photo of Roxanne Nelson's portrait quilt, Ruby

Made From the Heart

Roxanne Nelson
Autumn 2018

The best inspiration comes from the heart. Ruby was our family matriarch – a loving wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Always a twinkle in her eye, a hint of a smile, a warm and generous heart; this is Ruby. She is wearing her signature red dress, which matches her name; a favourite brooch completes her outfit and she is ready for whatever the day brings – perhaps a trip to the fabric store!

Ruby is my first portrait quilt featuring a person as the subject. I completed a number of quilts with parrots as the focus and I was daunted to take on a real person. The quilt was completed just before the deadline for the 2018 National Juried Show. I entered, hoping to gain some valuable feedback. I was absolutely thrilled when I found out Ruby was juried into the show – then to be awarded second place in the Art | Portrait | Wall Quilts category is truly an honour. The judges’ critiques provided thoughtful insights I can apply to future quilts. The National Juried Show is a great source of inspiration for all quilters. Thank you to all the volunteers who work so tirelessly in making this an incredible event.

The challenge of portraits, with both humans and animals, is capturing the spirit of the subject and conveying the personality, which makes each of us unique. The process of creating a realistic portrait begins with the selection of the right image. Two components are necessary for success: first, the image is meaningful and, second, there is enough clarity and resolution to support enlargement.

The steps for creating a pattern require the use of photo-editing software. Photoshop®, Gimp® or even Microsoft Word® will provide the necessary tools to create the pattern. First, convert the image into a jpeg file format. Using your preferred software, apply a filter that will produce a posterized or cutout version of the image. This step divides your image into distinct areas based on colour changes, much like a paint-by-number. I position a Mylar® sheet over the image to draw the shapes and identify the colours.

photo of a portrait quilt construction

The drawing is enlarged to the size of the finished portrait, along with a mirror image printout.

photo of a construction detail for a portrait quilt

I use Lite Steam-A-Seam 2® to position the fabric on a parchment-paper foundation that overlays the enlarged pattern. Lite Steam-A-Seam 2 allows me to reposition the fabric pieces until I am ready to fuse them into place. The pattern is a guide to the structure of the face, but I am not confined by the sections. All sections are divided into multiple fabrics to create a painterly effect and allow for the introduction of unusual and interesting fabric selections.

photo of a construction detail for a portrait quilt

By choosing a fabric that carries a colour into another section, the transition is very natural. Not every choice is a good one; fabrics are rejected and new ones auditioned many times. I am not afraid to fill an area with multiple layers of fabric. Some fabric needs tweezers in order to be positioned – no fabric piece is too small! Choosing the right piece of fabric allows it to work on many levels. Using fabric with stripes, curves and strong lines helps build texture and structure in Ruby’s hair, as well as add colour and depth.

My camera is a great tool to show how the work is progressing and provides an unbiased view of the fabric relationships. Interest comes from the unexpected. I started Ruby using neutrals, but my fabric stash is filled with jewel tones. When considering value, purple can be the new black and green the new beige. Quilters have long known the importance of values when selecting fabric colours to add punch or refinement to a project. The exciting and challenging steps are incorporating the vibrant colours to support the neutrals. A value finder and grey scale help select dynamic colours, yet maintain true value levels.

photo of construction detail for a portrait quilt

The quilt is completed by sewing around each fabric piece using a feather stitch with invisible thread. The stitching helps blend the transitions and flatten the fabric. The tiny needle perforations add subtle texture that reinforces the details of the face.

photo of portrait quilt detail, Ruby
The background is a collage of my favorite colours with the brightest around her face and the darker receding to give depth.

Ruby was truly a labour of love that engaged me for two wonderful years of discovery and growth. Take a risk, try something new, make mistakes, have fun and you will be amazed at the results.

photo of Ruby, a portrait quilt

Quilt Canada July 19-22, 2023

Quilt Canada July 19-22, 2023

Quilt Canada July 19-22, 2023 in Edmonton, Alberta