Software Review: BlockBase for Windows
The Ultimate Digital Quilt Block Library
It seems like a hundred years since BlockBase version 1, for DOS, with its little digital notecard for each block, was introduced by the folks at Electric Quilt. Even in that early primitive version, BlockBase was a revolutionary tool. It was the first comprehensive digital library of quilt blocks ever compiled, and was compatible with the leading quilt design program. It was loaded with historical information and made the Barbara Brackman catalogue, on which it was based, much more accessible. When the program went out of print during EQ's conversion to Windows, it became almost legendary, as unavailable goodies seem to do.
Well now it's back, in an all-grown-up Windows format, with a better user interface, and a whole slew of new features. The user interface for BlockBase for Windows (also known as BlockBase 2) will be familiar to users of other Electric Quilt products such as their fabric disk Stash or their Sew Precise paper-piecing series. There is a directory tree listing block types on the left, and a larger screen on the right containing thumbnails of the blocks. Like much in BlockBase, the block display can be customized to show fewer but larger thumbnails or more and smaller ones. Likewise it can be switched between color and black and white renderings of the blocks, and the color of the frame to highlight a block can be changed as well. All of this is done through a dropdown menu from a right-click of the mouse.
Navigating through the blocks is easy, although there is a daunting number of them – over 4,000. Clicking through the categories and watching what comes up is entertainment in its own right, and it quickly gives you an appreciation of just how much work Barbara Brackman had to do to get this wild assortment under control in the first place! Naming conventions for the many different blocks tend to associate with certain well-known designs, so that you find such items as “Like Attic Windows,” and “Like Dutchman’s Puzzle” in the Pattern Categories pane on the left of the screen. Each block has two accompanying notecards, one of which contains historical information about the block’s publication origins, the other of which is a list of names it has been known by. (Many blocks have lots of aliases!)
If you’re in a more purposeful mode, and want to find a particular block, the program offers several ways to search – by block name, by the number that Brackman has assigned to it (helpful if you already have the hard copy of her book and want to find a block in BlockBase), by wild card, by key word, or by the original source or sources of publication of the block. Each of these will give you a slightly different result. For example, say you live in San Antonio and want to do a Texas sampler quilt. You know there are one or more blocks named Texas, so you search by name for those, and come up with four blocks that at some point in their lives were named “Texas.” You decide that four blocks aren’t enough for your sampler, however, so you decide to look for some more Texas-related blocks. You type the word Texas in the search by wild card (or included word) box (available through a menu or a button on the task bar) and lo and behold the program delivers up 34 blocks that have the word “Texas” somewhere in their name. Now you’re cooking!
Once you have selected a block or blocks, there are many things you can do with them. For starters, through a simple right-click and menu selection, you can zoom the block out to a larger size to get a better look. If you want to see how it might work in a simple quilt, select Quick Quilt and a four by four block layout (without sashing or borders) will appear. If you want to see value contrasts, you can view it in gray scale. To find out how to construct a particular block, you can go to the Print menu and choose from several options. You can specify the size of the block you want, and then choose from three construction options – traditional templates, foundation piecing, or rotary cutting. Not all of these options are available for every block, but if a block lends itself to rotary or foundation techniques, detailed diagrams and measurements are provided. It’s hard to imagine how much work went into this part of the program! A fourth option is also available for some 500+ blocks in the program, to use commercial templates from Marti Michell. Information about this option is detailed in BlockBase’s Help menu.
Beyond construction assistance, BlockBase provides many other options for use of the blocks. Probably the most important and useful one is to use them in quilts you are designing in Electric Quilt 4, with which this block library is compatible. The two programs share a common file type, the EQ project file, with the extension .pj4. Thus blocks, say our favorite Texas blocks from the many we found, can be placed in a project folder and saved as a group. By highlighting the block and clicking on the “Add to Project” button, you can one by one gather up the blocks you want and save them in the .pj4 file. Then you can start up Electric Quilt, open this file, and the blocks you have selected will appear in the blocks tab of the sketchbook for the project. While the BlockBase project file can be opened by Electric Quilt, the opposite is not true. A project file saved in Electric Quilt with a quilt design in it cannot then be reopened by BlockBase. For this reason, you need to complete your block selection before beginning a design in Electric Quilt. However there is another way to access BlockBase blocks, and that is directly in the Electric Quilt block library. If you already have EQ installed, BlockBase installation will automatically link that program’s large library to the EQ libraries.
People like to use quilt block designs for a lot of other things as well, and BlockBase provides the ability to export blocks as either Windows metafiles (line drawings) or bitmaps (colored renderings). This provides you the flexibility to use blocks in many other applications, from word processors (for putting together class handouts, for example) to web pages (bitmaps converted to jpegs and used as backgrounds). You can specify the size of the image you want before completing the export, then edit the file in Photoshop or any of a number of other programs.
BlockBase is really a blockbuster program for computer-savvy quilters. As a standalone program it is a rich resource both for the practicing quilter and for researchers interested in the history of quilt blocks. Combined with Electric Quilt, its utility multiplies exponentially as an adjunct to quilt design. BlockBase is the ultimate electronic block library, and a heck of a lot of fun!
(c) Copyright 1995-2012 by The Virtual Quilt Company. All rights reserved.
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