TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Making of a Quilt: The Book of Kells by Donna Hussain

Illuminated Manuscript from Ireland, The Book of Kells

The image above, a portrait of John the Apostle from the Book of Kells, was my inspiration for making the quilt below.

Quilt by Donna Hussain: The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells, a national treasure of Ireland, is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels of the New Testament transcribed by Celtic monks ca. 800. The text is written on folios of calf vellum that are richly decorated with Christian iconography, intricate interlacing patterns, and figures of humans, animals, and mythical beasts. The Book of Kells was my inspiration for developing a way to draw knotwork designs and sew them with bias tubes on fabric. My article on this website, Interlacing Designs for Quilt Borders, September 26, 2008, is an introduction to this process. But my ultimate goal was to render the Apostle John from the Book of Kells in the fabric of a quilt. I realized that I could not replicate the masterwork of the manuscript illumination but hoped to simplify the portrait of John and pay homage to the religious themes and symbolism found in the manuscript.

When planning my quilt I could not arbitrarily assign a finish size. There were practical constraints to consider when sewing the interlacing designs within the four cross blocks in the border of John’s portrait. Two variables would affect the block size: the width of bias tubes chosen for the knotwork, and the pattern scale. I had to make several sample blocks to test these parameters before I settled on the best size to make the cross blocks for my quilt.

Interlacing Design in the Crosses

This knowledge enabled me to draw the entire quilt border on a large sheet of graph paper and to visualize the size of the center space where John’s figure would be placed. The graph paper I use is Drafting & Design Fade-Out Vellum from Clearprint, a firm you can access on the internet at http://www.clearprintpaper.com/. I buy a roll of 36 inches x 20 yards, l000-4. This last number means that my graph paper of choice has four squares to an inch. A roll of twenty yards lasts me for about five years of quiltmaking.

I next decided on my color palette (purples, blues, and greens) and selected fabric for the quilt. The decision on the background fabric was difficult to make so early in the project. Fortunately, my choice, a soft pink print, proved to be fortuitous. I also made a decision to appliqué John’s figure to the center of the quilt after I had sewn the background and border blocks together. I chose this assembly method in order to ensure that the border blocks were symmetrical and squared.

Assembly Map of Border Blocks and Background

All of these preliminary steps took months to complete. In spite of the fact that I still had to design John for the quilt center I decided to take a break. So I stowed the graph paper design and quilt fabric on a closet shelf. Normally I work on one quilt at a time and finish all of the quilts I start to make. Taking a break was a risky strategy for me, but served me well.

Several months later, reinvigorated, I took a class from Judy Mathieson, who teaches the drafting of mariner’s compass blocks and their paper-piecing. I wanted to learn her techniques in order to design and sew John’s halo. Since my halo is only a partial circle and John’s head covers the center I did not have to worry about sewing accuracy. Novice makers of mariner’s compass blocks often create a “volcano” in the center because of their lack of sewing precision.

Once the halo was sewn I was ready to draw John’s portrait. I tried and tried but never could get his proportions right. Fortunately I have an artistic son who came to my rescue and drew John’s outline to scale. I first made John’s head with curly hair and a beard as in the illuminated manuscript. Then I added big eyes and mouth. The result astounded me. My John looked so compassionate. Elated, unsure how that happened, I now had confidence that the time and effort I was spending on the quilt was worthwhile.

John’s Head and Halo

From the onset of the project, I planned to use purple fabric (for majesty) for John’s clothing. Instead of the voluminous robes in the manuscript, I decided to make a serape sewn with bargello strips. I changed the awkward position of John’s manuscript arms with arms I found in a book of medieval costumes. When people ask me why the index finger on John’s left hand is pointing, I have to admit there is no good reason, except that the hand was at the end of the arm that I chose.

Because the Book of John in the New Testament was written by the Apostle, John is usually portrayed holding a book and a pen in religious art. Instead, I placed a flagellum in John’s right hand. A flagellum is a liturgical fan that was used in the early Irish Catholic church to scare away evil spirits from the alter. Illustrations of flagella appear throughout the folios of the Book of Kells.

The Book of Kells Quilt, Detail: Liturgical Fan

Perspective was not well understood in the ninth century when the Book of Kells was being transcribed. So it doesn’t matter whether viewers of my quilt have difficulty telling whether my John is standing or sitting on the couch. The monks were also weak in anatomy. Look at the position of John’s legs in the manuscript. His knees are forward and his feet facing sideways. I copied this feature and added some whimsy by placing John’s feet on a balance.

The striped second border was added last. I also embellished the quilt with beads and charms but used them sparingly on John's figure in respect to his vow of poverty as a disciple.

California quilter, Donna Hussain, has exhibited in major quilt shows around the country, authored books, and is a regular contributor to Fiber Focus. Click on her name to see all of her past articles.

The photo shows Donna with her husband, Pascha.


1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful interpretation in quilting of such an historic and religious work! I learned something as well!


“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)

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.


Related Posts with Thumbnails