In the Ditch: The Art Quilt and Longarm Machine Quilting Original Fivefold Symmetries and Two-Level Designs

whiteWith the FIG funding I obtained a longarm computerized quilting machine to do outline (in-the-ditch) quilting of my digital tiling prints to produce art quilts. Freehand in-the-ditch-quilting follows the form of a design, usually close to the seams of pieced quilts. In this case, the “pieced” elements are individual units that are inspired by Islamic tiles called girih. My “piecing” is done in individual layers in Photoshop – typically as many as six hundred or more tiles. The resulting quilt is executed on whole cloth.

Whereas traditional quilt designs are often handed down, and quilting machine software ships with well-known patterns, my designs are original, which is what classifies the results as art quilts. Previously, I used hand quilting and embroidery with (pre-digital) miniature prints on silk. With its increased speed, the longarm machine enables me to work on a larger scale and more efficiently.

“A longarm quilting machine is a large-throat, mobile, hand-guided or computer-guided quilting machine.1” The longarm machine head distance from front to rear (throat) is deeper, allowing for thick sandwiched rolls of fabric backing, batting and quilt tops to pass through as the quilt is being stitched. The machine head is mounted on a twelve-foot table with take-up rollers for the rest of the fabric and, in this case, comes with a stitch regulator and can be operated freehand or with computer assistance. “On a longarm, the fabric is stationary, and the operator moves the sewing head across the fabric.2

From my photographs of architecture, flowers and foliage, I extract object details from their backgrounds, montage them into still life compositions and embed them into tiles called girih. The word girih literally translates to “knot” in Arabic, and was first used by Peter J. Lu3 to describe a set of five tiles: a regular decagon, a regular pentagon, a concave hexagon (bowtie), an elongated hexagon, and a rhombus decorated with zigzagging lines called strapwork. Still life pattern groupings are set into the tiles following the lines of strapwork as guides for repetitions. The tiles are then arranged in a composition that is bilaterally symmetrical, but nonperiodic. The strapwork originally used in the girih tilings as a means to guide the placement and cutting of ceramic tiles, is more often preserved in my tilings as negative space. Thus, the girih reinforce lines of symmetry as a kind of interlace design and define fivefold symmetries as the patterns unfold.

At close viewing distances, the floral forms are visible and distinct, but these dissolve into the broader context of geometric pattern at more typical viewing distances, consistent with the aesthetic of dematerialization in Islamic Mudejar architecture.

In the central design for White Quilt a subdivision rule was used whereby large decagons, bowties and hexagons were divided into smaller sets of tiles. The pattern laid out in the small girih for the decagon is repeated on the larger scale. This use of two-level design, or self-similarity is a variation on the subdivision rule used on the Darb-i Imam shrine built in 1453 Isfahan.

White Quilt, 2

Smaller scaled girih tiles inflate to create larger tiles through subdivision and substitution. What makes this process more complex is that the tiles themselves are not filled with flat color. In most girih tilings, individual tiles are solid colored, making orientation irrelevant under reflections or rotations. Each of the White Quilt prototiles is filled with an asymmetrical floral composition, with a clear orientation or handedness. To reintroduce and/or preserve axial symmetries new lines of reflection are introduced within some of the tiles to reintroduce lost symmetries.   As a play on the self-similarity used on the center motif, I used larger scale versions of the same flowers embedded in the girih tiles along the outer border. The remaining white space is filled with a quilted meander pattern.




The White Quilt is 52 x 52 inches. Before attempting something that ambitious, I taught myself longarming skills using smaller quilts. Mary is also outline quilted. The piece was initiated by photography of the general environment surrounding the St. Joseph altar at St. Cletus in New Orleans. The St. Joseph altar tradition began as a response to answered prayers for the delivery from famine in Sicily. A large Sicilian population in New Orleans continued this tradition in the United States where it is celebrated every year on the 19th of March, St. Joseph’s Feast Day. A table is prepared with traditional Sicilian foods particularly those that grow or are made in Sicily, almonds, artichokes, lemons, olive oil, wine, pasta along with thousands of cookies made with traditional recipes. Many of the church halls where these altars were installed had gardens between the hall and the church with a statue of Mary. Although from an artistic perspective there was nothing particularly extraordinary about the statues, I used a photograph I had taken of one of these, elongated the figure and overlaid flowers on the figure to follow the form. Most of the flowers were from my gardens or near my home.

Both Mary and White Quilt are stitched with entirely hand-guided techniques. The computer capabilities of the longarm are used on the Asanas 1 quilt. I photographed a yoga instructor as she modeled yoga poses. After importing these photographs into a program called Art and Stitch as background references to make vector drawings, I was able to convert the figure drawings into stitches in a file format for the Innova longarm.

For this part, the computer drives the machine head and sews the pattern of figures. The remainder of Asanas was completed with handguided techniques. I used a sequin attachment for the first time on this quilt to add detail. Both the Art and Stitch software and the sequin attachment were acquired with a Faculty New Directions grant.

FIG funding has provided an opportunity for me to execute professional finishing detail on my printed pieces so they will be gallery-ready. The long-term goal is to produce well-crafted, finished art quilts for exhibition in gallery settings using original digital designs output to fabric. I received delivery of the longarm machine in mid-June 2014. This summer Mary was accepted into a Sacred Threads quilt exhibition in Herndon, VA. White Quilt was accepted into the 65th Annual Northeast Exhibition in Pittsburg. Asanas 1 is hanging at the West End Yoga Center in Allentown.

Anna Chupa is an Associate Professor of Art, Architecture and Design.  She is a recipient of the Faculty Innovation Grant.

  1. Lois Knight. “Longarm Quilting? What is That?” Copyright 1998–2011. Accessed Online. Resources for
    Longarm Quilters.
  2. Ibid.
  3. 3 Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt, “Decagonal and Quasi-crystalline Tilings in Medieval Islamic
    Architecture.” Science 315 (2007): pp. 1106–1110.




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