• Texture #3 – Surface Tension

    Texture #3 – Surface Tension

    This was going to be my third and last installment in my ‘texture’ series however, as I started to write, it occurred to me there was yet another category of quilted texture to explore before I move onto the final chapter. This third chapter I have decided to call – Surface Tension (and I am not referring to the thread tension of a sewing machine here).

    Surface Tension is a scientific term that refers to the elasticity of a liquid that forces it to occupy the smallest surface it can, this is what confines water into a droplet or seek its own level. Water is inherently ‘sticky’ and anything that has mass but is too light in weight to break that sticky barrier will lie on that surface without falling through.  This allows lightweight insects like Water Striders to skim across the surface of a pond literally ‘walking on water’.  Likewise, something trying to rise from beneath the water’s surface has to contend with that constraint, it must be strong enough to defy gravity and break through that surface tension. Look at a close up of a Water Strider and you will see the slight weight of the creature does distort the level plane of the water where its legs touch; it’s just not heavy enough to break that surface tension as shown in the photo below.

    Attribution – By Praveenp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

    So – what has all this to do with quilting? Think of the fabric layer that forms the quilt top as the surface layer of water, anything restrained below it like batting may press upwards in an attempt to break through that layer but is unable to do so. Rather, it causes a bulge in that surface and that is what creates the texture caused by the stitching that compresses the batting along the quilting lines, this is the batting trying to break through the surface tension of the quilt top. This is also why you don’t get nearly a nice a ‘sculpted’ texture when you appliqué with fusible web. No matter how soft the product claims to be, it still adds a layer of stiffness to the fabric that makes it resist the bulge you might otherwise get without the adhesive layer. Instead of sinking down into a depression produced by the stitching, the thread tends to lie along the surface of the fabric causing very little distortion but it is exactly that distortion that creates the lovely texture that captures light and shadow.

    One form of quilting that takes this textural distortion to a higher level (pun intended) is Trapunto. This is a method in which specific areas on a quilt are stuffed or padded to make them more prominent than the rest of the quilting, this the most effective if used on a whole-cloth quilt or in areas of negative space with no piecing, appliqué or even a busy print to interfere with the beauty of the padded quilting.

    Trapunto – Early 18th Century Italian. Attribution – Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



    Detail – United States, 1846 Cotton and glazed chintz, pieced, quilted, stuffed and appliquéd in ‘broderie perse’ Attribution – Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    There are several methods for doing Trapunto; in the historic versions, the quilted shapes were actually stuffed either by slitting the back of the quilt and inserting bits of wool ‘fluff’ through the slit then sewing that shut – which left the dilemma of how to preserve the integrity of the quilt; or in some cases the threads of the backing fabric were ‘teased’ apart then bits of wool tucked into the breach and then the threads painstakingly pushed back into place – yeah – like I’m really going to do THAT! With these methods, care must be taken, the shape needs enough stuffing to fill it well and prevent shifting/compacting of the filler resulting in a wool or cotton ‘ball’ bouncing around the space but also to avoid overstuffing which can cause unsightly bulging and distortion on large shapes. If the design involved channels of parallel quilting, yarn would be threaded into the layers with a needle and then the protruding ends clipped off very close to the insertion points, there was even a version of this where a cotton cord was stitched to the underside of a fabric with a backstitch that crisscrossed behind the work and created a raised line with a better definition due to the backstitch outlining the cording on the front. This method was particularly favored in England during the Elizabethan era. It was often applied to garments such as caps and vests where the cording and dense stitching gave the item both beauty and stability.

    Los Angeles County Corded Quilting, detail of a man’s waistcoat c. 1760. Attribution – Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


    In contemporary times, other methods and innovations have arisen for working trapunto. John Flynn developed a Trapunto Stuffing Tube. You stuff pre-cut bits of batting into the end of the tube then slip the tube between the layered quilt and ‘inject’ the batting in place as you work your way up the quilt. Check out his You Tube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpEro6cPfBY. His technique is better suited to quilting by hand, If you like to quilt by machine, the most commonly used method of Trapunto is to apply a preliminary layer of batting stitched to the backside of the quilt top using water soluble thread to follow the design to be padded and then trimming away the excess batting close to the stitching. The quilt is then layered with batting and backing in the normal method and then quilted along all the design lines including those previously stitched by the water soluble thread. After completion, the quilt is washed to remove the water soluble thread thus padding the areas with the double layer of batting rising above the level of the rest of the quilt. The benefit if this method is that the extra padding will remain flat with the batting less likely to ball up and shift than loose stuffing would. See this technique demonstrated at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDjw4Wo37ew

    There is a second ‘cheater’ Trapunto by machine method where the quilt is layered with a higher loft batting and after the Trapunto motifs are quilted, the surrounding areas are densely stitched to compact them. This exaggerates the puffiness of the open areas in contrast with the densely quilted areas; the work appears to be ‘double-stuffed’ but in actuality is just one layer of batting accentuated by the compacted areas. I have tried this method myself on a small artistic project and it was fairly easy to do.

    My own ‘Cheater’ Trapunto

    Technology permeates all aspects of our lives these days; it makes you wonder what innovations lie on the quilting horizon. When we remodeled a home years ago we found a product that was ‘insulation in a can’ – you inject this liquid into the open space you want insulated and the liquid expands and fills the area with a foam that hardens. I see a similar product is being used by construction companies to raise and level concrete slabs. How about a liquid batting that you could inject into a quilt that would expand into a soft spongy fill? Anyone want to take that idea and run with it?

    Look for the final chapter on texture coming soon; until then – May your stitches be short and neat, your life be long and sweet and your fabric stash be enough to keep you quilting.

  • Texture #2 – Visual vs. Physical

    In this second installment about texture, I want to explore the difference between visual and physical texture.  Visual texture relies on the designs printed on the fabric to create graphic contrast. While contrast of color and value are extremely important to define differing areas in a quilt pattern, a variety of textures ranging from fine to bold will add depth and complexity to a quilt. These ‘visual’ textures extend from fabrics that are solid or of such a fine print that it reads almost as a solid all the way to large scale bold prints.  As quilters and fabric artists, you have probably played with visual texture; it’s one of the most common considerations after color and value when assembling fabric choices for a project.

    Max’s African Veldt Quilt

    There are additional considerations when working with visual texture. You are probably all familiar with the concept of ‘fussy cutting’ a print to feature a particular motif or print design in specific parts of a quilt but what about the general use of a bold print? Many quilters don’t want to take the time to fussy cut  each part of a quilt block – plus it is wasteful, turning a piece of fabric into Swiss Cheese (unless you are a scrappy quilter that will use these less desirable parts of the fabric in a scrap quilt). Many quilters wanting to make a quilt fast and easy will opt to cut the fabric efficiently and randomly with a rotary cutter. Here is where you can run into a problem; if the print is too bold for the scale of the block pattern then you may lose the definition of the design. Examine and compare the nine patch blocks in the picture below, see how the definition of the block is lost in the example with the bolder print congruous with the size of the piece you need for you quilt or block.

    Exploring printed texture scale and application

    There are exceptions to this rule such as in Watercolor or Color-wash quilts where the strategy is to have the prints interfere with the hard pieced divisions of the squares and create a wash of color and texture that flows across the entire panel (see photo below).

    Three Jacks and a Jill – Watercolor Quilt with transitional textures.

    Physical Texture is something completely different; it is tactile. Burlap, corduroy, denim, velvet, silks … are examples of fabric with a physical texture; these fabrics can even be dyed in a solid color and still retain their physical texture.  Here’s the test – take an assortment of ‘quilters’ cottons’ in a variety of prints and spread them out. Close your eyes and run fingertips over each fabric. Other than minute variations based on thickness, quality and thread count, you will not really be able to tell one from another and you will certainly not feel any variation as regards to a fine print vs. a bold one – this is visual texture. Now spread an assortment of textural fabrics in the same manner – denim, burlap, monk’s cloth, brocade, satin, velvet, corduroy … and repeat the same tactile experiment. Unless you have no sensation in your finger nerve endings, you will be able to clearly discern the difference between a piece of velvet and a piece of burlap – this is physical texture.

    You may not be able to touch a quilt or piece of fiber art in a show or photograph but that physical texture still is apparent. The light and shadow created by the texture is visible and so is the refraction of light that reflective satiny or napped fabrics create (see image below).

    Woven Textures – mini quilt made from quilters’ cotton, satin, cotton velvet and coarse even-weave linen

    I once saw some quilted panels made by a fiber artist working with velvet in a single color where he had oriented the nap of the fabric in ways to catch and refract the light; this created light and dark parts of the design that shifted depending on the angle the panel was viewed from; I wish I could remember his name.

    Working with textured fabrics does have a downside. Contrast of texture is a key factor to the rich beauty of these fabrics and that means you will often be sewing fabrics of unequal weights together which can be problematic. Add the fact that many of these fabrics may fray excessively (requiring wider seam allowances) and that some fabrics like velvet and corduroy have a tendency to ‘creep’ making accurate piecing a challenge, and you have your work cut out for you. The results are worth it though.

    Appliqué artist Martha Mood was a master at creating what she called tapestries using a variety of fabric textures that she enhanced with hand embroidery. To see an assortment of her stunning work, Google the terms ‘Martha Mood Tapestries Images’.

    The book cover shows a fine example of Martha’s unique style

    Next time, we will explore three dimensional embellishments in the third and final series on texture.

  • Let’s Talk Texture – Part 1

    For the most part, as quilters we deal with a fairly two dimensional medium – fabric. Most quilts are fairly flat,  at least that is what we are taught to strive for – a quilt that lies or hangs flat.  It is true that there is a little raised texture from the quilting, a sort of bas relief effect  created by the stitching that can be subtle if thin batting is used and may become more pronounced if a higher loft batting is used or the work enhanced with Trapunto (padding or stuffing individual shapes).  There is even a Faux Trapunto where you use a high loft batting and after stitching the shapes you wish to stand out, you quilt the living daylights out of the background to flatten it and enhance the puffy shapes (see photo below). In both of those methods, care must be used to distribute the puffier shapes consistently throughout the quilt or you risk ending up with a distorted quilt that won’t hang true or lie flat.

    Faux Trapunto stitching on fluffy batting

    Returning to the more subtle relief quilting, the choice of thread color will dictate whether the stitching assumes the role of a graphic design using high contrast thread or an almost invisible design made from thread that matches the fabric closely where the only  observable design is that created by the light and shadow created by the subtle raised and depressed surface of the quilting. Many quilters do not fully appreciate the overall impact that even this subtle texture has on the visual appeal of the quilt.

    Here are some tips to those quilters who have not played much with thread color choices: As a novice quilter, you may be tempted to hide your lack of stitching skills by using a thread that matches your fabric and while it’s true that this may ‘hide’ errors pretty well, the truth is that you are more likely to make errors choosing this option. It is very difficult aligning precise stitching when you can’t see well what you have previously stitched. White/cream thread on white/cream fabric is hard enough but the worst is trying to quilt on black fabric with black thread (believe me – this is the voice of experience talking here); and ripping out mistakes on this no contrast color scheme is a nightmare (been there – done that too).

    At the other (literal) end of the spectrum, quilting with a high contrast thread can create a striking graphic effect whereby the stitching becomes in essence a drawn line on your quilt. This can be gorgeous however, every little mistake or mis-stitch  will be glaringly apparent. See the coparison of the two extremems below.

    Quilting: thread color matching fabric
    Quilting: thread color contrasting fabric










    A good sensible solution is to choose a thread color that varies from the fabric just slightly by a couple of steps – lighter or darker – where your skill (or lack thereof) is not showing like a sore thumb but with a pleasing definition that shows off the stitching pattern or design to good effect.

    Quilting: Thread color close to but not quite matching fabric color

    Often I am asked by students if there is a rule of thumb regarding whether or not a quilt should be quilted in all one color of thread. My answer is that there is no set rule about this; there is no quilting ‘planning commission’ and you will not have your ‘quilting permit’ revoked because you choose to defy traditional quilting decorum.  As a matter of fact, using a variety of thread colors in one project can create a much more effective visual presentation by using higher contrast thread to draw the eye to focal motifs enhancing them and using a lower contrast thread to make the background patterns recede.

    Machine quilted in various colors of thread some matching fabrics, others contrasting fabrics – note the color change effect that the contrasting color stippling creates on the perimeter of the block
    Shell Form – fabric painted with Seta-Color paint then quilted in various colors of thread












    In summary – remember that the subtle texture created by quilting on even a low loft quilt has a major impact on the appearance of your quilt whether someone is examining it up close to see your stitching or viewing it from a distance. Choose your quilting designs and thread colors to work within your skill comfort zone but always with the knowledge that the quilting does indeed “make the quilt”.

    Stay tuned for more on texture in another post to come when I will address visual vs, physical texture.