Machine Quilting 101

Okay, confession time.  It’s been a year since COVID slowed us all down.  How many quilt tops did you make? 

Next question:  How many quilt tops have you quilted? 

If the second number is significantly smaller than the first number, this blog series is for you.  For the next several weeks I want to focus on the quilting process with the domestic sewing machine.  Yes, I do have a long arm, but I’m one of those long armers who doesn’t like to off-load one quilt before it’s complete.  For this reason, my small quilts are generally still quilted on Big Red while the larger quilts stay on LeighAnne. However, it wasn’t always this way.  For years, I was a “topper.”  I enjoyed the piecing and appliqueing process and quilted with my checkbook (paid someone else to quilt my quilts for me).  Nothing wrong with this, but if you’re a prolific topper, it can get expensive.  You may want to save the checkbook quilting for large quilts but get comfortable quilting the small quilts on your domestic machine.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret:  For years, the thought of quilting my own quilts scared me to death.  Drop the feed dogs and keep sewing?  I didn’t think I could do it.  But I persisted in learning the process and now, while I’m by no means an expert, I do pretty well.  What’s more, I enjoy the process.  Adding all that extra texture to a quilt top is just so much fun and is so addictive.  So, for the next couple of blogs, we’re putting the spotlight on quilting with the domestic machine.  I’m not a professional domestic-machine-quilter, but I want to share with you what I’ve learned and add lots of links and references for you to have at your fingertips.  And for a point of reference, when I mention quilting in these blogs, keep in mind I’m referring to the actual quilting (joining the back, batting, and top together) and performing the process on a standard domestic sewing machine (not a mid-arm or long-arm, although some of these steps you’ll go through no matter how you quilt your quilt). 

When we think about quilting on a regular sewing machine, there are eight general concepts to keep in mind:

  1.  The Quilt Sandwich
  2. Planning the Quilt Pattern
  3. Moving the Quilt Through the Harp
  4. Practice
  5. Posture
  6. Speed
  7. The Finish Line
  8. Stress

Hold the Pickle, Hold the Lettuce

Process of quilt sandwich assembling, sewing accessories

This blog, and maybe most of the second blog of the series, will focus on the quilt sandwich, because herein lies a lot of the success or a lot of the problems in the quilting process.    It’s super, super easy to rush the sandwich-making.  I mean, you’ve spent months (and is some cases, years) making the top.  A big part of you is DONE.  You really want to get the quilting over with, get the thing bound, and put on your bed, wall or in someone else’s hands as a gift.  I get it.  I do.  Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.  But putting together a good quilt sandwich is pretty darn important. So, we need to go through the steps.  And the first step is making sure you have everything you need.

  1.  Ironed and starched quilt top
  2. Batting – Make sure you have the kind you need for the appearance you want.  I’m placing the link to a blog I wrote about batting here:
  3. Backing – Remember that backing fabric shrinks disproportionally to other quilting cottons – as much as eight percent.  You may want to prewash your quilt backing fabric, if you’re using this material instead of piecing your back from regular quilting fabric. Just for reference, here’s the link to my blog on quilt backs:
  4. Sharp scissors
  5. Something to keep you quilt sandwich together as you quilt it.  These options will be discussed a little later. 
  6. A place to layout your quilt
  7. Masking tape
  8. Quilting gloves – These are pretty important.  Trust me.

Appearance Counts

Since this whole process is about enhancing the quilt top with some wonderful, quilty texture, let’s park it here for a paragraph or two and discuss why it’s so important to make sure the top is ready to be quilted.  You’ve spent weeks, months, maybe even years piecing and/or appliqueing the top.  You’ve given it the utmost care.  In order for the quilting to enhance the work you’ve already put into the top, it’s critical you flip your quilt over and take a careful look at the wrong side of the top. Clip any long threads and remove any other loose ones which are hanging on for the ride.  If you don’t, folks may actually be able to see these through the fabric once you have the quilt together and quilted.  Next, iron the back of the quilt, making sure seams have been pressed to one side (as much as possible) and everything is neat and tidy.  Press the front of the top with spray starch or Best Press (whichever is your preference).  Then set it aside while we talk about your batting.

Gotta Have a Flat Batt

Batting is sold either by the yard, by the roll, or in packages.  Generally, if you’ve purchased it by the yard or are rolling it off a bolt you purchased, wrinkles and creases are minimal.  Packaged batting has more fold marks.  It’s important to get as many of these out of your batting as you can before making your sandwich.  I don’t recommend pressing your entire batting for a couple of reasons.  First, batting is thin and the push and pull of pressing and then moving the batting can make thinner spots or even punch a hole in it.  I also don’t recommend hanging the batting in the bathroom and running the hot water so the steam can relax the creases – batting will hold that moisture for a while.  What I do suggest is unfolding the batting and letting it lie somewhere for several hours and let the wrinkles relax.  My favorite place to do this is on a spare bed.  After a day or two, I can take my portable iron (dry, no steam) and carefully press any spots where the creases prove to be extremely stubborn, and I can do this while it’s still on the bed. 

Stuck in the Middle with You

I’ve written pretty extensively about backings in past blogs, so if you have questions about how to piece a backing, I suggest you look at those (the links are above).  What is important – no matter if you’ve purchased wide backing fabric or are piecing your back – is make sure both the batting and backing are several inches larger than your top.  When you quilt your sandwich, it will shrink a bit.  Allowing for several inches of backing and batting on all the the sides will ensure you can trim all three sandwich layers down to size.  If a domestic sewing machine will be doing the quilting, two-to-three inches on all sides will be enough.  If a long arm will be used, generally you’ll need a more generous border – about six inches on all four sides.  This is due to the fact most long arm artists secure the sides of the quilt with grips and those clamps will need something to fasten to, yet still be far enough away from the quilt top they don’t interfere with the quilting process. 

The sharp scissors come in to use if the batting and backing are too large.  While you want to make sure the batting and backing are wide enough, you don’t want them too wide.  All that does is give you extra bulk you have to deal with.  And this may not be too much of an issue on a long arm, but with a domestic machine, it’s entirely different.  When quilting on a sewing machine, the idea is not to turn the quilt.  Turning the quilt can put puckers in the back if you’re not careful.  However, during the quilting process, you may get to a point where there is no other option but to turn the quilt.  Any extra fabric makes this process bulky and difficult.  Even if you’re free motion quilting from the middle of the quilt out, you’re still dealing with fabric to the left of you and fabric to the right (and there you are stuck in the middle – extra points to those who picked up on an old Stealer’s Wheel song).  The ideal situation is to keep the quilt sandwich as small as you can so there won’t be a lot of bulk next to the side of the harp or on your left-hand side, top, or bottom which can weight the quilt down, make it difficult to maneuver, or – if part of the quilt is close to the edge of the sewing table – make the quilt pull off the table.   

Before we get to how to keep your quilt sandwich together (because this topic may be a blog unto itself), we’re hitting the last three items on the list:  a place to lay your quilt out, tape, and gloves. 

It’s kind of critical to have a place which is big enough to sandwich your quilt all at the same time.  I’ve read about quilters who are able to make a quilt sandwich on a small table.  I admire this ability; however, I do not possess it.  I need a large area.  I have a cutting table on casters which I can slide out in the middle of my studio and make my sandwich.  This table will work as long as the quilt is no larger than a double.  My kitchen counter/bar works for lap and crib quilts.  Anything larger than this requires some planning. 

At this point, you maybe thinking, “Well, the floor would work, wouldn’t it?”  And it would.  If you have an area in your home where you can move everything out of the way and lay your backing out completely flat, it will certainly work for you – but not for me.  For one thing, Sam would want to participate in the process by laying on the quilt back and leaving cat sprinkles all over it (he sheds…despite the fact he’s brushed several times a week).  Second, my almost 60-year-old knees won’t take the abuse of crawling around on a hard floor and then supporting me when I try to stand up again.

The reason you need a space large enough for the back (or at least I  do), is this:  the back needs to be spread out and taped down so it doesn’t shift or wrinkle as you add the batting and top.  So, an open space on a floor would work great!  But if you’re like me and the knees are showing just a little wear and tear, the floor may be difficult.  However, all is not lost.  If you are a member of a church or other group which has an area with lots of long tables, see if you can get permission to lay out a quilt on those.  If there’s a library in your area with a public room, call or email to see if you can lay out your quilt there.  There may be a break room or some other space where you’re employed which would be perfect.  And my favorite place to layout large quilts is at my annual quilt retreat.  If I plan to quilt any of my tops on Big Red, the retreat facilities are perfect for doing it.  Lots of tables and lots of light.  When I’m finished, I can fold them up, pack them up, take them back home, and quilt them.  Oddest place I’ve ever sandwiched a quilt?  A local boat marina that had a meeting room.  You have to get creative and think outside the box, but there are places which will let you sandwich your quilt.  Many times, they’ll let you have the space for free since you’re not using it the entire day (especially if they’re supported by your tax dollars), or for a nominal fee or donation. 

After you’ve got a location to lay your quilt back out, the next thing needed is tape.  I realize this may sound kind of obvious, but not just any tape works for securing your quilt back to a surface.  You need a tape which will hold the back down securely, but won’t leave a tacky, nasty residue on the fabric.  This means Scotch tape is out – it’s not secure enough.  Electrical tape isn’t either.  Duct tape falls into the “leaves a nasty residue on fabric” category.  The two I recommend (and use myself) are painter’s tape or masking tape.  I find the painter’s tape works well for the smaller quilts, but if I have anything larger than a twin, I use masking tape.  The last thing you want to happen is for the backing to pull loose from the surface and wrinkle on you – because then you have to start all over. 

Finally, let’s talk quilting gloves.  Quilting gloves are needed for three reasons:

  1.  They reduce hand fatigue because they help you grip your quilt sandwich. The gloves have a tacky texture on them which help you really hold onto you quilt during the quilting process. 
  2. You can get a better grip on the sandwich with them.
  3. Gloves keep your hands and your quilt top relatively clean.

Yes, you can quilt without gloves, but honestly, they really do make a huge difference.  If you’re an occasional quilter, you may want to invest in these:

These are gloves from the Dollar Store.  If you look at the surface, there are little bumps on them which are slightly tacky.  They will work great for you if you only quilt occasionally.

If you quilt more often, you may want to invest in “real” quilting gloves.  These are Machingers Quilting Gloves.  These are made of nylon knit, and offer support to your hands and wrist, allowing you to quilt in relative comfort for hours.  Added bonus:  because they’re nylon, loose threads won’t stick to them and transfer back to the quilt top.  They’re seamless and allow you to easily use your fingertips or entire hand.  Only the fingertips are coated, so you get good resistance with no drag, and your hand will stay cool because there is not coating on the palm area.  These quilting gloves have been on the market for a long time, and  are the ones recommended by many well-known quilt teachers.  I have owned several pairs and I love them.  They can be cleaned but follow the directions on the package.  Since the gloves are white, they do get pretty stained after a while.   However, Machingers Gloves aren’t too expensive, so replacing them doesn’t break the bank. 

I also like the three-fingered quilt gloves:

These are Regi’s Grip.  To me, they seem a little more light weight than Machinger’s.  The biggest difference between Regi’s Grip and other quilting gloves is Regi’s leaves your ring and pinky fingers free.  I personally like this feeling better than having my entire hand in a glove, but this is truly a “me” thing and you may not like having two fingers free.  Bonus:  Since they’re gray, crocking stains don’t show up quite as badly as they do on the white Machinger’s.  One word of caution, these run a little small, so I’d order the next size up from what you normally take in a glove.

There are other quilting gloves on the market, but I own and use Machinger’s and Regi’s Grip.  They’re both wonderful products and I like them equally.  Whatever type of quilting glove you decide on, make sure they fit comfortably and don’t cause your hands to sweat. 

This is as far we’re going on quilting for this blog.  Let me throw in one more word of caution since we covered areas to make your quilt sandwich. If you plan on using a floor, make sure it’s not carpeted. It will be difficult to keep the back taped down to carpet. Second, make sure the surface (no matter if it’s a floor or a table or a counter) is clean. That’s kind of important…Next week we’ll talk about the different ways to make a quilt sandwich and the pros and cons of each.

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


Hand Sewing Nirvana

I’d like to discuss a topic this week which most quilters have strong opinions about – hand sewing.

Now, I’m not talking about hand quilting.  That’s another topic altogether which I feel woefully inadequate to discuss.  Yes, I hand quilt on occasion.  I enjoy it.  But I am by no means proficient in the art.  And I’m not talking about hand applique, per se.  This, too, is another topic.  Hand applique has so many aspects entire books have been written on it.  While parts of this blog do take in some areas of hand applique, for the most part, it’s not a major part of this blog.  I love hand applique and we will be talking about it soon.

No, I’m talking about hand sewing as it pertains primarily to hand piecing.  There’s a lot of this taking place nowadays.  English paper piecing has developed a host of fans (and fanatics).  I’ve spoken with quilters who now religiously save their larger scraps and turn them into hexies by the jarful.  Yo yos too, have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and have been churned out by the handfuls.  I also realize from having studied the field of quilting, as well as being an active participant in it, hand sewing is a dividing rod.  Some quilters like it.  As a matter of fact, I know of quilters who solely hand piece and hand quilt.  I also know just as many other quilters won’t even sew their binding to the backs of their quilt by hand.  They dislike hand sewing completely and avoid it all costs.  Rarely will you find a quilter who is completely neutral about it – they can take it or leave it. 

Me?  I gotta have it.  I need it.  I crave it.  There’s always been something about quilting which centers me.  My world can go to hell in a handbasket, but the moment I step in my quilt studio, I literally feel something shift and settle.  Calm and peace.  Clarity.  It slows me down so I can think.  And handwork of any kind does this more than anything else.  Busy day and muddled mind?  Sew.  Can’t sleep and it’s two in the morning?  I park myself on the couch in my den and pull out the hand sewing.  Give me an hour and my mind clears and I’m ready to sleep.  Think this is far-fetched?  Sarah McKay, MSc, PhD, stated in 2014: 

Research shows that knitting and other forms of textile crafting such as sewing, weaving and crocheting have quite a lot in common with mindfulness and meditation — all are reported to have a positive impact on mind health and well-being.

For the sake of her article in MGB:  Mindfulness, Dr. McKay studied knitters but did clarify that the benefits of textile crafting included many areas (including sewing).  She found that knitters who knitted regularly were happier and had lower levels of stress.  Knitters who plied their craft three times a week or more were happier, had lower levels of stress, were calmer, less sad, less anxious, and more confident.  And knitters who joined knitting groups were even happier than solo knitters.

There are other benefits to sewing.  One of the most important ones for me is the ability to make something beautiful and useful to give away.  I rarely hang onto my own quilts.  I have a few which I use around the house, but most of them I’ve gifted to others.  However, for this blog, I really want to examine hand sewing – its benefits and how to we can make it better.  First let’s look at why it’s good for you (besides the whole it-keeps-you-sane thing).

  1.  It improves coordination.  Sewing by hand requires lots of skills between your fingers and your brain.  It makes the two work together, bringing a level of coordination which is vital in order to make the needle, thread, and fabric work in unison.  As a matter of fact, folks that hand sew (or hand craft anything) generally have a level of hand-to-eye coordination most people lack.  If you can teach a child any type of hand work, you’ve just upped the young one’s development skills quite a bit.  And if you’re an older person (like myself), hand sewing can keep your mind healthy.
  2. It gives you better control.  With hand sewing, you don’t have to worry about changing settings or tension on your machine.  You don’t have to worry about attachments or thread.  All you do is sew the best you can.  Hand sewing also allows for flawless corners, graceful gathers, and perfection in minute details.
  3. It’s portable.  This is always been my favorite thing about any type of hand sewing – from hemming a garment, to hand applique, to hand piecing.  When I taught school, I always made sure my small hand sewing bag was tucked in with my teacher’s bag.  If I had a free moment, I could pull it out.  My hand sewing accompanied me everywhere – while I waited on Meg to finish dance classes, Matt to finish music lessons or ball practice, the doctor’s, dentist’s, and orthodontist’s waiting rooms – it was always with me.  And it was amazing how much I could get done in a few minutes.  Vacation?  Hey, hand sewing takes a lot less space than packing my sewing machine.  I always make sure my hand sewing bag is ready to walk out the door with me.
  4. It’s better for delicate fabrics.  Most of the time quilters use quilting cottons.  However, for that rare opportunity we have to experiment with other types of fabric – such as for a special effect in applique – hand stitching may work better, especially if the fabric is delicate, stretchy, or loosely woven.  You’ll have better control over the material and there’s no chance it will get chewed up by the feed dogs on your machine.
  5. It preserves vintage sewing techniques.  The earliest quilts were hand sewn.  And even after the sewing machine was mass produced, some of the finest quilts had hand stitching – whether applique or embroidery.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love my sewing machines and marvel at what they can do, but I also think it’s important we remember how old quilts were made and know how to execute those techniques.
  6. It’s inexpensive.  If you think you may want to dip your toe in the quilting world, but aren’t sure you can afford even a basic machine, hand sewing is the way to get that toe wet.  Hand piecing is the least expensive way to begin.  All you need are needles, threads, scissors, fabric, and marking tools.  You can download free hand piecing patterns from the internet.  And even if you’re starting out piecing by using the English Paper Piecing method, you can make your own templates out of those little cardboard inserts which are found (by the dozens) between the pages of all magazines.
  7. It’s relaxing and therapeutic.  Sewing has been related to a better heart rate and blood pressure.  It requires your mind and body to work in harmony, and thus eliminates stress.  It truly is yoga for your brain.
  8. It’s quiet. A sewing machine has its own rhythm, and your brain can get in sync with the rhythm to the point it’s nearly hypnotic.  But hand sewing is quiet – which is why I turn to it when I can’t sleep and it’s the wee hours of the morning.  I can sew for hours and not wake a soul in the house – even Sam.  When you take it with you, it doesn’t disturb others, so you can enjoy it wherever you’re at.  It also allows you to listen to podcasts or audiobooks at a decent decibel range.
  9. It’s versatile.  With hand sewing, you can work on almost any type of sewing project and use nearly any kind of stitch without switching needles or changing out sewing machine attachments.  Whip stitches, running stitches, blind hem stitches, button hold stitches – these all can be done with a hand sewing needle and thread on nearly any type of fabric.  With a sewing machine, you have to switch feet, readjust settings, and maybe even play with the tension.

As mentioned in number six, it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to begin hand sewing.  Needles are usually the first tool which comes to mind.  I wrote a pretty extensive blog about needles,( so I won’t rehash the topic again.  Just promise me you won’t buy the really cheap, crappy needles.  Good needles aren’t expensive and they’re worth every red cent.

The next tool you should make sure you have is a good thimble which fits the middle finger of your dominant hand.  I wrote a blog about that, too: Thimbles take a little getting used to, but they can really speed up the process as well as protect your finger.

Thread requires some special consideration.  I’ve written how older thread has a shelf life, so if the thread in your studio is on spools like these:

Toss them or put them on display in a pretty jar or basket.  Don’t sew with them.

I’ve also published some pretty extensive blogs about thread, because I am a self-admitted thread snob.  The last blog I wrote on thread was in 2019, and there is a need to update it because thread technology is constantly changing and getting better all the time.  Different hand sewers like different thread, so I can only relate to you my opinions about which kinds I think are the best.  Personally, I like long-staple, cotton thread for nearly everything.  Please note I said nearly everything.  We’ll get into the exceptions in a moment, but for hand piecing and hand applique, I like cotton.  I use cotton quilting thread for most of my hand piecing.

It’s a bit stronger than regular cotton thread because it’s mercerized for increased strength and color longevity. It’s gassed to reduce lint and designed to smoothly pass through the fabric without damaging it.  It’s also generally 40-weight, so it’s thicker.  This is the thread I use when I use Cindy Blackberg’s piecing stamps, not on the rare occasion when I English Paper Piece.  With EPP, I   use a finer thread – usually a 50 to 80 or even 100 weight.

I know a lot of hand applique artists use silk thread.  I’ve always found silk thread difficult.  No matter how I knot it, it seems to slide out of the eye of my needle and it’s also not as strong as cotton thread.  If the hand appliqued quilt is washed (even by hand) there’s a chance the silk threads will pull away from the cotton fabrics.  I use 50 to 80 weight cotton thread for my hand applique most of the time.  There are rare occasions when I can’t find a thread color which blends the way I need it, and then I’ll turn to my machine embroidery thread.  However, this is a rare occasion.  My favorite hand applique threads are Aurifil, Superior Thread Masterpiece, Wonderfil, and DMC Machine Embroidery Thread. 

The more you hand sew, the clearer your preferences will become.  Hand sewing does not require as much thread as machine sewing (there’s no bobbin to wind), so you can afford to splurge a little more on thread.  Whatever you do, pinky-promise me you won’t start with cheap needles or cheap thread.  Those two will ruin your hand sewing experience.

While we’re parked on the topic of thread, another hand sewing tool which may (or may not) be helpful is some kind of thread conditioner. In general, a thread conditioner puts a protective layer on the thread that guards against soil, moisture, damage caused by ultraviolet rays, mold, and mildew. Using a thread conditioner also helps release any static electricity in the thread, which is a common cause of tangling.  I find these are the two most common thread conditioners in my area:

Thread Heaven

I know there are probably more out there, and I’m aware there’s a DIY recipe for one similar to Thread Heaven floating around the internet (which I’ve never tried).  Let’s work with Thread Heaven first.  To use this, you simply run the thread along the conditioner, holding the thread against it with your finger or thumb to lightly coat the thread. Next, pull the thread between your thumb and finger to smooth it and remove any static. Thread Heaven (and similar conditioners) work well, there’s just a couple of things you need to be aware of.  First, the quilting jury is still out on whether these man-made conditioners cause any long-term damage to the thread or fabric.  Not enough time has passed to see any extended results.  Second, if you’re using white thread, be aware the conditioner leaves a somewhat sticky residue which picks up lint and dirt.  This can make your thread and your seam appear gray.

Beeswax is my hand-down, all-time-favorite thread conditioner.  I am admittedly old-school in many areas and this is one of them.  When I began sewing, this was the only thread conditioner/detangler on the market and I still use it.  You run your thread over it the same way you would Thread Heaven and then pull it between your finger and thumb to work the beeswax into the thread.  I do this a couple of times, as the beeswax doesn’t soften up as quickly as Thread Heaven.  If I plan to have a hand sewing mini-marathon, I will thread several needles, coat the thread with beeswax, and then run a warm iron over the thread (it’s a good idea to have the thread between two fabric scraps or a folded pressing cloth when you do this).  This really sets the beeswax into the thread and makes your hand sewing an untangled, wonderful experience. 

So why do I prefer beeswax over a conditioner such as Thread Heaven?  First, it’s all natural.  It’s not manmade.  Sewers have used beeswax for hundreds of years with no harmful side effects.  Second is its availability.  I prefer to purchase my beeswax in this type of container

because it makes the coating process super easy.  However, if you can’t find it, there is beeswax available for bulk purchase online.  You can use it as is, or melt it, pour it in molds (such as those used for candy), allow it to harden, and pop it out.  I’ve also purchased beeswax candles for hand sewing purposes!

Those are the tools you will want  for hand sewing.  The only way to get really good at hand sewing is practice –just like most anything else.  As you begin to sew, it’s important for you to be conscious of what you’re doing – especially at the beginning.  Is the way your sitting comfortable?  Is the lighting adequate?  Do you make stitches better with one size of needle verses another (my favorite is a size 10 applique needle)?  If you’re mindful of how the process is going, you can tweak it to make it work better for you.

I also find it’s easier to work on a flat surface.  I’ve mentioned this before, but briefly and in passing.  For me, it’s easier to get a rhythm and do better work on a flat surface than holding it in my hands or on my lap.  I found these little jewels online a few years ago:

The applique board on the left is from Barnett’s Hoops. It’s handmade and my favorite. The one on the right is from Nancy’s Notions.

They’re portable, flat surfaces.  I find the base of these fit in my lap wonderfully, providing me a flat surface when I Zoom and sew with my quilt groups.  They’re also great to take on vacation or to have in your den for sewing (if you don’t want to drag out a TV tray or table).  There are pegs to hold your thread and thimble and a magnet to place your needle on if you have to get up.  Bonus, it has a padded surface you can use if you need to pin something out or do a quick press with a small iron.

The last item you may want to purchase is a needle threader.  Needle threaders look like this:

Or this:

This little tool is strictly optional — if you’re young and have good eyesight, you may not need one  yet. However, if you’re like me and your eyes have some mileage on them, these are wonderful devices to have.  They save you time, and either one works well.  However, if you like the needle threader in the first picture, you may want to purchase several at a time.  The thin wire part wears out and falls off. 

Once you have the tools, the next step is practice.  Practice.  Practice. And practice some more.  In the beginning, everything may feel awkward and that’s okay.  The first time you try anything new, it’s going to be awkward and feel awkward.  The needle may feel like a sword or a chopstick.  You may have trouble positioning the fabric in your hands so it’s easy to needle.  Everyone feels a little clumsy starting out.  However, the more you practice, the easier it becomes.  You don’t have to hand sew for long periods each day, but 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there really helps. 

As you get more comfortable with the process, two things will happen.  The first is you’ll get a rhythm going.  Between the thimble, a flat surface, and good lighting, it will become easier and easier to get faster at it.  Pretty soon you’ll find your stitches get smaller and more even.  It won’t happen immediately, but after a month of hand sewing a few minutes a day, look at your current work and compare it to the first few hand stitches you put in.  You’ll be amazed.

The second thing is you’ll become conscious of your technique.  You’ll notice when it’s the best time to knot or lock your stitches before your thread gets too short.  You’ll know how to hold the fabric so you can make small, even stitches.   And what’s even better  is you’ll realize when you have something out of kilter – it doesn’t feel right – and you will automatically correct it. 

I’d like to briefly cover how hand piecing works.  I am planning several blogs on hand applique, so I won’t cover that type of hand sewing in this column.  For sake of my reference, I’m using Cindy Blackberg’s piecing stamps, but any two pieces of block units you’ve cut out will work. 

Step One:  Assemble your tools.  Thread your needle and condition your thread (if desired).  As you plan longer hand sewing sessions, you may want to have several needles threaded and prepped.


Step Two:  Take two of the block units to be sewn together.  With a mechanical pencil or other fine-tipped fabric marking pencil, pen, or marker, draw a ¼-line in from the edge of the fabric.  If you’re using piecing stamps, simply stamp out a few forms and cut them out of the fabric.

Step Three:  Place the block units right sides together.  At the beginning point, take a couple of stitches on top of each other to lock the threads.  Then sew across the marked line to the point where the next seam will begin.  You weave your sewing needle in and out of the fabric in small increments.  In the beginning, these stitches may be longer than you want, but the more you practice, the smaller these stitches will become. 


Step Four:  At the end of the seam, depending on the pattern, you can turn and sew down another marked seam or you can lock your stitches, snip your thread, and begin at another point.  Personally, I lock my stitches and snip the threads.  I find if I don’t, instead of having sharp points, my blocks units have a more curved appearance. 

My Grandmother’s Flower Garden from the right side.
My Grandmother’s Flower Garden from the wrong side. Every hexie is hand sewn and you can see where I chose to break the thread and begin a new seam. I do use knots. I know some hand piecers don’t like them, but I’ve never had an issue with them.

That’s it.  It’s really easy, and the method doesn’t change whether you’re joining block units or the blocks themselves together to make a quilt top. 

I encourage you to give hand piecing a try.  When my friend, Karen, introduced me to this, I didn’t believe her when she told me how peaceful and calming hand sewing was.  In my mad, rush-around world, I couldn’t imagine piecing any other way than with a sewing machine.  Through her gentle encouragement and prodding, I gave it a try and became hopelessly hooked.  Several years later (and after purchasing nearly every stamp set Cindy Blackberg had in stock), I am a dedicated believer.  Hand sewing slows me down, calms my spirit, and allows me to create something beautiful and useful.  Plus, it’s portable. You can’t ask for much better than that.

In closing, I’d like to offer a YouTube resource for all things hand sewing.  Abby Cox has a YouTube channel, and while not always strictly about hand sewing, a great many of her videos are.  Ms. Cox works with antique clothing.  She’s designed period pieces for Colonial Williamsburg and historical films.  She’s smart, sassy, and brilliantly hilarious.  She has a new video up every Sunday morning (around 10-ish EST) except for the first Sunday of the month.  I am a dedicated viewer and always come away having learned so much and been magnificently entertained while doing so.  Give her a look-see.  It will be well-worth your time.

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


Gotta Love Medallion Quilts

This week I want us to take a look at an old quilt type called the Medallion Quilt.  For this blog (or next couple of blogs) will explore the history behind this quilt and why it’s still just as essential in today’s quilt world as it was in the 18th century.  We’ll also discuss how to make one of these and why it could be your saving grace when it comes to those panels you have absolutely no idea what to do with as well as how to incorporate   an orphan block you simply can’t throw away.

Before we go any further, we must first define what exactly is Medallion Quilt.  Quilting in America states:  In simplest terms, a medallion quilt is made of a central motif surrounded by multiple borders. The center and borders could be pieced, appliqued, or embroidered, in any number of combinations. 

This is a typical medallion quilt you might find in any of the current quilt magazines. 

The Medallion Quilt (which I’ll refer to as MQ from here on out) takes up a sizeable chunk of early American quilt history – which I will get into in a bit.  However, like most of us, it too was in immigrant.  The MQ concept was brought to America by settlers who crossed the Atlantic.  It was a popular quilt concept from the 1780’s through the early 1800’s.  It lingered, still popping up here and there until the mid-19th century when Americans turned to making quilts with rows of blocks much like we have today.  However, the MQ didn’t lose its popularity in Europe and Britain.  Quilt makers in those areas continued making Medallions well beyond the middle 1900’s. 

Chintz seamless pattern. Floral background. Indian Fabric with red and blue flowers

These early quilts were primarily made of Chintz.  Chintz is a fabric which is woodblock printed, painted, or stained.  It has a glaze over the top of the calico fabric and originated in Golconda in the 16th century. The cloth is printed with designs featuring flowers and other patterns in different colors, typically on a light, plain background (Wikipedia).  Chintz was used both in clothing and upholstery before some smart needlework person decided it would also look lovely in a quilt. 

And that idea spread like wildfire. 

The notion of using Chintz in quilts developed in such a rush that fabric manufacturers printed Chintz prints with special border fabrics to aid in the creation of these quilts.  Ruth Marler points out fabric manufacturers noted quilt makers wanted fabric for the multiple borders and, “Around 1790, prints on a dark background became fashionable and were often printed in strips ready for the quilt maker to cut out for borders.”  See – even way back then, they had cheater fabric.  Quite often a motif was cut from these Chintz prints and was appliqued on a block of plain fabric (a technique known as broderie perse).  This appliqued block served as the MQ center.  Additional prints from the Chintz could be cut out appliqued in the borders as well.  This broderie perse applique was dominant in Medallions until the late 1700s.

Broderie Perse Medallion Quilt

In addition to the use of Chintz prints, sometimes an interesting piece of fabric served as the Medallion center.  One of the most popular of these is the Tree of Life prints. 

Tree of Life Medallion Quilt

Baskets and Toiles were also used a great deal.  Some early fabric manufacturers specifically designed panels to be used in the center.  Sometimes parts of these panels were cut away and used in borders or in the corners.  Most of the surviving examples of this method are from my home state – North Carolina – as well as other southern seaboard states. Around the 1830s, Medallion construction shifted again and here’s when we see quilters begin to piece centers.  Quite often, this pieced center was made from a star block pattern, since those were some of the earliest pieced blocks.  Hexagon mosaic centers were also popular choices. 

You know what’s really neat?  We still use all three of these center construction methods today.  I think it’s simply marvelous that the more things change, the more they stay the same!  Today if you want to make a MQ, you can cut apart a print and use broderie perse, use a panel, applique, or piece your center – just like they did from the 1700s on.  Sure, fabrics have changed, and most certainly colors have, but the techniques have remained the same. 

Antique MQs are prized and they run the gamut from elaborate, carefully planned creations to the type we are more familiar with today.  Some of them are perfectly symmetrical with intricate piecing and/or applique to the informal and asymmetrical.  Most of the finer ones were probably made for formal or guest bedrooms and the others were for everyday use.  The rarest ones are medallion baby or doll quilts. 

Today, the majority of Medallions are square quilts.  It just seems the math part of the quilt is easier if the quilt is square.  Historically, this wasn’t so.  Medallions in the 1700s-1800s were rectangle because those quilts were bed quilts.  In the 20th and 21st century, not so much.  While current MQs do grace a great many beds, just as many are wall hangings.  Since those early quilts were destined for the bed, most of those MQs are rectangles and some even have the corners cut out so the quilt could fit on a four-poster bed. 

Medallions continued to be made through the end of the 19th century and then almost faded from quilters’ minds.  However, when America celebrated her bicentennial in the mid-1970s, the craft was revived.  These Colonial Revival quilts were not identical to their predecessors.  The centers were generally appliqued or embroidered and the borders were plain strips of fabric. 

Okay…that’s a brief history of MQs. Now let’s shift gears and think about this:  If you decided to make your own Medallion, what steps would you take complete its construction?  Where would you start?

If you guessed the center, you would be correct.  One of the great design features of MQs is its flexibility.  You can create the center as large or as small as you’d like.  I’ve seen Medallions with the center block as large as 28-inches square and as small as 8-inches square (in this case, the center was an antique handkerchief).  And just like the antique MQ, we have the options of piecing, appliqueing, or embroidering the center.  Don’t want to do either of those or you’re in a situation where you have a deadline with the quilt?  Pick a panel, like I did with my Fish Almighty! Quilt.  Its center was cut from the largest block of a panel.  The final technique choice is up to you and how you want the center to look.

The second step is designing the borders.  And while the centers of Medallions are exquisite, the borders aren’t exactly shabby.  Medallions can have multiple borders, and their construction is just as amazing as the centers.  Borders have the same creative options as centers – they can be pieced, appliqued, or appliqued and pieced.  They can even be strips of plain fabric.  This isn’t my favorite way to make borders, but sometimes you need a plain strip of fabric to calm down the piecing or a narrow strip of plain fabric to add length and width so the quilt will “math” out easier.  These narrow strips are called “floaters.” 

Analyzing a MQ borders isn’t really hard.  For certain, the borders can appear complicated and intimidating, but in reality, most of them are made from the most well-known quilt blocks and units – nine patch, four patch, half-square triangles, quarter-square triangles, and flying geese.  It’s how these are placed  around the center square which makes the quilt look harder than it is. 

So, it all sounds sort of easy, doesn’t it?  Make a center, make some borders and join everything together.  Those are the steps, but there’s significant planning behind any Medallion.  And I do think every quilter should be able to design and make a Medallion without a pattern.  I also know what some of you are thinking, “If there are perfectly good Medallion Quilt patterns out there, why in the world do I need to make my own?”  Glad you asked.

  1.  Panels

There are some beautiful fabric panels out there in the quilt marketplace.  Really, really pretty ones.  And they deserve so much more than plain strips of fabric sewn around them.  I mean, if you use a panel as your Medallion center, half your work is already done!  You have the time to make those borders just as beautiful as the panel.

  •  Orphan Blocks

We all have these, be it one or two or a half a dozen.  Small blocks can always be sewn into a table topper or a table runner.  But if you have a large orphan block, it can serve as the center of your quilt. 

  •  Technique

Constructing a MQ improves your basic techniques.  Do your HSTs always come out a little wonky?  Use them in your Medallion.  Nothing like constructing a couple of hundred HSTs to improve your technique.  If your quarter-square triangles, flying geese, four or nine patches need a little polish, you can practice them (sometimes by the hundreds) with a Medallion.  In the end, not only will your techniques be hundreds of times better than they were before you started, but you’ll also have a very impressive quilt to show for your work. 

  •  Dissection

I’m not talking about the type of dissection we used to do in high school biology class years and years ago (do they even dissect now?).  In this sense of the world, I’m discussing quilt dissection. Putting a quilt together on your own, without a pattern, not only stretches you as a quilter, but it also gives you to tools to take a quilt apart.  Not literally, of course, but with your eyes.  When you can recognize basic units and border treatments, you’ll be able to look at almost any quilt and know how the quilter constructed it.  You’ll know which quilts took huge amounts of expertise and which quilts are easier.  And be able to reproduce it if you so desire.  Or better yet, improve on it. 

One additional technique which will improve with the construction of a Medallion is your quilt math.  In past blogs, I’ve given you lots of formulas – the Golden Ratio, Quilter’s Cake, half-square and quarter-square unit formulas, even flying geese ratios.  I wish I could hand off a solid MQ formula right now.  But I can’t, because there isn’t one.  The wonderfully, creative, freeing element of the Medallion is its appearance is completely up to you.  You’re in control of how large you want the center square, how big you want the finished quilt, and how wide you want the borders.  You’ve got to figure out what size borders and border blocks will work, or if floaters will make everything come out even.  That may sound intimidating or too hard to handle, but it’s really not.  It’s 90 parts basic math, five parts common sense, and five parts deciding what will look good.  If you can multiply and divide (or have a calculator that can), you’ll be good to go.  Trust me.

I also don’t use my EQ 8 to design my MQs.  Nope.  I find that good, ol’ graph paper works best.  It’s just a lot easier to erase pencil marks on graph paper than lines on a computer program.  Medallions the only quilt I still design on paper, but this is one time I don’t find a computer extremely helpful.  I will turn to EQ if I need to re-size blocks, but all my design work is completed on graph paper. 

As you begin working on your MQ, there are a few questions you may want to ask as you plan your design:

Do you want an abstract or representative quilt?

Do you want it pictorial or geometric?

Do you want to showcase a piece of fabric or embroidery?

Are you celebrating a theme or event?

What about your colors?  Are they muted and serene or bright and energetic?

What kind of style do you want (to me this is the most important question)?  Do you want casual or formal?  Elegant or whimsical?

What is the quilt’s purpose?  Will it be a bed quilt or wall hanging?  Miniature or small?

What are your constraints?  How does time, size, shape, and detail affect your design?

Usually, designing the center is the first step.  If you’re using an orphan block or a panel, congratulations – your center is complete, and you can begin planning your borders.  However, if it’s not, now’s the time to consider what you want your quilt to look like.  In the past, star blocks were used as the center:

Eventually the Star of Bethlehem became a popular choice. 

Then there’s always applique. And the great thing about applique centers is they can appear to be oval (even though they’re really not). 

However you chose to make your center square and no matter how big (or small) it is, there are five design elements to keep in mind as you work through the process.

  1.  The center square is the focus of the quilt
  2. The center square establishes the theme and the color scheme.
  3. The center square introduces forms and/or ideas which may be repeated in the orders.
  4. The center square sets the style for your quilt – elegant or whimsical, formal or informal, traditional or contemporary.
  5. The center square should be strong enough to merit the border treatment.

The fifth design element needs a little explaining.  Balance is needed in all quilts – from color choices to quilting.  With MQs, the balance depends on how you make the center square.  For instance, if you make the center something like this:

And then proceed to have all the borders in dark colors and heavily pieced, the visual effect is off balance.  The applique is open, airy, and delicate.  The borders would need to “breathe” – have more negative space to rest the eyes – as well as not overpower the center. The borders could be pieced or appliqued, or a combination of both, as long as they don’t overpower the middle square.  However, if the center is something like this:

Then the borders can be heavily pieced, or pieced and appliqued.  Some negative space is needed (because you always need somewhere to pause), but large, open areas of plain fabric may not look right or balanced.  This is where that graph paper comes in handy.   Draw your center square in the middle and then begin planning your borders around it.  Trust your instincts and your eyes.  Play with the drawing until you’re happy.  It’s always easier to erase lines than it is to take apart blocks!  Above all, realize each border serves to enhance the center.  Strong colors, impressive patterns, or elaborate detail will give your center panel the weight to carry the design. 

Once you’ve decided on the center, now it’s time to plan the borders.  This is the point I wish I could give you a formula to use to figure how to proportion your quilt.  However, this equation doesn’t exist.  You’ll take your initial cues from your center block – does your quilt need more negative space or will you need to plan on a more elaborate setting?  If your center is large itself, you probably won’t need as many borders, such as with this MQ to the one I made the grand darlings for Christmas.

The center Minnie and Mickey are large.  I only needed a few borders to make the quilt big enough for them to cuddle under.  How many borders you use is a personal decision.  However, just like with the center square, there are a few design elements to keep in mind. 

  1.  Use a variety of border widths.  Using different widths makes your quilt more visually appealing.
  2. Change the color intensity from one border to the next.  If one border uses a lot of different color fabrics, don’t be afraid to use a solid color between that border and the next one.  This gives the eyes a break before taking in the next border.  Plus, it showcases the busier border.  If a border with lots of colors is placed next to another busy border, the eye doesn’t know where to look and it actually detracts from the quilt.
  3. Mix techniques.  Just like varying the border widths gives more visual appeal, the same goes for mixing techniques.  Don’t be afraid to mix applique, piecing, and fancy quilting.  Be bold.  Be daring.  Your quilt will benefit.
  4. Repeat the same colors used in the center.  This adds continuity to the quilt. 
  5. Use the same design elements in the borders as you did the center.  Again, this is another way to add continuity to your quilt. 
  6. Keep the borders as symmetrical as possible.  This helps the corners flow and turn. 

Everything I’ve written so far is not only my consensus about Medallions, but I’ve read and heard other quilters talk about these very same factors.  However, at this point, I want to throw in a few things I’ve learned from my experiences.  These are truly “Sherri” thoughts.  Take them with a grain of salt.  You experiences will (and should) vary from mine.

First, I think square medallions are easier to “math” out than rectangular ones.  Maybe this is just me, or maybe there is some truth to this, but I have less issues with square MQs than rectangular ones.  Does this stop me from making Medallion bed quilts? No. Not at all.  But I know going into such a project I will have to spend more time on a rectangular medallion than a square one.  For instance, let’s say I’m working with a 24-inch square center.  Twenty-four is easily divisible by 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and 12.  I can add varying border widths, block sizes,  and techniques around this center square and make a beautiful quilt with relative ease.

However….what if I’m working with a center square which is 12-inches by 18-inches?  Right off the bat, I will be completely honest and tell you I would design two side borders, each 3-inches to sew onto both sides of the MQ center to bring it to 18-inches square.  But, if the quilt is destined for a bed, a square quilt doesn’t always work well (except for queen-sized beds – square quilts work for those).  What numbers divide both into 12 and 18?  Two, three and six.  If I plan to piece the borders for the 12-inch by 18-inch center, initially I’m limited with the size blocks I can piece for the borders.  Eventually floaters can be added to allow for more options, but the choice of block sizes for the first border(s) can be far fewer for a rectangle center than a square one.  Not always, but this holds true for a good bit of the time.   Let me also add, this is a great place to pull out the graph paper and calculator and get really creative. 

Second, if floaters will figure into my Medallion, I try to find a border print with some narrow strips, such as this:

If I can find a border fabric which works with my color scheme, using those narrow strips as floaters just really adds some zing to the quilt.  Border prints can do a lot of the “heavy lifting” for you with a MQ without making you work any harder.

Third, I’m not afraid to let the purpose of the Medallion dictate the size.  The most recent personal example is the Fish Almighty! Quilt I made Bill for Christmas.  If you look at that quilt from a proportional view, there are too many borders and they’re really too large (especially the last one).  However, the purpose of this quilt was to lay on the back of the couch in his den.  He pulls it down to cover up when he wants to take a nap or watch TV.    It wasn’t meant to go on a wall or to enter in a quilt show.  It was made to keep him warm.  It’s the perfect size for the purpose it’s intended. 

With all of this, I hope you’ll seriously consider making a Medallion Quilt.  If you’re hesitant about your own design skills, use a pattern to make your first one.  Then try designing your own.  These quilts will help you master techniques, get comfortable with quilt math, and help you down the path to designing your own quilts.  In addition, they give you enough quilty tools to look at another quilt and know how it was constructed. 

Until next week, Quilt on!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


Fabric Crumbs

I’ve written a blog since around 2007, first on Blogspot and now on WordPress.  I am lucky enough to have some really faithful readers, whom I love and appreciate more than I can say.  One of the wonderful “side effects” of my blog is I get asked questions.  Sometimes these questions can lead into an entire blog on a subject.  And others deserve an answer, but sometimes those responses aren’t long enough for a blog.  This column will answer those questions which don’t need an entire blog, as well as throw out some quilty information I think you need to know, but that knowledge isn’t enough for an entire blog, either.  I’m calling this blog “Fabric Crumbs” because it’s just snippets of   material you need to tuck back and remember. 

The first topic this week is quilt backing fabric.  I’m talking about the fabric which specifically designed to be a back – it’s 108-inches or more in width.  Leanne the Long Arm loves backing fabric – she hates pieced backs.  If I have a quilt destined for Leanne, nine times out of ten, I have purchased backing fabric for that quilt.  Let me also remind you at this point, I’m a pre-washer.  Just about every piece of quilting fabric I use has been prewashed – including the back.  I realize the majority of my readers aren’t pre-washers, but let me throw a few facts in which may at least get you thinking it’s a good idea to wash backing fabric.  First of all, quilt backing fabric is more heavily treated than standard quilting cottons.  This fabric stays on the bolt longer and must look beautiful for extended periods of time.  Quilt backing fabric is treated with chemicals such as formaldehyde, which is not a good thing.  You may want to wash that out before handling it.  On top of this fact, the additional finishes will leave a residue in the machine performing the quilting.  Whether this is your machine or the long armer’s, this isn’t a good thing either. 

However, this final fact may prompt you to pre-wash your backing fabric:  Quilt backing fabric can shrink as much as eight percent, which is a much higher ratio than regular quilting cottons.  So, if you finish your quilt and rinse it out in the washing machine, you may have an appearance issue.  By the time it dries, the top and back could shrink at disproportional rates, making the final product look a little wonky.  Even if you don’t prewash the fabric for the front of your quilt, you may want to take the time to prewash the backing fabric if you’re using the 108-inch plus width kind.  After it dries, you’ll need to press it and add some starch or Best Press to it before you quilt it.

This leads me to the first question.  One reader asked,  “What’s your problem with Best Press?”  My regular readers know I use spray starch far more often than Best Press.  It’s not that I don’t like Best Press, but I prefer the look Spray Starch gives fabric over the appearance which Best Press leaves.  Perhaps it’s because when I began quilting Best Press wasn’t anywhere on the market and we all had to work with spray starch.  However, when I’m prepping prewashed fabric for rotary cutting, I definitely prefer spray starch over Best Press because the starch stabilizes the fabric far better (in my own opinion) than Best Press.  I don’t think it’s an issue over which product is better, because they’re both wonderful items to have in your quilt studio.  I simply think it’s a matter of personal preference, and I prefer spray starch. 

Another reader asked this question:  “What kind of basting glue do you use, or do you use one at all?”  I do use basting glue pretty regularly.  If I’m adhering fabric to fabric or an applique piece to a background, I like this one:

Roxanne Glue Stick.  I’ve used Roxanne’s liquid basting glue for years and loved it, but in my opinion, the glue stick is so much better.  It has the same adhesive power the liquid does, but in a glue stick form, which makes it a bit more controllable and easier to use. For paper piecing or Apliquick, I prefer Sewline or Karisma, but have grabbed an Elmer’s School Glue Stick.  The main idea to keep in mind with any glue used is it should be water-soluble, otherwise it will leave your fabric feeling stiff, even after it’s washed.

This leads me to the third question.  Several folks wanted to know if I washed my quilts and if I did, what do I use?  Truthfully, my wall hangings and small display quilts seldom, if ever, are washed.  They generally never need to be.  If they get dusty, I simply vacuum them.  My bedquilts are treated differently, and what I use and how I wash them depends on the quilt.  If it’s a pieced quilt, I use the delicate wash cycle on my washing machine and lay them over a drying rack to dry.  If they’re applique quilts – especially if they’re hand sewn – I fill my bathtub with cold water and let them soak. I roll them in towels to remove as much water as I can and then let them dry on the drying rack.  With either washing technique, I use either the blue Dawn dish detergent (because it has a surfactant in it) or Quilt Soap.  I don’t use regular laundry detergent. 

One of the most interesting question I’ve been asked is how do I plan my quilts?  To be honest, there’s more than one answer to that question.  Sometimes I see a quilt I’m completely inspired by and must make it.  At other times, I find a pattern I really love.  Sometimes it springs from a fabric.  However and whatever compels me to put needle and thread to fabric varies, but the process I follow is pretty much the same.  The beginning point in the process is the pattern.  If it’s a pattern already in print, I read it thoroughly.  If it’s one of my own designs, I’ll look try to figure every angle which may give me problems and make some notes. Then, like most everyone else, I cut, sew, assemble, and quilt.  But what I call the “Pre-Quilting Period” takes up several days’ worth of work.  I can be quite settled with the pattern and the fabric, but I generally have a good game plan before I make the first cut.  If it’s a pieced quilt, I know how I will assemble the units.  If it’s an applique quilt, I have decided which applique technique I’ll use.  If I’m altering the borders, those are drawn out.  I have assembled all the fabric special notions, rulers, and thread so everything I need is within easy reach.

This process is one I’ve utilized for years, because the actual time I have to quilt has always been limited.  When I started quilting, I had small kids, work, and grad school.  Now I work, my mom or grand darlings may need me, and I have community responsibilities.  I rarely have a day when I can sew for several hours at a stretch.  For me, it’s important to make the most of the scattered time I have.  This “Pre-Quilting Period” gets me organized so when I do have fifteen minutes here and there (or the luxury of an hour or so), I can make the most of it without wasting time trying to figure out my next step or where my supplies are. 

And since I now have a long arm, there’s another area I make decisions about in this early process – the quilting.  I make sure I have the batting I want.  If it comes in one of those small packages, I know I can lay it out on the spare bed and allow it  to “relax” for several days (let the wrinkles ease out of it).  If I intend to quilt it on Leanne the Long Arm, I find a wide quilt back which will work with the quilt top and prep it.  And then I get a really good idea about how I will quilt it.  If you don’t quilt your own quilts (either on a domestic machine or long arm), you may not see the need for this step.  You’ll still go through this process, but with your quilting artist’s input.  You’ll want to find out what kind of backing and batting he or she wants, as well as get yourself on the waiting list.  And when you deliver your quilt to the quilter, it is a great idea to have some different quilting designs in mind.  This really helps the quilter. 

In my 34 years of quilting, I’ve determined a little bit of extra time at the beginning of the process goes a long way in keeping myself organized and finishing the quilt in a fairly timely manner.

Someone else asked how many projects am I working on at any one given time?  I think it’s a given most quilters have ADD when it comes to projects.  One of our quilty friends may have a new pattern under their needle and we decide we just must make that quilt, too.  A new line of fabric may pull our attention away from what we’re working on now.  Then there’s all those quilt magazines with their slick pictures…and I admit I’ve fallen victim for some of these – okay, a lot of these…

Ideally, for me, I have four on-going projects.  I fully confess I’m not a quilter who can work on one quilt from beginning to end until it’s finished.  I get bored.  So, I have two machine-pieced quilts in production at a time.  One of these is a generally a quilt which requires little thought and is fairly easy.  I work on this one when I’m too tired to concentrate on anything much.  I also use it when I need to feel productive – hey, if the pattern says make 25 four-patches, I can make those in one evening and go to bed feeling wonderful about my quilting self.  The other machine-pieced quilt is a little more complicated and requires me to plug in my advanced techniques.

I also have two on-going quilts which require handwork.  Again, I have two so if I get bored with one, I can switch off to the other one.  In the past, these both were hand applique quilts, but since my friend Karen introduced me to Cindy Blackberg’s piecing stamps, I am loving hand piecing.  I don’t think I’ll every be an EPP convert.  Now I have on-going  hand applique and hand piecing projects under my needle.

This process works for me.  It may not work for you.  After you’ve quilted a while, you will find out if you need to finish one quilt at a time or how many projects you need to have in process.  There’s really no one right answer. 

I also have one project loaded on my long arm at all times.  If I need a break from hand work or machine piecing, I quilt a row or two on a top.  This keeps things moving along, and my backlog of quilt tops is slowly diminishing.  I try to at least do three rows on a quilt each week.  Some weeks I’m more successful than others.  And it depends on how complicated the quilting is.  If there’s a lot of fine background work, I may only finish a few blocks.  Likewise, if there’s ruler or template work.  This type of quilting takes more time.

“Why do you quilt?” is the final question I’ll address, and it’s one which family, friends, and my spouse have asked.  Usually, several times a year.  Bless his heart.  I quilt for the history of the art.  The women on my mother’s side were quilters.  I own one of their quilts and have pictures of others.  I quilt because I like the feel of fabric beneath my fingers.  I quilt because it brings me joy that I can create something beautiful and useful.  I quilt because this “hobby” has brought an amazing group of people into my life and I count these people as my family bound together by stitches and fellowship, not DNA and blood.  But primarily I quilt because it quiets my soul and calms me down.  After an exhausting day, thirty minutes in my sewing space revives me and improves my outlook on life.  It makes me turn off everything else but the creative side of me and forget about payroll, and invoicing, and the other myriad of issues I take care of on a day-to-day basis.  It’s a mental vacation every night.  Do I get grouchy if I can’t do this several times a week?

You better believe it.

The last idea I want to leave you with is Zoom.  During this world-wide pandemic, I think most of us have “Zoomed” at one time or another.  If you have kids who have plugged into remote learning, or you’ve had to Zoom for your job, you know what this magnificent little app is either on your phone, iPad, or laptop.  I have three quilt groups which have continued to meet via Zoom.  I know several guilds who have used this technology to meet and have speakers.  I really, really think Zoom has changed the face of quilting as much as the internet did in the 1990’s.  I have had the amazing opportunity to “visit” with guilds all over the world.  Yes, it meant getting up at 5 a.m. sometimes to attend a guild meeting in Australia, but man, was it worth it!  However, the point I really want to make is this:  Zoom has opened up an incredible opportunity for quilting classes!  I’ve probably taken at least two dozen quilt classes since COVID 19 put a kabosh on everything.  I’ll be the first to admit, staying at home has tried me like nothing else, but it gave me the INCREDIBLE ability to take classes with nationally and internationally known teachers I would have NEVER had the chance to attend under normal circumstances.  From the comfort of my own quilt studio.  Often in my pajamas!  I do think Zoom classes such as these are here to stay.  I urge you to take advantage of them.  Yes, there is a charge, but it’s so much less than what it would be under normal circumstances.  There are no hotels (you can sleep in the comfort of your own bed and have your own coffee or tea in the morning), no travel fees, and you never have to worry about lost luggage or leaving part of your supplies at home.  This is such a wonderful opportunity.  Please plug into it.  I’ve taken numerous classes and have found the teachers wonderfully prepared, available to look at your work, and everyone still chats and exchanges information just like in a regular class.  It’s truly a wonderful thing.  I sincerely hope Zoom stays around even after the Pandemic is history (soon, please….soon).

So that’s it…that’s all for this Fabric Crumb post.  If you have any questions you want me to address, please leave those in the comments section.  I do look at each and everything folks write and answer them.  Sometimes those questions need an entire blog and other times just a paragraph or two.  Those I’ll save for my next Fabric Crumb blog. 

I’ve received several messages and emails about my brother, Eric. Thank all of you for your concern, thoughts, and prayers. While myeloma is serious, we are very fortunate and grateful for the early detection from Duke Hospital System. Since they’ve been tracking Eric for three years, this ability to stay on top of the situation led to the discovery of the very small lesion on his hip. Yesterday he began five days of radiation therapy. Because of early detection, the radiation dosage is very, very low. He will finish that, and then go on vacation. When he returns, he will undergo chemo therapy via injection and in pill form. Right now, we believe we’re looking at six to eight weeks of chemo. After he has some time to recover from this, he will begin the process of stem cell transplant. Please continue to keep him and our family in your thoughts and prayers. And I’ll continue to update as the situation progresses.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam



It’s still pretty early in 2021.  If my publishing schedule goes as planned, this blog will go live sometime in March.  So we’re not quite halfway into the first quarter….which still gives you plenty of time to fall prey to…a block of the month trap quilt.  When I started earnestly quilting around 1995, my favorite go-to big quilt of the year was a BOM (Block of the Month).  Remember where I was at this point in my life:  two young kids, a husband who worked out of town 90 percent of the time, grad school, and work.  I was lucky if I had enough time to make dinner four nights a week.  Shopping for fabric took time I didn’t have and couldn’t spare.  Those lovely little blocks would either arrive in the mail or were available for pick up at my local fabric/quilt store.  I didn’t have to choose fabric, only a color way, take it home, cut it out, and sew one block a month in order to receive the next block.

My quilting life was much simpler then. 

There are soooo many different blocks of the month now.  There are the ones still available from quilt shops, and there are literally hundreds online.  I have a written a blog on how to survive BOMs ( ) And if you’re like me and follow certain quilt blogs, a lot of them have their own BOMs.  Some years those are so beautiful I find myself downloading quite a few.  Then other years (like this year) I don’t see any that really spark any interest.  As a matter of fact, 2021 is the first year in forever a long time I don’t have any BOM subscriptions. 

But I digress.  This blog isn’t so much about BOM as it is what comes after your quilt top is complete.  All the blocks are made.  They’re sewn in straight rows or in a diagonal on-point setting.  Now all that’s left are the borders.  And the borders are what I really want to concentrate on today.  Many BOMs – most of them, I think – simply have plain borders to frame the center.  There may be only one, or several, but generally it seems these are almost an afterthought.  You’ve done all this work on the center of the quilt and then slap on some plain borders and call it done. 

No.  Your quilt is better than that.  You’re a better quilter than that

Borders are important.  Allow me a few minutes of time in the quilty pulpit and I’ll preach you a message on borders.  Borders not only frame your quilt, they’re the last statement you make about your quilt.  They can be exclamation points or periods.  Don’t let your borders be periods.  And they’re probably the last visual image the viewer will take away from your quilt.  Typically, the quilty observer’s first line of sight is the middle of the quilt.  From there, the visual intake expands outward, taking in the rest of the quilt center.  Finally, the last bit of visual impact is the borders.  The quilt center can be outstanding – perfect piecing, perfect quilting, perfect applique – and the borders can be total let downs.  Plain borders leave me thinking, “Seriously…all that work, and the borders got no effort.  What a shame. It’s like the quilter got to the end of the project and just gave up.” 

Plain borders are the bane of my quilting experience.  Granted, there are times when a plain border may be called for – such as if it’s a string quilt, a kaleidoscope quilt, or any other type of quilt which has a super busy center with no sashing.  Sometimes a plain border is needed to calm the center down.  However, the least one could do is miter the corners.  If I have a busy center, my usually use at least two borders on it – a narrow, plain one to quiet it down, and then a wider, busier border. 

All of this leads me to our topic – how do you change up a border to make it sing instead of snore?  Most BOMs have a border and most of the time the borders are plain strips of fabric.  How do you know what to do to change things up?  It’s not hard, but there is a bit of math and a lot of imagination involved.  So, if you’ve signed up for a few BOMs this year, you may want to read this entire blog.  If you want to design your borders in a way to make you happy, you’ll learn how to do that with this blog, too.

The first step I caution any BOM participant to do is this:  Save your scraps.  And if you have some pieces which still have their selvage on it with the fabric manufacturer and the other additional information, hang on to those, too.  The scraps can be used when you alter the border or make mistakes in the blocks.  If you need additional fabric, you can use the information on the selvage to hunt what you need down on the internet (see my blog about ordering fabric online  And if the BOM gives you an opportunity to purchase extra fabric (what I lovingly call the “Oops” fabric), you may want to buy a bit of it for use in the borders.

Okay, let’s start with a quilt which is currently under my needle:

This is my guild’s 2020 BOM.  Despite the pandemic and not being able to meet as a group, we persevered, picked up our blocks in a contactless way, and continued to sew.  When we were finished, there were no setting instructions.  We had to put our quilt together in a way which worked for us.  I’m a sucker for on-point settings.  I needed thirteen blocks, and since the BOM only had twelve, I chose my favorite block and made a duplicate, re-arranging the colors so it didn’t mirror its counterpoint.  If I had not saved scraps, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.  I took what few pieces I had left over and matched them with some of the blue batiks I had in my stash.  It worked pretty well.  I know I could have put some setting squares in the quilt but opted not to.  This will be a lap quilt which will undergo a lot of use and a lot of washings.  I don’t want to spend hours on the quilting, and those plain-ish setting squares would have required more time than I want to give this project.  I used the Quilters Cake formula ( to figure out the setting and corner triangle measurements. 

Once assembled, I had to design my borders.  This is where the real fun starts.  There are several steps I have to run through before I make my final border pattern.

First:  What is the quilt center all about?  Is the center all pieced?  Is it pieced and appliqued?  Is it only applique?  While the composition of the quilt center isn’t the final determination of the borders, it does come into some consideration.  Some quilters feel the borders should echo the design – in other words, if the center is all pieced, then the borders should be pieced.  If it’s appliqued, then applique the borders.  If the quilt is a mix of both, then either or both can be used in the borders.  I don’t feel this way.  I think as long as the colors in the borders harmonize with what’s in the center, and you don’t go off topic, you’re good to go.  In other words, if your center is primarily blues and greens like my quilt is, don’t use orange in the border if you haven’t used it in the center.  And if you’ve appliqued birds and butterflies in your blocks, don’t put cellos and trumpets in the border.  The borders should be a continuation of a theme, but you can certainly mix techniques all you want (in my personal opinion). 

Second:  What is the purpose of the quilt?  If this is a show quilt, more time, detail, precision and effort should go in the borders.  If it’s a charity quilt, a child’s quilt, or some other quilt which will probably see the inside of a washing machine quite a bit, the border needs to be pretty secure – machine pieced or appliqued.  Will it live on the back of a couch, pulled down at night to cuddle in as you read or watch TV?  The purpose of the quilt quite often gives you some direction about how you want to design the borders. 

Third:  Time.  How much time do you have to make this quilt – are you up against a deadline?  Is there no deadline and you can spend as much time as you want on the borders?  Do you have time to personalize the borders?  The time factor can be a big component in how you design the borders.

Fourth:  Available materials.  This factor can be especially true with BOM quilts.  If the quilt is one you are making from a pattern and you’re purchasing your own fabric, chances are you can probably buy additional fabric if you need it for the border.  This is not always possible with BOMs and you have to make do with what you’ve been given and what leftover scraps you have. 

Okay, let’s go back and work with my quilt again.  The center is fairly busy, so despite the fact I have some nice, solid color setting triangles, I still want to calm the center down just a bit, so my first border will be a plain one.  Using the Golden Ratio (1.618), I can begin to math out how large and how wide the entire border unit could be.  The blocks finish at 12-inches.  To find out how wide I can make the border, I multiply 12 x 1.618 and divide by 4 (because the quilt top has four sides):

12 x 1.618 = 19.416

19.416 / 4 = 4 7/8-inches. 

The widest I could make the border and have it still appear balanced is 4 7/8-inches.  Now let’s see how narrow I can make it.  This time we need to divide by the Golden Ratio:

12 / 1.618 = 7.416564

7.416564 / 4 = 1 7/8

I could make the borders as narrow as 1 7/8.  So, technically, the combined two borders’ width could be as slim as 1 7/8 or as wide as 4 7/8.  And I’ll let you in on one of my pet peeves at this point:  I hate dealing with 1/8-inch increments.  I will round both of those up to a narrow 2-inches and a wide 5-inches.  This just makes the math so much easier.   My finished quilt center measures 60-inches x 60-inches.  If I make the first border 2-inches finished, this now makes the center 64-inches x 64-inches. 

At this point, I have to decide what kind of final border I want – and you know I don’t want just plain strips of fabric.  My ideal situation is to have the final border make the entire border total 5-inches.  When we subtract the 2-inch border I just put on from the final 5-inches, that leaves us with 3-inches to play with.  Now, the question I have to ask is will 3 divide evenly into 64? 


The answer is 21.333 or 21 1/3.  While I could finagle around and actually make my final pieced border work, it’s just so much easier if the numbers come out as a whole number.  Even if I add ½-inch seam allowance to 21 1/3, it comes out to 21 7/8 (and we all know how I feel about 1/8-inch increments).  It won’t work.  Since the borders must fit accurately, I have to be precise.  So, let’s drop back and punt and still play with a 5-inch border, but let’s narrow the first border to 1 inch.  This means our final border will have to be 4-inches wide.  Is 62 (60-inch center + two 1-inch borders) divisible by 4? No.  But it is divisible by 2. That’s a small number, smaller than I like to work with on the last border, but I can play with my options – which brings me back to the question — what kind of border do I want? 

This quilt isn’t for me.  It’s for a friend, and I’ll get into the particulars of that later.  This quilt will probably either live on the back of her couch or accompany her to chemo treatments.  It will probably be washed quite a bit, so I plan on making a pieced border.  This type of border will hold up much better to frequent washing than even a machine appliqued quilt.  But thirty-one 2-inch finished squares for each side of the final border? 

Nope.  Not gonna happen.

This is where I really had to tap into my creative side.  While I certainly had no appetite to make so many 2-inch HSTs (or any other type of 2-inch block for the border), I decided I did want to keep the theme of the quilt center.  If you notice each and every block of the center is comprised of HSTs.  So….if I didn’t want to make the entire border out of HSTs, why not make part of the border out of HSTs?

Sounds like a winner. 

I made a total of fifty-eight 3 ½-inch (unfinished) HSTs.  The HSTs in the center blocks are all this size, hence my decision to keep the ones in the borders this size.  I decided to use part of them in the top left-hand corner and the others in the bottom right-hand corner.  This asymmetrical arrangement is pleasing to look at, and the rest of the border space can be filled with my neutrals. 


I find this kind of arrangement works exceptionally well when the math gets really wonky.  It is great to look at, doesn’t take a lot of time to construct, and your brain doesn’t fry trying to discover even multiples.  Those HSTs will be fun to quilt and I can really add some great design work to the neutral parts.  I’ll make the binding in the same blue which is in the first narrow border.

All that’s left is to quilt it, bind it, and send it out to the recipient.

Why do I fuss so much with my borders?  Well, like I said at the beginning of this blog, they’re really the last statement you make about the quilt.  Granted, if you have some serious quilting chops (either with hand quilting or machine quilting), you can make those plain border sing with your stitches.  And there are times like with the quilt below:

When plain borders are just what the quilt calls for.  But with this case, the border fabric is the same neutral used in the blocks, and the entire effect makes the center blocks look as if they’re floating. 

The last statement you make with your quilt should always be an exclamation point and not a period.  Don’t just throw some plain borders on the center (which you’ve devoted time and money on) and call it a quilt.  Think about those borders.  Don’t be afraid of the math. 

You won’t be sorry you took the extra time.   Trust me.

Now for a personal note. Some of you know my brother has had smoldering myeloma for about three years. After some lingering hip pain and blood work, his oncologist scheduled a PET scan. The scan told us he has moved from smoldering (meaning myeloma may or may not be the outcome) to active — he now has myeloma. He is being treated at Duke Hospital Systems in Durham, North Carolina — one of the best. He also is in contact with the myeloma specialist at the Mayo Clinic, UNC-Chapel Hill and more data bases than I can remember. He will undergo some radiation, chemo, and then a stem cell transplant. If something occurs and he cannot provide his own stem cells, I’ve told him I would be tested to see if I was a match.

He is my only sibling.

Please keep Eric in your thoughts and prayers in the upcoming weeks. The outlook is good. His doctors are very, very optimistic because this was caught early. But getting from where we’re at right now to remission will be a rough ride. He has his wonderfully supportive wife, Deanne, and two sons by his side, as well as me and Mom and a host of other friends and relatives.

I’ll keep you folks updated.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam