Tag Archives: Sewing

Charley Harper Quilt Finished

For the last year and a half, I’ve been working on a needle-turn applique quilt with blocks based on the work of Charley Harper.  It was completely hand-pieced and hand-quilted.  I also made my own patterns for each block.  Note that Charley Harper Studio sells quilt and needlepoint patterns on their site, but I did not use these.  I started planning and designing in June 2016 and finished it in the middle of November 2017.  I thought it would take a year to finish, but I’d never done anything like this before so I’m not surprised that my estimate was off.  What matters though is that I loved making this and that I finished.


My finished quilt

Since this was a major undertaking, I feel compelled to discuss the process I went through and offer some tips if you decide to try this too.

Designing the Blocks

I discussed my process for creating the patterns in previous blog posts (over-all design and individual blocks), so check those out for details.  Mostly I would encourage you to keep your designs simple.  Small pieces of fabric are very difficult to work with and at some point, it makes sense to complete some details with embroidery rather than applique.

Choosing fabric was mostly straight-forward since the colors tend to be solid in the reference work.  Sometimes though, a piece had a textured or patterned background, like the calico cat on a leaf background.  This was not easy to replicate, so I chose a fabric that was a mottled green and quilted leaf shapes onto the background to have a similar feel to the original.


One page of one of my patterns. Writing the color, number of times to cut out a shape, and the approximate location or item is helpful (nose, eye, leg, etc.).


Embroidery is best for small fields or lines. I ditched the hoop after this block and just held the fabric in my hands. Do what makes you happy.

Cutting & Piecing

A lot of my learning from high school geometry came in handy here.  Finding the center of a block is easily achieved by folding the fabric in half.  A square (a ruler with a right angle) is useful for making sure corners are square and measurements are made at 90° angles.

Do yourself a huge favor and cut your background fabric larger than you need it.  There will be shrinkage as you applique and you’ll be much happier to have extra than not enough.


Referring to the original image helps with placement an over-all feel.

In general, be patient.  Take the time to plan the order you need to add each piece.  Sometimes I needed to applique smaller pieces to larger ones before they got sewn down to the background fabric.  Did I have to rip things out occasionally?  Oh yes!  I even mangled up a few pieces of fabric so bad I had to cut new ones.  Not a big deal.  Be patient with yourself.


Laying out pieces can help you know what to sew down next. It’s ok if you need to undo something though.


Don’t be afraid to cut apart your pattern to help with alignment of pieces or embroidery lines.

Piecing the Blocks Together

After all that applique, your blocks will rarely still be square.  Yikes!  What matters is that you get a straight seam when you put them together.  Don’t worry if you’re having to get creative to make it work.  In the end, no one’s gonna know.


By the time I got to quilting, I realized that I should follow the warnings online to make sure your batting and backing are bigger than the top to account for shrinkage as you quilt.  Such a good idea!

Pinning also is helpful when you first start to keep everything together.  However!  Before you start to quilt a section, take out the pins and make sure everything is lying flat before you re-pin.  Also, start your quilting in the center and work out to prevent uneven backing fabric.

I’ll tell you a secret: my backing isn’t quite flat.  I had some moments of serious disappointment over this, but I realized that NO ONE CARES what the back of the quilt looks like.  It’s also hand-made so there will be some hiccups.  It doesn’t ruin anything.  Obviously you don’t want huge puckers, but a couple of wrinkles or loose spots is not the end of the world.  Mistakes on the back are less important than issues on the front.


Designing the background quilting was a big challenge.  I had images of the original art to inform my block decisions, but the needs of the quilting sometimes didn’t fit.  For example, I needed to have fairly evenly spaced quilting and not leave large areas un-quilted.  But quilting added new lines that weren’t in the originals.  In the burrowing owl block, I decided to add in parallel lines that corresponded with the lines on the owls’ heads.  I’ve seen similar striping in other pieces from Charley Harper.  For the dolphin block, I added more swooshes to fill in un-quilted areas.  My goal was to provide stability to the block in a way that was visually similar to methods employed by the original artist.


I broke some more rules with the binding.  After I quilted around the major figures in my blocks and the framing pieces and nothing was shifting around any more, I did my binding, then I finished off the background quilting.  The batting and fabric on the edges was starting to stretch out and get in the way and it just made sense to handle the batting at that time.


Just have fun.  Try not to sweat the small stuff.  If there’s a mistake and you’re prone to worry about these things, ask yourself, “Will my friends and family notice this?  If they did would they care?” or “In 5 years am I ever going to notice this when I use my quilt?”  If not, let it go.  The things that matter are issues that will affect the over-all life of the project like skimpy seams, frayed edges, or poor quality stitching.  The rest is fine.

Break the rules.  Ignore the videos and blog posts that tell you you’re doing it wrong.  If the end result is what you want, it doesn’t matter how you got there.  I never was able to turn my applique edges under with the needle.  When I tried, I got a frayed mess.  I used my fingers with much better success.  Can you tell the difference?  Nope.  Use the videos and blog posts to get an idea of how to do things, but don’t worry if your version is a little different.

Share your progress.  I planned to post about each block here on my blog, but ended up sharing mostly on Facebook in a public album.  My friends and family enjoyed following the progress.  Yours probably will too.

Above all, just try and do what makes YOU happy.


Me and my quality control agent, Cadmius, who inspected every stitch that went into this project. (There is a significant amount of cat hair inside this quilt.) His favorite blocks are the dolphin, the owls, and the possums. I can tell because he’ll only sit on those three.

The Last Aphid: Another Charley Harper Inspired Quilt Block

The next block in my Charley Harper quilt is my rendition of the artist’s “The Last Aphid” which features four ladybugs staring down an aphid that they’ve cornered between them.  This block was a challenge because of the symmetry.  Everything has to be lined up or it looks wrong (accepting some error of course because it’s applique and it’s never going to be perfect).


Like the other blocks and quilt plan, I used Inkscape to design the pattern.

One tool that has helped me immensely through this block and the last was masking tape.  Yup.  Good ol’ masking tape.  It’s not to hold anything down, but rather to lift something up, namely cat hair.  My guy cat loves to get in the middle of anything I’m doing (case-in-point he’s currently sitting next to me and pushing the arrow keys as I try to type) and he’s a real big shedder.  I guess I should be glad he’s a short-hair.  Aside from just not looking that great, cat hair is a problem because it gets into the thread as I sew and causes it to snarl up into a knot more than it normally would.  To get rid of the cat hair, I stick the masking tape down on the fabric and pull it off; the cat hair comes with it.  It’s pretty much a cheap version of a lint roller.

Inkscape for Applique Sewing Patterns

Inkscape is a vector illustration program so most people think of it as an art program for producing slick graphics.  But it’s a really useful tool for planning an preparing for other art forms.  For example, I’ve been using it for sewing.  What?  Yes, sewing.  It’s incredibly useful for drawing patterns.  Recently I’ve been working on a needle turn applique quilt based on the work of Charley Harper, but for the past few years I’ve made felt Christmas ornaments for friends and family, for all of which I used Inkscape to draw the patterns.

If you’re familiar with Inkscape already, making applique patterns will be pretty straight forward. If you’re new to the program, I highly recommend working through a couple of tutorials.  Here’s my general workflow (yours may differ):

  1. Start with an image.  On Pinterest, great projects abound, but sometimes the post links to costly instructions, or no pattern at all.  I’ve also found things that I like the look of, but are a different scale – too big or too small.  Or, as with my latest project, I’m creating my own pattern pieces from an image.  Look for images with distinct polygons of colors.  Blended or faded areas are going to be harder to duplicate with applique unless you can find fabric with the right fade or you dye your own.
  2. Put the image into an Inkscape file and resize it to the size you want your final project to be.
  3. Draw polygons around each of the colors you see in your image.  You’ll want to think about how you’ll put the whole thing together as you trace, so think about how the layers will work together.  For example, if you have polka-dots, you’ll want to place the circles on top of a larger background color, not have a section of background color with holes cut out like Swiss cheese.


    Start by tracing out all of the sections you’ll need to cut from various colors of fabric.

  4. Start a new Inkscape file and make the size of the page whatever size you plan to print.  For those in the US, you’ll probably want US Letter Size.
  5. Copy your polygons from the first file and past them into the second.  (I find keeping both files is helpful later for placement of the pieces.)  Arrange all your polygons on the page so that none overlap.  For larger projects, I’ve made several files. If the same shape shows up multiple times in your pattern, for example maybe eyes or ears, you only need to include that shape once.


    One of 3 pages of pattern pieces for a larger work with many pieces.

  6. On each piece, I like to print the color of the fabric I plan to use and how many of this piece I need to cut out.
  7. If you have a really big pattern piece that’s bigger than your printable page size, there’s a solution.  Put the big pieces into one Inkscape file, then size the page to the content, giving it a reasonable margin for your printer.  Then save the file as a PDF.  Open the PDF and in the print options, pick Poster (or similar setting).  It will divide up the pattern into printable pages.  Then you can tape the pages together before you cut out the pattern.


    My printer settings have an option to print large PDFs in pieces.  Yours probably has something similar.  Super useful for printing larger pattern pieces.

Bonus! Now when you’re placing your pieces, some stuff you can just eyeball and it will be fine.  In some situations though you might need to be more precise.  Because you have your original pattern tracing in Inkscape, you can go back to that file and measure the distance between items.  I set my units to inches and draw a line, then see how long my line is.  Super simple, but very effective.


The red line measures how long the vertical eye whisker is.

See the finished piece on a previous blog post.

Limp on a Limb: Another Charley Harper Inspired Quilt Block

This second block in my Charley Harper Quilt is inspired by the piece Limp on a Limb.  If you compare the original and the block, you’ll see that I’ve made some edits.  Most notably, I have decided (for now at least) to not include the leaf pattern in the background.  Repeated shapes are a hallmark of Harper’s work, so including the pattern would be more true to the work, but in reality, it would require extensive embroidery and I’m afraid that won’t hold up long-term, especially given the light weight of the fabric I’ve chosen for the background.  That being said, the fabric I chose is mottled green and I hope it at least gives the piece some more depth.


Example diagram from placing the cat’s eye wiskers.

For this block, I thought I would show some of the detail of how I transfer lines from the pattern to the piece.  All my patterns are digital svg files, which means I can measure the size of each object in Inkscape.  (I promise to write a post about this with more detail and hopefully convert some quilters to Inkscape quilt designers… but later.  Ok, it’s later. See the post here.)  I make measurements from a reference point, draw out a diagram, then transfer the measurements to the fabric using a chalk pencil (either white or blue depending on the color of the fabric).  Then I embroider.  It’s important to mark as little as possible on the fabric with the calk pencils, because the marks are hard to get out.


Faint chalk pencil marks show where to embroider the eye whiskers.

When placing any object in a piece, whether it’s embroidery or a layer of fabric, I’ve found that it’s important to figure out what feature the new object needs to be inline with. For placing the eye whiskers, at first I was going to reference the corner of the eye. It seemed logical. Then I found that in the original piece, the left eye and whiskers don’t line up. What? But there’s always such precision in Harper’s work! But after some staring at the piece, I realized that the vertical line of both sets of eye whiskers intersects the point where the ear meets the head. Bingo! Now my whiskers are in the right spot.


The finished piece.

Possum Quilt Block

I haven’t looked very hard, but I haven’t ever seen a possum quilt block.  Yet, that’s just what I’ve been working on, specifically for my Charley Harper quilt.


This is part of a needleturn applique project introduced in an earlier post.  If you’re familiar with Charley Harper’s original, you may know that this version is lacking some of the detail, notably the whisker dots on the possums’ noses.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that I didn’t want to clutter up the clean lines with imprecise dots (it is incredibly difficult to replicate the precision of the original work in applique!).  Translating the art into quilt blocks does require some editing for the medium.  The second is that I just hate French knots… they never come out right and I’m pretty sure at some point the ones that are on there are going to get pulled out by a curious kitty.  That’s my embroidery confession.  So there you have a possum quilt block.

Read other posts about this project.


An example of a curious kitty just waiting to pull out French knots.

Designing The Charley Harper Quilt

I’ve been a big fan of modern artists Charley Harper’s work since 2012 when I taught may Science to Art course at University of California Davis.  In that class, students were tasked with communicating science concepts through art.  At the suggestion of the Wildlife Museum staff who sponsored the course, we chose to emulate Charley Harper’s style of simplifying species down to their most simple yet still recognizable forms.  We learned how Harper repeated forms – leaves and mice in one image are the same teardrop shape, for example – and simplified bodies down to their most elemental form.  The work was all completed in Inkscape and eventually printed on large banners that hang in Academic Surge.  The results were magical.

Fast forward a few years and I saw a post on the Charley Harper Studios’ Facebook page asking people to post images of quilts they had made using Harper’s images or their line of fabrics.  The quilts were charming and it made me think about how those simplified forms would easily translate into quilt blocks.

So, I set out to figure out how I could make one.  I have made one traditional quilt and one comforter more than ten years ago, but I regularly sew and do felt applique for Christmas ornaments, so the skills are there.  I learned about applique for quilting (particularly with woven fabrics that can fray, unlike felt) and decided that needleturn applique sounded like the least fussy option.  I found this video on YouTube to be an excellent quick tutorial:

Next, I needed a plan so I found a bunch of images I liked and arranged them in an Inkscape file with a page size set to the size of the finished product that I could later turn into vector lines for pattern pieces.  More on that later.  This is my plan (please note that the artwork is copyrighted by the artist):


I’ll update my progress as I go.

Costumes: Sheep

It’s October, so it’s time for costumes!  Last fall, I made sheep and wolf costumes for a performance of the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre that was called “Sheep/Wolves/We The People”.  I made 6 sheep costumes for the apprentice company, which they used in several numbers throughout the work.  Above, you’ll find the video of the Sheep/Wolf Rap.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any still shots of someone wearing the finished product, but a video is also helpful.  Note that these costumes took quite a bit of abuse – several dress rehearsals and three performances!

Here’s how I made them…

Loosened cotton balls glued down

For the shirt, you’ll need HEAPS of cotton balls, hot glue, and a white men’s undershirt tank.  The shirt needs to be a size or two larger than you (or the person who will wear the costume) would normally wear because once you’re done gluing on the cotton balls, the fabric won’t stretch as much.  The procedure is simple.  First, stretch out the shirt a little.  Next, I found it helpful to loosen the cotton balls.  The are made of cotton sheets wound up in a spiral, so if you loosen them up, they get bigger so you need fewer of them.  Finally, glue them on.  You’ll need to find a balance between too much glue and not enough.  An X across the cotton ball would be a good way to secure them.  Occasionally, I didn’t secure the middle of a cotton spiral, and they came out.  In the video you can see some dangling.

A finished sheep top

For the hat, you’ll need a fabric marker, snaps or velcro closures, black felt for the ears, and white felt for the hat part.  To make the shape of the hood, I traced another person’s head profile and cut it a little larger to allow for the seam and some extra room.  You can always sew the seam tighter, but it’s hard to add fabric once you’ve cut it.  I also made a tab of fabric that goes around the neck.  You’ll cut out 2 of the white hood shapes and sew them together along the top and back of the head.  Add your snap or velcro to the neck tab.  Finally, cut out 2 matching black ears and attach them, and you’re done.

The hat for reference

Sheep costumes make excellent beds for older kitties too!