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Fatal Attraction (or the Quilt that Takes Forever to Finish)

It all starts very innocently…

There’s the initial attraction…

Then comes the flirting…

After awhile you’re seeing each other regularly…then almost exclusively…

And then BAM!  Commitment.

No, I’m not describing a relationship with another person.  I’m talking about a quilt.  More specifically, I’m discussing the type of quilt I call a “Lifer.”  This particular kind of quilt usually involves lots of detailed work, many times calls for extensive hand work, and may have lots of small blocks.  The term “Lifer” denotes the quilt will take lots of time (maybe even years), perhaps lots of fabric, and great attention to specifics.  All of these aspects should scare nearly every quilter off, but the beauty of the quilt sucks you in and before you know it, you’re in a relationship with a Lifer before you can think twice.  You ignore the voice in your head and the voices of your quilter friends who warn you that this quilt will be a commitment for several years to come. 

I know how you feel.  I’m in a commitment with three Lifers at the moment:

And have the fabric for another Lifer waiting in the wings:

Today I want to talk about how to choose your Lifer quilts and  how to manage them.

I could post picture after picture of quilts which will require time and attention.  However, what’s important for you to know is any quilt which will involve lots of attention to details and will take you more time than the average quilt you make, should carry the term Lifer in your mind.  It’s not that this quilt will literally take you a lifetime to finish, it’s that this quilt may need more time and attention than any average quilt.  To illustrate, this quilt is what I would term a Lifer.

This one is not.

Notice the difference.  In the first quilt, the blocks are small-ish.  There is applique.  The piecing is challenging.  In the second quilt, the blocks are easier, there is no applique, and if you set your mind to it, the quilt top could easily be completed in a few weeks.  The final finished product may take longer, depending your quilting skills, if someone else is quilting your quilt, and if you’re putting the binding on by both hand and machine or only by machine.  Even if you machine applique the first quilt, the applique is detailed and will take time. 

First, let’s examine how to choose a Lifer.  Initially, I think it’s important you wrap your head around the fact, this project will take a while to finish.  I realize some quilters work quickly.  Some quilters have hours each day to spend on a project.  However, a quilt which has lots of challenges will still take some time.  I think it’s important to realize this before you make the first cut in the fabric.  Mentally prepare yourself this project may take several months years to complete. 

Next, research the pattern.  If you Google the pattern and nothing comes up but the designer and their rendition of the quilt, back away.  Put the pattern down and walk off.  Trust me on this one.  I know I’ve mentioned this in prior blogs, but take it from a quilter who has been there, done that, has the t-shirt, and is still working through the pattern: If no one else has made the quilt except the designer, you don’t want to be their guinea pig.  There are probably good reasons no one else has made the quilt.  Perhaps the pattern is new, or the designer is new.  If this is the case, wait awhile and come back to the pattern in a year or so and research it again.  This time you may see other quilters have made the quilt and have left feedback about it. 

However, if you Google a pattern which is several years old and nothing comes up but the designer and their quilt, run – do not walk – to the nearest exit.  These two patterns:

Have given me major issues.  I’ve spent hours mulling over them because the directions were incomplete, the designer wouldn’t answer emails (or at least answer them coherently), and despite numerous searches through numerous search engines, I can’t find anyone else who made the quilt.  I’ve put Santa’s Loading Dock in semi-permanent time out, and if it wasn’t for the fact one of my BFFs was making the Day in Grandmother’s Flower Garden with me, I probably would have done the same with it.  However, Dear Jane and Language of the Flowers have Facebook groups and web sites.  There’s a lot of help, instruction, and support for these quilts.  Lifers are more complicated than most quilts, and the extra help is extremely valuable. 

Now let’s talk fabric.  Many Lifers require serious yardage.  It’s a good idea to have of the primary fabrics in hand (and a ½-yard extra of each wouldn’t be a bad idea either) when you start the quilt.  Applique pieces can come from your scrap bins, but the main fabric players – background, lights, mediums, focus, and darks – should be purchased when you begin the quilt.  Remember, fabric manufacturers rarely re-print fabric lines, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.  If it does take a while to complete the quilt, and you find yourself running short on the fabric, it may be impossible to purchase additional material when you need it.  There may not be anymore available.  I know Ebay has saved my quilting skin more than once, but you can’t count it any vendor having exactly what you need. 

With the pattern and fabric now in your studio, it’s time to take a serious look at the pattern.  Read it through, and then read it through again.  If the Lifer in question is one of the Super-Size Samplers, read the book through.  Mark it up – highlight which sections you may think will give you issues.  After this, it’s time to set up a game plan.  How will you conquer this Lifer quilt?  This is where it really helps to know what kind of quilter you are.  Are you:

  1. The type of quilter who, once a project is begun, works only on that project until it’s complete

Or

  •  Can work on a single project for a good while, but then needs a break from it to sew something else.

If you’re Type A, you’re good to go.  Cut the Lifer out and go to it.  However….most quilters (at least the ones I know) are Type B.  We can work on any project for a while, but then we need a break.  We need something different to keep the creative juices flowing and to keep quilting fun.  All of us Type Bs need a loose game plan to stay on track and not allow our Lifer to languish in some project box like Santa’s Loading Dock is. 

My regular readers know I’m all about goals.  Goals are important to me – they give me something to work for and once I’ve reached a goal, I reward myself.  With Lifers, I think a reward system needs to be in place.  Complete ten 6-inch blocks?  Get your favorite coffee from your favorite coffee place.  Finish half of the applique blocks?  Go purchase a fat quarter or two.  I know these are little rewards, but sometimes having something to look forward to is enough to encourage you to keep stitching. 

Another plan to have in place is a roadmap.  Type B quilters can have a notoriously short attention span and we have to work to combat it.  Initially, we may decide to do all our prep work at once.  If it’s an applique quilt, we may prep all the applique pieces at once and have them bagged, tagged, and ready to rock and roll.  If it’s a pieced quilt, we may elect to make all the blocks, then square them up, and then join then together in rows.  The roadmap you chose for your quilt journey depends on you, and you know yourself better than anyone else.  You may be zipping right along and then about block 17, suddenly realize you need a break.  Now would be a great time to press and square up some blocks and join a few rows together.  It’s important to be flexible and allow yourself a change of pace.  Changing up your plan can keep you enthused about the project.  Personally, for me, it depends on what kind of quilt I’m constructing.  If it’s a pieced quilt, I will make a dozen or so blocks, press and square them up, then join the rows together.  I’ll put this section of the quilt top somewhere I can readily see it.  This encourages me to keep on stitching.  Applique is a bit different.  I would much rather prep all my pieces at once.  I love to hand stitch (it relaxes me), and once I get a rhythm going, I hate to break it to prep more pieces.  The longer you quilt, the better you’ll know what motivates you.  Use that motivation to your best advantage.

I’ve found it’s also helpful to have an easy project waiting in the wings.  Sometimes I just need some mindless stitching for a change of pace.  Lifers can demand periods of intense concentration and occasionally just having something to sew while you binge on Netflix is good for you. It allows your brain to take a break.  It’s also a great idea to see if you can bribe talk a friend into making the same quilt.  You kind of become each other’s support group.  My BFF, who is making A Day in Grandmother’s Flower Garden with me, has been a lot of help.  Between the two of us, we’ve more or less figured out how to finish the quilt.  The directions for this quilt were so bad, it took two heads to determine out how to get the center complete.  We’re still hashing out the applique.  It’s been wonderful to work together to try to get answers.

Lastly, if you can, it’s good if you can find a way to make the Lifer portable.  I realize once a quilt top gets so big, it’s difficult to put it in a project box and take it with you to quilt bee or sit and sew.  However, as much as you can, it’s a great idea if you can take it with you to work on while you’re traveling or at a quilt function.  You’d be surprised how much you can get done while riding in a car or at a two-hour quilt bee.  And you must realize even a few stitches here and there really adds up.  I keep my Horn of Plenty for a New Generation and A Day in Grandmother’s Flower Garden in easy reach.  If I catch a few minutes to watch TV, I can put in a few stitches.  Every stitch is progress and should be celebrated.  A Lifer will take some time…but it shouldn’t take a lifetime.

A couple of quick housekeeping notes.  My first podcast has been recorded.  I’m working on editing  it’s a huge learning curve. I’ll let everyone know when it’s up.  For those of you who don’t know me, the Southern accent is there…really, really, there.

Second, by the time you read this, my brother Eric will have completed his chemotherapy and will undergo the Stem Cell Transplant on September 27 at UNC. Prior to the transplant, there will be PET scans and a bone marrow biopsy.  He will also undergo daily injections which will prompt his bone marrow to produce more stem cells.  On the 27th, he will undergo a massive dose of chemo to kill off any bad cells and then on the 29th, he’ll be infused with the stem cells.  He will feel pretty lousy for about four days and then will begin to pull out of it.  Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers and he’s making the decision about where to have the procedure.  Yes, this will be a several weeks process (the SCT itself is at least a week in the hospital, and possibly another week or two in a step-down unit after the transplant), but once the wheels are in motion, a lot happens in a relatively short amount of time.  Remember him, his sweet wife, his sons, and the rest of the family.

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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Machine Quilting 103

Last week we talked about how to decide what to quilt on your quilt. Now with motifs and design out of the way, let’s talk about the actual quilting process.  What follows are broad generalities.  Each sewing machine is different.  Each one comes with different feet.  Sometimes the feet needed are included with the machine and sometimes they’re a separate purchase.  What I do advise is to read your sewing machine manual thoroughly before starting.  Most machines – even those not made specifically for quilters – will at least have a small section on setting the machine up for free motion (dropping the feed dogs), and how to use and install the darning foot and walking foot (if they’re included with the machine).  Become familiar with these sections because it will make trouble shoot much easier. 

Step One:  Consider the thread

I’ve covered thread before and it may be a good idea to re-read my blog https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/05/26/thread-the-stuff-which-holds-it-all-together/

to get a good overview of thread.  When you’re machine quilting there is only one question you really need to ask:  Do I want my thread to show or not?  That’s pretty basic and easily answered.  If you want your stitches to become as much a part of the quilt as your piecing, or if you want the thread to be a co-star in the quilt, you probably will want a thicker thread.  If you want your stitches to kind of melt into the background, you will want a thinner thread (my favorite is Superior Threads Micro Quilter – it’s 100 weight) or a polyester monofilament thread.  Don’t use nylon.  Over time nylon monofilament can become brittle and will break. 

Step Two:  Consider the needle

Sewing machine needles for quilting. Notice the groove down the back and large eyes to accommodate 30 or 40 weight thread without shredding.

My usual quilting needle is a 90/14.  This is a good, all-around needle size to start with.  As you become more proficient, you may want to go with a smaller needle, especially if you develop a fondness for quilting with the Micro Quilter thread.  And if you’re going big and using a 30-weight, you may want to up one more needle size.  Regardless, you’ll want a needle designated as a quilting needle.  These needles have larger eyes so they don’t shred the thread, a groove in the back, and the needle tapers down into a point (which may be slightly rounded).  These needles are made to take the abuse quilting a quilt sandwich will bring to it.  I’ve also found needles labeled as “Top Stitching” work really well, too.  And per usual, start with a new needle, and after eight hours sewing (16 if it’s a titanium needle), change it out.

And remember this picture?

The left is a brand-new sewing machine needle. The right is one after eight hours of sewing.

I had this at the bottom of a blog several weeks ago.  The needle on the left is a new needle.  The needle on the right is one after about 8-hours of quilting.  Start with a new needle, and keep a running idea of how many hours you use it.  Unless it’s a titanium, toss it after 8-hours and insert a new one.  You’ll be surprised at how much easier this will make the quilting process.  If the needle is titanium, you can double the time to 16 hours.  After you’ve quilted long enough, your ear will become attuned to the “pop, pop” a dull needle makes as it goes through the sandwich, and you won’t need to keep up with the time.

Step Three:  Consider the feet

Walking foot

If you’re just beginning to straight line quilt, you may want to keep the feed dogs up and use the walking foot.  Some machines come with a walking foot, and some don’t.  Some machines offer the walking foot as a separate purchase and with others you have to order a generic one. If this is the case, read through your manual or Google your machine and model number to find out if it’s a high shank or low shank machine.  Then go to Amazon and search for a walking foot with the shank needed. 

Darning feet

In addition to the walking foot, you will want either an open-toe or closed-toe darning foot for free-motion quilting.  Personally, I prefer the open toe because I can see my stitches better. 

Step Four:  Consider the accessories

These are optional, but they can make your quilting life so much easier. 

  • Quilting Gloves – These have a tacky surface which helps you grip the quilt and move it.
  • Tomato Pincushion – I know there are thousands of cute pincushions on the market and at least an equal number of patterns for pincushions, but this red tomato one fits a quilter’s needs. 
  • The tomato pincushion is divided into sections.  Label each section with a needle size and keep the needles in the appropriate section.  A flower pincushion works equally as well.
  • Supreme Slider – This wonderful notion has a slick surface which helps you move the bulk of your quilt under your needle pretty effortlessly.  The top surface is slick and has a cut out for your feed dogs.  The back of the slider has a sticky surface which adheres to your machine bed.  Over time the stickiness wears off a little and you may have to use some additional tape to keep the slider in place.
  • Bobbin Genie – These are thin, plastic “washers” which fit under your bobbin and allow it to spin more freely and quickly.  I haven’t seen the need for them in my Janome Continental M7, but I always used them in Big Red when I free-motioned. 

Step Five:  Consider the tension

If you’ve pieced or machine appliqued prior to beginning to quilt, chances are good you may need to adjust your stitch tension a bit when you start quilting.  Here’s where a scrap quilt sandwich can come in handy.  Set the scrap sandwich under the walking foot or darning foot and quilt several areas.  Now check the stitches.  You may decide you need to lengthen the stitches, but you also need to check the stitches to see if the bobbin thread is showing up too much on the top surface.  Then you need to flip the sandwich over and look at the back to make sure the top thread isn’t showing up too much on the back of the quilt.  If either scenario is the case, adjust the tension until the stitches look right.  When you have the correct tension settings, it’s good to write down those numbers somewhere (I have mine in my phone and written inside of my sewing machine manual) in case you forget them.

Step Six:  Anchor your quilt

The dotted lines show where you need to stitch in the ditch (sew super-close along the seam) to anchor a quilt to keep the sandwich layers from shifting.

There is no “consider” with this step.  You have to do this.  This can be done with a walking foot, although if you get pretty comfortable with free motion, you may just want to use that in this step.  Anchoring your quilt means you literally tack down certain areas of your quilt through the top, batting, and backing so nothing shifts as you quilt your quilt.  This is done with the “Stitch-in-the-Ditch” method.  Your primarily concerned with anchoring the seams between the rows and columns of your quilt.  It’s important to get as close to the seam as possible.  Stitch all the vertical columns in your quilt, from top to bottom.  Then rotate your quilt and stitch all the horizontal rows.  This stitching should include any inner borders.  Granted, if your quilt is small – such as a wall hanging – you may can get by with minimal anchoring.  The larger the quilt, the more it weighs, and the more likely it will shift. 

With those details out of the way, let’s talk about how to start and stop quilting.  Keep in mind, there are several different ways to do this.  This is the way I do it.  If the procedure doesn’t work for you, Google some other methods and find the one which is right for you.

  1.  Reduce the stitch length down to almost zero. Don’t set it at exactly zero, but almost there.  Slide the quilt sandwich under the needle and position it in the spot you want to start quilting.  Lower the presser foot.  Hold on to the top thread and lower the needle and raise it – but don’t raise the presser foot.  This should bring up the bobbin thread.  Pull both threads several inches behind the presser foot.
  2. Lower the needle back into the exact spot you first inserted it.  If you want to lower your feed dogs, now is the time to do that.  Take a few stitches.  With the stitch length at zero, it will look as if you’re stitching in place.  Make sure the top and bobbin threads you pulled up in step one are kept to the side. 
  3. Begin quilting and gradually increase the stitch length until you get it to the full stitch length.  Continue to quilt until you get close to the point where you need to stop. 
  4. The stopping process is pretty much the reverse of the starting process.  As you get about six to eight stitches from your stopping point, begin to gradually decrease your stitch length.  By the time you’ve reached the stopping point, the stitch length should be almost zero.  Take one or two more stitches, and lift the presser foot.  Slide the quilt sandwich out from under the needle, leaving long thread tails.
  5. Now we have to deal with the thread tails.  There are two schools of thought about this.  The first being you can simply cut the thread close to the surface of the quilt.  This should be done carefully and on a slant, so you don’t accidently cut the quilt.  The stopping and starting stitches are so small and close, they should hold the quilt together and not come undone.  The second school of thought is to tie the tails together in a simple knot and then bury the thread tails in the quilt by inserting them in a hand sewing needle and then sliding the hand sewing needle through the batting for several inches.  When the needle emerges, cut the threads (again on a slant). 

I’ve always found it’s a good idea to warm up before I put needle and thread to my actual top.  I don’t quilt every day.  In fact, I may go several days or even weeks before I quilt anything.  I will make a scrap sandwich and practice for at least a half an hour before my actual quilt is under the needle.  To me, this practice session is priceless.  A mistake on a scrap sandwich is a lot easier to deal with than a mistake on your quilt!

I’d like to leave you with two thoughts on machine quilting.  The first one is don’t fear it.  For whatever reason, many quilters are super-apprehensive about trying free motion quilting.  Yes, it feels different.  The feed dogs are dropped, so it’s you who’s actually controlling the stitch length.  You will not break your machine.  It just takes some time to get used to the feeling.  Which brings me to my second thought:  Practice, practice, practice.  I mentioned this in my Machine 101 blog, too.  Make some small quilt sandwiches and try quilting them a few times each week.  If you have a stack of them made, it’s easy to just grab one and spend fifteen to thirty minutes trying out different motifs.  And this is the way you’ll find what motifs are your favorites.  Eventually you’ll discover you’ll make them quickly and well. 

I find myself breaking my quilting world into parts.  My big quilts – double, queen, and the occasional king (I’ve quilted one king – and vowed I’d never do that again) – are quilted on Leanne the Longarm.  My smaller ones – miniatures, small-to-large wall hangings, and twins – are quilted on my domestic machine.  I get more aggravated loading small quilts on my long arm and to me, they take more time than loading a large one.   So yes, even though I own a long arm, I still quilt on my domestic.

Make some sandwiches and practice.  Don’t be like me and wait too long to start quilting your own quilts.  It will truly make you a better quilter.  Trust me.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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Machine Quilting 102

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about machine quilting your quilt. I received a lot of response about the blog.  I was overwhelmed and flattered and encouraged – because it’s always nice to know folks read your blog and they like it.  I had a couple of my readers asked if I would do a follow up on the topic.  I promised I would, so here we go.  This blog will get into a little more detail, and I’ll re-explain some topics I didn’t really go into enough depth on when I wrote https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/03/31/machine-quilting-101/.  As a matter of fact, if you’re new to my blog, new to this topic, or didn’t read my March 31, 2021, Machine Quilting 101 post, you may want to hop over to it now and read through it before you peruse this one.

I know many quilters quilt with their checkbooks (pay other people to quilt their quilts).  I used to be one of these.  And there’s nothing wrong with paying other folks to do your quilting.  If I had a show-bound quilt top now, I certainly wouldn’t quilt it myself.  I’m still not great with ruler work.  I would pay someone to custom quilt it for me.  However, not all quilts are show-bound.  I can save myself some serious bucks if I learn to quilt all my quilts which won’t end up in a show.  Like my Machine Quilting 101 blog, this post concentrates on the use of a domestic sewing machine.  Some of what we’ll talk about can be translated into midarm quilting and a tiny bit can be used with a long arm.  

Honestly, I think all quilters need to learn to quilt their own tops.  I’ve said this countless times before, but I sincerely believe it to be true.  Quilting your own quilts not only saves you money, but it makes you a better quilter.  Until you’ve dealt with a quilt which hasn’t been squared up properly yourself, this concept is simply some kind of esoteric idea – you’ll do it, but don’t really understand how important it is to get it right – until if affects your own quilting.  Quilting your own tops makes you much more aware of pressing techniques, seam allowances, borders, and making sure the backing is pieced correctly.  The quilting process hones the skills you learn while piecing and appliqueing.

I will also be completely truthful about another fact:  I cannot begin to tell you how very much I wish someone would have pushed me to start quilting my own quilts earlier in my quilting journey.  I had quilted probably 10 -12 years before anyone else encouraged me to put the quilt sandwich under my own needle.  Like most others, I was a little hesitant and even a little scared about the process.  But what really – well, irritated me, for lack of a better description – was it was a learning curve.  By the time I was persuaded to quilt my own tops, I had pieced and appliqued for a long time.  I was a very confident quilter.  I could sail through most patterns and techniques with very few hiccups.  But throw quilting in the mix, and I was truly a beginner again.  If I had made myself try at year two in my quilting journey, I really don’t think I would have been so hesitant.  It would have just been another technique this beginning quilter had to learn.  And I think that naivety would have taken the edge off the daunting fear of quilting my own quilt. 

So, let’s get to it.

Before you put one stitch in the quilt sandwich, there are four concepts you need to wrap your head around:

  1.  How will the quilt be used?  If it will live on the back of a couch most of the time, only to be pulled down to wrap up in when you watch TV, then you may not want to use your fanciest quilting.  A meander or loopy design may do just fine.  If it’s a play quilt for a child, you need fairly close-set lines of quilting, but the quilting could be just that – simply lots of horizontal or vertical lines, about an inch apart so the quilt will hold together through what will probably be numerous machine washings.  If the quilt will be utilitarian in use, you may want to keep the design pretty simple.  This won’t be a show-bound quilt.  If the quilt will lay on top of your bed, then the quilting will probably need to be a bit more elaborate. 

The quilt’s intended use is a great definer for how you quilt it.  This is always the first question I ask before I decide on a design.

  •  It’s important to fill the space, not the block unit.  This one is a bit difficult to explain with words, so let’s look at a quilt block:

This block is made from half-square triangles (HST). The HST is the unit which makes up this block.  If I concentrated on quilting the units, I just about guarantee the quilting would look like this:

I promise my quilting is better than my drawing.

Because that is my “go-to” quilting motif for HSTs.  But I must train my eye to look beyond the unit and take in the entire block.  The block will look better if I have a motif for the block, and not just the units. 

Sure, I could just concentrate on the block units, but if I do this, I will run into the issue of transferring over to the next block which may look like this:

This block doesn’t have nearly as many HSTs as the first one.  It would be much easier if I could find a motif for this block that can spring from the first block and move into the second block. 

I drew the entire motif in the left block and you can see how seamlessly it transfers over the the right block.

It will look better, be easier to quilt, and  be much more interesting to look at. 

Think about the whole block or even series of block, not just the block units.

  •  Be sure the design stops about ¼-inch away from the seams.  This concept does not affect quilts quilted on a long arm, and I’ll explain why in a minute.  The reason you want to try to stop about ¼-inch away from the seam is the bulk of the seam allowance can make some domestic machines “hiccup” over the seam, producing wonky stitches.  Not all sewing machines do this.  Some machines which are designed with quilters in mind are made to handle bulk – my last two Janome machines were labeled as “quilters” sewing machines and they handled moving over seams just fine.  The best advice I can give is make a couple of scrap blocks, sandwich them into a mini-quilt and try quilting over the seams.  If your machine doesn’t stall out sewing over seams, you’re good to go.  If it does, simply make sure your quilt design or motif sews stops about ¼-inch from the block seams as much as possible.

Most midarms and all long arms are powerful enough that seam bulk doesn’t bother them at all, and you can quilt over them without issues.

This quilt is a great example of even quilting. There isn’t an area which is too heavily quilted or one too sparsely quilted.
  •  It’s important the quilting be evenly distributed across the quilt top.  You don’t want heavy stitching in the middle and then sparce on the outer rows.  Likewise, you don’t want it densely stitched on one side of the quilt and not the other.  It should be evenly spaced over the entire top, so the eye isn’t drawn to one particular area. 

Those concepts out of the way, let’s talk about actual quilting designs.  The most asked question I get is this:  How do you choose your designs?  When I first got serious about quilting my own quilts, I spent a lot of time looking at the quilting in other quilts.  I wanted to see how HSTs were handled, what the quilters did with star blocks, etc.  I perused Pinterest and Google images for hours.  Eventually I got a good idea about what I liked (just a passing FYI, I’m not a huge fan of feathers, just because everybody has them in their quilt). I kept a running list on my phone. 

Cello Pointe

Now for a short lesson in quilting and kinesiology.  Lots of what you do in life relies on muscle memory.  Learned to walk?  Combination balance and muscle memory.  Can you run or ride a bike?  Again, balance and muscle memory.  Can you dance (I’m talking dance-dance – ballet, ballroom, tap – not the kind you do after three glasses of wine)?  Once more, those rely heavily on muscle memory.  Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory which involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition.  In other words, the more you do something, the more your body remembers how to repeat the action accurately.

Quilting is no different.  Quilting a quilt is actually a heavy, physical activity.  We don’t think about it like this, but it is.  Our hands are moving the quilt, changing the rate of speed and stitch length constantly.  And the more we can practice the movement, the better we’ll become at it and the easier it becomes (I mean, you don’t have to concentrate too hard about walking, right?). 

I realize my short kinesiology lesson may seem a bit out of place, but hang with me for a few more moments.  If you find a motif you really like, you need to practice it.  And I don’t start out by practicing on a quilt sandwich.  My first step in working with quilting motifs I like is to draw them.  I print the motif out and then trace it several times.  Then I free hand it.  I go through this process several, several times (I doodle on any scrap of paper near me) before I sit down at my machine with a small quilt sandwich.  But once I do turn on my machine, I already have several hours of working with the motif in my head and my arms.  It takes a bit of tweaking here and there, but by this time, the drawn motif translates fairly easily into a stitched one.  So, look through quilts until you find a motif you’re particularly interested in, print it, trace it several times, and then free hand it several more times before you try quilting it on your machine.  This works really well for me, and I have a feeling it will help you, too. 

However, even if you find between three and five very favorite quilting motifs, there will be times you’ll look at a quilt and have absolutely no idea how to quilt it.  I honestly thought after I had quilted my own quilts for a few years I would have no issues just putting any top into a sandwich, quilting it, and have an awesomely, wonderfully quilted quilt in a matter of hours.

Boy, was I all kinds of wrong.

I still struggle sometimes.  There are some days when I’m working on a quilt top that I know exactly  how I will quilt it.  Then there are other times when I think I know how I’ll quilt it, and then once the top is finished, completely change my mind.  And then there are those tops I make which leave me totally clueless as to how to quilt them.  When this last scenario occurs, I lay the quilt out somewhere I will see it several times a day.  For the Fields household, this means our dining room table is sometimes covered by a quilt top.  But this is the area of the house I pass through to get to my quilt studio.  I’ll look at the quilt carefully, both up close and from a distance.  And eventually, as corny as this sounds, it will speak to me.  I will get a really good idea about how to quilt it.  One day I will be completely clueless and the next morning I’ll wake up with the best idea ever.

If I still find myself with no ideas after a week or so, I have some go-to options.

  1.  If the quilt is lots of hard lines and geometric forms, go with some curvy quilting to soften it up.
  2. If the quilt has curves, such as a Drunkard’s Path, go with some geometric quilting.
  3. Go with the theme.  For instance, if the quilt has lots of star blocks, quilt stars in the negative spaces and soften the hard lines of the star blocks with something curvy.
  4. If it’s a heavy quilt, such as a flannel or t-shirt quilt, I will meander the whole thing. 

Once you have an idea in mind, you’re just about ready to get started.  After you’ve quilted for a while, there will be some designs you don’t necessarily have to mark on your top before you actually start quilting.  I’ve shown you my “go-to” design for HSTs.  I don’t have to draw those out any longer because I’ve quilted hundreds of those curvy lines.  I do mark how far in I want the concave line to go, but that mark is only a small mark in the HST.  The rest of the motif is burned in my muscle memory.  And the longer you quilt, and the more you repeat some motifs, you’ll also get to this point.

However…

There will be times – probably quite a few – when you would feel much better about drawing the entire design out in a row and then transferring it to your quilt.  I do this pretty often when I’m quilting borders on my sewing machine.  There are several tools you can use to help you do this.  The first one is a light box.  You can take your printed or drawn motif and tape it to your lightbox, then put your quilt top on top of that, and trace what you need.

If the motif is large, there are some bigger papers on the market you can use for the design.  There’s large graph paper:

Graph paper on a roll can be a quilter’s BFF

Large sheets of vellum:

These sheets of vellum are 18-inches x 24-inches

And (these are my favorite) butcher paper or tracing paper on a roll.

To me, this is the most versatile.  You can cut the length you need off from the roll, draw your design, and then transfer the design to your border or quilt block via the light block and a water-soluble pen.  A few years ago, I got really lucky.  A local newspaper was changing over to all digital formats and were closing their printing facility.  They were giving away rolls of blank newsprint paper.  I’m still using the paper on that roll, and this was at least six years ago. 

Okay, this is as far as I’m taking machine quilting this week. I will have one last post on the subject next week. I had so much to say I needed to break this topic into two blogs. Next week I’ll hit some additional items needed, as well as my favorite way to stop and start quilting. I wish I could hand over a magic formula on how to make your quilting perfect from the get-go, but there isn’t one. The only way to get really good at machine quilting is practice…

Practice….

Practice.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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A, B, C, D, E, F, G s…

This is a blog about Alphabet Quilts.  It’s not a blog about the origins of the alphabet.  I’m leaving that particular argument up to historians and linguists and this guy:

Who came up with this:

No, today I want to explore alphabet quilts because…well…I’m in the middle of one.  And I’m talking about straight-up alphabet quilts (as in A, B, C…), not quilts which have words spelled out in letters.  But before we get into my alphabet quilt, let’s take a look into the history of some of these quilts. 

Alphabet quilts began appearing between 1906-1950 with some regularity.  One of the first alphabet quilt patterns was found in The Ladies Art Company.  Most (if not all) of these quilts were pieced.  Applique alphabet quilts didn’t appear until later – primarily in the 1930’s to 1940’s.  However, it’s interesting to note that the alphabet quilt in The Ladies Art Company offered both pieced and applique directions and color cards (fabric and design suggestions).  There is one single letter in the alphabet which was used more than the other 25 in quilts:  the letter T. 

Most amateur quilt historians believe the letter T was used to represent the Temperance Movement.  And while this does seem like a good hypothesis, there is no supporting evidence (labels, provinces, diaries, wills, or household inventories) which support this idea.  However, the relationship – real or imagined – between the T-quilts and the Temperance Movement is so closely tied together, that the pieced T-block is called the Temperance T.  The Ladies Art Company offered its last alphabet pattern in 1974.  Yet the twenty-first century finds different designers and publishers continuing to offer a wide variety of alphabet patterns in both pieced and applique techniques. 

Thus….this is where they found me.  An on-line group I quilt with (through the fabulous Applique Society) decided to make alphabet quilts.  You could design your own pattern or use someone else’s.  You could make one letter or all the letters.  You could spell words or names.  I was intrigued because… well… I had never even considered making an alphabet quilt.  I knew there were patterns and books out there for them.  And I had viewed lovely alphabet quilts, but had never considered including them in any part of my quilting world.  My first inclination was to machine applique name banners for my grand darlings.  But then I began to look at patterns and quilts and….

Was quickly sucked down the rabbit hole of quilted ABC’s. 

Initially I ordered Applique and Embroidery Fundamentals  by Janice Vaine. I loved the design of the letters, and the applique is stunning.  But most of the applique work was done by hand.  When I decided to make the alphabet quilt, the one caveat I gave myself was it had to done entirely by machine.  I currently have three handwork projects on deck and didn’t need to nor did I have time to undertake another one.  After a bit more poking around on Pinterest, Google, and Amazon I found this:

Alphabet Quilts Letters for All Ages by Bea Oglesby. 

It was love at first look.  I really wanted to make her Floral Alphabet, but those flowers deserved the time and attention to detail that only hand applique could give them.  However, when I found her Spencerian Alphabet, I was smitten.  To shed a little light on what exactly the Spencerian Alphabet is, take a gander at this:

At first glance, most folks think this is cursive writing.  And in a way, it is.  But the Spencerian Script was taught to students as a type of “business” writing.  From around 1850 until 1925 it was the script primarily used in all types of business writing – from wills to deeds to checks – until the typewriter gained momentum and took up space in most offices.  We technically still use Spencerian today in more artistic writing endeavors such as calligraphy.  Bea Oglesby used Spencerian in this quilt:

And it appealed to me for two reasons.  First, it was a bit different from the other alphabet quilts I looked at. I liked the loopy, flowy letters.  Second, I liked the layout of the quilt.  I liked the way the applique twisted and twined its way off the borders into the center of the quilt.  So, after two months of searching and analyzing, I finally made up my mind that this alphabet quilt pattern was the one for me….

Only to have to completely re-think my decision once I read through the pattern. The center part – the one with all the letters?  It’s a whole cloth quilt.  I wasn’t sure exactly how I would construct this.  I knew I could fuse the letters together with the help of an applique sheet, but I also realized pressing all those letters into place on one piece of 36-inch square fabric would allow a lot of room for error.  There were quite a few possibilities for mistakes – I could get the letters too close together or too far apart, the rows could run downhill, or I could get the letters out of sequence.  Any of these blunders could set me back to square one.  I’d have to re-draw, re-fuse, and re-cut.  I knew I still wanted to use the Spencerian alphabet, and I loved the layout.  I had to get creative.

You see, designing an alphabet quilt isn’t as easy as A, B, C.  When you begin to break such a quilt down into units, you realize the 26 letters of the alphabet gives you serious issues, no matter if you’re planning on standard rows or some kind of on-point design.  Twenty-six is divisible by itself, two, and thirteen.  If rows are in your plan (like they were in mine), I could have two rows with thirteen blocks in them, or thirteen rows with two blocks in them.  Either way, that wasn’t going to work for me. 

As quilt designers begin to plan an alphabet quilt, they immediately realize they will have to supplement with more blocks or employ negative space.  Some alphabet quilts, especially antique ones, will include blocks which spell out the quilter’s name, the date, or the numbers 1-9.  I knew I’d need to get pretty creative in how I handled this quilt.  While I knew I wanted to keep the basic quilt design, there a number of ways I could re-draw the layout in order to make the quilt easier to construct. 

The first step I made was altering the center of the quilt.  In the directions, the center part of this quilt which as the alphabet on it is a 34-inch x 44-inch fabric rectangle (unfinished).  I immediately made three design decisions:

  1.  I wanted to find a way to break this area into quilt squares.  I didn’t mind if the center of my quilt was a little larger than the one in the book, but I couldn’t reduce it.  If it was smaller, the letters would look too crowded. 
  2. I wanted to keep the six rows of letters in the original pattern but did not want to add numbers or words to take up the additional space.  I would keep the negative space (just add rectangles of fabric to make up the additional inches needed to make the rows even out) that Bea Oglesby designed. 
  3. While I liked the applique design of curvy vines and leaves, I would add additional flowers.  To keep with some of the original designs of the other quilts in Alphabet Quilts Letters for All Ages, I would pull some of Ms. Oglesby’s flowers in her floral ABC quilts. 

With those decisions made, I opened up EQ8 and started working.  Much to my amazement (and delight), EQ had alphabet blocks!  These were pieced, but having these available helped me visualize how my quilt would work. 

EQ Rough Draft

After playing with block size and placement, I decided that 10-inch finished blocks would work best.  And here’s why…

Take a look at some of the Spencerian letters I copied:

The designs are not uniform.  Some letters are taller than others (all of the letters are capitals) and some are much wider, as their loops and lines stretch out for inches.  By planning for my quilt blocks to be 10-inches finished, the blocks would have plenty of room between each letter without looking crowded.  This additional space also meant if the letters looked like they had too much room between each other, I could trim them down another half inch or so.  And by allowing for 10-inch finished blocks, this meant my quilt center would be roughly 50-inches x 60-inches. 

Now I had to decide about color and fabric.  I’ve always liked green and purple together, but never took the opportunity to put just the two of them in a quilt.  Well, since there’s no time like the present, I decided to go with a mint-y, light green for the background and a dark purple for the letters.  After a bit of searching, I decided to go with Painter’s Palette from Pineapple Fabrics.  I like this line for a couple of reasons.  First, the colors are consistent.  If you order any fabric from Painter’s Palette, the fabric you receive will be the exact, same color which is on the swatch card.  Even better, if you find you’re running short and need to reorder several months down the road, the fabric will still be the exact same color you originally used.  Second, this fabric line has a wonderful hand.  It is soft and easy to handle.  It’s firm enough to stand up to the abuse of machine applique, yet it’s easy to needle if you want to use it for any kind of hand sewing.  After some comparing, I decided on Agave for the green background and Amethyst for the purple. 

Normally, if you want 10-inch finished squares, you’ll need to cut the fabric into 10 ½-inch blocks in order to give you a ¼-inch seam allowance on all four sides.  However, since machine applique is in the plans, and that can take up a bit of additional fabric, I cut my squares 11-inches.  This way I knew I would have plenty of margin for error.  I spent two days tracing the reverse images of the letters onto Soft Fuse.  Then I pressed the letters onto my purple fabric and cut them out.  Since the Spencerian alphabet is loopy and can run the gamut from thick to thin, I cut one letter out at a time, peeled the paper backing off, centered it on the green square and pressed it into place. 

Now it was time to put the open-toe foot on Dolly and get started on the applique.  Since this was raw edge applique, I knew I needed a thicker thread to encase the edges of the letters as completely as I could.  I decided on this 50-weight, 2-ply Aurifil thread. 

I liked the sheen, which would stand out nicely on the purple fabric, and the 2-plies would pretty much ensure the fabric edges were completely covered.  I also had to remember some parts of the Spencerian letters were thin.  I needed a thin enough thread I could lower the stitch length on and it wouldn’t bunch up but yet thick enough to protect from fraying.  The Aurifil 50-weight, 2-ply fit the bill.  I am also using these:

For the first time.  These sewing machine needles are the Schmetz Super Nonstick Needles (90/14).  The nonstick needles are supposed to resist some of the stickiness which fusible webbing can leave on the shaft.  They get good reviews on some of the quilting blogs and websites I follow, so I’m looking forward to sewing with them.  Another action I will take is to alter my stitch length and width if I need to, depending on what part of the letter I’m appliqueing.  For instance, this part of the letter F

Will need a short stitch length.  A larger one would overwhelm it.  But this part of the same letter

Can stand up to a larger stitch length. 

So why all the rambling on about an alphabet quilt?  Well, for a couple of years now I’ve been handing out tidbits of information on how to take a quilt pattern or block and change it up to make it uniquely yours.  Sometimes this process is as simple as reversing the light and dark placement of the block units.  At other times, it gets more complicated, like it did in my alphabet quilt.  What I really want to stress is don’t be afraid of the process.  Honestly, there are very few quilting mistakes which can’t be rectified or at least altered to the point you can still make the quilt.  Between my posts on gridding out blocks and all the handy-dandy formulas like the Golden Ratio and Quilter’s Cake I’ve given you, it’s not too difficult to change a pattern up or develop your own design.  Early quilters figured things out for themselves.  This allowed for originality.  So should you.  There are absolutely no reasons for any quilter to slavishly follow a pattern.  Listen to what your heart and head are telling you about a quilt design.  Sometimes your heart may know exactly how you want the quilt to look, and your head can tell you how to make it.  You may be like me and take the “roots” of one design and then change the way you make it so it will be an easier and more enjoyable process.  This is part of the journey  of becoming a seasoned quilter and a quilter who is quite comfortable making at least a small part of every quilt they construct uniquely theirs. 

Don’t be afraid to try.  Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  The only thing any quilter should be frightened of is not learning from their “errors.”  There is a challenge in every quilt.  It’s up to you to ascertain if the challenge will make you a better quilter or a bitter quilter.  If the challenge would drive you nuts (kind of like English paper piecing does me), it’s much, much better to find an alternative way of constructing the block or even the entire quilt.  Never let any pattern, technique, teacher, or quilt take away your joy in quilting.  It’s just not worth it.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam