Can English Paper Piecing go Abstract?

Hi Everybody,

I love the shapes of trees and shrubs when the leaves have gone

The answer is yes, of course it can!

I am going to write this post in a two parts, this first part will be some thoughts on what I mean by Abstract with reference to quilting and to show you one way in which EPP can indeed be used to make an abstract pattern. A second post will include other examples and experiments.

First I want to explore what is meant by Abstract when applied to art and related artistic endeavours like quilting. I don’t have an art background or any training, so I am feeling my way along here. Please feel free to leave comments in the comment section below, if any of what I have said is incorrect, or unclear, or just to add something that’s good to know.

Looking closely at traditional English Paper Piecing or “Patchwork” (as the surface is known without the back and centre wadding that makes it a quilt) it is made up of a combination of shapes. But isn’t abstract art a combination of shapes, too?

Yes, but the really important difference is that, in traditional quilting, those combinations of shapes form Patterns; areas, units or ‘blocks’ of repeated and regular shapes, or decorative designs, arranged in some kind of order across the surface of the quilt. Most quilts showcase a pattern, not an abstract design. Abstract is not about pattern.

Something looking a bit more Abstract are the traditional, English Paper Pieced, “Crazy” quilts; the Art quilts of the Victorian Age that became popular in the 1880’s through 1890’s. Interestingly, like Abstract art, Crazy quilts have the same characteristics of flattened geometry, lack of perspective and planes intersected by strong diagonal lines and both have their roots in Oriental art.

However, although Crazy Quilts are made up of the juxtaposition of many irregular shapes they too are, to a large degree, planned arrangements that simply look haphazard, and still rely on areas of repeated colour, pattern and stitch to create unity. Crazy quilts tended not to contain batting and were tied to a background fabric rather than quilted with a running stitch. This is because they were made mainly for show, often to commemorate an occasion, and never meant to be functional. Crazy Quilting was very popular in North America in the 1890’s, too.

In its broadest sense the term Abstract means to take away or pull away from trying to imitate or represent something we recognise as real, like a person, dog or tree, (though the deviation from reality can be whole or just partial). Only a handful of traditional quilt blocks are representative in the pictorial sense but many are symbolic, in that their patterns use repeated motifs that stand for something and imbue the quilts with meaning.

Let me show you an English Paper Pieced (and stitched) project of mine that incorporates a mixture of what I have said above.

A Combination of Shapes and Stitches

The piece above is made up of haphazard English Paper Pieced shapes sewn together and attached to a painted background fabric. I stitched over the seams in stem stitch and filled a few areas with other decorative stitches. Gaps were left in three places across the centre showing the painted fabric behind. (where the little crosses and rice stitches are). The result is a combination of shapes. I can’t say it is abstract because it contains something that is recognisably a flower (representational), the repeated use of the same patterned fabrics, the repeated use of colour and repeated stitches. What was a random collection of shapes on paper has resulted in a carefully planned pattern.

BUT, what if you turn it over onto the back? Ha ha, I know this is weird but I hope it illustrates my point.

An interesting map of shapes

Here the piece comes closer to abstract with its random shapes and mark making. Each of the uneven shapes in the centre can be (are, on the reverse) English Paper Pieced shapes and the lines going off from the centre can be created by running/quilting stitches that extend outwards from the centre, like a map with a network of rivers.

I find that it’s quite hard to create random shapes. My brain keep wanting to create a pattern. But here is one way to create an EPP abstract pattern without that problem.

Get a piece of paper. Try different papers but something sturdy rather than hard works well. I used handmade Khadi paper, about an A5 size but Cartridge paper may be just as good. Crumple the paper up tightly in your hand. Open it and you will see that you have creases with smooth areas between. Pick up a pencil and draw lines over the creases. The idea is to use the shapes to cover with fabric, EPP style, so you may have to blend two shapes together on the paper if that works better. I merged numbers 13 and 14, together, as well as 16, 17 and 18, because the shapes felt too small and bitty (the small shapes don’t matter if you are going to leave them blank, or fill them with stitching). Do you like the look of it now? Then cut out all the shapes as I did, or just some of the shapes in the centre (as in the photo of the reverse of my piece). You can add gaps and/or lines in later.

This is how the project above began – with a piece of crumpled paper!

Choose your fabrics carefully (solids will work better for this experiment), decide which shapes you will wrap in fabric, baste/tack around the edges of the shapes to secure them and whipstitch them together according to your drawing. You may find Ladder Stitch works better on the pieces that curve away from each other when folded back to back.

These are the English Paper Pieced shapes stitched together and appliquéd onto a piece of blue background fabric, before I added any surface stitching

Then press your shapes on the reverse to create sharp edges, remove your paper inserts and stitch your combination of shapes to some background fabric (like Calico/Muslin in the USA) . Remove your basting stitches and then, if you like, quilt around and away from your shapes.

Of course you could just draw a mass of shapes, cut them out, wrap them in fabric and join them together again but I love how much more random and unexpected the result is when done in this way. It’s your call.

I turned the whole thing around when it was finished. I like it better this way!

I have kept this post fairly general for simplicity and clarity and referred mainly to traditional quilting. That is not to say there were not exceptions to the rule even then. More of that later. As well as some modern abstract quilts. And an experiment or two….

Until then….

Happy Thanksgiving to my followers overseas. It may be a much smaller affair this year but there is joy to be found in small, simple, quiet, moments. And hope.

2 thoughts on “Can English Paper Piecing go Abstract?

    • That’s really interesting Molly, thank you! It seems to me a lot of abstract quilting is improvisational rather than abstract, or is that the same thing? I struggle to truly understand these terms but maybe it doesn’t matter. December greetings from an equally rainy (and windy) Scotland!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.