Well–I did it again.

I’m just back from my fourth trip to Nancy Crow’s Timber Frame Barn in Ohio. I spent two weeks there studying Advanced Composition with 20 other students. The first week was Overall Figure/Ground Composition and the second week was Spare Composition.

I wasn’t sure if I was going back because I’ve been on the wait list for this class for nearly two years. Nancy didn’t teach at the Barn last year because of COVID, and this year there were lots of new protocols in place to keep everyone safe. Everyone had to show proof of vaccination and masks were encouraged. I’ve never been to the Barn before in the fall–my other classes have all been in the spring. It was beautiful. You can read about my other adventures at the Barn here and here and here.

The other times I’ve been at the Barn I’ve been studying some form of Improvisation as Nancy defines it–but these classes were different and much harder. As I’ve said before, studying at the Barn is like taking a graduate level course in design in two weeks. It’s intense, exhausting, and inspirational. The Barn is open from 7 AM – 9 PM and although Nancy isn’t there all that time, most students feel it’s important to take advantage of the time you have to sew in order to get everything done. I usually arrived by 7:30 in the morning and left by 8 PM.

The first assignment was to create a 4 foot square composition of disparate elements that worked well together and called up a childlike exuberance. The key word was “disparate” and it was incredibly hard because you couldn’t fall back on repetition to help hold things together. The first Monday was a tough day. I redid my black and white composition 9 times! Thank goodness for my iPhone to take pictures and keep a record.

Black and White Study Fall 2021 – Cindy Grisdela

Once we had the composition approved, we were to sew it together in black and white, then redo it another 6 times in various color assignments. That’s a lot of sewing in 3 and a half days.

One thing I forced myself to do was to try and create interesting shapes without worrying too much about how I was going to sew them together. The figure on the lower left had a large circle shape that I wasn’t sure how to deal with as a technical matter and I spent a sleepless night thinking about it. My friends came to the rescue on Tuesday morning and showed me how to do an inset circle, which I had never learned to do. That was a game changer! One of the best things about going to the Barn is the friends you make there and their willingness to help each other, because we’re all in the same boat.

Cut the Inset Circle – Cindy Grisdela

The whole top had to be pieced before the circle could be inset–it was a little bit of a nailbiter to cut away the excess center so the circle could be sewn. And there were lots of pins required, but it worked like a charm.

Sewing Inset Circle – Cindy Grisdela

Just to make things a bit more challenging, we were supposed to cut each iteration of the design freehand, without making a pattern or using templates.

Of the 7 tops assigned, I was able to finish 6–mostly because we were allowed to come in on the second Sunday to work for 6 hours before dinner.

Week One Compositions 2021- Cindy Grisdela

Saturday is a free day, but I had to spend it trying to get a new tire for my car because I had picked up a nail on my way over from Virginia and the tire couldn’t be repaired.

As is usual for me at the Barn, the first week was tough. I had hopes that the second week would be better.

Monday morning we were assigned to create 9 compositions reflecting more spareness using two colors. These were about 18″ x 20″ and I started out with two shapes and a curvy line.

Spare Design – Cindy Grisdela

Each new composition was supposed to make certain changes to the design, then we sewed them together into a 9-Patch configuration.

Spare Composition 9 Patch – Cindy Grisdela

So far so good. Monday evening we were assigned to come back with another set of ideas. I went back to the hotel and made about 20 drawings of compositions I was interested in and I thought I was in good shape. Nancy had other ideas.

In the morning I chose one of the compositions and cut the shapes out of black fabric to get started. But Nancy challenged me that the idea was too simple and pushed me to find something that was completely different from what I was used to doing. Sigh–that’s why I’m here, right?

I took some pictures of the ideas I had to save for later and started over.

Somehow I came up with something new that I was actually happy with! It’s interesting to me how that works. Obviously I have a choice about how I react to the criticism. You can take it personally and allow it to upset you, or you can move on and try for something new. If I wanted to do the same thing I’ve always done, I could just stay home–so that’s the tack I take there.

It turned out that the composition I decided to use had more information in it in terms of shapes and lines than was optimal for this assignment, so the last two iterations I simplified things a bit.

Spare Designs – Cindy Grisdela

I learned a tremendous amount about color, line and shape in these exercises. And of course there were those inset circles–after doing 6 of them I feel fairly confident in the technique should I need it again. And I was pleased that I pushed myself.

I don’t know exactly how this work will play into my own artistic practice, because it’s so different than anything I normally do, but we’ll see how it all evolves over time. I think it’s worth doing something that pushes me outside my comfort zone–it makes me a better artist and a better teacher, and that’s my goal.

What do you do to push yourself?


Crow Barn 2021 – Cindy Grisdela




  1. Gail Boyce on November 18, 2021 at 6:44 pm

    Cindy, I am so grateful that you shared your time with Nancy Crow. I have been an admirer of her work for decades. Yes, you have been pushed, and because Nancy is so influential, she forced you to go in a direction you may not have otherwise gone. However, you have your own eye and your own creative voice, and you should always trust your instincts. I love your work and, although I can see Nancy’s influence, it is yours and yours alone. So many of us quilters beg for patterns, and they become slaves to the patterns. You have broken out of that mold, and along with Nancy Crow, have developed your own interpretation of existing patterns. I have your books and I continue to benefit from your instruction. But as an artist, you must first follow your own instincts and inner directions. The quilts will take care of themselves.

    • Cindy on November 19, 2021 at 12:28 pm

      Thank you for your thoughtful response, Gail. You have it exactly right! Whoever we study with, it’s important to use what we learn to become better artists ourselves.

      And thanks for your kind words about my work–I appreciate it!


  2. Tia curtis on November 19, 2021 at 11:22 am

    Oh Wow! You really worked hard! I love what you came up with. It is my dream to go to one of Nancy Crow’s workshops. I can’t even imagine how full your mind must be right now. I am super excited for you to come to KCMQG in January. I really look forward to meeting you.

    • Cindy on November 19, 2021 at 12:29 pm

      Thank you, Tia–I’m looking forward to my visit too! Hopefully I’ll have processed some of this by then!



  3. Bernadette on November 29, 2021 at 5:45 pm

    Please notify me of new posts by email. Thank you!