11 April 2011

Ursula Kern paper piecing workshop

My paper-pieced fish, with sequin and bead eye.

On April 9, I enjoyed a workshop with textile artist Ursula Kern as part of the programming of my quilt guild. Ursula, a professor emerita of textile design from Basel, Switzerland, is an excellent teacher. Visit her website, http://www.ursulakern.ch/kern_pages/frameset.html, for images of her work.

The focus of the workshop was Ursula's paper piecing technique, a variant of the classic English paper piecing traditionally used for Grandmother's Flower Garden blocks.

Ursula, on the right, with class assistant Ellen.

Using Ursula's handout as a guide, we began by sketching simple flower or fish shapes, and then subdividing these images into simple irregular polygons. Polygons, you may remember, are simply shapes with three or more straight sides and angles. (Circles are not polygons.) One rule for our polygons: no re-entrant angles.

In an irregular polygon, an interior angle that is greater than 180° and whose apex faces into the polygon is a re-entrant angle. Another way of saying this is that all the polygons must be convex polygons, never concave polygons.
(I always liked geometry - can you tell?) Shapes like the one in the image below aren't allowed because you'd end up with no seam allowance at corner B, and thus a hole in the patchwork. Okay, enough math.

Angle CBA, indicated by the red arc, is the forbidden re-entrant angle.

Ursula Kern, sketching from nature photographs.

To watch the process an artist uses to translate a nature photograph into an abstract shape, while retaining the naturalistic characteristics of the animal or plant, was the most important aspect of the workshop for me. Too often, in their desire for realism, quilters end up with something that is, in the words of Jane Sassaman, "tragically literal," and more of a cartoon than a meaningful interpretation.

Ursula's abstraction of a narcissus.

An orchid, made into polygons.

A butterfly.

A fish - translated into polygons, with stripes modified for pragmatic piecing.

I decided to attempt a fish, inspired by a photo of an undersea animal quilt by Ursula. I began sketching from a fish photograph in an old Monterey Bay Aquarium newsletter and Ursula came over to help. She showed me how she selects the salient features of the fish - gills, fins, tail - then blocks out the elements of the fish using sketch bubbles. Next, she translates the contours of the bubbles into straight lines. Once the fish shape has been sub-divided into polygons, she extends lines out from the outer points to form the background shapes.

My inspiration.

Ursula's sketch - the light sketch outlines are darkened into polygons.

I simplified Ursula's sketch a bit, just to ensure that I would actually finish my fish in a timely manner. If I make another fish, I will probably return to Ursula's original design, which gave more detail to the gills, and included a lateral fin.

Sticking pins through the design and layer of card stock beneath.

The next step is to transfer the polygon-ified design to a piece of stiff paper such as card stock. Ursula uses a low-tech technique - she simply places the polygon design over the card stock and sticks a straight pin through both layers at each corner, or vertex. Then, using a ruler or clear plastic drafting triangle, she literally connects the (pin-prick) dots on the card stock, redrawing the polygons. Basic, but effective.

Another transfer option might be to put the card stock through the single-sheet feed of a copier.

Marked card stock pieces are cut apart.

After the shapes are transferred to the card stock, each piece is enumerated and given a directional arrow too. If you've ever worked on a paper collage and had a gust of wind blow zillions of pieces everywhere, you'll understand why it's a good idea to mark every piece. Moreover, to avoid reversing the design, pieces are also marked on the back, using a different color marker or some other form of differentiation from the front.

Fish shapes, all cut and ready to cover with fabric.

Next, all the pieces are cut, then covered in the chosen fabric. Seam allowance is at least one quarter inch, but doesn't have to be exact. Basting stitches go through paper and fabric, securing the corners. While it might seem tempting to use template plastic for the pieces, it would be difficult to stitch through the plastic. Card stock, or other similar weight paper, has enough stiffness to hold its shape but is still easily sewn.

Piece #5 covered in fabric.
Basted through fabric and paper, catching corners.

My basted polygons, in progress.

As is usual in workshops, I really didn't bring the right fabrics, so thanks to Sylvia Einstein for lugging part of her stash, from which I borrowed liberally.

Another artist auditioning fabrics for a leafy background for her flower.
Center of flower is fussy cut.
Petals are covered in orange fabrics.

Once all the pieces are basted, they are sewn together, using small whipstitches right along the edge of the fabric, catching two or three threads, but NOT the paper. It was difficult to photograph this part of the process but more about the paper piecing technique can be found in books on English paper piecing or videos, such as this link on Youtube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDrTVi0jk6w

Inserting the needle perpendicular to the edges,
I whipstitch two pieces together.

Right sides together, and catching only the fabric.

All sewn together, wrong side view.
Pieces are labelled on the back, as the front labelling is now covered by fabric!

One correction - it's really not necessary to baste the outermost edges of the design; doing so is just a waste of time. Once all the pieces are stitched together the basting thread is cut and pulled out. The paper pieces are removed, carefully, as they can be re-used.

Paper pieces removed - slightly creased, but good for at least one more fish.

Design and outcome.

When I do this again, I will make sure to have plenty of fabric options for the background, which I think came out a bit boring. Overall, not bad, though, for a first effort at paper piecing.

Supplies used:
Sewing needles (I used betweens) and thimble if you use one

Straight pins

Selection of sewing thread to match fabrics

Scissors, both paper and fabric
Pencil and eraser

Card stock or other stiff paper
Ruler, clear drafting triangle if you have one

Nature images from magazines, calendars, etc., for inspiration