I don’t talk a great deal about the quilts I create in my studio. I do this for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m a teacher. I enjoy writing blogs about techniques and quilting tips which help my readers. If I can show you something to help you make the quilt you want to make or make your quilting life a bit easier, this makes my day. Copywrite issues are the second reason I don’t show a lot of what I make. Some of what I work on is based on quilt patterns by other designers and some of the creations are solely mine. In the past 10 or so years, quilt designers have dealt with the horrible issue of their ideas, tools, and patterns getting “ripped off” by quilting ne’erdowells. We weren’t given the credit we deserved, or someone took a tool, pattern, or technique which duly went through the copywrite process and claimed it as their own. And social media has exacerbated the situation more than I can tell you.
However, today I’d like to show you what I’ve accomplished so far this year. And let me start off with this disclaimer: 2022 has been a weird year. This should explain a lot considering we’re still dealing with the aftermath of 2020. I have not finished or started anything I planned to this year. As far as my “lifers” are concerned, A Day in Grandmother’s Flower Garden and Language of Flowers haven’t been touched. Horn of Plenty for a New Generation is a different story. I only have two more blocks to applique before I make a firm decision on how to construct and piece the quilt top.
Usually I have completed more of the projects on my yearly quilting goals list, but not this year. It’s not that I’m necessarily in a quilting “funk,” but I’ve had a couple of quilting challenges thrown in my path. Allow me to explain.
During the Covid lockdowns, many quilt guilds began to have virtual meetings. The Warwick Valley Quilt Guild was one of them. One of my good quilting buddies, Eileen, is a member of this New York Guild. She encouraged me to check her guild out, and I did. The speakers were fabulous, the women were awesome, so I joined.
Now let me explain a little bit about how I view quilt guilds – or any other group I join. Yes, I pay a yearly fee which allows me to enjoy meetings and fellowship with others who share the same passions I do. However, there is a price to this membership and most of the time, the annual fee does not (by a long shot) cover all the group’s expenses. This is why it’s important to help out in fund raising opportunities. And this gets a little tricky because from where I live in Jamestown, North Carolina and to Warwick, New York is 583.2 miles.
So it’s not like I can show up to help with a quilt show or anything…
However, there will be a mini-quilt auction at their quilt show in the fall, so I made two quilts for the sale:
It’s a great example of how versatile half-square triangles are. This is a sweet, little Christmas wreath which can be used as a table topper or a wall hanging. It went together quickly and easily, and I had enough HSTs left over to make an “after quilt” (quilt back). If push comes to shove, the back of the Christmas quilt could be used for St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a two-fer as far as I’m concerned.
This is the second quilt I made:
This quilt was a ton of fun from beginning to end. I used some fabric from an old Judy Rothermel quilt kit. I machine appliqued it and then quilted it on Dolly, my New Horizon M7. I used the walking foot for the straight-line quilting; however, you may remember one of the reasons I upgraded from Big Red to Dolly was the M7’s quilting ability. Despite having my new machine for over a year (it was a year in April 2022), I had not had a chance to drop the feed dogs and try her out.
Well, let me tell you I am more than impressed with this machine. To begin with, dropping the feed dogs is a breeze. One touch of a button and they’re dropped. Now, look at this tight, mini-meander and loopy quilting:
I had sooooooo much fun! The machine handled free-style quilting as good if not better than my long arm. No buyer’s regrets on this machine. So much fun! I looked forward to working on this quilt every night.
Despite the fact these were small quilts, they did eat into my quilting schedule. Well, those two quilts along with the fact I was asked to design the High Point Quilt Guild’s 2023 Raffle Quilt, I lost some serious “Me” quilting time. Fortunately, my BFF Janet working on the majority of the applique has helped out tremendously. I farmed out the block units and have sewn the pieced blocks together. I’ve simply resigned myself to the fact 2022 was the year of “Quilt Happenstance.” There’s always 2023.
The one quilt on my list of goals which has received a great deal of love and attention is the Horn of Plenty for a New Generation. I love this fruity applique quilt, and I’m happy to say I only have two remaining blocks to applique and then I can begin piecing it together. Here are the blocks I’ve completed since the last time I posted about it.
Lastly, it’s confession time. I feel as if the last several blogs I’ve posted haven’t been as good as I normally like them to be. I contacted Covid last month and have really had a difficult time getting over it. Despite the fact I am double vaccinated and boosted, I have struggled in my recovery and am still not well. There is a possibility I may have what’s called “Long Haul Covid” – I’m negative but will feel the symptoms for a long time. I still cough a great deal, especially at night and the fatigue is devastating. Everyday about 2 p.m., I’m faced with the choice of making another pot of coffee and powering through the rest of my day or giving up and taking a nap. The days I can nap work better than the days I caffeinate and keep going, but my schedule does not always allow for a nap. I see the doctor next week (which in real time is the end of July) to see what he thinks.
My blog will continue because it’s one of the highlights of my life, but there may be times when it’s shorter than normal. Keep me in your thoughts and prayers!
It dawned on me that we’re halfway through the calendar year now.
Wow…where did the time go?
We’ve spent a good deal of time discussing tips and techniques about how to make each quilt you construct your very own – how to change blocks, add details, and swap out negative space. All of these little details enable you to take a pattern or a picture of a quilt, keep what you like, change what you don’t, and make that quilt uniquely your creation. I hope all these ideas have kept your sewing machine humming and your rotary cutter cutting and your iron hot. However, since I’m writing this blog on July 17, 2022, I think it’s time we give our equipment a thorough look over to keep it in great working order. In this blog, I will talk about some of the more expensive, non-consumable sewing notions and tools and how to take care of them.
The Sewing Machine
I think I can safely say, your sewing machine is the one item in your quilt studio which holds the most investment – both in time and money. Most of us don’t purchase machines every year or so, but only when our present machine dies from overuse, or the newer models have features we simply can’t live without. Some of my really long-time readers remember when I purchased Big Red.
I bought her in 2008, and she was only the third machine in my quilting career. I didn’t purchase Dolly (my New Horizon M7 Continental) until April 2021.
I wasn’t dissatisfied with Big Red, it’s just the M7 had so many new features she didn’t – such as multiple choices for quilting with rulers and a larger harp. Big Red, despite the thousands of hours sewing and millions of stitches stitched, still runs like a top, because I take care of her.
If you perform basic maintenance on your sewing machine, there’s no reason it won’t sew for years on end. Your first point of reference on machine care should be your sewing machine manual. Each brand of sewing machine is different, even if they’re made by the same manufacturer. If you’ve misplaced your manual, don’t fret. Google your machine’s brand, make, and model. More than likely, your sewing machine’s manual is online and all you need to do is download it. In your manual, you need to find a section on Care and Maintenance.
All the instructions about what to clean and how to clean or if to clean are here. Some of the new models request you do no cleaning or maintenance, but bring the machine into the dealer once a year. Be sure to read this section before you perform any cleaning or maintenance on your machine.
Generally there are a few things each sewing machine needs in order to keep it in tip-top working order (again, read your manual first). And be sure to unplug the machine before doing anything.
The needle plate and bobbin area – Remove the needle plate according to your manual’s directions and gently brush the lint off the backside. Remove the bobbin and brush the lint from the bobbin case (either the drop in bobbin case or the front-loading kind). I have found cotton swabs, a soft toothbrush, or a clean mascara wand work super-well here. These allow you to get in the tight spaces to remove the lint. Be sure to clean the teeth on your feed dogs, too. Please, whatever you do, don’t use canned air. I caution you on this for two reasons. First, instead of blowing the gook in your machine out, it can actually force it into some tighter spaces, which may require a sewing machine tech to remove. Second, most canned air has some kind of moisture content which can be equally harmful to sewing machines – especially today’s computerized ones. Likewise, I don’t recommend any type of vacuum cleaner, either. The suction may be too strong and can damage your machine.
Oil your machine if required — Again, this is a consult-your-sewing-machine-manual thing. Many modern machines (like my M7) do not require me to oil it. All the areas which need oil are inside the machine, so my sewing machine tech must do any necessary oiling. If your machine requires oiling, oil those areas highlighted in your manual. However, there is one area every sewing machine can use a drop of oil, and it’s here:
On the needle bar. A drop of oil on the needle bar helps everything run smoothly. Apply one drop, then sew out several inches of stitches on some scrap fabric to help distribute the oil.
Lastly, only use oil specifically designated for sewing machines. If your machine requires oil, most of the time a small bottle will be included with your notions when you purchase your machine. However, when this runs dry, or you misplace it purchase only sewing machine oil. Other types of oil can harm your machine.
3. Clean the exterior – I try to do this weekly, but sometimes I don’t, especially if I’ve got a project under my needle with a firm deadline. Again, don’t use canned air, because it can harm your machine. If your machine is dusty enough it requires a damp cloth, make sure to dry it down afterwards and avoid any mechanics or points where moisture can enter. Usually, a dry, soft cloth is all that is needed.
It’s important to clean your machine on a regular basis. If you’re sewing several times a week, and all you’re putting through your machines are quilting cottons, a once-a-month cleaning may be all you need. If you’re working with fleece, paper piecing, fur, wool, flannel, or are quilting all three layers of your quilt, you will want to clean your machine as soon as you’re through. These are notoriously lint-producing and can clog up your machine. Your manual may give you a general guideline on how and when to clean your machine. However, the more time you spend sewing on your machine, the better you’ll become at discerning the different sounds your machine makes – like the ”thunk” mine makes when it needs a cleaning.
A few final ideas before we move away from sewing machine care. If there will be several days between sewing sessions, cover your machine. Most sewing machines come with either a hard cover or a soft one (some have both). Covering your machine helps keep it clean inside and out. Second, no matter how diligent you are about cleaning your machine, plan on having it serviced every 12 to 18 months. A sewing machine tech will clean and oil all the areas you can’t get to, as well as troubleshoot any potential problems. If you purchased your machine from a local store, chances are they have a tech you can use. If your machine was some sort of an on-line purchase, Google the brand and find a local dealer. They also will probably have a tech you can use. If push comes to shove, or you’re unhappy with your present sewing machine tech, consult a local quilt guild. Most quilt guilds have a website or Facebook page. Shoot them an email or post the tech question on their page. If the name of the same tech keeps appearing, this is more than likely a good person to take your machine to for some in-depth maintenance.
Third, be careful about the type of cotton thread you use. I realize some machines aren’t picky about thread – they will sew with any brand, from the cheapest to the most expensive without a hiccup. However, this doesn’t mean you should sew with all of them. Some cotton thread brands are notorious for producing lint around the bobbin and needle plate area. Look for long staple cotton thread. The long staple thread generally is not as linty as the other types of cotton thread.
Rotary Mat and Rotary Cutters
Most quilters have a couple of rotary mats – usually one to take to classes, bees, and workshops and one to use at home– as well as several different sizes of rotary cutters. These were introduced to the quilt world in the 1980’s and completely flipped quilt patterns on their heads. We went from having quilt instructions given with templates to directions with templates and rotary cutting. Finally at some point in the late eighties, templates just disappeared, and all quilt instructions took for granted you were using a rotary cutter and mat. The rotary cutter not only changed quilt patterns, but also reduced quilters’ reliance on scissors. As a result, scissors became less expensive. Use of the rotary cutter took off like lightning, but the cutter never had quite the same price points as scissors.
On average, the quilter reaches for her 45 mm cutter the most. This is the medium-sized cutter and can glide through a few layers of fabric without a lot of fuss. The second most-used rotary cutter is the 60 mm. This cutter can cut through multiple layers of fabric with one stroke. Then there are the 28 mm and smaller cutters. My favorite – if you’re asking – is the 28 mm cutter. It’s small and can be easily controlled. It can zip around plastic templates and small rulers. It makes trimming dog ears off half-square triangles a breeze. There are also 18 mm rotary cutters, which I also like, but finding blades that small can be challenging.
Rotary cutters can vary in price from around $4 to $20, depending on the size and brand. And while this isn’t a great deal of money for a cutter, most quilters have several of them (I have eight) in total, so the possibility of having over $100 invested in rotary cutters is a very real one. To protect that investment, you need to know how to take care of your cutters.
Change your blades regularly – If you have to push down unnecessarily hard or re-cut several areas the blade didn’t slice cleanly through, it’s time to change the blade. The blade may be dull or nicked. Rotary cutter blades are one of those things I like to buy in bulk, because you always need them. Each cutter works a little differently when it comes to changing the blades. I always lay down the parts in the order I take them off the cutter. When I need to put everything back together, I begin with the last thing I took off and work backwards. Most cutters do have YouTube instructions if you get hopelessly lost. While the blade is off, take the time to wipe down the handle and inside cavity of the cutter. More likely than not, these may be pretty linty. After the new blade is installed correctly, put a drop of sewing machine oil on the center.
Most rotary cutter blade brands are interchangeable – in other words you can use Fiskar blades on an Olfa cutter. The only cutter brand I’m aware of which may not have interchangeable blades is Martelli. The holes are a bit different. However, I have three Martelli Rotary cutters and they are my favorite. I like the ergonomic shape of the cutter – it takes a lot of strain off the wrist.
2. Wipe down your cutter and blade after use – Most of us don’t use our cutters a lot on a day-to-day basis. We may use them to trim squares or cut off dog ears, but we don’t cut out quilts every day. Those days when you put your rotary cutter through the paces – such as you cut out a quilt or trim lots of squares – take the time to wipe the lint off the blade afterwards. Remember the blades have oil on the surface to keep the lubricated and you don’t want to remove all the oil. You simply want to remove the lint. If you have some canned air and are dying to use it, this would be a good place to employ it. Afterwards, add a drop of sewing machine oil to the center.
3. Keep the surface of your cutting mat clean. Don’t roll the cutter blade over any pins, needles, or anything else other than fabric and your mat. Items with a hard surface (such as needles and pins) can put a nick in the blade. Also be careful not to use the rotary cutter on a worn mat with lots of grooves and never use the cutter on anything but a cutting mat — which brings us to taking care of your rotary mat.
Rotary mats can run the price point gamut of $10 to over $100. The cost depends on the size, brand, and if the mat is self-healing or a regular hard surface. Most quilters have a couple of these mats – one to use outside their quilt studio and one to use in the studio. My personal preference is the self-healing type. If taken proper care of and stored correctly, these mats can last several years before needing to be replaced.
If you must store your mat – even for a short time – store it flat and in an area away from heat and cold. Keep them out of direct sunlight.
Clean your mat regularly — Since you’re cutting fabric, you’ll find threads on the surface of the mat. If you’re mat is still fairly new, it’s easy to use a soft cloth and wipe these off the surface.
However, the more you use your mat, the better the chances you’ll get grooves in it, even if it’s self-healing. These grooves appear in the most-used cutting segments – such as in 2 ½-inch, 3 ½-inch, and 4 ½-inch increments. This is just a fact. You can delay groove-making by using a sharp rotary blade, but eventually, just like those crow’s feet by your eyes, they’re gonna show up. When they do, threads and small bits of fabric inevitably find their way into the grooves. I’ve found using a white eraser (the other kinds seem to leave a residue) or a bit of tulle over the surface will dislodge anything in the grooves.
3. Wash your mat – Some warm water and mild dish soap really help extend your rotary mat’s life. Besides thoroughly cleaning it, if the mat is self-healing, the warm water will help the grooves fade away. It’s best is you have some where (such as a bath tub or shower stall) where the mat can be laid flat to soak in warm water. No matter how the mat is washed, lay flat to dry.
4. Flip the mat – Some mats are marked in 1-inch increments on both sides. Every few weeks, flip the mat over so both sides wear equally. If you have a large mat which covers a cutting table like this:
Rotate your mat every month so that what was the top of the mat becomes the bottom. This will also help the mat wear evenly.
In this category, I’m only discussing this kind of iron:
Not any of the smaller irons or mini-irons used in applique.
I have my own take on the irons I use to press seams, quilt tops, and borders: I use the cheapest I can find. This is because I am notoriously hard on them. They get knocked off my pressing station, ironing board, and any other surface I press on. They generally die an ignominious death and I simply make another Target, Walmart, or Thrift Store run and purchase yet another cheapest-in-the-store iron. I rarely…rarely…spend more than $20 on an iron…except for this:
My Panasonic Cordless Iron with the Dual Pointy Ends. I cannot tell you what a great iron this is when you have to press your quilt top, borders, or any other large fabric surface. There is no cord to get in the way, it stays hot for several minutes, and when returned to the base, reheats quickly. This is the only iron I will pay top dollar for and treat with newborn-baby-care. Needless to say, I want to take the very best care of it I can.
Other quilters I know invest good money in their iron and have all kinds of bells and whistles on them. No matter what kind of iron-consumer you are, it’s good to know how to take care of them.
To steam, or not to steam, that is the question – By this, I mean do you put water in your iron? Personally, I don’t put water in my iron because I feel it shortens its life (even if it doesn’t die a cruel death by being launched from your pressing station). If I need steam, I spritz the fabric with some water from a spray bottle and hit it with the hot iron. However, there are quilters who like to use the steam feature on their iron. If you’re one of them, be sure to read the manual which comes with your iron to find out what kind of water should be used. Some irons are fine with tap water, but others will use distilled. Be sure to use the type of water your iron requires. Tap water can have heavy metals in them which will affect the way your iron heats and steams.
Do not over fill your iron. The water reservoir generally has a “fill to” line. We usually pour water in our iron when it’s sitting vertically. Quite often, we think this fill line is too shallow, and the iron can hold and ounce or two more water. However, when the iron is using steam, it’s not in the vertical position, but the horizontal one. If the iron is over-full, it can sputter and spit out the extra water. Just fill to the line marked on the reservoir. It’s there for a reason.
After every use, unplug the iron (even if it has an automatic turn-off feature). If you’ve used the steam feature, empty the water reservoir.
Clean your iron frequently as needed. When the iron is unplugged and cool, rinse out the water reservoir with hot water. Wipe the entire iron down, including the cord, with a damp, clean cloth. Use a second clean cloth to dry the iron.
Clean the water reservoir to help avoid hard water build up. Pour white vinegar into the water chamber, turn the iron on high, and let it sit for about five minutes. Turn off the iron and unplug it, then empty the vinegar out of the reservoir. Rinse the reservoir with clean water.
Clean any residual starch or dirt on the soleplate with a clean cloth dampened with white vinegar. For stubborn residue, mix baking soda with warm water and give it a good scrub. Wipe the paste away with a clean, damp cloth and air dry before using.
Be sure to check the holes on the soleplate. Sometimes if the iron isn’t steaming correctly, it’s because these holes are plugged. Use a thin piece of wire (such as a straightened paper clip) and clean the ports by poking the wire in the holes.
Fusibles require they’re own special treatment—When you’re working with heat sensitive fusibles, it’s easy to accidentally touch the wrong side of the fusible to the hot surface of the iron. And when this happens, you’ve got a sticky mess. The trick is to work quickly, while the iron is still hot. Once the iron is cooled, the fusible is harder to remove. While the iron is warm, try rubbing the surface over a dryer sheet. Sometimes this is all you need to do. If that doesn’t work, try dampening a piece of fabric and pressing with the still hot iron.
If neither of those work, or if the fusible covers most of the soleplate, try Goo Be Gone or a Magic Eraser. Usually one of those works pretty well. If you do use either one of these (or both), be sure the soleplate is clean before returning to pressing and fusing.
Wool Pressing Mats
I love my wool pressing mat. It retains heat and makes pressing wrinkles out of fabric, seams to the side, or pressing fusible webbing onto applique pieces a breeze.
I have a couple of these mats. One lives on my ironing board, the other on the pressing station near my sewing machine and the tiny one in the box with my applique supplies. This one is my go-to when I use my small applique iron in classes.
Wool mats can range in price from $15 to nearly $80, making it a pricey pressing notion. And in my opinion, these are worth every penny, but they’re certainly not an expense you want to deal with frequently. It’s good to know how to take care of these mats in order to make them last as long as possible.
It’s best to store them flat – Just because they can curl up, doesn’t mean they should. Storing them flat keeps the fibers intact and the corners down.
Be cautious about using steam with them – If you have a wool mat, you’re more than aware of the slight odor they give off when used. Steam amplifies this smell just a bit. However, steam also does something else. Wool mats retain heat very, very well, which means they also will retain the hot steam. And this means the surface under your wool pressing mat can get wet due to the steam. If you use steam with a wool mat, just be sure there’s a towel beneath it to absorb any residual water.
Starch can discolor the mat – Starch will leave brown-ish residue on the mat. A starch substitute (such as Best Press) will not. The residue doesn’t hurt anything, but it does discolor your mat.
A clean mat is a happy mat – A lint roller can be used to pick up strings and small pieces of fabric left on the mat’s surface. If the mat is super-dirty, it can be washed. Fill the kitchen sink or bathtub with warm water and add soap. Soak the mat flat, and lightly scrub the surface on both sides. Rinse well and hang to dry or lay flat.
For stubborn stains, such as built-up starch residue or fusible webbing, I’ve found this little tool is a great thing to have:
This tool has rows of tiny teeth. When you run this over badly stained areas of the mat, it gently picks up the stained fibers, making it look like new.
I hope the information in this blog helps you to take the best care possible of your more expensive power tools and notions. While, yes, even in the best of circumstances these are all consumables, most of us don’t switch them out for several years (unless you’re like me with irons, and then heaven help you). Remember to consult your manuals for specific instructions before using any of these instructions.
There’s an old saying many of us turn to when we have to reflect on a past situation we wish would have played out differently: Hindsight is 20/20.
Which means, looking back at what happened then, in the light of present circumstances, we would have made different choices. At least we think we would. However, we also have to realize different choices may not have yielded any better results than we got.
I decided to apply this little hindsight exercise to quilting. For years, I was largely a self-taught quilter. It was me, my sewing machine, and a few library books. I learned what works (that whole ¼-inch seam allowance turned out to be pretty darned important) and what didn’t (you can’t always get pencil marks out of fabric). And as opportunities arose for me to teach beginner quilters, I tried to let them in on all the “secrets” new quilters should know, but may not always find readily available in books or on the internet. And that’s what my blog is about this week. Some of you seasoned quilters may quickly scan through this, nod in agreement, and get on with your week. Others of you who may not have been around the quilt block as long as I have may want to make a few notes. So, without further ado, here’s my list of quilty things you really need to know now.
Change your needle. I know I’ve beat this topic to death, but it’s important. I remember when brought home my very first sewing machine. I read the manual through the first few pages to learn how to thread the thing and wind a bobbin.
Then promptly tossed it somewhere. In my newbie mind, I had the information I needed and the rest I could pick up as I went along. About a month later, my machine started making a weird popping sound. A trip to the sewing machine tech yielded three important pieces of information: You need to change the needle after approximately 8-hours of sewing time, there are different needles for different types of fabric, and from time to time, you need to clean your machine. All of this information was in the manual, if I had taken the time to read the thing. Which I didn’t, which meant I had to fork over $50 (this was 1981) for the tech’s knowledge and cleaning ability.
After you’ve accumulated about 8 hours of sewing time, change your needle. Some people change their needle every time they complete a project. Some roughly track their time. I know the sounds my machine makes pretty well. As soon as I hear an odd “pop”, it means I need to switch out the old needle for a new one. If you sew with titanium needles, you can double your stitch time to 16 hours.
Also be aware different types of fabric take different types of needles, and different types of thread take different types of needles. The very best resource for needles is Superiorthreads.com. This site does sell thread and needles, but it also has an education tab. Underneath this tab is tons of great information about what thread and needle to use with different fabric, as well as what kind of needle to use with different types of thread. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned quilting veteran like myself, time spent on this website is truly time well spent. You may also find some quilting thread will offer needle suggestions on the spool.
Don’t be afraid to cut the fabric. Quilter come across some really beautiful fabric. Our shopping habits run the gamut from on-line sales, to shop hops, to frequent visits to our LQS. Keepsake Quilting and Pineapple Fabrics are literally within a few miles from my house. When on vacation or other out-of-town excursions, visiting that location’s LQS generally gets written in the itinerary.
Long story short, we have fabric. And once in a while we purchase a piece of fabric we just love. As a matter of fact, we love it so much, we don’t want to cut it. I’ve had these types of fabric in my stash. They made me happy just looking at them. However, those few yards of fabric aren’t doing anyone a favor by just remaining in our stash. Don’t be afraid to cut that piece of fabric and put it in a quilt. I guarantee two outcomes from this. First, you’ll have a quilt you will really love and use and will make you happy every time you look at it. Second, you’ll always find another piece of fabric you’ll love just as much – I promise.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Honestly, there are very few mistakes you can make in quilting which can’t be rectified in some way. As a matter of fact, don’t even call them “mistakes.” Call them design choices. Have a difficult time with keeping the beaks intact on your flying geese blocks? Cut off all the tips. If they’re all cut off, it looks as if this is the way the quilt was designed.
Mistakes can be fixed, and we can learn from them. Don’t let fear of messing up stop you from cutting a favorite piece of fabric or trying out a new pattern.
Realize it’s not a race. Probably the biggest issue I have with YouTube quilting videos is that they’re sped up. We see quilters and designers zipping through blocks and the quilting process at breakneck speeds. And from our observation, we think this is the way we should be sewing – fast and perfect. Allow me to let you in a little secret: Most of the time, these videos are sped up during post-production. Sew at a pace you’re comfortable with. Be sure you can stop on a dime if you need to and you’re able to sew a (mostly) straight line. I am not a fast sewer. Sewing fast makes me uncomfortable – I feel I can’t control my fabric.
It’s okay to toss the pattern. Seriously. It’s fine to throw the pattern in the circular file if you want – part of the pattern or the entire kit and kaboodle. Think about what the pattern tells you. It lets you know how much fabric you need. It makes you aware of any special notions. It tells you how many squares, rectangles, triangles, and/or circles to cut out. The pattern gives you a pretty good backbone to go by, but you’re not obligated to follow the whole pattern if you don’t want to. You can always make the quilt larger or smaller than the instructions tell you. It’s fine to take a block such as this:
And piece the center.
Certainly read the pattern thoroughly and decide what you will have to change to alter the pattern (more fabric, less fabric, enlarge the blocks, or shrink them), but no one is obligated to follow the directions down to the very last detail. The instructions didn’t come down from a mountain, written in stone, to be completely and utterly obeyed.
Remember to hydrate and take a break. It’s easy to get caught up in anything you love to do and lose track of time. Hours can click away and it’s often not until we get a twinge in the back or realize we have a dull headache we grasp how long we’ve sat at a sewing machine. This type of behavior isn’t good for our mind or body. It’s a good idea to stand up after an hour and move around. Get a glass of water. Stretch. By taking this time to give our bodies a break, we’ll be able to stay at our task longer.
Realize quilting is so much more than the machine. Don’t get me wrong, sewing machines are great! I have the new Janome Horizon M7 Continental. I love that machine. However, it’s important to understand using a sewing machine is just part of the quilting journey. And technically, the only stitches a machine really needs to perform for quilting are a straight stitch and a zigzag stitch. All the bells and whistles on the new machines aren’t even necessary. Quilting involves accurate measuring and cutting. It plays with color choice and texture. It requires attention to detail and creativity. A sewing machine – state of the art or otherwise – is only a small part of the process.
You need to pin. Seriously. Personally, I don’t trust quilters who say they don’t pin. Either they don’t care what their work looks like or they’re lying through their teeth. Using pins and knowing the correct way to pin seams, corners, and intersections keeps tips intact, seams meeting perfectly, and maintains the ¼-seam allowance. With this said, know there are dozens of different types of pins on any sewing notions aisle. Understanding what each type of pin is used for is important. Generally, quilters use glass head pins, the long pins with flat, plastic heads, and applique pins. Pins aren’t one of those super-expensive sewing notions so please purchase good quality pins which don’t feel like small nails and ones that won’t rust. And for the love of your sewing machine, don’t sew over them. If your needle hits one, the pin can break your needle. The pin can become lodged in your feed dogs, or if the pin is hit hard enough, it can throw the timing off on your machine. Sew right up to the pin, slowing down as you approach it, stop sewing with the needle down, remove the pin, and then resume sewing. This takes a bit longer than simply zooming down the seam sans pins, but your patience and attention to detail will show in the end.
Test everything. This hint comes from an experienced, former chemistry teacher who has taught more beginning chemistry labs than she will ever admit to. Test everything to make sure it works exactly the way you need it to. Thread your machine and stitch out a few stitches on some scrap fabric. Make a test block out of scrap fabric to be sure it will come out the correct size. If any of your tools are new (such as the iron, pressing mat, or a new starch or starch substitute), test those, too. Trust me – this is time well spent and can save you so much possible future frustration.
Pressing with an iron is important. I realize part of that sentence seems redundant – “with an iron.” I mean, what else do you press with? Well, when it comes to quilting there are a couple of tools which can sometimes be substituted for an iron. If the idea is to move the seam allowance over and out of the way, quilters have been known to use a tool such as this:
When the flat, wooden part is rubbed over the seam allowance, the fabric will lay to one side. Then there is this:
Which does the same thing.
However, neither of these tools work as well as a regular, hot iron. Pressing with an iron ensures seam and stitches stay put and greatly improves the look of the block.
Grainlines are important. There are three grainlines in all fabric – the crosswise grain (from selvedge to selvedge), the lengthwise grain (from cut end to cut end), and the bias, which is a 45-degree cut across both the lengthwise and crosswise grains. Most patches which are sewn into block units are cut on the crosswise grain. Borders work really well when cut on the lengthwise grain. Bias cuts are great for applique pieces or when true bias binding is needed. Usually quilt block pieces are so small that that if some grainlines are compromised in block construction, you can get away with it. However, if the block units are large (such as the background blocks for applique) you want to make sure all of the blocks are cut on the crosswise grain. Don’t mix them and have part of the blocks cut on the lengthwise and part cut on the crosswise – the quilt will hang cattywampus. Likewise, cut all the borders on the same grain. Don’t mix the grainlines or the borders will not lie flat.
Don’t expect the sewing machine to do all the work for you. I know this sounds kind of obvious. The machine can’t cut out the quilt or pick out the fabric or chose the pattern. However, this isn’t what I’m getting out. Realize, as much as you perhaps dislike handwork, some parts of quilting require some hand stitching. I have close quilting friends who despise any hand sewing and have figured out how to do 99 percent of quilt construction via sewing machine. However, there’s still the one percent which needs a bit of hand work. It may be sewing the binding closed on the miters at the corners on the front of the quilt, or adding beads, or stitching a label. Learn how to hand stitch well, keep good hand sewing needles in your stash (they’re not expensive, so buy some good ones), and have some beeswax around to keep the thread from tangling. If you know how to hand stitch and have the right tools, the process will at least go quickly and then you can return to your machine.
Learn the best way for you to sew a curve. Generally, when we think about quilts, pictures of blocks, columns, and rows come to mind. All of these are on the square-ish side of things. However, it’s important to realize quilts do have their fair share of curves – whether it’s applique pieces such as circles…
Or curves in the blocks themselves.
At some point, you may face the dilemma of sewing curves. The great – no, wonderful thing – about quilting is there is more than one way to accomplish a task and the internet is FULL of different techniques you can try in order to find which method works best for you. I promise I will have a blog on curves up before very long so you can try the techniques I use and see if those work for you or if you need to view other methods.
As you’re sewing, focus on the seam allowance, points, and intersections. I’ll be the first quilter to admit to you there are some parts about quilting which are boring. Those long seams around borders are one of the less interesting parts of the process. However, if you’re mind doesn’t stay in the game, it’s easy for the seam to be sewn crooked, or the fabric to slip out of place and suddenly the borders aren’t attached correctly at all. Which inevitably leads to quality time with your seam ripper (which is really no fun at all). Pin long seams, focus on keeping both pieces of fabric together as you sew a consistent seam allowance, sew as fast or slow as you feel comfortable with, and take out the pins before you sew over them. When you come to a point, make sure the seam intersects correctly so the points won’t get cut off. Make sure the intersections stay nested as you sew over them, so the seams won’t be off. In other words, even though Netflix may be blaring in the background with the latest true-crime drama, pay attention to what’s literally under the needle.
I hope my “hindsight” glasses are definitely 20/20 for you. I think these 14 items are good to keep in mind no matter how long you’ve been quilting.
It’s a fact of life. If you like to applique, at some point, you’ll have to deal with stems and vines. In a world of thousands of applique patterns, it’s overwhelming floral. And flowers denote the use of stems and sometimes vines. Even some pieced blocks such as the Carolina Lily have appliqued stems.
Stems can stand straight and tall, while others are curvy. Depending on the type of applique quilt under construction, stems may even form a circle – especially if you’re undertaking a Rose of Sharon type of quilt. They vary in width, with some stems being wider than an inch and others as narrow as an eighth of an inch. So, in an applique world where flowers seem to rule, how to you handle all these stems?
Like circles, there are multitudes of ways to make stems. This blog deals with finished edged stems – raw edged ones can be cut to size and stitched down. Finished-edged stems take a little more work. And the way I construct them depends on the width of the stem and in some cases, the type of applique block. But before we undertake stem construction, let’s talk fabric, bias, crosswise grain, straight-of-grain, starch, and non-starch.
In my opinion, stems (even more so than circles) go through some pretty rough prep work. For this reason, tightly woven cotton fabrics or batiks work best. Loosely woven fabrics such as Homespun or Peppered Cottons could fray extensively during the process. If I find myself in a situation where I absolutely must use a loosely woven fabric for stems, I pre-shrink the material in a hot water bath (do this by hand and not in the washing machine – you’ll have a ton of fraying to deal with if you throw it in a washing machine) and allow to air dry. This process seems to pull the threads closer together and stop some of the fraying. After the fabric is dry, I also press it with some starch, which adds an additional layer of fray prevention.
Stretchy fabrics may also give you issues if used for stems. They can stretch hopelessly out of shape during construction. I avoid any type of knit, jersey, or fabric with rayon and/or spandex for use in stems, and this includes today’s quilting flannels. If I am constructing a flannel applique quilt and the pattern calls for stems, I’ve found pressing some starch or starch substitute into the wrong side of the fabric before stem construction helps tremendously.
Bias, Crosswise Grain, or Length of Grain
Those of you who are long-time readers of my blog may remember this little graph:
This illustration shows where the straight-of-grain, bias, and crosswise grain (also known as width of fabric) are located. Most of the time we cut material across the width of fabric on the crosswise grain – we fold the fabric in half length-wise, making sure the selvedges meet at the top, and then cut. Fabric cut across the width of fabric has some stretch, but not a lot.
Sometimes we cut along the length of the fabric, and this is called “straight -of-grain cuts.” Straight-of-grain cuts mean you are cutting parallel with selvedges and this type of cut has virtually no stretch at all. Hint: if the center of one of your quilts turns out a little wonky, try stabilizing the outer edges by cutting your binding along the straight-of-grain. Sometimes this will help a bit.
A bias cut is one made on the 45-degree angle across the width of the fabric. Fabric which is cut on the bias has the most stretch and the least amount of fraying. Bias cuts are frequently used in garment construction and also in quilting — both in quilt blocks and in some binding.
The individual attributes of each cut are important to keep in mind as you make stems and vines. If the stems I need are straight, I have no problem cutting them on the length of the fabric. Admittedly, length of fabric is my least favorite cut to make stems out of, but if I need a lot of straight stems and I have a piece of fabric which is longer than it is wide, I’ll cut them on the length of grain. The ability to curve the stem isn’t needed, so the straight-of-grain works just fine.
If I need stems which curve just a bit, such as these:
I can cut my fabric on the crosswise grain. This cut will give you some stretch, so you have the ability to curve your stems. However, if the stems look something like this:
A bias cut is exactly what you need. Cutting on the bias gives you the maximum amount of stretch needed to curve and twist the stem exactly how you need it. Bias cuts also fray the least. This is another important attribute to keep in mind if you’re constructing skinny stems. Those stems can actually take the most needle-abuse, and if the fabric doesn’t fray, it will make your appliqueing life much easier.
Starch, Non-starch, and a Hot Iron
Two of these three items are vital to have on hand when constructing stems. Starch or a starch substitute is needed in many of the stem techniques. A hot iron is needed for all of them. Steam is optional – whether you use a spray bottle or the steam mechanism on your iron.
Let’s move onto making our stems. I will go over six ways I make my stems, and the first two are the most common.
Bias Tape Makers
Bias tape makers look like this:
And depending on the bias tape maker used, can produce ¼-inch, 3/8-inch, ½-inch, ¾-inch, or 1-inch bias tape (and you have no idea how badly I wish they had an 1/8-inch bias tape maker). These are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased individually or as a set. You’ll see all kinds of fancy-smanzy kits of these available for purchase which will include pins and an awl and all kinds of other doo-dads, but seriously, the bias tape maker is all you need. Everything else you have in your sewing studio. Personally, I use the ¼-inch and 3/8-inch makers the most, but did find in my research it’s cheaper in the long run to purchase the entire set (Amazon had the set for $6.99 at the time of this blog’s publication). Individually, they can sell from nearly $5.00 to over $7.00 apiece.
The bias tape makers include a small (oh, so small and so easy to lose) piece of paper with instructions on how wide to cut your fabric strips to feed through the maker. Despite all my good intentions and attempts at organization, I always lose misplace my directions. The rule of thumb is to cut your fabric strips twice as wide as the size needed. So, if you need ¼-inch bias tape for stems, you will cut your fabric strips ½-inch wide, no matter if you’re cutting on the bias, crosswise grain, or lengthwise grain.
There are a few guidelines to keep in mind during bias tape production.
Lightly starching the fabric before cutting out the strips really helps – especially if you’re a pre-washer.
Cut accurately. I can’t emphasize this enough. Try to stay as true to the width needed as possible. Otherwise, your fabric will “bobble” when it’s fed through the bias tape maker.
There are two schools of thought when making bias tape. One is to sew the strips together (the same way you do your quilting binding) and make one long piece of bias tape. This way you can cut off the lengths of stems you need as they are needed. The other is not to sew the fabric together and make several strips of bias tape. I fall somewhere between the two. You have to keep in mind that if the strips are sewn together, there’s a seam. The seam allowance can be trimmed away, and the seam pressed open, but this is still extra bulk which must be fed through the tape maker. This can be problematic if you’re making the ¼-inch or 3/8-inch tape – the tape maker is narrow, and you may have issues with the seam feeding through smoothly. If I’m making the narrower bias tape, generally I don’t sew the strips together. However, if I’m constructing the ½-inch or larger strip, and I need a lot of the same color of stem, I’ll sew the strips together. The larger sized makers seem to deal with the bulk of the seam better.
Bias tape makers are easy to use. The first step is to cut your strips twice the width needed. For our example, I’m using the 1-inch bias tape maker because it’s easier for you to see. Since I am making 1-inch bias tape, and my fabric strips need to be twice this width, I’ll cut my fabric strip at 2-inches.
Then I lightly spray the strip with starch and press.
The strip is much easier to feed through the wide end of the bias tape maker if you cut one of the fabric at an angle like this:
Insert the angled end into the back of the tape maker. If you notice the top of the maker, you’ll see a slit:
Sometimes you’ll need to insert pin or stiletto here to help guide the fabric through the maker until the tip of the angle comes out. Once I have about ¼-inch or so of the fabric exiting the narrow end of the maker, I pin it to the pressing surface.
This holds the fabric in place while I take the handle on top of the maker and begin to guide it down the length of the fabric strip. Don’t rush too fast and as more bias tape exits the narrow end of the maker, press it.
After making a few inches of the bias tape, stop and take a good look at it. The outer edges should be meeting in the middle and overall, the strip should look pretty straight and even. If you find fabric sides which meet the in middle are not as flat as you’d like, lightly spray the strip with some additional starch (don’t soak it – mist it) before it’s fed through the wide end of the bias tape maker. It will emerge from the narrow end of the maker still damp. Once the moist fabric is hit with a hot iron, the edges should flatten out nicely.
Bias Bars/Perfect Stems
Bias bars (also known as Celtic Fabric Bias Bars) and Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Stems are another way to make stems. These little gadgets are my preferred way of making stems. This method is not as fast as the bias tape makers, but I think they make a prettier stem. I also think it’s a little more forgiving – your cutting doesn’t have to be quite as accurate.
Bias bars are made from heat resistant plastic or mylar or metal. I prefer the metal ones because the heat from an iron is conducted better and the bars stay hotter longer, resulting in crisp edges.
Normally fabric strips for the bias bars are cut either on the crosswise or bias grains. If you need really curvy stems, cut on the bias. To determine the width of the fabric strip, take the width of the bias bar, multiply it by 2, and add ½-inch (you can add a little more than ½-inch if needed). So, if I were making stems from this ½-inch bias bar, my fabric strip width would be estimated like this:
(2 x ½ ) + ½ = 1 ½-inches. I would cut my fabric strips 1 ½-inches wide.
After these are cut, lightly starch and press.
Then fold the fabric in half, wrong sides together and press again.
Insert the bias bar between the wrong sides of the fabric.
Now using a zipper foot or edge foot, sew down open edge of the fabric strip, right along the side of the bias bar. Since most bias bars are only a foot long, you’ll have to stop sewing (with the needle down) and gently push the bias bar further down the fabric strip. Continue sewing and moving the bar until you get to the end of the strip.
Once this process is complete, remove the bar and trim the seam allowance close to the stitching.
Then roll the bias tape until the seam is at the back of the stem and press. If I have difficulties getting the seam to lie as flat as I like, I starch and press the stem again.
Bias tape makers and bias bars are the two most frequently used methods of stem-making. Since the stems made from the bars have a seam allowance on the back, those add a little more dimension to your applique, as they stand up a bit off the background. Which means they’re a welcome addition to almost any type of applique quilt except Baltimore Albums. Traditionally, the applique on those blocks is completely flat.
I use the next four types of stem construction for super-skinny stems. While I would pay good money for Clover to produce a 1/8-inch bias tape maker or for a 1/8-inch bias bar, I don’t think they’re in the works any time soon. Until then, I had to discover other ways to make super-skinny stems. Disclaimer here before I get comments that Simplicity had a 1/8-inch bias tape maker. Yes, years ago Simplicity did come out with a 1/8-inch bias tape maker. However, this was a single-fold maker and it worked on their bias tape maker machine. And while this machine is still available in some places, the smallest tip it now has is ¼-inch.
Before we move into the methods of skinny stem applique, there are a couple of items to keep in mind before you start. First, both the background and the stem fabric will be handled quite a bit. For this reason, make sure your background fabric isn’t loosely woven, but a good quality quilting cotton. For the skinny stems, in all honesty, batiks work best. This fabric is firmly woven and doesn’t fray much at all. Second, all skinny stems should be cut on the bias. This minimizes fraying, and the fabric is much easier to manipulate when it’s a bias cut.
The great thing about needle turned stems is you can cut the fabric strip a bit wider than needed and then trim it down as you sew. Please also note, this is the way I handle needle turned skinny stems. There are lots of other ways, so if my way doesn’t work for you, search YouTube and Google to find a method you’re comfortable with.
My first step is to lightly draw a line where the stem is supposed to be. This mark will be covered by fabric, so a #2 pencil, water soluble pen, or a Frixion pen works just fine.
Next, from your stem fabric, cut a true bias strip roughly twice the needed width. Finger press one length of the fabric so it folds over ¼-inch.
Line up the fold of the stem fabric with the line drawn on the background fabric and pin in place.
At this point, a decision must be made. You will need to stitch the stem fabric to the background fabric along the fold line. This can be done by either hand or machine. With me, this decision is made by the curve of the stem. If the stem is straight or slightly curved, I’ll use my sewing machine to stitch along the fold. I shorten my stitch length a little and sew it down. If the stem has a lot of sharp curves or loops, I’ll hand stitch down the fold – it’s just easier and faster this way.
After the stem has been stitched down in the fold, finger press the remaining free edge ¼-inch. Flip the stem over and begin to needle turn the stem. If the ¼-inch seam allowance on the flipped over side is too bulky and makes it difficult to make the stem the width needed, trim it as you sew.
Split Bias Tape
Admittedly, this is kind of like the needle turn technique, but the use of bias tape makers speeds up the process a little. For this method, you’ll need the ¼-inch bias tape maker or 3/8-inch bias tape maker (depends on how “skinny” your stems need to be).
The first step is to make a strip of bias tape.
After the bias tape is constructed, using your rotary cutter or scissors, carefully trim off one folded side.
Fold the remaining trimmed edge over to meet the other side in the middle, so it looks like normal bias tape made from a tape maker.
At this point, I use my glue stick and a hot iron. I will run my glue stick along the trimmed edge and then fold it over to meet the other side in the middle. Then I hit it with a hot iron. Since the stem has been cut on the bias and glue and heat are used to set it, the fabric should cooperate fully with the process. Always remember, you are the boss of the fabric – it is not the boss of you. Make it do what you want it to do!
After the stem has cooled and the glue has set, applique as normal.
Skinny stems can be produced by the Apliquick method pretty quickly and easily. Trace the stem shape onto the Apliquick interfacing (remember to reverse your pattern on the light box if needed).
Cut out the stem along the drawn lines.
Press the interfacing to the wrong side of the stem fabric, remembering to place it on the bias.
Cut out, leaving ¼-inch margin.
Then using orange sticks or the Apliquick tools and a glue stick, turn the fabric edges over the interfacing. Clipping the inner curves helps the fabric to hug the curves of the stem. Helpful hint: Apply the glue to the fabric first, then carefully clip.
Helpful hint two: A sheet of fine grit sandpaper on a clip board or a sandpaper applique board really comes in handy to hold the stem in place as you’re turning the fabric over the edge of the interfacing.
Just Pretend There’s a Bias Bar in There
This method using the same steps as outlined in the section about Bias Bars, except you don’t use a bias bar. First cut a strip of fabric twice as wide + ½-inch. For example, if you needed an 1/8-inch stem, your math would look like this: (1/8 x 2) + ½ = ¾. Fold the strip in half, wrong sides together and lightly press. Sew a ¼-inch seam along the long side, and trim off the seam allowance. Roll the seam allowance to the back of the stem and press.
Now that you’ve made your stems, and you’re ready to applique them down, I’d like to share with you some of the techniques I use to curve and twist them as needed.
Because I taught Heirloom French Sewing, I am familiar with lace shaping, which looks a little like this:
All of this lace is shaped before it’s sewn into the garment. A lace guide
Is placed on an ironing board, and the cotton lace is pinned in place on the guide. The lace is then starched and pressed until it takes the needed shape.
I hadn’t appliqued very long until I began to wonder why couldn’t I handle my stems the same way? I hypothesized I could draw the shape out, and then follow the same procedures I took with lace shaping, only just apply it to stems.
And it worked beautifully. It worked with everything very well, even the bias strips I planned to needle turn. I draw the curve needed on a piece of paper (use a pencil, the heat from the iron can transfer ink to your fabric), pin the stem into place, spray it with starch, and press it into the needed shape.
This process even works for stems with tight curves.
Before we end this rather lengthy blog on stems, I want to leave you with a few additional tips, which you may find helpful, especially if you applique a lot.
If you decide you want to shape your stems “off the block” by starching them into the needed shape, you’ll need exactly that – starch or The “Other” Best Press Starch and Sizing Alternative (not the “regular” Best Press). Either of these make the stems retain the desired shape in a way regular Best Press doesn’t.
All curvy stems – no matter how gradual or tight the curve is – work best if cut from a bias strip of fabric.
In my opinion, batiks make the best stems, followed distantly by firmly woven quilting cottons.
Store your shaped stems flat.
If you are a fervent appliquer, don’t throw away left-over stems. If you have five inches or more of stem length left, wrap it around a section of foam pool noodle and pin in place. Don’t have a pool noodle? An empty paper towel roll wrapped in a batting scrap works just as well. I can’t tell you how handy it is to have some pre-made stems at your fingertips as you plan a project. You immediately feel as if you’re halfway through your prep time.
I’m a quilt prepper – I like to have everything prepped before I start any quilt, either pieced or appliqued. Which means I prep all my stems before I start. Stems take a bit of time and care to make and make well. However, once everything is prepped, the applique can be stitched down without having to stop and make more stems.
If you are shaping your stems off the block, or pinning them to the background and ironing them down, be sure to use glass head pins. Glass head pins are entirely heat resistant and unlike pins with plastic heads, they won’t melt and leave a sticky mess on your those stems you just spent hours making learned this the hard way with French Heirloom Sewing.
The narrowest stem I can successfully make is between 1/16 and 1/8-inch. If I need anything narrower than this, I embroider it.
Always applique the inner curve first and then the outer curve. Your stems will life flat and not pucker.
And finally – always, always remember – You’re the boss of the fabric. The fabric is not the boss of you. It may take a little coaxing and even some coercion, but eventually it will cooperate and do what you want it to do. It just takes patience and good technique.
I hope you come away from this blog understanding how to make good stems and feel no intimidation about constructing skinny stems. Try several of the methods to determine what works best in your quilting world.
I’ve quilted well over thirty years now. Blogged about it for at least 12 years. And as much as I’ve written about color choice, technique, and hints, there’s one question I get asked consistently:
How do you make time to sew?
Believe it or not, this is a difficult question to answer, because I’ve quilted throughout lots of stages in my life. I began when my children were babies, continued through teaching and grad school, kept it up when I was running a school, and now as CFO of a company. I’ve hardly missed a stitch no matter what stage of life I was at. I’ve mentioned before quilting calms and centers me better than almost anything else, so I’ve always made time for it.
Someone else asked me this question again over the Fourth of July holiday week, and I kind of half-heartedly answered it: I make time, it’s a priority, yada yada yada… However, I really begin seriously considering this topic. And I came to the conclusion no matter what stage of life I was in, there were always a few tricks I had up my sleeve which helped me carve out a few minutes to sew. I want to share these tips with you, because life seems to get busier and busier, and it’s easy to think a hobby such as quilting can be delayed or postponed – that in the long run of everything-else-is-more-important, it can wait. However, if you’re passionate about the art, you know as well as I do, you gotta make time for it in order to keep your sanity. So here are my tried-and-true ways to carve out some time to quilt.
Block out some time
This is way easier said than done, I know. And since I don’t live your life, I can only offer suggestions via the way I do this, and you have to take these ideas and make them work for you. I have made a commitment to myself to quilt a minimum of 20 minutes a day. Twenty minutes is a workable amount of time and you’d be surprised how much you can get done in those few minutes. When my kids were at home and I was “Mom’s Savings and Loan and Taxi Service,” I’d get up about a half an hour early, shower, and quilt. Then I’d rouse the kids, pack the lunches, throw something in the crockpot for dinner, and herd everyone out the door for school. This was a sure-fire way to get in my quilt time and it made me a much more pleasant person to live with the rest of the day. Once everyone got home from school, we’d do homework, eat dinner, and then read and hang out as a family until time for bed. At this point, the only person literally losing sleep over my quilting was me.
And it was amazing how much I got done in those 20-30 minutes.
Now, with my kids all grown up and gone, I’m more flexible. I certainly don’t get up earlier now, but I do look at my day and plan when would be the best time. If my mornings are super-busy with meetings and work, then I shoot for the afternoon or evening. The first part of my week is always much busier than the later part of the week. Weekends are really flexible. Somedays I can get the entire 20 minutes or more in at one sitting. Other days, I have to break it into several sessions.
The important take-away is this: Commit to a time block for your sewing. Realize this isn’t written in stone – you may get sick or a loved one may be ill; you may have out-of-town company – and you can’t keep the commitment every day. But carve out some time to put needle to thread. Write it down. Put it in your iPhone reminders. And stick to it as much as you can.
Turn off distractions
For those few minutes, ignore texts, Facebook messages, phone calls, emails, and anything else which may grab your attention. Focus solely on your project. I admit this is difficult for me, because I am of that generation who was raised to answer the phone, answer the mail, and do it as promptly as possible. I learned to give myself permission not to do this – chances are, unless it’s a real emergency, these folks can wait for twenty minutes. Another helpful hint here is to be choosy about what you watch while you quilt. YouTube can be a big culprit. This social medial platform has “snippets” of videos and often one of these “snips” can be shorter than your committed sewing time. When this happens with me, I find myself searching for something else to watch, and wasting valuable sewing time. If you’re YouTubing, make sure the video is long enough or bleeds into another video you’re interested in. Personally, I’m Team Audible. Recorded books can go on uninterrupted for hours.
Organize your space
Most quilt studios are simply pictures of beautiful, colorful chaos. We have two or three or more projects under construction and it’s near impossible for the untrained eye to understand that yes, we do know where everything is! And we do. Most of the time.
It does save a lot of time if you have a resting place for all the tools you use regularly: Scissors, seam ripper, stiletto, needles (hand and machine), pins, thread, etc. Always return these to your storage spot at the end of every sewing session so there won’t be a mad hunt for them during your next sewing session.
Those of you who are long-time readers of my blog know I am a big proponent of project boxes. I keep my cut-out quilts, thread, and any specialty notions in them. This keeps everything together, so I don’t have to hunt them down. If you’re not into boxes, or don’t have room for them, keep everything you need for a project in a bag or somewhere in your studio can access them. This saves so much time!
Take advantage of margins
Notebook paper. It comes in regular ruled and college ruled. We use the center of it for lots of things – take notes, work equations, write letters – the list is endless, including making lists. There are two red lines on the right and left side of the paper to denote left and right margins. The left margin has the hole punches, and the right margins are blank. In school, we were instructed not to write in the margins. This empty space hung on either side of the center for teachers to write in or us to doodle in.
Our lives are like notebook paper. In the center are all the things we have to get done. Work, chores, shopping, cooking. But there are little snippets of time along the way which are completely blank – our time margins. A few minutes while you’re waiting on a return call, a couple extra minutes before dinner is done. Take advantage of those to put in a few stitches here and there. I always keep handwork out and available. It’s super-easy to grab this if I’m on a phone call or have a few minutes here or there. A couple of minutes isn’t a lot of time, but you’ll be surprised how much you can get done in that space.
Determine if you’re a morning person or evening person
Some people are “springers” and others are “creepers.” Some are early birds, and some are night owls. If you bounce out of bed at daylight like Tigger, chances are you’re a morning person. If your disposition is more like Eeyore, more than likely you’re a night owl.
I’m at my best in the morning (especially after a hot shower and a cup of hot coffee). Anything which requires accuracy or is pretty complicated, I need to undertake it before lunch. So, if I need to cut out a quilt, construct some Y-seams, or fussy cut, I am much better and more accurate with it in the mornings. I save my “mindless” tasks, such as chain piecing or hand applique for the evenings.
Examine what time of day you have the most clarity and plan your harder, more complicated quilting tasks then. You’ll breeze through them with more accuracy and in less time than if you put them off and try to do them during a more low-focus period.
Breakdown projects into like tasks and groups of tasks
For me, this is the step which saves me the most time. When I start a quilt, the first step I take is to read through all the directions. Then I mark the directions up according to tasks – this is strip piecing, this is half-square triangles, this quilt needs so many circles, etc. Since I’m not the type of quilter who only works on one quilt a time until it’s completed, it’s feasible I may have a couple of quilts which needs half-square triangles or strip piecing or circles.
Then I decide which step will take the most time – in this instance, it’s the circles because I’ll either use Applipops or Perfect Circles. Now I look at my calendar. The one night I have the most time is Monday. Unless I have an executive board meeting with my guild, most Monday nights are wide open. That would be the best time to work on all the circles, not just those for a specific quilt. The next step which takes some time is half-square triangles. Friday nights are generally always open, so I’ll schedule all of those for Friday. The strip piecing takes the least time, and it’s something I can do at my Zoom and Sew on Tuesday night. Wednesdays and Thursdays are held open for class work (I’m taking three classes right now) or quilting on Dolly or LeAnne.
It may take a bit of time to organize your quilt week (this is something I do on the weekends), but I can’t tell you how effective this is. If you come away with nothing from my blog but this step, you will save yourself massive amounts of time.
Use a timer
A timer was my best friend when I had little ones at home. If they needed to read 30 minutes a night, I’d set the timer. This eliminated being asked fiftyhundredmillionity times if reading time was over. When the timer dinged, they were done. Dentist said to brush your teeth for five minutes each night? Timer employed. Cake in the oven and I needed to pull weeds? Timer in the apron pocket saved dessert from becoming a burnt offering.
I also have discovered a timer is a good friend to keep in your quilt studio. Of course, now most of us have Siri on our phones (or some other app) which will set a timer for us if we ask. I generally set a timer for 15 minutes and during that time, I straighten and throw away. When I begin my 20 minutes of concentrated, undisturbed sewing, I sometimes use a timer for this, too. If I have a lot on my mind or there are other tasks which are stealing my attention, the timer helps me focus for 20 solid minutes. If you’re easily distracted or are pulled in a thousand different directions, the timer may be a huge help.
If possible, make parts of your project portable
If you’re strictly a piecer (unless you’re piecing by hand), this may not be possible. However, if you like hand applique or have a small-ish quilt to bind, try keeping those parts of your quilt together in a bag you can pick up and take with you. My hand applique is always kept portable in a tote with all my supplies. If I’m heading to my QBFF to sew, this bag is grabbed. Likewise, if we’re heading out for a trip (I can sew while the hubs drives).
When my children were younger, I kept handwork in the car. I would work on it while waiting for them to get out of dance class, music lessons, or ball practice. It was amazing how much I could get done in during this time.
Be smart when it comes to your stash and supplies
In many ways, quilters have it easier than other sewing enthusiasts. We tend to use beige, gray, black, or white thread. We always need a neutral fabric. And we don’t have to worry about someone outgrowing what’s under our needle before we get it done. These characteristics of quilting allow us the awesome opportunity to keep standard supplies on hand in bulk, which means if we break a sewing machine needle at 8 p.m. on a Friday evening, we don’t have to wait for the LQS or a big box store to open the next morning. We simply reach into our bulk supplies, pull out another needle, and keep sewing – saving time and in the long run, money (because it’s always cheaper to buy in bulk).
I think it’s good to purchase the following supplies bulk:
Thread (dark gray, light gray, white, ecru, and black)
Sewing machine needles
Rotary cutter blades
Pre-wound bobbins (if you use them)
Your favorite fusible
Starch and/or starch substitute
It’s always great to have these extra supplies on hand, and none of them take up a whole lot of room, even if they’re purchased in bulk. As a matter of fact, you could fit most of them into one drawer.
Fabric stash is entirely personal and subjective. I try to keep the basic neutrals (white, black, beige, and gray) on hand in three-yard cuts. These may be tone-on-tone or low-volume prints. And three-yard cuts don’t take up a great deal of space. However, those neutrals may be a great jumping off point for a quilt.
The last item I keep on hand is a spare iron. At this point, allow me to explain my iron issues. I am hard on irons. They invariably get knocked around or knocked off my pressing area. For this reason, I don’t purchase expensive irons. I make a Target, Walmart, or Goodwill/Thrift Store run and purchase two of the cheapest irons available. I use one and store the other because invariably at some point, the iron I’m using will die an ignominious death and I will need another. It’s so much easier just to pull out the spare iron and keep working. I also don’t keep water in my iron. This can cut down on the iron’s life span (even if it doesn’t get knocked off the ironing board). If I need steam, I use a spray bottle and water.
The freezer and a slow cooker or insta-pot are your BFF.
I still do most of the cooking around my house, which can seriously cut into my sewing time. I try – to the best of my ability anyway – to have a few frozen meals stuck back in my freezer or have the supplies to make a crockpot or insta-pot dinner. If there’s a day when I really have pull some serious time on a quilt, either a frozen lasagna or spaghetti comes out of the freezer, or I find some boneless chicken breasts and throw them in the slow cooker with a can of cream-of-something soup, a packet of onion soup mix or ranch dressing mix, and a half-a-cup of white wine. Six hours later, dinner is done, and you have uninterrupted sewing time.
These are a few of the ways I make time to get in some stitching time. Some days I feel like I’m constantly pulled in so many different directions, I never get anything substantive done. However, a few stitches here and there really add up. I hope you can use my suggestions in your own quilt studio!
Today I’d like to talk about a quilt block I consider to be the backbone of most quilt blocks – the half-square triangle.
For the sake of argument, I realize the square and rectangle are also pretty solid contenders for the title of Quilting Backbone, but they’re simply just….squares and rectangles. Depending on the fabric they’re comprised of, they can be …well…boring. At least half-square triangles have a little more pizazz and they’re actually pieced. I have quilted so long, I tend to overlook these blocks – which can be blocks all by themselves, or a block unit (part of a block). I’ve made them as long as I can remember, and it wasn’t until I made this quilt:
That I realized just how versatile they are. And while they’re not complicated to make, due to the bias the block employs, they can be tricky. In this blog, I want to share some of my favorite ways to make half-square triangles (HSTs), how I handle the bias, the mathematical formula to turn any square into an HST, and my sure-fire trick to making sure all my HSTs turn out the right size.
With the beginning of my research about HSTs, I wanted to fine out how many quilt blocks use half-square triangles as block units. I searched Google, Bing, and Duck, Duck, Go and you know what I found?
None of the search engines would touch that question. They would show me blocks with HSTs in them, but none of the three would even proffer a number. Not to be daunted, I searched Electric Quilt 8, hoping it would give me some sort of answer (keep in mind I have Dear Jane and Barbara Brackman’s Block Base in my EQ8). It responded with only 50 blocks in it’s data base with HSTs. To me that number seemed deceptively low, but it’s a starting point.
The next question I needed answered was how many quilts can be made from only HSTs – that is the half-square triangle is considered the block, and not a block unit. I was little daunted on this one, too. Google came back with the answer 999+. It seems after 999 quilts, Google threw up its hands and just said, “A lot…a lot of quilts can be made out of half-square triangles. Please don’t make me count anymore.”
To start, let’s take a look at the formula used to determine how big to cut your fabric patches in order to make a HST. It’s super-easy math. You take the size of the finished square and add 7/8-inch. So, if you’re looking at this quilt block,
and you decide you want to make it, but you’re not sure how to manage the half-square triangles, the first thing to keep in mind is even though the until is made out of triangles, you must think about it as a single block, and not two triangles in order to get your measurements correct. Let’s say the HST is 3-inches, finished (the term finished means you’re measuring the HST after it’s been sewn in the quilt block). You simply add 7/8-inch to the finished measurement:
3-inches + 7/8-inch = 3 7/8-inches.
You would cut two blocks of fabric (one of each color of the half-square triangle) each 3 7/8-inches square. Keep this formula in mind because it will work with most of the construction methods I will share with you.
The first HST method is the standard one – you cut two squares of fabric, slice them once on the diagonal to form triangles. Then take one color triangle and a triangle of the other color, place them right sides together, and sew them together along the long side of the triangle (hypotenuse).
The HST formula works with this construction method. One helpful hint I’d give you at this point is to blunt the ends of the triangle. This helps you line up the triangles correctly and there are no dog ears to trim off at the end. If you’re a little worried about blunting your triangles, there is always this little tool.
It’s the Marti Michell Corner Trimmer. You can use it to trim up your ends.
In the spirit of transparency, this is my least favorite way to make triangles for a couple of reasons. First, it’s easy for the ends of the triangles to get chewed up by the feed dogs on your sewing machine. Second (and usually most important in my world), it’s a super, super slow way of making half-square triangles.
The second construction method is one of my favorites, probably because this is the method I use the most, and I’m comfortable with it. The reason I like this technique is you don’t have to worry about the bias so much when you’re sewing. With the first method, the bias is exposed along the hypotenuse, and you have to be careful not to stretch it as you sew. The bias is not exposed until the last minute with this approach. The half-square triangle formula works with this method just fine, so cut two squares the finished size plus 7/8-inch.
Draw a line diagonally across one of the squares, from one corner to another. As this line will be cut away, feel free to use whatever marking tool you have nearby. The idea with this method is to sew ¼-inch away from either side of this marked line. If you have a quarter-inch foot, such as this one:
Use it on your machine to sew ¼-inch seam on either side of the drawn line. If you don’t have a quarter-inch foot, don’t despair. Use a ruler to draw a line ¼-inch on either side of the line or there’s this handy-dandy little tool called the Quick Quarter:
With this marking tool, you can draw a dashed line on the diagonal from corner to corner, and without moving anything, draw solid sewing lines ¼-inch away from the dashed line.
Put the fabric squares right sides together and sew along the lines on either side of the true diagonal line, then cut the square apart on the diagonal line. This will give you two half-square triangles. Helpful hint for this method: Mark the lightest color of fabric with the cutting and sewing lines. By sewing with this fabric on top, it makes pressing towards the darker fabric much easier.
The third half-square triangle technique yields four HSTs at a time, and it is a bit tricky, because so much bias is exposed at once. The half-square triangle formula does not work with this method. In order to determine how big to cut your fabric, take the finished size of the HST block or unit and add ½-inch to 1-inch. Due to all the exposed bias, it works better to make the half-square triangles a bit larger and then cut them down. How large you make your squares is really up to you, but I will tell you it’s a lot easier to cut down larger squares than deal with any fiddly bias issues which result from squares you wish you would have cut at least a bit larger ask me how I know.
Let’s say we want our half-square triangles to finish at 4-inches. In order to make this happen, we know we need to cut our squares out at 5-inches (which, by the way, means this size is perfect for charm packs). Cut the squares out and press them well with starch or a starch substitute. This will help stabilize the bias. With the right sides of the squares together, sew around all four sides of the square with a ¼-inch seam allowance. Once again, place the lighter fabric on top to make pressing towards the darker fabric easier.
Using a rotary cutter and ruler, cut the sewn-together squares twice on the diagonal.This should produce four slightly over-sized HSTs. I’ll talk about a couple of different ways to trim these down a little later in the blog.
There are a couple of other ways to protect the bias. Make sure your rotary cutter has a sharp blade in it. A dull blade can drag across the bias and stretch it. And if you don’t plan on using the half-square triangles right away, put off cutting them until you are ready. Then, once they are cut, handle them as little as possible.
The next method is known as “Magic Eight.” This technique makes eight HSTs at a time and note the half-square formula does not work for this method. Magic Eight has its own mathematical equation. You’ll need to cut two fabric squares for this, one light and one dark. The math for Magic Eight works like this:
Take the finished size of the half-square triangle needed.
Add 7/8-inch to the finished size.
Multiply that by two.
Let’s say we need 3-inch finished half-square triangles. The math would look like this:
3-inches + 7/8-inch = 3 7/8-inches
3 7/8 x 2 = 7 ¾-inches
We will need to cut two fabric squares, each 7 ¾-inches.
On the lighter fabric, draw an X, from corner to corner. Now, just like we did with second HST method, we will draw two additional lines, one on each side of the X, ¼-inch away from the X. Right sides together, place the lighter fabric square on top of the darker one, and sew along the lines marked ¼-inch away from the X.
Once that is done, we need to cut the half-square triangles apart by the following steps:
Locate the middle of the square and cut it in half along the middle, vertically.
Locate the middle of the square along the right and left side, and cut it again in the middle, horizontally.
Now cut the four squares apart on the drawn diagonal line on each square.
Press the seam allowance towards the darker fabric.
The next method uses 2 ½-inch strips or a jelly roll. Since we’re using a pre-determined size (2 ½-inches), we know the largest finished size HST we can produce is 2-inches. However, remember you can trim down these half-square triangles to the size needed.
The first step is to sew the 2 ½-inch strips, right sides together, along the long sides of the fabric, using a ¼-inch seam allowance.
Next, line the ruler with unfinished size marking of the HST needed on the ¼-inch stitch line. So, in this case, the 2 ½-inch marking of the ruler will be on the ¼-inch seam. The ruler will be at a 45-degree angle. Then cut out the fabric around the ruler. Rotate the ruler around to the other side and repeat the same steps. Remember to keep the lighter fabric on top, to make pressing towards the dark a little easier.
The final way to make half-square triangles is to paper piece them. While I don’t mind traditionally piecing larger HSTs, I consider anything much smaller than 2 ½-inch finished half square triangles trickier than I want to deal with. However, paper piecing will produce perfect smaller HSTs and the bonus is paper piecing will help protect the bias. Half-square triangle papers come in lots of forms. There are these by Moda, which are super fun to make:
They also come on rolls:
And in traditional paper.
The very best thing about HST papers is most sizes are available for free on the internet! Simply Google the size you need, and all kinds of options come up:
Some of these make two half-square triangles at a time, and others make several at once. These papers are directional, so make sure you sew in the directions the arrows point, then cut them apart according to the directions (each set of papers may have their own instructions, so be sure to read before sewing and cutting). Helpful hint one: Place the lighter fabric on directly beneath the pattern. Keeping the lighter fabric on top makes pressing towards the darker fabric easier. Helpful hint two: I keep the papers on until I’m ready to sew the half-square triangles together. This seems to protect the bias a bit better.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with a few tricks I employ to make sure my HSTs come out the correct size, with an unstretched bias.
You may get frustrated with your half-square triangles coming out different sizes, even though you’ve cut your squares out accurately. Sometimes this happens. I can tell you with all honesty, the more your make HSTs, the less this happens. Until that day, here’s a couple of tricks I use to help. First, let’s look at the sew lines on the square.
I don’t sew exactly on the sew lines. I sew one or two threads behind the line, towards the corners of the square. This gives you a little more wiggle room. Your thread will take up some space, and the fabric itself will occupy a little room in the seam when the half-square triangle is pressed. Sewing a thread or two to the right of the sew line buys you a little extra wiggle-room space.
Another technique I use is to make the HST larger and cut it down. I know we do this automatically when we make four half-square triangles at a time, but for those we use the formula with, I add a full inch instead of the 7/8-inch. This would apply to the first two methods, as well as the Magic Eight technique.
Once the larger-than-needed unfinished triangles are made, then you have to cut then down. This can be done the traditional way with a square ruler:
You line the diagonal seam up with the diagonal line on a square ruler, and trim to the size needed. Then rotate the HST and repeat on the next two sides.
My favorite half-square trimming ruler is Eleanor Burns Triangle Square Ruler. It is extremely rare I have a ruler which can only serve one function, but this is the exception to my “it-must-be-a-multi-tasker” rule. It’s super-easy and super-accurate and you don’t have to press your squares open to trim. Seriously, if a lot of HSTs are in your future, you probably want this ruler. It sells for $16.95 on Amazon, and slightly less on Eleanor’s website quiltinaday.com.
No matter which construction method used, the fact is you will deal with bias. All of these HSTs have a hypotenuse (the base of the triangle). And to get that long hypotenuse, the squares, at some point, have to be cut on the diagonal and this exposes the bias. This bias must be carefully handled, so it won’t stretch out of shape and cause your half-square triangle to be wonky. In order to keep the bias in shape, there are a few things you can do.
Starch your fabric with starch or a starch substitute. Spray the fabric lightly and then with a hot iron, press the cloth until it’s dry. Repeat this process several times until the fabric feels almost stiff. This stabilizes the bias.
May sure your rotary cutter blade is sharp. A dull blade can drag across the fabric and stretch the bias.
Once they are constructed, press (use an up and down motion with the iron, not a back and forth one) toward the dark fabric. Sliding the iron back and forth can stretch the bias. Steam is a personal matter. I don’t tend to use steam on any bias, as wet fabric will stretch more easily than dry. If for some reason the HST is wrinkled to the point I feel like some steam is needed, I lightly mist the fabric with a spray bottle filled with water and then press it with a hot iron.
Handle the half square triangles as little as possible. If you’re sewing them now and not planning on using them right away, you may want to hold off cutting them apart until you’re ready to sew. Once they are sewn and cut apart, press them, and store them flat.
If you are using any directional fabric such as stripes or plaids or material which has an obvious “up and down”, remember the orientation of these designs will change with HSTs. You can see how the stripes in my green fabric rotated different ways in this little wreath quilt made from half-square triangles. Care must be taken when using these in HSTs. If I use these in a quilt and they absolutely must be oriented the same way, I use a template to cut the triangles out individually. Yes, this does take a great deal of time, but when I do this, I’m guaranteed all my directional fabric will be correctly oriented.
Between this blog and my blog on Charm Quilts, I hope you make a quilt from half-square triangles. Almost all quilters need to have a good grasp on how to make HSTs quickly and correctly And really, what’s not to love about a good half-square triangle? Mindless sewing and so many quilt options.
A couple of closing comments. First, I’m not employed by any paper piecing publisher nor Eleanor Burn’s Quilt in a Day. Any products I mention on the blog I use myself and pay for myself. My bias, good or bad, is drawn from my experience with the product, not from any paid endorsement situation.
Second, thank you everyone who emailed, commented, or direct messaged me about the loss of my Sam. Let me tell you, after 22 years of him being my constant companion, the loss is deeply felt. I find myself looking for him without thinking and it’s the weirdest thing to completely ignore the cat food aisle in the grocery store. Huge shout-out to Faithful Companions Pet Care in Greensboro. They handled the situation of a sobbing cat owner who was completely incoherent with care and compassion throughout the entire process. Sam was greatly loved and given the best life I could give him. I miss him more than I can explain.
Will I get another cat? Probably. But not right now.
This week’s blog topic is charm quilts. While some of you may think we’re talking about these:
And we are…later on in this blog. However, technically and historically quilts made from these wonderful pre-cuts aren’t charm quilts. So, what are charm quilts?
Well, they actually began with buttons.
From 1850 to 1870 it became very fashionable for young ladies to collect one-of-a-kind buttons. Lots of buttons. Hundreds of buttons. A young woman would string all these buttons on a “charm string” with the hope she would meet her “Prince Charming” before there were 1,000 buttons on the string.
Quilters took this idea and altered it to fit their fabric narrative. It became very chic to make a quilt out of hundreds or thousand pieces of fabric, with no two pieces of material alike. Quite often these were also called “Beggar Quilts” since the women making these quilts would ask their friends and relatives for pieces of fabric. The US Postal Service became a vital part of these quilts and the lives of their quilters. Packages of scraps were mailed across the country regularly, resulting in eagle-eyed quilters eagerly monitoring their mailboxes.
There were two loose rules concerning the quilts. First, no two identical fabrics were allowed; and second, generally these were one patch quilts – only one style of block unit was used. Sometimes hexagons were chosen (this one was pretty popular). Skillful quilters could turn the hexagons into Tumbling Block units or stars. Sometimes simple squares or rectangles were used. Triangles and diamonds were also incorporated into these quilts. The four-patch quilt block was second in popularity to the hexagon, although sometimes you had to squint to recognize it. Often the quilter would be picky about the fabric she begged or borrowed. She would want as many lights as darks or mediums so when she pieced the quilt, a pattern would begin to show.
Some charm quilt designers really bent the rules and used one consistent light throughout the quilt so a distinct pattern would show. The use of this single light fabric unified quilts and made all the colors play nicely together. Most of the charm quilts were made from prints, although some quilters did use solids if needed.
By the third quarter of the 19th century, fabric manufacturers had caught on to the Charm Quilt fervor. They began to offer bundles of small scraps, with no two being exactly alike, for purchase. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Charm Quilt’s popularity began to decline. It was revived in the 1920’s-1930’s, when the Great Depression set in, and every scrap of fabric was used to make utility quilts. It waned in popularity again in the 1940’s and onward as women entered the work force and quilting itself took a hit. In the 1970’s, our Bicentennial revived interest in quilting and with the new-found fascination in the art, many old quilt patterns once again flourished, including Charm Quilts.
From the 1970’s to present, quilting itself has held steady in the number of quilters as well as its popularity. When the Millennium was on the horizon, lots of quilters found the idea of making a Charm Quilt out of 2,000 unique fabrics just the challenge they were looking for. While I didn’t do this myself (I was way too busy teaching school then to even think about undertaking this challenge), I personally know several quilters who did.
By the year 2000, with quilting design software flourishing and a wide variety of fabrics in almost every palette available, new patterns were developed, and these quilts were much more sophisticated than their late 19th century Charm Quilt counterparts.
With the major rule of “no fabric can be used more than once”, I think lots of quilts which aren’t normally considered Charm Quilts can fall into this category.
For instance, Dear Jane may be considered a Charm Quilt. While the blocks and the border triangles are all different, a “true” Dear Jane never uses the same fabric more than once. The same theory goes for a Dear Hannah Quilt and one of the many Farmer’s Wife quilts. If a quilter makes a quilt and no fabric is used more than once (except for a consistent light), it falls in the category of Charm Quilt.
Today, the definition of a Charm Quilt gets a little foggy. If a quilter mentions “Charm Quilt,” most of us (myself included), tend to think about these wonderful, little pre-cuts
And the quilts made from them. Indeed, many of the patterns for these 5-inch and 2 ½-inch squares use the term charm quilt in the title. And technically, if no two fabrics are the same in these packets, it’s a true charm quilt. So let’s take a look at these charm packs and see how easy they make any quilt’s construction.
Let me be upfront and tell you, I love these charm packs. They give you one 5-inch or 2 ½-inch cut of most the fabrics in a line – the only fabric which may be left out is one in which the print is so large would lose its integrity is such a small space.
If you’re thinking about using one of these to make bed-sized quilt, remember:
For 5-inch Charm Pack Quilts
456 5-inch squares or 11 charm packs for a full-sized quilt
480 5-inch squares or 12 charm packs for a queen-sized quilt
600 5-inch squares or 15 charm packs for a king-sized quilt
The largest quilt you can make with one 5-inch charm pack is 27-inches x 31 ½-inches. The largest quilt you can make with two 5-inch charm packs is a 40-inch square quilt. Of course if sashing and/or borders are added, the quilt will become larger.
If you have a quilt pattern you think would be 5-inch charm pack friendly, it’s super-easy to figure out how many 5-inch squares you may need. Simply divide the length and width of the quilt by the finished square – this means instead of dividing by 5, you’ll divide by 4 ½-inches, allowing for a ½-inch seam allowance taken in when piecing the quilt. So, let’s say we want to make a quilt 45-inches wide by 62-inches long.
For the width, simply divide 45 by 4 ½, which comes out to be 10. Now we deal with the length, which is 62-inches. When we divide 62 by 4 ½, we get 13.77778, which we will round up to 14.
Then we multiply 10 and 14, to come up with the number of 5-inch squares needed. This gives us 140 (if you remember your geometry, we just used the formula to find the area of a square or rectangle). This doesn’t mean we need 140 charm packs. Most charm packs contain 42 squares. Divide 140 by 42 to get 3.333333, which we’ll round up to four. We would need four 5-inch charm packs to make a quilt 45-inches wide by 62-inches long. There are a couple of issues to keep in mind at this point.
Read the label on the charm pack do determine exactly how many squares are in it. Once you determine the area of your quilt, it’s that number you divide by, not necessarily 42. Most charm packs have 42 squares, but not all of them.
If you can’t find the number of charm packs you need, always remember you can add length and width to your quilt by incorporating sashing and borders.
Let’s take a look at the little guys now – the 2 ½-inch charm pack. Sometimes these small packs are called mini-charms. Moda calls them Candy. I have to admit, after I first saw these in my LQS, I wondered what in the world anyone could make with these. Pieces of fabric this small usually found their way into my circular file. I didn’t even keep scraps this small in my applique bins. However, I found out these mini-charms had lots of uses and were pretty cool pre-cuts. First, let’s look how they fit into quilts.
Admittedly, it would take a lot of these small squares to make a quilt – even a crib size – although a doll quilt or mini-quilt would work well with these. But just to see how many packs of 2 ½-inch charms it would take to make a crib quilt (which is normally 36-inches wide by 46-inches long), we can apply the same area formula used with the 5-inch charms. First, let’s figure out the finished size of the 2 ½-inch charm. We do this by deducting ½-inch from the unfinished size (1/4-inch seam allowance on each side): 2 ½ – ½ = 2.
36-inches divided by 2-inches = 18
46-inches divided by 2-inches = 23
18 x 23 = 414
Like it’s larger counterpart, most mini-charms also have 42 squares (be sure to read the label to make sure).
414 divided by 42 = 9.857143 or 10 packs of the 2 ½-inch charms to make a crib quilt.
Also like its larger counterpart, you can add sashing and borders to add to the length and width. However, at this point, you gotta be thinking, “If I have to add sashing and borders to a quilt made solely from mini-charms, they’ll have to be small, too.”
And that is true. To stay in proportion, both the borders and sashing would have to narrow.
What I have found these small squares are great for is block units. Many, many quilt patterns call for 2 ½-inch squares. If they’re incorporated into a scrappy quilt, you’ve reduced the cutting time. They are also wonderful to use in Cathedral Quilts as the center color and perfect for Postage Stamp Quilts. And if the sashing in your quilt is 2 ½-inches unfinished, a pack of the mini-charms would make great cornerstones.
There is an additional use for both of these charm packs in my quilting world. I use them a precursor to large yardage orders. As much as I love my LQS, sometimes I have to order fabric off the internet. If I must order significant yardage, and especially if what I order needs to coordinate with fabric I already have or harmonize with a current décor, and the mini-charms or 5-inch charms are available in the fabric line I need, I will order the charms first. Fabric colors are often altered by web pages and computer screens. When I have the charms in hand, I can accurately decide if the fabric will work. If it doesn’t, I’m only out a few dollars verses the perhaps hundreds of dollars I would have spent for yardage.
Of course, now the question is what do I do with these charm packs once I’ve ordered yardage? If they can’t be incorporated into the blocks themselves, I can use them in the borders or perhaps the applique, if the quilt has applique in it. But my favorite way to use them is this:
These wonderful charm packs are available in all one solid color. I can order a pack of white or another neutral, match those up with my other charms and make half-square triangles. I really enjoy doing this. After a difficult week in the office, Friday nights with a glass or two of wine, some mindless sewing and Netflix binging are just what I need. Once I get all the HSTs made, I can arrange them into quilt squares (the number of different quilt squares which can be made from HSTs is nearly endless). I can sew all of these together in rows and make a small quilt which I can send to one of the charities I sew for.
I hope this blog has done one of two things (but hopefully both). First, challenge you to make a “true” charm quilt at some point during your quilting career. This is a great way to organize your stash or arrange fabric swaps with quilty friends. Second, I hope it allows you to see the potential of “today’s” charm quilts with pre-cuts. The math isn’t hard, and it allows for a lot of creative potential.
I am sad to tell you, this will be the last week my blog will be signed by Sam and me. Sam went over the Rainbow Bridge at 1:46 p.m. on June 17, 2022. The weekend prior, I went to the mountains with the grand darlings for one night. As soon as I returned on Saturday, he began to go down hill pretty quickly.
Sam was 22 years-old, which in human years equals 154. He just celebrated his 22nd birthday April 15. I’ve had three cats in my lifetime and he was absolutely the smartest of the three. His routine began at 5:30 a.m. He would meow to be let out of my bedroom to use his litterbox. Around 6, he’d amble back in and meow for me to get up and feed him. If I didn’t budge by 6:30, he’d get louder. Whatever room I was in, he wasn’t far. And if anyone walked into the kitchen, he’d stalk them in there and stare a hole through the cabinet which held his treats until you gave him some.
By 9:30 p.m., he was staring me down in my studio, because that was our “couch time.” I’d turn off my machine, stop whatever I was doing, and we’d park ourselves on the couch for an hour, watching television and eating one last snack before bed — usually yogurt. I’d open a container and give him a couple of teaspoons in a separate dish.
He wasn’t much of a mouser, but in all honesty, we didn’t have many mice. He did love a good steak and shrimp, but wouldn’t turn his nose up at a nice piece of poached chicken, either. I hope, if animals do go to heaven, Scooter and Garfield have met him there. I hope all three have all the catnip they can deal with.
Sam’s blankets are put up, his bowls are washed and stored. His food has been donated to the local animal shelter.
But the pawprints on my heart will never be erased.
Okay, let’s start this blog off a little differently. Let’s play a word association game. When I say, “The 1970’s” what do you think about?
Those avocado green kitchen appliances?
The Vietnam War?
Lots of items, people, events, and places are strongly connected to the Decade of the Seventies. The one thing which probably didn’t cross your mind was quilts. In general, quilters don’t think about the seventies being one of those eras which produced many (if any) groundbreaking quilts or quilters.
And if you believe that, I have a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you.
The 1970’s were the Wild West of Quilting. This 10-year period was packed with new ideas and devoted new quilters. Most of our existing quilt guilds were formed from quilters in this era. It was these quilters and their quilts which pushed new quilting tools and planted the first seeds of the Quilt Projects which took place in the 1980’s. However, there are two events which absolutely must be closely examined as we think about the psychedelic quilts of the seventies:
Jonathan Holstein’s and Gail van der Hoof’s quilt show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
The invention of polyester fabric.
We’ll get to both of those in just a bit because they are both equally important. But first, let’s discuss what the Seventies were like, because like most quilts and quilters, societal issues shaped the quilts and formed quilter’s backdrop.
To begin with, World War II was over. We realize it was this War which eventually pulled us out of the aftershocks of the Great Depression, and if you’ve read my blogs:
You know what kind of quilts were made during this time. During the seventies, we had the end of Vietnam War, but the Cold War lingered for a few more decades. Civil Rights struggles were front and center of many newscasts and newspapers. Prompted by a speech from President John F. Kennedy in the sixties, we were still exploring space, and this exploration developed many products for our homes and lives some of us can’t remember not ever having.
And while the seventies were a decade of technological growth and intellectual expansion, ever pushing for life to be good now and even better in the future, there was a societal push back. The Back to Nature culture also took off. I remember a series of books called Foxfire. These examined all kinds of “back to nature” topics, such Appalachian cooking, hog dressing, log cabin building, mountain crafts, moonshining, planting by the signs, snake lore, and faith healing. The entire set was in my parent’s bookcase, and I think the closest we came to employing any of this in our lives was the “Planting by the Signs” part. These books were runaway best sellers and the forerunner of our modern Preppers Movement. There truly is nothing new under the sun. For us quilters, the upside to this was the Back to Nature movement heavily pushed handmade crafts, including quilting.
Then the 1976 Bicentennial Year amped the handicraft movement up about 100 notches.
And if there is one person we can point to as initiating this renewed interest in quilting, it’s this lady.
Rose Wilder Lane.
Yes, that Rose Wilder Lane – Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter. Like her mother, Ms. Lane was a writer. If you read any of the literary critics concerning Rose’s writing, one of the first details you’ll discover is there is a real quandary about who exactly wrote what. Many of Rose Wilder Lane’s books roughly follow the same story paths as the Little House Books. Yet we know Rose helped Laura edit her books. However, that’s another discussion for another day. What we quilters are concerned with is this: Rose Wilder Lane liked quilts. She wrote about them. In 1961, she wrote an article called “Patchwork” and it was published in Woman’s Day. Some of this writing is fanciful, some of it is straight-up fiction, but it was this article many of the 1970’s quilters turned to for instruction and inspiration.
However, we must also keep in mind is what wasn’t available in the Seventies: the internet, hundreds of books about quilting, quilting notions, quilting classes, and local quilt shops were few and far between, if available at all. In short, everything we completely take for granted, for the most part wasn’t available to a person in the 1970’s who wanted to learn to quilt. There were a few mail-order quilting supply places. The library may have a few resources, but a straight stitch sewing machine, a good pair of fabric scissors, needles, thread (usually Coats and Clark or Dual Duty), and cardboard and sandpaper for templates were all you had, and for the most part, all you needed. However, there is an interesting result from this lack of resources: quilters felt free to figure things out for themselves. There was no right or wrong way – it was whatever worked. And from this mind frame sprang ideas for new tools, new machines, and new techniques. Quilting in the Seventies was a cross between Little House on the Prairie and the Starship Enterprise.
You know what also wasn’t readily available in the Seventies?
Cotton crops didn’t do too well, and cotton fabric was expensive. If you grew up in the seventies like I did, you remember what fabric we wore: polyester and double knit. On one hand, it was great. It was relatively cheap. It didn’t wrinkle. It didn’t fade. It came in a variety of colors.
On the other hand, it was terribly hot, horribly scratchy, uncomfortable, and it picked easily. I also remember the smell. It absolutely did not breathe, which meant if you got hot and sweaty, there wasn’t enough deodorant in the world to tone down your own body odor and the stinky smell of the polyester. I hit my preteens and teen years during the seventies and my mom made all my clothes. There was this fabric store in Burlington called “The Remanent Shop” and that was where we went to buy fabric. As soon as the doors opened, I had to give myself a minute because the smell of all that polyester was stomach-churning.
Because polyester was sometimes all that was available to quilters, they had to use it in their quilts.
I realize some of my readers may not be old enough to remember the joys of early polyester. So let me give you a brief chemistry lesson, because polyester is a chemical not a fiber. It is formed by a chemical reaction between an acid and an alcohol. The polyester used in fabric most commonly refers to polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE for short). It is also a thermoplastic which means it melts and is malleable at certain temperatures (about 480 degrees F) and it turns back into a solid when it cools.
The polyester fabric we had to deal with in the 1970’s was far different than what we have today. As far as the material purchased for today’s garment construction, we’re used to cotton/poly blends (which has the breathability of cotton but doesn’t wrinkle), or the polyester blended with rayon and spandex. The polyester of the Seventies was thicker, so when it was used in quilts, quilters really had a lot of bulk they had to deal with. It was too thick to use with prepared edge applique. As a result quilters learned to use simple applique shapes and either blanket stitch around them by hand or use the zig zag stitch on their sewing machines. But imagine how difficult this all was – dealing with super-bulky seams, not being able to press seams as flat as you needed to, and then once the quilt was finished, it was both heavy and scratchy.
But let me remind you it was the Seventies. There was no list of do’s and don’ts. Quilters made their own rules and then broke them the next day if the rules no longer worked. They pushed and pestered fabric manufacturers until they finally did start manufacturing cotton/poly blends. And while these aren’t ideal for piecing or applique (they don’t hold a crease well), they were a far sight better than the straight-up nasty 1970’s polyester (I was never a fan – can you tell?).
What amazes me about this group of quilters is they came up with their own solutions and developed their own tools without a social media network, sewing group, classes, or even guilds. There were loose quilting networks which met together in churches or used the US Postal Service to send letters and patterns back and forth. They took the vivid, bright, “groovy”, color palates of the Seventies, combined them with traditional blocks and came up with wonderful quilts.
This era produced quilters such as Faith Ringgold, Yvonne Wells, MC Lamb, Jean Raye Laurie, and Nancy Crow. There is one quilter we especially owe a debt of gratitude:
Today when her name is mentioned, we tend to think about her rulers and templates (which are awesome, by the way – I have quite a few several). But by the end of the 1970’s, she’s the one who really pushed quilting to the platform we have today. She is an author (she’s published well over 30 books), entrepreneur, pattern writer, and fabric designer. She is the driving force who kept quilting relevant after the Bicentennial and saved it from becoming a dying art.
Marti and her husband moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1970. After settling in, she signed up for quilt classes which were offered through her local church. The quilting bug bit hard and soon she began teaching quilting as a side hustle. Infectious, positive, energetic, and fun, her classes filled quickly. Marti realized a couple of things. First, finding decent polyester fabric to quilt with was difficult. She made some phone calls and mailed some letters to fabric manufacturers. The manufacturers agreed to let her purchase the fabric she needed for her classes. From this fabric, she developed patterns and quilt kits for her students.
She also realized something else – hand quilting polyester quilts was difficult. It wasn’t impossible, but even if a thin batting and a muslin backing was used, there still was a great deal of bulk in the top and that was hard to rock a quilt needle through. So, she came up with a radical idea – let’s quilt these things on a sewing machine.
Traditional quilters were horrified.
The quilters who came to the art in the Seventies were delighted.
At this point, let’s keep in mind what the 1970’s quilter didn’t have: Long arms, mid arms, or sewing machines with large harps. There was no spray baste or fuse baste. Quilts were pin or thread basted and then they had to be fed through a sewing machine with a regular sized harp. And while this was possible, the process was bulky and awkward. Not one to be daunted, Marti came up with two quilting ideas. She developed the quilt-as-you-go method and the technique of quilting your quilt in sections and then joining those sections together.
Marti Michell also overhauled the quilting fabric arena. Remember earlier I told you she developed a relationship with fabric producers in order to get the type of material she needed for her quilt classes. The fabric producers loved her can-do, positive attitude and asked her to design some fabric, which she did. Marti then began pushing them to manufacture 100 percent quilting cottons. Although reluctant at first, eventually they did, producing true quilting cottons by the early 1980’s – 100 percent cotton, with a slightly tighter weave than regular cotton fabric.
The second event which shaped the quilts of the Seventies was Jonathan Holstein’s and Gail van der Hoof’s quilt show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. This show was held in July 1971 and was called Abstract Design in American Quilts. The exhibition contained sixty pieced quilts from the collection of Gail van der Hoof and Jonathan Holstein, chosen purely for their visual content. Art critics discussed what the exhibit meant: Was it decorative art? Were the quilts merely canvasses?
They were really neither, yet they did fall somewhere in between the two. Gail van der Hoof and Jonathan Holstein spent three years collecting quilts (primarily in the Eastern United States). Back then, quilts were pulled out of closets, trunks, and cabinets. They were looked at, admired, then folded up and put away. Gail and Jonathan wanted to show their quilts in a different manner. When they displayed their quilt collect at the Whitney Museum, the quilts were hung, and not displayed horizontally like they would appear on a bed. Now, we take this way of displaying quilts for granted, but in the Seventies, this was pretty radical. Suddenly the quilts were at eye level. Instead of appearing as just “mere quilts” they morphed into works of art. This completely set the art world on its head and increased the interest in quilts and quilters tremendously.
The quilts produced in the Seventies had dramatic colors and bold, abstract designs. They held free-spirited inventiveness. For a while, the Crazy Quilt enjoyed a brief revival. Quilters were equally bold and free-spirited. Guidelines and “rules” were few and far between. Like their quilting foremothers in the 18th and 19th century, they made their own guidelines and felt the freedom to promptly break them if they didn’t work. It was a decade of quilt exploration and creative freedom. However, by the end of the Seventies, quilters knew in order to keep quilting relevant and push it to a level where things were easier and more accurate, some changes needed to be made.
One of the biggest legacies these quilters leave us with (besides some really cool quilts) is Quilt Guilds. While Quilt Guilds did exist prior to this decade, by the end of the 1970’s quilters were forming new and larger guilds to promote education, charity work, and a support group for new ideas and new quilters. The second legacy they left us with is better tools. As these quilters transitioned into the Eighties, they discovered the rotary cutter and mat – which completely redefined both the cutting process and quilt patterns. They pushed for better marking tools than a #2 pencil. They lobbied fabric stores to carry a better assortment of thread. And as the market for all this quilting fabric and notions grew, quilting entrepreneurs opened shops just for quilters. Most of these shops also had some classroom space and soon those 1970’s innovative and daring quilters found themselves teaching the next generation of quilters.
And the decade came full circle. I think our quilting foremothers would have approved.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog about the Groovy Quilts of the Seventies. Truthfully, I don’t think this is a decade of quilts we think a lot about, but it is truly one we owe a debt of gratitude to. Without those quilters, we wouldn’t have the wonderful fabric and quilting notions we tend to take for granted.
Time when – if gas prices don’t gouge the fun out of life – at some point this summer, bags will be packed, tickets purchased, hotel rooms reserved, and we’ll bail out of reality for a few days of non-reality at a beach, resort, mountains, or some other vacation destination. Most families realize this means tucking swimsuits, a few days’ worth of clothing, toiletries, needed medications etc., into bags before heading out.
For quilters (and their long-suffering significant others) these getaways produce an entirely different quandary: Can I take any quilting and if so, how much can I take?
This is the subject we’re talking about today. And this “sewing-on-the-go” blog is a little different from other quilting-while-traveling blogs. This blog touches on how to pack your quilting for vacation, not a quilt retreat. Having done both, I can tell you each is different. When I pack for a quilt retreat, the car is loaded down with projects, machines, cutting mats, ironing stations, scissors, and enough quilting notions and fabric to open a small LQS. Packing my quilting up to take on vacation is an entirely different animal. For one, I’m sharing my living quarters with at least one non-quilter (the hubs), and quite often my daughter’s family and my son’s (all non-quilters). So neither the rental house nor our vehicle can be filled with tons of my “stuff.” There has to be room for arm floaties, boogie boards, fishing equipment, and the like.
I have to par it down. Decisions must be made. Priorities must be set.
And this is what I hope today’s blog does for you – help you figure out what and how to pack for vacations which may include lots of fun and sun—but also for your sanity includes quilting (because most of us can’t go a week without quilting).
The first item up for discussion is space, both in your car and in your rental. If you’re driving separately in your own vehicle, you’ve got a lot more wiggle room with this. Your car can literally serve as a “quilting annex” where you can swap out items as needed. If not, compromise is in the vehicle equation. Is there room for a machine or could it cause too many disruptions? If I really want to bring a sewing machine on a family vacation (and I only did this once and only because I was on a deadline), I have a small travel machine which takes up less space than a lot of tackle boxes (which I may or may not use to my advantage when my husband’s slew of tackle looks as if he’s opening a bait shop). If space for your quilting supplies is limited, you may want to only take hand sewing, which can normally fit into one bag.
Best case scenario, you have tons of car space. You can take whatever you need to satisfy any quilting itch you may have on vacation. However, the next point up for consideration is the space in your hotel or home rental. We all know quilting can be a “big” hobby: It needs a lot of room. If you’re vacationing in regular hotel rooms, spreading out a machine and all needed supplies may encroach on other folks’ need for space. If this is the case, even though you may be able to fit tons of your quilting supplies in your car, it may not be the best (or kindest) thing to spread them out all over your hotel room. Air BnB’s and rental homes may offer more space. If it’s just you and your significant other, this would probably work just fine. However, if multiple people are going – especially if there are kiddos involved– you should consider if all your supplies will remain safely in place or if there’s a possibility someone could decide to play with your scissors or rotary cutter. It may be best to limit the supplies to ones you can safely keep in your room when you’re not around.
Finally, the last thing to consider is time. Will you have the time to quilt? Some vacays are definitely laid back. Sand and surf. Mountains and brooks. You are there to unwind and refresh. There is no itinerary. You can get up when you want to, laze about or go find something to do. The option of sewing is available, and it isn’t confined to a few minutes here and there. Other vacations aren’t like that. Vacations spent with family or vacations spent at family homes are different. Often spare time is spent with folks you don’t see often, and they want to engage you. Other trips involve cruise ships or flights or group trips where everything is scheduled. Sometimes if this is the case, it’s better to either take small hand sewing projects or none at all.
After weighing the space available in both your vehicle and your lodging and giving your itinerary careful consideration, you decide you can bring some quilting to work on. Best case situation, you can bring a sewing machine and have the space and time to get up close and personal with some long-delayed projects or languishing UFOs. Here’s where you build a literal portable quilt studio to take with you. It’s important to take a critical look at your home sewing area and determine what you must have and what you can live without for a few days.
Sewing table. Will you have room at a dining room table or some other area at your hotel/rental home to situate your machine? If you have a portable sewing table you’ve fine-tuned to your back and neck needs, you may want to bring that, especially if you think you may have hours of sewing time ahead.
Chair. I know this may sound like a little thing, but nearly all quilters have a chair they sit in to sew which accommodates their height, back, and neck. Is it vital you take this chair with you, or can you make do with a chair there? If you opt to go with a chair at your lodging, you may want to take a cushion for your rear and back– especially if the chair isn’t padded. Most of the time, this is the compromise between taking your sewing chair and using one where you’re staying.
Cutting Station. In my opinion, it’s always best to do “large” cutting (i.e. cut out the quilt) before you leave to go on vacation or quilt retreat. I tend to do my most accurate cutting at my home cutting table (because I don’t have to bend) with my large cutting mat. This means you only need to pack a small to medium-sized mat to do small cutting and trimming, and can use a space available (such as a desk or countertop) where you’ll be staying. Pre-cutting before leaving also means you can leave large rulers and rotary cutters at home and only need to pack a small cutter and a few small rulers.
Ironing Station. One of the great things about rental houses and most hotel rooms is they come with their own ironing board and iron. A small pressing area (such as wool mat) may be the only item you need to pack. If applique is part of your quilting vacation equation, you may also want a small iron for quick touch ups or to prepare finished edge applique.
Miscellaneous Items. These include scissors, rotary cutter and blades, extra sewing machine needles, the manual to your sewing machine, the cord to your sewing machine, pins, pincushion or container, stiletto, thread, Wonder Clips, and spray starch/starch substitute.
Project Boxes. These should contain cut out quilts, the pattern, and any special notions or thread.
If you find yourself not wanting to haul your sewing machine and everything it entails with you on vacation, hand sewing and hand quilting are easier to deal with and take up less space – unless you’re taking a king-sized quilt to bind. Hexies, English paper piecing, regular hand piecing, hand quilting, or hand applique are great take-along projects which take up little space. Honestly except for one or two trips, this is my go-to “quilt-fix” for vacation. I can fit everything I need in a large-ish bag and I’m out the door. Projects and/or current blocks can easily fit into two-gallon sized Ziploc baggies. Beeswax, thimble, several packets of needles in various sizes, small scissors, fabric glue, fabric markers, and thread can nest in a small bag. This is the bag I take:
There are pockets along the inside to fit all my hand sewing notions in and project bags and small boxes go in the middle. There is usually enough room left over for my iPad or Kindle. If you’re hand quilting a quilt, this may mean a second bag depending on the size hoop you use and how big the quilt is.
Normally, my hand applique goes with me on any trip, no matter how short or how long. If I have several small quilts, such as table toppers or wall hangings, I’ve found vacation is a great time to bind them. I can sit and watch TV or talk with friends and family without having to concentrate on my sewing too much. These go into my suitcase last so I can pull them out first and have them available to work on.
As I’m winding this blog up, there is one more quilty vacation concept I’d like to throw out – don’t take any quilting with you. I know, I know…this seems pretty radical for a quilter who would rather quilt than eat, but hear me out. Time away, whether it’s a day, a week, two weeks, or month, is all about recharging and relaxing. It’s a time to hit the pause button on your life and spend the time with family or friends. It’s a time to explore and see new things. Taste new foods. Drink new drinks.
Maybe it’s time to hit the pause button on your quilting. Maybe it would be a good idea to recharge your creative juices, drool over quilts on Pinterest, or sketch some new ideas. Visit some quilt shops for inspiration. You may come back a rested, ready-to-get-back-in-the-studio quilter brimming with new ideas. If you feel kind of burned out, this may be exactly what you need to do. Leave your quilting at home, or if you do bring it, give yourself permission to not touch it unless you really want to sew.
It’s up to you.
Anyway, as you’re hitting the road or flying the skies, be careful and take good care of one another.
As promised, this week’s blog continues our discussion on how to take care of your antique quilts, as well as how to treat your own special quilts that you’re making.
The next step is support and repair. No matter if you plan to display your quilts or store them (more on how to store them in a bit), some antique quilts need a little help on the repair side of things. If there’s a hole in the quilt, it’s real tempting to find a current fabric which blends in with the quilt top and sew it on. While that is an option, it is one of the last resorts. All repairs should be done by hand, as this will result in a more accurate and inconspicuous “fix” than one done by machine. And repairs done by a quilter may be different than those done by a professional conservator. If the quilt is truly a family heirloom which has been handed down from generation to generation, holds a special place in your heart, or is a serious financial investment, my advice is to call the National Quilt Museum, the International Quilt Museum, or the textile curator of your state’s history museum and see if they can recommend a local conservator to undertake those repairs.
For small repairs, a single strand of silk or matching cotton thread (no larger than 50 weight) will work best. Don’t use nylon or polyester filament, which can cut into antique fabric. If applique pieces are loose, stitch them back down with the smallest stitches possible. For areas that are frayed, tack down a sheer fabric over them to prevent further damage. Cut a sheer overlay the same shape and size as the damaged area and baste it on (sheer overlay such as crepe line or tulle can be found in the wedding fabric sections of some fabric stores or can be ordered online).
However, if there are badly damaged areas in the quilt, you may need to make some hard decisions. Badly damaged areas, such as the one below:
Need sturdier support than a sheer overlay. A cotton percale works well. Baste it a piece to the front of the damaged area, and also baste a piece of cotton percale to the back of the quilt in the same location.
If the quilt has several large, badly damaged areas, the only resort may be to cut down the quilt. Yeah…ouch…that hurts. But if there is a lot of damage to a quilt, sometimes the blocks can be salvaged and framed, or a smaller quilt can be made from what is left. This can be a heart-wrenching decision. Give yourself some time to think about it before applying scissors to quilt.
If your quilt is missing pieces, consider the final results before deciding to replace them. Leaving the space uncovered and allowing the backing show is often preferable to adding fabric from a different time period. If you do decide to replace missing quilt pieces, don’t remove the old damage fabric, but place the new fabric over it. If it’s binding which needs repaired, sew the new binding over it – don’t remove the old.
If you have an antique feed sack quilt or a quilt with Civil War era fabrics in it, your repair options broaden a bit. There are still feed sacks and Civil War fabric available. These would be preferrable to other material. Added bonus is both types of material have abundant Reproduction Fabric available. A close match or even an exact one may be possible.
The fourth step is to decide how to store or display the quilt. The first step in either one is don’t store or display your quilt if it’s dirty. Sometimes molds and insect larvae can hide in the stains and will become big problems if they’re not removed. The second step is to store the quilt in an area with a controlled temperature, controlled humidity, and out of direct light. This means attics, basements, and sometimes closets don’t work well for quilt storage (many modern closets are temperature and humidity controlled). Cedar chests (unless they’re new) aren’t particularly good storage options either. After a while, cedar chests lose their ability to repel rodents and bugs. Chests and trunks made of wood or lined with paper give off an acid which is harmful to some dyes and fibers and actually can create an acidic environment, not to mention limit air circulation.
Since air circulation is mentioned, let’s park it here and discuss why it’s important. Any storage method which cuts off air circulation can produce harmful by-products the longer the quilt is stored in that specific container. This means that plastic bags and regular cardboard boxes are also out. The cardboard acidifies pretty quickly, and this acid is harmful to the quilt’s dyes and fibers.
How should you store your quilt? There are several options:
Acid-Free Boxes and Paper. There are cardboard boxes which will remain acid-free indefinitely, as well some acid-free tissue paper. These boxes are large enough to hold a quilt or two. Fold the quilt, making sure there are some acid-free tissue sheets tucked in the folds.
Fold them in well-washed cotton sheets or fabric. This will protect them from dust and light, as well as any abrasive surface. For smaller quilts, pillowcases may work. Larger quilts don’t work well in them because they must be folded too many times to fit in the case. This puts a great deal of stress on the quilt.
If the quilt is folded for storage, refold them frequently to prevent any permanent creases. I always do this the first weekend of any month – this is just an easy way for me to remember to do it.
Roll the quilt on a tube. I mentioned storing quilts this way in my blog: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/07/28/in-praise-of-pool-noodles/comment-page-1/. For an antique quilt, cover the tube in a clean cotton sheet or fabric and roll the quilt onto the tube with the right side of the quilt facing in. You probably will also want to cover the rolled quilt with another sheet or cotton fabric to protect it against any dust.
Store them on a spare bed. Hands down, this is the best way to store antique quilts. Laying them flat on a bed will not stress any seams or stitches and the quilts will be in a climate and light controlled area. You may want to place a clean sheet between the quilts and add a sheet on top to protect the surface of the last quilt.
Displaying your quilt is always a great option. You may choose to display your quilt all year, or if the quilt is a little on the fragile side, only at certain times. Regardless, you want your display area to be climate controlled and not near a heating vent or fireplace or in direct sunlight. It’s probably best to avoid any area near a kitchen due to oily dust. Remember to check the quilt regularly to see if it needs vacuuming (as described under the cleaning section of this blog).
If you chose to hang an antique quilt, use the rod and sleeve method. Put a hanging sleeve on the back of the quilt (this is handsewn on and won’t damage the quilt) and hang it from display rod. The length of the sleeve along the top of the quilt allows the weight to be distributed evenly, so no one section of the quilt is stressed more than another. Experts recommend not to hang an antique quilt more than six months and then rotate it out.
There are lots of pretty quilt stands available, and it’s fine to display your quilts on them. For antique quilts, you may want to use the entire stand for one quilt. Lay some batting over the horizontal dowels to create a padded surface, and then lay your quilt over that.
The last step to take is to record the treatment and use information. Recording information about a quilt is helpful to future owners of the quilt who may wonder about its use and care. And you may need to reference this information for yourself at some point, too – especially if you find yourself possessing several antique quilts. There is some specific information you should write down, beginning with everything historically you know about the quilt – where you bought it, anything about the original maker, etc. It’s also important to record:
Tasks you have completed for each quilt, including cleaning or repair. Include the procedure used, supplies and the dates.
Before and after photographs are great reference points. This can show how cleaning and repairs affected the quilt’s appearance.
If you displayed the quilt, when you displayed it, and how you displayed it.
And these are the ways you take care of yesterday’s quilts. Quilts which were probably made with a great deal of care and attention to detail. These are heirlooms which came our way through wills, letters of intent, or (in most cases) a lucky purchase from an antique store. But what about our quilts – the quilts we make which we hope will go on to last several lifetimes. There are some procedures we can go through now to protect tomorrow’s heirlooms today.
Much like conserving antique quilts, taking care of our own special quilts is a bit of work. But let me preface that by saying not every quilt we make is destined to be a future heirloom. I have a few but can count those on one hand with fingers left over. I would much rather have my quilts used up and loved to death. However, I’ve made some for special people I really want to take care of. The steps will sound a lot like taking care of antique quilts.
Step One: Wash Your Fabric Before You Start Your Quilt
I realize there are Color Catchers, and these can be used after the quilt top is completed and quilted. However, let me remind you, a future heirloom is a special quilt. Pre-washing your fabric pretty much assures there will be no crocking or fading from the fabrics. If dark colors or batiks are used, I strongly suggest you go here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2017/09/01/to-prewash-or-not-to-prewash-thats-the-question/and read my blog on how to prevent colors bleeding on one another.
Step Two: Stay as Organic as Possible
Cotton fabric, cotton thread, and cotton or wool batting. These items have mostly a neutral pH balance and can maintain that if cared for properly. If you use glue, make sure it’s of archival quality (such as Sew Line) and pH balanced. If you need to mark your quilt, be wary of any markers that cannot completely be removed (such as Frixion pens). A water-soluble marker, Roxanne’s pencils, or a Hera Marker are your best bets.
Step Three: Care after Quilting
Once the quilting process is completed and before the binding is put on, square your quilt up. If the quilt isn’t square (even though it may look trued-up to the visible eye), the un-squaredness of it may become more apparent over time.
Step Four: Wash Your Quilt After the Binding is Complete
Wash the quilt to remove any glue or markings. Be sure to use a pH balanced detergent such as Quilt Soap, or one of the detergents mentioned for cleaning antique quilts. Allow to air dry.
Step Five: Store or Display the Quilt Properly
Store or display the quilt using the same methods suggested for antique quilts. If you chose to store the quilt, be sure to check on it every few months to make sure it’s okay.
Step Six: Record the Details
I tend to probably go overboard with this. I journal about the process I go through choosing the pattern, the fabric, and the issues I have in construction. I include sales receipts and other miscellaneous information the future owner may find interesting. Bottom line, the minimum information should include how to care for the quilt, how long it took to make it, your full name, the town it was made it, etc … the same information you would put on a quilt label…which by the way, make sure the there’s a label on the quilt, too.
This last tidbit of information comes from a person who has quilted over thirty years, made numerous quilts, given a lot of those away, and have some designated special quilts for a few special people…
You don’t have to give the quilt away the moment it’s complete. Making a special quilt – a future heirloom – is an investment of both time and money, and both are equally important. You’ve spent a good chunk of your quilting time making this special quilt. You may have pulled some of the fabric from your stash, but I’ll bet you also spent some money on additional fabric to make the quilt “just perfect.” I personally think it’s completely appropriate for the recipient to respect both the money and the time involved. If you think the person who will receive the quilt can’t do this, or the quilt may be put in a situation it could be destroyed (such as an unruly pet or living situation), it’s perfectly acceptable to hold on to that quilt until you feel the time is right to give it away. I have done this. I have no regrets.
However, once you give the quilt away, release it. It’s gone. You have no control over it. If you find out it’s been mistreated, grit your teeth and bear it, but don’t allow the situation to impede any relationships. It’s not worth it.
Just don’t make them another quilt.
I hope this lengthy blog series helps those of you who have old quilts in your possession. My antique quilts bring me a lot of joy – especially my Sunbonnet Sues. I just wish they could talk. I would love to hear their story.
Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours … and take care of those old quilts and the future heirlooms you’re creating today!