It’s winter in Cambridge. The days are still mostly sunny and crisp, interspersed with some fogginess and cold, cold rain. The trees have turned gold and apple-yellow, a few pumpkin orange and rarest red, and they’ve lost almost all their leaves now. When the clocks turned back a few weeks ago, we were suddenly plunged into a new and darker world, where the sun set at 4:30. Now it sets before four; the sun never rises beyond the southern quarter of the sky, so the shadows are always long and stretching to the north, and there’s less than eight hours of sunlight every day.
My new guild, the Cambridge Quilters, issue an annual challenge. This year, they asked members to make a landscape quilt, A3 size (about 11″x17″), with no binding, so the picture goes all the way to the edge, and every landscape should have a point that could connect to another, like a path or a river or a horizon line, at 4″ and 11″ up its two vertical sides.
I wasn’t planning to make one, because I was going to wait to start sewing again until we moved into our house. What with one thing and another (don’t get me started), we still don’t know when that will be. A few weeks ago, desperately needing to do something that used more of my brain than housework and our stalled house-buying process (don’t even get me started), I said the hell with it, and started sketching ideas for a landscape. (Bear in mind, in almost fifteen years of quilting, I have never tried to make a quilt that looked like anything. (Well, I guess there’s that one tree, but that’s the closest I’ve ever gotten.)) How the next step happened I really can’t tell you, but I was doing a perfectly respectable doodle of the beach bluffs at Santa Barbara, and suddenly I started thinking: “Landscape on Mars. Landscape on Venus…”
And, well, as sometimes happens, the concept just exploded from there.
So, now I have a plan for NINE quilts, and am learning more about the solar system than I had any idea that we knew. I immediately ran into trouble when my research reminded me that Jupiter is a gas giant; it has no solid surface. No land, therefore, no landscape. Ditto Saturn, and the ice giants Uranus and Neptune. I suppose I could have fudged it, but my brilliant husband reminded me that all those planets have moons! So I’ve chosen a moon for each one (respectively, Europa, Titan, Titania, and Triton), and will show the planet hanging in the sky. (Titan has an opaque yellow atmosphere. Europa is covered with ice that may have a liquid ocean underneath. Triton has volcanoes and geysers! (See? More than I thought anyone knew.))
Of course, now we get to the problem of construction. I mean, after fifteen years of quilting I’ve got some skills, but come on: how’s a person supposed to piece a crater? In perspective? With shading? Nuh-uh. I started out with some vague ideas about overlapping sheer fabrics and fusing them together with Mistyfuse (which I’ve used before; it’s extremely fine and completely invisible once it’s melted), and my beloved and supportive husband took me to Goldhawk Road in London for my birthday, which turned out to be the garment district! Fifteen or twenty shops in one street, each packed to the gills with bolts of fabric leaning agains the walls, stacked on racks, everything from fireproof muslin to burned velvet to lavishly beaded net. We had the baby along and only made it to two shops; plenty left to explore!
I brought home a pile of fabrics: poly silks and shimmery gold stuff, black waxed cotton, silk and polyester chiffon, organza in four colors, cotton chambray, and one glorious dupioni silk, just because it was my birthday.
But the shading problem still bothered me. How was I going to create texture, shade the sides of craters and of mountains, create the fine bands on Jupiter’s atmosphere and Saturn’s rings? I considered embroidery, raw-edge appliqué with the new sheer fabrics, even painting on shadows with brush pens.
After several days of reflection and weighing all the options, I concluded that the best thing would be if I could learn to needle felt.
Yes, that’s right. Faced with a huge new artistic project, in a two-bedroom rental house, with most of my stash and tools in storage, a baby, and a month-long trip to the States coming up, I decided that the best thing I could do was learn an entirely new craft.
And buy the stuff for it, of course.
Fortunately I’ve been following Dani Ives on Instagram for months now. She’s a fantastic fiber artist, who uses wool like paint, which is exactly what I wanted to do. (You can see her website here.) I ordered a “taster pack” from an Etsy seller, paid for Dani Ives’ video course on needle felting, watched a couple lessons, made a first attempt… and got some quite encouraging results!
Admittedly, my “planet surface” looks more like a cloud than like rock, but, I think I can learn to do better. Today, while the baby napped, I worked on some more detailed sketches and did some tests with my fabrics. There’s a lot of information available about the various planetary and lunar surfaces, but you have to be careful you’re not taken in by some beautiful artist’s rendering; no knowing how authentic that is. I’d had an idea about Europa’s icy surface. The organza has very fine fibers; the barbed needle used for needle felting would doubtless make them catch and snag and produce an awful mess. But if I did that on purpose, might not the snagged shiny organza fibers crumple and pucker and look very much like crusty ice?
Yes they do!
I also tried touching up a couple fabrics with the brush pens. It was good; no bleeding, no spreading. I think there are some great possibilities to explore. It’s important to create a unity between all these pieces, but each one should also be distinct. Balancing those two priorities is the essence of the challenge for this project. This is probably the most purely artistic thing I’ve tried to do since college.
I’ll keep you posted!