The Story Behind "The Sprinter"

The original challenge was to create a quilt suitable for the theme SPEED.

When I started thinking about SPEED, a lot of things came to mind – cars, speed boats, Formula One – and most of these things involve machines, engines, noise, exhausts, heat and suspense. Elaborating further on the subject of “racing” and “competition”, I quickly boiled it down to maybe the purest and most natural type of speed – running!

As far back as in ancient Greece, men compared their physical abilities. In wrestling they compared strength, while running was geared towards speed and endurance.

In our days, the 100 m sprint is considered to be THE major highlight of any top track & field event.

So, as a first decision, I defined that the focus point of my SPEED quilt would be a sprinter.

Performing sports competitively never has been tempting for me, but my son has been an avid and nationally successful track & field athlete as a teenager doing decathlon with a focus on pole vaulting. Being his mother, I have always been involved in his efforts at several levels and I would lie if I said that his wins and defeats, joys and disappointments, general struggles during practice or when injured didn’t leave an impact on me, far from it!

While I’m not an athlete myself, I know first-hand about the daily efforts, hard work, pain, persistence, courage and willpower that one tends to forget in the moment of success.

In order to reflect the darker and lighter times of an athlete’s career, I have constructed my sprinter in fusible appliqué using fabric scraps in all shades from light to dark gradating from green to blue.

And you cannot totally push aside those doubts, disappointments, times of fading hope, even fears, they are omnipresent, like a gray shadow that you cannot free yourself from. It’s part of the game, it needs to be accepted, embraced.

Thus, the gray shadow is an integral part of the sprinter.

My quilt “The Sprinter” started as a rather simple top of an appliquéd two-part silhouette on a plain piece of marbled light gray fabric.

As sprinting involves covering some distance, using the landscape format was a logical approach.

Since my subject still was SPEED, I needed to depict a dynamic activity rather than the static image of a single moment.

I decided to digitize a 12-step sequence of a sprinter in action and to quilt this into the background.

So much for the theoretical part, the design process and the preparatory work. At this particular point, I had no idea about how this quilt would look in the end – and how to actually get there. Like a sprinter at the start line, my focus was to get to the finish line – but everything in between would be influenced by a lot of factors that I didn’t know yet…

I simply started to stitch out the first sprint sequence, then a second and a third… only to come to the conclusion that I should have used different thread.

As so often in reality – a false start!

While picking out lots of tiny stitches, I let my mind wander… I started thinking about running in general, about what it means to me and why. I was quite surprised where this lead to:

Apart from my son being an athlete, I myself love to run – leisurely.

I run for completely different reasons – out of habit, to sort my thoughts, to elaborate on ideas, to tackle problems, to calm down, to experience physical exhaustion. I leave a lot of things behind, I find a new perspective on things, I can determine goals more clearly. I run with a friend or all by myself.

The bottom line of all this thinking was: To me running is freedom, running allows me to break free from the stress and restrictions of everyday life!

This realization caused me to shift the focus of my future quilt from SPEED to BREAKING FREE!

With this shift of focus at the very beginning of the quilting process, the quilt sort of “took over”, developed a life of its own, making me feel that there was so much more involved in this undertaking…

With this new focus, I became brave and started to re-stitch my sprinting sequences using 40wt, solid color threads, three of them in different sizes and from the left edge all the way up to the appliquéd sprinter. Then, I framed these bold sequences using ruler work echo lines at 1/4” and 1” distance and free motion quilted spirals. Next, I fitted in smaller-scale sequences using white thread – which later on I would color using alcohol-based gray ink to highlight them a bit more.

For the bottom section I decided to quilt the phases of the sequence as individual images – “the bottom line to get from start to finish”, so to speak!

BUT I still had no idea whatsoever on how to quilt the finishing portion to the right of the appliquéd sprinter!

As an allegory to a sprint competition, the first two thirds are dominated and streamlined by automated processes and actions – concentration at the start, being in that tunnel, focusing on the finish line, eliminating any disturbing or distracting factors, doing things that have been practiced and performed a million times and have become an integral part of the protagonist… Tactics rule up towards the end phase of the actual race when anything is possible – or nothing!

Before I could actually deal with the finish line part of my quilting race, I had to take down the unfinished quilt in order to tackle an urgent customer quilt. With the quilt off the machine, I was able to view it as a whole and from a distance rather than only seeing the close-up of the section I was working on at any given time.

suddenly I knew that the right side of my quilt would need to break away from the streamlined, tactics-ridden and straight-forward left side, that it needed to open up, widen the focus and explode with all the extra energy, that all of a sudden is set free when crossing the finish line coming in first after a tight race!

That moment – literally – when all the hard work of years of physical and mental training is paying off!

That moment – figuratively – when you not only see the light at the end of the tunnel but actually get there and realize that it’s NOT just a train coming towards you!

At that moment, all restrictions are history. The predominant feelings are joy, thankfulness and a sense of achievement that burst out like fireworks!

I achieved this by letting the straight lines curve up and down to open up new spaces. Some of the sprinting sequences are continued beyond the edges of the quilt, the streamlined sequence of runners is broken up, individual, variously sized figures remain; in between them not just the tight micro-stippling I used on the left, but also some randomly positioned spirals.

For the two partial sequences ending with crossing the finish line, I used variegated rather than solid threads to make them more vivid.

Crossing the finish line, all the hard work and struggles are paying off; all that’s left is a sense of freedom!

Birgit Schueller, “The Sprinter” (2017)