BOOK REVIEW: The Quilter's Computer Companion

The Quilter's Computer Companion

By Judy Heim and Gloria Hansen

No Starch Press, 1997 352 Pages, $29.95

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TVQ was among the first publications to review Judy Heim's wonderful earlier book, The Needlecrafter's Computer Companion, which has been a basic resource for computing quilters and other needleworkers around the world. In this new book, Judy has teamed up with prize-winning quilter and writer Gloria Hansen (see profile of Gloria in TVQ #16) to focus in more detail on the computing quilter.

What Judy and Gloria have undertaken in this new book is a daunting task. Not only do they provide basic general information for quilters who think they want to begin using a computer, but they provide dozens of tutorials and tips for users of both dedicated quilt design programs and general drawing and paint programs. Given the number of such programs for both the PC and the Macintosh, the comprehensiveness of this book is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that they have been able to present such material, in considerable detail, without boring us all to death. In fact the book is highly entertaining throughout, with a sprightly writing style and the zany sense of humor of the authors.

The book begins with a chapter entitled "The Stuff You Need to Buy," which provides a good overview of "how to be a quilting computer nerd" and gives good no-nonsense advice on everything from whether to buy a PC or a Mac to how to find cheap (or free) software. The chapter includes a vintage Judy Heim description of a foray into three computer stores where she asked the innocent question, "What kind of computer would you recommend for designing quilts?" The responses she got include the following, from Al, a manager at Circuit City:

"We hear that question all the time," said a grinning Al. "Microsoft has a software package for designing quilts."

"They do?" (Actually, they don't.)

"We don't have it in stock right now," Al said as he ran his hand over a rack, searching for the program," but we usually do."

"Bill Gates is into everything," I said.

"He is, and this Microsoft quilting software is terrific. You can scan quilts, you can print quilts. You'll probably want a color printer to do that."

"What kind of computer will I need?" I asked.

"Any computer here will run it but all you'll need is something low-powered. You know, a little entry-level Pentium."

The answers Judy got went downhill from there at two other computer stores, and her deadpan description of these encounters had me rolling on the floor laughing. Only thing is, it's not funny, and is one reason this book is so valuable for beginners.

But there is plenty in it for the computing quilter veteran as well. Part II gets into the design process and begins a series of chapters which include "quick start tips and sneaky ways" to draw quilt blocks using line tools and curve tools in a variety of programs. To make the book manageable, the authors did have to make some choices, and so limited the programs for which they wrote tutorials. Of the dedicated quilt design programs, they selected Electric Quilt 3 and Quilt Pro for the PC and for the Mac. Of the general design programs their main focus was on Corel Draw! for the PC and Canvas for the Macintosh, although some others are also touched upon. To my mind these are the right decisions, given the feature sets and ease of use of these programs. One can make an argument for QuiltSoft or PCQuilt, but a book can't be all things to all people.

Beyond the basics of drawing patches and blocks, Judy and Gloria move on to explore more sophisticated design strategies using the tools available in these programs. One particularly interesting chapter is "The Log Cabin Block: A Case Study." Through distortion and a variety of other techniques, this old chestnut block yields some stunning and unexpected quilts.

One of the things a quilt design program can do for you is help you learn basic principles of design, such as how to manage color and value. Judy and Gloria capitalize on these capabilities to provide a succinct tutorial on the effects of value on the appearance of a design, and make one of their most interesting recommendations, that you try designing your quilts in shades of gray instead of living color.

Another chapter covers creation of star designs, and there are several on applique in a variety of programs. They then turn their attention to the subject of cyber-fabric. Many of the most popular quilt design programs are now offering CDs with large collections of digitized fabrics from designer collections. These have a great deal of appeal, but once again Judy and Gloria have an unconventional recommendation -- don't bother with them. They are fun, but not that helpful, because "there's no substitute for laying the fabric all over the floor."

Other useful chapters are those on printing on fabric (full of tips and tricks) and on using the printer to create stencils and negatives for fabric painting, sun printing, and blueprinting. The riches in this book are incalculable for anyone who wants to experiment using high-tech equipment to design and make quilts.

In its final chapters the Quilter's Computer Companion provides "A Quilter's Guide to Cyberspace" and a "Quilter's Internet Yellow Pages," a selective but highly entertaining collection of links and other quilting resources on the internet, with editorial commentary. This section is invaluable both to newbies and internet veterans.

In addition to this wealth of information, humor, and insight, the book also includes a 16-page four-color insert showcasing various quilts discussed throughout the book. Unlike the Needlecrafter's Computer Companion, this book does not include a disk with demo software on it, as there is not a great deal of demo software out there for quilters.

For all of its technical information and diagrams, its tips and tricks, one of the best things about this book is the controlling intelligence of the authors who help us sort out and make sense of this new and often strange cyber-world. I'll conclude by letting Judy and Gloria sum it up:

"Our grandmothers might have said that the best thing about quilting was being able to share in others' lives while helping them assemble something of beauty. The fact that we cyberage quilters are separated by oceans and mountains is irrelevant. Words and the immediacy of electronic communication bring us together.

"Has the Internet changed quilting? Only in the sense that it has increased the quilter's access to information, products, and ideas. One of the things that every quilter who has ventured into cyberspace marvels at is how the camaraderie of others has inspired them to try things they never dreamed they were capable of doing. . . .

"Like a thimble or sewing pins, the Internet is a tool. Like any other tool, its purpose is to help us accomplish our goals. Its advantage is that it helps us talk and learn more quickly than we otherwise would in our isolated lives."

(c) Copyright 1995-2012 by The Virtual Quilt Company. All rights reserved.


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