Colors and Quilts

Today….has been something. 

I have been a blessed momma for more than 30 years.  My kids both attended in-state colleges.  Then they both took jobs that kept them in North Carolina, with each, at various times, working for our family company. 

They also are my neighbors.  My daughter and her family live next door.  My son and his wife lived two houses up the street.  Until today.  Today my son and his wife left for a house and new jobs in Florida.  I’m not taking this well.  I drive past their old house everyday – sometimes twice a day.  It’s weird and sad, but at the same time, I’m excited for them the excitement is stuck between crying bouts and sniffles.  I know neither one of them really likes cold weather, and while North Carolina is nowhere near as cold as places such as North Dakota, we do have our moments of frigid air and layers of ice.  Their new home is right outside of St. Augustine and near Disney, Universal, and the beach.  No ice, but sometimes it gets cold enough the iguanas will fall out of the trees.  So, there is that…we don’t have falling iguanas in North Carolina. 

Setting aside this traumatic event, I’d like to focus on color this week.  I’ve talked about how to use color in your quilts several years ago, but want to hit on the subject again.  Fabric color is one of the ever shifting and ever-changing fields in any textile art.  One year the colors will be bright and clear, then in two or so more years they may change to a duller appearance.  Pantone ushers in its colors of the year (2021’s are gray and yellow), and Moda also has its own color of the year (a beautiful robin’s egg blue for 2021).  If you’re thinking about repainting your house, paint manufacturers also have their annual color sections.  Color surrounds us, comforts us, evokes strong emotions, can cause hunger, and calms us.  Chances are, if you have a favorite color, it’s on something within arm’s distance of you right now. 

Choosing fabrics is one of the first steps a quilter undertakes – no matter if you’ve quilted one day or 50 years.  You may pull from your stash, shop on-line or in person, or use a mix of old and new fabrics.  It’s also can be one of the most daunting parts of quilting.  How can you be certain your colors sing in harmony instead of being hopelessly off key?  How do you know if you’ve chosen enough fabrics, or if it’s okay to keep your selection to two or three colors?  I want to discuss this, but I also want to show you how to make sure the colors you’ve selected really work well together.  Most quilters share a fairly common process in choosing their fabrics, but I want to explain how it works and why a color wheel is not my favorite color tool. 

If you’re new to quilting, it’s easy to look at all the fabric on websites or in a store and become overwhelmed.  For your first quilt or two, you may want to use kits or have someone (such as a seasoned quilter) help you make your choices.  You may want to copy fabric for fabric a quilt designer you really like.  None of this is wrong.  As a matter of fact, it’s a great way to get some color experience under your belt.  But it’s not good to continue to do this year after year.  You should want to feel comfortable branching out on your own, making your own color decisions.  As a matter of fact, altering colors or even changing the palette completely is one way to dramatically change the look of a quilt.  So, if you’re not comfortable doing the math and altering the block itself, become comfortable in modifying the color scheme.  It doesn’t have to be a complicated process.  Take a look at this quilt:

Now see what happens when you reverse the color scheme.

The block construction remained the same.  But switching up the neutral and the focus fabric placement makes a dramatic change.

To begin to understand color (as a quilter, not a scientist), we need to define some terms and then characterize the different color schematics.  Four words which get tossed around quite a bit when discussing color are tint, hue, shade, and tone.  Hue is the purest form of a colors —  not only the colors which are not made from two other colors (such as red or blue) but also those made by blending two colors (such as green or purple). 

Tints are made by adding a small amount of white to a hue – such as pink.  We add a bit of white to red and it becomes pink.  We add white to purple and it becomes lavender.  Tints tend to move towards the pastel end of the color spectrum.

Tones are produced by adding pure gray to a hue or tint.  For instance, when you add gray to pink a mauve is produced.  When you add gray to blue, the range can go from a dusty blue to a dark blue.  If you’re wondering what tones look like, take a look outside.  Most of the colors in nature are tones – not hues. 

Shades created by adding pure black to a hue.  This action darkens and densifies the color.  When we add black to red, we get maroon.  When black is added to any color, it significantly darkens it, to the point some hues actually appear almost black themselves (such as Navy blue). 

Within these terms, there are two more to consider – saturation and value.  Saturation occurs when the hue is at its purest – it’s bright, vivid, and rich.  There is also low saturation, and this occurs when you produce tones.  Value refers a color’s lightness or darkness.  It’s worth remembering that the term “color” encompasses hues, tones, shades, and tints.  Hue is the color in its purest form.  While most people (including quilters), use the two terms interchangeably, there is a difference.

Within this vocabulary you can find ten general color schematics for quilts.  I’ve given some general details about these below.

  •  Triadic — Generally, when I teach beginning quilting, I encourage my students who have never sewn or done any type of independent art project to pick three fabrics and a neutral.  These three colors are called a triadic color scheme and normally in this layout the colors are red, blue and yellow or orange, purple, and green.  Those are the basic triadic color palettes.  This can vary – especially with fabric.  However, I’ve found if you’re a beginning quilter or you want to pick fabric quickly and get started on a quilt, the triadic works really well.  You can get wonderful visuals out of the three colors and for a new quilter, it doesn’t become overwhelming – especially when you consider the average quilt pattern employs five to six different fabrics plus a neutral.  That’s a lot for a beginner. 
  • Monochromatic – If you’re fluent in Latin prefixes, you realize the prefix –mono means one.  And that’s what this color scheme is – one hue.  Let’s say we’re constructing a monochromatic quilt from red.  Red is a hue.  However, we can bend that red by adding tints, tones, and shades.  So, the fabric we could use in a monochromatic quilt could run the gamut from red to pink to maroon.
  • Analogous – This color scheme uses three adjacent colors on the color wheel plus a neutral such as white or black.  Let’s work with red again.  If you find red on a color wheel, you’ll note two colors next to red are red-orange and orange.  The red-orange and orange would be used with the red for analogous color schematic. 
  • Complementary – Complementary colors are directly across from each other on the color wheel.  Modern color theory states the complementary colors are red-cyan, green-magenta, and blue-yellow.  Traditional color theory holds the complementary colors are red-green, yellow-purple, and blue-orange.  In our quilting world, it’s any color which is a straight-line zone across from another.  I work with analogous colors when developing a complementary color scheme.  To me, using only two complementary colors can be a little visually harsh, so I take two analogous colors and each of their complementary colors.  This seems to work well, and I always seem to end up with a pleasing combination this way.  For instance, let’s say I choose the colors indigo and violet.  Indigo’s complementary color is yellow, and violet’s is yellow-orange.  Those four colors would make a visually pleasing quilt.
  • Rainbow – At first thought, it’s easy to imagine this could possibly be a scrap quilt – but it’s not.  It’s a quilt made from colors of the rainbow: Red, orange, yellow, blue, green, indigo, and violet. 
  • Warm and Cool – Warm colors are red, yellow, orange, and any combination of them.  Cool colors are green, blue, purple and any combination of those.  Warm colors evoke  feeings of positivity, warmth, and sunshine while cool colors support feelings of relaxation and calm.  With quilts, you can use both warm and cool colors or only one of each category.  Years ago when I started quilting, we were told a balanced quilt had some warm-colored fabrics and some cool-colored fabrics.  We no longer hold to this “rule.”  I’ve seen great quilts made from all warm colors and my favorite quilts tend to be comprised primarily of cool.  If you’re using both warm and cool colors in your quilt, keep in mind that the cool colors will “recede” – the warm colors will dominate. There are some colors which can be either warm or cool, depending where it’s placed in a quilt.  If your quilt has lime green, purple, white or gray, those colors will “heat up” if placed near a warm color and likewise “cool down” if placed near a blue.  That’s just something to keep in mind as you lay out your quilt.
  • Light and Dark – If you want to get truly technical with this definition, a light is a tint (a hue which has had white added, such as pink) and a dark is a shade (a hue which has had black added, such as maroon).  So yes, theoretically, any quilt made solely from a tint and a shade has a light and dark color scheme.  However, with quilts we tend to first think of this schematic in its most extreme form – black and white.  With any light or dark pairing, the shapes in the blocks are the emphasis and the look leans toward simplistic and uncluttered. 
  • Neutral –– Natural colors: the seashore and shells; barks and stems; wood; dried grasses; crinkly leaves; skin-tones; rocks and soil. Grays like the sky sometimes and clouds, or concrete, and silvery steel. Creams, ivories, bone, and every shade of brown are all neutral colors. Neutrals can be light or dark. They are non-competitive, and help other colors. This is why they work so well as backgrounds. Neutrals are peaceful and offer support, so in general they are always welcome.  I find natural color schemes calming and soothing – whether they are in my quilt or my home.
  • Traditional — A traditional quilt color scheme depends less on color than value. It is traditional to choose three colors for quilting: one that is dominant, one that is subordinate, and one as an accent. The dominant and subordinate colors play off each other, and the accent provides a pop.  The best example of this is a Log Cabin Block.  The center square is always the accent.  Historically, this has been red, but now it can be nearly any color.  Take a look at my guild’s 2021 raffle quilt.  This is a log cabin, but the center is a wonderfully, deeply saturated raspberry.  The accent serves both as a “pop” of an unexpected color to catch the eye, but also as the constant:  all of the logs may be different, but the centers are all the same.  The darker logs are the dominate (no matter how many darks are used), and the lighter logs are the subordinate (no matter how many lights are used). 
  •   Scrap – It’s always a valid choice to use no color scheme at all and simply use the first piece of scrap fabric you pull from your box or bin.  I’m a little too OCD to be entirely comfortable with this process (even my scrap quilts look a little too planned), but people like Bonnie Hunter and Augusta Cole really make it easy for you to learn. I have found that if you use white in your sashing or setting, it does help calm things down a little and makes everything work together.   

I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying one more time – all quilts need lights, mediums, and a dark.  Without this range of values, the quilt looks “muddy” – there’s nothing to catch your eye or really draw your line of vision across the quilt.  There’s a super-easy way to determine if you do have a good range of values.  Line your fabrics up and take a picture with your phone. 

Then go into your photo editing selection and turn the black and white filter on.  This produces a black and white picture of all your fabrics. 

In this black and white photo, it will be obvious to see if you have lights, mediums (these will look gray), and a dark, or if your fabrics are all mediums.  To me it does seem that fabric manufacturers are producing primarily mediums now, so you may think you truly have a dark until you use the black and white filter – only to discover they’re all mediums.  Also remember with most precuts, there is no true dark included.  You may have to add a dark if you use those in your quilt. 

I also like to use a “zinger” fabric when possible.  This can be an unusual fabric or a deeply saturated solid (which I prefer).  I scatter this in small doses across my quilt top.  Zingers really do add a little “sparkle” – they’re something completely unexpected but are truly visually pleasing. 

Okay, we’re nearly at the end of this blog and I promised to explain why a color wheel is not my favorite color tool.  I used a color wheel for years until I discovered this:

Yes, this is bulkier than a wheel.  However, it does so, so, so much more than any color wheel I’ve ever owned (and I have owned a lot a few).  First, let’s look at the front of one of the pages:

We’re working with my favorite color, purple – called violet in this tool.  First, to the right, you see six color wheels with the monochromatic, complementary, analogous, split-complementary, and triadic colors isolated for violet.  There is no second guessing involved – they’re right there.  Along the left side, about midway down, there is the pure hue of violet and it’s marked pure.  Then above it is the tints and below it are the shades and tones.  On the back

Are bigger samples of all the colors from the front.  Printed on these samples are the colors are a series of numbers and letters, which are not used by most quilters.  But for the moment, let’s return back to the front of the card with the six color wheels.  Each of the cards is numbered, and the violet card is number 13 (shown on the front, in the right-hand corner).

Let’s look closely at the triadic color scheme. 

The card tells us that besides the violet from card 13, we also need an orange from card 21 and a green from card 5.

This is great information to have at your fingertips, and if you’re a beginning quilter, just having something to help direct your fabric choices is amazing.  However, if you’re like me and have been around the quilt block a few times, I don’t need as much help choosing colors as I do figuring out if the colors I’ve chosen are the right ones.  Here’s where that handy-dandy 3-1 tool really shines.  Take a look at this gorgeous piece of fabric I just purchased from Pineapple Fabrics/Keepsake Quilting:

The pinks and greens are the dominate colors with small pops of purple and blue.  If I decide to find a zinger fabric for this quilt, I’d try to find an orange – there’s small amounts of this color in the fabric and if I can find a deeply saturated orange, it will really add some zip to the top. 

However, let’s concentrate on the green – and the reason I chose green is because green is a funny color.  It’s actually a challenge to find the right green because there are soooooooooo many yards of different green fabric manufactured.  The  first thing I need to do is lay the front side of the green cards against the material. 

There are six green cards in the tool:  chartreuse, spring green, yellow-green, green, blue-green, and aqua-green.  Which these greens are used in the fabric?  When you spread all five cards out against the material, you can see the darker green in the spring green card matches the closest. 

While the chartreuse card is a dead ringer for the lighter green, the darker greens on this card get too muddy to be a good match. 

This tells me if I want some green fabric to use as my mediums, I could safely use any of the greens on the backside of the spring green card to begin to pick out my mediums and even possibly my darks.  This steers me clear of gravitating toward any other green in the fabric store – saving me time and possibly money if I buy the wrong green.  This works so much better and more efficiently than a color wheel.  You can isolate your colors and BOOM!  There goes the guess work. 

There’s a couple of bonus factors with the 3-in-1 Color Tool.  First it has these in the back:

These are value filters.  When you look through these to view your fabric, it’s has the same effect as if you took a picture on your phone and then viewed it through the black and white filter.  The second bonus is it comes with a pouch, so I can toss it in my quilt bag or purse, and it won’t be damaged.  And it’s still small enough it’s not too bulky.    There is a newer version of the Tool and it has all of these features, plus a couple of cards with cut-outs for small circles, squares, triangles so you can preview how your fabric will look cut in these units.  And for those of you who simply have to have a color wheel, the 3-in-1 now comes in wheel form.  I don’t have one and have never used it, so I can’t verify how much easier or harder they are to use than a standard color wheel. 

I hope this very brief study of color theory has help taken at least some of the guess work out of choosing fabrics and colors.  I’ve been quilting about 35 years now, and picking out my fabric still daunts me at times. It’s one of those things I can second guess myself on until the last stitch is sewn in the binding.  I’ve gotten better and I will be honest and tell you that you become more successful at it the longer you quilt.  There are books, longer blogs, videos, and classes which really get into a deeper dive than what I’ve given you here today.  Let me encourage you to look into those and be brave:  Choose your own fabrics.

Until next week, Keep On Quilting,

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


(Most of ) What You Need to Know About Sewing Machine Needles

Sooo…. The topic this week is needles.  I realize we’ve talked about needles in one very specific capacity (hand sewing needles), and in a very general way when we have talked about sewing machines.  This week I want to really highlight how important it is to use the correct sewing machine needle for the fabric under it.  For the purpose of this blog, when I use the term “needle,” it refers to a standard, domestic sewing machine needle, and not needles used in embroidery machines or long arms. 

Just as there are some generalities and specifics about hand sewing needles, the same holds true for machine needles.  Let’s talk generalities first, and then we’ll talk specifics.  To begin with, a machine needle is very different from a hand sewing needle.  A hand sewing needle looks like this:

And a machine needle looks like this:

It’s easy to see some characteristics are the same and some are different.  We’ll start with the eye and work upwards. 

Eye – The hole in which the thread slides through.  Remember when we discussed the eyes of hand sewing needles, and I told you cheap needles can have “gunk” in the eyes – areas where the needle had not been properly and thoroughly polished so there are rough edges in the eye which can cut your thread and generally make your sewing life a nightmare?  The same holds true for a machine needle.  A needle should have a smoothly machined eye to prevent thread shedding – so beware of the cheap ones.    The size of the eye depends on the intended thread type (more on this later).

Point – Like hand sewing needles, the shape of the point varies widely between different needle types.  Some needles, such as ball points, have a slightly rounded end because it’s not made to actually puncture the fabric’s threads.  It’s made to slide in between the fibers, which makes it an ideal needle for synthetics.  Other needles, such as those intended for leather or leather-like fabrics, have an almost chiseled point. 

Shaft – The shaft varies in thickness according to the intended fabric.  Thicker fabric requires a thicker shaft. 

Scarf – This is a groove on the back of the needle which enables the hook on the bobbin case to get close to the eye of the needle in order to avoid skipped stitches.

It’s easy to see the only characteristics different from a hand sewing needle are the scarf and the groove.  But what about sizes?  With hand sewing needles, the larger the number, the finer the needle.  Do sewing machine needles work this way? 


Generally, with sewing machine needles, the larger number means the thicker the needle is and you can sew bulky fabrics without fear of the needle breaking.  But there’s a lot more information to work with than just a number on a pack of sewing machine needles.  To begin with, like hand sewing needles, machine needles are given a title.  With hand sewing needles, we worked with terms such as “sharp,” “tween,” “milliner,” etc.  Machine needles carry names such as “jeans,” “leather,” and “universal.”  Let’s break the titles down and then well deal with sizes. 

Universal – These are the most commonly used type of machine needle.  They can tackle nearly any type of woven and stable material – but not the stretchy knits.  Universals can handle natural and synthetic fibers, as their tips are slightly rounded (but not as rounded as ball points).  I think it’s always a good idea to have a pack or two of these tucked away somewhere in your studio.  If you have them in sizes 70/10  to 90/14, there won’t be too many sewing jobs you can’t handle. 

Ball Point – Ball point needles can be used for tightly woven fabrics, but they are really made for synthetic fibers and stretchy knits.  The point is rounded, so the needle slides through the link in the threads instead of piercing them (which would cause many of the knit fabrics to tear). 

Jersey – These are specifically made for knit fabrics with a medium stretch factor.  This needle also has a rounded tip designed to slip between fibers and not cause laddering or holes. 

Stretch — These are designed for fabrics with the maximum amount of stretch, such as dance lycra and swimwear fabric. 

Leather – These are used for sewing leather and vinyl.  As a matter of fact, you’d find it very difficult to sew either fiber without this needle.  The end of this needle is ultra-sharp so it cleanly pierces through leather or vinyl.  Always remember to lengthen your stitch when sewing with this needle, otherwise your fabric will become perforated. 

Quilting – These needles are strengthened to pierce through numerous layers of fabrics and batting.  The special treatment on their surface means the needles won’t break or bend.  They’re also great to use in bag making, an activity where you’ll be sewing through multiple layers of fabric, foam, interfacing, etc.

Topstitching – Topstitching needles have large eyes to accommodate thick thread.  Usually when you top stitch, you’re sewing through multiple layers of fabric.  Like the quilting needles, these are designed to go through this thickness.  And since some topstitching uses specialty threads, the larger eye easily accommodates this. 

Sharps – Like quilting needles, sharps are strengthened to deal with multiple fabric layers.  These can be used to sew lots of different fabrics – even thin vinyl.  They also handle silks, applique, and tightly woven material.  They are finer and sharper than universal needles. 

Jeans/Denim – These needles are specifically made for sewing denim.  Denim is thick and dense, so jeans needles are especially strong and are only available in the larger sewing machine needle sizes.

Double/Twin – This is kind of a specialty needle.  I used this needle a lot when I taught Heirloom Sewing.  They’re great for making pintucks.  It literally is two needles joined at the top.  They’re also great for putting hems in stretch garments. 

These are the ten most common needles.  There are some variations on these, such as winged needles (used for producing a kind of lacy effect in woven fabrics – I used this type of needle a great deal in Heirloom sewing) and a few other deviations.  However, for the most part, these ten are the ones you see in the sewing machine needle section.  Since we’re now familiar with the titles, let’s look at the numbers and what they mean.

Just like hand sewing needles, machine needles have numbers on them.  Usually it’s two numbers, separated by a slanted line – such as 80/12.  The smaller number – in this case, 12 – relates to the American system and this number can range from 8 to 20.  And if you remember the larger the number, the thicker the needle shaft, so an 8 needle is thinner than a 20.  The first number is for the European system and it can range from 60 to 120.  However, it works the same as the American system – the larger the number, the thicker the needle.  The most common sewing machine needle sizes are 60/8, 70/10, 75/11, 80/12, 90/14, and 100/16.

These combination of numbers are important because they tell you what needle works best with what kind of fabric.  Generally, the range works like this:

60/10, 65/9, and 70/10 are used with very fine weight fabrics, such as fine silk, chiffon, organza, voile, and fine lace.

75/11, 80/12 are used with light weight fabrics such as cotton voile, silk, synthetics, spandex, and lycra.

90/14 is used on medium-weight fabrics such as quilting fabrics, cotton, velvet, fine corduroy, linen, muslin, jersey, tricot, knits, light wool, sweatshirt knit, and fleece.

100/16 is used on heavy weight material such as denim, corduroy, canvas, duck, suiting, and leather.

110/18 is used on very heavy weight fabric such as heavy denim, heavy canvas, upholstery, and faux fur.

120/20 is used on the heaviest of fabric, such as extra thick canvas or upholstery. 

At this point, I know you’re wondering where all of this information fits into our quilting world.  The needle sizes are good to know for anyone who does any type of sewing.  However, as quilters, we can zero in on the types and sizes we know we will use regularly.  This is enables us to purchase in bulk (if we quilt a lot) and know what to buy when we find a good sale.  The quilting needles in size 90/14 are good to have on hand at all times.  Every quilter needs several packs of these tucked away in our sewing room.  The 90/14’s are the primary piecing needles for quilting cottons. 

However, if you’re also an avid machine appliquer, you want a thinner needle.  A 90/14 will leave visible holes on the applique pieces.  If you work with raw-edge machine applique, you will also want to keep 75/11 or 80/12 sharp needles on hand.  Generally, the machine applique thread is thinner than standard piecing thread and these sizes work great with fine thread.  If you plan on using finished edge machine applique with monofilament thread, 60/8 and 70/10 sharps should also be in your needle arsenal. 

If you plan on quilting your quilts on your domestic machine, the type of needle used depends on the type of quilting thread utilized.  When I machine quilt on Big Red (my Janome 7700), I like to use a topstitching needle if possible.  This needle can easily handle the bulk of a three-layer quilt sandwich without breaking and will cleanly pierce all the layers without a hitch.  I usually stick to a 90/14 for this.  When I do quilt on my domestic machine, I use a thin batt, such as a 100% cotton, silk, or thin polyester batt to keep the sandwich bulk to a minimum.  If I’m using a thicker batting, I will quilt it on the long arm which handles the bulk much better.  I also find a 90/14 handles most of my quilting thread – which varies from a 40 to 50-weight thread.  If I want my quilting stitches to shine, I have been known to drop as low to a size 12-weight thread, which is a thick thread.  Sometimes the eye of a 90/14 can handle it and sometimes it can’t (this honestly depends on the thread manufacturer).  If the eye is too small, I will switch to a larger-sized topstitching needle. I also really love Superior Threads Micro Quilting thread.  It’s 100-weight, so it’s super thin, but still really strong.  I switch to a 70/10 topstitching needle or a 60/8 Microtex when I use this thread.  In case you’re wondering, a  Microtex needle is a type of sharp, designed for use with micro-fibers.  They also work really, really well with Batiks.  If I’m feeling all art-quiltsy and plan to use metallic thread, I will switch to Schmetz Metallic needles.  I start with an 80/12 but have moved to a 75/11 if the 80/12 causes fabric damage.  Any metallic needle has an elongated, specially coated eye which easily accommodates metallic thread flow at all stitch speeds. It also has a specialized scarf which prevents skipped stitches and thread breaks. 

In this blog about sewing machines, ( one of the items you want your machine to have is the ability to change the needle without a lot of trouble.  Changing the needle can vary slightly between machines, but usually it goes a little like this:

  1.  First, you will need to remove your old needle.  Before I start this process, I insert a piece of paper between the presser foot and feed dogs.  If the needle slips out of your fingers and falls into the bobbin area, it can wedge itself into areas you can’t get to and you’ll have to take the machine to tech to get it removed.  If there’s a piece of paper covering the feed dogs, the needle can’t drop into the area.  It’s also a good idea to turn the power off to your machine.
  2. At the top of the needle mount, to the right, there’s a screw.  This will need to be loosened a little in order to remove the old needle and insert the new one. 
  3. Before inserting the new needle, make sure the flat side of the top of the needle is facing away from you and the round side is facing toward you.  Insert the needle into the needle mount.
  4. Tighten the screw around the new needle.  It’s a really good idea to use a screwdriver to make sure the needle is secured well and there’s no fear of it falling out and into the bobbin area of the machine. 

Always consult your sewing machine manual before undertaking any general maintenance on your machine.  There may be specifics details to follow for your brand.

We know how to change the needle, so how often should you change it?  Generally, after eight hours of sewing, the needle should be changed.  If you’re using titanium needles (my favorite), you can double the time.  Now I know what you’re thinking – something along the lines of “I don’t punch a time clock when I sit down to sew, so how do I keep up with the hours?”  I don’t either, so let me share with you how I kind of keep up with things.

  1.  I treat Big Red differently from the machines I only use occasionally.  For my Janome 7700, I change the needle after I’m through piecing a quilt top.  If I’m working on multiple tops, I change it every two weeks. If I’m using titanium needles, I may go as long as three weeks before changing.
  2. For the Featherweight, which I may use once a week, I change her needle the first of every month.
  3. If I’m paper piecing on either machine, I change the needle as soon as I am through with the project.  Paper piecing dulls your needle quickly.
  4. After I’m through quilting a top on Big Red, the needle is changed (unless it’s a really small quilt). 
  5. I change it anytime I experience skipped stitches or hear a distinct “pop” when I sew.  The longer you sew/quilt on a machine, the more you understand its nuances – like the sound a dull needle makes or the appearance of stitches when the machine needs a new needle. 

Finally, I offer you two pieces of advice.  First, don’t purchase cheap sewing machine needles.  Buy brand names such as Organ or Schmetz or the brand your sewing machine company produces (such as Singer).  Cheap needles of any type should be the bane of your quilting existence.  Like quality hand sewing needles, good machine needles aren’t expensive.  Do yourself a favor and keep your studio stocked with quality needles in the sizes you use most. 

Second, if you’re perplexed with what size needle to use with a fabric or thread, please go here:

Superior Threads offers abundant information on all things thread, needle, and fabric.  They’re my go-to source for any needle and thread questions I have.  I also love their products and their customer service is stellar.

I hope this helps answer any questions you have concerning sewing machine needles.  The sizes work opposite of hand sewing needles.  The type you need depends on both the kind of fabric you’re working with and the thread you’re using.  Change them regularly and keep a supply on hand.  Honestly, a clean machine and a new needle make your quilting life so much easier.

Until next week, Keep Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

Once again, let me reiterate that I do not work for any quilt-related company.  My recommendations (such as Superior Threads mentioned above), come from years of personal experience ordering products from their company.  I also do not receive free merchandise from this company for recommending them. 


What Makes A Really Great Quilt Pattern

As one of the first “official” blogs of 2021, I want to talk about quilt patterns.  We’ve approached this subject before, kind of in a round-about way – we’ve talked about understanding what level of quilter you are and that you need to read the directions through before you make the first cut on your fabric.  I’ve emphasized (and want to do so again right now) it’s a good idea to Google a pattern and quilt designer.  If you Google either or both, and nothing comes up but the designer’s quilt, put the pattern down and walk away.  Chances are, no one else has made it and there’s probably a very good reason:  Either it’s a difficult quilt, the directions are incomplete, or the designer is new to the field.  With any of these considerations, it’s best to step away from the project for a while if not forever. 

To begin, let’s take a deep dive into the history of quilt patterns.  For hundreds of years (actually thousands, if you hold to the fact the first quilts were made in ancient Egypt), there were no real patterns.  The simplest quilt blocks consisted of the four-patch, nine-patch, and log cabins.  These and their variations were passed down either in verbal form or rudimentary written form.  Here’s where quilt pattern history becomes kind of vague.  It’s nearly impossible to find an accurate date or name of a published quilt pattern anywhere except here – in America.  In 1835 Godey’s Ladies Book published this pattern:

We know this block as Grandmother’s Flower Garden and it reached the height of its popularity in 1925 (although with the current hexie and English Paper Piecing craze, it’s enjoying a resurgence of fame).  However, it was known during the Colonial Period, too, under the names of Mosaic, Honeycomb, and French Bouquet.  During the Depression it was a cheerful quilt for dark times and an economical one:  It was scrap friendly. 

Quilt patterns continued to be published in Godey’s and a few other publications.  It reached a peak with The Kansas City Star newspaper, which published patterns for blocks from 1928-1961.  By the end of the pattern run, the Star had published 1,001 quilt block patterns.  Also during this time period, we find the rise in applique quilt kits and patterns from designers such as Marie Webster (If you love applique and have never looked at her patterns, do yourself a favor and spend some time researching them online – they’re beautiful), and the Mountain Mist Batting patterns. 

What may bother you with these patterns are the instructions.  They’re brief.  There are a few line drawings.  The instructions assume you already know how to sew, how to keep a consistent seam allowance, and are comfortable with hand piecing.  And for this era, these direction were adequate – most women and girls were taught how to sew and had been sewing since they were young.  If you decide to make a quilt from one of these patterns, and don’t have several years of quilting behind you, you may run into some problems.  Even quilters I consider “experts” in the field are used to having just a little more detail in the instructions than what’s offered with the Kansas City Star Quilts*. 

Around the time of America’s bicentennial, quilting enjoyed a resurgence in interest.  Magazines came out with patterns.  Books were written.  And along with these, the opportunity to actually walk into a fabric store and purchase only a pattern became a reality.  All three of these quilt pattern options are still available today, along with the alternative of purchasing a pattern online and ready to download.  This is what I really want to focus on – what makes a good quilt pattern?  How do you do you know if it is a good pattern?  What do you do if it isn’t?  And how do you know if you’ve downloaded and printed a pattern correctly

First, we will look at some common characteristics of a good quilt pattern, regardless of how it’s obtained.  For me, really good quilt patterns:

  1.  Give you the unfinished measurements of each block unit, as well as the unfinished measurements of the entire block.  For instance, take a look at this block:

This is a type of Ohio Star and its finished measurements are 6-inches x 6-inches.  It’s has block units consisting of squares and quarter-square triangles which are 2 ½-inches, unfinished.  Why is this information so important?  It allows me to measure as I go, and honestly, it’s much easier to take a unit apart than a whole block.    After I make my quarter square units, I can measure them.  If they don’t measure 2 ½- inches square, I can correct those units then – which is so much better than finding out something’s a little wonky after I get several blocks made.  If each block unit is the correct measurement, I stand a much better chance the blocks will have the correct unfinished measurement before I begin to join them together into rows. 

  •  The pattern will give me several sizes to choose from.  It will offer me several options as far as how big or how small I can make the quilt.
  • There are either really great illustrations, line drawings, or pictures in the pattern.  Good pattern designers know quilters (as a whole) are visual learners.  The designer will not only have a great picture of the finished product (because this is what lures you into purchasing the pattern in the first place), but he or she will also have clear illustrations of some of the trickier parts of the quilt.  Beginner quilt patterns should have lots of graphics.  Those for intermediate or advanced quilters may only highlight the really difficult parts. 
  • The fabric requirements have a little “oops” room and the list of notions is complete and concise.  Good quilt patterns will have room for cutting mistakes – they will give you a few more inches of fabric than you really need.  They will also list other notions (such as fusible web, specialty threads, etc.) needed.  Great quilting patterns will tell you where to get them – such as websites.  I will also be completely honest and tell you this is something you learn by experience.  The longer you quilt, the more knowledge you gain about quilt patterns and their creators.  Some of these folks are excellent.  Some are really good.  And frankly, some are horrid.
  • It gives me a good starting point as far as color is concerned.  I may not like the fabric the designer has picked out for his or her quilt, but it should give me enough differentiation that if I take a picture of the pattern, use the app on my phone to flip it to black and white, I can tell how many darks, lights, and mediums I need. 
  • It plainly indicates in some way if it’s a beginner, intermediate, or advanced pattern.
  • If it’s an applique pattern, it tells you if the image pattern pieces are already reversed or if you need to reverse them.
  • If the designer has a website, they update the patterns and any mistakes found in the pattern regularly.  Pattern designers are people.  People make mistakes.  Good designers admit their mistakes and offer (free of charge) the pattern corrections.  One of the best designers out there who has a dogged dedication to this is Judy Neimeyer.  She updates any changes or corrections for her patterns on her website post haste.

For me, these eight factors are important no matter if the pattern is purchased in a store, found in a magazine or book, or is downloaded.  If a quilt pattern has most of these, it’s a good one.  If it has all of these, it’s a great pattern.    And there’s only one way to find out if a pattern has any or all of these components:  Read it. 

Read every word completely.

Until you get to the end.

I’m completely serious.

No matter if it’s a download or a print version, before you make the first cut in your beautiful fabric, read the pattern completely.  I consider myself an advanced quilter, and I still stop and do this before I do anything else.  I read it through, mark it up, and write down my questions.  If there are questions, usually you’ll find the answers somewhere in the pattern.

But what if you don’t?  Well, this is when you employ Google.  Type the name of the pattern in the search bar and see what comes up.  If you get no substantial information from this, type the designer’s name into the search bar.  Most of the time (especially if the creator has several patterns under their belt), the designer’s web page or Facebook page will pop up.  From there you can search for additional information about the pattern or find out how to email the designer.  There may even be corrections listed.  However, if nothing comes up in the search, you seriously want to re-think making the pattern.  Ask me how I know.

Now let’s look at how the types of patterns are different from each other.  Most of the time when someone mentions a quilt pattern, this is what I picture:

A single pattern, in a resealable, plastic envelope.  To be honest, this is my favorite way to obtain a pattern.  Normally, I only want this particular pattern and either A – Don’t want additional patterns cluttering up the process or B – Don’t want the additional expense or space a book or magazine takes up.  These patterns will generally have a nice, color picture of the final product, fabric requirements, notion needs, and instructions.  Depending the level quilter it’s produced for, it may or may not have additional illustrations.  If it’s an applique pattern, it will also have all the graphics you need to prep your pieces, including letting you know if you need to reverse the drawings or if they’re already reversed. All-in-all, these are pretty complete patterns and usually includes contact information for the designer.  The front page contains the color photo, then inside the pattern are step-by-step instructions, and the fabric and notion needs are on the back. 

Patterns found in magazines work a little differently.  Where you find the pattern in a magazine depends on how the publication is laid out.   Some magazines have all the pictures and descriptions of the quilts in one section and then puts all the directions for all of the quilts in the back.  Others will have the picture of the quilt, fabric requirements, and then the directions (my favorite way).  They may offer a few different color ways and several different sizes.  They may or may not have information about where to locate the fabrics and notions used.  However, most (if not all magazines) will have the designer and contact information with the pattern.  One great characteristic about magazine quilt patterns is they will publish any needed corrections in a following issue or on their website.  If you decide you want to make a quilt from a magazine, I urge you to take a good look at the publication and understand not only the directions, but also where the directions are.  One word of caution:  If you’re using a magazine which is several years old, note any corrections may not be accessible.  It’s a good idea to Google the pattern and see if any corrections or problems pop up. 

Books of patterns work similarly.  Some books have all the pictures in one section and the directions in another. Others will have the quilt picture followed by fabric requirements and directions.  And I will be honest here:  I don’t purchase a lot of books with patterns in them.  My quilt book library consists primarily of quilt history books.  The pattern books which are on my shelves tend to be of one primary designer (such as Kim Diehl or Marie Webster) or one type of quilt (such as jelly roll, scrap, or table topper). Just as you did with a quilt magazine, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the layout of the publication.  What you won’t find readily available are corrections.  While magazines tend to have at least one other person make the quilt according to the designer’s directions, book publishers may not – they may have left this as the responsibility of the writer.  Sometimes this becomes glaringly apparent all too late ask me how I know. With magazines, at least one other person makes the quilt by following the designer’s directions, so there is a  safeguard in place which (for the most part) prevents mistakes from becoming published.  My advice is once again, consult Google.  If you’re purchasing the book on a site such as Amazon (or go to Amazon before purchasing directly from the author or publishing site), you can read reviews to see if others find the book understandable and the patterns are accurate.  And I’ll also be completely honest with this point:  I’ve had far more trouble with patterns found in books than any other type of pattern.  As a matter of fact, I’ve had consistent issues with a couple of publishing houses to the point I will no longer purchase any of their books.

The last type of pattern – and the most recent – are the patterns which can be immediately downloaded after purchase or log-in.  And these downloadables fall into two categories – those you pay for and those you don’t.  I want to be really careful  how I discuss this category.  There are designers, such as Esther Aliu, Bonnie Hunter and others, who at various times offer free patterns for download.  And these patterns are wonderful and accurate, and I love them and the designers.  They don’t have to do this wonderful thing, but they do, and should be commended and adored because of their generosity.  Fabric houses (such as Moda, Henry Glass, etc.,) also offer free downloadables, too.  This number has increased as the number of types of available precuts have increased.  It’s these patterns which should be double-checked for accuracy. Often the folks designing these patterns are not as knowledgeable as other designers and there is a risk for mistakes.   I will say the quality (as well as the quantity) of these downloadables has gotten much, much better over the past several years.  Still – read the pattern through before making that first cut. 

Regardless of whether you pay for the pattern or it’s free, there are nearly always downloading issues.  Well….not so much with the download itself, but with the printing.  So, let’s say we want to download this pattern:

I’ll walk you through how I do this step-by-step and hope this helps you.  These steps can also be used if you’re downloading a pattern or block from a CD.  Some quilt pattern books, such as Farmer’s Wife 1930’s Sampler Quilt, comes with a CD which has the block patterns you can download.  Please note some tricks may be specific to your computer or operating system or your ability to remember your own passwords (my personal downfall), which will be up to you to sort out.

Generally, there are two ways to receive a PDF pattern file.  Sometimes, if you’re downloading a free pattern file from a website, it goes through the same process as when you download a picture or document file from an email.  Once you click on the pattern you want, the download appears as a little box at the bottom of your screen.  You click this on, and one of your computer programs (usually Windows Photo) will open the file up. 

However, some free patterns go through the same process as purchased ones do.  That process goes a little like this:

  1.  The company will either email you a link for your pattern or after purchase, there will be something like a “My Patterns” tab on the website which will permanently house your PDF patterns in your account.  You can click the tab or link and your pattern will download.
  2. At this point, there’s a choice you need to make.  You can open the pattern, print it, and not choose to download it into your hard drive or onto a thumb drive – or you can download it into your hard drive.

Personally, I download mine into my hard drive.  I just find it’s convenient and I don’t have to remember where I purchased the pattern from nor do I have to worry about the company closing up shop and pulling their website (and my patterns) off the internet.  However, I do file my pattern downloads in a manner which makes it easy for me to find them.  I have a file in the documents section of my computer labeled “Quilting.”

The patterns which have multiple files (such as blocks of the month, mystery quilts, or very large patterns) are downloaded into a sub-file under Quilting which carries the name of the pattern.  However, I also purchase single-downloadable patterns.  For those I make a sub-file with the designer’s name on it and file those patterns under that.  If you find yourself downloading a lot of patterns, it’s a good idea to find a system which works for you.  You can print the patterns out or set up some kind of filing system on your hard drive.  If you decide to keep them on your computer, be sure to back them up on a spare drive or on the cloud. 

Okay, moving on to printing these patterns – and this is where real problems kick in.  If you’re only printing cutting directions, you’re good to go.  But if you’re printing a paper-piecing pattern or applique pieces, it’s vital the pattern print to the correct size, or you’ll run into all kinds of issues.  Let’s look at how this works:

Here’s the print screen for the pattern Bed of Roses by Esther Aliu.  Everything looks pretty good at this point.  The paper is 8 ½ x 11.  There are 52-sheets loaded in the printer.  The print is set to go to my HP8600 (the only printer on my home network).  But if you notice as part of the print dialog, the box is checked beside Shrink Oversized Pages.  If you see this phrase or the phrase Fit/Fit to Page, make sure those boxes are unchecked.  You want to be sure Actual Size or Print at 100% or No Scaling is checked.  Any of those checked boxes will assure you your pattern will print to the correct size. 

In addition to making sure the correct print box is checked, I also like to verify the size with one more step.  Most downloadable PDF patterns have one of these somewhere in the document. 

With this Esther Aliu pattern, it’s on page 18.  Before I print the entire 52-page pattern, I print only page 18 and then I measure the 1-inch box.  If that box is exactly 1-inch square, I’m good to go.  But if it’s off any – even as little as 1/16-inch, it can throw the entire block off.  In this case, the square is exactly 1-inch, so I know my printed pattern is correct.  If your test square isn’t the required measurement, check your print dialog box to make sure the settings are correct and try again. 

One additional word about magazine patterns.  If I find a pattern I want to make in a quilt magazine, but don’t need anything else in the publication, I’ll scan the pattern and add it to my computer files.  This way I don’t have to keep up with another paper pattern and try to remember where on earth I put it.

If nothing else, I hope this blog takes the guess work and headache out of printing PDF files.  I also hope it helps you recognize what makes a pattern a really good one – or a really great one.  There are so many choices out there for quilters now.  And the number of patterns seems to only be limited by the designers’ imaginations.

Until Next Week, Keep Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

*There are several current publications, such as The Kansas City Star Quilt Sampler by Barbara Brackman, which feature the Star’s quilt blocks with clearer directions.  If you want to try some of these blocks, this is the initial direction I’d go before trying to interpret the original published patterns.


Goals…How to Set Them, How to Reach Them

Last week I announced the 2021 theme – Quilting Survival.  I chose this idea on the backdrop of COVID.  At the time I’m writing this blog, two vaccines have been approved and are rolling out.  However, even with that, most us know it will be months before any of us receive it.  Masks will continue to be worn and we’ll still need to social distance.  This new year will continue to be one of challenges and changes.  With this in mind, I’d like to encourage you to set some quilting goals this year.  I wish I could drop into each of my reader’s homes for a nice cup of coffee or tea and talk about your quilting and what you want to do – the new things you want to try and the projects you want to finish.  I’d love to help you set some goals so you can steadily progress to finishing your projects and starting some new ones.

However, even pre-Covid, this wasn’t possible.  At least not with all of you.  Instead, I’d like to tell you about the steps go through to set my New Year’s goals and reasonably follow through with them.  At this point, at least with myself, I’m thinking about two different sets of goals – the projects I want to start or complete and what I want to learn from them.  The first step is to review the projects I completed the previous year.  Since 2020 was the marathon-to-end-all-stay-at-home-marathons (seriously, I felt like I was 13 again and grounded by my parents), lots of us had more finishes than ever before.  For the first time in my quilting career, I finished three quilts for Christmas gifts!  Before December 24!  Actually, all three were finished by October – quilted, bound, and labeled.  The reactions from the recipients makes me want to gift more quilts to the quilt-worthy people in my life.  All three of these quilts involved panels.  Two of them I simply square-up and added borders.  The other one – The Fish Almighty Quilt – involved more work and more math.  That one stretched me out of my comfort zone.  I also finished two small quilts and five lap-sized or larger quilt tops.  I started two ambitious applique projects (I’m half-way through appliqueing the blocks on one and the other was started in November).  From these projects I’ve learned more about piecing my applique off the block and how to pre-quilt the backgrounds (since both of them will use crosshatching in the background). 

Not too shabby for one year.  I’ve learned more about panels, applique, and pre-quilting as well as chalking up some serious “final” finishes and several “first” finishes.  I’m pleased.  I think this probably the most I have gotten done in any year thank you so much COVID (yes, this is sarcasm). 

Then I take the complete finishes (pieced/appliqued, quilted, bound, and labeled) and make a list.  And I put it somewhere I can see it regularly during the next year.  This serves as a tangible reminder of what I can do when I have grit, determination, self-discipline, and don’t go anywhere.  Yes!  I can do this.  I am the quilter. 

Once I’m through gloating over what I have accomplished, I make another list.  This is all the WIPs (Works in Progress) which are currently in my quilt studio. Please be assured I have many WIPs, but only keep the ones I’m presently working on in my studio.  I list their name and approximately how much I have done on each, what are the major steps I need to accomplish to finish them, and where they’re at on my priority list.  Some of these I know I will complete in the next year.  In my case, it’s my guild’s 2020 BOM, a quilt for a friend who is undergoing chemo, and two pieced quilts I was supposed to finish at quilt retreat.  All the blocks are complete for the BOM.  I simply have to set them together in a top and quilt it, so it’s 80% complete and I have a deadline with it.  I will move this up into a top priority slot because I want to get it finished.

The other three are at different stages.  The chemo quilt is pieced and simply needs quilting. One (Twinkling Twinkle) is 90% complete.  It only needs borders and quilting.  The other is cut out, but not one stitch has been put in.   This one is at the starting gate.  I will have to spend serious time on this top to complete it.  I want to get the chemo quilt to my friend ASAP, so it comes right after the 2020 BOM. Twinkling Twinkle is in the third priority position (again, I want to get it done and I’m super-close).  The other pieced one (All Roads Lead Home) will take the fourth priority slot.  My reasoning behind this is once I get the BOM, chemo quilt, and Twinkling Twinkle out of the way, I can devote more time to that fourth top.  Plus, finishing three tops will spur me to complete the fourth one.

Other WIPs are what I call “Lifers.”  These are the projects which have a lot of detail and handwork.  They will be finished – but not in 2021.  I’m working on them at least once a week, but it may take several years before the last stitch on the label is sewed in.  Currently I have three of these:  Language of the Flowers, Horn of Plenty for a New Generation, and A Day in Grandmother’s Flower Garden (all hand-pieced, hand-appliqued, and probably will also be hand-quilted).  I won’t give these a priority or a deadline until much later.  Currently, I think my Grandmother’s Flower Garden may be the first one to cross the finish line.

Now I make a third list.  This list is a cross between my hopes and dreams and a hard crash with reality – these are the projects I want to start.  I list these projects, give them a priority, and record what I hope to learn from them.  First up is a T-shirt quilt.  The one thing to remember about me and T-shirt quilts is this:  If I make you a T-shirt quilt, I must really love you because I hate making T-shirt quilts.  I know hate is a strong word, but honestly, they’re my least favorite.  And probably the reason is I don’t have a lot of experience with them.  I’ve made a couple of small ones, way back in the mid-1980’s.  So many new products are now on the market for them and there’s so much information about their construction, I am seriously hoping I learn to love them. The big stick-and-carrot for me with this project (besides who it’s made for) is the pattern layout.  It’s not your typical T-shirt layout.  I am excited about this project! 

I want to start one other quilt in this new year — my guild’s 2021 BOM.  I have the yardage requirements.  However, it’s freaking me out just a bit because it’s a two-color quilt. In 35 years of quilting, I’ve never made a two-color quilt.  Ever since this BOM has been announced, I’ve spent hours on Google and Pinterest looking at two-color quilts.  I still haven’t made a decision.  So, with the 2021 BOM, I hope to get comfortable with using only two colors in a quilt.  The struggle is real, y’all.  Right now, my Fig Tree fabrics are in the first-place bracket, but that may change.  Stay tuned.

At this point, my lists look like this:

I know what I finished.  I know what projects I’m in the middle of and the order I need to finish them.  I also know what new projects are on the horizon.  This is a great place to jump start the 2021 quilting year.  However, there are two additional steps I need to take in order to be sure I can accomplish these goals.

The first one is to clean out my studio.  This step is my least favorite, because after Christmas, the best way to describe my quilt room is “There appears to have been a struggle…”  And this year is worse than most because during the time of COVID, I supported the small on-line quilt shops by purchasing fabric.  I think this was one of the only times in my quilt life that I pretty much just randomly chose and purchased significant amounts of yardage (not pre-cuts, or a yard or two…we’re talking three-to-five yards at a clip) because I desperately want them to stay open.  There is literally a stack of fabric I need to go through and sort into colors.  I’m not looking forward to this, but I need to organize the clutter.  I don’t function well with a lot of chaos, so while this step may take some significant time up front, in the end it will allow me to function much better.

The second step can be done while I’m organizing and sorting – and that’s make a list of supplies I need to purchase.  As I’m working my way through the patterns, fabric, and thread, I can make a list of the items I need to replenish.  I keep the list in the Notes app in my iPhone.  This keeps it readily available for me to peruse if I have the opportunity to shop sales and buy in bulk.

As we begin this 2021 journey, let’s work to be kinder to ourselves.  I know we hear a lot about kindness – being nice to each other while we’re still muddling through the pandemic and yet another year of political turmoil – but let me also encourage each of us to be kind to ourselves.  Take time for you while you try to take care of others, too.  I figure if the age of the average quilter is 63, most of us are at the spot in our lives where we’re squeezed in the middle.  Many of us many have adult or near-adult kids who have been affected by the economy and the pandemic and elderly parents we desperately hope aren’t affected by COVID. It’s easy to feel tired, burnt-out, and overwhelmed.  Let your quilting settle your soul and soothe your mind.

Until Next Week, Keep Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam