This blog is about a subject near and dear to my heart – quilt retreats you thought I would say fabric, didn’t you?
I love quilt retreats. Overnighters, day trippers, you name a quilt retreat and if at all possible you can sign me up. Why am I so crazy about these? For me, a person who still works more than full-time, these are uninterrupted hours of sewing with a group of people who share my same passion and probably the same warped sense of humor. Usually great food and wine involved. Annnnnnd chocolate. What’s not to love? Seriously, if you never heed one other word of my quilty advice, if you have a chance to go on a quilt retreat, do it. It’s so much fun.
You’ll have a great time, but you will also get a great deal accomplished. All those projects you never really have time for – you can start on those at a quilt retreat. However, it’s important to remember a quilt retreat is a little different from a vacation and it’s pretty imperative you plan accordingly. And that’s what this blog is about – how to plan for a quilt retreat and implement that plan. So, without further ado, here’s Sherri’s Plan of Action for Quit Retreats.
Read your registration and keep a copy with you. The registration form usually comes with some key information, such as the address of the location (so you can plug it into your GPS), mealtimes, check-in time, and location of the sewing space. If you worry you might lose this piece of paper or it may be shuffled somewhere you can’t find it, do what I do: Take a picture of it with your phone right before you leave. This way it will be the first picture on your camera roll, and you’ll always have easy access to it.
Start Prepping Early. Just like a retreat is different than a vacation, so is the packing. Besides the clothing and other essentials, you also have to pack your projects. I’ll go over how I pack my projects in a bit, but now I want to talk about how important it is to prep your projects before you pack. There are a couple of ways to approach this subject. If you want to spend a good chunk of your time prepping your applique pieces and cutting things out at the retreat, you may want to breeze over this section. However, if you’re like me and want to maximize your sewing time, try to prep as much as possible at home. My prep plan goes like this:
For machine applique, I have all my applique pieces traced on my fusible web. Time permitting, I will have these fused to the fabric. Ideally, I would like to have all my pieces cut out, bagged and tagged, and ready to fuse once I’m set up at retreat. I also like to have the pattern traced onto the background.
For prepared edge applique, either by hand or machine, minimally I like to have all my applique pieces prepped, bagged and tagged, and ready to sew. Ideally, I would also like to have my pattern traced onto the background fabric. In a perfect world, I would have my applique pieces pinned or glued to the background so I can pick it up and start sewing.
For pieced quilts, I do all my cutting at home. I’m more comfortable in my cutting space. I also bag and tag the units for ease of construction – i.e. all the 2 ½-inch squares for one block unit go in one bag, the squares for HST construction in another. Then I label the bags so I know what I’m grabbing.
If I need to press any fabric (such as backing or other large quilt pieces or fabric before it’s subcut), I do that at home. It’s no fun spending valuable sewing time on pressing fabric.
I begin prep work about a month before the retreat. Why so early? Well, I still work a full-time job, so my time is limited. If I begin early, I can make sure I’ve prepped correctly and well. Also, if I make a mistake, this gives me time to make a mad dash back to my LQS or order additional fabric online and get it before I have to leave.
Once everything is prepped, you can start packing your projects. My favorite way to transport my retreat projects is in project boxes.
I use one box per project and label each box. In this box I place the prepped pieces, the fabric (just in case I make a mistake, I can cut additional pieces out), the pattern, any matching thread or specialty thread, and any special notions or rulers. If I’ve already begun work on the project, I also make a note of exactly where I’m at in the construction process. Usually I mark this on the pattern.
One your projects are prepped and ready to go, now it’s time to think about your machine(s) and the sewing notions you use every time you sit down to quilt. Once you’ve decided which one (or how many) of your sewing machines you want to take with you, do a basic run-though before packing it. This is especially important if you plan to take a machine you don’t use every day. Set the machine up and do a practice sew session. Be sure the machine is cleaned and oiled before packing it (and don’t forget to pack the power cord and foot pedal). You may even want to have it serviced prior to attending a retreat. I normally attend a quilt retreat in October, which is several days long. I make an appointment in September to have my sewing machine serviced, so I know it’s ready for a grueling four-days of non-stop stitching. This has always worked pretty well for me.
Now for notions. It’s easy to forget something you use. I have a plan of action which generally cuts down on my leaving something behind. I put a bucket or plastic bin near my sewing machine a few weeks before the retreat. Every time I use a tool or notion, I drop it in the bin or bucket. When it comes time to pack my regularly used notions and tools, they’re all together.
Make sure you have bobbins for the machine you’re taking. You may want to wind several bobbins in neutral threads and have them ready, or you may want to purchase some prewounds. And it’s a good idea to pack a few empty bobbins, just in case you need them. If hand applique is on your retreat agenda, you may find winding any colored thread on bobbins to be a space saver. Bobbins take up much less room than spools.
Finally take your rotary cutters and scissors for a test drive. If either are dull, it’s a good idea to fix that bothersome issue before you leave. Change the blade in your rotary cutters (and packing a few extra blades is a great idea) and either have your scissors sharpened or replace those.
As you pack, remember these items:
A travel iron and pressing station
Portable lights – the light in the sewing room may be great during the day, but it may be a completely different story at night.
A small ruler stand
Extra feet for your machine – such as a walking foot, quarter-inch foot, free motion foot, and zipper foot.
Extra sewing machine needles in all needed sizes
Some kind of container to keep all your “normal” sewing notions together
Small cutting mat
A mat for your machine to help keep it from vibrating or wobbling on those plastic retreat tables
At least one more project than you think you’ll get completed – you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll finish
Extension cord and power strip
These are standard retreat supplies. However, the following are some items I’ve found pretty handy to have:
Pain reliever. You will be sitting hunched over a machine for much longer stretches than you are at home. You may need something to help with the aches and pains. And while we’re on the subject of our-backs-and-butts-are-not-as-young-as-they-used-to-be, let me encourage you to ALWAYS (not just at retreat), take a break after sewing for an hour. Stand up. Stretch. Hydrate.
A heating pad/extra zip-lock bags for ice. I’ve found both helpful for my neck and shoulders.
Minimally, a cushion for your chair. Ideally your own sewing chair. No matter how wonderful your retreat location and facilities are, chances are the chairs used are not made for people who spend hours at a sewing machine. A cushion can help correct this situation. Your own sewing chair can solve it completely.
A planner/list. By the end of retreat, I want to have some projects complete. The others I really hope to have constructed to a certain point. If you have a general idea of what you want to do, a list can keep you on track – which projects need to be finished, and what stages you’d like the others to be at by the time you leave.
Lastly, as a good friend of mine once told me,“A retreat is for fun – not a four-day sweatshop.” In other words, don’t feel you have to sew every minute. Fellowship. Eat well. Enjoy the time away from home and the opportunity to be with people who share the same passion as you do. Take care of yourself while you’re there. Try to keep a regular sleep schedule. It’s so tempting to stay up all night sewing (and it’s not like I haven’t done that before at retreat either), but remember you reap what you sew. If you do this, you won’t feel as well the next day. And eventually retreat has to end – even though we don’t want it to – and we must return to the real world and pick up where we left off.
If you have the opportunity to attend a quilt retreat, I encourage you to give one a try. They’re so much fun and you do get a lot done. Always remember you can plan your own mini-retreat. Talk with some quilty friends and plan an out-of-town get away or a day retreat at a church fellowship hall or some other location – someone’s home works just as well. I promise you won’t regret it.
It’s nearing the end of October. And for some of us, this means we’re almost through with our Christmas shopping. For others of you…well….
There are a couple of things I know for sure. First, money’s a little tighter with a lot of folks in 2022. Heating bills are predicted to be substantially higher than last year, and let’s not even talk about trips to the gas station…
The second thing I’m pretty confident about is at some point in the next few weeks, someone is going to ask you what you want for Christmas. If you have a significant other, I’m thinking they’ll ask you this question before too long (my hubs plays it safe – he marches into Pineapple Fabric/Keepsake Quilting and gets me a gift certificate). Children, parents, and other folks will soon follow suite.
Realizing this, I mulled over all the sewing notions in the marketplace. If you follow blogs or webpages, it seems new quilting tools come out every few weeks and it’s hard to keep up with everything. And I’ll also throw out this Zone of Truth: You don’t need every little new thing. For instance, I’m a bit critical (okay, a lot critical) about specialty rulers. With specialty rulers, most of the time they’re only good for one technique. For instance, there’s a ruler out there for the Hunter’s Star Block:
This is a nice block. It makes a beautiful quilt. But a large Hunter’s Star specialty ruler costs about $27 on Amazon and do you know how many other quilt blocks it works with other than the Hunter’s Star?
I mean sure, you can use it for a straight edge and for measuring, but I like for my quilting tools to at least multi-task to one other job or be used daily. If I wanted to make a Hunter’s Star quilt, I would tough it out and math it out and make one without the specialty ruler. I could spend the $27 on fabric for the quilt. And besides, with all those set-in seams, one Hunter’s Star quilt would be all I made. But that’s beside the point.
Good Thread – I admit, I’m a thread snob. I prefer long staple, cotton thread. It holds up to piecing, machine applique, or quilting. It’s not linty and it doesn’t break easily. I prefer 50 or 60 weight for piecing, and 60 to 100 weight for machine applique (depending on the look I want). I adore 100 weight micro quilting thread, and if it doesn’t come in the color I want, I’ll settle for 80-weight in the desired hue.
I have preferences.
Generally, good thread doesn’t live in Big Box Stores so don’t look in Walmart or Hobby Lobby. Most quilt stores have a great selection of great thread. If you don’t have a LQS near you, I order from Superior Thread (which only carries the Superior Thread brands) or Red Rock Thread (which carries a wide selection of many quality thread brands). If you need thread, ask for a gift certificate from your LQS, or visit one of the aforementioned websites. All of those have gift certificates.
Cutterpillar Light Box – I’ve mentioned this light box before. I’ve owned a Cutterpillar Light Box for almost four years now and I have found it to be the best light box I’ve ever used. It’s wafer-thin, LED, has its own carrying case, and three light settings. This is one of the more expensive quilting notion on this list, coming in at $109 on Amazon. There are other wafer light boxes out there, but the Cutterpillar comes with a clear-cutting board which can safely be used on top of the light box (the price includes the clear-cutting board). It has a self-healing rotary mat and a glass crafting board which can be purchased at an additional price. The entire Cutterpillar set is about $190, depending on where it’s purchased.
I love the Cutterpillar because easily transported to quilting classes or retreats. The only thing I wish I could change about it is its size. I wish I could get one of these about the size of a table. It seems the longer I quilt, the larger my applique blocks are getting!
Electric Quilt 8 (EQ8) – I use this software almost daily. It’s so easy to jump on EQ8 and find just the quilt block you need in its vast block library. It has multiple quilt layouts and even “fabric” you can audition for your quilt. The Electric Quilt Company is constantly producing updates for the program (which are free with the purchase of the software) as well as “add ons” for specialty quilts such as Dear Jane. And they’ve begun offering virtual classes to help you really learn the ins and outs of EQ8. This is another of the pricier notions – it’s currently $239.95 on their website, but this is for the full program. There’s an EQ8 Mini for $150. If you have EQ7, you can upgrade to EQ8 for $99.95. It is less expensive on Amazon, but with this vendor, the software comes in CD-rom form. It’s a download from the EQ website.
If you really want this software but it’s more pennies than you planned on spending (or someone else spending), there are a couple of things you can do. Go to the website and sign up for their weekly email newsletter and blog. Lots of times they offer coupons in these. Next, the closer it gets to Christmas, the more likely they’re to offer a really good sale (and when EQ has a sale, it’s usually pretty good). Keep an eye out in your email for special sales announcements.
Misty Fuse – I wrote about this fusible web in this blog: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2022/02/09/sticky-situations/. Misty Fuse is unlike other fusible webs because it does not have a paper backing. It’s literally a thin, web-like substance you fuse to the wrong side of your fabric by using a Goddess Sheet or other Teflon-infused pressing sheet. It’s easy to press Misty Fuse to your fabric and then cut out your applique shapes. This fusible web comes in white, black, and ultra-violet (which is used with sheer fabrics). And while all these characteristics are great, the one thing which really sold me about this fusible is it can take a beating from the heat of your iron and still work. With other fusibles, you must be cautious about how long you press them with an iron and your heat settings. Too much of either does not work well. The fusible literally loses its fusibility. Misty Fuse can handle too much of both and its fusing action isn’t affected. Ten yards of this product is about $30 on Amazon. It is also available in lesser yardage.
A Long Cutting Ruler – It’s no secret to my regular readers that the task I like least about quilting is cutting all the fabric. For this reason, I have found investing in some good quality, basic acrylic rulers is a necessity. There are two I work with nearly every day and both of those are 24-inches long. Once my fabric is folded in half on the width, these are perfect for cutting long strips. The ruler width varies – one is 6-inches wide and the other is 8-inches wide. One is an Olfa, which has a lip on one end I can lock under my cutting mat, so the ruler won’t budge. The other is a Creative Grids which has the gripper circles built into the ruler to prevent it from slipping. The 24-inch quilting rulers vary in price from brand name to brand name but generally run between the $20 and $30 range. My advice is to buy the same brand of ruler as your cutting mat so there are fewer measuring mistakes.
Tulip Hand Sewing Needles – I wrote a blog about needles here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2020/10/28/hand-sewing-needles-more-than-meets-the-eye/. Hand sewing needles are one of the least expensive quilting notions on the market. And no matter how much of a sewing machine goddess you are, there will come a time when you’ll need to put in a few stitches by hand. Tulip Needles are spun lengthwise instead of crosswise, meaning they will glide through your fabric with less friction than other brands. These are quality needles which come in super cute packaging. I’m old enough that my eyes aren’t always as sharp as I need them to be. However, I’ve found the eyes of Tulip Needles to be large enough I don’t have to wrestle with threading them. And Tulip has developed a tabletop threader which works specifically with their needles. Tulip Needles come a full range of sizes, and the price points run from $9 to $22 (the more expensive ones are beading needles). The Tulip Needle Threader is about $15.
Glass Head Pins – These are my go-to pins. The heads can withstand the heat of an iron without melting, they are fine enough no residuals holes are left, and are long enough to weave in and out of the fabric or parallel along the edge of fabric and not fall out. These range from $6 to $11. Like needles, pins are a relatively inexpensive quilting notion. Treat yourself to a couple of packages and replace them when they’re bent, or the point becomes dull. My favorite brand is Dritz.
Boxes – Those of you who are long time readers of my blog know my penchant for project boxes. I use these boxes to keep all my quilts together once they’re cut out, as well as keep any notions or specialty rulers with the project. And while any good cardboard box will do, my favorite are the clear, plastic boxes.
You can see through them, and they stack nicely. You will find them in quilt shops and on quilting websites, but honestly the best place to find them is Office Depo, Hobby Lobby, and Walmart. Depending on where you purchase them, the size, and how many you get, prices can run from $19 to $50. My favorite place to buy them is Office Depo. They have a larger variety of sizes – even small ones you can use to corral your needles, pins, or other small notions. Everything you need for a quilt can be tossed in the project box. When a quilt retreat or Sit and Sew opportunity presents itself, all you need to do is grab your box. And this type of organization makes it super-easy to get started on a new project. Everything is together and you don’t have to spend valuable minutes hunting for things. Project Box Alert – I just found them today at Dollar Tree! They cost a bit more than $1 but are perfect for quilting. Advertised as scrapbooking storage, they’re the ideal size for storing fabric, pattern, and notions.
Washi Tape/Painter’s Tape – I’ll be honest here – I use tape for a lot of things in my quilt studio, but the one kind of tape I don’t use is masking tape. It can leave a sticky residue. However, Washi Tape or painter’s tape remove cleanly.
So what do I use it for? If I need to trim quilt blocks down, I use it on rulers to indicate where the fabric edge should be. This way I don’t have to keep measuring and looking for just the right spot. I’ve found this to be super-handy, especially at night when my lighting may not be the best and I’m tired from working all day. There is no guessing or hoping I’m at the right spot. The painter’s tape or Washi Tape is bright and lets me know exactly where to line things up.
I also use it for quilting straight lines on my domestic sewing machine. Simply apply the tape and then stitch on either side of it for great straight-line quilting with a walking foot.
It can also be used to mark where the edge of your fabric needs to be as it travels over your feed dogs for that perfect ¼-inch seam allowance. If your machine doesn’t come with a quilter’s foot, no worries. You can use Washi or painter’s tape to mark where the edge of your fabric should be.
And finally, if you have to cut your fabric strips on an angle, these tapes can be a huge help. The quilting rulers come marked with several different angles on them, and trying to find the right one each time you cut can be confusing – especially after a long day at work or in not-so-great lighting. A piece of tape along the right diagonal line is a lifesaver. You exactly where to line your fabric up in order to make the right cut.
Prices on both of these vary greatly, but both are relatively inexpensive and can be found a big box stores such as Walmart and Hobby Lobby.
Small Rotary Cutters – I promised I wasn’t mentioning rotary cutters per se, but I will add this priceless piece of information here: Small rotary cutters – those 28 mm or less are much easier to control than the larger ones. While the larger ones are great for cutting through multiple layers of fabric, the smaller rotary cutters are way more versatile. They are easier to control, make cutting around templates so much more accurate and easier, and are so much better for trimming. These are available in 14, 16, 18, and 28 mm and run the price gamut of $10 – $12. However, let me add this caveat – a quick search on Amazon for replacement blades yielded only those for the 28 mm cutter. I’m not sure if somewhere like Missouri Star may have replacement blades for the smaller sizes.
Walking Foot and ¼-Inch Foot – First, I realize many sewing machines – especially those designed for quilters – already have these feet included with purchase. However, if your machine didn’t come with either or only one, you will more than likely want both of these as your quilting journey progresses. A walking foot will move all three layers of the quilt together over the feed dogs without any slippage. This means it’s great for quilting and sewing on binding. Many quilters, once they know where the ¼-inch seam allowance is on their walking foot, prefer to piece with this foot.
A ¼-inch foot makes piecing a breeze. Generally these feet have a phalange on the right side, so you know exactly where to line up your fabric as it goes over the feed dogs, producing a perfect ¼-inch seam. Keeping a consistent ¼-inch seam is imperative for perfect seams and perfect piecing.
A walking foot can range from $10 to $24 depending on if you purchase only the foot or the foot with accessories. A ¼-inch foot runs from $8 to $15, again depending on if you purchase only the foot or the foot with accessories. My advice is to order or purchase the foot made by your sewing machine manufacturer. This way you know the foot will work correctly. If your sewing machine manufacturer doesn’t make a walking foot or ¼-inch foot, don’t despair. Find out if your machine takes a high shank foot or a low shank foot and order generic ones. If you’re not sure what shank you have, Google your machine’s make and model or consult your sewing machine manual.
My Frixion Pens and Water-Soluble Markers – I know there’s a bit of controversy about Frixion Pens: the marks will come back if the fabric gets cold, they leave “ghost” marks on dark fabric, etc. However, I love these pens. To me there’s simply nothing better to trace applique templates with, mark block units for Y-seams, and mark applique backgrounds. And since I’ve discovered this:
Which completely removes Frixion ink, I have absolutely no qualms about using them.
I mark my quilt tops for quilting with washable markers. There are the ever-faithful blue water-soluble pens.
And there are these:
Which you may have never considered using. I admit when I first heard about quilters using them to mark fabric, I was very, very skeptical. However, after several quilting teachers (including one who is a quilt judge) mentioned using these with great success, I changed my mind. I purchased a pack and I have to admit, they work great and last a lot longer than the blue makers.
Frixion pens come in black, and a pack of three runs around $5. A box of 12 is about $25. They also come in a range of colors and can run from $6 to $30. The tip size varies from medium to extra fine. They’re even available in white. Blue water-soluble markers cost between $7 and $15 depending on the brand, how many are in a pack, and the tip size. Crayola Washable Markers run from $8 to $16, depending on how many are in a pack. If you want to use the Crayola Washable Markers, make sure the package clearly states they’re the washable kind and you will probably want the ones who can produce a fine line.
Clover Seam Ripper – Clover is a sewing notions company which has consistently produced wonderful products with great quality throughout the years. I’ve used their bias tape makers, stilettoes, and applique pins ever since I began quilting. However, I thought a seam ripper was just a seam ripper until I tried theirs. The tip is thinner than other brands, making it easier to slide under stitches and break the thread without a lot of hassle. The handle is ergonomically designed, too.
Like needles and pins, seam rippers do get dull over time and with continuous use. The rule of thumb is to replace your seam ripper once a year. However, I’ve found Clover’s seam rippers, stay sharper longer than 365 days.
These seam rippers cost about $7, so they’re not terribly expensive. I keep one at my sewing machine, one in my hand sewing kit, and one in my hand applique kit, and one in my sewing bag.
Tweezers/Purple Thang – Tweezers are great, little tools to keep near your sewing machine. They come in handy when you change your sewing machine needle. They can hold the needle in place while you tighten the needle screw. They are perfect for helping to position applique pieces before gluing or fusing them in place (especially the small ones). They are really useful when I use the Apliquick applique method – they can help fold the fabric over the edge of the interfacing – which really comes in hand with the smaller pieces.
However, the place I use both tweezers and the Purple Thang most in is paper piecing. I’ve found if I can score the paper with the tweezers or the pointy end of the Purple Thank, they come out oh-so-easy. Then I can use the business ends of the tweezers to retrieve any tiny papers left in seams and corners.
Tweezers come in all kinds of forms and sizes. Personally, I like the kind with the angled ends. These seem to be able to get in the tiny places better. I think the kind used for putting on eyelashes/eyelash extensions are the BEST. Amazon has these sets in a price range of $9.99 to $29, depending on if you’re happier with only four different kinds of tweezers or absolutely must have the diamond grips. The Purple Thang, which is one of my favorite quilting tools for lots of reasons, has price points between $6 and $12. The more expensive Purple Thang price includes a case and 10 Thangs – which now come in colors other than purple.
Quilting Gloves – For me, if I’m quilting on my domestic sewing machine, I have to have these gloves. They help hold the quilt sandwich in place, flatten the sandwich so I can see the area I’m quilting, and help me keep a firm grip on the sandwich bulk. However, I also use these gloves when I machine applique. They help me steady the background fabric and maneuver it. I also use them when I am sewing my quilt rows together and when I’m putting on the borders. The grippy surface of the gloves really help you tame all the bulk. The quilt market has lots of different kinds of these gloves. My favorite are these:
I like having some of my fingers free – this allows my hand to remain cooler and not sweat. When I need to remove the gloves, I can just slide my fingers out and the band of the gloves keeps them on my wrist, which means I don’t lose them if I just need to make an adjustment or two or answer my phone, etc. These are available on Angela Walter’s website, Quiltingismytherapy.com for $27.99. They are also available on Amazon, but are more expensive on this website. One word of caution, they do run a little small, so you may want to purchase a size larger than you normally wear.
I like the Machinger Gloves, too. Admittedly these do make my hands hot, but they have really good gripping action. Plus the grips are on both sides of the gloves, so if one side gets dirty, you simply flip them over and keep quilting. These range from $6-$13.
Zoom Classes – I’m not revisiting how wonderful Zoom quilting classes are – you can go here https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2022/09/07/the-zoom-zone-of-truth/ to read about those. If there is something you want to learn how to do in quilting (or almost any other area) or want to learn to do better, there is a Zoom class for it. You can take them in the comfort of your own home, in your own studio. Prices can range from under $50 to several hundred dollars depending on what you want to learn and how many classes are offered in a program. They’re a great way to expand your skill set in the comfort of your own space. Plus you don’t have to pack up all your stuff and then unpack it when you get home.
There. I’ve listed most of my very favorite quilting notions and tools. If someone is in a bind and wondering what exactly the perfect present for you would be, show them this blog. Better yet, print it out and circle the items you want. Not too many of their pennies will be spent, and you’re quilting life will have gotten a lot easier!
The scent from the wood pulp at Domtar Paper Company clung to the humidity, and obviously had no intention of leaving. Despite the fact Plymouth, North Carolina was on the “inner parts” of the Outer Banks, there was no breeze – ocean or otherwise – to send the odor wafting on its way. A woman in an old 1978 Impala paused at the intersection of Main and Adams streets to consult a black and white Quilt Intake Day flyer in the seat beside her. The building she was seeking was up the street about a block, the parking was in the rear. Hesitating for just a second, she finally pressed the gas pedal, and the car took off. Her purse gently rocked back and forth in the seat beside her as Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love for You wafted from the speakers. But in the back — in the backseat the quilts she had dug out of her closets and her momma’s closets remained folded in a neat stack.
Winston-Salem was a tangle of intersections, highways, and streets known only as a number. In 1985, the city was already bursting at the seams and spreading out even further than the city limit signs. Two major hospitals. A women’s college. Old Salem. And Wake Forest University. It boasted a large mall and was the fifth largest city in North Carolina. But tucked back off of Country Club Road, South Fork Community Center had its doors open and the parking lot was full, despite the early hour. Three women, one middle-aged, one in her twenties, and an older one trudged up the sidewalk, their arms full of family heirlooms – quilts – and paused at the doors of the center.
“Here, let me help you,” said a woman, standing up from a table just inside the entrance and she reached for the quilts. On the table was a sign: “Quilt Intake Today!” The woman wore a name tag which said Forsyth Piecers and Quilters. The three women handed off their burden and the middle aged and younger woman reached for the paperwork as the older one settled in a nearby chair. It was hot. And despite the fact she was already tired and sweaty, the woman was resolute. Her quilts needed to be documented before the family forgot how important they were – how each quilt was as much a part of the quilt maker as the air they breathed.
“Momma, we need to make sure we have the stories right,” declared the middle aged one, who along with the young one, filled out the forms, often consulting with seated woman in the process. The oldest woman sighed as she answered questions and gave out dates. She knew those old quilts backwards and forwards – every stitch. She and her momma and her grandma and her aunts had pieced and quilted every one of them.
Scenes such as this twined their way across the United States in the mid-to-late eighties. Supported by history and art museums, quilt bees and quilt guilds, states began a concerted effort to document their quilts. Coming off the “high” from the Bicentennial, a point in time where home crafts and old skills were highlighted and introduced to a new generation, quilters decided their states needed to document their quilts before the textiles fell apart or were ill-used by heirs who didn’t know their worth. The idea spread first from Kentucky to eventually thirty-four of the fifty states during the 1980’s. In the end, approximately 177,000 quilts were photographed, their history taken, and their maker named.
I have wanted to write this blog for a long time – a couple of years actually. However, there is precious little written about the quilt documentation – called the Quilt Projects. It took chasing down some folks for interviews and relying on what little was available on the internet to get the information needed. And since these events took place over 20 years ago, some of the project leaders have since passed away. However, this subject is close to my heart. In 1985, the year North Carolina began its Quilt Project, I was pregnant with my first child. I had just started to sew and had simple blocks cut out for a baby quilt. I remember there was a flyer about the local quilt intake day at Piece Goods. As I read it, I must have wondered how many quilts and what kind of quilts would be documented. By the time I was fully vested in quilting, a friend gave me this book:
Which is the direct result of the North Carolina Quilt Project. Being the nerd I am, I read it cover-to-cover and poured over the pictures. Later, I wondered how this project got started, who started it, and would there be another.
Which brings us to this blog. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it.
In order to understand where the Quilt Projects are historically, you need to put quilts and quilting in a general historical timeline. It’s easy to recognize the important place quilts played in our early ancestors’ lives. They were made for warmth and as a creative outlet. They were primarily bedcovers. Most women sewed then, so quilting was a staple in most families. Quilts could be made to proport a political statement, help raise money for charities, rolled into a bedroll on the back of a soldier, or used simply keep you warm at night. They were given as wedding and going away gifts.
Quilts and quilting received a popularity boost in the 1930’s with the introduction of specialty printed feed sacks and the Chicago World’s Fair, when Sears hosted the Mother of All Quilt Shows. However, World War II curtailed the hobby as more women entered the workforce to cover for the men who were away fighting. Quilting’s popularity waned until the mid-to-late 1960’s (quilt historians don’t all agree on an exact year), when the “Back to Earth” movement began. Young people sought a slower lifestyle, one which lived more in harmony with nature, and cherished handmade items. Quilting once again became popular. As the 1970’s and our national bicentennial loomed, early American folk art gained a huge following, which pushed quilting back into the limelight. By the end of the seventies, the new quilters realized something vitally important: In order to keep the art flourishing, they needed to introduce more folks to quilting as well as develop a supportive network where quilters of all levels could develop their skills, have quilty fellowship, as well as have fun. Thus quilt guilds were born. These guilds were so important. In the 34 states who undertook the Quilt Projects, quilt guilds either spearheaded the effort or provided support to the quilt historians.
As stated earlier, Kentucky was the first state who documented their quilts. Their Quilt Project began in 1981. Word spread not only to other states, but also to Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, who also developed their own Quilt Projects. All this effort developed into the perfect storm for quilt documentation – but in a good way. Women’s studies began to gain a foothold not only on college and university campuses, but also in the general public’s awareness. Couple this with a country-wide interest in local history (somewhat leftover from the Bicentennial), and the media (which at this point consisted of some magazines and your local and national news) felt these Quilt Projects were worthy of coverage. Quilts were a tangible part of women’s history, it was still a vital part of the arts and crafts world, and there were local quilt guilds. The Quilt Projects were perfect for an above-the-fold newspaper article or as a story on the nightly local newscast.
In this blog, I want to review the five states – Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Kansas, and Nebraska — which had the most successful quilt projects. I want to discuss what made these Quilt Projects so successful and why these states agreed to take on the documentation. We’ll start with the first state to undertake this momentous task: Kentucky.
Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc.
In early 1980, Kentuckian Bruce Mann, a quilt dealer, became alarmed at the number of Kentucky quilts which were being sold to out-of-state quilt enthusiasts. While he had no particular qualms about these quilts going to good homes where they would be well-taken care of, he was afraid his state was losing a tangible, real part of its history. Since Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof had their quilt exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, the demand for quilts as artwork, not bed covers, had increased. And while Mann was making good money dealing in quilts, he was concerned that Kentucky history was becoming lost with each quilt sold to out-of-state buyers. He began the initial program but died before he could see it implemented. However, Shelly Zegart, Eleanor Bingham Miller, and Eunice Ray, along with consultant Kathy Christopherson took over and formed the Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc. These women created a plan to document quilts owned by Kentucky families. They planned 12 documentation days between July 1981 and March 1982. A total of 1,200 quilts were documented and the organizers published a catalog of a select group of quilts and organized an exhibition for the Louisville Museum of Natural History and Science. The exhibition was popular enough that the Smithsonian Institution of Traveling Exhibit Services picked it up and made it one of theirs. The quilts traveled across the United States and internationally. This traveling exhibit of Kentucky quilts is why the Kentucky Quilt Project is so important. It pushed American quilts and American quilters into the forefront of our country’s and the rest of the world’s consciousness, spurring 33 other states to document their own quilts.
Texas Sesquicentennial Quilt Association
Around the same time Kentucky began organizing its Quilt Project, Texas began planning theirs. This organization was a bit different from the Kentucky project as it was launched as part of Texas’s Sesquicentennial. The primary goal was to document Texas quilts and quilters. An exhibition of the best quilts would be held as part of the Sesquicentennial celebration. Documentation began in February 1983 and ended in March 1985, resulting in two published catalogues and the exhibition hung in the capital’s rotunda for a week. Despite the fact organizers were warned this quilt project had the distinct possibility of being a bust – Texas was a pioneer state and most of the folks settling the area had left their best textiles back on the East Coast, the TSQA was able to document about 3,500 quilts over 27 documentation days.
North Carolina Quilt Project
This is a quilt project which began with a quilt guild. The Forsyth Piecers and Quilters (one of those guilds which formed from the 1970’s quilt revival), began the NCQP in 1983, and incorporated it in 1985. By the end of 1986, the board of directors had organized and overseen more than 73 quilt documentation days (originally they had only planned for 70, but the documentation days were wildly popular), often with several documentation events occurring the same day at different locations. Numerically, this established the NCQP as one of the most successful quilt projects. Additional help was provided by the North Carolina Museum of History, which eventually became a co-sponsor of the NCQP, as well as a repository for all the information gleaned from documentation days. This support, as well as a generous grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, served to “illuminate the ways in which quilts and quilt making have been a part of life in North Carolina.” The NCQP only documented quilts made prior to the 1976 Bicentennial. The final result was permanent archive of more than 10,000 quilts, an exhibition, and the publication of North Carolina Quilts.
Nebraska Quilt Project
This was another Quilt Project which began with a guild. The Lincoln Quilters formed the Nebraska Quilt Project (NQP) committee in 1985 and developed a quilt project unlike any other. Twenty-one members of the guild served as the NQP organizing committee and as the trained documenters. The organizers, along with consultants from local museums and universities, studied Nebraska history, immigration, and demography to create a strategy which would target the rich immigrant history of the state’s settlement prior to 1920. Through this study, they were able to identify 13 areas to host the documentation days which would represent the different immigrant groups.
Held in two phases, the Quilt History Documentation Days followed a pilot documentation held in Lincoln in March 1987. The first phase ran from April through September 1987. This phase included thirteen different locations in rural Nebraska. The second phase ran from March 1988 to May 1989 in the most populated areas of the state. In total, about 5,000 quilts were documented across the span of 28 quilt intake days. The 1991 publication of the project’s book, Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers, concluded the project and received the 1993 Smithsonian’s Frost Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Crafts.
Kansas Quilt Project
In 1986, Nancy Hornback and Eleanor Malone spearheaded the Kansas Quilt Project: Documenting Quilts and Quilt Makers (KsQP). Their board of directors was a diverse group which included not only quilters, but also a nationally known quilt historian, an authority on Kansas folklife and folklore, historians, a woman’s studies professor, and museum professionals. This project originally had a five-year plan, but it actually took closer to eight years to complete. Seventy-two quilt documentation days were held over a 16-month period, beginning in 1986. An astounding 13,107 quilts were documented by April 16, 1988. The KsQP records show a well-planned, organized, and executed project. Like the NCQP, there often were several quilt documentation events held the same day. When the documentation was over, the board of directors then chose to conduct a period of extended research. After all the quilt intake was complete, they followed up with oral history interviews and in-depth research on selected quilts and quiltmaker topics. They published their book, Kansas Quilts and Quilters, in 1993.
The idea which may really be difficult for some of my younger readers to wrap their minds around is this: They did all of this – quite successfully – before the internet and before social media. So, how did all these states pull off such wildly effective Quilt Projects?
They used little to no paid advertising. Unlike the NCQP, who received grant money, most Quilt Projects started with what little funds they had. For most, paid advertising was expensive and out of the question.
They did issue press releases to local news stations, local newspapers, and local magazine-type publications. Nowadays, it’s difficult to believe a press release could generate much interest. We’re used to getting news via social media, news apps, and short snips on YouTube. So much of our news consumption has left the local realm and is trending only on national and international levels. But the eighties were a different time, and the Quilt Projects were riding the crest of a quilt revival. Bonnie Leman began publishing Quilters Newsletter. Jean Ray Laury published her first books. Guilds were quickly growing and flourishing. In North Carolina, quilting and guilds had gained such popularity that Ruth Janesick established the North Carolina Quilt Symposium – which also helped with the NCQP and served as an umbrella organization for North Carolina Quilt Guilds. So when a local or state or even national, news outlet received a press release about quilts, it definitely caught their attention.
The Quilt Projects followed up the press releases with additional information about how well the documentation days went. In turn, a great deal of the press did follow up articles, which kept the Quilt Projects in the public’s consciousness.
All of the Projects had human connections which reached far, far beyond the conclusion of the Quilt Projects and any resulting publications. In Kentucky, Bruce Mann kicked off the KQP, Inc. Although he passed away before he could see how his idea bore serious quilty fruit, he did stem the flood of Kentucky-made quilts leaving their home state. Suddenly Kentuckians realized the value of these textiles and their makers. And beyond these folks, the Smithsonian realized it, too, and with their traveling exhibit, the rest of the United States and parts of the world realized it, also.
In Texas, quilting was touted in articles and newscasts. They promoted quilting as a family tradition which was close to becoming extinct but was now experiencing a revival thanks to the increasing number of quilt shops and guilds springing up across the state. With the ground fertile for both, a woman named Karey Bresenham opened a quilt shop called Great Expectations in Houston. Through the support of her guild and her customers, she co-founded the Quilt Festival, now known as the International Quilt Festival. Then in conjunction with the South/Southwest Quilt Association she and Nancy O’Bryant Puentes formed the International Quilt Association.
The Quilt Project leaders knew how to work their resources and their sources. There is no greater example of this than the North Carolina Quilt Project. From the initial idea generated by the Forsyth Piecers and Quilters, the women quickly put into play an organizational map which was amazing – even by today’s standards. The women formed a board of directors, who divided the state into regions and then named regional coordinators. These regional coordinators contacted local guilds and quilt shops to begin organizing in their regions.
Not content with just contacting the local media, they wrote Southern Living Magazine and Ladies Circle Patchwork Quilts. Both of these magazines carried articles about the Quilt Projects – particularly North Carolina’s. Word of the NCQP even reached Germany, and it was highlighted in the German magazine, Deutsches Textiforum. NBC Nightly News was contacted, and they interviewed the directors and had a feature report on their prime-time newscast. Likewise the Voice of America received a press release and featured the NCQP on a broadcast.
Then they pulled in the big gun – Georgia Bonesteel, who as well as having a well-watched PBS quilting show, was a North Carolina Quilter. She featured the project on her show.
All of these sources and resources knew quilting was popular among their readers and viewers during this time period. It didn’t take a lot of “arm twisting” to get coverage. The NCQP simply didn’t stop at the local market. They assumed (rightly so, as it turned out) there would be some interest nationwide.
At this point, you may be asking why I wrote this blog. Yes, quilt documentation, preservation, and history are important. And we can certainly appreciate the books which came out of the Quilt Projects. But is any of this information relevant today? Why would we possibly need additional Quilt Projects during a time when it’s so easy to snap a picture and upload it and its history to social media or some other website for posterity? There certainly are lessons we can take away from the Quilt Projects – lessons which I think do support the need for additional quilt intake and documentation.
Lesson One: States learned the importance of their own quilts.
One of the main objectives of Kentucky’s Quilt Project was to stave off Kentuckians from selling their family heirlooms to out-of-state quilt dealers or enthusiasts. Their Quilt Project brought attention to how closely quilts and Kentucky’s history are linked. When the Smithsonian added the quilts to their traveling exhibit, this only intensified value of Kentucky quilts. This school of thought bled over into the other state’s projects – remember most, if not all of the other Quilt Projects, looked to Kentucky’s as an example.
The Kentucky Quilt Project also had an agreement with the press not to publish the names and whereabouts of the quilts. This prevented quilt owners from being inundated with potential buyers. Every other quilt project also followed suite.
Lesson Two: The Quilt Projects taught people how to take care of their quilts.
Once word was circulated about Quilt Documentation Days, people were pulling their family quilts out of closets, drawers, attics, and basements. Until this point, most quilt owners (unless perhaps they themselves were quilters) didn’t pay any particular attention to how the quilts were stored. The Quilt Projects encouraged families to take care of the quilts. They handed out flyers with information on the proper way to store and clean quilts. In addition, the NCQP, the TSQA, the KSQP, and the NQP also handed out special quilt labels to go on the quilts, if the owner so desired. These labels had the project’s documentation information and location of the archives.
Lesson Three: The Quilt Projects supported the development of the “new” grassroots studies.
The grassroots studies concentrated on the middle- and working-class people, non-whites and minorities, and women as well as men. These studies often used material items and dealt with the relationship of these items to attitudes. Quilts were studied for symbolism, representations, and texts within the world they were made. The grassroots studies pushed for the items to be preserved as they served as documentation of a state’s history and the role women played in this history. Marsha McDowell, head of the Michigan Quilt Study Project, wrote, “A quilt is a textbook of information…Personal or family history, art, community life, religious beliefs and practices, business and political history…this and more can be gleaned from these textiles, their makers, and their owners.” It is interesting to note that for many students with an interest in women’s studies, quilts provide nearly the only record left by pre-suffrage housewives and pioneers.
Lesson Four: Not only were the quilts documented, but many times the Quilt Project served as a permanent home for genealogical records that participants brought with them.
Many of the quilt projects, but especially the NCQP, encouraged participants to bring written or photographic records which documented the quilts, their makers, and the quilt making. Kay Bryant, one of the regional coordinators for the NCQP said, “the older ladies were just dying to tell these old stories.” In many, many ways the NCQP archived not only the women’s creations, but also their voices.
As quilters, we know what goes into making a quilt – the choices, the decisions, the technique, the hours spent behind a needle or with a needle in hand. As quilters, we honor each other by complementing each other’s quilts and encircling our quilting families with love and concern. We value the quilts and the quilters because we know much about each. But for the nonquilter, this is lost. It takes something like the Quilt Projects to show how we worked through the social and cultural upheavals in the sixties and seventies…how we dealt with tragedies like the Challenger Explosion and 9/11…how we took up the challenge of Covid. Quilting, as much as any other art, shows the public how we deal with all life hands us. It shows them who we are, where we came from, and what we do.
And maybe…just maybe quilting shows people what they could be, if they’d join us, listen to our stories, and realize the power behind holding that needle and thread.
This blog is a “Zone of Truth Without Judgement” blog… because today I will be completely honest about some facets of quilting I am not crazy about. You may like these aspects of quilting better than I do. However, consider this blog part confessional, part how-to-fix-what-I-don’t-like information. I hope you use the changes I made as inspiration to alter quilts to suit your taste and your piecing preferences.
Inspiration for this column began with the High Point Quilt Guild’s 2021 Mystery Quilt.
Confession #1 – I hate mystery quilts.
I realize several of my fellow guild members are regular readers of my blog. I am not throwing shade, but after I got really “burned” by a few mystery quilts in my quilting career, I made a promise to myself that A) I wouldn’t begin working on one until all the blocks had been released and I had a chance to read through all the directions or B) if this wasn’t an option, I wouldn’t participate at all. Since the guild wasn’t making us show our completed blocks or block units before receiving the next set of directions, option A was clearly in my path.
Month by month the guild member in charge of this activity faithfully released the block unit directions. I read each set of instructions carefully and after, oh…around month two, I realized something: These blocks were heavily pieced.
Confession #2 – I hate heavily pieced blocks.
Please don’t gasp so loudly. I can hear you all the way in Jamestown, NC. Let me preference this startling statement with a couple of caveats. First, yes, I can piece with the best of them – small blocks, medium-sized blocks, and large blocks. I’ve constructed 6-inch square blocks which contained 48-pieces. So, it’s not that I can’t piece – it’s that I don’t necessarily like to. At least not blocks with lots of parts. My favorite pieced blocks are fairly simple ones, such as Monkey Wrench. If there’s a large number of pieces in a block, I’d much rather use a little extra fabric and paper piece them – which was not an option with this quilt.
Unit after unit was revealed and around the third month, I seriously considered putting the brakes on the entire quilt because….flying geese were involved.
Confession #3 – I hate making flying geese.
There. I said it. I absolutely can’t stand constructing flying geese. And I blame the flying-geese-distain on this quilt:
Yes, this is a beautiful quilt, and is absolutely one of my most favorites. If you can’t tell by looking at it, this is a Judy Neimyer quilt. It’s called Glacier Star, and I had a blast making it. The fabric was such fun and such a departure from any color palate I normally undertake. I loved constructing the center so much I ordered the extensions to make sure the quilt would fit on a bed.
It never occurred to me that between the quilt center and the extensions, I would make fifty-hundred-eleventy-million flying geese. And while these geese turned out perfect because they were paper pieced, once the quilt was completed I knew something with complete certainty: I never, ever wanted to make another flying goose/geese again.
I know, I know. I know all of you are thinking this is impossible because so many quilt blocks contain flying geese. I realize that, too. So I set up a few rules for my flying geese dilemma. First, I would paper piece the geese as much as possible. If you haven’t thought about it before, consider this now: There’s a lot of bias in flying geese. Either you’re cutting a square to expose bias or you’re working with triangles which have exposed bias. This mystery quilt had 60 flying geese and it used the no-waste flying geese method, which was fine except for this fact: No final unit measurements were given. Which brings us to confession number 4.
Confession #4 – I hate quilt patterns which do not give unfinished unit measurements at each step.
This sounds kind of picky, but if I have to make 60 block units of anything – especially flying geese – I need to know what the unit’s unfinished measurements are. If the units are too large, I need to trim them down. If they’re too small, I need to adjust my seam allowances. And since flying geese have all that bias and tend to turn out a little wonky anyway, I would really like to have the option to make them larger and trim them down.
This particular pattern didn’t have this information. Any thoughts of beginning this quilt were quickly looking dubious.
Directions were released each month. I made a list of the units I enjoyed making:
Somewhere in those units, I knew I could make a quilt – just not the 2021 Mystery Quilt. I made up my mind I would only use the block units given in the directions and only make as many as required. I ended up with:
15 nine-patches which were constructed into 15 square-in-a-square blocks
60 quick-corner patches
60 corner post patches
Once the units were made, I did something very uncharacteristic of me: I didn’t make a plan. I didn’t graph out the quilt. I didn’t throw everything into EQ 8 to see how it would pan out. I joined the square-in-a-square blocks to sashing I constructed from opposing quick-corner blocks.
For the horizontal sashing, I used 3 ½-inch strips and added the four-patches for cornerstones.
Which left me with a very small-ish rectangular quilt.
To “calm down” all the piecing and to give the eyes a break, I decided to add a 1 ½-inch finished floater out of the ecru fabric.
Then I added a pieced border.
This pieced border actually used part of one of the blocks in the original quilt (which will be shown later). Between these and some left-over block units, I was pretty satisfied with the look of the quilt. Since this border had a lot of pieced units, I decided to add a four-inch border of solid fabric to round the quilt out. I don’t like sewing on binding to heavily pieced borders (which is what this border is). All those seams add extra bulk and it’s difficult to achieve a smooth binding. Plus, the additional border added some height and width to the quilt.
Here is the finished quilt. It’s a great lap-sized quilt. I will probably tuck this one away and use it as a gift. But I still had tons of leftover units. I had to plan another quilt. I took some leftover four-inch squares and cut those into triangles. I joined the triangles to some leftover four-patches to form square-in-a-square block. Then sewed those together to form a square, and I added a 3-inch border.
At this point, I had a lot of leftover two-patch units. I joined all these together to make additional four-patches and framed the square-in-a-square block with these and added four red cornerstones.
Now the center was taking shape, but it was definitely square. I wanted this quilt to be more rectangular. I knew in order for this to happen I needed to add border to only the top and bottom of the quilt to lengthen the square into a rectangle. I took the corner posts and added them to form a top and bottom piano key boarder.
I looked at my pile of leftover block units and saw I still had a lot to sew. I had 120 2-inch x 3-inch rectangles in my neutral. I sewed these to my four-patch blocks and made enough to border the right and left sides of the center.
However, I was still drowning in four-patch units. After mathing it out, I discovered I had just enough to add one final pieced border to the quilt, and still had four-patches left over.
To cut down on the bulk of a pieced border, I added a 3 ½-inch solid fabric border in the neutral. This assured me the binding would go on easy and it made the smaller quilt match the larger one (as for as the final borders go).
Yet, after all of this I still had a handful of four-patches and small neutral rectangles left. I sewed the rectangles in pairs, which made them the same size as the four-patches. I alternately sewed the blocks together into a quilt square, which I will use as part of the backing for the smaller quilt.
At this point, these were the only units I had left over — a dozen neutral squares made from the rectangles, four corner posts, and two triangles.
I couldn’t think of anything to make out of these, and honestly I was done by then. I tossed these into my circular file.
So now, I have two quilts and one large quilt block.
If I had followed directions, this is the quilt I would have:
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this quilt. It’s really pretty. I just wasn’t into piecing all those large blocks.
After 1,500 words, I’m sure you wonder if this blog has a point, other than I have a few areas of quilting I’m not crazy about and decided to take a creative by-pass with this Mystery Quilt Adventure and took you all along for the ride. Well…yes…I do have a point. Remember the quilt pattern is just your jumping off point. If you make all the block units, they will go together in lots of different ways. I didn’t have to alter any of the original block units in this creative process. I just played with them until I came up with something I liked, then I sewed it all together.
Don’t be afraid to toss the pattern.
Don’t be afraid to change things up.
Don’t be afraid to go with your quilting gut.
There are no quilt police. Just have a good time making your quilts.