Chemical Attraction: Art in Everything
Chemical Attractions began as an accident of sorts. Way back in early 2016, I was asked to demo my applique method for a local group here in Arizona. The Valley Quilters Guild in Green Valley, AZ had asked me to join their Quilt Academy
and to focus my lecture time on applique. In the interests of time allowances and sticking to a specific framework for the lecture, I wanted to design a block to demo that would emphasize making clean curves and neat points with layering and the need for the occasional lining fabric, while still having a simple repetitive structure. The resulting design was the block you see here.
This block fit all my parameters. Simple points, lots of curves, light fabrics with dark fabrics, and repeating elements. I started to think it would make a nice pillow when I was done.
After the demo and lecture I posted a photo on my Swan Amity Studios Facebook page and was surprised when some of my more science grounded friends asked me if I was modeling the block from a flat orbital molecule.
Well my quilty friends, my Masters Degree is in Nineteenth Century British Literature. I assure you that prior to this experience, I had not one clue what a flat orbital molecule looked like, let alone any plans to quilt one. Yet, I consider myself fairly open to new ideas and given how pleased I was with the block I spent a little time looking up orbital molecules and seeing if some of them would make nice blocks. Now I won’t vouch for perfect translation (liberties were taken for
certain), but some of the results were starting to suck me in deeper.
I was starting to think this was a project that deserved a whole quilt rather than the original pillow concept.
I had started this project with left over fabric from one of my favorite batik solid lines, Hoffman’s Me and You fabrics. I had been using all of these fabrics to make my raccoon family for my Meet the Bandits pattern and didn’t have very much left. Recognizing what I planned to add was no small amount, I immediately requested more of all the colors I was using, making the choice to stick with all black backgrounds, three values of grey, their beautiful zinc white and a powerful red. These colors stuck with the original colors used in the first block with only one addition. I also decided that since I had started with a 20” block, I was going to make every additional block a base of 10”, with rectangles and squares to make it easy to shift blocks as I began to lay the quilt out on the design wall.
In the process, I found where the gaps would be, where I would leave negative space and where I would need additional elements. Throughout this time, I continued to take suggestions from friends in Chemistry and Biology regarding other representations they would like to see and what they felt wasn’t fitting. The final version of the center began to take shape.
I added borders and got ready to write the pattern. By this time it was early May and we were preparing to leave for Spring Quilt Market in Salt Lake City. I decided to wait until after Market to quilt Chemical Attractions and work on the pattern.
Here I should mention that I have a longstanding opinion that art can be found in everything. I felt I was proving this idea by making a beautiful quilt with Chemistry. I have several friends who have enjoyed that I feel this way and while I was gone to Quilt Market, they were sending me messages, encouraging me to quilt this quilt (now measuring 76” x 96”) in a manner that kept it in the hard sciences.
Let’s remember that am an English major. I couldn’t visualize any of the ideas my very well meaning friends were sending me. My own brother (a high school math teacher in the Portland, Oregon area) was the one that broke through, suggesting that I should quilt Chemical Attractions with mathematical principles. At first this idea made me laugh. How would I do that? Was he suggesting that I quilt equations onto the quilt? That didn’t sound fun or attractive. And then he sent me a few images of fractals and mathematical visual proofs. Thales Theorum I began to agree, but I will admit I was intimidated. I never felt I understood many of these math concepts and to represent them well I was going to have to quilt with significant accuracy. This was going to be a challenge, but I was so intrigued. I started to feel passionate about taking this leap.
To allow myself time for a little research and to stabilize the quilt for what I already knew would be a lot of quilting, I took the time to ditch all of the applique in the quilt.
I also took advantage of the fact that my dear friend and quilting cohort, Kathie Miller, is a former high school math teacher. I borrowed every math book she would give me, including geometry and began asking her innumerable questions about things I had found while searching the internet.
The black background gave me a little pause. How would I make the images stand out on the black as well as they would on some of the colored applique? I decided the answer was King Tut thread from Superior Threads. A heavier 40 weight three ply thread, it builds surface design more actively than lighter weight threads and comes in a wide variety of colors. Like my fabric choices, I wanted my thread choices to stay somewhat simple, so I chose 8 King Tut threads in the same spectrum of colors as the fabric in the quilt (I later added a 9th red and black variegated King Tut I hadn’t known about when I started).
I was now armed with several favorite images from geometry books, websites on Euclid, and various theorem I had dug up on Wikipedia and Google Images. I got to work in the middle first like any good quilter and started with a curling fractal (something that felt familiar to ease myself in).
One of my chemist friends also informed me that orbital molecules have a charge distribution and when I looked that up, I liked the appearance. My first attempt was done with circle templates, first drawing out the lines of the charge distribution and then quilting them.
I planned to fill in the area later, but decided to get more basic lines like these into the quilt first to allow me to quilt more evenly over the entirety of the quilt.
Here is the second Orbital Charge Distribution quilting. I liked this one a little better.
The charge lines were a little more accurate in their portrayal. Rather than the perfect circles in the first example, this one showed the charge lines tightening closer together as they come to the center of the molecule. To insure improved representation, this time I drew the lines with a picture next to me so I would get it right.
I added an embellishment of overlapping Rhombus behind the molecule and began to tie them into previous work I had done with the fractal curls in the block above.
I was really seeing the payoff of the 40 weight King Tut by this time. The thread was powerfully standing out from the black background fabric and allowing all of my chosen designs to have great visibility. Even the dark reds were holding their own against the black.
Next to the orbital molecule I had made one of the larger images in the quilt to depict a bonding molecule and wanted the quilting to help indicate that the molecules were pulling together to form a larger more complex molecule.
I didn’t fill all of the molecules themselves just yet, planning to wait until later to fill most of the applique.
As I began some of the dense quilting in the areas I was filling, I chose to stick with fills that all fell within a circular design, providing some continuity in the quilting throughout the project and connecting the quilting to the circular molecular applique.
That original block was a large piece of applique that I felt needed some variance in the quilting, but perhaps with a simple couple of mathematical principles. I chose to start with infinity symbols alternated with parallel lines (which stretch into infinity without meeting).
In the case of the outside portions of the pinwheel shape, I chose Greek letters which are all utilized in math, including Pi, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Omega, and others. My husband, Clayton, suggested that I add a sense of motion with the decreasing curls on the exterior and I like the illusion of rotation that provided.
At this stage, I was concerned that those viewing the quilt in the future would want to know details about the quilt and what was represented, but might not recognize all of the different pieces of math or chemistry in the quilt. I started to quilt the titles of different principles into the project. For instance, in the lower right corner I had quilted Thale’s Theorum for determining the midpoint of a circle. Below it, you can see that I wrote out the name of the theorem in the sashing beneath the image.
However, as the quilt grew and the designs overlapped and came together, the addition of the lettering to title the different sections began to seem clunky and distracting. In discussing this issue with some friends over Christmas (Did I mention it was Christmas by this point?) my friend Dean Bosche, asked if I could figure out how to add a QR Code to the quilt that would allow viewers to access a web page dedicated to explaining all of the different aspects of the quilt.
At first, I thought this was an excessively complicated idea, but then I decided there were ways to try this idea out with Inktense watercolors and one of the circles in the quilt. I had just enough left of one of the grey fabrics to give it a shot.
I started by generating several variations on a QR Code to determine which one would give me the least complex image to reproduce. Then I printed it to fit in the center of one of my circles and traced the code onto the fabric without a fine point washout marker. With a well sharpened black Inktense pencil, dipped in fabric medium, I outlined all of the black areas of the QR Code and allowed the first layer of ink to dry. Inktense is permanent on fabric when it dries and I was hoping the outline would help to keep the next stage from bleeding into the grey background.
In order for the QR Code to work, it needed to have clear crisp lines that could easily be picked up by the camera on a cell phone.
Then I went back into the outlined areas to carefully fill the black spaces with the Inktense pencil. I would normally have tried to use an Inktense block here, but the spaces were so small I was concerned that I might inadvertently add too much and make the color bleed. It took time and the process was slow, but the results were looking good.
I was getting some nice clean lines and the fine point on the pencil was keeping everything where it belonged. Eventually I had a compete QR Code. I downloaded a QR scanner app to my phone and tested it to make sure it was reading well. Success!
I allowed it to dry completely, added a final wash of fabric medium to be sure the Inktense was highly stable. Allowed it to dry again. Then I took a deep breath, washed the piece in soap and water, allowed it to dry a final time, and ironed it with a pressing cloth.
From this piece I made a new applique for my quilt, removed one of the circles from a section of the quilt and added this one in its place.
In order to get new piece to lay flat and make it easy for the code to be scanned, I needed to carefully quilt along the edge of the QR Code and then quilt a simple background fill in a thread that matched the background to create as little confusion for a scanning app as possible.
Throughout the process, I continuously tested the Code and made sure it was still functioning despite any changes I was making.
This one change to the quilt took me three days to get right, but in my opinion it was worth it to be able to provide viewers with details regarding the quilt and not have that information interfere with the overall design. I subsequently tore out all of the lettering I had already added the quilt, decluttering the designs.
By this time, it was January of 2017 and it was also crunch time. I had already entered the quilt in my local quilt show in Tucson (The Tucson Quilt Fiesta, put on by the Tucson Quilters Guild, of which I am a member). Now I started figuring out the remaining sections that had been hard to determine what would fit.
I had water molecules in one section and was excited to find that there had been a study in 1902 by Wilson Bentley regarding ice and snowflakes. Bentley had taken a number of photos of snowflakes with incredible detail. I printed copies of several of his snowflake photos at the highest resolution I could get and cut them out to use as templates. I drew the snowflakes onto the background around the water molecules and used them to add interest to that section.
I’ll take a moment here to say that many people have asked me how I program these designs in order to make them all fit in the space. I want to emphasize that I don’t use any programmable quilting in my projects. My work is done with free motion on a sit down domestic machine. I quilt with a Juki 2010Q. Her name is Lacey and we are very good friends. She was a beautiful partner in the creation of this quilt. I’m also using The Amity Gloves (a set of quilting gloves of my own creation) to achieve the best possible control while working on Chemical Attractions and all of my quilted projects.
I had a relatively large space in the top left corner with a sizeable molecule. I used that space to put a large version of the Koch Star, a beautiful fractal.
I also used the space inside the star to depict the Siernpinski Triangle.
This is a good example of how much knot burial was required in this project. Many of the lines in the Koch Star were lines I wanted to avoid backtracking. This meant a ton of stops and starts, but the results were fabulous.
and in another open area of empty background, I found room for the Spiral of Archimedes. Some of these were more recognizable pieces of math, though I enjoyed finding out more about how they are utilized by mathematicians and engineers.
The Spiral of Arichemedes is one of my favorite portions of the quilt. I love the results of careful marking and controlled quilting. I allowed each color to spill into the background as it flooded out of the spiral. The result was even more pleasing than I had expected.
I use 100% bamboo batting from Winline Textiles in my quilts. You can see how well the batting behaves in some of these images, making the dense quilting really shine and still maintaining excellent flexibility in the finished quilt despite density of quilting.
In the borders, I wanted to add elements from the Periodic Table, and again consulted my friends with Chemistry degrees who convinced me to be sure to depict the elements with their atomic weights calculated to two decimal points. I chose specific elements (the important components of life on earth such as Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Carbon, elements that are associated with red such as Strontium and Iron. To find out more about how to read the Periodic Table you might enjoy this refresher page.
In one of my remaining corners I had outlined a representation of Bounded Complex Domains earlier in my process, and at this stage I came back to it and embellished it to make it very full.
I had been planning all along to add the Golden Spiral to the quilt and used the opportunities of the border to do that, repeating the Golden Spiral twice in each border.
I was down to just the small details as we were now into the month of February. I added representations of Tangent lines, amino acid chains, and the means of finding the center of a sphere.
As these final details went in, I filled any negative space remaining with black circle quilting to keep the quilt flat and even without interrupting any of the design.
Chemical Attractions is the pinnacle of my work to date and has made me so very happy to produce. I love making a quilt a learning process and I can honestly say this project tested me to the very limits of my ability, teaching me a great deal about math, chemistry, and engineering in the process. I was so proud to see it hanging in the Tucson Quilt Fiesta, where it won a number of ribbons, including second place in its category, an NACQJ award, the Arizona Quilters Hall of Fame award (by which I am greatly honored) and the 1st place Viewer’s Choice Award (which felt like a wonderful vote of confidence in the quilt).
I know this was a long blog and if you stuck with me, I applaud your perseverance. I endeavored to answer many of the questions put to me about the quilt. Recently Chemical Attractions was honored with the Best Original Design award at AQS Grand Rapids. It is also hanging in Houston International Quilt Festival. It is my great hope that Chemical Attractions will be enjoyed by many audiences and excite both quilters and lovers of the sciences alike.
Juki 2010Q (Lacey in my studio)
Quilter's Rule Circle template set 1-12
Wafer Light Box from Daylight Company USA
Bohin chalk pencil (for dark fabric)
Chako wash out marker (for lighter fabric)
100% Bamboo batting from WinLine Textiles
John James Golden Glide Applique #11 needle
Machine Stitching: 80/12 Titanium coated Needle from Superior Threads
Piecing Thread: Master Piece from Superior Threads (#50)
Applique Thread: Master Piece from Superior Threads (#50)
Quilting Thread: King Tut Threads from Superior Threads (#40 for all):
908 Valley of the Kings
960 Morning Sky
1001 St. Nick
1003 Glowing Embers
Passion for the subject
Lots of friends to help guide you
Desire to finish