North Carolina Quilts – How We Went from Waterpower to the Grandaddy of All Quilt Bees to the New Home of Keepsake Quilting

I was lucky enough to be born in North Carolina.

North Carolina born, raised, and educated.  I am as much of a product of our red clay fields as the cotton and tobacco grown here.  While I love to travel and see new places, there is a part of my heart which still sings when it’s time to go home.  I mean, what’s not to love about a state bookended by the Smokey Mountains and the Crystal Coast?

In past blogs I’ve discussed some regional quilts and their specifics.  This week I want to introduce you to North Carolina quilts and what makes them different from others.  Usually when I mention North Carolina quilts to anyone, a few stereotypical blocks come to mind:  Carolina Lily (which was first noted in 1890 and it was called the Cleveland Lily, probably after Grover Cleveland and had nothing to do with my state), Coastal Lily, and the Carolina Star (which is the official quilt block of North Carolina and was originally only made from blue and white fabrics). 

North Carolina Star

Other blocks containing cardinals, lighthouses, and magnolias are also frequently mentioned when discussing North Carolina quilts. 

A Brief History Lesson

But these just scratch the surface of a deep and abiding quilt history.  However, to understand our quilts, you must first understand our state.  A brief history, first.  We are one of the 13 original colonies, composed of a land grant from King Charles I.  For some of you, being part of the 13 colonies may denote a fired-up, signing-The Declaration of Independence-fighting those British Redcoats group of folks….

And you’re wrong.

The Carolina Colony was large and at that time encompassed North and South Carolina, and part of Georgia and Florida.

If North Carolina is nothing else, we are a deliberate group of citizens who take our time to think things through.  We were the eleventh colony to declare our independence (Halifax Resolves), but the Battle of Alamance is considered to be the first Revolutionary War skirmish.  We were one of the very last Southern states to secede from the Union – but being last threw us into a precarious predicament and more on that later, because yes, it concerns quilts and quilters.

Besides having an overall population of deliberate thinkers, we’re kind of an odd state politically.  It’s nothing new for us to have a governor of one political party and a lieutenant governor of another political persuasion.  College basketball playoffs are jokingly referred to as “Holy Season” and I’ve seen near fist fights break out over barbeque and I’m talking about sliced or chopped pork barbeque, slow cooked over a wood fire, and then treated with your preferred sauce – not hamburgers, hot dogs, and the like cooked on a grill.  That’s a cookout, not barbeque.  Seriously. 

North Carolina rivers, streams, lakes, and inlets

Water, Water Everywhere

All of those wonderful peculiarities aside, to understand our quilts, there are a few characteristics which must be kept in mind.  First, we have the Atlantic Ocean to the east, which enables our state to have world-class ports.  And that means we have served as an import/export destination for hundreds of years (and pirates…and hurricanes).  We could import fine fabric while we were a colony and export our textiles later.  To the west lie the Smokey Mountains with their rich Scotch-Irish heritage both in song, dance, language, and home textiles.  And in the middle is the Piedmont, where I live.  We have the Research Triangle and wonderful quilt shops.  The item which ties these three areas together are our waterways – which means not only transportation, but back years ago, it gave us the ability to get goods to and from one destination to another.  Items such as thread, needles, and fabric.  What’s equally important is the waterpower these rivers, streams, and creeks provided for mills.  Early on, this meant nearly every settlement of some size had easy access to a grain mill where wheat, corn, and oats could be ground for animal feed or flour, cereal, and cornmeal.  Later, after the Civil War ravaged the South, the waterways were used to power textile mills, which allowed North Carolina to recover from the war at a faster pace than some other Southern states.

Early North Carolina quilts were no different from most other quilts constructed in other states…but I love the pinwheels this North Carolina quilter added to hers.

Fine Thread and Fine Fabric

We had something to sell which everyone needed:  thread and fabric.  And this is really where North Carolina’s quilting cultures differs from other states.  Our quilts were first documented at the turn of the 19th century through diaries, wills, and newspaper articles.  At this time, our quilts were no different than any other state’s.  They were decorative with fine applique or trapunto, white work, or Broderie Perse.  Plus, quilting in itself was a highly social event.  There are numerous accounts of quilting bees and socials.  However, all of this begin to change about 1850.

Early water powered textile mill in North Carolina

If you’ve read this blog: you know this is about the time man-made, commercial dyes became readily available.  No longer did cloth manufacturers have to undergo the laborious process to get a red, blue, or green piece of fabric.  Man-made dyes hit the market with a bang, and along with them came the need for fine cloth and thread.  North Carolina, with its plethora of textile mills, filled this need.  As a matter of fact, the mills produced such fine thread, that when it was used on the home weaving loom, quite often no difference could be found between the homespun and the mill manufactured cloth.  After the Civil War was over, men with the last names of Cone and Holt rebuilt the textile mills and North Carolina became a leader of textile production for years.  All of these factors came into play with North Carolina quilters and their quilts.  We had access to plenty of fabric, in a variety of colors and prints, and fine thread to sew them with.  Since these were overwhelmingly locally produced, the price was reasonable and most quilters could afford them. As a result, what you don’t see in North Carolina quilts is a re-use of old clothing or other household textiles in the quilts.  There really wasn’t a reason to “up cycle” until the Great Depression. 

North Carolina Double Wedding Ring Quilt made from feedsacks

What You Won’t Find In Our Quilts

Now that you have a bit of history about how the production of textiles shaped our economy and our quilting world, let’s take a deep dive into what makes North Carolina quilts unique.  To begin with, let’s examine what you won’t see in most of our quilts. 

  •  English paper piecing.  I’m not saying there aren’t any North Carolina quilts with English paper piecing, but overall, North Carolina quilters historically haven’t been fans of this technique.  And I’m no different than my North Carolina ancestors.  I can execute this skill, but I would rather not.
  • Pictorial quilts.  This means quilts such as this:
Pictorial Quilt

For whatever reason, this type of quilt never caught on with my state’s quilters as a whole.

  •  Political quilts.  If you remember this blog: you know some quilts got really political.  North Carolina quilters did produce some rose quilts, but these were not to make a political statements.  In general, our quilters were fairly apolitical and made the rose quilts for their beauty, not for the candidate the blocks endorsed.   

What Our Quilts Are Known For

Now for what did become apparent with North Carolina quilts.

Crazy Quilt constructed in Rockingham County
One of the last original buildings from the time period when Burlington, NC was known as The Company Shops. This building now serves as the Amtrak terminal.
  •  Crazy Quilts.  We produced a lot of crazy quilts.  Pieces of wool, satin, silk, and other assorted fabrics were sewn together and embellished with embroidery.  The abundance of these quilts is probably due to the railroads crisscrossing our state.  The railroads were in direct competition with waterway transportation, not only in my state, but up and down the east coast and heading further west.  This was especially true in my home county of Alamance, where the town of Burlington was once called Company Shops – the place where trains which ran North to South were repaired, turned around, and attended to.  The influx of trains and the goods on them meant women had the opportunity to acquire all kinds of fabric – not just quilting cottons.  As a result, North Carolina quilters were well-equipped when the Crazy Quilt fad hit the quilting world. 
  •  Sashing and Borders.  Around 1875, North Carolina quilts almost did a complete 180.  Fine handwork and applique virtually disappeared as the quilts began to show nearly all pieced work with sashing and borders.  If you notice the date – 1875 – you may realize this is a full decade after the Civil War ended.  The Reconstruction Era ran roughly from 1863 through 1877, and even longer in some places where General Sherman completely devastated large swaths of states.  But before the “official end” of Reconstruction, here we have quilters who were able to not only obtain new fabric, but also could afford to purchase “extra” fabric for sashing and borders.  This is a direct testament to North Carolina’s commitment to the textile industry.  Our workers could not only supply the material needed for these quilt “extravagances,” but the mills were paying a good enough wage their employees and families could afford to purchase it.  At this point, it’s important to also remember two concepts.  First, even though the quilts were largely pieced, the workmanship was still fine.  The quilts which survived this period show good workmanship, design, and color balance.  Second, there is evidence that quilt patterns were exchanged, loaned, or taken from publications, as quilt historians have noted duplicate quilts during this period.
Circa 1875 NC Quilt
Another North Carolina Quilt, circa 1875

Textiles Are the Link to Our Quilts and Our History

There is literally no way to separate the production of North Carolina textiles from North Carolina quilts.  The two are inextricably linked, with Massachusetts perhaps being the only state which out produced us at any given time.  I mentioned before that North Carolina was one of the last states to secede from the United States during the Civil War.  We did not join the Confederacy until May 20, 1861.  And unlike many of the other southern states, our economy wasn’t driven as much by slave labor, so this wasn’t the primary reason we entered the war.  A quick study of North Carolina military regiments at the beginning of the war shows a pretty evenly divided army.  We had as many men fighting for the Union as we did the Confederacy.  And while the state desperately tried to remain neutral overall, it wasn’t until Union forces told our soldiers to fire on South Carolina (our sister state), that things immediately went from bad to worse.

You see, the Union wanted our men, but even more than them, they wanted our textiles.  The same with the Confederate Army.  Both had regiments of soldiers they needed to clothe and keep warm.  North Carolina had the thread, the looms, and the textile mills. We could both clothe soldiers and make quilts and blankets.  The pressure was on from both sides to join their cause, but in the end, we agreed to secede.  It is worth noting the first Confederate casualty in the Civil War came from North Carolina – Henry Lawson Wyatt. 

Henry Lawson Wyatt

Originally born in Virginia, Wyatt’s family moved when he was young and settled in Pitt County.  We, along with Virginia, lost the most men.  Each state lost 31,000 soldiers.  Per population, North Carolina also supplied the most men – 129,000.  The exact number of uniforms, bedrolls, quilts, etc., is more difficult to pin down.  Each solider was responsible for his own uniform and there are dozens of diary entries from women discussing how to make the uniforms, etc.  It is safe to say that since North Carolina supplied the most men, it’s reasonable to assume we also supplied the most uniforms and bedding.

How the Great Depression Affected North Carolina Quilts

I can’t write a blog on North Carolina quilts without mentioning the Great Depression.  As I talked about in previous blogs, this time in our national history spurred a quilt revival which has really not been duplicated.  Our bicentennial came close, but the Great Depression’s quilt resurgence was bigger.  However, there are few occurrences which began during this time which still affects North Carolina quilters today. 

The North Carolina Quilt Project (organized in 1985) notes our state’s quilters had some favorite blocks during this time. Dresden Plate, Little Dutch Girl (basically Sunbonnet Sue), Double Wedding Ring, Trip Around the World, and Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilts were made in abundance here – just like they were in almost every other state. 

North Carolina Twin Dresden Plate Quilts. Look at those borders…..

So, the quilts constructed in North Carolina during this time were no different than those made in other states.  What is different are the events which developed from all this quilting.

Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party

The first noteworthy event which stemmed from the Great Depression Quilt Revival is Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party.  In North Carolina, this is the granddaddy of all quilt bees.  Held at the Eli Whitney Recreation Center, it started in 1931 and is still going strong today.  If you decide you’d like to join the party, it’s usually the first Thursday in April.  You’ll need to take North Carolina Highway 87 to the point where it intersects Greensboro-Chapel Hill Road.  That’s where you’ll find the unincorporated community of Eli Whitney (if you reach Mandale or Snow Camp, you’ve gone too far).  This quilting party is part quilt show, part quilt bee.  Bring your quilts and plenty of folks will want to look at them and you’ll have plenty of quilts to look at, too.  Bring something to work on, and don’t forget a covered dish – lunch is potluck.

The second noteworthy events are the number of quilting groups which formed in the Great Depression.  The backdrop of these groups was the need for churches to generate some kind of income to keep their doors open, assist missionaries, and help the needy of the community.  The quilters in the churches put their heads and needles together and began to meet.  They made signature quilts and sold spaces for signatures for a few cents each.  They made raffle quilts and sold tickets for a chance to win those.  These groups met in church basements and Sunday School rooms for years.  As more women entered the workforce, the numbers dwindled, but many of these bees are still going strong (there are five not very far from my home).  This means if some these groups started around the same time as Uncle Eli’s Quilting Party, a few of these bees are at least 90 years old.

The natural sequence from bees is the formation of quilt guilds.  North Carolina currently has 101 guilds.  Presently, these are all local guilds, with some counties having several (Guilford County has three – Piedmont Quilt Guild, Gate City Quilt Guild, and High Point Quilt Guild.  Even my tiny home county of Alamance has two quilt guilds).

There also is an intangible admiration which came from the 1930’s quilt revival – an appreciation of the art and the artists.  Part of this stems from the historical importance of the textile industry.  However, some of this also is a result from the recognized part quilts have played in North Carolina history.  In most local historical museums, there will be quilts. The North Carolina Museum of Natural History houses a large collection of textiles, including quilts.  There is a quilt exhibit in Western North Carolina Heritage Center.  And if you’re visiting Western North Carolina, be sure to check out our quilt trail. 

The North Carolina counties which have quilt trails are highlighted in yellow.

The last thought I want to leave you concerns this:

Quilt constructed from Alamance Plaids

Some of you may have seen this type of fabric in quilts dating from the Civil War Period.  Usually, it’s found on the back of North Carolina quilts, but over the span of between 1853 to 1865-ish, it can also be found on the front of quilts.  This fabric is known as Alamance Plaids, and it hails from my home county of Alamance (I was born in Burlington and grew up in Graham).  Edwin Holt and his son, Thomas, developed this plaid material at the Holt’s Alamance Factory.  This was the first plaid cloth woven in the south.  When a blockade of North Carolina ports took place in the Civil War, this was the fabric that clothed our citizens – from their underwear to their Sunday best.  As a matter of fact, the 1863 graduating class of the Greensboro Female College (now Greensboro College) made their commencement dresses from Alamance Plaids. 

Greensboro Female College, NC

There was enough of this fabric woven to allow us to not only make sure our soldiers had adequate clothing, but we also supplied other states with the material, so their solders were taken care of, too.

My small collection of Alamance Plaids

In summary, it’s easy to say North Carolina quilts are similar to quilts found in other regions.  The characteristic which makes them exceptional is their link to our state’s textile industry.  We had access to fabric and thread and weaving technology other states did not (with Massachusetts probably being the exception).  This allowed our quilters to have the fabric to create wonderful quilts even during hard times and to have the resources to pass the art down to the next generation… and the next … and the next.  I can mention I quilt to nearly anyone in my state and the responses are immediate…

My mom quilted…

My grandmother quilted…

I have an aunt who quilts…

There’s a quilt shop in my town.  I’ve always wanted to learn…

I quilt, too….

Warms my heart and thrills my soul.

Come to North Carolina.  We’ll show you some quilts…we’ll visit Pineapple Fabric and Keepsake Quilting…we’ll go to a guild meeting.  And in between we may catch a college basketball game and eat some good barbeque.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


Quilt Kits. Do You Need One and How to Tame Them.

Most quilters have seen things like this:

And this:

For the uninformed (or very new quilter), these are quilt kits.  A quilt kit is a complete or almost-complete quilt in one package.  Most quilt shops – both on-line and brick-and-mortar – offer these for sale, at varying price ranges and at varying “completeness” ranges (and more about this “completeness” in a bit).

When I began quilting in the early mid-eighties, I used quilt kits nearly exclusively.   The biggest quilting hurdle I had to get conquer was choosing my fabric.  For a woman pretty well-versed in the arts, standing in the middle of Hancock’s or Piece Goods (remember them?) and having to decide what fabrics to put in a quilt was daunting, overwhelming, and downright scary.  Quilt kits removed the fabric choice from the quilting equation and allowed me to quickly get to the part I like most – sewing. 

Like me, some quilters prefer having fabric decisions removed from their quilting equations.  Other quilters like the convenience quilt kits offer.  For the most part, everything is in the kit.  You may have to pick up some notions, such as embellishments, backing, and batting, but 95 percent of the quilt is in the package the kit comes in. 

Eventually, as most quilters gain experience and get a few quilts under their belt, fabric decisions aren’t as difficult, and most of the time you’ll have nearly everything you need for a quilt in your studio (sometimes you don’t even have to purchase any additional fabric!).  However, if you’re beginning to quilt and quilting is just a hobby and not a lifestyle, quilt kits may be just what you need.  When you consider most of what is needed for a quilt is in the kit, the price is reasonable.  If your fabric storage has limits, it’s great to know a kit contains only the fabric needed for that project. 

Since most quilters have worked with kits at sometime or another, today’s blog is focusing on quilt kits – the pros and cons of kits as well as how to handle them. 

Good Things About Quilt Kits

  1.  You don’t need to make any fabric choices.  Colors, textures, weaves, and fabric decisions are already made for you.  If you’re a newbie, you can begin to pick up tips about colors and fabric by noting the fabric used in the kit.
  2. For the most part, they can save you money.  I know some quilters (including myself) have suffered from sticker shock on some kits.  Keep in mind you’re also paying for the labor of cutting the fabric and stocking the kit.  Sometimes this can be balanced against the time it would take you to pick out the pattern and the fabric as well as gas and mileage used to purchase them, or the postage paid to have the those shipped to you.
  3. They save you time.  Next to removing fabric decisions from my quilting equation, this was the second reason I loved kits when I began quilting. In the mid-eighties I was working, had just become a mom, and my husband worked out of town.  It was so much easier to run into the fabric store and grab a kit than it was to deal with a young baby, car seat, diaper bag, etc., etc.  And when you think where I was at that point in my life, I only had time for one quilt a year anyway, so a kit worked just great then. 

Not-So-Good Things About Quilt Kits

  1.  They may be short on fabric.  Let me hasten to add for the most part, quilt kits tend to have a little more extra fabric than needed, but once in a while, a kit may come up short on fabric.  More on how to deal with this a little further down in my blog.
  2. They aren’t unique.  No matter how lovely the quilts from these kits are, it can’t be forgotten manufacturers produce these quilt kits to make money.  Therefore, they make a lot of these kits so they can make a lot of money on them.  More quilt kits equal more sales, which equals more quilts which will look exactly like yours.  Several years ago, this became a bit issue in quilt shows (primarily local ones), as multiple entries of the same quilt kept popping up.  For a while, many local shows didn’t accept entries from quilt kits, but this stance has softened recently.  Now there may be a category just for quilts made from kits.  These quilts are usually judged on technique and quilting only, as originality and color choice are eliminated in quilts made from kits.  If you are able to enter a quilt made from kit in a non-kit category, expect to perhaps be dinged on originality and color choice.
  3.     Most kits are not complete.  While the kits will have the fabric needed to make      the top, most kits do not include backing, batting, and sometimes binding fabric.  Usually, you can find a coordinating backing for sale along side the quilt, as well as additional fabric for binding, etc.  If special embellishments are used, sometimes these are offered as a separate purchase.  The exception to all of this may be a kit for a small quilt.  Sometimes they are all inclusive.  Be sure to read the label on the kit to determine what exactly is included and what will need to be purchased separately. 

I have a routine I go through whenever I use a quilt kit.  Once I get the kit in my studio, I immediately open it up to make sure all the fabric is there and in the measurements indicated on the package.  If one fabric is cut wrong or I’m missing a fabric, it’s always best to call the store or website then.  At this point, they either will have additional fabric they can send me or simply replace the entire kit.  If I wait six months or a year, the kit and the fabric may be long gone.  And let me throw this in here:  I don’t prewash the fabric in a kit.  As much as I am a confirmed pre-washer, I give the kits a pass.  Only so much material is included in a kit, and if I pre-wash it, it may shrink too much to be useable. 

The next thing I do is read through the directions a couple of times, mark them up to indicate important instructions, and then sub-cut the fabric if necessary.  Sometimes kits come completely precut, and other times they will give you pieces of fabric you must sub-cut.  As I sub-cut, I make sure to retain the selvages.  If you look closely at a selvage:

You can get a lot of information.  The dots indicate what dyes were used in the fabric, but what’s even more important is the selvage has the information about the manufacturer and the name of the line of fabric.  If something happens and you can’t complete the quilt right away, or the kit is an older one perhaps purchased off Ebay or at an estate sale, this information makes it easier to find coordinating fabric for the kit.  A quick Google search with the manufacturer and line of fabric plugged in will let you know if any additional fabric is available.  I also never throw away any of the scraps left over from cutting until my quilt is complete.  An inch or two of fabric here and there can rectify a cutting mistake without any additional fabric purchases.  After the last stitch is put in the binding and label, I toss the scrappage (unless I have pieces large enough to go in my applique scrap fabric bins). 

So, after all this information, should you purchase a quilt kit or fabric and pattern?  Honestly, it’s a personal choice.  There are a few questions you may want to answer before sinking your hard-earned cash in a kit:

  1.  Do I already own a lot of fabric?  If the answer is yes, then a kit may not be needed.  You may have enough of your own fabric to make the quilt without purchasing any (or at least not much) additional fabric.  And quite often you don’t have to purchase the kit just to get the pattern.  Many times, a shop or website will sell the pattern by itself. However, if the quilt kit is simply beautiful and tugs at your heartstrings, go ahead and buy the kit while it’s available.  Once the kits sell out, fabric manufacturers rarely re-print the fabric for the kits.
  2. Is time a real issue for you?  For a while in my quilting journey, time was one of the largest obstacles I had to work around.  Kits cut down the amount of time I spent looking at fabric, trying to find exactly what I needed.  I could purchase the kit, get it home, and begin sewing pretty quickly.  If you’re the position where time is a precious commodity, a kit will trim down the hours spent searching for fabric – even if that time is spent in your pajamas perusing fabric websites.
  3. Does it bother you to put together someone else’s creation?  It’s one thing to use a designer’s pattern, it’s another thing entirely to use someone else’s pattern and their fabric choices.  Choosing your own fabric is one easy way to make the quilt look like you – your favorite colors, favorite designers, favorite lines.  With enough of your own fabric, you can alter blocks and applique, enlarge or shrink them, or substitute blocks.  You can’t do this with a quilt kit.  Fabric is limited. 
  4. Do you hate cutting fabric?  I’ve readily admitted this is my least favorite quilting task, but I’ve learned how to deal with it so it’s not as onerous any longer.  However, if this is the one aspect of quilting you really, truly would rather live without, a kit eliminates most of the cutting.  There are some kits out there with every piece cut exactly the way you need it – all the squares, all the triangles, etc. However, with most kits, you get smaller chunks of fabric which need to be sub-cut into the units needed.  So, you’ll still cut fabric, but you won’t have to handle a lot of yardage. 

At this point, you may want to know if, after nearly 35 years of quilting, do I still purchase and/or use kits.

There are occasions when I will buy a kit and dive right into it.  I live near Pineapple Fabric and Keepsake Quilting.  Both of these stores are well-stocked with lovely kits.  Several times a year, Pineapple has huge warehouse sales, and these kits are marked down significantly.  If there’s a kit I want and it’s on sale, I’ll buy it.  I also will purchase a kit if I like a particular designer.  Some designers offer beautiful kits with their fabrics in them.  If one grabs my attention, I’ve been known to plunk down my debit card for it.  I will also buy a kit if it’s particularly unique.  When you’ve quilted as long as I have, it’s easy to look at a kit and know what you would change if you made it.  However, on occasion, if there is truly a unique kit available, I’ll buy it. 

This quilt kit falls into the unique category. All the critters on the quilt are native to my home state of North Carolina. Big plus? It’s raw-edge, machine applique. Bigger plus? The applique pieces are laser cut, with the webbing already on them. Biggest plus? It was on sale.

The following reasons are the major motives behind any kit purchase I make:

  1.  I want (or need) something mindless to sew.  Sometimes if life is stressful or I have a pretty complicated quilt project under my needle, I need an easy project to clear my head and help me focus.  Quilt kits are great for this – especially those which are pre-cut.  My favorite line of pre-cut kits is from Laundry Basket Quilts.  They use lasers to precut the fabric, so the edges are sealed – meaning no fraying or raveling – as well as being extremely accurate. 
  2. I’m learning a new technique.  This reason deals primarily with kits sold by quilt teachers.  While many quilt teachers will allow you to supply your own fabrics, some will offer the option of purchasing a quilt kit.  If I am taking a class from a teacher who offers a kit, I’ll purchase it.  I do this because it’s simply easier to follow the instructor as he/she goes through the class.  I don’t have to try to remember what fabric I picked out to substitute for the fabric the instructor is using.  However, I will use my own background fabric – and let me tell you why.  If you take several classes, you’ll end up with several quilt blocks which may be beautiful, but you have no idea what to do with.  If these blocks have the same background fabric, it’s easy to make a quilt out of them (this tip courtesy of Katie McMullen, a friend of mine from The Applique Society). 
  3. It’s on sale and I want the fabric.  I’ll be completely honest here.  If a kit is on sale and it has lots of pretty fabric at a dirt-cheap price, I’ll purchase the kit for the material and toss the pattern if I don’t like it.  Often quilt stores or websites need to sell kits to get them off their inventory.  If this occurs, they sometimes will offer the quilt kits at insanely low prices.  If you see this happening and like the fabric offered, sometimes the sale price literally means pennies for the yardage.  When Craftsy sold out to Blueprint several years ago, all of their kits were on sale.  I purchased two Jinny Byer kits and a few others with batiks and Reproduction fabric simply because I liked the material.  I spent less than $200 and came away with enough fabric for four quilts. 

So, the next time you see one of these:

Don’t think lots of these:

Consider the options the quilt kits offer you.  Maybe it’s mastering a new technique. Perhaps it’s some mindless, relaxing sewing.  Or it could be lots of fabric for very little cash.  Whatever reason a quilt kit grabs your attention, just remember these little packages are here to stay, and what we do once we have them in the privacy of our own quilt studio is our business!

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


Sewing with Batiks

I know most of you have seen fabric such as this:

Or this:

This lovely, undulating fabric is called batiks.  Batiks hit the quilting market in the mid-eighties when Bali Fabrics introduced them at quilt markets.  They gained momentum and hit a popularity peak in the nineties.  However, they’re still a mainstay in quilts and quilt shops all over the world.  With this fabric addition a “late comer” to the quilting world, it’s easy to think this is a fairly recent fabric invention. 

And this would be wrong.

Batiks have been around for thousands of years, beginning in Indonesia.  The term comes from the Indonesian word “ambatik” which means “dotted piece of fabric.”  This fabric is made by the “resist” method.  Wax is spread over the cloth, creating the desired design, and then the fabric is saturated with dye.  During the dying process, the wax can crack, which adds more interest in the dye design work.  Once the fabric has dried, the wax is scraped off, leaving undyed areas.  If desired, more wax designs can be added and the cloth dipped in another dye color.  This process is time consuming, but it produces a beautiful fabric. 

Once batiks hit the quilting world, we quilters puzzled over them for a while.  I instantly fell in love with them, but was left wondering, “Do I use them with other quilting cottons, or do they need to be in a quilt by themselves?”  I also loved the way all batiks appeared to easily go together.  Most quilters were like me.  When batiks hit the quilt shops in the mid-eighties, we all wondered how to use them.  For a while, they appeared in quilts all by themselves.  After a few years, we realized this fabric could be great blenders or even a focus fabric.  We embraced them and in no time at all, we had zero issues throwing batiks in with our standard quilting cottons.

However, batiks are not like our standard quilting cottons.  Quilting cottons tend to go through far fewer dying processes than batiks.  As a result, quilting cottons have a much softer hand than batiks.  Batiks can feel stiff because they generally have undergone several rounds of dying and they have a higher thread count than regular quilting fabric.  This doesn’t make them any better or any worse than quilting cottons, but it does make them different and as a result, if we tweak how we handle this fabric, it plays much nicer with our other material and works well in any quilt. 

The first thing to keep in mind is the shrinkage factor.  By now, my regular readers know I prewash all my fabrics.  If you’re making a quilt and plan to use both quilting cottons and batiks in it, this is one of those times you may want to prewash everything, but especially the quilting cottons.  Batiks are put through the dyeing process several times, so as a result, they do not shrink much – if at all.  However, quilting cottons are different.  They have a higher shrinkage ratio than batiks because they don’t undergo the same sort of wet dyeing procedure.  If you sew non prewashed quilting cotton to batiks and then toss the quilt in the washer, there’s more than a good chance the cotton fabric will shrink more than the batiks, which will cause puckers around the piecing and/or applique. 

There’s another reason you may want to prewash everything, including the batiks.  And that reason is the fading factor.  Again, this ties back into the dyeing process.  Overall, because the dyes and dyeing process has been nearly perfected over the last 10 years, quilting cottons generally don’t fade on each other when they’re washed – especially if you toss a Color Catcher in the washing machine.  Batiks are usually not this color stable.  They’ve been known to crock/fade/run onto adjacent fabric.  If you absolutely abhor prewashing, there’s a simple test you can do to see if the batik will fade. 

  1.  Cut a 3-inch square of the batik fabric and a 3-inch square of a white fabric.  Fill a container with cool water – somewhere in the 80 – 85 degree range.  Add about an 1/8-teaspoon Orvis soap and stir to distribute.  Add the two squares of fabric and stir again.  Let sit for thirty minutes, occasionally stirring to redistribute the soap and the fabric. 
  2. After 30 minutes, if there is no dye in the container, you’re good to go.
  3. If there is dye in the container, repeat the process.  When thirty minutes are up, lay the white fabric square right next to the batik fabric square and allow to dry.  If none of the dye from the batik fades onto the white, you’re probably okay to use the batik in the quilt without prewashing. 

If the batik fails the test, don’t despair.  You need to prewash it, but there are some additional prewashing steps you may want to make to assure the batik doesn’t fade onto a lighter fabric. 

First, there’s this product:


This is a color fixative, and it can be found in most big box stores or Amazon.  It’s super important to follow the directions exactly, and that you use hot – really hot – water in order for the product to work correctly.  Issues which have cropped up after using this product are generally due to the fact the user didn’t have the water hot enough.  The water temperature needs to be 140-degrees and the fabric should be agitated in this hot water for 20 minutes.  When I use this product, I use the “hot” option for all my wash cycles and turn off the cold-water line which runs into my washing machine.  Treat the batik fabric before putting it into the quilt, and after the quilt’s finished, only wash in cold water.

Second, there’s Synthrapol.

This is a cool product and the chemistry teacher in me still geeks out when I use it. Synthrapol is a surfactant.  It’s predominantly used in the hand dying process, but it can be used in prewashing.  The product suspends the dye molecules in the water, so they don’t settle on the fabric.  If you use the blue Dawn Dish Detergent, you have already used a surfactant – it doesn’t let the grease in the water settle back on the dishes or your hands.  It holds them suspended in the water.  Can you use the blue Dawn instead of Synthrapol?  Yes.  It works just fine on small pieces of fabric.  For anything larger than a couple of yards, I recommend using the Synthrapol in your washing machine. And like the Retayne, follow directions carefully. 

If I plan on using batiks and quilting cottons in a quilt which will probably never be washed (such as a wall hanging or a miniature), I don’t bother prewashing at all.  In this case, it doesn’t matter.

The last two items which must be considered when sewing batiks are the needles and the thread used.  Let’s talk needles first.

If you’re machine piecing with batiks, you have to remember batiks have a higher thread count and are more tightly woven than standard quilting cottons.  You’ll want a finer needle which is still strong.  My preferred sewing machine needle to use with batiks is a 70/10.  This size needle will glide through the fabric, but won’t punch holes in it.

Hand applique/finished edged machine applique requires a little more planning.  To begin with, I love batiks for hand and machine applique.  The tighter weave guarantees little to no fraying, which means it’s perfect for raw-edge machine applique.  However, there must be a little more pre-planning for finished machine edge and hand applique.  This tighter weave also means the fabric is stiff.  And stiff fabric is more difficult to manipulate around curves, corners, and prepared edges.  It’s important (at least to me) to remove some of the stiffness, so the batik fabric is a bit more manageable.  The easiest way I’ve found to remove the toughness is with hot, hot water – hotter than even the required temperature for Retayne.

I came across this by accident when I was deep into the mask making of 2020.  I used batiks as the mask lining because of the tighter weave, but didn’t want the folks wearing my masks to inhale all the chemicals of the finished, unwashed fabric.  I was rinsing both the batiks and my quilting cottons in boiling water (212 degrees Fahrenheit) to make sure all the chemical finishes were removed.  I would heat water in my electric kettle, put the fabric in my clean kitchen sink, and then pour the boiling water over them.  After the water and the fabric cooled, I’d hang them both to air dry.  The quilting cottons shrank a bit, but the transformation of the batiks was amazing.  The boiling water made them feel like silk.  They were soft and easy to handle.  This is now the way I treat all the batiks I plan to use for any type of hand applique or finished-edged machine applique. 

While this boiling water treatment does give the batiks softer hand, the fabric still has a tight weave.  As a result, you may find yourself struggling with your preferred hand applique needle.  There are two different hand applique needles designed specifically for this process. 

The first is Clover Black Gold Applique Needles.  I’ve found this brand works wonderfully with batik fabrics – both prewashed and non-prewashed. 

The second type is  John James Gold n’ Glide applique needle

Both brands come in several different sizes, so you should be able to find your preferred size needle in either brand. 

When considering thread for machine piecing batiks, I’ve found a 50 to 60 weight thread works best.  This weight keeps the stitches from showing too much.  For machine applique, I’ve found I’ve been able to use the monofilament fine with the finished edge applique.  For raw edge (or finished edge, if monofilament thread drives you up a wall), I still prefer a finer thread, such as a 50 weight. If the 50 weight seems a bit “thick,” change from a 3-ply thread to a 2-ply or to a 60-weight.  I do shorten the stitch length to about 1.8.  If using the buttonhole stitch, I will shorten the “bite” (inward needle swing) to 1.9.  As always, audition your stitch length and width on a scrap piece of fabric before committing it to your project. 

In my 30-plus years of applique experience, I still find there’s a wealth of opportunity in every batik.  The range of color, shades, tones, and tints of every piece (even if it’s in the same color family), make the batik a wonderful tool for the applique artist.  Every yard has the awesome potential for every inch to be used, making it worth every cent you paid for it.  Batiks can hold up against the blackest of black backgrounds and yet still work beautifully in pastel-oriented quilts.  Their thread count allows them to hold up to the toughest machine work, yet when treated with hot water, can have a hand comparative to silk.  What’s not to love about a batik?

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours – with Batiks!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


This is not the Enemy


Is not your enemy.

I know there are days…days when you can’t seem to sew a single stitch without puckers, or seams that are too loose, or your thread constantly breaks.  You check your machine, thread it, and re-thread it.  You situate your spool so the thread runs horizontally…then vertically…

And nothing works.  After you’ve checked and re-checked everything, it’s easy to blame all your sewing machine’s bad behavior on a little metal or plastic disk.  However, most of the time, the poor bobbin is truly an innocent bystander and it’s something else giving you thread issues.

To start, let’s take a look at what a bobbin is and its function in the sewing machine.  By definition, a bobbin is “A spindle or cylinder, with or without flanges, on which wire, yarn, thread, or film is wound. Bobbins are typically found in sewing machines, cameras, and within electronic equipment. In non-electrical applications the bobbin is used for tidy storage without tangles. Typically, as quilters, when we throw the term “bobbin” around we’re talking about the plastic or metal disks which are used in the bobbin case of our machines and allows us to make a lockstitch.  However, from this definition, bobbins are also used in other types of machinery.  Remember when we actually used film in cameras?  The film was wound around a plastic or metal cylinder called the film bobbin.  And if you are like me and are from an area where textile manufacturing was prominent before NAFTA, you may have seen some of these around:

These are yarn bobbins used in fabric manufacturing. 

Those large, wooden spool-like things on the back of this truck?  Also bobbins.  These bobbins are used to store cable, wire, hoses, etc., as it’s transported and warehoused. 

As avid sewists, it’s important to know the kind of bobbin your machine takes and why the correct size is crucial.  There are 10 different types of them:

Class 15 Bobbin

Class 15 or A Style – This bobbin is about the size of a nickel and the top and bottom are completely flat.  It comes in both plastic and metal.

L-Style Bobbin

L-Style – This bobbin is also about the size of a nickel.  It’s flat and narrow and available in plastic, metal, aluminum, and as a magna-glide core.

M-Style Bobbin

M-Style – This bobbin is about the size of a quarter.  It is large and flat and available in metal, aluminum, plastic, and as a magna-glide core. 

Two asides at this point.  First, you’re probably wondering what a magna-glide core is.  This is the term used for a pre-wound bobbin which has a magnet in it to help it stay anchored in the metal bobbin case used in front loading machines (more about these in a bit).  Second, the majority of household sewing machines use one of these three bobbins.  It’s also worth noting that L-Style bobbins are the same width as Class 15 bobbins.  This means you can use a L-Style bobbin in your Class 15 machines.  However, a Class 15 bobbin is too tall to fit in an L-Style sewing machine.

The next seven bobbins are less common, but it’s nice to know about them.

Singer 163131

Singer 163131 – This is about the size of a quarter and can be disassembled by unscrewing the bottom to quickly remove unwanted thread.  This bobbin is only available in plastic.

Singer 8228

Singer 8228 – This is the bobbin used in most treadle machines.  It’s available only in metal.

Class 15 J

Class 15J – About the size of a nickel, this bobbin looks similar to a Class 15, but has just a slight curve on the top and bottom.  It’s available in metal, plastic, and aluminum.

Class 66

Class 66 – This bobbin is also about the size of a nickel and has a curved top and bottom.  It comes in plastic, metal, and aluminum.

Bernina 0115367000

Bernina 0115367000 – This bobbin is commonly used in the older Bernina machines.  It’s also about the size of a nickel and is available only in metal. 

Juki 270010

Juki 270010 – These are the most common Juki specific bobbins and are very similar to the L-Style bobbins.  These are also the size of a nickel.

Viking Specific 4125615-45

Viking Specific 4125615-45 – This bobbin is a Husqvarna Viking specific, nickel-sized bobbin.  It fits all machines in groups 5, 6, and 7 – mostly the newer machines.

If you truly think it’s the bobbin which is giving you problems, make sure you’re using the right bobbin for your machine.  Consult your manual or use Google to find out what kind of bobbin your machine takes and use that size.  Some machines, such as the Viking Specific 4125615-45 above, is brand-specific – it only works in a particular group of Husqvarna Vikings.  If your machine is one of those which must have brand-specific bobbins, be sure to use them.  And here’s a little extra tidbit about bobbins – there really is no difference between plastic and metal bobbins.  Years ago, there was a big difference between the two because the plastic was inferior and would crack or become brittle as the bobbins aged.  Today’s plastic is much better, and these bobbins work just as well as their metal counterparts. 

Many times, it’s not the bobbin itself giving you issues, but the way the bobbin was threaded.  Be sure the thread is wound evenly and there are no bulges.  The bobbin thread shouldn’t be spongy feeling, either.  If you wind a bobbin and the tension isn’t even or it has more in one area than another, the best piece of advice I can give you is unwind it and start over. 

And honestly, the correct bobbin and a correctly wound bobbin are the two biggest bobbin issues.  Most sewing/thread problems don’t involve the bobbin, but the bobbin case.  To understand those issues, it’s important to recognize the two types of bobbin cases.  There’s the front-loading machine:

Which loads the bobbin in one of these:

A metal bobbin case, which is inserted in the front of the machine.

Then there’s the top-loading machine:

In these machines, the bobbin case is plastic and lies horizontally beneath the feed dogs. 

These bobbin cases tend to stay in the machine, and only the bobbin itself goes in and out.

Each of these types of bobbin cases can have their own unique issues; however, there are some common problems with the two.

  1.  The Bobbin Case Won’t Turn – There could be two reasons for this.  First, your tension may be too tight.  Simply readjust your tension and keep checking the bobbin case.  A slight tweak of the tension may be all that’s needed.  Second, the bobbin may be unevenly threaded.  If this is the case, just wind another bobbin.  It’s important to remember winding a bobbin is not a race.  A slow wind, at an even pace, usually assures even winding.
  2. Bobbin Case Stuck in the Machine – Sometimes this is an easy fix and sometimes it’s not.  The first step is to carefully examine the bobbin case and see if it needs cleaning.  With the case for a front-loading machine, this is pretty easy.  The metal case itself can be looked over quickly as well as the place where the bobbin case rests.  Top-loading machines take a bit more time, as the metal plate beneath the presser foot has to be removed before you can get at the bobbin case.  With both types, examine the case to see if there is any stray threads or lint build up which may prevent the bobbin case from moving.  After you’ve cleaned the area, if the bobbin case still won’t move, then it’s time to call the machine tech.  At this point, they need to figure out what’s wrong. 
  3. Loose Bobbin Case – Call a tech.  Don’t try to take care of this problem yourself. 
  4. Bobbin Case/Bobbin Thread Jams – Both of these problems are the result of the same issues.  First, you may need to oil your machine (if it requires oiling – some of the new models do not).  Second, you may need to clean your machine.  Third, it’s not threaded correctly, and fourth the tension is wonky.  Taking care of any or all of these may solve the jamming issue.  If not, make sure you’re using the right bobbin for your sewing machine.  It’s easy for those of us with multiple machines to get the bobbins mixed up.   One final reason for the jamming may be that you started sewing on the edge of your fabric and knots have already formed, jamming your machine. 
  5. Bobbin Tension Repair – This is way easier to fix than it sounds, but it only works with those machines which use a metal bobbin case like this: 

On the side of the case should be a tiny screw.  In quarter-turn increments, turn the screw counterclockwise to loosen the tension and clockwise to tighten it.  Sometimes you can also help the tension issue out by adjusting the tension on your needle thread.  If your bobbin needs to work a little more, lessen the needle tension up a tad.  Tighten it if the bobbin needs to work less.

  •  Make Sure The Bobbin is Inserted Correctly – Most bobbins have a top and bottom and need to be inserted according to the directions in your sewing machine’s manual 
  •  Make Sure You’ve Disengaged the Machine’s Bobbin Winding Mechanism – With many machines, there’s some type of lever you have to move to get the sewing machine out of bobbin winding mode and back into the regular sewing mode.  New machines may do this automatically once the bobbin is filled (my M7 Continental does) 

One last word about the bobbin and the bobbin case.  Over a period of time and use, the case and bobbin may develop burrs.  To check, run your pinkie finger over them.  If you feel any rough spots, it’s time for a new case or a new bobbin or both. 

But what if you’re pretty certain your issues aren’t with the bobbin or the bobbin case?  If you’re still experiencing stitch issues, there is a standard checklist you can run down.

  1.  Clean your machine.  I think I’ve mentioned this three or four times in today’s blog.  Just remember a clean machine is a happy machine which performs well, runs smoothly, and doesn’t make weird sounds.  You should clean your machine according to your manual regularly and at least once a year take it into a tech for a deep clean and oiling in all those places you can’t reach. 
  2. Rethread the machine.  Honestly, this is my first line of defense.  Most of the time – I’d safely say 80 percent – this is my problem. 
  3. Change the needle.  Needles have a usage life.  Even if they seem to be sewing fine, after about eight hours of sewing, a regular sewing needle should be tossed.  If you’re using titanium, you can double the amount of time.  Even if the needle appears just hunky-dory, eight hours of steady sewing can cause slight bows in the needle.  And don’t forget this picture:

The needle on the left is a new needle.  The picture on the right is the same needle after eight hours of sewing.  You can see how the needle degrades over time and use until the sharp tip has been worn smooth.  Instead of penetrating the fabric, it pokes holes in it. 

I can’t emphasize this enough:  MAINTENANCE IS YOUR MACHINE’S BEST FRIEND.  It solves most of your sewing issues and prolongs the life of your machine. 

I really hope this helps you with any machine problems which may crop up.  Nothing is more disheartening than sitting down to sew (especially after you may have looked forward to it all day) and have your machine develop an attitude.  Most of the time it’s something small, but anytime you feel daunted by a problem, call your sewing machine tech.  They can either re-affirm what you think is wrong and walk you through the fix or make an appointment for you to bring it in. 

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and  Stitches,

Sherri and Sam