Following the Stitching Line: Machine and Hand

At the walk-through of my art quilt show last week, a friend asked how I decide whether to machine sew or stitch by hand. I answered that it depended on what else was in the quilt, and overall I was looking for balance. I like a mix. I often said of making books, "Whatever the book wants," so whatever the quilt wants/needs. But it goes deeper than that, so I'd like to delve in now.

Since most everything I sit down to make begins with a question, we can start with some general questions to keep in mind: What does stitching do? And, more specifically, What will it do in the current work? How will it add to the understanding of the theme or concept? and How will it add to the composition overall?

What is stitching?  For me, stitching is linework. Line can be thick, such as doubled embroidery thread, or thin as standard weight machine-sewing thread, with a variety of thicknesses in between. Line can be continuous as machine sewing or a hand-embroidered chain stitch, or dotted or dashed as a running stitch, sashiko stitch, or knots like the embroidered French knots of the octopus in Deep Beneath the Ink-dark Sea. At any moment I can ask: What kind of line to I want? Do I want to add drawing, handwriting, pattern, texture, emphasis, meaning, or?

What do I want line to do? Line can connect areas visually when there are similar lines in different areas of the quilt; our eyes like to discover patterns and systems. I can create a focal point by keeping lines in one concentrated area, such as the hand-embroidered chickadees in Hello Chickadees. For the chickadees I also used the sewing machine for loose outlines that disrupted the geometric squares and rectangles with light curves. In quilting, the sewing lines give dimension and shadow; I can define an area, highlight details, or add a pleasing tactile texture.

How strong do I want the line? I have choices of thread weight and thread color. I might want the stitching to recede or come forward, background or foreground. A contrasting color may be a focal point, matching the thread to the cloth yields near invisible stitching. I can outline or tack down. It likely depends on the cloth I have pieced; I might piece together large pieces with the intention of adding line or pattern later, or sew smaller pieces that present the full composition on their own, with no need for extra line. In this detail of Repetition of Days I used a thicker, contrasting line for emphasis.

When to use machine, when to hand sew? It will depend on several situations, mentioned above: how big is the piecing? What images, pattern, or texture do I want? How busy do I want the quilt to be? And most importantly: What will the stitching add and why? An example might be the fish scale (lower center to the right) and wave patterns (lower section) in Sweet Osprey Dreams. Both the texture and the symbolism were important to me, and I wanted them to be obvious in different ways; I wanted the waves to contrast (white against the dark background), and the fish scales to glitter (metallic thread).

Ultimately, there is a good solution, and it may be one of many; there is no one right way. I just learned of the mathematical term, Local Optimum, also known as "hill climbing." How do you find the highest point if you can't see more than three steps ahead of you? It's foggy out there! You notice if the hill is higher or lower and keep taking small steps in the higher direction. Eventually, you are at the top, or the end of a line. The end of one line. That's why it is local. It is optimal within the neighboring set of possible solutions.

The "neighboring set" might be the materials and colors you have already chosen and are working with. If you worked with different materials and media there might be other, possibly better solutions, but this is what you have. All you can do is keep going. There are endless paths, but considering all of them at once is quicksand; best to keep moving. There is a finish line.