Presenting: Wheel of the World

My first honest-to-goodness commissioned quilt is finished! Here is Wheel of the World:

front of quilt showing a colorful mandala of birds and plants on a black background
Wheel of the World (2019)

If you live in the Pacific Northwest and you want to see it in person, it will be hanging in the Everett Quilt Show next week (April 25-27) in Everett, WA.

This quilt began its journey nearly two years ago with a Facebook post about another of my quilts and a friend who asked, “Do you take commissions?” I already had a full time job, nine other quilting projects underway (including a baby quilt for a now-20-year-old) and I had never done a commission before, so of course I said “Sure!” and arranged to meet her one sunny day in August. Or possibly November. One sunny day looks much like another in Sonoma County.

Over lunch at the Redwood Cafe we talked about what my friend was searching for. She’s always loved mandalas, and I had an idea for how to bring one to life, and so we agreed. Now all I had to do was make it.

With one thing and another, almost a year went by before I was able to begin work on it. I started by making some rough sketches, but I quickly realized that the quilt’s design would be strongly influenced by the fabrics I selected, so I changed my approach. I went through my stash, browsed fabrics online, and visited my local quilt shop. I looked for fabrics with repeating motifs that could be fussy cut to form the structure of the mandala, not yet knowing how I would fill it in.

A few of the sketches I created throughout the project

The mandala is a traditional design form that has a rich spiritual history. The word mandala is Sanskrit and means circle (and I’ve been mispronouncing it my whole life; the stress should be on the first syllable, MAN-da-la, not the second as I’ve tended to say it). Mandalas carry many meanings, often representing the universe and wholeness, and are used as a focus for meditation and spiritual reflection. In designing this piece I wanted to be respectful of the history of the mandala, even though my expression of it would necessarily be a departure from the mandala’s traditional use and appearance.

I began when I found a piece of turquoise fabric with a star-shaped motif that I loved. The motif is complex enough to anchor the center no matter what I did in the outer parts of the design. You can see it in all the photos; it’s one of the few times I made a design decision in this quilt that lasted all the way through the process without changing. After choosing that, I started cutting out motifs from different fabrics and trying them out.

One of my earliest plans was to use abstract designs and make a wheel of color that progressed all the way around the mandala. I was going to offset the colors so the background of one ray informed the colors in its neighbor. I started by picking up the yellow-green and orange colors from one ray and using them on the next ray over, the one with the green background. But on the very first ray I realized the colors and shapes kept making me think of spring flowers, so I changed my plan midstream and explored a seasonal theme instead.

From that point, I sketched seasonal plants and then cut them from fabric freehand. In the photo below you can see the spring foliage ray is complete and I’m working on summer, which will go in the ray with the blue background. I’ve got my summer fabric palette spread out on the left, my sketches in the middle, and the pieces I’ve cut out on the small design board in the lower left. The tracing paper is there to protect the finished part of the mandala so I don’t accidentally drop fabric trimmings in there or pull up any of the pieces.

fabric in shades of green, a sketch of leaves, and some cut fabric leaves
Working on summer foliage from sketches

The four foliage rays took a couple of months to complete. I would sketch the leaves and blossoms, cut them from fabric, arrange them, walk away, come back, pull some leaves out, add new ones, take photos, look at the photos small on my phone and huge on my computer, and then do it all again. For weeks. Sometimes I used prints of leaves and flowers and sometimes I collaged them from scratch — there’s a mix in the final quilt.

That was one of the easiest times during the process. I had a plan, I knew what to do next, and if I just kept at it eventually I’d have all four foliage rays finished. I worked on that all through the winter in my new quilting space in Seattle.

Eventually I had four complete rays with seasonal foliage, and four empty rays with no idea of what to put in them. In this photo, you can see that I’ve started to put pieces of fabric in the empty rays, but there’s no real plan here yet.

four rays of the mandala filled with seasonal foliage (fabric collage)
Four seasons of foliage complete

I knew I wanted something that would continue the seasonal theme but be a little different from the foliage. Whatever I chose needed to be small-scale so the whole piece would be cohesive — so no large animals, for example — and I wanted to keep the nature theme going. I considered fish at one point but I didn’t see a way to differentiate the four rays, other than having four different kinds of fish. I thought of the way a mandala can represent the cosmos, and I considered starscapes and planets.

This was one of the toughest parts of the project. There were days when I had to force myself to sit down for 15 minutes and try something — anything. I sketched ideas, cut fabric, put it in place, got frustrated, and walked away. I left the mandala on my design table (which is pretty much in the middle of the apartment) so that I’d see it every time I walked by… and so that I had no room to start another project just to make myself feel less stuck. I looked at photos of the seasons online, trying to find inspiration.

I also thought back to the places I’ve lived where there really were four distinct seasons (unlike northern California and this part of Washington). I remembered that when I was little I would watch for the birds that came during different seasons — the robin in the spring, cardinals and chickadees in the winter. I decided to sketch a bird and give it a try. I found some beautiful batik fabric that looked like feathers, and my first little bird came to life perched on a branch surrounded by leaves and berries.

a fabric collage of a brown bird on a branch with some crabapples
Autumn bird taking shape

Hurray! I had a plan again! Back on firmer ground. Now to figure out what to put in there with the bird so that each of these rays would look as vibrant as the foliage ones, but without repeating the same foliage.

The backgrounds needed to be lush and complex, but at the same time they needed to not overwhelm the birds. The cardinal in particular was tricky because the bare-branches-of-winter idea was very firmly fixed in my mind, but the bare branches didn’t look very appealing in the quilt. This one went through a couple of stages before I settled on the red and green leaves and berry-covered branch.

If you click one of the images in the grid below it will bring up a gallery that you can page through to compare one of my first attempts with the one that finally stuck.

There were a few times where I built out a section (sometimes quite a large one, as you can see in the yellow foliage ray below) and then realized it wasn’t what I wanted and pulled it apart. All part of the creative process, which is easy to say looking back. There was definitely some frustration in the moment 🙂

The process was rewarding as well as frustrating, of course. As I finished each bird, I took a photo and texted it to my sister and a couple of close friends. They celebrated with me in secret — I was keeping pictures of this quilt off social media (mostly) so that the surprise would not be spoiled for my friend.

The gallery below shows a little of the progression of the design from start to finish.

When the center was finally finished, I took a photo of it and imported it into Photoshop so I could try out different backgrounds. I had two clear ideas that I thought would work, but once I mocked them up it was obvious they were both very, very wrong. Since one of the ideas involved cutting and piecing a complicated pattern out of 15 different fabrics, I was very glad I tried it out digitally first instead of wasting all that time and fabric.

In the end, I settled on a deep black background which shows off the colors beautifully. I cut shapes from solid colors that match the background of each segment, extending the mandala into the black space but keeping it very simple so the focus remains on the lush center medallion. I also mocked up a few designs for the quilting using Illustrator so I could get an idea of what might work to support and set off the mandala without distracting from it.

a colorful fabric mandala on a black background
The completed mandala center arranged on the black background

I pieced the center from four squares of black fabric because I wanted the seams to divide the top into quadrants to support the quilting design. Then I placed the finished medallion and the outer shapes on the black background, and the top was complete.

Of course, there was still a lot to do at this point, starting with making the backing. I wanted to celebrate the fabrics that appear in the top, many of which are hard to identify on the front because of the way they were fussy cut. So I cut freehand, improv-style strips of a few of my favorites, arranged them in a spectrum, and sewed them together to make one long strip. I trimmed it to 5 1/2″ wide and offset it on the backing so it runs vertically down one side. The top of the strip fades into the background fabric because it’ll be covered by the hanging sleeve.

With the top and backing done, I was ready to layer and pin baste it for quilting. I chose black batting to avoid any bearding of white batting on the dark fabrics. Since I don’t have a lot of space to spread out quilts for basting, I used a fantastic method of basting on a table that I learned from Amelie Scott’s video shared on Quilting Digest. It works for any size quilt and I never have to bend over!

This quilt is unusual in that it isn’t pieced and it isn’t exactly appliqué. It’s a type of fabric collage that I learned from Susan Carlson‘s books and videos. There are many tiny pieces that would be distorted by sewing around the edges. Instead, the pieces are tacked in place with a light glue and the whole quilt top is covered with a piece of black tulle. The quilting goes right through the tulle, and it holds all the small pieces in place. In the gallery below, you can see where I layered the tulle onto the quilt top in the quilt sandwich.

And now the scariest part of the project had arrived: time to quilt it. I am always slightly afraid that I’m going to ruin a quilt by quilting it, but I persevere because I want to get better. So I loaded it onto my domestic sit-down Juki and took the plunge.

close up of a sewing machine needle in a quilt top with some quilting completed
Starting to quilt…

I started in the center and worked my way out, and I was amazed at the results. The quilting added beautiful texture to the repeating shapes. It defined and extended the leaves, branches, and berries. I say this in all humility — it really was a surprise to me and I feel like I somehow lucked into doing it right.

The center took a long time to quilt because I switched thread colors often, using matching thread on the top. For the bobbin, I curated a set of darker colors that would mostly blend with the backing but not show too much on the top, just in case. I buried the ends of all the threads by hand for a neat and finished look.

Once the center was done, I moved on to the black background. I had marked only a few lines — the circle around the medallion, of course, since there’s no way I was going to attempt to freehand that; and a set of diagonal guides in each quadrant, radiating from the circle to the corners and edges.

I started by echoing close to the edge of the medallion and following its organic shape to set it off from the background. Once that was done, I used my walking foot to quilt the double circle that sets the center off from the edges. Then I used my free-motion foot to create a meandering fill between the inner circle and the edge of the medallion, working my way around the minaret motifs.

For all the background quilting I used black thread, a good choice because it blends in and creates subtle texture without being distracting, and a bad choice because my sewing machine faces a window and there were some beautiful sunny days when I could not see a thing that I was doing since the black thread and the black tulle and the black top are all pretty much exactly the same color. I had to close the blinds against the sun (I think that’s actually a crime here in Seattle) while I did the meandering design between the circle and the edge of the medallion, and even then I was never absolutely sure that I wasn’t crossing a previous line of quilting.

It took about four days to quilt all of that, and then I had the rest of the background to fill in. I planned to use a pattern of close channel quilting radiating from the circle to the edges. The lines would run directly to each corner of the quilt, echo to each side, and meet as angles along the seams that divided the top into quarters. I started by creating anchor lines about 2 inches apart — I marked each of these so I could be sure they would be straight and parallel to each other and meet correctly at the seams.

Once that was done, I was very, very tempted to stop. I left the quilt draped over my work table for a couple of days while I tried to decide whether to stop there or to keep going. Stopping was attractive because I knew it would take ages to fill in the channel quilting lines. Continuing was attractive because it matched my original vision and I had a gut feeling it was the right thing to do. I looked at the quilt. I wavered.

Finally my husband snapped me out of it by pointing out that the texture of the tulle over the background was very prominent in the open spaces between the anchor lines, but almost invisible everywhere else in the quilt. He was totally right. So I loaded the quilt back into the machine, filled a few fresh bobbins, and got going.

It took 32 hours — 32 actual hours of quilting, spread over five days — to do all the channel quilting. Each line is separately quilted starting at the circle and running off the edge of the quilt. Each pair of threads was buried by hand at the circle end of each line. There are six lines of channel quilting between each pair of anchor lines.

But when I looked at the finished, fully quilted piece, I knew it was the right thing to have done.

I love the way the quilting adds such beautiful texture to the center. Again, it feels like a lucky freak accident, but hey, I’ll take it.

detail of the mandala center showing quilting texture
Detail of the partially-quilted center

When the light hits the quilt just right, the tulle sparkles and deepens the colors. I didn’t have much luck photographing the effect, but you can get a hint of it in the second photo below.

detail of quilt top
Detail of the quilting
quilt top in the sun highlighting the quilted texture
Showing off the texture in the sunshine

And here’s the fully quilted top, ready to trim and bind Almost.

fully quilted mandala quilt
Quilting complete (but top not yet trimmed)

The last step before binding was to block the quilt to make it square and flat. This is commonly done for show quilts and wall hangings like this one, but not for bed quilts that will be washed. Since I already planned to enter this piece in the Everett Quilt Show I knew I would be blocking it. The only problem is that in order to block a quilt, you have to get it wet… and the center of this quilt cannot get wet.

The tiny pieces that are glued down would come unglued. They might shift, they might fray, the sky would probably fall down, I don’t know, there might be collapsing mountains… just can’t do it.

But the dense quilting had definitely introduced some little ripples at the edges that I wanted to flatten out, so I decided to do what I could. I bought a couple sets of interlocking foam sheets that are used for blocking knitting projects and hooked them together to make a large enough space. Then I set up my ironing board next to my worktable to make a surface large enough to support the blocking pad. I spread the quilt on the blocks, grabbed a spray bottle, and took a deep breath.

Using my hand to shield the medallion, I sprayed the outer part of the background to dampen it. Then I gently pulled the quilt into shape, measuring it to make sure it was square. I secured the edges with T-pins and hope, and I waited for it to dry.

Success! Two days later, it was dry and very flat. I trimmed the edges, made the label, and attached the binding.

corner of quilt back showing a label that reads, "Wheel of the World by Rachel Smith, March 2019"
Preparing to bind – label is in place!

After that, nothing remained but some focused time with a roll of tape and a lint brush to get the cat hair off. Here is the finished, bound quilt.

photo of a completed quilt draped over a table
The finished, bound quilt draped over a table

The quilting even looks good on the back!

close lines of quilting on the back of the quilt
Detail of strip on back of quilt
close lines of quilting on the back of the quilt
Detail of back of quilt

And here’s a corner with the binding. This photo was taken after I folded the quilt, put it in a pillowcase, put that in a suitcase, and took it on an airplane to show my friend. It’ll be flat again after a gentle press from the back with a cool iron (tulle, remember?).

My friend saw her quilt for the first time hanging on the wall in the hallway of the hotel where I was staying. (I put it up with removable tape.)

She loved it.

corner of a quilt showing quilting and binding
Detail of corner & binding

Welcome, Wheel of the World! It’s been a journey. I’m glad you’re here.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Carleen Brigley says:

    SO BEAUTIFUL!

    1. Rachel says:

      Thank you, Carleen! I appreciate your taking the time to comment!

  2. Sonja Stone says:

    This is truly extraordinary. Absolutely your best work yet!

    1. Rachel says:

      Oh, thank you! Still working on yours… 😉

  3. Deborah Wilson says:

    What a wonderful journey! Thank you for sharing it. It is a really beautiful quilt. Congratulations

    1. Rachel says:

      Thanks so much!

  4. Laurie Benn says:

    This is absolutely SPELL-BINDING!!! Your talent is out of this world! I have never seen such a beautiful quilt – EVER! And it was fascinating to be able to read all about your journey to create it – WOW, just WOW! Truly a work of art and LOVE!

    1. Rachel says:

      Thank you, Laurie!

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