Friday, January 20, 2017

New Quilt: Conformational Change

This was actually my last quilt of 2016, but I'm just now getting around to blogging about it now.  I finished it over the holiday break at my mother's and was racing against time as it was for a show entry due January 7th.   The show is called Structures and is put on by SAQA NM.  A lot of people are doing buildings, but I think there are also lots of botanical structures and things like that.  As a scientist, it seemed like a great time to do something about microscopic structure.  I'd already done a cell structure quilt, and it wasn't eligible for this show, so I thought I'd do something about protein structure.

For those who don't know, after being made proteins fold into a distinct 3D structure which depends on where they are inside (or outside) the cell, what their purpose is, and what kind of amino acid sequence they have.  This protein conformation is critical for the function of the protein, and tons of biochemical processes in the body are driven by changes in protein structure, a process called conformational change.  This conformational change can be initiated by all kinds of stimuli, and the change itself is usually very subtle but sufficient to induce the next step of cellular signaling.  Cool techniques, especially X-ray crystallography, have allowed scientists to measure and define these structures in many cases, really furthering our understanding of basic cell biology and molecular basis of disease.

As a vision researcher, I picked a retinal protein called rhodopsin.  Rhodopsin undergoes conformational change in response to light and is the protein that starts the signaling cascade that leads to vision.  My original idea for my quilt was to use very light colors and ethereal fabrics to make something very abstract and graphic.  Not until after I finished the whole thing and it turned out very strange did it occur to me that abstract and graphic don't really go well with light and ethereal, but alas.

Anyhow, I started by cutting shapes representing the seven transmembrane domains of rhodopsin in both it's inactive (left) and active (right) conformations out of different colors of fusible-backed organza.  I then fused them down to a giant piece of shimmery white organza and layered for quilting.  Perhaps you can see on the right side an extra light pink piece on the top middle.  When rhodopsin undergoes conformational change in response to light, a new protein called transducin (represented by the light pink piece) is able to bind, thus initiating signal transduction.

My original colors of organza, though blue, were way too light, so I wound up having to paint them before fusing down.  Then I discovered that not all polyester organza is created equal and managed to melt through a bunch of sections down to the batting and had to figure out how to patch them.

I decided to quilt straight lines in multiple light colors radiating out from each transmembrane segment to emphasize the graphic nature and the slight differences in the angle/position of each segment in the active/inactive conformation.  Across the middle I quilted a representation of the lipid bilayer that makes up the cell membrane.  I think the strong horizontal at least gives the piece a little bit of focal point.  Finally, I bound it with a wide binding of light blue organza.  Technically speaking, this was a huge pain in the neck, but I wanted a see-through effect so you could see the quilting through the binding.

Because there's no opaque fabric on the top, just the shimmery organza, you can see the batting through the quilt. In the picture below, I'd finished all the straight line quilting and decided to wet/block before doing the background.  It looks sort of dark and grayish because when it's all wet, the green fabric I used for the backing shows through a bit.

As it turns out, this wound up being a bear to photograph as well.  My dad and Mike both struggled with it, the shiny organza made light reflect weirdly when using his standard flash set up to get even lighting, then when he turned them off even the slightest unevenness in room lighting was reflected in weird shadows on the quilts.  Finally, most of the pictures were either really greyish in cast or looked washed out (like below).  Finally I decided it might go a bit better if I put it on a black background and moved it to a slightly different location.  I'm so grateful for all the time they spent trying to get good pictures!

Conformational Change, c. 2016 Shannon Conley, 39" x 43"

This isn't one of my favorite quilts, largely I think, due to some unresolved design issues in my head, but it finished ok and I hope it gets into the show!

What do you guys do when you have pieces which are unsatisfying?


  1. What an interesting post! Thanks for explaining the science behind the design.

    Lately when I have a piece that's unsatisfying, I cut it up and rearrange it.

  2. I'm sorry you don't love your quilt, but this is a great post and following your process is interesting. Like Linda I might chop into something I wasn't satisfied with, or chalk it up to experience and try again, to see if I can do it better.