Quilting Cats and Dogs

It’s been a few days since Quilting Arts April/May 2010 issue hit the newsstands, and many of you may have noticed that this is our animal-themed issue, containing 21 creaturely quilts, Pokey Bolton’s article on “Pet-ty Journal Portraits,” Susan Carlson’s “Freeform Fabric Collage” technique (which she uses to create colorful animal quilts), and a gallery of some of our “Let Out Your Inner Animal!” finalists. Clearly, making quilts of our furry friends is a favorite pastime of many artists. For instance, Quilting Arts Community member Martha Tabis creates cheerful 12″ x 14″ portrayals of cats and dogs that are full of character and reveal a fondness for her four-legged companions. Here, she discusses the animals–and the techniques–behind her pet portraits.   

Please tell us about the subjects of your quilts. Are these your pets (or a friend’s)?

Wiley and Ivy, the Boston terriers (in the front view portraits) were my family’s first pets, so they have a special place in my heart.

Cal (the tabby cat on the yellow background) and Plato (the black cat on the fuchsia background) are friends’ pets. The pieces were Christmas presents, which I made just to try the technique.

What inspired you to do portraits of animals? Is this a typical subject for you, or are these quilts a break from your norm? 

I’ve always loved animals and had many pets as a child.  Several years ago, I started a pet-sitting business after a long career in retailing. I love being around animals, wondering what drives their antics, and enjoying their expressive faces and beautiful coats. I recently took a wool felting class at an alpaca farm and wanted to take home one of these sweet beasts with saucer eyes.

But back to quilting. I had just started to break away from traditional quilting when the cover piece by Karin Winter in the August/September 2008 issue of Quilting Arts inspired me to try her technique for pet portraits [“Being Pet-ty: Quilted pet portraits”]. I couldn’t get the hang of the impressionist look so went for a more photographic look, thread-painting the details with precision. One successful portrait led to another and another, like eating potato chips!

Each of the backgrounds has a very different, very distinct color palette. How did you decide upon these?

The backgrounds reflect each dog’s character. Wiley (on the orange background) was a four-legged wild man: energetic, rambunctious, playful. Ivy (on the hot pink background) could bounce like a spring and found mischief everywhere, but could also morph into a little lady.

Cal, the tabby cat, rests on a soft blue background, reflecting his aloof, independent manner.  Plato, the black and white cat against fuchsia, is a sophisticated fellow.

Please briefly describe the process/processes used to create these portraits.

For all of these pieces, the backgrounds were created by overlapping raw-edge cottons, synthetics, satin, tulle and organza. I used cotton flannel for batting to minimize bulk.  I used minimal free-motion stitching to set the background fabric in place before adding the figures.

For the front-view portraits, I used a photograph as the pattern, printed on tear-away stabilizer and also plain paper. I laid the printed stabilizer over my pieced background and stitched outlines of the animal’s shape and major features. I used the plain paper print to cut out pattern pieces from stabilized fabrics, then fused the pieces to the background. I chose true-to-life fabrics for Wiley and more whimsical prints for Ivy, such as a dot print for the white areas of her face and a floral print for her black areas. The fun part began as I thread-painted each pet’s features and shaded areas.

The back-view portraits started with a photo as well. The animal figure is made of felted wool left over from my rug-hooking days. You can felt garment-weight wool, plentiful at thrift stores, by throwing it in the wash machine with mild soap, hot water and maximum agitation, then tumble drying it. If needed, I’ll overdye the wool as well. I backed the wool with a fusible to prevent fraying, then cut out the image using my photo as pattern. I shaded the wool using fabric paints, oil pastels, and fabric markers. I used fabric glue to attach the figures to the background.

For both styles, I made the fabric sandwich, then quilted the background, and outlined the figure one more time with stitching to add dimension.  

To finish front-view portraits, I bound the edges in the traditional way and mounted them to fabric-covered frames.  For back-view portraits, I zigzagged the quilt edges and added decorative yarn.

Do you have any plans for future pet portraits?

Friends and mentors liked the portraits and encouraged me to sell them, so I started a business this year doing custom work. In fact, this new direction in my art quilting is a story of mentoring and encouragement, from the seed of the idea found in Quilting Arts, to a retreat where a professional told me I “had something” and what to do about it, to a teacher who pushed me to design better, to colleagues in my art quilt groups who just celebrated with me.

I’m drawn to making these portraits by the appeal of interpreting a beloved pet in fabric. It’s a joyous process for me.

Images (from top to bottom)

  • Martha and Rocky
  • Wiley
  • Ivy
  • Cal
  • Plato

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