Smashwords Author Interview

Yesterday, I submitted to an in-depth Q&A session for a Smashwords Author Interview. You can read the interview at

It was fun to do, took me down a bit of Memory Lane and gave me a few interesting things to think about. I hope you enjoy reading the interview!

We can engage in a similar interview right here on my blog!

Simply ask me questions about my work and my writing, and I’ll be happy to answer. Ask me about publishing through Smashwords. Perhaps you think to write and publish independently too–we have a lot in common, then!

Come on–challenge me! Ask whatever you want to know about Dena Crain: Artist/Teacher in Kenya.

All comments are moderated, so if there’s something that comes up I feel is inappropriate for this venue, I can always reply to you privately.

Otherwise, I’m pretty open about my life’s work, and will be pleased to chat with you about it!

Mud Cloth Happy Endings

Getting Down and Dirty for Mud Cloth

So, last year – before I got committed to opening a new online quilt class Web site (QuiltEd Online) –  I was fooling around with mud, glorious mud, to make some mud cloth! I collected soil samples from the roadsides on the way to Baringo from Nairobi. With lots of road construction going on, that part was easy. I even found helpful volunteers along the way. One fellow assisted me by using his panga (that’s a machete, not a dirty word – no pun intended) to dig dirt out of an embankment for me!

Many folks along the way were curious about what I was doing. It’s unusual here for an old, white-haired, light-skinned woman to stop her car on the roadside, get out, scrape up a bunch of dirt into a plastic bag, get back into her car and drive away. Several people found the courage to ask me what I was doing, so I got extra practice for my Kiswahili as I explained about making mud cloth: “Natakakuweka rangi ya nguo” –  “I want to put color on cloth” – not so great, I think.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, some people I chatted with had heard about making mud cloth before! We all learned something new, had a few laughs, and life moved forward. It is surprising what you can learn if you’re willing to risk stepping “outside your comfort zone.” (I’ve always despised that cliché, but there is some truth in it.)

Anyway, I brought all my lovely dirt home and spent a couple of days refining it. I washed it, much as I would wash dirty rice or peas, by multiple passings of water over it. The rubbish floated, and the best stuff sank. I drained off most of the water, then left the tubs of dirt in the hot sun to dry out completely before shaking, breaking, even pounding it all into a fine powder.


Mud Cloth – The Real Colors of Africa

The differences in colors were noticeable, even then, although all had that lovely earthy quality I personally so admire in much Japanese patchwork due to their fabrics. Check out “sakizome” for examples of that gorgeous stuff, especially Akemi Shibata, who I met yesterday on Facebook – serendipity!

I made my soy milk, mixed in the mud and began painting, stamping and even dyeing my silk fabrics with the mud as well as with tea, henna and the oxides from an old iron pot. This post is to show you some (not all – saving the rest of it) of the outcomes of my efforts at making mud cloth(click to enlarge):


Mud cloth dyed, stenciled, stamped and painted by Dena Dale Crain


These fabrics have literally been through the mill. White silk dupioni, 28 yards of it, I dyed with commercial dyes gone out-of-date. Disappointed with the results, I began distressing the fabrics further with my collection of wonderful muds. Using everything from my Bernina plastic sewing table (the underneath hexie part) to a kitchen pancake turner to a paintbrush, I worked these pieces of cloth over and over, in true Jane Dunnewold “Complex Cloth” manner. Working fast – what fun I had!

Interestingly, these mud cloth colors are far more my idea of what African fabrics should be; they echo the earth. Where colors or lack of texture were most disappointing, I went back in with some acrylic fabric paints in Yvonne Porcella “Colors Changing Hue” style. Even the paint colors were toned down and seem to work beautifully with the mud colors.

It’s hard to say whether it was messier working with the mud or the paint, but I didn’t mind either. In Africa, all things are washable, and if they aren’t, it does not matter anyway!


Mud cloth dyed, stenciled, stamped and painted by Dena Dale Crain
Dye plus mud


Mud cloth dyed, stenciled, stamped and painted by Dena Dale Crain
Dye plus mud


Mud cloth dyed, stenciled, stamped and painted by Dena Dale Crain
Dye plus mud plus paint


The one thing I did not do was to mix mud directly with paint. Funny – I never thought of doing that at the time. Never mind, though! I have plenty of fairly solid color fabrics left over to play with. I had expected this to be the last post in this series about mud cloth, but it seems I have more work to do . . .

I have a hunch all this would work even better on hemp . . . hmmmm . . .


Next Step

Make a quilt! Maybe more! Twenty-eight yards is a lot of silk . . .  😉

Read the entire series on mud cloth in Kenya:

And, just for fun: Night Noises

AfricaGoal: A Stepmother’s Pride

Yesterday we received word from my stepdaughter about a new video she and her husband had made. AfricaGoal founders and members throughout, their immense dedication and technical skills are obvious weapons in the ongoing fight against AIDS.

Mouse, whose voice you hear throughout the video and you see snatches of her with her butterscotch blonde hair, and Maciej, who appears only briefly in one or two scenes (not the fellow with blonde dreadlocks–that’s Dom), and all their friends have made huge sacrifices over the years to bring the World Cup digital broadcasts into some of the most remote areas in East and southern Africa. They have had remarkable experiences and gathered amazing memories of their safaris throughout the continent, and they have made many good friends as they worked to save lives along the way.

Please visit AfricaGoal to see more of their photos and read their stories. These young people deserve all the support they can garner. Thanks!

Mud, Glorious Mud

So, I wanted some new fabric, right?  So I bought 28.5 meters of white silk dupioni at what must be a reasonable price in an escalating market.  That means it wasn’t cheap!

Then I bought 6 or 7 packets of dye.  I came home and dyed 24 meters using the dyes and guess what–all the fabrics came out PINK!!

So, I gave the matter some thought and decided to try dyeing (painting, actually) some of these disappointing cloths with mud.  Earth pigments have always appealed to me.  They are indeed my colors as I am an autumn color type, and there’s something so fundamentally earthy about using mud–I love the idea!

So, on my last trip home from Nairobi, I stopped several places along the road and collected some soil specimens.  I had a great time doing this, making up a fictitious story about being a visiting geologist from some obscure oil or diamond company looking for the right soils to indicate that 2000 feet below lay riches beyond belief!

Instead, a couple of fellows took great interest in the notion that mud could be used to color fabrics.  One happy guy even offered me the use of his panga (that’s not a dirty word; it’s a machete) to chip some stubborn clay out of a bank.

I could see their minds working, “I must run straight home and tell my wife that she should be dyeing fabric with mud!”  I did impress upon these fellows that they would need cow’s milk or soy milk to bind the mud to the cloth.  It should not surprise me, then, next time I go to Nairobi, to see lengths of mud-painted cotton cloths waving from clotheslines along the sides of the highway, right?!

Cleaning soil
Cleaning soil–the cup is for my coffee; all else is for washing dirt

Anyway, I brought my soil samples home and set to work cleaning them.  A somewhat messy business that reminded me very much of my years working with ceramic clays, the job was one that took me away from the computer and let me work in the out-of-doors–I loved it!!

So, I washed the dirt and sieved it with a fine plastic sieve, let it settle in plastic ice cream tubs (that was good, too!), and then poured off the excess water.

Tubs of clean dirt drying in the sun
Tubs of clean dirt drying in the sun


Now, two days later, the soils are really drying out, having been left out in the hot sun (jua kali).  The colors are lighter than they were when the soil was wet, but still they are indeed the colors of Africa!!

Dried dirt samples
Dried dirt samples

The red on the right is from Nairobi, and the orange on the left is from Limuru, higher above Nairobi.  It was drifting down through the red iron oxide (?) of the lower lands.  See the set of four colors together just to the right of center?  That was my comparison of browns–quite a range!  The near white was the toughest to clean; I had to pound it with my hammer.

I just love getting down and dirty!!  😉

Next step:  soaking the soy beans!  Read more . . .

Read the entire series on mud cloth in Kenya:

And, just for fun: Night Noises


Whole-Cloth Quilts and Mixed Patchwork Techniques in Quilt Competitions

Friends and readers often email me and sometimes they ask questions relevant to patchwork quilters everywhere.  The discussion below is one such correspondence.  If you are interested in competition quilting and whole-cloth quilts, you may find both the questions and my responses informative:

I am trying to find out a few facts about different aspects of quilt competitions.  Can you please help me as you are a judge and experienced in this field?

I’m happy to help.

"Lamu," whole-cloth quilt by Dena Crain
"Lamu," whole-cloth quilt by Dena Crain

For a whole-cloth quilt, can I use a whole fabric which has a theme print on it (flowers, houses, etc.) and quilt it intricately as one piece and enter in this competition?

The beauty of whole-cloth quilts is generally to be found in the quilting design and stitching.  You should consider, as you make this decision, whether your quilting design and beautiful stitching will show up best on a printed fabric or on a solid color fabric.  If you intend merely to outline the shapes that are printed on the quilt top fabric, I fear the element of quilt design will be minimized, and the stitching will disappear into the print.  I would not recommend using a printed fabric as a whole-cloth quilt for competition unless you do something remarkable with it, something that shows you clearly understood the issues at stake and that you are deliberately making a powerful statement with this piece.

"Wanyama," whole-cloth quilt by Dena Crain
"Wanyama," whole-cloth quilt by Dena Crain
"Wanyama," whole-cloth quilt by Dena Crain (detail)
"Wanyama," whole-cloth quilt by Dena Crain (detail)

For the mixed technique category, is there a requirement for minimum number of techniques that have to be used or do any other rules apply to enter the piece in this competition?

I would think this category permits quilt tops that have been executed as both appliqué and piecing, the two forms of patchwork.  A mixed techniques category would be for quilts that go beyond the requirements for either appliqué or piecing by combining elements of both.  It is not a reference to “mixed media,” as defined in the world of fine art, which would permit painting, dyeing, found objects, crayon, pen, etc.

I am flattered that you ask my opinion on these matters.  However, you are well advised to consult with the competition organizers if you have any questions about their requirements, categories or definitions.  They will have specific ideas about what they are looking for, and they will be happy to communicate with you further to help you avoid any misunderstandings.

Thanks in advance.

You’re most welcome.  Good luck, and let’s hope you win!!

If you have questions about patchwork quilting, feel free to email me using the Contact Form.  I will be happy to respond directly to you, and to share our chats here with other quilters around the world.  Thanks!

The Power of Influence

As artists, we often speak of inspiration and its sources.  Topics like nature, landscapes, people and politics arise repeatedly.  Certainly these sources of inspiration are fundamental to self-expression.  Without them what would we express?

Often overlooked, however, is the power of influence.  Key to our understanding and, more importantly, to our realization of its potential is our recognition of influence in our lives as well as in our work.

How do we recognize the sources and effects of influence?  We must first look for them!

Turn your mind’s eye inward.  Whom can you see there who has had a powerful influence on your work, on your life?  The two, work and life, are one for an artist.  As a dear friend, also an artist, once said to me, “Art is not an occupation; it is a lifestyle.”

Consider first the obvious powerful influence in your life, your parents.  Think about how their attitudes and behaviors helped shape you as both person and artist.  How powerful was their influence?  Was it a positive influence?  How so?  What steps can you take today that can lead you forward as you seek to achieve your goals?

For example, my mother always encouraged me to “be an individual–do not just follow the crowd.”  That advice led me to Africa, caused me to stand apart from others, to create my own identity, and to be a leader rather than a follower.

How do I use that influence today?  I take a leadership role in my guild, live in a remote part of the world, brand my persona through my blog and design quilts my way.

What positive influence in your life can you attribute to your parents, and how can you better maximize the essence of that influence in your life and in your quilting?

What, if any, negative influence did you receive from your parents?  Can you now view that past influence dispassionately, come to terms with it and turn it around so that it benefits you in the present?

When I was a teenager, my father insisted that I must learn to touch type.  He wanted me to study shorthand as well, but sadly, I never did.  Dad’s logic was that if I did not go to college and was ever in need of financial support I “could always find work as a secretary.”

Youthful pride and ambition in a world where women’s job opportunities were largely limited to nursing, teaching and secretarial work, I resented and resisted Dad’s advice.  I did, however, get my touch typing skill up to 70 wpm, a level that has stood me in good stead through university papers and reports.  It underlies my comfort and success with computers, makes it possible for me to manage my blog easily and helps me write articles for quilting magazines even today!

Dad had more vision that I credited him for at the time.  I deeply regret not studying shorthand when I had the chance.  If I had, I would now be able to capture even these thoughts as quickly as they occur to me.

From parents and perhaps siblings, we can extend our consideration of the power of influence to teachers and spiritual mentors, those who assisted our parents in the upbringing of children within their communities.  Look again for the many ways words of advice from those special people so many years ago continue to direct your footsteps today.  Look at both positive and negative influences and how each of use can now observe from a distance and redirect or capitalize on those influences in our lives and work.

More relevant to our discussion here, think about the people who have had the greatest influence on your quilting.  Maybe your grandmother or your mother taught you to make patchwork quilts.  How much of what you learned from them have you re-examined, discarded or expanded upon?

What quilt classes or workshops have you attended?  Which teachers were your favorites?  Why?  What made those teachers special to you?  What influence did each have on your work and how has that influence affected the outcome of your pieces?

The teacher who had the most profound effect on my attitudes toward quilting was Nancy Crow.  For me, Nancy “opened the door.”  She showed me that it was possible and acceptable to think about quilting in a different way, to go beyond mere acceptance of the norm and to challenge every assumption.  This influence and its effect on my life and work is a debt I can only humbly acknowledge.  I can never repay it except by “passing it forward.”

Click on the link to visit Nancy Crow’s Web site and view her work.  Then compare what you see there with my own.  It may be difficult for you to see any similarity between the two styles of design, but to a large extent, my work is based on what Nancy taught me many years ago.  We have each moved on since then, and moved in very different directions, but Nancy’s influence on my work was truly profound.  Thank you, Nancy!

Redefinitions I, art quilt by Dena Crain
Redefinitions I, art quilt by Dena Crain


Redefinitions II, art quilt by Dena Crain
Redefinitions II (work in progress), art quilt by Dena Crain

When someone special in your life exerts a strong influence over your or your work, receive that influence with humility.  Indeed, you may not even recognize its important at the time.  You may have to wait some while before you will sense its presence.

Once you see that influence, though, push it forward.  In your heart, you know that person’s words rang true.  Look more closely at them, search for deeper meanings, reveal and understand them in the light of greater awareness.  Then look for ways you can add to those thought, use the ideas, teach and stretch yourself.

The power of influence can be a wicked tool of evil when used for wrong.  Used for right, it is one of the greatest gifts we can receive and share.  Understand the influences in your life and use them well!

Quilts Around the World

Spike Gillespie has written a new book titled Quilts Around the World, and she has included a photo of one of my quilts!  She pulled together a great group of contributors and made it happen:  Spike Gillespie, Karey Bresenhan, Marsha MacDowell, Hollis Chatelain, Carolyn L. Mazloomi, Karen Musgrave, and Laurel Horton.  Find the book at

Quilts Around the World by Spike Gillespie and Others
Quilts Around the World by Spike Gillespie and Others

Although I have not yet seen the book myself, it looks to be a wonderful celebration of the craft from many places around the globe.  Subtitled “The Story of Quilting from Alabama to Zimbabwe,” this book should be destined to serve as a reference work for various international styles and sources of inspiration for quilting, something every quilter will want for herself.  A mere glance at the table of contents shows that Spike has covered all bases.

For Kenya, Spike has included text written by my very good friend Gill Rebelo.  Gill’s interests lie in textile history, especially textiles and quilting in Africa but elsewhere as well.  Well done, Gill!

I have to wait a while to receive my copy, but you can get one right away.  I see is showing that this is the last day for two-day shipping.  Don’t miss out on this fantastic opportunity.  Head for now!

Happy reading and happy holidays!