I am writing this blog on December 2, 2020. It will be published December 30 — near to New Year’s but not quite 2021 yet. But close enough for me to give my quilty yearly predictions and announce our theme for the next year.
Overall, this is how I feel about the year 2020.
Yep. It’s been that bad. Personally, I’m ready to put this year in the rearview mirror.
Over the past 15 years, the quilt world has changed dramatically. We’ve seen more and more LQS’s shutter and go out of existence or change over to on-line sales only. With the rise of such sites as Craftsy, YouTube, and AQS classes, the momentum was already there for more web-oriented instruction. If anything, 2020 pushed both of these into the fast lane and then accelerated them to 120 mph. To be honest, when I looked back at this year and tried to predict what will happen in the next, I really had a difficult time.
Last year, if you remember, I had three predictions:
Technology would change our quilt world for the good and the not-so-good.
Quilt groups would become smaller.
There would be a resurgence in quilt preservation.
As a “seasoned” quilter (read that as someone who has been around the quilt block a few times), I had a love/hate relationship with technology. While it allowed thousands of us to take classes via Craftsy, YouTube, and AQS, I was afraid we would lose our person-to-person interaction.
Then enter COVID and everything came to a grinding halt until we were introduced to a little tool called Zoom. Not only did this allow me to continue to meet with most of my groups, but it also allowed me to attend guild meetings all over the world. I’m now involved with a monthly sit-and- sew with women all across the United States and beyond. I’ve had the indescribable privilege of taking classes with internationally renowned instructors from the comfort of my studio.
It. Has. Been. Amazing.
I’ve met so many wonderful quilters I would have never met if not for Zoom. While I miss the face-to-face meet ups horribly, I can’t not appreciate the technology which has opened so many doors. As a result of the virus, our physical quilt groups became smaller, but our virtual ones grew. And I think once most folks get the vaccine, our guilds, bees, and sit and sews will swing back into regular sessions and grow. I firmly believe quilters will want to see each other in person. And I also think that during all this stay-at-home time, hundreds of folks have started sewing. I can’t help but think they also dabbled in quilting and would like to join a guild or bee.
As far as quilt preservation goes, I do think there is an increased interest out there. I’ve seen more questions asked about old quilts via internet sites than I’ve ever remembered. And with Barbara Brackman and Electric Quilt publishing the updated Block Base, I’m sure that interest will continue to grow. I really hope in the next couple of years we can see another round of quilt documentation days. In North Carolina, the last gathering of such information was in 1985-1986 and it only included quilts made in the late 19th century through 1976. I think it’s time for us to procure additional documentation before another generation of quilts are lost.
As far as my quilty predictions for 2021, COVID and its aftershocks have turned the quilt world upside down (just as it has nearly everything else). Some of you know my daughter now works in logistics with a major international company. We were talking over breakfast the other day and Bill asked her how the upcoming holidays plus COVID was affecting shipping and shopping. “Is the genie out of the bottle now? Will people keep ordering stuff online like this forever?” he asked.
Meg, who is working 16-hour days at this point, rolled her eyes. “There is no bottle now. There’s just lots of genies…running amok.”
In short, COVID has changed retail forever. COVID may have changed everything forever. The quilt world is no different. So, my predictions are:
More brick-and-mortar quilt shops will close – with most of them being the small mom-and-pop operations. They may go online only or opt to completely shutter.
There will be few in-person quilt shows in 2021. As a matter of fact, I don’t think in-person quilt shows will resume until most of the population has the vaccine (or at least the opportunity to receive it). However, Mancuso currently has virtual shows and they are awesome. You can access vendors, quilts, and classes. Take advantage of this while the opportunity is out there. I kind of hope virtual quilt shows remain even after the in-person exhibitions resume.
Get used to Zoom. It’s here to stay. My third prediction is that Zoom classes and meetings will remain long after its safe to meet in person. It’s easy. Security has improved a lot, and it allows quilters all over the world to sit, sew, chat, exchange ideas and tips, and fellowship. Not to mention quilt instructors can now teach from the comfort of their own studio. No packing or unpacking, no travel. While I do think (and hope) in-person classes will resume, the opportunity to have instructions from great quilters all over the world is amazing.
Quilt groups will grow. The folks who were already involved in quilts and bees more than likely will want to return to meeting in person as soon as we’re able. However, if you’re a numbers geek like I am, and you’ve been looking at how many sewing machines and yards of fabric and elastic sold during this pandemic, you’re more than aware of this fact: Hundreds of people started sewing in 2020. I was in a local Walmart around June and it was completely sold out of sewing notions, including sewing machines. I can’t help but believe (and hope) that out of all these sewing consumers, some of them have either learned to quilt or want to learn and will join bees and guilds once we’re able to start meeting again.
It’s against the backdrop of COVID I decided what our theme for 2021 would be. This past year was long and hard. Collectively, we did some difficult things. We shut down. We didn’t meet. Many of us pushed aside our quilting and made masks until PPE manufacturers could catch up with demand. We wore masks and made darn sure everyone we loved had one. We washed our hands multiple times a day (I finally quit wearing my rings. They were taking a soapy beating and I was scared I’d lose one). We social distanced. We’ve put up with toilet paper shortages, meat shortages, and other scarcities. We watched an economy (which was the best it had been in my lifetime) dwindle down to a near-recession. We’ve been both afraid and determined and now we’re fatigued. And you have no idea I wish I had some kind of Harry Potter magical power to wave a wand and make it all go away.
With those thoughts, plus knowing we’re all kind of tired, this year’s theme is “Quilting Survival.” What does this mean? It means this year I’ve gleaned all kinds of tips, tricks, and other information to make your sewing life a little easier. I want to explain what some quilting terms really mean. Due to an impressive response I received about blocks, I want to dissect certain quilt blocks – from their history to their construction. I also want to delve into hand sewing and hand applique. I love applique and haven’t really written any blogs on it in a couple of years. I’ll also feature machine applique.
Hopefully, this year will be a little easier on all of us. That’s my prayer.
If someone, anyone would have told me during Christmas 2019, that I would be spending most of 2020 wearing a mask, washing my hands, and standing 6-feet away from people… well, I wouldn’t have believed them. If you remember last Christmas, we were excitedly planning to surprise the grand darlings with a trip to Disney World.
There are days I think we’re handing this Pandemic well. There are days when I want to smash my television set and berate total strangers for not wearing a mask. I sail through most days okay, following my ever-present lists, attending Zoom meetings, and quilting like a mad woman. This year my sanity has been saved by stitches and my quilting buddies who send funny texts (those of you out there know who you are…and you’re the best).
Thanksgiving was different this year. Christmas will be, too. However, let us hold tenaciously onto the fact that the Christmas before AD 1 was pretty rough, too. And humanities’ need for salvation was answered by a baby’s cry from a manager.
Merry Christmas from my quilt studio to yours.
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam
God said: “I need someone willing to take perfectly good fabric
and cut it up into dozens of pieces.
Then, with the patience of Job,
take those pieces and sew them back together in a completely different order.”
So God made a quilter.
God said: “I need someone who makes sure her children
are involved in music concerts, sporting events, theatrical productions.
And then, when it’s time for the child to graduate into the world,
Will collect all the tee shirts they’ve accumulated
And make a memory of what they have accomplished.
Showing them they can be successful in the future.”
So God made a quilter.
God said: “It has to be someone whose hands are never idle.
Who’s willing to take her projects on vacation, to play groups, and while waiting in line at the DMV.
Someone who’s willing to rip out an entire row of stitches in order to make the corners line up perfectly.
But who also knows that perfection is a goal, never truly attained,
and that “handmade” means, by definition,
Bumps and “oops,” and “I’ll do it better next time.”
So God made a quilter.
God said: “I need someone smart enough to cut on a bias, miter corners, and chain piece.
Someone who’s not afraid of pattern names like “Drunkard’s Path,” “Broken Dishes,” or “Storm at Sea.”
Someone brave enough to make that first cut and stitch that first seam and never look back.
Someone who gets goose bumps at the idea of a new project,
Who searches high and low for the perfect shade of blue,
And thinks a good pair of scissors is a better investment than a new pair of shoes.”
So God made a quilter.
God said: “I need someone who enjoys working with needle and thread,
And enjoys even more lending them out for a good cause.
Someone committed enough to make projects for every conceivable occasion or no occasion at all.
Someone willing to stay up all night to finish a project,
then give it away the next day to a newlywed couple or a wounded soldier or a newborn baby.”
God said: “I need someone who can send a word of thanks, of love, of you’re important to me
Without saying a word, but using only fabric and pins.
Someone who can gather together their friends and neighbors
and share the same thing.
Someone who understands intuitively why family hand-me-downs are precious,
and who stands ready to teach the next generation,
So that they too can create beautiful treasures for their children.”
We’re still discussing quilt studios today. I promised storage ideas, lighting and electrical solutions, and the ultimate quilt studio sanity saver. Let’s just dive right in by dealing with rulers. Ruler storage requires an entirely different mind-set. Quilters use small rulers such as this:
And larger ones like this:
And falling between the two are a variety of sizes and shapes. It seems there is a specialty ruler out there for any imaginable quilt block. I found ruler organizational sanity on two fronts: a filing system and vertical imagination.
I have quilted a total of 35 years. During this time span, I’ve amassed quite an impressive number of rulers. I divided this impressive ruler collection into two groups: Those I use occasionally and those I use weekly. Let’s work with the occasional-use rulers first. I decided I needed some sort of “filing” system for them – somewhere I could store them but still knew what I had at a glance. I purchased a plastic filing tub (I think I actually got this from Target) and several hanging file folders. I wrote the name of each ruler on a file folder, put the ruler and any instructions for it in the folder, and then put the file folder in the plastic filing tub. By arranging the files in alphabetical order, I know what rulers I have with one quick glance at the tub. The plus factor in this storage method is it fits neatly under my ironing board – in a convenient spot, but completely out of the way.
The rulers I use every week … and sometimes everyday… must be handled differently. I don’t want to spend time searching for them in a filing system, even if it is a very organized filing system. I have four rulers I use every time I work in my studio: My Creative Grids 4 ½-inch x 12 -inch ruler, my Omnigrip 6-inch x 24-inch ruler with a lip, my Omnigrip 2-inch x 18-inch, and my Creative Grids Binding Tool. Those are simply left on my cutting table. However, the other rulers needed a space which was easy to access and easy for me to see what I had. There are ruler organizers/holders which sit on top of a flat surface, but I didn’t want anything taking up additional cutting or sewing space. With that consideration in mind, I decided to go vertical:
This ruler holder mounts to the wall, organizes my rulers in such a way I can see them, and doesn’t take up valuable horizontal sewing or cutting space. You may not have thought about vertical storage beyond the possibility of cabinets. Don’t sell it short. Ruler holders which hang on the wall are just the beginning. Pegboards are another wonderful vertical storage idea. You can group your storage (thread in one area, hoops in another, etc.) and see what you have in a glance. My dream quilt studio would have one wall of nothing but a huge pegboard and I would have allllllllll my thread on it — because you all know I’m a thread snob and I may have hundreds quite a few spools of thread.
Moving on to where you do your cutting — ideally, you need two cutting areas – a large one and a small one. Obviously, the large space would be where quilts are cut out. You need enough space to spread out the fabric so it can be accurately cut. And depending on the size of your sewing area, this cutting space may or may not be in your studio. When I started quilting, my large cutting area was in the dining room, which was at the other end of the house from my then tiny studio. Now it takes up one wall in my quilt room and it’s only several steps away from my sewing machine. You must keep in mind that not all your cutting will need such a large space. If you’re trimming block units or cutting the dog ears off of half-square triangles, a small cutting space works great. I keep a small Martelli round cutting mat (the kind which can be turned) on a TV tray near my sewing machine. This saves me time (and steps).
The same large/small concept holds true with pressing. Quilters press fabric – a lot. And when I really critiqued my sewing area, I have three pressing options – small, medium, and large. Let me show you how this breaks out. Next to the TV tray which holds my round Martelli cutting mat, I have a wool pressing mat.
This is my small pressing area, and it’s near my sewing machine. As a matter of fact, to do small pressing or cutting, I simply turn my chair around and there’s the TV tray. I don’t have to get up at all. This saves me time and steps.
The next area consists of my ironing board. I have a quilter’s ironing board which is a little wider and doesn’t taper at one end like the standard ironing board.
It also has a rest for my iron and any spray bottles. I use this for pressing blocks (sometimes) and rows (all the time). What I’d like to draw your attention to is my ironing board cover:
The horizontal lines really help when I am squaring up a block or making sure the fabric or block is on grain. This pressing station is several steps away from my primary sewing area, but right next to my large cutting area – this room layout is important, and I’ll explain why in a bit.
My last pressing station is my kitchen counter. I have an L-shaped counter configuration, and the long end of the L is where we eat. I had never really thought about the counter as a viable pressing option until my friend, Cindi, had some of this:
At our last quilt retreat and was using it to make a pressing station out of a table. A lightbulb went off. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “I could get two or three yards of that, tape it to the kitchen bar, and have a huge area to press my quilt tops!”
Bingo! My third pressing station was born. And the large area makes pressing quilt tops a super-easy process. Again, I had to think out of the box, but sometimes the best ideas are the ones not even in the same room as the box. If you have a table, counter, or other large area which could be used, it may make your pressing life easier. As soon as you’re through, the ironing surface fabric can be folded and put away. I purchased three yards of the ironing surface fabric from Joann’s – available on-line only.
Regardless of how many and what sizes your pressing stations are, make sure you have adequate room for your iron (because an iron falling on your foot is no fun – ask me how I know) and any pressing tools you use, such as Flatter, spray starch, Best Press, Tailor Clapper, or pressing cloths.
Now let’s talk about why the location of your large cutting area, ironing board, and sewing machine is important. To do this, let’s take a detour into your kitchen.
If you take a look at your kitchen set up, most of the time location of the sinks, refrigerator, and stove form a triangle. Contractors do this for a reason: it’s the easiest set up for the person who does the cooking. It saves steps and is convenient. Your sewing space should be set up in the same manner for both ease of use and speed.
The pressing area, cutting table, and sewing machine should form a triangle (it doesn’t matter what kind of triangle – 60-degree, right, isosceles –just as long as it’s a triangle).
Since we’ve mentioned iron and pressing areas, let’s also hit on a quilter’s electrical needs. We plug sooooo many things in outlets – our machines, scan and cut, lights, irons, computers, and printers – just to name a few. And some of those items (such as the irons) can pull some serious amperage. If you are lucky enough to own a custom-built sewing studio, have a frank and long discussion with your electrician. Sketch a layout of where you want to place your machines, irons, and other gadgets which require electricity. Electrical contractors are well aware of the amperage things like irons take and will make adjustments for that in your fuse box. They will also make sure you have adequate outlets along the baseboards. If you’re planning on installing cabinets and countertops, don’t forget to allow for some outlets along the top of them. And if you can get outlets put in the floor, you’ve just entered quilting nirvana.
However, if you’re like most of us, you’re making do with whatever current available space you have in your house or apartment. The electrical outlets are already in place. And those outlets will determine how and where you set up your machines and other electrical gadgets. I’m lucky my quilt studio was the family rec room for a number of years. There are lots of outlet along the walls. However, I still have to use these:
I’d like to zero in on the power strips and extension cords. Even if you don’t use them in your studio, chances are you’ll take a class or attend a retreat and need one. The first rule in using these is to remember they have a shelf life. Yes, you can use them for years – until they short out or simply quit working – but most of them become unstable after a year. My husband and I own an environmental business which requires the use of extension cords and power strips to run our negative air machines. OSHA requires we write the date purchased on every cord and replace them a year later because they can become a fire hazard. If you’re only using an extension cord or power strip occasionally, you can go longer before replacing them. If they’re used daily, then plan on replacing them annually. It’s a cheap fix for peace of mind. I do plug my machines into power strips, but I unplug them when I’m through for the day, as well as turn off my extension cord/power strip. As much as possible plug irons directly into an outlet. Plugging an iron into an extension cord or power strip can cause fuses to blow or trip because the cord is pulling too much amperage.
In past blogs, I’ve dealt with fabric storage ideas (and by the way, I just came across a new one I want to share next year). However, I haven’t touched on how to store thread. First, I want to dispel the myth of freezing thread. A few years ago, there was a myth circulating around some quilt circles that freezing cotton thread would prolong its life. This is not true. Storing thread in your freezer just takes up perfectly good space which could be used for ice cream. And the only thing it does for your thread is make it cold.
The longer you quilt, the more thread you’ll accumulate. If you only piece tops, your collection will more than likely be limited to neutrals. However, if you machine or hand applique, or quilt your own tops, be ready for your thread stash to grow exponentially the longer you quilt. And if you own an embroidery machine, you’ll end up with more spools of thread than you know what to do with. Today’s threads – unlike the thread which is on spools like these –
Have a long shelf life. The mechanics behind manufacturing today’s long-staple cottons or tri- and bi-lobed polyesters have improved tremendously over the last twenty years. Polyester thread – which used to be reviled in quilt circles – has improved so much that it now has a welcome place in the quilting world. In no time at all, the average quilter finds his or herself with quite a few spools of thread.
The first criteria for thread storage is keep it somewhere relatively out of direct sunlight. Thread can fade. The next important idea is be sure to separate your thread. In other words, it’s not a good idea to store your piecing thread with your embroidery thread, hand quilting thread, etc. This won’t affect its quality, but when you’re in a hurry and go to grab a spool of thread, it’s easy to pick up the wrong one ask me how I know. Even if you’re storing all of your thread in one area, have some clear boundaries about where one type ends and another begins. I keep the thread for my embroidery machine in a drawer all by itself. My hand and machine applique threads make their home shallow bins. And my piecing thread is stored on these:
Because I tend to purchase cones of this thread instead of spools. I save money in the long run purchasing it in bulk.
I also keep my hand quilting and machine quilting thread separate. I don’t use as much hand quilting thread, so it lives in a small plastic tub with a lid. The cones I use on my long arm also have their own cone storage just like my piecing thread does, but the two are kept separate.
One last word about thread. If you do have some thread which is wooden spools or those plastic gold or silver ones, there are two places to store it.
It’s old. It was produced before thread manufacturing methods and standards changed. This thread has a shelf life and it’s probably way over due to be tossed. If you can’t bear to throw it away, find a pretty jar, put the spools in it, and display it somewhere in your home.
The last two items I’d like to discuss are lighting and doors. I can’t begin to emphasize how important good lighting is. Again, if you’re lucky enough to have a custom-built quilting studio, insist on good lighting. And good lighting for a quilt studio is different from good lighting in a family room or bedroom. Lighting for most rooms in a house (except a kitchen) is meant to give a feeling of warmth and coziness. It’s not necessarily bright and clear. You want the clearest and brightest light you can possibly get. If you’re inheriting a spare bedroom or other room as your quilt studio, just make a plan to supplement the overhead lighting as needed. Hands down my favorite supplemental lighting is Ott. While yes, Ott lights can be expensive when compared to other brands, their light is clear and bright. I have an Ott light on each of my sewing tables and want to purchase another one for my cutting area. You will also want a good light for your hand sewing area if it’s in another location than your sewing room.
And finally, doors. Not these Doors…
Take it from someone who started sewing in a corner of her kitchen. Doors are your BFF. If your space is messy or you have to leave a project out, having a door between your studio and everyone else’s line of vision is a sanity-saver. For me, it was always such a pain to have to put my project up and have to drag it back out every time I had a few minutes to sew. Being able to stop at a certain point and then have the ability to come back to that same point without having to rummage through boxes and drawers is a time saver. Also knowing you have to pull everything back out to start sewing can kill any enthusiasm you have.
To sum all of this up, as you arrange and re-arrange your sewing space, keep these points in mind:
Your quilting space is important and should work for you and be ergonomically friendly.
Space and sewing machine use determine which machines are kept out and which ones are properly stored.
Be sure your chair or stool is comfortable, supportive, and can be adjusted for your comfort.
Be open minded when it comes to ruler and tool storage.
Have a workable hand sewing area.
Have both large and small pressing and cutting areas.
Remember the sewing triangle.
If you use extension cords or power strips daily, it’s a good idea to replace them on a yearly basis.
Separate your thread.
Don’t skimp on good lighting.
Insist on a door.
Don’t store your thread in the freezer. It takes up the space meant for ice cream.
I hope this helps you evaluate and re-evaluate your sewing space. This is truly an ongoing process and what works for you today may not work for you five years from now. Be flexible and think outside the box. And don’t be afraid to insist on what you need. Your quilting is important.
We all have two sewing spaces in our head. The first is our dream quilt studio – spacious, well-lit, organized, full of wonderful fabric, and state of the art machines. Lots of storage. Lots of electrical outlets. A huge design wall. My dream studio looks kind of like this:
Unfortunately, in my real-life, it doesn’t exist. Not even close.
It’s easy to look at Pinterest and come up with all sorts of plans and dreams for the perfect quilt studio. It’s just as easy to think in your head, “One day when all the kids leave home, I’ll have my own space.” Or “When we upgrade our house, I’ll make sure I have room,” or “We just need to finish that basement! That’s my space!” Dreams are great. But reality is what it is and it’s best to deal with the sewing space you have now. That way when your dream space does happen, you’ll know exactly how you want to arrange it.
And this is what I want to talk about for probably the next couple of blogs – your present sewing area. This can be a corner of your bedroom or kitchen. A walk-in closet. A spare bedroom. When I first started sewing, it was a small area in my kitchen. Then it went to a finished room in an attic (which was so cold in the winter), to my living room, to the smallest bedroom in the house, to finally the old rec room – which is by far the largest space I’ve had to date. The one characteristic I have noticed about quilters is they tend to “make do.” They always put their quilting last – everything else must be done first. And they tend to work with whatever leftover space is available they can use. Our quilting is important. While your space may be limited due to the square footage in your home, that doesn’t mean it has to be subpar. And I’m not talking about spending huge amounts of money for upgrades. Nope. I’m just sayin’ your space should be safe, well-lit, and ergonomically friendly.
I want to be upfront here and say if you make garments and quilt, your needs are different from someone who only quilts. If you’re the type of sewist who dabbles in a lot of different types of projects, your studio will need more room for buttons, zippers, interfacings, and a dress form. These types of sewing areas need to be set up differently. For the sake of this blog, I’m only working with a quilter’s sewing area. And please do not think just because your quilting area is small, it can’t also be organized and awesome. Whether your studio is large or small or somewhere in between, it has the potential to be terrifically workable. It simply takes some effort and the ability to think outside the box.
Let’s deal with sewing machines first. According to the Craft Industry Alliance 2020 Survey of Quilters, the average quilter owns four sewing machines. This does NOT include long arms (which were up 11 percent in sales from 2019). I have five machines in addition to my long arm. Let your sewing space dictate how many you have out and available for use. My quilt studio could accommodate all five of them out at the same time. However, if they were all out, I would have precious little room for anything else. I decided which ones to keep out by weighing these factors:
What machines must stay out all the time?
Which machines do I use the most?
It goes without saying my long arm must stay out. Leighann has a 12-foot frame. This girl gets significant floor space and can’t be shifted or moved. Leighann dominates an entire studio wall. Big Red, my Janome 7700, also must stay out all the time because I do 90 percent of my piecing on her. I also tend to quilt small projects on Big Red instead of loading them up on the long arm. Not only does she have to stay out, but she also needs an entire 8-foot table to manage quilts as well as some tools.
Out of the five machines I have, I use those two the most. Therefore, they had to stay out. Now I had to decide between Jenny (my small Juki), Barbara (Babylock Spirit Embroidery Machine), Jerri (my Juke 2010Q) and Marilyn (my Featherweight). This decision was actually pretty easy. My embroidery machine has a large throat and a long carriage. And I use it a lot. It stays out on one end of my quilt studio, next to my writing area. I can scoot my laptop and Brother Scan and Cut over if I need to use Barbara. I also love sewing on Marilyn. There’s just something about sewing on an antique Featherweight and it’s connection to the past. Since I use her several times a month, Marilyn sits on the small sewing table my dad bought me over 30 years ago. Putting Jenny and Jerri in storage was an easy decision. The only time I use my small Juki is in classes (which during the time of COVID are not existent) and I honestly haven’t used my 2010Q since the long arm came into my life.
You will go through a similar process. If you have a couple of machines, it’s not a difficult choice. You may have room enough to leave them all out. If your sewing space is small, there may be no other option than to shift them around as you use them. If you do put a machine in storage, make sure it’s cleaned, oiled, covered and kept in a temperature-controlled environment (in other words, not the attic). The primary concept in this decision is to free up as much floor and surface space as possible and still keep your sewing area functional and easy to use.
Ergonomically speaking, it’s important to have your machine at a level which doesn’t put strain on your arms and neck. If you’re a young whippersnapper, this doesn’t mean much. But since the average quilter is 63, the machine set-up is important. Not only are our bodies older, we’re more prone to arthritis and a host of other aches and pains. I became personally aware of the ergonomic importance of my sewing area a few years ago after I took a hard fall. Despite intense physical therapy, my neck hurts nearly all the time now. I know surgery is looming on the horizon, but until then, I must pay attention to how I sit, look at my laptop, and sew in order to minimize the pain. Let’s take a look at how to set your machine space up correctly. If we minimize the stress it can put on our arms, back, and neck, we can sew for longer periods of time – which is something we all want. Ideally you should have your machine set on as surface which allows you to keep your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle.
You really shouldn’t have to look up at the throat of your machine or bend your neck to look down. However, the good Lord in all His wisdom, has not only made our bodies uniquely wonderful, He has also made them uniquely different. I’m 5-foot, 3-inches (on a good day when I’m standing up straight), but I’m very short-waisted. If I sit down in a regular chair at any of my sewing tables, I sit low. This means my arms aren’t at that 90-degree angle and I’m looking up at the throat of my machine. Both of those scenarios mean I’m putting additional strain on my back, shoulders, and neck as I sew. And I imagine your body is different from mine. Since it’s difficult to change the height of a sewing table (unless you’re prepared to spend scads of money for a custom-built one), it’s easier to change the chair you’re using.
Adjustable chairs or stools on casters are just what you need. In my space, because it is fairly large, I can use a chair. The back of it won’t brush up against anything. But if your space is small, an adjustable stool may work better. Both of these can be raised or lowered to adjust to the perfect height for you. And let me throw this in here – test drive your chair. Go to an office supply store which has adjustable chairs on display. Plan to spend some significant time sitting in them. Have a good idea of how big (or small) you need it and focus on chairs or stools that size. Remember your body will spend considerable time in the chair. It should support your lower back well. Also pay attention to the arms on the chair (if it has them). Arms add width and those additional inches can make a difference how it fits in your sewing area. And casters are a must. You’ll move the chair a lot, no matter how small the sewing area is. As a matter of fact, I think casters or glide pads should be on sewing and cutting tables, too. Those little items make changing things around so much easier.
While we’re talking about sewing spaces, let’s also discuss hand sewing areas. Their set up is just as important as how a sewing machine is staged. There are two crucial factors in a great hand sewing station: Somewhere you can leave your supplies and somewhere that’s ergonomically friendly. Let’s talk supplies first. When I sit down to either hand piece or hand applique, I’ll use assorted threads, needles, a pin cushion, water-soluble basting glue, applique pins, beeswax, a thimble, and scissors along with my fabric units. I like to keep all of these in one place – preferably close to a comfy chair, my heating pad (for my neck), good lighting, and the TV. I also want to be able to tuck them away at the end of a sewing session to keep the dust out of them and keep my den looking neat. There are lots of different storage ideas out there. Ott not only makes some great lights, but also great lights with storage space.
I already had an Ott light, but needed somewhere to store everything after a hand sewing session. I searched around High Point for a while (because I in live in the furniture capitol of the world) and found this:
This is a small end table, but it packs a pretty big storage punch, plus it’s easy to assemble. The top lifts like this:
And it has a drawer:
And a shelf at the bottom where I can park books I want to read and a small trashcan.
I can neatly store all my hand sewing supplies when not in use and it’s readily accessible when I want to spend an evening binge watching PureFlix and doing handwork.
In this hand sewing area, it’s also important to have a flat sewing surface – or at least it is for me. I find I hand sew much faster on a flat surface. I have more control over my fabric and my stitches when I either piece or applique on a tabletop or similar surface. If you find a great storage table with a large surface, then you really are set. As much as I love my little storage table, the surface isn’t big enough. To solve this issue, I purchased this from a thrift store:
It’s an over-sized TV tray which folds up when not in use, so it can be tucked away neatly.
Setting up a hand sewing station is much like finding out what works well with your sewing machines. You must analyze the space, the lighting, and your needs to come up with an area which works for you in your space.
Next let’s talk about tools and gadgets. It seems like all crafters have hundreds of tools and gadgets and quilters are absolutely no different. In fact, we may be worse.
There are tools you will keep stored. These are helpful, but not ones you use on a daily basis. Then there are the ones you use daily. And at this point, we’re not even considering rulers raise your hand if you’re a ruler junkie like me. Tools such as seam rippers, scissors, basting glue, screw drivers, marking tools, pressing tools (other than irons), machine oil, pins, machine cleaning tools, and stilettos are items which are used on pretty much a daily basis. These need to be somewhere within an arm’s reach and organized so we can find them without a great deal of searching. To determine what I used regularly and how much storage I needed, I put a large plastic container beside Big Red. Then for two weeks, I would drop in that container every quilting tool I used. At the end of two weeks, I knew I would have a good idea about what tools I used regularly – which would give me a good idea of how much easy access storage I needed. All in all, I used about two dozen tools on a consistent basis. Which led me to purchase this:
The white Depression-era candy dish is wonderful. I can hang my stilettos, scissors, and screwdrivers in the holes along the side and a pin cushion sits neatly in the dish. An office desk organizer cleverly stores the rest of my stuff including a few small rulers I use on a regular basis while sewing on Big Red. The idea behind this storage is it should be small enough to sit near your machines and not encroach too much on your sewing surface. Hands down, the best place I’ve found such storage is either at an office supply place or a dollar store. I’ve seldom found such storage containers at a fabric or quilt shop. My advice is to think outside the box. Know what tools you need to keep out to make your life easier and how much storage space these require. Then peruse the aisle of both types of establishments with an open mind.
Next week we’ll have one more blog about your sewing space. Ruler and thread storage, pressing and cutting stations, and the nuts and bolts of your electrical needs (and safety) and lighting will be discussed — as well as the ultimate quilt studio sanity saver.
Before we start, you need to know something about me. I’m pretty much a black-and-white person. And by that, I mean I either like something or I don’t. I don’t do “maybe” very well. I like yes or no answers. Numbers are my friends (because the raw data doesn’t lie), but statistics are my sworn enemy (that’s just a way to twist the numbers to make them say what you want them to say).
Thus, my relationships with pre-cuts. For those of you who may not recognize the term, a “pre-cut” is fabric which is cut into measurable units before it is sold – such as fat quarters, jelly rolls, and charm packs. These are generally packaged and sold as part of a line of fabrics. I love these things, and at other times have a difficult time accepting them. We definitely have a love-hate relationship. And I blame our rocky friendship on fabric manufacturers.
As with most relationships, my affair with pre-cuts began innocently enough. It started with fat quarters. In my early days of quilting, between kids, job, and grad school, I mainly completed small quilt projects and fat quarters fit into my schedule (and wallet) nicely. I loved them and they made it possible for an entire fabric line to come home with me, take up comparatively little space, and didn’t break the Fields family budget. They were high quality and most of the time held the true measurements of a fat quarter – 18-inches x 22-inches. Add to those facts there were plenty of fat-quarter friendly quilt patterns, and I was a happy quilter.
Then jelly rolls entered the picture. While perusing a quilt shop at Myrtle Beach, SC, I came across this roll of fabrics, comprised of 2 ½-inch strips. It was lovely – all the colors of the fabrics could be seen through the top and the prints were visible on the sides. When I asked what this was, the salesperson told me it was “A jelly roll – forty-two 2 ½ inch strips of fabric.”
I was duly impressed. “But what do you make with this?” I inquired.
“A quilt! You sew them together and make a small lap quilt,” was the answer. To give a point of reference, jelly rolls were introduced to the sewing population in 2006. This could not have taken place long after that. So at this time, there were no “jelly roll races” and jelly roll patterns were few and far between, if not non-existent. But the roll I had in hand was pretty and I figured if nothing else, I could use it in my applique. It came home with me and sat on a shelf for several months before I unwrapped it and tried to sew it together.
Only to be completely underwhelmed. The strips were not all the same width (some were 2 ½-inches, others 2 1/4-inches) and more than a few were cut crooked. I sorted them according to color and tossed them in my scrap fabric bins. I didn’t believe another jelly roll would ever be in my future.
Which was completely wrong, of course.
In the ensuing three years, I either won or was given a total of eight jelly rolls. All of which sat on the shelf for a long time. Once bitten, twice shy. I didn’t know what to do with fabric strips which were probably cut crooked and not uniform in width. Since that particular time in my life, I have seen the quilting market flooded with pre-cuts and patterns designed specifically for them. And this is the topic I want to discuss in this week’s blog – pre-cuts. I want to touch on what they are, how they fit into our quilting world, and what to do with them.
Let’s talk about Fat Quarters first. These pre-cuts were the first ones introduced to the quilting public back in 1980. These are made by cutting a ½-yard of fabric, and then cutting the half-yard in half on the width, so you have an 18-inch x 22-inch piece of fabric. Generally, there is a selvege one end, so the quilter is aware what is the lengthwise, crosswise, and bias grains of the fat quarter. The edges are not pinked (this is important and will be addressed a bit later). These are sold individually and in bundles. These bundles may have a fat quarter from each line of fabric in a family or may only have selected ones. Single fat quarters average costing $3.00 each and a typical bundle of fat quarters (about 26 pieces of fabric) runs about $78.00. Solid fat quarters are more expensive more than prints.
For a long time, I’ve believed fat quarters are the most versatile of the pre-cuts and I still believe it’s true. A fat quarter can be cut into two 10-inch squares (layer cakes) with extra fabric for four 5-inch charm squares. It can be cut into twelve 5-inch charm squares and a 22-inch jolly strip. It also can produce fifty-six 2 ½-inch mini charm squares, seven 2 ½-inch x 22-inch jelly roll strips, or eight 2 ½-inch x 18-inch jelly roll strips. If matched with another fabric, you can sew a nearly endless array of half-square triangles or quarter-square triangles. When you purchase a typical fat quarter bundle of 26 cuts, pair it with a few yards of a neutral and an additional yard or two of your focus fabric, you have a quilt.
Those are the pros of fat quarters. Now for the cons. Usually with a fat quarter bundle, you get an array of prints from a line of fabrics. The collection will include solids, small and medium prints, and at least one large print (which for most quilters is the go-to focus fabric). This is where you can run into problems. Sometimes the print is too large for the fat quarter. You may only get one full rendition of the print or sometimes just parts of the print. If you’re counting on using all your fat quarters as part of the fabric requirements, that one piece can give you serious issues. If your fat quarter bundle is a recent purchase, chances are you can find yardage of the large print at your LQS.
However, if you purchase your fat quarters on-line, you actually may have better options. Most (not all) fat quarter bundles in a brick-and-mortar store are wrapped in cellophane to keep them clean. Which means you can’t always determine what fabrics are in the bundle because you can’t see the surface of the material. When purchased on-line, generally the website will give you tiny thumbnails pictures of all the fabrics in the bundle and list the available yardages which coordinate with the fat quarters. This really helps you make wise purchases. Most large on-line quilt stores have fat quarters available. My favorite sites are Pineapple Fabrics, The Fat Quarter Shop, Shabby Fabrics, Stitch Party Studio, and Missouri Star. However, one selling point the LQS and some big box stores have over on-line establishments is single fat quarter sales. Most brick-and-mortar stores have individual fat quarters for sale, so you can pick and choose what you want.
My second-favorite pre-cut is layer cakes. A layer cake is a precut pack of fabric, generally consisting of forty-two, 10-inch squares (although that number may vary). These fabrics are grouped together by designer line, color, or theme. The edges may or may not be pinked.
Layer cakes are almost as versatile as fat quarters. One layer cake can produce a twin-sized quilt and two of them make a queen-sized. They can be cut down into charms and mini-charms, if needed. They can be sliced and diced to make half-square and quarter-square triangles. A yard or two of a neutral and a focus fabric can be added and only one layer cake may be needed to make a quilt.
The problems encountered with layer cake purchases are the same as those with fat quarters, except the large print issues are even worse for a 10-inch square. However, for whatever reason, many layer cakes are usually not wrapped. This means you can thumb through the fabric and see what prints are repeated and which ones have large repeats. This makes purchasing layer cakes in a brick-and-mortar store easy. And let me throw in this observation – most layer cake pieces are true-to-size. Overall, they do tend to measure 10-inches square.
Jelly rolls are third on my list, and they have come a long, long way since 2006. I recently purchased a Boundless ombre jelly roll from Ebay and every one of the strips was 2 ½-inches. The quality of cutting has greatly improved. I also think these pre-cuts are packaged wonderfully. While most of the time they are wrapped in cellophane, they’re arranged so it’s easy to see the colors and prints.
The strips are generally 2 ½-inches wide and cut the length of the fabric – between 44 and 45-inches. The edges are pinked, and larger prints are lost in the narrow width – something manufacturers realize and often opt not to have the larger prints in a jelly roll. Be aware there are rolls out there which are 1 ½-inches wide and these are called Honeybuns (and we’re not discussing them today because I’ve never used one but I have seen them used as sashing and they’re wonderful). Jelly rolls usually have 40 strips in them. One roll can make a twin-size quilt and two will make a queen. I honestly was not crazy about these pre-cuts until I discovered this ruler:
Which allows you to make half-square triangles from the strips. Now I’m slightly in love with them. There are hundreds of patterns for jelly rolls and almost every fabric line offers these pre-cuts. And they make four-patch and nine-patch construction super, super fast and easy.
In fourth place are charms and mini-charms. The charm packs consist of forty-two 5-inch fabric squares. Anyone who has pieced even a short amount of time can attest to the fact that 5-inch squares are used a lot. Mini-charms are 2 ½-inch squares and these packs also have 42 pieces of fabric in them. The 2 ½-inch measurement is also a pretty common one in quilt patterns. With both of these, it’s usual to find most of the fabrics from a theme or a line of fabrics. What you probably won’t find (especially with the mini-charms) are any of the large prints from the fabric line. I like both of these pre-cuts because they make half-square and quarter-square triangle production fast and easy.
Can you actually make an entire quilt from just these small pieces of fabric? The answer is yes, but it takes a lot of them. It takes 12 packs of the mini-charms to make a baby quilt. Five-inch charm packs are a larger cut, and they break out like this:
Baby quilt – 1 pack
Crib quilt – 2 packs
Lap quilt – 3 packs
Twin quilt – 5 packs
Queen quilt – 8 packs
Of course, like the other pre-cuts, when you add a few yards of a neutral and a focus fabric, the number of packs needed lowers somewhat.
Now that we’ve described the pre-cuts, I’d like to give some over all great things about all of them – even the ones we didn’t discuss. For me, the best thing about pre-cuts is they are time-savers, which in my world breaks down like this:
The colors/fabric selections are already made. This means I save time looking at bolts of fabric either in my LQS or on-line. And while shopping is fun, I don’t always have the luxury of time. When I find a pre-cut I like, I can purchase it, maybe a yard or two of focus fabric and a neutral and I have a quilt I know will look nice.
I’ve minimized my cutting time. Of all the steps involved in making a quilt, I like cutting it out the least. Even if I have to slice and dice my precut, I’ve still saved time by not having to cut out 2 ½-inch strips, 10-inch strips, 5-inch strips, etc., and then sub-cutting.
Another wonderful thing about pre-cuts I mentioned earlier: It’s an affordable way to have most, if not all, of a line of fabric. Obviously, unless you’re a fabulously rich quilter or a fabric designer, it’s impossible to have major yardage of an entire line. Pre-cuts give you a taste of what you want with the possibility of purchasing more of your favorite.
The last absolutely wonderful pre-cut attribute is the patterns available for them. The pre-cut patterns have gone from an absolute wasteland in the early to mid-2000’s to an overloaded abundance. And many of these patterns are free. They either come with the precut (Pineapple Fabrics gives you a selection of free patterns to choose from with every precut order) or they’re available for immediate download from the manufacturer’s website.
Now for the not-so-great precut attributes. I mentioned the pinked edge earlier. Many of the pre-cuts come with a pinked edge, which looks like this:
The idea behind this zig-zaggy edge is to prevent fraying. Which is a good idea, except two things happen with the pinking: The pre-cuts become terribly linty and there is a lot of confusion about what should be considered as the fabric’s raw edge – the peak or the valley? Let’s deal with the lint first. I don’t open any pre-cuts in my house except fat quarters, which generally are not pinked. With the others, I grab my lint roller and step outside. I open the precut outside and run the lint roller all over the top, bottom, and sides of the jelly roll, charm pack, etc. This does not eliminate all the lint, but it does a really good job in reducing the amount of lint that can get on your floors, furniture, and clothes.
As far as what is the edge of your fabric, most pattern designers agree it’s the valley, not the peak. However, it’s more important you remain consistent. If you begin construction with the peaks as your fabric edge, piece the entire quilt that way. Don’t switch back and forth between the two.
Another possible drawback with pre-cuts concerns those with stripes, plaids, or checkered prints. If any of the pre-cuts you purchase have those types of prints in the bundle, make sure they’re printed straight. The lines should be at 180-degrees and where they cross (as in plaids or checks), they should make 90-degree angles. If you’re sub-cutting those pieces into smaller units, sometimes you can make do with an off-print. However, if they’re used as a unit or as a large piece in a block, and the lines aren’t straight, it will be obvious no matter what.
Another drawback to all pre-cuts is the fabric itself. While yes, there is no worry about the colors harmonizing, you have no choice about the fabrics chosen in each package, and I’ve found there usually is no true dark among them. When you lay them out, take a picture with your phone, and then view the photo through the black and white filter in your app, all the fabric tends to look gray. If you’re purchasing additional yardage of neutrals and a focus fabric, you may want to add a yard of a true dark.
The final issue to consider is price. Overall, pre-cuts are more expensive than yardage. When you take the price of the precut and the price of a yard of fabric and break it down, pre-cuts are several cents higher per inch than a regular yard of fabric. There is a formula you can use to discern if you’re getting a workable value in a precut. Take the usable inches of a width of fabric (for this example we’re using 40 inches) and multiply that by 36 – the number of inches in a yard – and this gives you 1,440 usable inches in one yard of fabric. This means:
A forty-strip jelly roll has 4,000 square inches or 2.78 yards of fabric (40 x 2 ½ = 4,000 then 4,000 / 1,440 = 2.78)
A layer cake of 40 squares also is 2.78 yards of fabric (40 squares x 10 x 10 = 4,000 then 4,000 / 1,440 = 2.78
A 40-piece 5-inch charm pack has .69 yards of fabric (40 x 5 x 5 = 1,000 then 1,000 / 1,440 = .69)
A 40-piece 2 ½-inch charm pack has .17 yards of fabric (40 x 2 ½ x 2 ½ = 250 then 250 / 1,440 = .17)
Let’s zero in on jelly rolls to continue this example. I looked at five random fabric sites and took each of their mid-priced jelly rolls and came up with an average price of $37.17. When we take the yardage of a 40-piece jelly roll (2.78) and divide the average price ($37.17) by 2.78 this gives us an average cost of $13.37 per yard for a jelly roll. So, price point per yard, pre-cuts are a little more expensive than yardage.
The last couple of points I want to make are not necessarily drawbacks to pre-cuts, but they are points of interest you need to be aware of.
If you purchase a pre-cut and it’s really off-kilter – not cut accurately, off-print, or super off-grain, let the manufacturer, on-line store, or brick-and-mortar store know. Usually they’ll either refund your money or replace the pre-cut.
This second point concerns prewashing. By now most of you know I’m a dedicated pre-washer. But pre-cuts make this process a little tricky. Most of the patterns for pre-cuts assume you’re not prewashing. So if you do prewash and there is some shrinkage, just know your finished project may be slightly smaller than the dimensions given on the pattern.
Now let’s talk about the prewashing itself. I don’t advise doing this in a washing machine, even if you put the pre-cuts in a lingerie bag. Although most of the pre-cuts are pinked to prevent fraying, the agitation in the washing machine will still cause some unraveling. And that can be a real pain to deal with when you’re trying to pull them apart to dry them. I’ve found it’s best to simply allow the pre-cut to soak in a sink of warm water which has some laundry detergent or blue Dawn dish detergent in it. Agitate by hand, rinse in cool water, and lay flat to dry.
Pre-cuts are wonderful tools for quilters to have in their studio. If you see a precut and you love it, go ahead and buy it. The price points aren’t enough to beat yourself up over. The additional cost may be made up in the time and trouble it shaves off in cutting.