Monday, October 25, 2010

Straight piecing patterns that appear curved: Snail's Trail and Kaleidoscope

When it comes to quilt design, we are drawn to dimensionality (such as attic windows and tumbling blocks), color, and movementIn design, movement is often created by curves, or the illusion of curves.  Today we're discussing two tessellating patterns that display the illusion of curves but are made with straight-seam piecing (the best of both worlds !) We've chosen two stunning modern quilts to illustrate the design principles.

Reel Starz, 74 x 91, by Gail Hansen, at Textures - Fiber Artists

We first saw the dazzling "Reel Starz" at the Road to California in January, 2010 and we fell in love with the quilt. Gail Hansen used hundreds of luscious fabrics to create a color wash, which moves from purple and magenta to indigo, blue, aqua, and green.  The white, ivory and cream stars appear to hover above the darker background, creating a three-dimensional effect. "Reel Starz" won the honorable mention award in the traditional, large, pieced category at Road to California; it was also juried into the 2010 Pacific International Quilt Festival. In the photo shown below you also can see the quilting, which was done by Judy Woodworth (Gering, NE).  She used beautiful variegated thread in the colored parts of the quilt and then added interest in the white/cream areas with circles or bubbles somewhat randomly placed.

Gail Hansen began working on "Reel Starz" at a family quilt retreat in 2008, and the quilt was completed in 2009. The family quilt retreat has become a tradition in which Gail, her mother, and 2 sisters meet in Nebraska to work on a predetermined project - each on her own - for 3 - 5 days. In her artist's statement, Gail says: "Reel Starz exemplifies my love of color and family."  Her family celebrated their 13th annual "Quiltathon" this past summer !" The core snail's trail block in "Reel Starz" is highlighted below.

With respect to naming:  Gail Hansen's "Reel Starz" was based on Shakespeare in the Park by Judy Martin, which combines Virginia Reel with Rising Star and Evening Star blocks.  Most of us would recognize the block shown above as Snail's Trail, but it is also known in The Quilt Index as Virginia Reel, and occasionally as Monkey Wrench. Note that a similar pattern with a small 4-patch in the middle is known by the same names. To add to the complex nomenclature, the names Monkey Wrench and Virginia Reel have been used to describe several other, totally different blocks* !

Organic Kaleidoscope, by Jennifer Tucker, at A Few Choice Words

Jennifer Tucker has created a spectacular modern quilt based on a kaleidoscope quilt block. "Kaleidoscope" uses straight piecing, but it creates the illusion of curves and overlapping circles.  Jen selected the beautiful, pure colors to represent the tropical flowers of Costa Rica, where she lives. In Jen's design, the colors cross the block boundaries, so the blocks are simply a means of construction rather than the focus of the design.  We also love the diagonal movement of dark to light values across the quilt. Here is a wonderful photo of the quilt in progress on Jen's design wall:

The individual kaleidoscope blocks are based on a grid of alternating dark and light triangles that form a continuous pattern when the blocks are set together. The image below is from Jen's initial design on EQ, and you can clearly see the secondary circular design that appears when the blocks are tiled together: 

We loved reading Jen's descriptions of her design process at  Here are her individual posts about Organic Kaleidoscope:  initial design on EQ; selecting fabrics; cutting triangles; laying out on the design wall; discussing (in comments) how many seams it takes to make a quilt out of 756 triangles; debating (again in comments) which orientation the quilt should have; final tweaks to the layout; constructing the top; and quilting.

Finally, have you ever thought about taking a quilt retreat and seeing Costa Rica at the same time ?  You can read about the retreats, which are hosted by Jennifer Tucker and Rita Ulloa, at The Costa Rica Quilt Retreat (now that sounds like fun !)

Image credits and additional resources: Images are shown with the generous permission of the artists.  
Snail's Trail/Virginia Reel:   *For block nomenclature, see Jinny Beyer, The Quilter's Album of Patchwork Patterns: 4050 Pieced Blocks for Quilters, p. 342.   
Kaleidoscope: A variety of different kaleidoscope blocks can be found in Jinny Beyer's book. Quilts based on the classic block shown in "Organic Kaleidoscope" can also be found in Kaleidoscope ABCs: 14 Step-by-Step Patterns.  In recent years, the term "kaleidoscope quilt" has been applied to quilts that mimic the appearance of repeating patterns as seen through a kaleidoscope. Such "kaleidoscopic" designs require a set of identical pieces cut from a print fabric to make hexagons, octagons, or more complex polygons.  In the latter case, the design focus is on the repeating fabric pattern, rather than on the circular designs formed by the tiled blocks. See for example Kaleidoscopes and Quilts by Paula Nadelstern, Magic Stack-n-Whack Quilts by Bethany Reynolds, and One-Block Wonders: One Fabric, One Shape, One-of-a-Kind Quilts by Maxine Rosenthal.


  1. Thanks so much for the lovely writeup! I've posted the link on my blog & Facebook, hopefully some of my quilty friends will stop by :)

  2. Jennifer, we've been savoring your quilt for quite a long time ! We are so pleased to have the opportunity to feature it here. Thanks for your help and for the inspiration !

  3. I quite like patterns that appear curved but are in fact straight piecing, and the secondary patterns that appear with different colours can really change the quilt. Another one that springs to mind is Storm at Sea.

  4. Pip, Thanks for your comment Great minds think alike (LOL). Storm at Sea is definitely on our list. We've been saving up some lovely ones in our archive.


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