Friday, January 21, 2011

What Goes With This? The Personality Factor!

The most common question
I'm asked when teaching is,
"What goes with this?"
"Which of these beads goes better
with this fabric?"

Don't we all want to know what goes with what? Yep, I think we do. So sit back and play with some fabrics with me. Be prepared, it's a long post (with a lot of pictures), hopefully worth your time!

God's Eye Quilt by Kitty Sorgen
This is a God's Eye quilt made by Kitty Sorgen. Using many little scraps and left over strips of fabric, it carries wonderful memories and invites a warm cuddle. Kitty says the idea comes from the Huichol people of Mexico, who wind yarn around crossed sticks making ornaments which they believe will protect their children. (Here's great a blog post about making beaded, yarn God's Eye ornaments.) Below is a detail of a few of the blocks in Kitty's quilt.

What I love most about Kitty's quilts is the way she puts a little of this with a little of that in such a pleasing way. So, when she offered to teach her God's Eye quilt to our Guild, I instantly registered for the class, not because the technique is difficult (it isn't), but because I wanted to learn everything I could from Kitty about what goes with what! Some of what follows are lessons I learned from Kitty; some are principles I've known for a long time; some are ideas which came to me while making 100 blocks (enough for two large lap quilts) in the past three weeks.

Let's look at a few of these blocks...

God's Eye Quilt, block 2, by Robin Atkins
God's Eye Quilt, block 3, by Robin Atkins
God's Eye Quilt, block 4, by Robin Atkins
God's Eye Quilt, block 5, by Robin Atkins
God's Eye Quilt, block 6, by Robin Atkins
God's Eye Quilt, block 7, by Robin Atkins
God's Eye Quilt, block 8, by Robin Atkins
God's Eye Quilt, block 9, by Robin Atkins
God's Eye Quilt, block 10, by Robin Atkins
God's Eye Quilt, block 12, by Robin Atkins
Do you see how each block is a little mini-quilt all by itself? We can look at each one and ask two fundamental questions of design: "What gives it unity and what gives it interest?"

Unity. How do we achieve unity and/or harmony when putting different fabrics together? The surest way is to keep certain things constant. For example:

-type of fabric (ie. all batiks, all quilting cottons, etc.)
-color (ie. single or analogous color schemes)
-scale of patterns printed on fabrics
-subject or theme of patterns printed on fabrics
-value (lightness/darkness as measured on a greyscale)
-one consistent element (ie. black center in each block)

Variety. How do we achieve interest, variety or sparkle when putting different fabrics together? It's easy because there are so many different types, colors, patterns and styles of fabric. One could even put a block together that's basically all the same color, yet achieve interest by changing the scale of the prints. Below is a mostly red block, the varioius scales providing ample variety to make it interesting.

God's Eye Quilt, block 11, by Robin Atkins
Balance. The important point when combining fabrics is this: There must be a pleasing balance between variety and unity. Too much unity and the work will be boring. Too much variety and it will seem chaotic and unsettling.

To play with and learn more about this concept, look at a few of your older works of art, ones you haven't looked at for a while (quilts, jewelry, bead journal projects... whatever). Ask yourself, "What gives this variety? What gives it unity? Am I bored looking at it? Does it make me feel uneasy? Is there a pleasing balance between unity and variety?" Honest answers help us fine-tune our sense of balance for future projects.

Back to God's Eye quilt blocks, the most fun aspect of balance is considering the personality of the fabrics. Think about it! Some fabrics are gentle and sweet, some are bold, some ultra-modern, some very old-fashioned, some sing along harmoniously, some are a bit off-key.

We could conceivably put very different colors and scales of prints together and still have balance if all the fabrics have similar personalities. Below is a good example.

God's Eye Quilt, block 1, by Robin Atkins
All four fabrics are "forest girls," reminding us of things natural and organic... earth, water and plants. Although one fabric is a batik, one a woven stripe, one a plain tone-on-tone and one a quilting print, together they tell a nice little story, united by their common personality traits.

For me, the personality factor overrides all other considerations to the point where I use it almost exclusively in answering the question, "What goes with what?"

For my God's Eye blocks, I think of each fabric as a girl living in a college dormitory. Most importantly, she must get along with the other girls in her room, while also sharing slight commonality with all the other girls in the dorm. If the girls in one room are too much the same, they won't learn and grow from or be stimulated by each other. If they have nothing in common, they'll have problems getting along together.

Below, for example, are the beginnings of 7 blocks. I've selected one girl for each room and a roommate to go with her. I've sewn two sides and am beginning to see how well they get along together (click to enlarge if you like).

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 1
Here they are again, now with three sides sewn and a clearer idea of their developing friendships.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 2
I like to think about their field of study. For example, at the top left, we have a philosophy major and a math major, both interested in solving problems. Just below (second from left in the second row) we have a boisterous theatre major rooming with a shy gal who studies geology. As opposites, they might be good influences on one another, but they may need a bridge, someone with interests in both their fields, to join them.

When all four sides are sewn, it's time to audition fabric strips for the third roommate! I pre-cut strips from my stash, using scrap fabrics from my bead journal project pieces from the past three years, most of the quilts I've made, several dance costumes made long ago and fabrics I've bought for spirit dolls, heart pins and other beading projects over the years. Here's a stack of strips.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 3
And here's how they look spread out on the table ready to be auditioned.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 4
God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 9
Above you can see the first two of our gals have narrowed the field to four possibilities for their new roommate. They like the calming influence of Ms Earth Sciences (green) and Ms Horticulture (brown batik). Ms Math major has interests in common with Ms. Computer Programing (grey with red grid), but is concerned that she'll study into the wee hours of the night. Both think Ms. Art is fun, but worry that she might be too messy in the long run. Which do they choose?

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 10
As you can see above, they chose Ms Horticulture! And now the three of them are auditioning for their fourth and final roommate. Clockwise, from the top, we have Ms Botany, Ms. Environmental Studies, Ms. Entomology and Ms. Asian Studies. Right away, they realize they don't have enough in common with either the right or left possibilities and the choice is narrowed. Although either the top or bottom choice would probably be satisfactory, they pick Ms. Entomology because she has lots of energy, yet is fairly quiet. Below you can see how they look together.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 11
Kitty likes to talk about the group as a choir, asking if there is a soloist, a duet or if we have a chorus of many voices singing in harmony. Take a look at this next set of auditions and see what choir situation comes to mind.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 15
God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 16
God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 17
Another way to look at personalities is to think about conversations at a dinner table. One person (the first strips around the black center) talks to the second ring of strips; then a third ring joins them. How does the conversation change? Is one dominating the conversation? Is the conversation interesting? What do they need from the new (fourth ring) participant, a calming influence perhaps, a little sparkle of humor, a brighter point of view? Let's look at another set of auditions below with personality choices based on imagined conversations between the fabrics.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 5
What conversations are happening above? What does each fabric choice contribute to the already flowing conversation between the first two fabrics? I chose the wide stripes because a little orderly reasoning seemed to compliment the more light-hearted chatting between the first two fabrics and the multi-colors complimented the floral fabric.

Below are the audition strips for the next fabric followed by the four possibilities I thought might join well in the conversation.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 6
God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 7
What happens with each of the four possibilities for the final conversationalist in the group? How does the conversation change depending on which is selected? Below you can see which one I thought would fit best into the already lively conversation. She's a good listener, don't you think?

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 8
Just for fun, I'll show you a couple of other auditions. You can look at them as conversations, roommates, a choir or in any way that identifies the personality of each fabric. Try to pick the one you think will work best and then scroll down to see if your choice matches mine.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 18
God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 19
God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 20
And, two more....

God's Eye Quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 21
God's Eye Quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 22
God's Eye Quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 23

God's Eye Quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 24
God's Eye Quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 25
God's Eye Quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics 26
Sometimes the auditioning goes very easily, intuition providing an instant decision, a choice that instinctively feels right. At other times, the process is very sticky, nothing seeming to fit. Below is a choice like that.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics, 4 choices
The first row of strips is very dark, a Hungarian resist-dyed fabric with a dark indigo background and simple paisley design. The second row is high contrast, a light blue-grey batik. That they are both hand-dyed and both have dot patterns binds them together. What do each of the four possible new fabrics, above, have in common with these two?

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics, 2 choices
Narrowing it down the two above, I still couldn't decide. So I spread each of them around two sides of the block to get a better idea. The pink polka dot fabric seems cheerful and echoes the pink dots of the paisley in the first fabric. The ducks are more subdued yet add a nice sense of flow that compliments both the paisley and the colors of the second batik.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics, grayscale to evaluate value
Sometimes I need to squint at my fabrics to see how the lightness and darkness (value) of them plays out. Removing all color from the picture, you can see that the pink fabric isn't as high a value as you might think from its bright personality, reading as a medium-value fabric.

Deciding the pink was too much sparkle, too dominating, I eliminated it from the running and re-auditioned the fabric printed to look like ikat along with the still-in-the-running duck fabric.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics, 2 choices
And just for kicks, here's how they look through squinty eyes.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics, grayscale to evaluate value
Which would you choose? Probably either would look fine. However, I decided the ducks provided a necessary link between dark and light, while also adding flow. Below you can see how it looks along with the four possibilities for the final set of strips.

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics
This choice wasn't quite so difficult. Although I think the purple-rose fabric with little rings of dots has circles in common with the first two fabrics, it seems too sweet, two romantic to be comfortable with them. The teal plaid would have been OK, except it seems too sombre with the other two dark fabrics. The light purple talks with the color of the duck's breast, but again seems too sweet, too much of an air-head. Stars, light and fun, lifting the spirits of the dark girls, has to be the one! Here's how it looks, finished...

God's Eye quilt by Robin Atkins, auditioning fabrics, finished block

* * * * *
OK, enough about blocks! Now that the roommates are all chosen, we're heading toward the more challenging decisions involving the whole dormitory. Which groups of roommates will be good neighbors?

I'm working on it! Below is a first run assignment sheet for one of my quilts. I plan to look at it pinned on my design wall for several days, checking for rearrangement possibilities.

God's Eye Quilt by Robin Atkins, arrangement of 50 blocks, quilt #1
As with individual blocks, it helps to squint at it (and/or look at it through a magnifying glass) to see where the lightest and darkest values are and if they are balanced. Below is the same picture in black and white. Do you think it's balanced yet?

God's Eye Quilt by Robin Atkins, arrangement of 50 blocks, values viewed in grayscale
And below is a possible arrangement of the second group of blocks. Again, it's an on-going process, one that requires a little time and patience.

God's Eye Quilt by Robin Atkins, arrangement of 50 blocks, quilt #2

* * * * * *
Sewing these blocks makes me totally happy... I LOVE it! I love cutting the strips and using fabrics and scraps I've had for many years, even decades. I love seeing how, with the addition of each side, the band of fabric around the center closes and joins in the statement of the block. I love auditioning!!!! And I'm loving the process of deciding how the blocks will fit together.

Guess what? I still have more cut strips, enough for one, possibly two, more of these quilts! Since I'm not at all bored with making the blocks, I see another 100 more of them in the near future.

Beads? Yes! I still bead. Working on these blocks has so inspired and invigorated me that I'm back to beading! I'm almost finished with my January Bead Journal Project piece and will post it soon... and you'll see something about it that won't surprise you at all!


  1. This is so interesting! I always love to see the kinds of colors and patterns people choose, where I'd differ, or not. You've given me a lot of insight, and some inspiration, too.

  2. Very beautiful quilt !

  3. Anonymous5:28 AM

    Lovely work, and so much of it! I've been a quiltmaker (long before I got interested in beading and making dolls) and I'm in awe of someone who can do all of this. I'm more accustomed just blindly grabbing a strip of fabric without thinking -- and whatever it is, it is. But that doesn't coordinate as beautifully as your work here, Robin. It really is worth the effort. Not to mention the work that went into your photos and text that shares it with all of us. Thank you for all of that, it's truly beautiful!

  4. Thank you for this post, Robin. Color co-ordination beyond my choice of what to wear each day is the hardest thing for me, wheather beads or fabric.

    I have been thinking about friendships and people relationships lately. From the first sentence of your post, I related the color choices to our choice of friends and acquaintences and how we interact with them. Amazing! that is the exact direction your post took so it took on a new interest for me.

    I have a lot to learn about color.

  5. Great post, Robin! I'd forgotten about this log cabin variation and love the graphic nature of the blocks. Of course, I would be just grabbing whichever strip made me happy, but I do audition strips. I've never spun a tale to go along with it, but this will make me look at my next one in a new way. Do you start out with a 2 1/2" square? What size are your logs?

    BTW, I'm almost finished my July, 2010 BJP so I'll post to the blog in a week or so. I'll be juggling the two years for a while, but I'm still determined.

  6. bailey9:12 AM

    Thanks for taking the time to do this. Very, VERY fun for you to take us along on your visual/storytelling journey.

  7. GREAT POST! I appreciate all the work that went into writing it and putting the pictures in! Great job. Now I must say I've never seen this quilt block design and now I want to go make one right now! It's gorgeous! I'm not a traditional quilter as you can see in my blog; but I do love to sit sometimes & piece things like this. I noticed one poster said it was a variation on a log cabin (which i never could master LOL) But I might be able to do this one!

    Can I ask what size strips these are and what size that center square starts at ? I hope it's not bad manners to ask.


  8. Thanks everyone! This post did take many hours to do - photos, photoshop, writing - but it was well worth the effort for me because it clarified my own thinking about what goes with what.

    In the next few days, I'll post a follow-up that will include basic instructions about how to make the God's Eye Quilt... size of strips and center blocks, etc. I also have a few concluding thoughts about auditions to share. Promise... very soon!

    Robin A.

  9. Fantastic post/tutorial. Color is the all consuming, sometimes all elusive meaning of life for me.

  10. Your post took me back - once was a time I made art quilts and your photos reminded me of everything I loved about it - mostly all that color play! Thank you!

  11. Beautiful, Robin! Certain blocks really drew my attention. Loved the dark/light values in each block. Your narration made me think of my friends and how we all fit together somehow, even though we are all so different.

  12. Fascinating post, Robin. I LOVE beading but at the moment amrather preoccupied with stitching, doing a workshop with Jude Hill online, cloth weaving. Your post is actually very relevant in terms of choosing strips of fabric to weave in colours that will "go" together. I have my design ready for BJP, hoping to finish in time. Love your quilts but I just can't let myself get distracted just now.

  13. LOL; when I was at the fab. store today for something completely unrelated; I found myself looking at fabrics in groups of 5!

    I thought it would be a cool idea to do this project over a year; each time you make a quilt (that you've all ready selected fabrics for; simply make one block out of the scrap. Toss it in a box & forget about it. This saves some fabric selection time as you've all ready done that with whatever quilt you just made. :)

  14. I had the feeling while i was so busy bookmarking this post for linking in February and adding the blog to my reader, I had completely forgotten to stop and say thank you! So much work went into this post I know that for sure! But what a wonderful resource to provide to help us all when we are playing with fabric possibilities.

  15. Great post Robin! I played along and found a new way to look at fabrics! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this post. Looking forward to the follow-up post! One more project to add to my list!

  16. Okay - you have got me going! I love this sort of pattern .. and what you have done is perfect. I am especially fond of your personality comparisons! As always, inspiring work!

  17. I love patterns like rail fence and this one. I love enough in my stash that I can search for the perfect color choice. Thank you for the work to show us your process to choose colors. Sometimes I agree, some times I chose differently. It really does make you THINK through it differently to journal.

  18. Robin, thank you for such an interesting and insightful post. I also played along and found the methods helpful. I have little confidence in the 'what goes with this' department and usually go for the safe option which usually turns out a little on the dull side. Hopefully this will help me make more interesting selections in future.

  19. Gorgeous post! so much fabric, so little time...excellent explanation of how to choose fabrics & a marvelous selection of colors & prints. Got the sewing bug myself this week & started an Amish lap quilt in Flying Geese pattern. glad you shared so many photos!

  20. Great post as always and I loved the way you looked out how the colors relate as personalities. I have always approached color very intuitively and never really thought about why I choose what I do. Thanks for the ideas spinning in my head. Love you, Angie

  21. Anonymous4:10 PM

    Thank you Robin for taking the time to post this lesson; it's amazing and I just hope I can remember everything. Very inspiring, thanks again.

  22. I love this process! Thanks so much for taking the time to post it and explain some of your color, and pattern choices! I love the way you talked about the personalities of the fabrics as though they were people!!!

  23. I so enjoyed walking with you through your process! Brilliant idea to think of hobbies, interests, personalities among people! While I have enough fabric for at least 1,000 of these, I find myself wanting to audition fabrics with someone in a completely different color rut than I. Some of your choices were what I would have chosen. Some not. Finished, they each delighted me! Then, seeing all of the blocks together. Intriguing. The God's Eye pattern is calling to me. At once very simple, and yet oh so complex. Thank you, Robin!

  24. Robin...thank you SO much for this posting!! I love this pattern and just found out Kitty is going to teach the class again in March...YIPPEE!! And, then I see your wonderful, entertaining, rich and insightful guide through the fabric selection process.....You have such a grand imagination....I'm going to read through it several more times!!! I am so inspired !!! :)

  25. Thank you Robin your explanation and photos were just marvellous just as if I was in the room with you. I also can hear the God's Eye pattern calling me as a long term project

  26. This is my first stop by your blog and I love this post! I just figured I was "untalented" at choosing fabrics and had no idea it could be explained and taught. Thank you!

  27. Thank you so much for this post. I really enjoyed it. There are lots of things for me to learn.

  28. Some great points made here. Thanks

  29. KathyB9:08 AM

    You worked hard to put this lesson together! I've always picked fabrics intuitively, but sometimes it took a while to get it right, and sometimes I just couldn't make it work. Now I have a logical way to make these choices. You've taken a difficult thing and explained it well! Thank you.
    I work with small pieces of fabric, then I hand stitch and embellish. You might like to see what I do with scraps. Please come see work by fiber artist, Kathy Bourgeois at

  30. Anonymous9:30 AM

    Hi, Hope you don't mind but I have used one of these detail images as an illustration for my blog post today.

    Here's the context:

    If it's not OK or if you can give me a better and/or more complete byline, that would be great. I have linked back to this blog post. :-)

    Irm Brown
    Havre de Grace, MD


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!