Stars and Kaleidoscopes

Simply Stars: Quilts That Sparkle By Alex Anderson C&T Publishing, 1996 96 Pages, $21.95 (To order at a discount, go to the Planet Patchwork Bookstore).

Kaleidoscopes & Quilts By Paula Nadelstern C&T Publishing, 1996 144 Pages, $24.95
(To order at a discount, go to the Planet Patchwork Bookstore)

Certain shapes have a perennial appeal. They have their origins in nature, but through human imaginings are transformed: simplified, embellished, regularized, concatenated, recolored, shaped and molded, until they become something nature never dreamed of, and find their way into our quilts.

These two books, Alex Anderson's Simply Stars and Paula Nadelstern's Kaleidoscopes & Quilts, both take wing from one of these families of shapes, the stars that blink at us from far galaxies. Despite their common inspirations, the approaches of these two quilters to design and technique are very different. The similarity is they both produce stunning quilts.

Simply StarsAlex Anderson's Simply Stars is probably the definitive text on making star blocks and quilts. It is organized, conveniently, according to construction method, including chapters on "Stars Made of Squares and Triangles," "Stars Made of an Isosceles Triangle in a Square," and "Stars Made of Diamonds and Y Seams." If these sound a little complicated, they become more familiar as the star blocks take on names: sawtooth, double sawtooth, Martha Washington, Le Moyne, 54-40 or Fight, and so on.

But before she gets into the nitty details, Alex gives us an introduction and some general instructions which are among the best I've seen in a quilting book. In her introduction, for example, she presents all in one place the "magic (cutting) numbers which we all hear and then promptly forget. How much do you add to the finished size when you're cutting half-square triangles? How much is it for quarter-squares? It's all right here, methodically laid out, with diagrams.

Following this, she gives the reader an excellent section on fabric and color choice. Knowing that fabric selection for a quilt is often the most difficult part for quilters, she cites a story about herself: "I once had a teacher who stopped me in my tracks when I was complaining about the use of different colors. She said, 'To say you hate a color tells me you are ignorant of its use.' Needless to say, that was a life-changing experience for me. Now I treat every bolt of fabric in every color family as a potential candidate."

Alex AndersonTo underscore this general observation, she then takes us through a series of potential star quilts in different color and fabric schemes -- holiday, focus, neutrals, theme, historical, monochromatic, solid, scrap, etc. Each of her examples, accompanied by color photographs, adds to our understanding of the infinite possibilities that color affords.

One of my favorite things about contemporary quilt books is the color gallery of quilts they contain. The quality of C&T's photography and printing is always superb, and the quilts in this gallery, made by Alex, her students, and others, are simply stunning. One of the most interesting design techniques in these star quilts is the use of different sized stars and unusual settings to break up the lockstep monotony that is the risk in traditional quilts.

The bulk of the book contains detailed instructions on making a variety of star blocks and quilts out of those blocks. Alex considerately provides instructions for quilters who like templates (template patterns are provided in the book) and for those who use quick-cutting techniques.

The book is rounded out with a "Stellar Ending," in which setting, borders, backing, quilting, and binding are all considered. Her observations and advice in these sections are as insightful and helpful as everywhere else in the book. At the end she also offers a 4-week course outline based on the Simply Stars text.

If you feel like you've lured into a world of dense design complexity among Alex's stars, Paula Nadelstern's Kaleidoscopes and Quilts will draw you even deeper into the forest with her very demanding yet explosively colorful quilts based on kaleidoscope designs.

Paula NadelsternPaula is a very engaging writer, and she draws you into her life from the start with a description of her New York City neighborhood: "I make my quilts on the same block in the Bronx where I grew up. The view from our ninth-floor window is one of the most northern exposures in New York City, showcasing acres of tree-filled park and empty sky. My daughter Ariel is the third generation of my family to live in this neighborhood that prides itself on a sense of community and cooperative spirit. She grew up with the expectation that she might bump into either set of grandparents when she walked down the street."

She makes her quilts on a small table, using some templates and a Singer Featherweight sewing machine, yet out of this very cramped urban setting emerge some of the most exotic flowers of contemporary quilting. These are generously presented in the book's gallery, which dramatically sets Paula's quilts against mostly black backgrounds.

The quilts are gorgeous -- rich, vibrantly colorful, complex, surprising. Making them, however, is not for sissies!

Kaleidoscopes & QuiltsYou begin to get a clue when among the tools that Paula recommends is "a protractor with notations for both whole and half degrees." She also warns that pencils must be well-sharpened, with ample erasers, "because lines have not only length but also width." These are indicators of the high degree of precision and patience involved in creating this type of design. Kaleidoscope patterns are among the most intricate symmetries known to human art, and require not only tight control of point and angle, but an in-depth knowledge of fabric design types and color.

Intricacy of design requires intricacy of technique, but Paula seems fully up to the task of teaching the rest of us how to do this. And she does it with humor, too! She covers all the bases of measurement, cutting, fabric selection (with an illuminating analysis of different fabric pattern types). She even gives a tutorial in "how to piece itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny pieces."

If kaleidoscopes require more precision than other types of quilts, they also paradoxically require more spontaneity: "Designing a kaleidoscope block is basically visual invention," Paula says. "There is no 'correct' way to continue the piece in progress." In fact, working with this type of design requires us to unlearn certain basic quilting practices. Sometimes cutting off the points or flipping the piece around to make new combinations is the difference between a ho-hum and a sparkling design.

Readers will also find Paula's discussions of design sensibility (unity, focal point, balance, rhythm, line), color value and contrast, and fabric types interesting and valuable no matter what type of quilt you are making.

Because of its focus on a very particular type of quilt design and construction, Kaleidoscopes & Quilts doesn't try to be a comprehensive quilting book, or a text for beginners. Instead of a final section on bindings, there is instead a discussion of real kaleidoscopes and the current renaissance in kaleidoscope-making, including interviews with kaleidoscope makers.

Whether you decide you have the inclination, time, patience, or moxie to make one of these quilts, this book is a rich source of inspiration, and a thing of beauty.

To order these or other fine quilting books at a discount, go to the Planet Patchwork Bookstore.


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