Ready to up your game? Techniques for art quilts (+ sale)

Ornamental Pear by Jane Dunnewold
“Ornamental Pear” by Jane Dunnewold

What connects us as quiltmakers? Creativity. We all intrinsically possess an artist within us; the trick is learning how to coax her out and get her to wildly dance under the mirror ball. For some of us, a feeling of intimidation builds at the thought of walking our own creative path. Soon the “what ifs” kick in: what if the things don’t end up looking like they do in my head? What if I get stuck and don’t know what to do? What if it’s not “art” at all…what if it’s awful?

Lizard pillow by Linda Kemshall
“Lizard Pillow” by Linda Kemshall

Make no mistake: if you’re a quilter, you’re dabbling in art. Ask an art quilter what you need to become more of an “artist” and she’ll likely say creativity, yes—but an arsenal of techniques can feed that creativity. If intimidation is what’s keeping the artist in you from seeing the light of day, new techniques are a way to inspire, excite, and help springboard your creativity onto cloth.

Untitled quilt by Sherrill Kahn
Untitled quilt by Sherrill Kahn

Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder—it can be traditional, contemporary, or anywhere in between and beyond. It can be whatever you want. Today we present ideas to help you step out of the box, try something new, and enjoy the process. Forget restraints, rules, and regrets—don’t be shy! Take a look. You just might feel that artist in you begin her dance.


Technique #1: Create your own cloth

Complex Cloth“I tell my students, as I am telling you, to look up, look down, look all around. The world is a miraculous and fascinating place, and ideas are everywhere.”

—Jane Dunnewold, author of Complex Cloth: A Comprehensive Guide to Surface Design

If you’ve ever dreamed about designing your own fabric, Jane Dunnewold’s Complex Cloth will give you the tools you need to do it. Dive into chapters on dyeing, painting, bleaching, foiling, silk screening, stenciling, stamping fabric and more, and then layer all of the above! Considered a classic surface-design bible by artists of all kinds, Jane’s guidebook makes each process easily doable with step-by-step instructions and photographs. Don’t let any of the techniques mentioned above scare you—this is a whole lot of fun!

Example from Complex Cloth: Pattern Techniques for an Immersion Dyebath

Pattern techniques for an immersion dyebath
Pleating, bunching, and folding

Pattern techniques for an immersion dyebath 2
Pole wrap and tying circles (top row); finished fabric patterning (bottom)

Customer reviews for Complex Cloth from Amazon.com:

  • “I find myself returning to this book again and again, not just for the excellent instructions, but for the glorious pictures as well.”
  • “If this book doesn’t get your creative juices going, you need taxidermy.”
  • “Everything is explained so clearly and the author is so encouraging that I didn’t feel intimidated at all.”
  • “I couldn’t have placed my newfound interest into more capable hands.”
  • “Certainly one of the best books of its time.”

Find more fun inspiration in Complex Cloth >


Technique #2: Use unexpected materials

Creative Mixed Media“I loved writing this book. It was a journey of discovery. I experimented with common products that we use every day and found fascinating new uses for them. These finds made me realize that anything is possible if you’re open to experimenting. Look around your home for items that could be used in a new way. Think outside the box. Through experimentation, your work will grow and you’ll have great fun in the process.”

—Sherrill Kahn, author of Creative Mixed Media: Paint Print Stitch Stamp Embellish

Painting with combs and plastic take-out knives? Using an electric griddle to melt crayons? Creating batiks with children’s glue? It may all sound a bit like child’s play—and perhaps it is!—but the results of Sherrill’s play are stunning. Beyond techniques that use a surprising variety of common resources, Sherrill also shares tips for arranging elements to make a final work of art that really says “wow!” Here are a few of her composition tips.

From Creative Mixed Media

Customer reviews for Creative Mixed Media from Amazon.com:

  • “This book is magical because it instantly awakened the creative person that seemed to be sleeping.”
  • “Inspiration by the bucket-load, easy-to-follow instructions, superb photographs… new ways of doing things, incredible composition and so much more.”
  • “The colors and designs literally leap off the page!”
  • “…so much ‘eye candy’ in here, as well as new techniques and ideas.”
  • “Sherrill, you have fired my creative imagination!”

Get inspired by Creative Mixed Media >


Technique #3: Adorn, bedeck, garnish—embellish!

Creative Embellishments“In this book, I share techniques that can be used for embellishing all kinds of projects. Use it as a starting point, and don’t be afraid to try anything and everything with your art. Live by the phrase ‘What if?’ and let it guide you. Make each moment count and try something new each day. But most of all, have fun!”

—Sherrill Kahn, author of Creative Embellishments: For Paper, Jewelry, Fabric, and More

Sherrill is known for her avant-garde techniques—tips and tricks that’ll have you digging through your kitchen cabinets and your designated junk drawer for supplies. In Creative Embellishments, Sherrill starts with her own take on painting and stamping techniques; then she leaps into imaginative ways to embellish your art. Need dimension? A punch of color? A swoosh of excitement? Sherrill’s magic embellishment wand will give you loads of ideas.

Example from Creative Embellishments: Fabric Beads from Drinking Straws

Fabric beads from drinking straws
Step-by-step photos from the book

Fabric beads on canvas by Sherrill Kahn
Untitled piece with fabric beads on canvas by Sherrill Kahn

Customer reviews for Creative Embellishments from Amazon.com:

  • “This book is the epitome of eye candy, but unlike candy, it packs an artistically nutritional punch.”
  • “The book is meant to give your brain a nice creative jolt and start flying off with your own ideas of what to use with the stash you may have.”
  • “I was totally blown away by this book—it has everything I have wanted to know about embellishment techniques.”
  • “Inspirational. Essential to an artist’s library.”

Discover more amazing techniques in Creative Embellishments >


Technique #4: Transfer your ideas onto fabric (literally!)

Color Moves“When I began to write this book, I really thought I knew all I needed to know to put it together. However, I quickly found myself heeding the advice that I continually give my students—take nothing for granted; experiment; sample; question; keep records of outcomes, both good and bad, and if you have even half an idea that something might work, then just do it.”

—Linda Kemshall, author of Color Moves: Transfer Paints on Fabric

If commercial fabrics make you feel like you’re stuck inside a box, there’s a way to create your own patterned fabric filled with motifs of your choosing. In Color Moves, you’ll learn how to create original designs on paper first, and then apply them to fabric with transfer paints, inks, dyes, pens, and crayons. The process is as simple as applying color to paper, then transferring and fixing the color to fabric with heat. After you learn the basics, a whole new world of original fabric design is just a hot iron away!

Example from Color Moves: Stencils and Masks

Stencils and masks on fabric
Cut paper in the shape of square spirals to create the patterned fabric on the left; make positive and negative prints with any motif you desire, like this paper feather (right).

Stencils and masks on fabric 2
Instead of appliqué, cut intricate mask shapes from freezer paper; then iron to photocopy paper in preparation for fabric transfer (left). Let your imagination run wild—how about patterning fabric with pretty paper doily motifs (right)?

Customer reviews for Color Moves from Amazon.com:

  • “I have been looking all over for books on transfer painting to cloth. This is worth it.”
  • “Everything this woman touches is gorgeous and creative.”
  • “Detailed enough to get the beginning student inspired as well as some interesting ideas for the seasoned fabric-transfer veteran.”

Learn more about the fun you can have with transfer paints in Color Moves >


What have you done lately to enrich your creativity? Share your inspiration in the comments!


8 Comments (leave a comment)

  • I have started crocheting snowflakes, then appliqueing them onto fleece scarves. So many variations, so little time.

    —Lynne on November 25, 2013
  • W O W! !! !Ya know, I’ve been screen printing for years I was the artist at a t-shirt shop.I’m getting Creative Mixed Media & Complex Cloth!THANKS

    —jeanette on November 25, 2013
  • "Thank you for asking!" Although I am not creating fabric, I
    am choosing beautiful "Holiday Themed Fabric" and "Through the Year
    Fabric" to make pillowcases for travel pillows for Grandchildren and Great Neices and Nephews for (1)Christmas and (2) for "Through the Year"! Wether it is in the family car or in a school bus, the pillows
    are greatly used. Several years ago, I dyed some muslin and feed sacks
    using the brine of oak tree nut shells. Mary Arline

    —Mary Arline Smith on November 25, 2013
  • I, first learned, screen painting in Bible School. I drew two horses facing each other and cut them out leaving the background intact. I "painted" one horse black and the other a chestnut red color. Using my same paper template, I traced the horses on a secondary piece of paper and cut out around them exposing the background area only and left a 5/8ths inch border around the outside paper edges. After gently pinning down the paper horses and my entire template, I used light green paint to screenpaint the entire area. I kept "my creation" until I learned to machine sew, and using decorative stitches, I attached this screen painted square to a bluejean jacket.
    I screened painted leaves and a few flowers after that, but left that phase of my creativity behind. All these books are well worth thier price for those quilters, who have never created this way.

    Keep smiling,

    Lynnita Shipman on November 25, 2013
  • I came across the Quilter’s Blogs last week. Wow! seeing quilts & craft from all over the world. The creativity displayed gave my own creativity juices quite a stir.

    —Sheila Ivany on November 27, 2013
  • I have owned all of these books for a few years and wouldn’t part with them. I can’t recommend these books enough to others. Get them all, you won’t regret it!

    —Kim Boyd on November 29, 2013
  • My muslin will never look the same again.

    —CindyM on November 29, 2013
  • Nice job, Jenny! Love the art quilt focus.

    —Chris on October 28, 2014

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