Visual Systems: The Quilter's Eye Gallery

Repeating a Still-Life Block

In her book, Quilt Studio, Pauline Burbidge uses the process of turning a representational still life into a successful 2-D design as the basis of one of her exercises. Using this lesson with students makes manifest the design foundation in all composition.

Many of the designs in contemporary British quiltmaker Pauline Burbidge’s quilts are the results of natural objects or representational imagery that she altered into abstract compositions and then manipulated into repeating patterns. You can see this in her quilts Spirals I and Spirals II. To create those designs Burbidge constructed a small cardboard model of a spiral staircase. She placed this model between two mirrors set at a 60-degree angle, thus creating endless overlapping repetitions of the stairway. Drawings she made from these mirror images became the basis for the quilt designs.

Burbidge also works from still lifes in a similar manner: a simple still life, rendered from just 2 or 3 objects (or, sometimes one object on a draped background) is first turned into a contour drawing and the basic shapes are defined and filled in, first with grey/black/white to determine the balance in the composition’s values, and then with a limited color palette. Her 1987 quilt Pink Teapot is an excellent example of this method. In Pink Teapot, Burbidge uses a straight set of the repeating block based on a still life that includes the teapot; the only variation from one block to the next is in the colors, which gradually morph and change until the last block is quite different from the first. This example also illustrates on of Burbidge’s most successful tricks with this technique: the use of printed, often striped, fabric as a background in her still lifes. It serves to activate the negative space around the objects and helps the viewer to see it as two-dimensional shapes, flattening out the image in the manner of a Japanese wood block print or a painting by Van Gogh.

Burbidge uses these designs to make quilts by cutting out all the shapes in fabric that has been fused to an iron-on product such as “HeatnBond” (sold in fabric stores). The pieces can then be ironed and fused onto a foundation fabric. She finishes all the raw edges on the sewing machine with a satin stitch and subsequently quilts this top layer to a backing fabric and inner filling (batting).

Click images below to view larger and read more information about some of the quilts included in the exhibit.