Door Jam quilt, a visual jam session


I call it the Door Jam quilt. It’s a small quilt inspired by some doors I saw on my neighbourhood walks. Yellow doors on grey houses. It must be a thing. I like the yellow doors on the grey houses. I think it looks fresh, especially with white trim. 

I like this quilt. It’s based on a pretty simple concept. Take a shape and repeat it. That’s it. Seems simple enough, but it’s the scale and proportion of the shapes and bits, in relation to the strength of the colours and values employed. Like musicians in a jam session, playing with a similar theme, bending and improvising as the song progresses, playing off one another. 

The shape is a staple. I mean, it looks like an actual staple. I made a black and white version of the repeat staple shape, and I made a large quilt top in blues and greens, piecing together the larger pieces to achieve depth in the figure and ground. It’s not great, which makes me a little sad because I spent a few days working on the composition. It lacks punctum, I think. My artist friend Jim was talking about studium and punctum in respect to photography. I’ve caught on to the idea of having an element in the work that adds an enticing visual spark, something that makes the piece unforgettable. Not to everyone, of course – we can’t please all of the people all of the time. Here is a description of studium and punctum, a concept written about by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida

Studium is the element that initially gets your attention. It can be colors, a cool background, a pose, really anything. But the punctum is what Roland describes as the thing that “pricks or bruises.” It’s that rare detail that makes the viewer feel something and pushes the photo even further.

I dreamed about it. I dreamed about my not-so-great large blue & green quilt top. In my dream, there were large red mountains on either side of the existing composition. So far, I haven’t worked up the nerve to create large red mountains to slide in, but maybe one day. Might be just the punctum it needs. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy this little Door Jam quilt.  

Log Cabin Improv Workshop – at last!

Fresh Salsa, my improv log cabin quilt hanging in The Hive gallery on Gabriola Island

Come to Denman Island! Take part in this Improv Log Cabin Quilt workshop, Totally Modernized and waiting for your interpretation. 

Please excuse the time lapse between posts. I’ve been busy doing other things, but here I am on the other side of some transformative stuff, popping back into blogland just in time to tell y’all that I am teaching again. I’ll be on Denman Island at the Creative Threads Conspiracy, which is right where we left off in the last post. Funny how life is. I’m excited to get back to the island, looking forward to connecting with old friends and meeting new ones and gosh… I am looking forward to the great food and fresh fresh vegetables. I sure miss the farm life! 

Two Day Class, Oct 20 and 21, 2017

This time, in a two day class, we’ll be working on a Totally Modernized and Improvisational Log Cabin quilt. I love the traditional log cabin block as a starting point for amazing interpretation and improvisation. I mostly use and recommend using solid coloured fabrics, as this is a class concentrating on design. Colour is one (big) element of design, and it’s much easier to see the relationships of one colour to the next, and one shape to the next, and one line to the next, without the influence of fabrics printed with their own designs and textures. 

Decisions on  how to improvise on the log cabin block, or the elements of the log cabin block (square & rectangle) are as individual as each person in the class. I love teaching because each person in the class interprets the simple exercises in their own way. They use their own voice, cutting and sewing fabrics together with their own unique signature, and I learn so much! I see things I never would have thought of. I see colour combinations beyond my wildest dreams! I see works of art come into the world at the hands of skilled sewists, and from the machines of absolute beginners.

!I see all this and still, when I get back to my studio my work is uniquely mine, made with my signature cutting style but deepened by what I’ve witnessed in class. Working in a group is very satisfying. We learn so much from each other. We pick up ideas from watching our neighbours’ design walls fill up. We influence each other, we are helped and supported by the people in class with us. It’s one of my favourite times, being in a classroom full of creative fabric snippers and stitchers watching design walls fill up with ideas. Having two full days for the project is great too. By the end of day two each quilt should be all put together.  I’ll show demos on different edge finishes, show ideas for quilting and we can talk about ways to sign your artwork. 



Workshops Fall 2015

I’m teaching!
Improvisational quilt making workshop on Denman Island and in North Vancouver;
Shrinky, Stretchy, Pliable Patchwork

Improv quilt making for all levels, & how to put different sized bits and pieces together.
The photos below are all images of log cabin patchwork. Pick a simple block and shrink, stretch and experiment with it!

Lots of talk about colour and design will happen naturally throughout the day.
Any level of sewist welcome, all that’s required is a sewing machine and a good level of curiosity… and some fabric, of course.

For more information and to register:

Denman Island:  Creative Threads Conspiracy October 24
North Vancouver: Lions Gate Quilters Guild, November 14

email  Jane will be happy to take your registration!

DSC_0579 Black and Tan IMG_1249

improv log cabin variations

improv log cabin variations

Plastic Fabric. It’s Baack!

In the quilty world, the Moderns look like they are having fun.

The Modern Quilt Guild has risen fast in popularity and is responsible for the now annual QuiltCon, the international show and conference of all things modern and quilty. Quoting from their website, “The MQG developed out of the thriving online community of modern quilters and their desire to start meeting in person. The founding guild was formed in Los Angeles in October of 2009. Through blogs and the Internet, word spread quickly of the fun they were having and soon guilds started popping up everywhere.” If you are curious as to what the heck Modern Quilting is, pop over to their website and check it out.

I was saying they look like they’re having fun, and I’m a little jealous! I don’t count myself as a modern quilter as I’m not fond of labels and the limits they can be perceived to render, and I’m not even sure the Moderns would call me one of their own. That said, I am an improvisational patchworker, and I like to have fun and use good colours. I like Instagram, and that is where much of my information comes from about the modern quilters. They love to share photos and swap both ideas and things – they make each other little quilts and wallets and tote bags and keychains, and include a bunch of cool little gifts in the packets they send to each other all around the world. And they post photos of the contents of those packets on Instagram! Its a little community within a huge community. I don’t know where they find the time, they must be super-sewists.

I digress…. I was saying that I was a little jealous. There was a flurry of photo activity showing the beautiful quilts at QuiltCon. There were photos of quilters having fun in classes, in hallways, in lineups, in restaurants and bars. There were photos of ribbon winners, some of whom I knew, Congratulations Krista!, and there were photos of a collection of quilts from the 1970’s made with polyester double-knit! They really were stunning in their technicolor glory.

I was green because I wasn’t there. I was green because I didn’t get to meet the people who were there. I didn’t get to spy the fabric design stars eating their lunch, or tour the quilt collection with Bill Volkening or ride the big sewing machine or see the quilts that kids made or hang out with my friend Maria.


Rainbow Magic by Mollie McMahon


But then about a week ago I received an email from a lovely friend and fellow gulf islander who asked me if I wanted to take her place in a class that she was unable to attend. The class is in Washington, just a ferry boat ride (plus a couple hours of driving & a border crossing) away, and the teacher is none other than Sherri Lynn Wood, author of the new book The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters: A Guide to Creating, Quilting, and Living Courageously (buy it here) which contains a photograph of a quilt I made for her as a test quilter. (yip!)

from a score by SherriLynn Wood

Detail; Stacks in Red And Yellow. 2014

YES! I said. Sunday I will be in class, my fabric is packed, the car is gassed up, I’m ready to go. My green tinge is shifting to a warm pink. 🙂


Crate of scraps

It looks like said busy teacher is on a tour of the Pacific Northwest, teaching improv quilting here and there – and recently some photos were posted on FB, of her improv students cutting up polyester double-knit for a quilt. (you heard it here first people!) Now, I am no fan of the polyester, having lived through the 70’s in polyester pantsuits (I actually got sent home from elementary school because my ma dressed me in a fashionable pantsuit – and girls were to wear dresses only. I was used as a political pawn! It was slightly humiliating  and confusing then, but I am proud [and was then] of my mother for standing up to a ridiculous rule, even though she used her shy youngest daughter to make a point. The bell bottom pantsuit, by the way,  was purple and stretchy and had eyelets and some lace-up stuff like pirates sometimes wear), but if someone wants to make a beautiful quilt out of the stuff, I am on side.



(my distaste for polyester stems from my own memories of wearing Phentex crocheted granny square vests  and from my days working in a costume rental shop in Toronto, back in the late 1980’s. The clothing was arranged by era, and we had an amazing collection of clothing and costuming ranging from the 1800’s to the present, but let me tell you , the ’70’s section was one to avoid. The distinctive odour of the B.O. of wild haired dancers, of panicked dope smoking hippies running from the cops, of poor university students who could afford only one oft-worn  square-collared shirt, of young moms protesting for women’s liberation, all of this bodily memory was nestled permanently in the fibres of those garments.)

Plastics last forever (like b.o. in polyester) in our environment and I’d rather see it in the form of a funky quilt that will  keep a body warm than a tiny pellet in your facial scrub. I only hope that this phase in quilt making does not bring about the production of a line of stylish vintage reproduction polyester double-knits for the quilting fabric buyer. I shall continue to cut and piece my collection of cotton yard goods into quilts that will not last forever. I like the feel of cotton, I like to think about a little fluffy cotton boll growing a good long staple fibre in the field to be processed and spun into a thread that will be woven into cloth. I own a lot of fabric that I am using up but when I need new fabric I try to only buy organic cotton, even though it is more expensive and does not come in all the delicious colours that conventionally grown cotton comes in. I use linen too which grows much better without pesticides, and thrifted fabric which does not promote the buying of new fabric. I do it for the environment and to make my own little political statement. I have packed a bin of cotton for the class and I will cut it and stitch it and share the quilt with you when its done. Cheers, Barb


The Monkey House quilt

My intention is to make a new photo window on the website one day, and it will be filled with NEW ART! I have been making new quilt art, but for various reasons I am not ready to share them with the world, so in the meantime I will talk about some of the quilts in the photos and the stories behind them.

First up is the Monkey House Quilt – here is the story…


Monkey House Quilt, by Barb Mortell, 2007


This quilt was built fast! It was completely improvised, and built loosely following the traditional log cabin form. Here is a traditional log cabin block:

29In the traditional quilt world, there are many interesting variations on the log cabin block, and log cabin quilts, mostly created by colour and value placement with the fabrics. I will probably talk at length about log cabins over the course of writing this blog, because, well, the subject is pretty interesting – to me, at least. I have been making log cabin variations since I made this tiny quilt as a sample for an analogous color scheme in a Colour Theory class I was teaching. It uses a variation called courthouse steps. There are plaid squares in the middle of each little block, see how each block joins to it’s neighbour through the use of colour?

red courthouse steps

Red Courthouse Steps by Barb Mortell, 1998


So, back to the Monkey House quilt – I made this quilt for a dear friend who was having a giant health event – his heart system was not working properly and he was rushed to the hospital to have a stent installed, a thing that keeps the passageways open for vital fluids to flow around inside the body as they should. (Technical medical talk, yup.) Our dear friend is a house builder, he designs and draws and builds the most beautiful houses and his craftsmanship is absolutely top notch, and his business style is that of monkeys. Yes – he is a monkey bizness man. A true gem, this dude, and we were really alarmed to hear of his health troubles. I rushed into my workroom and made this quilt  – using the log cabin form to honour his house building, putting monkeys in the windows, and placing a BIG RED HEART in the attic, and in the centre of the quilt. I quilted messages all around the surface of the quilt and surrounded them with nice wide open passages that all lead to the heart. I used Aurifil brand wool thread, in a colour like graphite so it looked like pencil lines, and with my sewing machine I drew the lines and shapes and messages of good will with a free motion quilting technique. You sort of use the sewing machine as a stationary pencil and move the quilt under the needle as it’s sewing a mile a minute, that’s how it works. It takes some practice, but it’s fun.

I gave the quilt to our friend while he was in the hospital, that was back in 2007, and I think he still naps under it. Then and still, this creative and capable monkey-man is an inspiration to me. He is making beautiful wooden things and selling at craft fairs. I have it in my head that I will get a van and travel around to craft fairs selling spoons and quilts. Anyone have a good old van they want to part with?


Yo! Fresh start, fresh new year.

I’ve got this new website, which I have been turning my eyeballs square to get it up and presentable, and this new website has a bloggy page, which is where I’ll be doing my blogging from now on.  There is so much to say in this new post in this new place – first off, its 2015! And for that I am happy. I love to start something new, and so far every single year I’ve started since I was born I have managed to finish. Thats more than I can say for my quilt projects. I have a few to finish…

Colorful Mittens for large hands

Colorful Mittens for large hands

I haven’t made any new spoons or quilts yet this year, but I have made four mittens. I decided to use some of the yarn that was in this HUGE BAG of yarn that my mom passed on to me to disperse to knitters and knotters who like scraps of wool. I made one mitten, with much help from Kerri, who is a knitting amazement, and then I made a second mitten, but it was a different size, so I made two more mittens using the previously created hand warmers as my models. Pretty good idea, as I managed to get two roughly similar sized pairs of mittens that I could give away (because neither set fit my hands very well). I ran out of the pretty yarn so I couldn’t make any more, but now I have made four mittens, whereas before I had never made any mittens!

I have had a cold/cough/ickfest that has held on since the 12th of December of last year, which is a good enough excuse for me to have made nothing but four mittens so far this year. I am almost all better, I have energy again and I rarely cough anymore, so these next few weeks should be very productive (and I’m not talking mucous – I am so over that). I will set up my new torch so I can learn and practice soldering interspersed with the riveting task of riveting which is how I have made my spoons so far. I have a date set for a show in March, so a deadline to keep me on track, and I have a quilt that needs to be quilted by April, as well as another that JUST NEEDS TO GET DONE, because it has languished for too long on the sewing table.

The one on the bottom of the pile - that is the quilt that needs to get finished.

The one on the bottom of the pile – that is the quilt that needs to get finished.