Paula Nadelstern
Quilts, Kaleidoscopes, and Life

Based on notes taken at a meeting of the Quilter's Guild of Dallas, December 4, 1997

To set the scene for her quilts and quilted art, Paula told us a little bit about herself. She grew up in New York City, specifically, the Bronx. Today she lives in the same neighborhood in which she grew up, in a 9th floor two-bedroom apartment. She stressed how little space she actually has for her projects, as there is no garage, no attic, and no storage shed. She has no spare room, no dining room, no enclosed patio in which to store her fabrics or work. She sews on her kitchen table with a Featherweight she's had for 30 years, and hopes it doesn't break as she plows through her projects. The machine only sews forward and backward, and she uses it to machine piece her quilts. She says she'd like to machine quilt them as well, but the Featherweight can't handle that so she does them by hand. When it's time for dinner, the fabric and machine go on the floor. After dinner, it goes back so she can resume sewing.

Paula claims she really doesn't sew very well, she learned from her mom who was a home economics teacher who also did not sew very well, but who was a good teacher to others. Describing her attitude toward quilting, Paula says "I want it all and I want it now." She admits she's in it for the fabric, and that she doesn't make excuses for her stash. Her quilt projects let her use a tremendous variety of fabric, despite the space limitations she has. Paula says she sometimes feels like the pioneer women, who also had space limitations as they crossed the prairies. Most of her quilts are smaller sized, about right for a wallhanging.

To make her famous kaleidoscope quilts she begins with a circle and breaks it up into wedges. She doesn't work with blocks, she works with triangles. The kaleidoscope functions like a circle, she says, it has degrees that can be divided by the number of wedges you want to work with. In her case she created patterns for eight 45 degree triangles. Working with each wedge, Paula does not know what her kaleidoscope will look like until it is finished. She says she has to be exact with her measurements or she ends up with a raised center-- "It's not what I started out to do"-- and she's tempted to applique something over it to flatten it down.

Paula says she is often asked where people in New York City keep their fabric. She showed us. They use industrial shelving crammed into whatever available space they have, whether it's a spare bedroom or a wide windowsill. She also fights the myth that the size of one's creativity is the same as the size of one's studio space. Remembering the story of another quilter she admired, who showed her slides of her converted barn and suggested she find one herself, Paula said all she had to do was find the Amish --in the Bronx-- and then figure out how to get the barn up the stairs to her apartment.

Paula met the women with whom she quilts on the playground bench when she was raising her daughter. As mothers they often found themselves sitting together watching their children. From this camaraderie came the notion to do a raffle quilt for their kindergarten class. After that project she felt the next most important thing in her life would be to quit smoking. While trying to give up the habit she didn't think she could sit and do another quilt, but she could go shopping to get her mind off it. That was how she found Liberty of London fabrics. She bought small amounts of prints she liked, and fussy cut them to make her first kaleidoscope quilt.

Beginning in the traditional sense, with blocks laid out on a background, Paula moved on to develop her own style. She says she loves crayons for their colors, and applique designs. Her kindergarten quilt project was made in very bright colors to replicate the hand-drawn imagery that children often create.

"I have an eclectic palette," Paula says. She doesn't dye her own fabrics, but loves printed ones. While working on a series of pillows for an art shop commission she was able to use rich fabrics and experiment with different techniques and refine her kaleidoscope patterns. Starting with a triangle division of a 360* pie she made faceted images by cutting the triangle into smaller pieces. "The magic is along the side seams," she says. "I'm really unaware of what takes place until it is together." By using symmetrical and on-grain prints with a see-through template, Paula is able to fussy cut the fabric for best effect. She likes the current line of William Morris reproductions, and prints that look like lit glass or water.

To make each block, Paula follows a series of steps that take the difficulty out of creating her designs. Using template plastic she can see-through she first creates a template to exact size and angle of the wedge she will need. She adds seam allowances, and marks whatever motif she is going to repeat.

Despite the intricate look of many of her patterns, there are no curves, only straight lines. By breaking up each wedge into several smaller angles, Paula can achieve a more complicated effect with the illusion of a circle. When designing her kaleidoscopes, Paula says she does not do mock-ups and doesn't use mirrors to see what it will look like. "I like to be surprised." She also warns that something that looks too coordinated won't work. "If a single wedge is matching and pleasing then what I end up with is boring." The fabrics in the wedge have to clash and contrast. "The more unusual elements I can fit into the triangle, the more it is going to be very lovely and give it the spark of a kaleidoscope."

Along the way Paula has learned a few things about constructing these patterns. She says that your eyes will develop patterns in all the colors, no matter how you arrange them. "If I don't like something I whack some off and add more. I never plan anything right and I always run out of material and have learned to work that way." She also says to always use triangles in even numbers, since an odd number of wedges can be impossible to measure out. Sometimes the centers of her stars come out empty --in the background color-- and sometimes not. In situations where she has run out of her chosen background she's just picked the next best thing she could find. "More is more," she says often. Paula has also seen the change in the fabric industry in recent years, with offerings of brighter colors and more patterns. Today she likes to use silks because of the richness of the colors and the glass-like look she gets from them.

"When you work in a series like this, one idea leads to another, and another," she says of her progression from traditionally styled quilts to the more artistic ones she now creates. Beginning with the 8 divisions, she has since moved on to do some with 12 sections. Faced with wanting to do a 5-pointed design and to work with a black background, she found herself stuck until she looked at the star and saw it as 10 pieces --an even number. Making left and right sided wedges and using fabrics with black backgrounds she created a stunning new design. All the black backgrounds read as one, even though they are subtly different, and in some cases might be navy blue.

Inspired by pictures of snowflakes from the National Geographic magazine, Paula created a series of blue-on-white kaleidoscope stars. She did this partly in response to a friend who would tease her saying she "wasn't a real quilter because she had not done a blue and white quilt."

To do the concentric ring quilting on one quilt Paula used lightweight garment muslin and drew each ring on it in advance. She pin-basted it in place, sewed around the edge of the fabric, then cut off that ring to reveal the next one. When she's done with a quilt Paula signs them each in print with her left hand, "I'm a lefty," she says.

In her 12-sectioned kaleidoscope quilts Paula was faced with the problem of having all those points coming together in the middle and forming a big lump. She works around that by making her center section out of 6 pieces and her outer section a ring of 12 triangles that alternate in A and B designations. "The eye brings them together," she explains.

Finally, Paula brought out her collection of favorite kaleidoscopes to share. She says she looks at them for a sense of palette and color, not to try to get an exact match.

I asked Paula where she thought she might go after this. "Back to New York," she joked. She has no interest in writing another book, but does want to work with elongated or oval shaped kaleidoscopes rather than round ones.

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