Variations on a theme

Split rail variation. Quilt by Kathy Loomis
I am a self taught quilter. I have never used a kit or template, and to this day I would not know how to sew a complicated traditional quilt if my life depended on it. When I was a fledgling quilter  I composed quilts primarily out of squares since those were the only ones I could really figure out how to piece. I did a number of ABC quilts where each square was a different letter, and while the form was really simple to sew together, I had to hand drawn letters on 26 squares using formulas from Albrecht Durer. Most unfortunately I did not know that traditional markers ran when washed, and I was left with a streaky mess after the first washing!
To advance my skills I bought some cheap books on scrap piecing but I found the process bored me to tears. I hated cutting the fabric the same size and shape and the lack of design resulted in some pretty bland quilts. My inexperience also prevented me from understanding how a simple pattern could be adapted.

The split rail block
Boy, I could have used a book like Kathy Loomis' new publication, Pattern Free Quilts, Riffs on the Rail Fence Block. In her new book Kathy shows how to be very inventive with the Rail Fence- a block that in its simplest form is composed of three strips of fabric. But that is where simplicity ends and creativity begins. Kathy has geared to book to three different audiences- from beginners, medium to advanced, and she challenges the readers to be inventive and creative at their own level. With simple black and while illustrations she quickly explains how to change up the rail fence in dozens of ways- allowing for individual creativity yet, and this is most important, explaining how to easily construct the variations. Her illustrations are clear and well organized and there are lots of photographs that demonstrate actual samples.
For years I have read Kathy's blog, artwithaneedle.blogspot.com and in addition to seeing her marvelous work, I have always enjoyed her writing. She is a master with words and her explanations have always been very clear. The writing in her book is an easy read and focuses on the practical- not the theoretical-and she gets right to the point. This book is not the book to buy if you are looking for historical reference, but if you want a window into how to start to experiment with design- this is the book to buy.
Kathy takes a step by step approach dealing with not only composition, but color, fabric choice and basic construction techniques as well.
A discussion of grain.
She is encouraging without being condescending and manages to offer some great techniques for both beginners as well as more experienced seamstresses.
Sample gallery page that describes how the split rail was modified. Quilt by Norma Schlager
One feature that I liked was the gallery at the back of the book. Looking at these complex compositions it would be hard to imagine that they are riffs on an essentially simple pattern. Placed at the end of the book, after reading her descriptions of how to improvise on an old standard, I enjoyed looking at these quilts to figure out how they were constructed. And in every case I was able to pick out the split rail foundation.
pieced by Kathleen Loomis, quilted by Marcia DeCamp