Collaboration of art, math brings beautiful quilt creations

Collaboration of art, math brings beautiful quilt creations

URBANA — Nina Paley took the DIY ethos to the max when she made her ground-breaking, award-winning feature movie "Sita Sings the Blues," doing all the time- and labor-intensive animation herself.

Now the Urbana resident is working on a new endeavor, one she calls a bona fide, total collaboration with her significant other, Theo Gray, a software developer, writer and popularizer of science.

"There's no way I can do this without him," Paley said. "There's no way I can do the stuff he does and no way he can do what I do."

What she does is create designs and animations. Gray then converts her art into stitching patterns, or data files, using sophisticated math aided by the Mathematica software he created in the late '80s with Stephen Wolfram.

"It's fun, it's interesting and it's also wide-open territory because no one is doing anything like this," he said.

Quilting and embroidery software already existed but tends to be expensive and limited — and primitive compared to what Gray is doing, Paley said.

"We're developing processes nobody's developed to digitally drive all the work," she said.

At their PaleGray Labs in Urbana, they feed Gray's stitching patterns, or data files, into a Quilt Master IV full-frame quilting system, known as a quilt plotter. It takes up a large part of the largest room in the couple's suite of offices in the County Plaza building; Paley nicknamed it Behemoth.

Behemoth can stitch intricate designs over an area of up to 96- by 104-inches, large enough to make a quilt that covers a queen-size bed that drapes down the sides, or a king-size bed with less drape.

"She works at up to 1,500 stitches per minute," reads the PaleGray website. "Including the inevitable thread breaks, bobbin changes and slowdowns due to complex curves, she can put in about 300,000 stitches in an eight-hour shift. Depending on the overall area stitched, a sparse design can be done in hours, while something as dense as our $1,000 bill takes days."

And, sometimes, Gray said, it won't work when the couple loads a design that's too complicated for it.

Paley purchased the quilt-plotter, used mainly to produce mass-produced quilts, last fall from a Missouri dealer. He told her then it was the first he had sold to anyone east of the Mississippi River.

The couple also uses a Brother 10-needle embroidery machine to stitch Paley's multi-color designs. Unlike Behemoth, it automatically cuts loose threads and changes thread colors.

It's nicknamed Sue.

"With speeds up to 1,000 stitches per minute, Sue can fill a square foot of fabric in one to three hours, depending on the density of the design being stitched," the PaleGray website reads.

Paley also uses sewing machines, some antique, for other things she needs to do to put together the quilts. They also have nicknames. For example, they call the Singer 201, regarded as the finest machine Singer made, Vicky Victoria.

It's a treadle version that was never distributed in the United States. Gray, a co-founder and chief creative officer at the ebook publisher TouchPress in London, brought it back from that city. They dropped it into a Singer drawing-room cabinet Paley had purchased via eBay.

"She is quiet, smooth, well-balanced and my favorite straight-stitch machine for piecing," Paley wrote.

With the old and new machines, Paley and Gray have created beautiful, complex and precisely stitched quilts. One quilt top depicts an arabesque design, another a Fibonacci spiral. Other quilts depict a sleeping nude, a Tree of Life and a blown-up facsimile of a $1,000 bill.

Paley was making quilts with sewing machines before she obtained the quilt plotter. Her pre-plotter pieces include one with the image of a standing nude female and another with a detailed $10,000 bill.

Paley, 46, turned to quilting in 2011 "as a way to do something with her hands" after pushing pixels for so many years. She and Gray late last year opened PaleGray Labs in a rented suite of offices on the ground floor of the nondescript, multi-story County Plaza on Main Street across from the county courthouse.

The two emphasized that with PaleGray Labs they are not trying to compete with long-arm quilters — a long arm is a special sewing machine used for machine quilting.

They instead view their work as an art project, in its first year of research and development.

"We're putting together animation art with the complex mathematics of embroidery and quilting," Gray said.

"Either that or it's a colossal mistake.

"The problem is nobody needs art," Paley said. "But our pieces are practical because they're warm."

She noted that most quilt-makers don't make much money on their products, especially considering the time and labor involved.

"We have a lot of ideas, but we have found basically the only way to make money with quilting," she joked.

She was, of course, referring to the $1,000 and $10,000 quilts, Paley's commentary on art as commodity, one Gray buys into as well.

Paley already created the website Last week, Gray riffed on his desire to also open a bricks-and-mortar "QuiltBank" in the County Plaza, where the two rent the former bank drive-through facility.

"We won't sell the quilts at less than face value," Gray said, adding that a fundamental characteristic of currency is its exchange value.

"Its value traces back to a central bank and its willingness to take it back," he said, with his usual straight face. "For the quilts to be a currency, there needs to be a central bank. That's what the QuiltBank would do. It would also offer money laundering."

Gray went further, suggesting that PaleGray quilts that depict money — Paley addresses the counterfeiting issue on her website — could be used as "soft money."

"You could make a soft-money contribution to a politician, and he could graciously accept it as a gift and return it for actual money, which would be money laundering," Gray said, adding, "We need to make another denomination."


For more on PaleGray Labs, go to

For more on Nina Paley's viral video "This Land is Mine," go to

Topics (2):Art, Technology