazing sisters, for sharing the story of this creative creation with us! Not only will this be an amazing quilt for future generations to share, but the story of its creation is almost as fascinating as the family history it portrays. I know I can’t wait to see what your next ancestral quilts look like. And seriously, incorporating steampunk into your family history? Awesome.
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