Night Shifts

My late mother-in-law sometimes used to say she was tired because she had “worked the night shift.” On her restless nights she put in long hours of dreamtime serving food, pouring drinks and cleaning up after a full house.

Night Shift by Donna Kallner

This piece incorporates a picture of her behind the counter back in the days when her night shifts were worked awake instead of dreaming. Night Shift is part of the Night Vision collection showing through June 29 at the Ed Gray Gallery in Calumet, Michigan.

Night Shift detail by Donna Kallner

I work the dreamy kind of night shift sometimes, too. My fingers may feel stiff from holding an imaginary needle, but I usually have a clearer image of how to stitch the story I’ve been working over in my unconscious mind.

That seems to be what happened Saturday morning. After a week in Minneapolis at the Surface Design conference, I was surprised to wake up rested and raring to go at 4:30 a.m. I think my mind had finally finished tidying up a few loose ends.

My post-conference workshop with Lanny Bergner gave me a lot to think about. Going into the workshop, my intention was to learn to integrate wire mesh with the fabrics I use already, thinking the wire would provide greater support for larger mixed media constructed vessels and possibly also to support freeform looping.

On the first day of the three-day workshop, I made the piece below from the brass mesh pictured above.

Despite differences in “seaming” wire mesh versus layers of fabric, the construction concepts were comfortably familiar.

On Day 2 I made two more small vessels.

This one is stainless steel mesh patterned with a propane torch.

This one is brass mesh with a contrasting insert of anodized aluminum mesh.

At the end of Day 2, I asked Lanny for some advice on where to go next. Left to my own devices, I might have veered off to testing seaming alternatives or surface textures I could very well play with on my own. He suggested that on Day 3 I work on a larger vessel. That was a good plan. I also wanted to keep playing with ways to curve the seam lines. That’s where I ran into trouble.

I made one choice after another that kept drawing the form in more and more. Creating curved lines in the metal mesh is a great challenge, but doing so shifted my focus away from the form itself.

After I get back from teaching in Michigan, I want to model more of these vessels, working more simply and larger and with my focus on producing pieces that work from 360 degrees. I need to resist the seduction of the mesh’s transparency until I’ve done that. I suspect I’ll find more clarity in the making. I usually do.

This class was just what I needed when I needed it. Lanny was great to work with, as was everyone in the room. I have tons of ideas to mull.

It’s almost bedtime again, and before I lay my head on the pillow I have just one more thing to clarify for myself: Unless I follow through on the work that began in the the workshop, it was just three pleasant days where I played with different materials. It’s up to me, now, to work out if or how these ideas fit into my own work. And while some of that gets worked out on the night shift, most of it gets worked out in the studio.

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My husband knows when I’ve been lying awake, trying to spot a glimmer of inspiration in the half-light of early morning. He waits to speak until he sees the change in my expression that passes for “Eureka” at that hour of the day. It dawns on me that the best idea I ever had was to make a life with him.

Dawning by Donna Kallner

Dawning is showing through June 29 at the Ed Gray Gallery in Calumet, Michigan. Here’s a peek at what went into creating this piece.

First I foraged for recycled cardboard in my husband’s shipping department. 

I used plain old white glue to to turn a bunch of pieces into a slab.

After gluing, I let the slab dry under a weight overnight.

After hacking on the cardboard with a knife long enough to demonstrate my intention to do it myself, I asked my husband to shape the cardboard laminate on the band saw. He even smoothed it on the belt sander for me.

I covered the mold with Saran to protect it from damp. Sorry — forgot to take pictures of the process. In brief, I dampened buckram and pinned it to the plastic-wrapped cardboard mold and let it dry in place. The image above shows the trimmed buckram off the mold, and batting being fitted on the mold.

The fabric is silk I painted with Dye-na-Flow, recycled from a class demonstration for Designing Quilters in Fargo last March. The silk is underlined with a recycled dish towel. Some of the thread I painted with Dye-na-Flow, and some I colored with fabric markers. Judy, Ruth and Rhonda — yes, I basted.

The looping on the inside is anchored to buttonhole stitch embroidery. I love to work this kind of freeform looping. It gives me time to think and reflect, which is what all the work in the Night Vision collection is about, really.

You can read about other pieces in show here, here and here. Next time I’ll show the backstory on another of the pieces. In the meantime, I hope something wonderful dawns on you tomorrow. Leave a sketch pad by the bed tonight!

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Within The Eye

When is the last time you lay on the grass to watch clouds and name their shapes? One of the pieces I made for my Night Vision collection started that way, sort of.

Within The Eye by Donna Kallner

This piece is showing through June 29 at the Ed Gray Gallery in Calumet, Michigan. I used a bit of recycled metal and some plant materials to create marks on fabric, then worked with what I “saw.”

Before cropping

It was more like seeing shapes in clouds than like the entoptic images painted on cave walls by some ancient shaman. But when I put down the needle and close my eyes for the night, I don’t see clouds. I’m in the cave, with the story of a journey to share.

I layered the printed piece (a recycled pillowcase) over some silk from another dye experiment, then cut away parts of the cotton to reveal the silk.

I finished the cut edges with buttonhole stitches, and used the same sewing thread to work the looped filling on the figure.

The piece is framed with a recycled tablecloth, which I dyed and liked just fine until the piece was 80 percent done. After altering the color with fabric paint, the color was warmer and more evocative of the cave painting atmosphere I wanted.

I hope you have some time today to watch clouds skitter across the sky and imagine.

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Dream Catcher

Are you sometimes afraid the great ideas that sail through your mind at night will drift away before you wake up, lost in the mist of dreams? Me too. This piece, showing through June 29 at the Ed Gray Gallery in Calumet, Michigan, is my Dream Catcher.

Dream Catcher by Donna Kallner

It began with the odd figure on the left, printed by metal on a recycled pillow case. Usually dreamcatchers are made of knotless netting worked in a circle on a round willow frame, to hang in the window and snag any bad dreams that might try to get in. But this made me think of a dream catcher whose job is to snag the good ideas that drift through my head when it’s on my pillow.

On the design wall

I pictured the Dream Catcher casting a net across the deck of a vessel that struggles like a fish.


 He picks the net as he hauls it in, throwing back what is too small for now, to catch it again another night.

The vessel in this piece was made from recycled quilt blocks given to me by my sister-in-law’s best friend, from her aunt’s estate. I overdyed them in the indigo vat.

The frame is made from flannel blocks from the same source, also overdyed, then turned to use the back side so the prints were more subtle.


Netting is a knotted form of looping, close cousin to the knotless netting (also looping) found in other dreamcatchers. This netting was worked with a shuttle and gauge and linen thread, which I dyed before netting and hand-painted with gesso after it was stitched on the piece.

Bill suggested the anchor when I was talking about feeling “unmoored.” When my lines get frayed and snap, setting me adrift, he’s the Dream Catcher who keeps me from losing it.

Next time, I’ll take you inside another of the pieces from the show. In the meantime, sweet dreams.

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Curtain Of Stars

Out here in the country, there’s little point in closing drapes in the bedroom. When sleep eludes me, I lie next to the window under a curtain of stars finer than any lace I might hang over the glass to keep the wonder out. For the Night Vision series, I wanted to do a Starry Night vessel, but lace curtains kept getting in the way in my mind’s eye. And then they seemed to belong there.

Curtain of Stars by Donna Kallner
Like other pieces in Night Vision, this vessel incorporated recycled materials. Under the silk skin, there’s a substrate of mystery fabric from a mineral dyeing experiment. The inside of the vessel is silk from a solar dye experiment. Layers of batting, army blanket and buckram were stitched on the machine to start building some structure.

Using a zipper foot, I added boning I bought at a garage sale.

After building the walls of the vessel, I traced around the bottom to make a pattern for the base.

The base includes an inner layer, an outer layer and a weighted layer to help counterbalance the height of the vessel. The weights are lead shot (look for shotgun reloading supplies). I sewed the shot into the foot of a pair of old tights, stitching baffles to keep the BBs from shifting. The stocking is basted to the outer layer of the base. Then the base layers were all stitched together. Then the base was stitched to the vessel.

The silk skin on the outside came from some acid dye sampling, a few scraps of solar dyed silk, and a piece from my Black Hole. Once I started hand-stitching I forgot to take pictures but it went like this: Drape, pin, baste, repin, rebaste, shift, ease, stitch, repeat.

For the looped sheath, I used 2-ply bleached linen thread I had left from a class years ago. I painted the thread with Dye-na-Flow.

The image on the inside of the vessel is from a photograph I took near my home a few years ago.  

This vessel is in a show at the Ed Gray Gallery in Calumet, Michigan through June 29. Next time, I’ll take you inside another of the pieces in that show.

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On Technique And Toilets

Sometimes it takes a bit of controversy, or reasonable facsimile thereof, to make domestic chores attractive by comparison. So I cleaned the toilet this morning. That gave me time to think about some things I read online this week.

Interesting questions were raised. Thoughtful discussion resulted. I’m not going to rehash it here. I’ll just say this.

As I see it, fluency with techniques and materials may not be a guaranteed route to the artistic expression of ideas. But the struggle to achieve a desired effect when you’re not fluent can be like trying to write poetry in a foreign language. For a lot of fiber artists, technique is the vocabulary with which we achieve expression of the ideas that drive our work. Having a rich and diverse vocabulary allows an artist to choose how best to express themselves.

What bothers me about some of the commentary is this: It gives the impression that, to be taken seriously as an artist, you don’t talk about technique. Let me be clear: I think that’s the impression. The intention of the commenters, I suspect, was closer to expressing a desire for deeper, more critical discussions about concept and design. And I’m all for that.

I’m less engaged by the subtext, intentional or not, that implies a them-or-us divide over the question. It does sort of sound like those who’ve worked hard and paid their dues now want the club to become more exclusive and not just more thoughtful. Perhaps I’ve read it wrong, but I can see how people (of any age) who are still developing their craft and their voice might feel disrespected.

So I want to encourage anyone who’s feeling that way to go clean the toilet. Then get back to making whatever it is you make and reflecting on whatever it is you want it to say. This is not a new conversation, and it’s not the last time you’ll hear it. And that’s a good thing, because you’re going to need to clean that toilet again soon.

As for me, I’m studying some millinery techniques now because I’m interested in how they can be applied to vessel construction. All this serious discussion compels me to leave you with a photograph of Canadian silent film star Marie Dressler.

Marie Dressler in lampshade hat, 1909
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Spring Cleaned Up

Dust thick enough to draw in should be considered an art surface, don’t you think? I need to address the domestic situation soon. In the meantime, I’m glad for other people who’ve started their spring cleaning. Because of them, I cleaned up at the thrift shop last week.

For six bucks, I got four percale sheets, two damask tablecloths, a piece of flannel-backed vinyl, two cotton/poly twin blankets (possibly fire retardant, because they didn’t take dye well at all), and a hairpin crochet frame. I guess I deleted the picture I took of the pile before I washed it, but here’s one of the tablecloths after I dyed it. It’s going in a piece I’m working on now.

I took a little time this week to play with an idea suggested by one of my Designing Quilters students in Fargo/Moorhead.

The flannel-backed vinyl was very easy to stitch by hand. It doesn’t have quite enough body for a class challenge vessel as a single layer, but would be great for testing and patterns.

Still, for my own vessels I’ll probably stick with builder’s rosin paper, even though it’s stiffer, for modeling. Bill was kind enough to cut a new roll of the stuff (nine bucks at Fleet Farm) for me.

The last time I bought a roll, I cut it myself with a hand saw, which works but leaves a more ragged edge.

I’ve had ragged edges on my mind lately, particularly the “ravell’d sleave of care” knit again by sleep, as Shakespeare put it in Macbeth. There’s a dream theme running through work I’m doing for a summer show. With the boro influence and recycling constraint I gave myself for this work, “ravell’d sleave” immediately came to mind. That’s the problem with great language: It sticks in your head and it’s hard to get it out, even when it doesn’t quite fit.

Now I’m mulling “the dear repose” of Sonnet 27. “But then begins a journey in my head...” We’ll see how that wears as the work progresses.

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Two Red Threads – 194 Years In The Making

Haven’t we met before? I’m Donna Kallner. I teach fiber art workshops around the country (and take workshops, too, when I can).

At these events, wonderful, interesting people begin fascinating conversations. And I’m the one who cuts in and breaks the thread of thought. When I’d like to say, “Tell us more!” I have to say, “Excuse me,” so I can do another demo, answer a question, or check on progress around the room.

This blog is a place to continue the conversation, untangle ideas, share stories, and reflect on what we learn by making fiber art. Thanks for coming by and joining in.

I’ll be posting a couple times a week (more some weeks, less others) about topics like looping, stitching, surface design, image transfer, digital fabric, mixed media textiles and vessels, stuff I’m sampling, books and blogs. I’ll post occasional tutorials, creativity exercises, prompts and challenges. And I’ll be asking readers to share work made in response to classes and challenges.

You can make sure you know what’s happening at Two Red Threads by subscribing, using the button in the sidebar.

So why is it called Two Red Threads? Stay tuned, and next time I’ll tell you about an unfinished project that should make you feel better about your own UFOs.

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