Talking Quilts with Eli Leon ~ Sarah Turnage

This quilt was pieced by Sarah Turnage of San Francisco and quilted by Mary Thompson and Aurelia Forester.

Quarter Log Cabin by Sarah Turnage

There is so much motion in this quilt that it borders on optical illusion!

The first thing Eli brings to my attention are the two bright reds in the center of the quilt that create a medallion of sorts. They hold the center of the quilt and are flanked by subtle borders.

Notice how the thick brown strip that runs across four blocks the top plays off the skinnier brown strip in the bottom right that runs across two blocks. These constitute a top and bottom frame, or inner border around the reds in the center.

The left border is delineated by a subtle shift of color and scale or rhythm of the blocks. The outer right border is made with strips of solids on the edge that lead to an outer bordered edge of pink on the bottom right.

Notice how there isn’t any white in the blocks bordering the quilt. All the white is contained in the center blocks. This also delineates a sense of the borders.

Eli notes the variable strip widths. Most of the strips and squares are cut evenly but there are a few that are cut wider on one end than the other, these slight irregularities add to the quilt.

The block pattern is a quarter log cabin. Eli believes that the quarter log cabin is unique to the African-American tradition of quilting. He could find no record of this block pattern originating from the Euro-American tradition. It is NOT made by making a log cabin block and cutting it into quarters. Each quarter log cabin block in this quilt was made individually — no two alike.

Not only is each block unique the way the center squares of the blocks come together is always different. Sometimes two squares meet at a seam, sometimes three, sometimes the square runs into strips.

Notice how Sarah uses solids and patterns in this quilt. In the bottom row of the quilt there is a complete mix of fabrics. Eli thinks its undefined. That part of the quilt fades compared to the rest of it. We agree that this is perhaps the weakest section of the quilt, was she trying to do something special or did she just run out of solids? What do you think?

Otherwise the interspersing of solids with prints, especially plaids and stripes add to the boldness and optical nature of the quilt. The flower prints seem like filler to Eli, but I think the pink and green and orange flower print is unexpected and works wonderfully. We both love how the plaids and stripes go in different directions.

Sarah uses all kinds of fabrics, including polyester. These textures add to the quilt. I love how all the lime green is congregated up at the top. The fact that it is not scattered everywhere is a strong design choice.

I also love the quilt’s naturally finished shape. Sarah didn’t just take a ruler and whack off the edges of the quilt to make a straight edge.

Eli insists the name of this quilt is Turkey Breast, because that is how it is listed in some of his notes and in his book, Models of the Mind. However on the tag attached to the quilt Eli listed the name as Turkey Boast.  We disputed the name of the quilt for quite a bit. I think Turkey Boast makes sense because the pattern reminds me of a turkey strutting around. Eli insists that his records record the name as Turkey Breast even though he agrees that it doesn’t make a bit of sense. We both have a good laugh about the pattern name, but whatever the name it’s a spectacular doozy of a quilt. It is unique of its kind.

Listen to our conversation

So what do you see? Please join the conversation! Check out the archive Talking Quilts with Eli Leon for more exclusive insights on improvisational quilts from Eli’s extensive African-American collection.

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25 Responses to Talking Quilts with Eli Leon ~ Sarah Turnage

  1. Pingback: huck’s quilt | Five Gallon Bucket

  2. love this post, thank you so much. I so appreciate a conversation about the rhythms and design of a quilt. Have you seen the book Wild By Design? It’s full of quilts that were unusually bold at the time they were made. On one page is a full photo of the quilt and on the other is a discussion by knowledgeable folks, similar to what you’ve done here. I love the pink and green floral – what a hoot. The printed fabric at the bottom doesn’t bother me at all. I figure it’s the boring part of the quilt that helps balance the over-the-top exuberant part. cheers, ton

    • sherrilynn says:

      I wasn’t aware of that book. Thanks for the lead Tonya. I’m going to keep an eye out for it. I feel somewhat similar about the bottom part of the quilt, and it is what it is after all – but then again a part of me agrees with Eli that it could be an even stronger piece if that area was handled differently. It’s hard to say, but I do love speculating!

  3. Turkey breast makes sense to me. I see the corner square on point , the breast bone rising. The strips are falling away skin. Certainly there are wings and legs all over the place . . .

  4. Linda Sophiasworth says:

    One of our theories is that different materials used at earlier times shrunk at different ways to produce wonkiness. Or that sizzor cut, hand sewn loosely in poor lighting.

    I am pretty sure from reading that the women were accomplished quilt makers, able to make standard and common patterns with skill, so I think the improv was actually planned into design. I don’t believe that this is created solely by reaching into pile pulling out strip, cutting and sewing yield this result. At least I can’t do it. And I have tried! Improv takes some planning and thought. I mean, like, I am seriously considering taking a weekend long course to learn this, so it’s not that easy!!

    • sherrilynn says:

      It’s taken time for some traditional quilters to understand that improvisational quilt making is a highly skilled endeavor – just as skilled as making a mariner’s compass on point – but it’s an entirely different set of skills. I agree completely that it’s a lot more than just randomly pulling out strips and sewing them together – and so would Eli.

      He has hundreds of improvisational quilts but clearly some are much, much, stronger visually than others, and that’s the whole point of these talks is to look at what makes the improvisation exceptional in these quilts.

      Yes there is an element of planning that occurs but it’s a completely different way of planning than the way traditional quilts are planned. It’s a kind of planning that allows for accidents, flow and unexpected outcomes.

      I’d highly recommend this book by Eli that address this topic: Accidentally on Purpose

      You and any quilt maker can most definitely improve their improvisational skills by taking workshops with good teachers… or buying a knowledgable book on the topic. Look for mine in the spring of 2015!

  5. Chesley says:

    So glad to have you back and have another Eli collection post. I LOVE this quilt and its exuberance. I totally adore the quarter log cabin because I feel like it is such an active, engaging adaptation of the design. I feel like it is rooms with open doors and has a freer feeling than traditional log cabins.
    Thank you for sharing, I have been missing your presence on the blog. I know you are book busy, I am very excited to see what you are working on.
    Thanks to Sarah Turnage and Eli.
    Thanks to you and for you and your generosity!

    • sherrilynn says:

      Thanks Chesley,

      Yes I’ve neglected the blog of late because so much creative energy is going towards the book but I’m going to try and pick it up a bit. I appreciate being missed :)

  6. oh, how i love this quilt! i would not have seen the center medallion, delineated by the brown stripe, had Eli not mentioned it! The lower left quadrant of this quilt looks a little weaker than the rest. It seems the maker may have run out of black? Nonetheless, this is my favorite kind of quilt. The more you look, the more you see. Yet it looks so effortless!

  7. What year was this quilt done?
    I completely agree that this is exciting and visually compelling. I would have this quilt in my home and use it daily, just to keep my eye moving and interested.

    What I would still like to know is how the quilt lines were done. I can duplicate curved lines, but it is labor intensive and still comes out stilted. No improv feel

    I currently maintain the difference between my efforts and this work of art, is the same as the diffence between crafts and artistic expression.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Linda, I know it was quilted in 1990 by someone other than the maker. I believe it was quilted after Sarah Turnage’s death. I will ask Eli if he knows the date.

      Good question about the quilting lines. The quilted lines are improvisational as well and seem to be loosely going vertically and then horizontally, not shifting precisely from block to block but generally so. They also vary in width and are not rigidly straight. They certainly were measured by hand and eye, not a ruler.

      I would certainly put this quilt in both categories of craft and artistic expression.

      Thanks for the great questions.

      • Linda Sophiasworth says:

        I misspoke, I meant piecing lines in the blocks.
        The quilting I do understand. . . We use to choose a quilt to be done casually by our group with no or little direction on the quilting. We got these wonderful meandering quilt lines that showed different styles and skills. Also, we would set a frame out during our farm festivals and invited people to sit and quilt. Great time.

        I am baffled by the piecing lines. We have several theories, but I would love to know HOW it is done

        • sherrilynn says:

          I would be interested in hearing more of your theories!

          From my experience the skill of piecing irregular seems comes with time and a sensitivity to the material. The way I do it is to layer my sections in the most natural alignment and then cut away overlaps. I then mark, flip and pin carefully to keep the alignment.

          Also I suspect that this quilt was cut with a scissors and not a rotary cutter.

          • I second the notion that it was done with scissors. I suspect it was casual, not worrying about straight lines and if things match up perfectly. Linda, have you seen Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s Waverunner tutorial? She has you cut uneven wavy strips and just sew them together – not worrying about the curves matching. She makes fabulous quilts that way.

  8. john wiercioch says:

    What a perfect Thanksgiving treat Sherri! Fabulous piece and wonderful discussion on design. I very much enjoy your rapport with Eli! Though we first think of a cooked turkey breast, or a turkey’s broad tail display, I might humbly suggest “Turkey Breast” alludes directly to the breast feathers on a turkey which, (though more subtle in color) has a similar geometric patterning. I can see this better when I envision this piece just as values (in black and white), or if I imagine loose breast feathers (perhaps the maker had plucked some birds in her life?) laid out in random directions on the floor. Thanks for this post and images.

  9. Yes-exuberant is the word! What a fascinating discussion of this quilt. I did not see all that. And Turkey Breast is way too sedate for this quilt-it just has to be Turkey Boast!

  10. tubularsock says:

    I got so lost in the optical illusion quality that I can’t tell the forest from the trees.
    But I find it to be very cheery in personality. What wonderful work.
    Thanks to you and Eli.

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