Worlds of Whimsy

Living With Little Quilts
Alice Berg, Mary Ellen Von Holt, and Sylvia Johnson
That Patchwork Place, 1997
Hardbound, 64 pages
Available from the Planet Patchwork Bookstore

Lora & Company: Fanciful Characters to Applique
Lora Rocke
That Patchwork Place, 1997
Paperbound, 80 pages plus removable patterns
Available from the Planet Patchwork Bookstore

Tropical Punch: Quilt Designs with a Florida Flavor
Marilyn Dorwart
That Patchwork Place, 1997
Paperbound, 72 pages plus removable patterns
Available from the Planet Patchwork Bookstore

Willowood: Further Adventures in Buttonhole Stitch Applique
Jean Wells
C&T Publishing, 1997
Paperbound, 96 pages
Available from the Planet Patchwork Bookstore

My predilection is for geometric patchwork, and secondarily for "art quilts," so it was with a bit of reluctance that I approached these four new quilt books. They all use the word "whimsical" to describe some aspect of their subject matter, which is always a clue to me to be on the lookout for cutesy animals and idealized, dewy-eyed humans that might have escaped from a velvet canvas somewhere along the roadside.

It’s important, though, to willingly suspend your disbelief and approach these books with an open mind and an open heart. One doesn’t judge folk art by the same standards as one does fine art, and these authors’ imaginative intent must always be the context in which to appreciate their quilts.

Jean Wells, owner of The Stitchin’ Post quilt store in Sisters, Oregon, has previously written books and "starred" in an excellent video for beginning quilters called "Patchwork Quilts Made Easy," (reviewed in TVQ #14 ). Willowood: Further Adventures in Buttonhole Stitch Applique is the sequel to her earlier successful book, logically titled Buttonhole Stitch Applique. The central imaginative motif of Willowood is the village of Willowood, a fanciful folk-arty place of houses, pinwheels, and oversized flowers, watched over by two guardian angels who also happen to be cats. The two signature quilts are 46" X 50" wall-hangings of the village, one in a spring and one in a fall color scheme. There are instructions for these quilts, including patterns for the applique shapes and complete supply lists, cutting and tracing guides, and sewing instructions.

The village theme provides Wells the imaginative springboard for the rest of the 22 projects in the book, which include additional charming quilts, three pillows (including a neat one that is designed as a window with a view of a bed of tulips), several wearables including a charming garden coat, a table-runner, a tree skirt, and two novelty purses. My favorite of these is a wonderful quilt entitled "Garden Paths," which is a combination of log cabin blocks and buttonhole stitch applique using images from Willowood.

About halfway through the book Wells ventures outside the village proper into "the neighborhood," and finally into "the woodlands" surrounding Willowood for several pieces on the theme of "forest friends," which also feature Father Christmas, the only human (or super-human) figure to appear anywhere in these quilts. The designs all have the qualities of flat perspective, deliberately skewed proportions, and simplicity of shape that characterize traditional folk art. In the Amish tradition, none of the animals or human figures have articulated faces.

The technical instructions in this book are well-written and thorough, including sections on fabrics, thread, colors, a variety of applique techniques, and of course the finer points of buttonhole stitching. As one has come to expect of C&T, the book is beautifully designed with illustrations in the spirit of the art and an elegant, uncrowded simplicity in the layout. If you like a folk-art style of quilting, this book is an excellent one to both teach you the techniques and inspire you to whimsical fancies of your own.

Lora Rocke approaches her whimsical world through characters, or figures. She begins Lora & Company this way: "Quilting is a land of enchantment. The colors, the choices, and the designs all provide a wonderful place to escape to and to dream about. I have been an inhabitant of this land for almost twenty years. I have thrilled to the discovery of new patterns, new colors, and new possibilities for quilt creations. But, long before I ventured into quilting, I was fascinated with figures. When I found that I could translate what I drew into applique, my quilting world and my art world combined into an exciting adventure of form and function."

Rocke draws her figures from imaginary characters from childhood, particularly those from early twentieth century children’s literature. Therefore all of these figures are familiar to us: Jack Frost, Santa Claus, Uncle Sam, a scarecrow, a jester, a fairy, and two types of angels. If the figures are familiar, their treatment is original and quite beautiful. There are instructions for eight wall-hanging sized quilts in this book, plus start-to-finish technique sections that include four different applique techniques and lots of quick construction tricks, including rotary cutting, chain piecing, quick flying geese and half-square triangles, quilting, and binding. It’s a great book for a beginner who wants to make a charming appliqued quilt.

All of the designs in the book are quite distinctive. "Hello, Santa!" is one of the warmest yet least cloying depictions of the jolly old elf I’ve seen, and Rocke adds a creative twist to this wall-hanging by suggesting a way to turn it into a sort of advent calendar to count down the days to Christmas. The "Fairy Garden" quilt contains some really nice sunflowers and yo-yo hollyhocks, and all of the quilts feature very interesting borders. My favorite, though, is "Jack Frost," because it is done in a harsh winter gray-tone monochrome and contains an unusual "window" made of drunkard’s path blocks. Rocke also shares her technique for making the drunkard’s path without piecing a curved seam.

The most interesting of these studies in whimsy, however, is Marilyn Dorwart’s Tropical Punch: Quilt Designs with a Florida Flavor. I must confess to a partiality for Florida, where I have spent a great many pleasant weeks with family over the years, among the palms and seabirds and Art Deco. Many of these familiar tropical images have found their way into Dorwart’s quilts (again mostly appliqued) and create a bright, salty atmosphere that is just the antidote for the winter blues.

The book contains ten wall-hanging sized projects ranging from charming stucco street scenes to collages of seaside images to lush garden vistas. "Definitely Deco" is the best of the applique projects, with lots of beachy, birdy blocks surrounded by a gay Art Deco border. (My gag reflex was only slightly stimulated by the cutesy alligator with his friendly eye.) Dorwart includes general quiltmaking instructions (as do all of these books) but also shares with us two different techniques for "preassembled applique" based on tricks she has developed over the years. It is interesting, but not surprising, that all of these books based on whimsical figures depend on applique techniques for their effects. This type of pictorial quilt depends on the ability to make recognizable realistic shapes.

My favorite quilt in the book, however, doesn’t have any applique in it at all. "Flamingo A La Andy," a large (66" X 78") wall hanging is a serial repetition of a large pieced flamingo inspired by Andy Warhol. Pink and yellow against a stark white background with a black-accented border, the stylized (and eyeless) birds make a strikingly crisp and formal statement. Makes we want to go right out and buy some pink fabric!

Living With Little Quilts is a different kind of book. Hardbound and in a smaller format with a red ribbon built-in bookmark, the book is obviously intended as a gift or coffee-table volume. Berg, Von Holt, and Johnson have of course made an entire career of their "Little Quilts" series, and this is a nice addition. It contains instructions for the creation of six small quilts, but this is not what the book is really about.

I took it with me to the orthodontist and read it cover to cover while waiting for my 15-year-old to have his braces put on. I found myself absorbed in its beauty as it walked me through a variety of home decorating scenarios using little quilts as the primary elements. Having from time to time teased my wife about the vacuousness of such magazines as Victoria, I began to appreciate the quietly soothing effect of arranging pretty things, and then rearranging them!

Using their own homes in the Atlanta area, the authors present dozens of different ways in which little quilts can accent a foyer, a fireplace, a cupboard, a kitchen -- even be used out of doors for a garden party. The antique folkart look of the little quilts means they go mainly with early American, Shaker, or Amish decor. As the authors point out, they soften the look of a room that might otherwise be too stark. They add warmth and charm, and are compatible with a variety of other collectibles, such as toys, pottery or baskets.

Alice Berg, Mary Ellen Von Holt and Sylvia Johnson take the "world of whimsy" beyond the quilt itself and out into the world outside the quilt, transforming their homes into worlds shaped primarily by patchwork. Even though my home, with all the chaos of children, pets, cooking, quilt-making and other "mess," never looks quite like this, it is nice to see how it could look if nobody lived here!

All of these books would make fine additions to a quilter's library, as well as welcome gifts for the quilters on your Christmas list. While they haven't converted me from my preference for geometry, they've given me a new appreciation for the possibilities of naive themes in quilting.

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