Quilting Cottons and Color Issues

So…after the two blogs I wrote about fabric stashes, I had a few questions from a few readers.  These concern types of fabric, the differences between cotton fabrics, and why some colors of fabric are so hard to match up.  I wanted to answer these questions before we moved on to a few other topics before our end of the year wrap up.

The first question wanted to know if there is a difference between cotton fabrics and quilting cottons.  The short answer to this is “Yes.”  Quilting cottons and regular cotton fabric are very different, but in order to understand why, you first need to look at how the manufacturers turn cotton into fabric, because that’s where the differences come into play.  The first step is harvesting the cotton.  The cotton plants are defoliated and harvested primarily by machine.  These machines really perform a “two-fer”:  They harvest the cotton and remove large pieces of trash, twigs, etc., from the cotton and then form it into bales.  From there the cotton is ginned – the seeds and smaller contaminants are removed.  Then it goes to a textile production plant where the cotton is carded.  The process turns the cotton fibers into long strands and the strands are spun to create yarn. 

This process is the same regardless of what kind of cotton fabric will be produced.  However, once the strands are spun into yarns (think of a fiber more like thread and less like something you knit or crochet with), the yarn can be dyed and then woven into cloth, or the yarn can be woven and then dyed.  It all depends on what kind of fabric the textile manufacturer wants to produce.  And here’s where the differences between quilting cottons and regular cotton fabrics show up. 

Quilting cotton yarns are not dyed.  The raw yarn is woven into fabric which can have at least a 60-thread per inch thread count or higher.  This means an inch of quilting cotton will have 30 threads running vertically and 30 running horizontally.  This is called 60-square and is generally considered the average count for quilting cottons.  I have seen quilting cottons with thread counts higher than 70, but those are the exception and not the rule.  The higher the number, the stronger and denser the fabric.  Cotton fabric manufactured for garment construction has a lower thread count. 

So…how can you tell the difference between regular cotton fabric and quilting cottons?  If you’re shopping at your LQS, chances are they will have quilting cottons marked as such either on one of the ends of the bolt or some other location on the fabric.  If you’re shopping online, it is more than likely this information will be in the fabric description.  However, if you’re shopping for quilt fabric at an establishment which sells all kinds of cotton material (such as some big box stores), it may be a bit more difficult to find this information.  Sure, you could take a magnifying glass with you and count the threads per square inch, but there are easier ways to determine what kind of cotton fabric is on the shelf.  First is the price itself.  Quilting cottons are more expensive than other cotton fabrics.  Second is the feel of the fabric.  Quilting cottons feel heavier than regular cottons.  And third are additives sometimes listed on the sales tag.  Let’s take a look at each of these and compare those to cotton fabrics produced for garment making.

The higher thread count in quilting cottons can make it feel denser and sometimes heavier than garment cottons.  It’s this high thread count which makes quilting cottons perform so well when sewed into a quilt.  Quilting cottons will allow a quilt to last for decades and be handed down for several generations before becoming worn.  Garment cottons generally don’t have as high of a thread count.  If you hold apparel cotton up to the light, you will likely see some light through it.  This is due to the lower thread count and thinner material.  You normally can’t see light through quilting cottons – the high thread count makes the fabric opaque. 

The feel of quilting cottons is different from garment cottons not only due to the higher thread count, but also the additives sprayed on the raw fabric.  Quilting fabric is created to resist shrinkage and other wear and tear.  It’s designed to maintain its color and print.  If you’re a pre-washer like me, it’s good to know these additives aren’t washed out of the fabric.  However, quilting cottons are also more than likely treated with a softener, a stain and sun guard, and sometimes even a stiffener.  These make the fabric look pretty as it sits on the shelf and protects against fading.  These additives can be washed out, which is why pre-washers sometimes have to press starch or a starch substitute into the back of their material to make them stiffer.

Greige Fabric

Now let’s go back and re-visit what I said earlier about the yarn which produces quilting cottons.  This yarn remains undyed through the weaving process and called griege (pronounce “gray”), grey fabric, gray fabric, or loom-state fabrics.  And the use of the term “gray” can be somewhat deceiving.  Sometimes the raw fabric is a light gray, but at other times it’s cream or ecru.  It depends on the type of cotton used as well as the additives mixed in with production.  It’s the raw, griege fabric which can throw us the first hurdle when we need to find a true hue.  If you add a true blue dye to a griege fabric, most of the time the process will conclude with a really nice true, blue hue (remember a hue is the color in its truest form).  As a matter of fact most colors do well regardless of the color of the griege fabric.  However, I have found three colors in my quilting world which give me issues on a consistent bases:  white, teal, and black.  Let’s talk about the most difficult color first – white.

Scientifically speaking, color is an expression of light.  Certain materials absorb and reflect specific wavelengths of visible light, which results in objects taking on a certain color to the human eye.  Revisiting the blue mentioned above – a blue object reflects and disperses blue light back at us while absorbing all other wavelengths of light, so you see only blue.  When all light is reflected back, we have the color white.  So a true, white hue reflects all the colors back at us.  However, if you’ve ever tried to purchase white fabric, it’s amazing how many shades of white are out there.  Strictly speaking, a shade is a hue mixed with black, so gray technically is a shade of white or a tint of black (tints are formed by adding white to a hue).  Other shades of white include cream, eggshell, ivory, Navajo white, and vanilla.  If this isn’t complicated enough, there are achromatic whites – whites which have red, green, and blue added equally.  There are also chromatic whites, which are whites that have red, green, and blue added but they are not added equally.  And if you’re talking about paint instead of fabric, keep in mind Benjamin Moore has 152 shades of off-white, Behr has 167, and PPG has a whopping 315. 

No wonder purchasing anything white or white-ish is so confusing and befuddling.

To add to the white dilemma, as a quilter, you must keep in mind three things when purchasing white fabric.  First, the indoor lighting can alter how the white material looks.  Overhead florescent lighting is brutal to any color.  Remember this blog?  You really want the overhead lighting to be as close to natural daylight as possible.  With many quilt stores, this isn’t possible, so carry your white fabric to a window and give it a serious look over.  Is it the shade of white you want?  Second, remember the fabric placed next to the white can pull out other colors.  For instance, if you purchase a chromatic white that has more red than blue or green, and you place it near a red fabric, your white may appear pink.  Likewise if you purchase a chromatic white with more blue and it’s placed near blue fabric, it also may appear blue or even gray.  So it’s a good idea to take some fabric swatches with you when you pick out your white fabric and audition everything close to a window. 

The last thing to keep in mind when purchasing white fabric has to do with on-line sales.  Let’s say you’re making a scrap quilt and need five yards of white fabric (white fabric works wonderfully with scrap quilts – it makes everything play nicely together).  You place your order and in a few days, five yards of white fabric shows up on your doorstep.  Now let’s say something happens – you need to pull a yard of it for another project or you make a cutting mistake.  Now you need to buy some more of the white fabric, but you can’t find your original order.  You go back to the online establishment and begin to peruse the site only to discover there are at least 15 different white fabrics.  You take the white fabric you have and hold it up to your computer screen, comparing the fabric to each online swatch carefully.  When you think you’ve decided on the correct one, you add two yards to your cart (just to be sure you have enough) and check out. A few days later it shows up and you tear open the box only to find…

It doesn’t match the four yards of white you have.

I can tell you from experience how frustrating this is.  My third piece of advice concerning purchasing white fabric is to hold on to all the paperwork.  This way if you need to reorder, you can go by the SKU number.  I realize many quilting websites will keep your order available to you online in case you need to reorder.  But if the website you’re ordering from doesn’t or the original website is out of the white needed and you must order from somewhere else, you have the SKU number in hand to make sure it’s the right white. 

Now let’s take a look at teal.  If you think white is a confusing color, teal can push you right over the quilting edge.  And if you want to blame someone or something, here’s your target:

See that stripe of greenish-blue on the top of its cute, little head?  Well, evidently around 1917, this color became the Pantone Color of the Year (that is sarcasm…Pantone didn’t have a color of the year until 1999).  Everyone fell in love with this color they called teal.  By 1927 it was showing up in clothing.  Between 1948 and throughout the 1960’s, teal was used in interior decorating.  It fell a bit out of fashion until the 1990’s when it was re-birthed as a fad color.**

The issue with teal is where it falls in the color wheel. 

Teal rides the edge exactly between green and blue.  Because it’s at this midway point, hundreds of shades can be produced, from dark to light, ranging from more green to more blue.  To make matters a bit more confusing, many times teal is used colloquially to refer to shades of cyan (blue) in general.

However for us quilters, our concern is more how the dye is combined before it’s incorporated into the greige fabric.  The color teal is made by mixing blue into a green base. How much of each is used will result in of the shade of teal produced.  If more blue than green is used, the teal will show more blue.  If more green is used, the teal will have a green cast.  It also can be deepened by adding black or gray, or lightened a little by using white.  So the color teal can range from deep greenie teals to teals which almost appear blue.

When purchasing teal fabric, be sure to take the same precautions as you do when purchasing white.  Audition it near a window or a source of light which closely resembles daylight.  Bring the other fabric swatches with you to make sure the teal chosen will work.  When placed near a blue fabric, no matter how deep the green base is, the teal will take on a blue-ish cast, and likewise when it’s placed near a green, it will appear greener.  However, this is the one fabric color I will default to a fabric family every time.  If I’m constructing a quilt and want to use a teal, and there’s a teal available in the same fabric family I’m using, I will default to that teal every time.  Yes, teal is that tricky of a color.

One last word of warning about teal.  Personally, I think it’s a good idea if you can make your initial purchase in a brick-and-mortar fabric store.  Here’s why:  Teal is used to create colors on computer and television screens by reducing the brightness of the cyan used in screen images (both pictures and fonts).  If you’re purchasing teal fabric and you’re shopping for it online through a screen which employs teal, it can be easy for the actual color to be distorted.  Unless you’re purchasing from teal in a fabric family, or you have some of the actual fabric in hand and can pull the information from the selvedge, you may want to make your first teal purchase in a quilt shop. 

Finally, let’s take a look at the color black.  Since white reflects all the colors, it’s only natural that its opposite – black – reflect none.  Black isn’t on the visible spectrum of color.  It’s the absence of light.  Unlike white and other hues, pure black can exist in nature without any light at all.  It exists as a shade (some color theorists will argue that white isn’t a color either, it’s only a shade).  Black fabric is made from the darkest pigmented dyes available, and this is why there are so many shades of black.  Currently there are 134 shades of black, with the new blackest black being Vantablack. 


Black, much like white, can have red, green, and blue added either in equal or varying amounts, which can alter the shade.  Tiny amounts of white can also be added to lift the color a bit, but not so much that it turns the black into gray.  So again, audition your black with other fabric swatches and in natural sunlight or lighting as close to daylight as possible.  Personally, if I need a deep black for a project, I reach for the Amish Black most of the time.  It’s fairly readily available and reasonably priced. 

Amish Black

I hope I’ve answered your questions about fabric and why some colors are more difficult to match up than others.  Color is both fascinating and fun when it comes to quilting.  Choosing fabric is one of my most favorite activities and it’s really amazing what lighting and placement can do to your fabrics. 

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


  **My favorite color of teal is this:

It’s the color for Cervical Cancer Awareness (as well as some other reproductive cancers).  Many of you remember my daughter’s cervical cancer diagnosis and I want to take the chance to again thank each of you who prayed for her (she is now cancer-free) and to remind you to get your pap smears. I want everyone to stay healthy. We have a lot of quilting years ahead of us!


The Sewing Machine Renaissance (Part 2)

Edward Clark

The Birth of Singer as a Brand

As stated previously, Isaac Merritt Singer was a piece of work.  It wasn’t Singer’s “winning” personality or scrupulous work ethic which pushed the Singer name out front.  Singer was a known “scalawag” even to those who worked with him.  A gentleman named Edward Clark, who co-founded I.M. Singer and Co., stepped in and took charge.  He created the company’s earliest ad campaigns and came up with the “hire-purchase” contracts – basically an installment plan for those who wanted to purchase a machine but couldn’t afford the entire cost upfront.  Clark also had the wisdom to give Singer the boot.  He gradually squeezed the unpredictable Singer out of active management in the company and dissolved their partnership in 1863 to form the Singer Manufacturing Company.  It was then, under Clark’s leadership, the Singer Sewing Machine became synonymous with the domestic sewing machine.  Clark also implemented:

  • Door-to-door sales.  These served two purposes.  First, it allowed someone in the home to actually see the sewing machine they could buy.  They could touch it and understand how easy it was to use.  These visits also required the canvassers to collect weekly payments from those folks on the installment plan.
  • Flashy-up-to-date, modern showrooms.  This allowed for large open spaces where it could be demonstrated how the machines work.
  • The Singer Sewing Machines went to county and state fairs.  If you remember my blog about the history of quilt shows (, it was first the county fairs, then followed by the state fairs which had the first quilt shows.  If you’re showing quilts, you’re bound to be interested in a sewing machine. 
  • The buy-back program.  Singer became active in buying up used sewing machines (both their own and other brands).  This served to tamp down the secondary markets of used sewing machines.  Just like with today’s sewing machines, Singer would roll out a new sewing machine model and encourage consumers to replace their old one.
Drawing of early Singer Showroom

And while these sales practices were both effective and profitable, the company’s organization became another one of Singer’s major innovations.  Singer Manufacturing Company created a centralized bureaucracy to run itself.  The company’s central headquarters found a home in Manhattan’s financial district where it controlled and communicated with its sales agents around the world. Eventually, it built the Singer Tower, one of the first corporate skyscrapers in the country and for about a year, the tallest building in the world. 

Singer Tower

Then, not content to corner the market on US sales, Clark eyed the international markets, aggressively opening factories around the world to minimize duties and shipping costs.

This is what made the brand “Singer” so popular.  For years it was almost as if no other sewing machine brand was known.  Want a sewing machine?  There was at least one Singer dealer in nearly every town, and if not in your town, in one nearby.  And probably one close enough for a salesman to come to your home if needed.  My mother has sewed all my life.  Her first two sewing machines were Singers.  It wasn’t until the late 1970’s she even considered another brand.  

In short, the reason Singer became so well-known is that was a disrupter.  It took what was considered normal business practices and turned them on their heads.  It wasn’t just enough to build an affordable, dependable, easy-to-use sewing machine.  Clark had to get his nifty new machine into the hands of millions of women.  Invention is new and creative, but to bring it to market and get people to adopt it is difficult – often even more difficult than the invention itself.  But Clark and the Singer Manufacturing Company did this and for a number of years, Singer was the top-selling sewing machine.

It’s also almost impossible for us – modern day quilters with an average of four sewing machines each – to understand what a HUGE event these sewing machines were.  We get super excited about getting a new machine ourselves.  It’s a warm, fuzzy event and we spend hours behind our new machines, learning every quirk and short cut, amazed at what it can do.  However, on September 22, 1860, The Scientific American pronounce that after the Spinning Jenny (a multi-spindled spinning frame) and the plough, the sewing machine was “the most important invention that has ever been made since the world began.”  

The pronouncement was met with mixed reviews.  There were a few groups who lamented that the machines would destroy handicraft.  Another group – a larger one comprised of primarily women – welcomed the machine with open arms and wanted one.  The machine would greatly speed up the construction of family linens, draperies, and clothing – all of which females were responsible for.  According to the American journalist and women’s rights activist Sarah Hale, “to make an average shirt by hand required 20,620 stitches; at a rate of 35 stitches a minute, a competent seamstress could complete a shirt in ten to fourteen hours” (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1867).  A sewing machine, at 3,000 stitches per minute, could allow a seamstress to assemble a shirt in an hour with neater results.  

However, behind the scenes, there were always the fear the sewing machines would put tailors and seamstresses out of business.  A few years after sewing machines were mass-marketed and put on the payment installment plan (which meant most of the machines were Singer), this didn’t happen.  Instead these business incorporated sewing machines into their everyday production.  The machines sped up clothing construction and lowered costs in the long run, allowing families to begin to purchase “ready-to-wear” clothing at reasonable prices.   

Welcome to the Birth of the Sweat Shop

But having sewing machines in a shop didn’t mean everything was rainbows and unicorns, either.  As clothing began to be more and more mass produced, prices plunged as the market was flooded.  And while this was a good thing for the consumer, it wasn’t always great for the clothing manufacturers or their employees.  In order to stay ahead of supply and demand and keep the fiscal bottom line in the black, more and more pieces of clothing had to be churned out.  Which meant two things:  More seamstresses had to be hired and wages had to be lowered.  

These establishments were first filled with immigrants who left Europe to settle in the United States.  They used this work experience – no matter how awful it was – as a transition period.  They worked hard, saved what little money they could, and sent their children to American schools.  This difficult, low-paying employment was considered the first step to their financial freedom – not a career.  Later, after World War I, the immigrants’ positions were filled with African Americans who were met with the same working conditions.  It wasn’t until  the early 20th century, when social reformers and labor activists began to believe that the right kind of pressure from unions, government, and reform groups could eventually eliminate sweatshops from the garment industry.

Following the lead of early women’s suffrage groups, the National Consumers’ League and the National Women’s Trade Union League were formed to promote alliances between “women who spend” and “women who work.” With increased public support, garment unions began to build lasting organizations.

From the 1900s into the 1930s, strikes, labor and community organizing, factory investigations, and local and state legislation all heightened public awareness about acceptable labor standards. These activities laid the groundwork for federal New Deal reforms in the 1930s designed to eliminate sweatshops and strengthen unions (National Museum of American History).

  All of this begs the question, did the invention of the sewing machine cause the birth of the sweatshop?  Probably yes and no.  Before this, employees (primarily women) were hired to work in less than desirable conditions, sewing by hand and paid by the piece.  More than likely the sewing machine magnified the problem since more pieces could be produced by workers.  More workers and more machines meant more pieces. More pieces meant more money to everyone except those sewing the garments.  

The Domestication of the Sewing Machine

By 1902, most homes had a “domestic” sewing machine in them. A great number of these machines were Singer, all were treadle, and the average price was around $125.00.  And since sewing machines were now commonplace, sewing machine manufacturers now set about trying to conceal them or make them look like a piece of furniture by producing wooden boxes to cover the machine and drop-down cabinets to hide the machine.    Domestic sewing machines were designed to be a bit smaller and sleeker than the ones used in the mass construction of garments.  They had pretty brass plates and colorful designs on them.  Singer especially continued to design and re-design the domestic sewing machine and then on October 3, 1933, they rocked the sewing machine universe with the introduction of the Singer Featherweight.

1933 Singer Featherweight

Entire books have been written about the history of the Singer Featherweight, and I’m not re-writing those here.  Briefly, the Featherweight was produced from 1933 until 1969 (except between 1942 and 1944 when the Wars Act prohibited the manufacturing of them due to metal constraints plus the Singer Manufacturing Buildings were some of the first conscripted by the government for war work).  These small sewing machines would change up outside artwork, have special decals for special events (such as for the Chicago World Fair), and gradually improved bobbin winding, lighting, and stitch length control.  Most of the Featherweights were 221’s, but between 1953 and 1961,

222 Featherweight

A hundred thousand 222 Featherweights were manufactured in Kilbowie, Scotland.  These machines were a tad bigger, had a free arm, more space between the needle housing and the sewing plate, and the feed dogs could be lowered.  I am a happy (and lucky) owner of one of these 222 Featherweights.  One of the things about a Featherweight which makes is special is you can Google the serial number on the bottom of the machine and discover what year it was “born.”  My 222 was made in 1962 and her name is Marilyn – homage paid to the superstar Marilyn Monroe who died in 1962.  (Seriously…featherweight collectors geek out over stuff like this)  

Another notable characteristic about the feather weight was its advertising.  It touted itself to be a small, portable machine with all the features of a regular-sized sewing machine, plus it was backed with all of Singer’s guarantees of quality.  “It is,” one advertisement proclaimed, “a machine you can use, teach your daughter to use, and then watch your granddaughters use.”  In other words, the Featherweight could conceivably last for …well…years.  

And they have.  Many of my quilting buddies own and use featherweights.  

For a long time, Singer almost took the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” stance.  A Singer customer was generally pretty happy with their machine.  New machines were purchased on occasion, such as for a wedding gift or to replace a machine handed down to a female relative.  However, after World War II ended, the number of home sewers dropped.  That meant fewer machines were sold.  It was at this point, Singer realized they needed to upgrade their machines – make sewing interesting and fun again.

Sewing Machine Renaissance 

This, my readers, is why I have written 3,375 words about sewing machines.  Sewing machines – why do companies change their machines so much?  I mean you purchase one and it’s not six months until the company revises the sewing machine and puts out a newer model with sleeker design and more mouth-watering features.  Consider me for example.  I wanted a Janome M7 Continental for years.  Saved for it.  Purchased it.  Have used it for two plus years, and now Janome has a M8 Continental with a stitch regulator!  If I had known one was in development with a regulator, I would have held off purchasing the M7.   

What I call the first sewing machine Renaissance happened in the early to mid-seventies.  A couple of issues were pressing the entire sewing machine manufacturing front to change up their machines.  First, was the bottom line.  Any company – sewing machine or any other type of manufacturer – is always interested in not only keeping the bottom line in the black, but also keeping it as fat as possible.  Old straight stitch and zigzag machines were no longer making the cut.  The consumer wanted additional stitches, embroidery options, and automatic buttonhole features.  So Singer, as well as New Home, Jukie, Husqvarna, and others developed sewing machines which would do all of these.  

The second issue which pushed the development of not only better machines, but more machines was the Bicentennial.  America’s 200th birthday struck a chord in folks to return to the handcrafts of the past.  Quilting was one of these handcrafts.  Sewing machine sales improved but were still “wobbly.”  However as more people took up sewing and other needle crafts, sales slowly improved.  Sewing enthusiasts learned machines had lot of other options beside straight stitches and zigzag.  The number of quilters has steadily increased since this time, and with those larger numbers comes a demand for machines.  The sewing machine market remained comparatively tight, and today it’s really three major manufacturer which own all the machine labels.   

The field rocked along pretty steadily until 2020 when COVID-19 reared its head and suddenly masks were in demand and due to the lockdowns, folks had hours of time at home.  With both of these factors in play, suddenly the demand for sewing machines skyrocketed.  I remember going to my local Walmart one evening for sewing supplies – not my usual haunt for sewing needs, but I desperately needed elastic and it was the one place I hadn’t looked — and was completely blown away by the fact the entire sewing section was empty.  Nothing but a few straggly fat quarters were left.  No thread.  No needles.

No sewing machines.  

A salesclerk said they had sold out of everything two days prior.  She didn’t know when the shelves would be restocked.  She had no idea when they would get another shipment of sewing machines.   A few emails to other local brick-and-mortar quilt shops revealed pretty much the same story.   

By now, of course, the Pandemic is over.  You can find Brother sewing machines at Walmart.  My local Bernina dealer is fully stocked.  However, at the end of this entirely too long blog, I have questions.

  1.  Are the new sewers, born during the Pandemic, still sewing?  If they are, what are they sewing now?  Do they know about quilt and fiber arts guilds?
  2. How many of these new sewers held on to their machines if they’re not sewing any longer?  Or was the market flooded with “slightly used sewing machines for sale?”
  3. With the large number of sales during the Pandemic, are sewing machine companies re-tooling both their machines and their advertising in order to hang on to this new market?  The die-hard faithful sewists will always be out there and at times can be lured into a trade-up. Are they redeveloping their lines of beginner-friendly and intermediate machines?

Cision PR Wire estimates that there were $3.3 billion dollars’ worth of sewing machine sales in the United States in 2020.  They predict by 2026, the US will have $4.2 billion in sales.  Will the increase in sales coupled with new sewing hobbyists produce another Sewing Machine Renaissance?  Will history repeat itself?  How many of the machines will incorporate artificial intelligence?  Instead of smaller machine beds, will the harps continue to increase to accommodate large quilts for quilting, putting long arms in the position of having to lower costs in order to sell?  Will domestic machines become robotic like some of their long arm counterparts?  

I have so many questions.  The Pandemic opened the world of sewing and sewing machines to hundreds of folks who had never sat behind one before.  Now what will the sewing machine manufacturers do to keep those folks behind a machine or in the market for a new one?   

What are your thoughts?

Until next week, Remember the Difference is in the Details!  

Love and Stitches,



The Sewing Machine Renaissance (Part I)

Let’s talk about sewing machines.  

According to Craft Industry Alliance 2021 survey, the average quilter owns four sewing machines (this does not include long arms or embroidery machines which are exclusively for embroidery and do not sew seams at all).  Ask any group of quilters what their favorite brand is, and you’ll hear enthusiastic replies of Brother, Juki, Janome, Bernina, Pfaff, or Husqvarna – as well as at least a half a dozen other name brands. 

As avid quilters, it’s hard to imagine our worlds without sewing machines in them, but we know at some point, our quilting foremothers hand pieced and hand quilted all of their quilts. Because while the patent for a sewing machine was issued in 1755, it wasn’t until 1830 – some 75 years later – that an actual, working sewing machine was made.   

And it caused a riot.  Seriously.   

Before we jump into the deep dive of sewing machines, let’s take a brief look at their history and the legendary Howe/Singer feud.  

All The Sewing Machine Men

Charles Weisenthal

In 1755, a British patent was issued to a German named Charles Weisenthal.  And while Weisenthal went into great specifics about the type of needle the machine used, he was more than a bit sketchy about the rest of the details about his invention.  The patent mentions nothing at all about it.  It’s unclear whether or not the machine was ever actually made.  

Thomas Saint

In 1790, an English inventor and cabinet maker, Thomas Saint, was issued the first patent for a complete sewing machine.  The patent describes an awl which punched a hole in leather and then passed a needle through the hole.  We don’t know if Saint ever actually made one of these machines himself, but a later reproduction of his invention based on his patent drawings didn’t work.  

Balthasar Krems

In 1810, German Balthasar Krems invented an automatic machine for sewing caps.  Krems didn’t bother to patent his invention and it never functioned well.

Josef Madersperger

 Austrian tailor Josef Madersperger tried several times to make a workable sewing machine.  He was finally awarded a patent in 1814, but the machine was unsuccessful.  

In 1804, all fingers were crossed, because it looked as if a patent for a workable sewing machine would happen.  Thomas Stone and James Henderson were granted a French patent for a machine that mimicked hand sewing.  Scott John Duncan was also granted a patent for an embroidery machine with multiple needles.  Both of these inventions failed and were soon forgotten.  

Barthelemy Thimonnier

However, things began looking up in 1830.  A French tailer named Barthelemy Thimonnier developed a “real” sewing machine that worked.  It used one thread and a hooked needle, and it only made a chain stitch used with embroidery.  But all was not well in France with the introduction of the machine.  Barthelemy was nearly killed when an enraged group of French tailors burned down his garment factory because they feared the machine would cost them their jobs.  Needless to say Barthelemy tossed his machine in an effort to keep peace (and his head on his neck).  

But Barthelemy’s machine worked.  While it only produced a chain stitch, it worked well enough that tailors were in fear they’d lose their jobs.  Word spread, even to America, about this invention and in 1834, Walter Hunt built America’s first almost-successful sewing machine.  His machine sewed only straight seams, but taking a page from Barthelemy’s history, Hunt feared the machine would cause large numbers of tailors and seamstresses to lose their jobs (as well as his factory may end up in ashes).  As a result, Hunt never even bothered to patent his invention.  

Elias Howe — the “real” Father of the Modern Sewing Machine

Then a gentleman named Elias Howe entered the sewing machine arena.  Unlike the other machines’ needles which had an eye at the top or in the middle of the shaft, Howe’s needle had its eye at the point.  The needle was pushed through the cloth and created a loop on the other side; a shuttle on a track then slipped the second thread through the loop, creating what we know as a lockstitch.  It worked!  However, Howe encountered problems defending his patent and marketing his invention.  So for the next nine years Elias Howe struggled to garner interest in his machine and protect his patent.  But instead of the lockstitch mechanism remaining Howe’s, Issac Singer used it when he invented the up-and-down motion mechanism (the one we’re used to today – the other machines sewed from the side of the machine), and Allen Wilson developed a rotary hook shuttle (similar to the bobbin mechanism on our sewing machines) to make the lockstitch. 

Isaac Merritt Singer — He looks like a piece of work, doesn’t he?

If none of the names I’ve thrown out rings any bells, chances are the name Singer  did.  And for years Isaac Singer and Elias Howe engaged in an epic battle over the rights to the first workable and affordable sewing machine in America.  However, while Howe was almost everything upright and honorable and integrity-filled in this battle, Singer wasn’t.  In the words of my beloved paternal grandmother – He was a piece of work.  

Isaac Merritt Singer was born October 27, 1811, the youngest of the eight children of Adam and Ruth Singer.  His parents divorced in 1821 and Ruth abandoned the family. By the time Isaac was 12, he ran away from home to join a traveling performing stage act called the Rochester Players. Between acts, he worked as a joiner and lathe operator. In 1839 he patented a machine to drill rock and was awarded $2,000 for his efforts – that would be $65,740 today.  Instead of sensibly banking his cash, Singer pocketed it and returned to acting.  He married Mary Ann Sponsler (a fellow actor) and produced eight children with this woman.  He continued to invent tools for building until about 1850-ish when he and several other inventors took note that there were numerous unsuccessful sewing machine models on the market and the female consumers were pretty eager for a successful one.   

Between fathering a total of dozen children (another four with a mistress), continuing to dabble in acting, and patenting other inventions, Isaac Merrit Singer became nearly obsessed with re-inventing the sewing machine Howe worked so hard to produce.  By this time Howe had locked down the patent and charged exorbitant licensing fees to anyone who built or sold something similar (while he was having a lot of trouble manufacturing and marketing a workable sewing machine, he didn’t want anyone encroaching on his patent).   

However, like I said before, Singer was a piece of work.  By 1846, he had taken Howe’s ideas and improved on them, adding a thread controller and combining a vertical needle with a horizontal surface.  In 1851 he applied for a patent and formed the I.M. Singer and Co.  It looked as if Singer now had both a usable sewing machine and the patent to keep it.  However, there were a handful of other inventors who also had improved Howe’s machine and patented their improvements.  This created a little problem called a “patent thicket.”  This means numerous parties could lay claim to key parts of the invention.  

The results of the patent thicket were largely predictable.  A sewing machine war broke out.  Inventors were suing each other right and left, burning up their resources and not further developing the sewing machine.  To calm the storm (and finally get an affordable sewing machine on the market) a lawyer stepped in with a novel idea.  Orlando Brunson Potter (who also was the president of rival manufacturer Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company) purported the factions could merge their business interests.  Since a powerful and profitable sewing machine required parts covered by several different patents, he proposed an agreement that would charge a single, reduced licensing fee which would then be divided proportionally among the patent holders.  It took some heated arguments coupled with some cool logic, but in the end, Howe, Singer, Grover, and Baker as well as manufacturers Wheeler and Wilson all eventually agreed to the wisdom of the idea.  Together they created the first “patent pool.”  It merged nine patents into the Sewing Machine Combination, with each of the four stakeholders given a percentage of the earnings on every sewing machine, depending on what they contributed to the final design.  Three of these designs were and are crucial to a high-quality sewing machine:  Howe’s patent on the lock stitch, Wheeler and Wilson’s patent on the four-motion feed, and Singer’s patent on the combination of a vertical needle with a horizontal surface.   

This patent merger immediately resulted in an uptick in sewing machine manufacturing.  The concept of a workable machine could now freely move forward because the patent merger took the best concepts of each inventor and used those.  The merger also caused the cost of the licensing fee to drop from $25 (roughly $1,000 in today’s money, and half the cost of an 1850 sewing machine) to $5.  This made sewing machine manufacturing affordable and as a result, dozens of production houses sprang up.  So this crowdsourced sewing machine could be sold cheaply to a wide audience.  But it had nine patent holders tied to the merger.  Have you ever wondered what caused Singer to come out on top and so far ahead of the others? 

The answers will be posted next week.

Until then, remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,



How to Build Your Stash (Without Breaking Your Budget) Part 2

If building a stash followed the same casting as a play performance, solids would be considered the “walk-ons,” low-volumes and blenders would be the co-stars, and prints would be the stars of the show. 


Prints are the scene-stealers, the main attraction, the seductress of the quilting world.  I mean, what’s not to love?  All the colors, all the beauty, all the cuteness is packed into prints.  These are the fabrics which beckon you from across the quilt store floor and whisper “Buy me…you won’t regret it,” in your ear.  Prints are the fabric which can cause you to whip your cash or card out and buy five yards without an ounce of regret.      However…unless cultivated carefully, prints can also be the blatant liars of the quilt world. 

When I began purchasing my stash, I was immediately drawn to prints.  I found myself purchasing yards and yards of printed fabric, only to find I couldn’t make a quilt out of all those prints.  They didn’t go together.  I needed solids and blenders and low volumes to make my quilt work.  Remember this graphic from last week?   

Way too many prints in this quilt. It needs some supporting fabric players to calm it down.

A quilt without the supporting extras and co-stars doesn’t work very well.  Part of having a usable, successful stash is to have enough blenders, low volumes, and solids to pull together with a print and make a quilt.    However, far from being a super-star diva, prints do bring a lot to the quilt table, both in appearance and flexibility (if you know how to use them). 

First, prints come in a wide variety of scales (the sizes of the prints) – they can run the gamut from tiny prints to large ones. And it’s a good idea to have a selection of all sizes.  Most of the time, small or medium sized prints will work in almost any quilt except for perhaps miniatures.  The larger sized prints may take a little more work.  If those larger prints are cut into smaller pieces for blocks, they tend to lose their integrity – you can’t really make out what the print is because you’re literally only seeing a tiny bit of the print.  Many times these large prints can work as terrific focus fabrics – the fabric which pulls the quilt together.     

Personally, I tend to use larger prints for One Block Wonder quilts, Stack and Whacks (if they have the repeating print needed), and as the center of a block, such as the Square-in-a-Square. 

In this quilt, the print focus fabric is used in the center of the stars and in the border.

I can fussy cut the print to really showcase its beauty. I also use them for borders.  

The same quilt with the same print focus fabric. This time I added more fussy cutting to the borders in order to really showcase the print fabric.

While normally I like to add more zing to my borders with some additional piecing or applique, if the quilt has no more plans than to live on the back of a couch or on the floor as a play quilt, I tend to make those borders out of a solid piece of fabric.  A larger print can serve as the focus fabric and pull everything together nicely.   

Second, it’s a good idea to vary your style of prints.  I am automatically drawn to floral prints. I love flowers.  However, it’s important to think out of the box.  Florals are great, but so are geometrics, novelty prints (prints with animals, cartoon characters, etc.), themed prints, and prints with fruit.  And if you mix them, they can be unbelievably beautiful together.  This may be easier to do than you realize if we can get over the mental hump and stop thinking that only “like” prints can go together – such as if a quilt has floral fabric, fruit has no place in that quilt.  However, let me show you a couple of little quilts I made:

  This yellow part here – it’s a banana print.  

You have to train yourself to think outside the box.  Try different prints together.  Audition them before you cut anything out.   You may be surprised at how some seemingly incongruous fabrics play well together.    Before we leave prints, let me offer a couple of purchasing tips I use:

  1.  When buying fabric on a website, be sure there’s some kind of measurement indicated to give you an accurate idea of how big the scale is.  Sometimes the size is in the fabric description.  Other times there’s a ruler at the bottom of the fabric swatch to help.  My favorite websites allow you to enlarge the pictures, so you have a really good idea about the scale.  I have discovered I have no problems with purchasing small and medium printed fabric online.  However, I need to see larger prints in person.
  2. Pay attention to your favorite designers.  Most of them design several similar pieces of fabric at one time.  These are called Fabric Families.  Often these families will have coordinated blenders, solids, a large print, and several small and medium prints.  Even better, many times they will continue to use the same dye lots for several years in a row, so even the fabrics you purchased several years ago from your favorite designer will work with the newer lines.  Kansas Troubles is such a line. 
  3. Use your prints to help you find your solids and blenders.  Remember what I told you about the information on selvedges in the blog about solids?  Use those colored dots to help you find your solids and blenders.  Purchase a couple of each.  This way if you use your print scraps in another quilt, you already have some fabric which coordinates. 
  4. Revisit your prints.  Tastes change, times change, you change as a quilter.  What worked for you a few years ago may not even be a blip on your radar screen right now.  For instance, when I taught school, I had a lot of fabric school-ish prints on them – apples, handwriting, even chemical equations.  I used those in a few of my quilts.  A few years after exiting education, I no longer wanted them.  It’s a great idea to review your prints from time to time and purge what you know you no longer like and know you won’t use.  Give it away, sell it, or donate it.  It will also allow you to see what prints you’re still in love with and want to use.  Then you can review your solids and blenders to see if you need to add to them, so they coordinate with the prints. 


Now let’s talk about the James Bond of quilting fabric – the blenders.  Blenders are those unassuming fabrics which are really the secret agent of quilting.  They can take your solids and prints and make your quilt go BAM!  So what exactly are blenders?  They are any fabric with tone-on-tone prints, very small prints (so small the fabric can almost read as a solid), or a print that is close enough together that it literally “blends” when seen from far away.      At this point, you may be wondering why blenders are so important?  I think it’s because they do exactly what they say they do – they help blend the prints and solids in your quilt.  They provide visual texture to your quilt in such a way that nothing else does.  Texture may not have ever crossed your mind when you think about quilts, but quilts need texture to make them visually interesting.  We tend to think of texture as something we can feel with our fingers – such as linen or velvet.  The fabric in most quilts is smooth, it has no tangible texture.  Blenders do add texture, but it’s visual  not tactile texture.  And personally, I think it’s much easier to pick out my blenders once I have my prints and solids determined.  Most Fabric Families have a blender or two in them.  If you’re on a budget or don’t have a lot of room to store a lot of stash, purchase the blender yardage called for on your quilt pattern.  However, let me also add a couple of purchasing tips about blenders.

  1.  Most Fabric Families and your favorite designers have blenders.  If you like a particular fabric family or a designer, purchase several yards of their blenders you like the most.  Like I’ve said before, many designers/manufacturers will use the same dye lot for several years with their fabric, meaning the fabric you purchase today will probably work with a few fabric families developed years from now.  Ask me how many of my quilts have Kansas Troubles fabric in them. This is what I call investment fabric purchasing.  What you buy today will definitely be used up.  You may want to purchase these blenders in several colorways. 
  2. If you quilt long enough, you’ll find a favorite blender line.  Trust me.  This happens to be mine:
These are a few of my favorite blenders from the Folio line produced by Henry Glass.

I have this line of blenders in several different colors.  It is a tone-on-tone, but there’s enough difference in the shades and tints to give the fabric some motion.  If you’re like me and do discover a favorite line of blenders, you may want to begin with 1 ½-yard cuts.  There will be certain colors you use more than others and when you repurchase those colors, you will want to increase the yardage amount. 

  •  If you’re not sure what to purchase at a fabric sale, look for at a quilter’s yard sale, or pick up off the free table at guild meeting, go for the blenders. They don’t disappoint and will be used.

  Blenders also work well to tone down scrappy quilts and play nicely with any quilt that has small piecing.  Sometimes they can even be substituted for solids – which really adds depth to a quilt.  When analyzing what fabrics to use in a quilt, ask yourself if you can substitute a blender for the solid.  The results are truly awesome and add real zing to your quilt.  Blenders add unexpected sparkle to any quilt and serve as strong supporting characters.  They soften the transition between solids and prints, too.  Besides tone-on-tone prints (which are my favorite blenders), seek out subtle and micro prints, tiny polka-dot fabrics, and even super-small checks. You will not be disappointed. 

Low Volumes

Finally, the fourth type of fabric needed in your stash are the low volumes.  What are low volume fabrics?   Low volume fabrics can be described as basically subtle white, cream, neutral or pale colored print fabrics often with a delicate self-colored pattern or subtle design and are usually selected to offset the much brighter palette of colors available in many fabric lines.

  These fabrics are important because they, along with some sashing, offer the eyes a place for visual rest.  A few years ago, I showed you this quilt:

  The 1718 Coverlet.  This quilt is entirely English paper pieced and I’m sure it’s truly a thing of beauty and a joy forever, but it drives me nuts.  Why?  Because it’s too busy.  There’s no spot anywhere for the viewer to pause and take a rest.  If it had a few low volume fabrics or some sashing, there wouldn’t be a problem.  These low-impact visual spots also do something important besides letting your eyes take a break.  These visual resting areas add to the beauty of the quilt.  They help the eye interpret the design clearly and allow the eyes to roam and be led.   

At this point, especially if you have a plethora of solids in your stash, you may be asking if it would be okay to use a white or a cream solid as your low volume fabric.  It absolutely is!  However, a low volume print is very versatile and will add depth and dimension that a solid cannot, while still supplying the needed visual rest.   You also may be asking this question:  If a blender is a tone-on-tone and a low volume is a tone-on-tone, is a blender a low volume or is a low volume a blender? Yes and no.   A low volume print is any print where the print seems to bleed away when seem from a distance.  It’s similar to a blender but differs in that low volumes will be light and soft in color – think whites, creams, sage, blush, etc., in subtle prints.  Blenders can bring the rainbow and be eye-shockingly bright.    In other words, a low volume can be a blender, but a blender is not always a low volume.   

If you need to add low volumes to your stash, and you have some storage room, three-yard cuts are great to have on hand if pieced quilts are your quilt patterns of choice.  If applique is your technique of choice, you may want to purchase more – especially if you lean towards large background blocks.  While you’re shopping for blenders and low volumes to add to your stash, keep in mind that either or both of these are great things to add to your cart if you need a specific dollar amount for free shipping.  Both blenders and solids will be used down to almost their last inch.  However, before we leave low volumes behind, let me issue a couple of words of warning:

  1.  If you decide to make a quilt out of all low volume fabric, be sure to include enough contrast.  If you don’t, it will appear there’s a “void” in the quilt.  If you’re a seasoned quilter, you’ll know to pick enough different colored low volumes to make contrast happen.  If you’re a newer quilter, purchasing a whole collection of low volumes in coordinating prints may be the best way to approach the quilt.  This helps ensure you’ll have enough contrasting fabric.
  2. A design area and your camera phone are your BFFs.  Lay your fabrics out on a design wall or the floor (a larger space allows you to see more of the fabric) then back away and look at them. If you notice any “voids,” move the fabric around and see if you can remove them.   Then take a picture of it and look at it.  If there’s an area which looks as if there’s a hole (because all the super light colors are together in one spot), move the fabric around again.  Keep doing this until all the voids are gone.  If, no matter how many times you shift your fabric, you keep having voids, you may need to pull some of the fabric and replace it with other low volumes.
This would be a great low volume quilt. The blocks are simple, but the way they’re positioned forms a secondary pattern. There is enough color contrast to be interesting and avoids any “voids.” I’m not sure I would leave the borders this color, though.

  Now let me pause and bring you this public service announcement: 

Remember, there are no real rules in quilting.  

Which means my stash may look vastly different from yours.  I primarily applique and have pretty much passed on making large bed quilts any longer (I used to make two large bed quilts a year until I had given everyone a quilt I wanted to).  If I piece, I tend to make twin sized or smaller quilts, table toppers, or wall hangings.  All of this means, I have smaller cuts of fabric, but I have a lot of low volumes, blenders, and prints.  I have less solids.  While I think it’s important to have some of all four in your stash, the type of quilter you are (or will become) will determine what percentage of each is in your fabric hoard.  My piecing is much more structured than my applique.  For instance, I tend to use my prints as my focus fabrics either in the large pieces of my blocks or incorporate it in the border (or both).  Everything else is either smaller prints or/and blenders.  I may or may not use a solid.  If I do, I generally try to find an over-dyed solid and use it as a “zinger” (something scattered across the quilt top to add a bit of sparkle).    With applique, I want to convey feeling, emotion, or mood.  All bets are off when it comes to my applique quilts.  I can throw everything at them I need to in order to achieve the outcome I desire. 

  The more you quilt, the more you try different techniques and work with new patterns, the more your quilting style will show itself.  You’ll discover which techniques you like the most.  You’ll discover your favorite quilting colors and fabric designers.  It may take a few years, but you’ll fine tune your stash and your quilts to be completely those of your design.  Fabric shopping will become more efficient and effective.  Stepping into your quilt space to make the quilts you want to make, the way you want to make them will soothe you and free you like nothing else can.  

Before ending this week’s blog, I’d like to give a shout out to Castle Rock Quilt Club in Castle Rock, Colorado. They invited me to be their Zoom presenter last night. We talked about the history of quilt shows and had a blast! Such wonderful folks and beautiful quilts! Thank you so much Castle Rock Quilt Club! Hopefully we can do it again!

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!  

Love and Stitches,