TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Inter-American Quilt Project by Allison Svoboda and Rachel Biel

A little over a year ago, I had the pleasure of working on a joint quilt commission with my friend, Allison Svoboda. The project, funded by the Chicago Cubs charitable arm, Cubs Care, was part of a larger arts grant made to the Inter-American School, a bi-lingual magnet school in Chicago's public school system. Allison's daughters, Emma and Bella, attend this school and Allison has been an active parent, volunteering to teach art classes and working with other teachers and parents on school projects. Allison was also instrumental in securing the grant by writing the proposal, getting presentations together and working with others on what the monies would fund.

Allison next to the finished panels.

Our joint project involved making three queen-size panels that would hang in one of the school's corridors. Allison painted topographical maps of the world on silk and then I did the quilting. She also led a workshop with the 2nd grade class where they made collaged self-portraits of themselves using a photo of their heads and cut outs from National Geographic magazines.

The bi-lingual English and Spanish school has a large percentage of kids of Latino descent. Thus, the curriculum emphasizes the history of the Americas. The central panel attempted to capture this by focusing in on the Americas with a large collage of photos of American history, natural landscapes, and events held at the school. The two side panels remained mainly topographical with the collaged kids portraits weaving on currents of words relevant to the school's mission.

Left Panel
Central Panel

Right Panel

Neither Allison nor I had ever worked on such a large project. We found several challenges along the way. Allison painted on 45" wide silk widths. Since we working over the phone and via e-mail from two different states (Illinois and Kentucky), it was hard for both of us to problem solve all of the little or big issues that might come up. Of course, we got better with each panel. There is a major learning curve visible on the first one we did, the Left Panel. The Bering Strait is so close you could step over it! We didn't leave enough room for sewing the yardage together. Oh, well...

Allison's color palette is so different from mine. I tend to work in more vibrant, earthy colors. It was a pleasure to collaborate in this way, although I was scared to death that I was going to mess something up beyond the point of any repair. I also felt challenged with my work space, which is too small for such a large piece. I used cotton batting, the Heirloom adhesive type if I remember correctly and a muslin backing. I did some basting, a lot or pinning and worked from the center out. It was a lot of bulk to manage, heavy, and slippery because of the silk. I used rubber tipped gloves to control it.

My poor new Bernina had a huge work out!

I used King Tut #40 variegated threads for the top and a cotton off-white of the same weight for the back. I loved King Tut- it was the first time I had used so much of it and it flowed like butter. I changed colors depending on the currents, glaciers, and landscapes. I told Allison we would have to re-do the quilt in 10 years with global warming changing our topography so quickly!

The Central Panel was a huge challenge. Allison made a collage, photographed it and transfered it on to fabric that was printed on 8.5x11 sheets. They overlapped each other and I had to figure out a way to cut them, re-arrange them and make them look as close to her original collage as possible. I found this hard to sew and the tension kept going out of whack.

I was also worried about the panel not hanging correctly because of quilting with less density, but it was fine when we finally hung it. I went up to Chicago with the three finished pieces (I thought I was pretty much done!) only to find that Allison had these kids she wanted added on. Well, I knew she wanted some, but when I got there, there were dozens of them! To give you an idea of scale, each one was also printed on an 8.5x11 sheet.

We only had four days to finish this before the opening ceremony. So, we cut, ironed and sewed and got it done. One of the lessons learned here was that the photo transfer fabric we used was a bit translucent. If you look closely, you can see the current colors behind the image.

Oh, and there were the words, too! We had to figure out what markers to use (now I can't remember the brand) and Allison had to work where they would flow and make no mistakes as she wrote them out.

We were in a panic! But, it was also great fun and in my opinion, these last touches really brought the pieces together and made them relevant to the school. There's a little history next to the quilt (with my name spelled wrong.... wonder if that ever got fixed?! And, I'm not Brazilian, just a piece of my heart is.) and Allison tells me that the kids and parents continue to love it.

This was a great learning experience for both of us. I really enjoyed working on a piece of public art like this, and I especially loved working with Allison. She continues to explore her artistic talents. Allison has a wonderful, organic way of seeing how elements can be broken down into minimalist expressions and then blown up into a shape or object. I hope that we can someday collaborate on something again.

Allison was actually the person who suggested I take a look at Paducah as a place to move to from Chicago. She accompanied me on my visit down and we had this awful picture taken together in Paducah in March, 2005. I think this is the only photo we have of the two of us together after almost 20 years of friendship! I look like I'm holding her up in the air... We're all disheveled and travel weary... But in a way, it is also an accurate portrait of two women who can tackle a task and laugh while doing it!

Thanks to Michaela Marchi for most of the photos of our quilt project!


  1. Thank you for posting photos of the beautiful quilt hanging in the school. I was impressed with the size and the difficulty of working in silk when I saw the panels at our fiber arts group. What a wonderful job, how perfect for the school and what fun the kids must have had. Wow! Deb

  2. Incredible quilt! Wonderful job.


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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