Pressing Concerns

Today I would like to tackle a pressing topic – and that topic is do you press or iron your quilt blocks?  I also will touch on when you do it, how to do it, and hit on some notions which may help in any tedious pressing situation.  First, let’s talk about the difference between pressing and ironing.    

Admittedly, the two terms are often used interchangeably.  Overall most everyone knows both pressing and ironing involve a hot iron and sometimes steam.  However, there is a difference between the two and I have found the easiest way to keep them straight is this:    

You iron your clothes.  Also, admittedly, few people do this anymore.  Imagine my surprise when my adult daughter asked to borrow my iron to get the wrinkles out of my grand darlings’ school uniforms a couple of years ago.  She didn’t own an iron.  Most folks throw their clothes in the dryer for a few minutes and the heat causes the wrinkles to relax. 

But just bear with me here.  If you have a wrinkled shirt, you use an iron with a back-and-forth motion to smooth the wrinkles out.  Pressing is an up and down motion with an iron.  You press your quilt fabric, block units, applique, and quilt blocks.  The reason you use an up and down motion instead of a back-and-forth motion is bias. 

A back-and-forth motion can stretch the bias, and as a result your block, block unit, applique, quilt block, and quilt fabric may be forced off-grain and stretched out of shape.  Lots of horrible wonkiness may be the end result.      At this point, I must admit I have issues with some quilt patterns and quilt teachers/books/videos.  One of two things are occurring with several of them:  Either they don’t press between steps, or they assume you just *know* when to do it and omit this step in their lessons/books/patterns/videos.  For reference with this blog, I am only dealing with pieced blocks, not applique, because pressing applique is a little different.  Anyway, here’s Sherri’s Rule of Thumb about pressing:  Press your block units every time you make a seam. And use an iron.   

I realize this may sound a little extreme.  However, keep in mind that as you’re creating your beautiful quilt top, one of the goals is to have all your blocks lie flat.  Another goal is to reduce bulk.  Pressing with an iron helps you do both.  I also know there are “iron substitutes” on the market, and they do come in handy in a pinch.  Plus I realize many quilt designers are now telling you to “finger press” seams.  This also can work in a few situations.  However, I don’t think anything works better to reduce bulk and make your block units and blocks lie flat as a hot iron.   

Most of the time we press our seams to one side – usually towards the darker fabric —  so our seam allowances won’t “shadow” through the lighter fabric.  I have found the best way to do this is to press the block unit the way it is as it comes from under the needle.   This sets the thread in the fabric.  Then press the seams to one side from the wrong side and then again from the right side.  

Press this way first…just the way the block uniti comes out from under your sewing machine needle…
Then press towards the darker fabric

That’s the short version of pressing.  Let’s examine when there are exceptions to pressing seams to the dark side.  The best quilt patterns will tell you which way to press your seams.  They may do this verbally (e.g., “Press all seams towards fabric B”) or have directional arrows pointing to the right or left.  However, not all patterns take the time to give these instructions, or you may be designing your own quilt and need to know which direction to press the seams.  This is when making a test block is a really good idea (actually it’s a good idea all the time…but that’s another blog for another day).  As you construct the test block and press each unit, then each row, finally the entire block, you can see direction the seams need to be pressed in order for them to nest.    

This nesting is important because it lines up seams and makes your blocks lie flat.  And sometimes in your test block, you may find there are occasions when the seams need to be pressed towards the lighter fabric in order for nesting to take place.  If this happens, there’s no need to panic or think you’ve broken some kind of unwritten quilting law.  The quilt police won’t show up at your house and demand you turn over your sewing machine.  If both of the fabrics are light, you may find there is minimal shadowing (shadowing happens when a darker fabric’s seam is clearly seen through the right side of the quilt top).  If you can live with this minimal shadowing, keep constructing your quilt blocks.   However, if the fabric in the seam is definitely darker and definitely shadows through in a manner you can’t live with, you can minimize this. 

Graded Seam

Carefully trim the darker fabric in the seam down to 1/8-inch and then re-press the seam.  Most of the time the trimmed darker seam is nowhere near as noticeable as the untrimmed one.  Don’t trim it to less than 1/8-inch or you may find your seam unsewing itself when you complete the top or go to quilt it.    And one last word about pressing the seams to one side – always do this when you plan any stitch-in-the-ditch quilting.  The quilting will go on the side without the seam allowances, making the stitching easier and smoother.  

All of this may beg the question, “Are there any circumstances in which you would press the seams open?”  

Again, the best quilt patterns will tell you when to do this.  However, if you’re designing your own quilt or this information isn’t on the pattern, when do you know to press your seams open instead of to the side?  There are a couple of circumstances which come into play, but remember the goals of accurate pressing are to make the block lie as flat as possible and to reduce bulk.  When you have a quilt block like this:  

And all of the points come together at one spot, there’s going to be a lot of bulk to deal with.  One of the ways to deal with this is to press all the seams open.  This spreads all the fabric out over the area. **   I also press my Y-seams open. 

Again, you have three pieces of fabric converging at one point.  Pressing the seams open not only reduces the bulk, but also helps with accuracy.  It’s easier to see the point where your needle needs to land both when starting and stopping the seam.  And if by chance I am piecing my background for either hand or machine applique, I also press those seams open – again to reduce bulk and to make the block lie flat.     

There is one other “special” pressing situation you need to be aware of, and that’s concerning four-patches of any type.  Wherever you have four blocks of fabric joined – whether they’re half-square triangles or solid pieces of material – generally you’re working with some combination of light and dark fabric.  You know your seams should nest, but no matter which way you press your seam to the side, it will shadow.  Here’s a little trick called “Spinning the Middle.”

  1.  At the center where all the seams meet, use your seam ripper to loosen a few stitches.

2.  Then twist the block at the seam until you get a tiny four-patch in the middle.  This will allow either the light seams to be pressed to the light side or the dark seams to be pressed to the dark.  This same method can be used for half-square triangles.  This method works great to reduce bulk, help the block lie flat, and prevent shadowing.

Four Patch with a Spun Middle
Two Pinwheel Blocks Made from Half-Square Triangles.
One has the seams pressed towards the darker fabric and the other has the seams pressed open. Both have the middle spun. Either pressing method works.

    Just remember as you are dealing with any pressing situation, there are two main goals in mind:  Reduce bulk and make your block lie flat.  If you keep those two ideas in mind, you’ll do just fine pressing your block units, blocks, and quilt fabric.   Before we wrap this blog up, I want to offer a few more tips and tricks about pressing and highlight some new(ish) pressing notions on the market.

Do you use steam when pressing?  This is another one of those issues which generally divide quilters into two camps – those who use and love it and those who can completely live without it.  Personally, I like a little steam in certain situations.  If I am pressing my quilt fabric before cutting it, I will use steam.  Wrinkled fabric results in crooked cutting, so there are occasions when you will need to press your fabric even if you’re not a pre-washer (if it comes off the bolt wrinkled, or it becomes wrinkled from storage).  If there is a lot of bulk in a block or block unit, I’ll use steam to help reduce the bulk because it will flatten the seams better than just a dry iron.   

  There are two ways to utilize steam.  You can keep the steam feature turned off on your iron and spritz the fabric lightly (don’t soak it) with water before you press it.  If you’re pressing extremely wrinkled fabric, I have found (at least for me) this method works best, especially if I can use a spray bottle filled with warm water and allow the fabric to relax a few minutes before pressing.  The other method is to engage the steam function on your iron.  I’ll be honest at this point – if you always keep water in your iron, it can shorten your iron’s life span.  If you do add water to your iron, you may want to empty it when your sewing session is complete.  And be sure to read the directions which come with your iron as to whether your iron needs distilled or tap water (most are fine with tap water). 

  Is there a “best” iron for quilters?  No.  Not really.  The type of iron you like to use is the best quilting iron for you.  Irons are like so many other quilting supplies.  They can run the gamut from several thousands of dollars for ironing systems such as this:  

To this one which is just under $15 on Amazon.   

Admittedly, I am hard on irons.  They tend to get knocked off my ironing board or pressing surface pretty regularly.  Therefore, my favorite kind of iron is a cheap one because it’s probably going to have a short shelf life regardless of whether or not I put water in it.  I will recommend two irons.  First, is the Cordless Panasonic. 

I have one of these and I absolutely love it.  It re-heats quickly and has a retractable power cord.  This iron is so great when you need to iron large areas of fabric, such as wrinkled yardage, quilt tops, and borders.  There is no cord to get in the way.  It comes with a handy-dandy carrying case and is worth every red cent.   The second iron is this:  

Which, unfortunately, is hard to find.  These have no auto-off, a feature of today’s irons that gets on my nerves.  Some of these have no water tank, but they seem (at least to me) to get hotter than modern irons.  These can be found on-line (Google antique irons – a lot were made mid-twentieth century and died out in the late 1980’s), but also shop thrift stores and estate sales.  You may have to give them a little love and care, but if they work, they’re a great addition to your studio.  Just remember to unplug them or turn them off when you’re through.  

Why is my pressed seam “wobbly”?  If you’ve pressed your seam and it has curves or kinks in it, those are the result of too much pressure.  You’re pressing your seam too hard.  I’ve found this trick is useful to avoid curvy seams.  Take a permanent marker or a pencil and draw a straight line on your pressing surface (if you don’t want the line to be a permanent part of your ironing area, cover the area with a light-color fabric or muslin).  Pin the beginning of your seam to the beginning of the line, matching up the seam with the drawn line.  Then repeat the process at the end.  Now press.  If you’re pressing too hard, the seam will move off the line.  Reposition the seam and press again, this time without so much pressure.  A few times of repeating this procedure will let you know how much pressure too much and how much is just right.  

Finally, we’re wrapping up this blog with a few notions which may help you with any pressing issues you may have.  These are all notions I own and use regularly.  Standard disclaimer insert:  I am not paid by any of these companies to endorse their products.  I have used them all for several years and have found them very useful.  Some of these are fairly new, others have been used by sewists for years.

  1.  Wool Mat – This pressing surface consists of wool fibers which are bonded together.  The mat absorbs the heat from the iron and reflects it back into the fabric, literally cutting your pressing time in half and doubling the effect.  These mats come in all sizes and in rolls.  I keep a medium-sized one near my sewing area for pressing blocks, block units, and applique.  I have a small one in my sewing bag I take with me to sit and sews or bees.  My plan is to purchase a bit larger one for my ironing board. 

Couple of things you want to keep in mind about these mats.  First, they do have a bit of an odor about them when you press.  My DH says it smells like a wet dog (bless his heart).  You can drop some essential oil on the mat if the smell bothers you.  Personally, I don’t find the odor that offensive, but I’ve used my mat so long I could be nose blind.  After a period of use, you may find something like rust stains on your mat.  You can use one of these to remove the stain:

  Or you can wash your mat.  I have not tried washing my mat, but according to the interwebs, there are methods to do this.  Be sure to use a detergent which is specifically for wool and one that won’t leave a residue, such as Eucalan.    Wool mats can be a bit pricey, but I think they’re worth the expense.  

  •  Flatter – This nifty notion comes as both a soak and a spray, both scented and unscented.  It helps the wrinkles relax and freshens the fabric (which may come in handy if your fabric was stored for a while).  It leaves your fabric super-soft, smooth, and static free.  It’s also environmentally friendly and generally can be used by folks with sensitive skin. 
  •  Starch/Best Press – There are a few reasons to use these products besides the fact they can also flatten seams to reduce bulk.  If you’re a pre-washer, you know once dry, the fabric has a softer hand than non-pre-washed fabrics.  A light spritz of starch or Best Press pressed on the wrong side of the fabric helps to restore crispness.  Likewise a spray of either can help the wrinkles to relax.  A couple of words of warning:  First, if you plan on pressing your blocks or fabric with spray starch or Best Press and then storing them a while, you will want to go with the Best Press.  Regular spray starch is derived from potatoes, which may attract bugs.  Best Press isn’t, so there won’t be any buggy issues in the future.

Second, dollar store establishments often will stock spray starch.  Be aware some (not all) of these cans of starch are seconds and may have a higher water content than those found in grocery stores, big box stores such as Walmart and Target, or drug stores.   

  • Tailor’s Clapper – If you think this looks like a chunk of wood, you’re correct.  Tailor’s Clappers have been used for hundreds of years to smooth seams and fabric, as well as help reduce (or at least smooth out) some bulk.  The wood itself absorbs the steam and traps the heat inside of your fabric, instead of setting it free into the air of your sewing room. This is the magic of the tailor’s clapper. Your fabric needs the right combination of hot to cool, steamy to dry in order to make a perfectly flat seam. These are available in stores and on the web.  If you decide to invest in one of these wonderful, retro quilting notions, be sure the TC is made from a hardwood, such as tulip or maple. 

To use a TC, you need steam, so you’ll either want to spritz your fabric with water (or spray starch or Best Press) and then hit it with a hot iron or engage the steam function on your iron.  Press your seam or bulky area, remove the iron, and then press with the TC for 5-7 seconds.   

  •  Pressing Tools When an Iron Isn’t Available – As much as I try to plan ahead, sometimes I forget my iron when I attend different sit and sews or find out I can’t bring one.  If either of these are the case, there are a couple of smaller pressing tools I keep tucked in my portable sewing back which work to flatten an area until I can get home and give it a proper pressing with an iron.  The first one is this:

This wooden tool, when run down either a seam pressed to one side, or an open seam can deal with the bulk and flatten seams.  The same goes for this:  

Which you may have used to help seal seams in wallpaper.  Side note on this notion.  This is the one iron substitute which works well with paper piecing.  It’s heavy enough to make the paper and the fabric behave.   And if all else fails, a fingernail run down a seam works well enough until you can gain access to an iron.

I hope this blog has cleared up any confusion between pressing and ironing.  I also hope I’ve given you some tools and notion ideas to make pressing easier.  Whatever iron, pressing notion, or iron substitute you use, just be sure to press those seams.  Accurate and consistent pressing is part of the Holy Trinity of quilting (along with accurate cutting and keeping a consistent seam allowance).  

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!  

Love and Stitches,


**Here’s a helpful hint if you have a block like where there are lots seams coming together at one point. 

With a block like this, it’s almost impossible to get all the seams to open up fully so you can press them accurately.  My standard go-to in this situation is a circle.    I simply trace a circle template over the area where all the points converge, then I cut the bulk out slightly inside the tracing line.  I make a circle applique patch out of another fabric and applique it over the hole (either by hand or machine).  Bulk is eliminated and I’ve added a bit more interest in the block.   


From Pig Weed to Prince’s Feather: How the Princess Feather Block Got Its Groove

Take a look at this quilt:

And this quilt:

These quilts (and dozens of similar designs) are popularly known as “Princess Feather” quilts – graceful plumes spiraling out of a center circle or other applique piece.  Most of these quilts are made of either large blocks with the applique design centered in each block or the quilt has one large Princess Feather in the center, serving as a medallion.  Surrounding the medallion could be smaller Princess feathers, pieced blocks, or other applique blocks.   This quilt hit its heyday from 1840 – 1900, but according to the Quilt Index, quilters are still making them today.  Personally, I haven’t seen any made in my quilting career, and none currently in the area of North Carolina I live in, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being constructed somewhere.  Kim McLean, an Australian designer, has a current Princess Feather pattern out, as well as a kit to go with the pattern made up of Kaffe fabrics.  EQ 8 has two different Princess Feather blocks in its library.  So who’s to say modern Princess Feathers aren’t being made?

Kim McLean’s Princess Feather Quilt from her Kit with Kaffe Fabrics. Seriously…what’s not to love about this glorious quilt?

What’s fascinating to me is the history behind these blocks – its origins, its name, and its color scheme.  All of these are moving pieces behind a block that’s had more than its share of name changes.  What may be hard to believe is that this block with the eight graceful, curving plumes may have had its origins in a little plant called….


Let’s park it here for a minute or two and talk about Pigweed.  Its scientific name is Amaranthus retroflexus and there are two kinds – Lambsquarters and Redroot Amaranthus.  These plants are tall and have smooth, oval leaves or serrated leaves.  Each plant can produce as many as 100,000 seeds, and Pigweed is found from as far north as Prince Edward Island, Canada, California, and throughout the southwest and southeast.  The plant is believed to have originated in tropical America, but easily spread to other parts of the world as the seeds are tiny and easily airborne.

In other words, if quilters do quilt what they know, it’s easy to see they would be quite conversant with Pigweed and its appearance.  And you must admit there is a strong similarity between the leaves of the Amaranthus retroflexus and the Princess Feather block.

Pigweed may have possibly been the origin of the Princess Feather block, but I think we’re all pretty glad quilters decided not to name the block Pigweed.  The block actually went by several names until around the early part of the twentieth century.  It was known as Feathers, Ferns, Washington Feather, Feather Rose, California Plume and Kossuth Feather.  All of these begs several questions – Did Washington ever wear feathers?  Who was Kossuth and did he wear feathers?  Is there such a thing as a Feather Rose?  Does California have a Plume? 

As far as George Washington goes, we do have one painting of him wearing a feather in his hat.

This was a portrait made of Washington when he was a Colonel in the Virginia Militia.  Yes, he wore a feather, albeit a small one.  So maybe, possibly we can see why the block was called Washington Feather.

What about Feather Roses?  Well, such a plant exists, but it’s actually a Double Fringed Feather Poppy.

Double Fringed Feather Poppy

And from what I could gather, this is kind of a persnickety garden flower.  It likes certain temperatures, certain soils, and it doesn’t like its roots to be too wet.  Definitely a cultivated flower.  So could this flower possibly be the source of one of the block’s names?  Maybe.  But probably only in certain areas of the country.  More than likely some quilters took a look at the applique and decided it looked kind of like a rose with feathers.

Lajos Kossuth

Now the Kossuth Feather has some possibilities.  This is Revolutionary Lajos Kossuth and his feathered hat.  If you’re trying to remember his name from studying the American Revolutionary War and are coming up blank, don’t blame yourself.  Lajos Kossuth was a Hungarian and was the governor-president of Hungary during their revolution from 1848 – 1849.  Couple this information with the fact that there were a few quilts labeled Kossuth Feather and dated around 1859, and it throws some credibility behind this label. 

Finally, let’s consider the California Plume.  Such a plant exists, but it looks like this:

California or Warrior’s Plume

Which is nothing like spiraling feathers sprouting from a center.  It is a parasitic plant and is more commonly known as Warrior’s Plume and seems to have resigned itself to living only in California.  I guess if you squint hard and look at the plant from the top you may understand why some folks called the block California Plume.

However, remember the name Princess Feather became generally universal among quilters in the early twentieth century.  Coinciding with this was an event in 1860 — which was not that far from the beginning of the twentieth century – the Prince of Wales visited the United States.  This would have been Bertie, Queen Victoria’s oldest son and heir apparent. 

Prince Albert…also known as Bertie, and not to be confused with Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband.

Along with all the hoopla that preceded and followed his visit, the Heraldry for the Prince of Wales became quite well-known.

Prince of Wales Heraldry. If you look closely at some of the jewelry Queen Consort Camilla and Katherine, Princess of Wales wears, you will see this image reflected in their jewelry.

In my mind (and in my opinion), quilters picked up on the similarities between the Heraldry and the quilt block and honored the Prince of Wales in their own way by naming the block the Prince’s Feather.  Through the years we got a little sloppy with the spelling and the pronunciation and it became The Princess Feather.

Now with the (possible) origins of the design and the block name settled (sort of), let’s take a look at the construction.  Most of the Princess Feather blocks are fairly large.  As a quilter who appliques quite a bit, I understand why.  The smaller the background block, the smaller the feathers would need to be.  And with all those curves, I would want my feathers big, so the concave areas wouldn’t be so tight, and it would be easier to control my points as well as deal with the bias – remember the feathers are curved, so bias plays a part in the applique. 

Most antique Princess Feather quilts are red and green with maybe touches of yellow.  This was a very, very popular color combination with all quilts during the second half (and especially the second quarter) of the twentieth century.  Historically you must remember that at this time, commercial dyes were becoming better and more stable – especially Turkey Red (Go here for more details:  It makes sense that quilters would want to use the latest color combinations in their Princess Feather quilts.  What we also observe is quilters playing with the color arrangements.  Some of the blocks opted for a solid color of feathers, and some would alternate colors. 

Still others would divide the block in half and use red fabrics on one side and green on the other. 

This was done both vertically and horizontally.  I think the feathers which are split in half horizontally by color resemble a bud with a calyx.

So…if all this discussion about the Princess Feather block has you thinking you’d like to make a few blocks and assemble them into a quilt, let me throw out a few suggestion which may help.  The first set of recommendations are for a Princess Feather Quilt made of four large blocks.

  1.  If I planned to construct a Princess Feather quilt, the very first consideration I would undertake would be the block size.  All of those feathers are slightly curved and most of the feathers have lots of curves on them.  Undertaking all of those curves on a small scale would just be…a major headache.  I would plan my quilt so my background fabric blocks would be no smaller than 16-inches square (finished).  So I would cut them out at 17-inches and plan to trim them down.  Since the blocks would be so large, they would be apt to fray (because even if you’re working on a flat surface, you’ll bunch your fabric up at some point and this will cause it to fray).  I would either zigzag the edges or treat them with Fray Stop.  Either of these would be cut off when the block was trimmed down to 16 ½-inches before sewing them together.
  2. I would cut my feathers on the bias.  Remember what bias is: 

Cutting those feathers on the bias makes turning the curves under easier.  This is assuming you will either needle turn the applique or use the freezer paper or Apliquick method.  If you plan on raw-edge machine applique the bias doesn’t matter so much.  However, if you want to do finished-edge machine applique, still cut the feathers out on the bias, because the edges must be turned under.

If you want to make a Princess Feather Quilt, with the block serving as a medallion, such as the one below, there are a couple of ways I’d approach construction, depending on the size of the center.  If the center was not much larger than 20-inches, I’d treat the medallion the same way I did the 16-inch (finished) blocks mentioned above.  However, if the medallion is larger than 20-inches, you may want to break the feathers into quadrants, applique each quadrant, and then sew the quadrants together to form the medallion. This would cut down on the amount of bulk either in your hands or puddled around your sewing machine.  I still would treat my feathers as stated above, depending on how I wanted to applique them. 

I hope this blog has given you a little more insight into one of the most intriguing quilt blocks – one which underwent lots of name changes, but whose construction depends on the skill level of the quilter.  The Princess Feather is an old quilt block, but it’s still both beautiful and challenging.  There’s no need to stick to the traditional green and red fabrics – these blocks look just as wonderful in modern prints. 

And don’t let the curves intimidate you.  You know how to handle them!

Until next week, remember, The Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,



Paper Piecing Has Gone to the Birds

One of my quilt goals this year was a temperature quilt. I’m not sure why this particular type of quilt tickled my fancy in 2023, but I decided back in November 2022 I wanted to make one. The premise behind a temperature quilt is to tell the weather story for an entire year. You pick a range of temperatures and then assign a color to each range. My range goes like this:

24 degrees and below — dark blue

25 – 29 degrees — royal blue

30 – 34 degrees — blue

35 – 39 degrees — light blue

40 – 44 degrees — ice blue

45 – 49 degrees — lightest turquoise

50 – 54 degrees — light turquoise

55 – 59 degrees — turquoise

60 – 64 degrees — yellow green

65 – 69 degrees — yellow

70 – 74 degrees — orange

75 – 79 degrees — red orange

80 – 84 degrees — red

85 – 90 degrees — magenta red

90 plus degrees — magenta

I wanted the five degree breaks in the range so I could use a large variety of fabric colors. Range decided, I began scrolling through Pinterest (you know that place…the place where you literally lose hours of your life you never get back) and Google. I saw temperature quilts made of squares and rectangles, and others made of circles. Some quilters decided to use a Cathedral Windows and others opted for Yo-yos. Each day the quilter makes one square (or Cathedral Window, Yo-yo, etc) representing the low temperature of the day and another representing the high.

That’s right. You heard correctly.

Two. Every day. One for the high temperature and the other for the low.

I know me, and I know no matter how well I planned out my time, making two whatevers a day wouldn’t always work. And even if I decided to push my temperature quilt to a weekend-only project, that leaves 14 units to make over a 48-hour period. Nope. Definitely wouldn’t work for me. There are other quilts I want to make. So I searched for alternatives and found this pattern:

These adorable birds are brought to you courtesy of the extremely talented Bethanne Nemesh (pattern can be purchased as a download at The birds come in two sizes and two different levels of complexity. I used the bird in the picture above. The head and back represent the average highs of the week. The cheek and tail the average lows. Now take a look at the wing. There are seven “feathers” in the top row and seven in the bottom. Each of the feathers on top represent the daily high temperatures, beginning with Sunday. The bottom feathers represent the daily lows. All which means instead of making two blocks a day, I just make one bird a week.

I considered this a win.

This is also a paper-piecing pattern. Which I considered another win. And as I have been sewing through my birds (and I’m happy to report I’m not behind on this project), I begin to wonder how many of you like to paper piece and if you’d like to know how I work my way through the process.

I love to paper piece, but that has not always been the case. When I was first introduced to the technique, I couldn’t wrap my mind around reversing everything in my head. I struggled through a couple of blocks and then decided paper pieceing wasn’t for me. A few years ago a certified Judy Neimyer instructor offered classes at my local quilt store and several of my quilty friends pressured me encouraged me to sign up. In case you are unaware, all Judy Neimyer patterns are paper pieced. I took the class, and was taught some different techniques. All in all, I came away from the classes and the quilt with a different attitude about paper piecing. I had found my Zen.

Now let’s see if I can help you find yours.

One of the biggest reasons to chose paper piecing over traditional piecing is that it is exact. Your blocks will turn out nearly perfect, all the same size, every time. Yes, it does take a bit more material than traditionally pieced blocks, but you’re trading fabric for precision. Paper piecing also allows you to make blocks which possibly couldn’t be constructed any other way — like these birds. The first step I take once I have the pattern in hand is to write down on each unit of the pattern which color of fabric goes there.

Let’s park it here for a few sentences and talk about the medium I use for paper piecing. I don’t use copy paper — although it can be used. I prefer June Tailor’s Perfect Piecing Paper. It is non-woven (which means it will tear away cleanly), and feels a bit like interfacing. It is available on Amazon for around $17.80 for a 50-sheet pack. It comes in 8 1/2 x 11-inch pieces, and will run through your ink jet printer, laser printer, or copier just fine. Personal note — I have found it works best if you empty your paper tray of regular copy paper and use one sheet at a time of the Perfect Piecing Paper in the paper tray. It is sheer (see picture above), which means you can see your pattern clearly on the back as well as the front. I always remove my papers from my quilt top before quilting if the quilt is meant to go on a bed. However, I have left these papers in if it’s a wall hanging. It adds a bit more stiffness and I think it helps the wall hanging lie straight and flat against a wall. Also a personal note — If I am quilting any top with these papers on my long arm, the paper come out. My long arm doesn’t like them. The needle speed tends to shred the papers. However, my domestic stationary machine has no issue with them. Added plus, I have found removing the Perfect Piecing Papers a lot easier process than copy paper.

The second step for me is trimming down the pattern to a manageable chunk. With most paper piecing patterns, the solid lines are the sewing lines and the dotted lines are the trim lines. Notice when I cut my pattern out, I left about a 1/4-inch of pattern margin around it. You want your fabric to overhang the trim line. This way when you trim your pattern, it will come out the exact size needed, with all areas filled with fabric. Also noticed the small pile of scrappage on my cutting mat. If I am working with patterns like these birds which have a lot of small pieces, I can often find a scrap of fabric which will fill the area just fine and conserve my other material for larger areas.

After my pattern is prepped, I attach my walking foot. I prefer to use this foot when I paper piece. If the pattern is intricate, or has several seams crossing at the same point, bulk can build up between all the fabric and the paper. The walking foot helps keep everything moving along at the same pace, expecially if you’re able to add dual feed into the equation.

Now it’s time to add the first piece of fabric to the pattern. Some quilters simply pin this piece into place, but I’ve always preferred glue. Elmer’s Washable Glue School Glue Stick works perfectly wonderful (and can be purchased at many dollar store establishments).

Paper pieced patterns are numbered. Find the part of the pattern with the number 1 on it and cut out a piece of fabric which will not only cover the section, but also overlap it by at least 1/4-inch. With my budgie-bird pattern, the first piece is the beak. I cut a triangle larger than the beak…

and glued it into place. You can see how the fabric overhangs the sewing lines all the way around the triangle by at least 1/4-inch. Once that’s done, locate the second section of the pattern, which in my case is the ridge above the birdie’s nose. Now I have to prep my fabric for that.

We need to trim down the fabric just a bit to reduce some of the bulk. Here’s where all those advertising postcards come in handy. Line the edge of one of these postcards up with the sewing line of the next section and fold the paper pattern over the edge of the cardboard to expose the fabric.

We want to trim the fabric to have an 1/4-inch seam allowance. There’s a handy-dandy little tool which helps a lot with this — the Add-a-Quarter Ruler. It’s not too expensive and generally most quilt store carry them. If you’re LQS does not, they’re available on Amazon for $8 — $12, depending on if you purchase a single ruler or the dual ruler pack (this has a 6-inch ruler and a 12-inch ruler). The ruler has a ridge on it. You simply lock the ridge against the edge of the paper and cardboard.

Then you trim the fabric off with a rotary cutter.

Let me also add you can purchase Add-an-Eighth Rulers which can be used to trim fabric down to 1/8-inch. If I have a pattern with lots of seams converging on one spot, I have used an Add-an-Eighth to reduce fabric bulk as much as possible. However, usually that is the exception and not the rule. Most of the time I reach for the Add-A-Quarter.

With the seam allowance trimmed down to 1/4-inch, now it’s time to add the second piece of fabric. When you’re cutting fabric to fill the paper pieceing areas, it’s always better to err on the side of being a bit too big than being too little. To check and make sure your fabric will fill the designated area and hang off at least 1/4-inch for the seam allowance, place it over the spot and then flip your patter over tomake sure the area is covered and you have an ample seam allowance. This is one of the reasons why June Tailor’s Perfect Piecing Paper is so wonderful. I can clearly see that the fabric for the bird’s nose ridge fully covers the area.

Flip the paper back over and place the two pieces of fabric right sides together, matching the fabric edges. Pin if needed. You will flip the pattern over again before sewing.

However, before we sew, let’s talk about stitch length. You’ll need to shorten the stitch length a bit when paper piecing. The shorter stitches will perforate the pattern medium a lot, making removing the papers easier. Most sewing machine’s default stitch lenth is around 2.5. My M7’s is 2.4.

I lower it to 2.0. I find this length stills allows for good preforation, but if I do have rip out stitches, the stitches aren’t so close together that it makes the task nearly impossible.

With the fabric pieces next to the feed dogs, begin stitching. You don’t want to begin right on the stitching line. Begin about 1/4-inch away, and backspace or use the knot function on your machine. Stitch along the line, and stop 1/4-inch beyond the end of the line. Then back space or use the knot function on your machine to tie off.

Flip the pattern over and make sure all the areas of the second piece are filled in and then press. Continue filling in the spaces in numberical order until complete.

Once all the spaces are filled it, give it one more last, good press. Notice I haven’t trimmed all my thread ends. I generally don’t do this until I remove the papers. If any of the knots somehow come lose during that process, there will be some thread ends to keep the piece together until I can get the block back to the sewing machine and secure the seam again.

After the last press, I line up my Add-a-Quarter Ruler with the dotted trim line and trim usimg my rotary cutter.

Prep the next pattern piece and continue the journey.

Below are the first two columns of my budgie-bird temperature quilt. This pattern is a little different because you don’t assemble the blocks in rows, but columns. I have always found it easier to assemble the quilt as I go rather than wait until I have a pile of blocks to begin the process.

I hope this blog encourages you to try paper piecing. I use it for complicated blocks or small blocks. I paper pieced nearly all the blocks for my Dear Jane quilt and all the blocks for my Farmer’s Wife Quilt. And if you’re working with bias, paper piecing really helps to stabilize the fabric (at least I think so).

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference (and paper piecing might help make those details easier!).

Love and Stitches,



Are There Quilts Which Set Standards (Part 2)

Last week we began a discussion on quilts which set standards for quilters and some historically significant quilts. I decided (at least for myself) the Log Cabin, Broidery Perse, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, and Sunbonnet Sue were some of the quilts which set standards. We had just begun our discussion on historically significant quilts. We covered two out of eight: The Jane Stickle Quilt and Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt. Today we pick up with number three.

3.  The AIDS Quilt

The Quilt That Brought Us Together

In 1978, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated.  Cleve Jones, a long-time activist, author, and lecturer organized an annual candlelight march to remember these men.  Over the ensuing years, Jones learned over 1,000 San Franciscans had lost their lives to AIDS.  In 1985, he asked marchers to write the names of loved ones who had died from the disease on a placard and carry the placard with them as they walked.  At the end of the march, Jones and others taped the placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building, resulting in a wall which looked much like a patchwork quilt. 

That wall inspired the quilt.  In June 1987, Jones teamed up with Mike Smith, Bert McMullin, and others to formally organize the NAMES Project Foundation – birthed because folks wanted to create a memorial for those who had died of AIDS and to help people understand the devastating impact of the disease.  Due to the influence of the placard-laden wall, the AIDS Quilt Project was born.  Public response to the Quilt was immediate. People in the U.S. cities most affected by AIDS — Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — sent panels to the San Francisco workshop. Generous donors rapidly supplied sewing machines, equipment, and other materials, and many volunteered tirelessly.

On October 11, 1987, the Quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It covered a space larger than a football field and included 1,920 panels. Six teams of eight volunteers ceremonially unfolded the Quilt sections at sunrise as celebrities, politicians, families, lovers, and friends read aloud the 1,920 names of the people represented in Quilt. The reading of names is now a tradition followed at nearly every Quilt display. Half a million people visited the Quilt that weekend.

The overwhelming response to the Quilt’s inaugural display led to a four-month, 20-city, national tour for the Quilt in the spring and summer of 1988. The tour raised nearly $500,000 for hundreds of AIDS service organizations. More than 9,000 volunteers across the country helped the seven-person traveling crew move and display the Quilt. Local panels were added in each city, tripling the Quilt’s size to more than 6,000 panels by the end of the tour.

The Quilt returned to Washington, D.C. in October of 1988, when 8,288 panels were displayed on the Ellipse in front of the White House.  With a small seed grant from the World Health Organization, Quilt organizers travelled to eight countries to mark the first World AIDS Day on December 1, 1988, with simultaneous displays broadcast from six continents.  Throughout 1989, more than 20 countries launched similar commemorative projects.

In 1989 a second tour of North America brought the Quilt to 19 additional cities in the United States and Canada.  In October of that year, the Quilt (now more than 12,000 panels in size) was again displayed on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C.  HBO released their documentary film on the Quilt, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, which brought the Quilt’s message to millions of movie-goers. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1989.

By 1992, the AIDS Memorial Quilt included panels from every state and 28 countries. In October 1992, the entire Quilt returned to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  In January 1993, the NAMES Project was invited to march in President Clinton’s inaugural parade where over 200 volunteers carried Quilt panels down Pennsylvania Avenue.  The last display of the entire AIDS Memorial Quilt was in October of 1996 when the Quilt covered the entire National Mall in Washington, D.C. with an estimated 1.2 million people coming to view it.  The Clintons and Gores attended the display, marking the first visit by a sitting president of the United States. 

Since 1992, the quilt has received 8,000 additional new panels and has become too large to display in its entirety.  In 2012, the quilt was displayed once again on the National Mall and 1,500 panels were shown each day, with volunteers rotating the panels out each morning over a two-week period. 

In November 2019, the National AIDS Memorial became the permanent caretaker and steward of the Quilt, returning it to San Francisco, where its story began during the height of the AIDS epidemic.  At that time, the Quilt’s archival collection of 200,000 objects, documents, cards, and letters that chronicle the lives remembered in it were transferred to the prestigious American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, making this collection available through the world’s largest public library.  This announcement, made at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, featured special guests House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Representatives John Lewis and Barbara Lee, who recognized the Quilt as a national treasure that must be preserved for its ability to teach for generations to come.  Currently the entire quilt can be seen on-line as part of the Interactive AIDS Quilt project.  It is well-worth noting this quilt weighs 54 tons, has nearly 50,000 panels, and represents over 110,000 individuals who died with AIDS.  It is also still a quilt in progress, as new panels are added every year.  The National AIDS Memorial is entrusted with its care, protection, and preservation.

4. Rose Kretsiner’s Paradise Garden

The Most Perfect Applique Quilt

I realize I covered this quilt in a lot of detail in this blog:, I think this one quilt, even more than Marie Webster’s beautiful applique, pushed the art of applique to its heights.  I adore Marie Webster’s work, and her Sunflower quilt is on my bucket list of projects, but keep in mind Marie owned Practical Patchwork Company and her business was developing quilt patterns and quilt kits for folks who had little to no applique experience – which she excelled at.  And I’m still angry with Mountain Mist because you can’t tell me they didn’t directly copy her most popular designs and printed the patterns without giving her a scrap of credit. 

But Rose Kretsinger’s applique quilts were at an entirely different level than Marie’s.  They pushed the limits (and sometimes seemed to defy the art) of applique.  Exquisite to look at and exuberant in detail, her Paradise Garden presented a set of applique standards which today’s quilters still strive to match.  She continued to push well-defined rings of white space (which adds “breathing room” to any quilt) and stepped away from using the pastels which dominated quilting in the 1930’s.  She used bold fabrics – primarily all calicoes – in her quilt.  She also set the standards for applique medallion quilts we still try to adhere to today:  Use plenty of white space, use complementary colors, use several values of each color, frame the circle, use graceful curves, and keep a good ratio between the center medallion and the border. No one did this better than Rose Kretsinger.  And Paradise Garden is the best example of a nearly perfect applique quilt.

5. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend

The Quilts That Shook Up the Quilt World

Nestled down in Alabama, is a little town called Boykin.  The name Boykin may not ring any bells with you as far as quilts and quilters go, but the name Gee’s Bend certainly should – which is the nickname of Boykin, Alabama.  Through a series of events, this area of Alabama remained largely isolated until 2006 when ferry service was finally reinstated to Gee’s Bend.  Around 1960, quilts from this area began receiving some national attention.  Collector William Arnett brought additional attention to the quilts and quilters with a 2002 exhibition, “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” in Houston, Texas.  This show contained 60 quilts from 45 different quilters and drew both national and international attention to the quilts.  Arnett founded the Souls Grown Deep Foundation to organize and collect the Gee’s Bend Quilts.  The organization supports the quilt makers as well as provides documentation, marketing, and fundraising.  Some of the money raised provides education and other opportunities for the quilters.  The foundation is also involved in a multi-year campaign with the Artists Rights Society to gain intellectual property rights for the quilters of Gee’s Bend.

For years the women of Gee’s Bend pieced strips of cloth together to make warm bed coverings for their families.  These quilts were heavily influenced by Native American and African textiles.  The colors were bright.  The quilts were geometric in design, yet highly improvisational. 

The quilts have been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Turner Contemporary in the UK, among others. The reception of the work has been mostly positive, as Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston wrote, “The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quilt making. There’s a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making”.The Whitney venue, in particular, brought a great deal of art-world attention to the work, starting with Michael Kimmelman’s 2002 review in The New York Times which called the quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced” and went on to describe them as a version of Matisse and Klee arising in the rural South. Comparable effect can be seen in the quilts of isolated individuals such as Rosie Lee Tompkins, but the Gee’s Bend quilters had the advantage of numbers and backstory.

In 2003, 50 quilt makers founded the Gee’s Bend Collective, which is owned and operated by the women of Gee’s Bend. Every quilt sold by the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective is unique and individually produced. In recent years, members of the Collective have traveled nationwide to talk about Gee’s Bend’s history and their art. Many of the ladies have become well known for their wit, engaging personality and, in some cases, singing abilities.

In 2015, Gee’s Bend quilters Mary Lee Bendolph, Lucy Mingo, and Loretta Pettway were joint recipients of a National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States government’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. In 2023, the quilters collaborated with generative artist Anna Lucia to create digital works of art on the blockchain in a project called Generations.

While the Gee’s Bend Quilts have not been without controversy (a few of the quilters sued William Arnett, claiming he had swindled them out of thousands of dollars), for the most part they breathed fresh air into the quilt world.  Their quilts are made from recycled clothing and fabric.  They are abstract, improvised works of art which shook up the quilt world.  They pushed the boundaries of “normal” quilts – you don’t need a pattern, your corners don’t have to meet, and everything doesn’t just have be matchy-matchy.  They’re scrap quilts with a new glory added to them.  They demonstrate the great beauty found in so-called “imperfections.”

6.  Quilts by Denyse Schmidt

Quilts That Cultivated the Modern Quilt Movement

Unless you’re a quilter who has quilted under a rock for the past twenty years, you have heard about the Modern Quilt Movement.  The MQM is defined as “Quilts which include a minimalist style; they emphasize negative space rather than intricate patchwork. They may feature bold colors and graphic designs that give a high-contrast pop. And modern quilts often feature asymmetry and use unusual block placement and off-center motifs.”

According to quilt history, the MQM began in 1998. However, it is the quilts by Denyse Schmidt which really pushed the MQM into the quilting world’s consciousness.  Denyse is a former graphic designer and a graduate of The Rhode Island School of Design who began quilting in 1996.  Other folks, like Weekes Ringle and Bill Kerr may have begun constructing Modern Quilts before Denyse, however, it was Denyse who brought the movement to the attention of quilters and non-quilters everywhere.  Her designs are modern – they’re bright, clean, and use negative space well – but they are based on “traditional” blocks and quilts.   Since 2003, Chronicle Books has brought to market more than a dozen stationery and gift items based on her work, as well as her first how-to book, “Denyse Schmidt Quilts, 30 Colorful Quilt and Patchwork Projects”. With FreeSpirit Fabrics, Denyse designs fabric collections for independent quilt and fabric stores. In 2011, her DS Quilts Collection fabric line debuted with record-breaking sales in JoAnn Stores (US) and Spotlight Stores (Australia). In conjunction with her DS Quilts Collection fabrics, Denyse launched quilt patterns featuring her signature style with the venerable McCall Pattern Company. Denyse’s newest book, “Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspiration” (STC Craft | A Melanie Falick Book; April 2012) is an elegant homage to quilting’s rich heritage.

Denyse continues to teach her highly successful improvisational patchwork piecing workshops in her studio. Schmidt’s studio is located in a historic factory building in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And while I can’t put my finger on just one quilt of hers which flipped the “on” switch to the MQM, in my opinion she is the one quilt artist which bridged the gap between “traditional” quilters and “modern” ones.  Her quilts are simply lovely. 

7.  Baltimore Album Quilts

The Elevated Album Quilt with Methodist Connections

Before we jump into Baltimore Album Quilts, let’s revisit the definition of an Album Quilt.  According to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, “An album quilt was a collection of many designs sewn by different women and then joined to form one large quilt. Sometimes the makers even signed their names. Creating album quilts gave women a chance to socialize and to demonstrate their artistry.”  Sometimes these Album Quilts were made from the same pieced or appliqued block and sometimes they weren’t.  The ladies of Baltimore took the Album Quilt concept and elevated it to the next level.

Baltimore Album Quilts originated in 1846 in Baltimore, Maryland.  At this particular time, Baltimore was a Methodist church center – more Methodist churches were located there per capita than anywhere else in our nation.  So many of the quilt makers were Methodist congregants that early BAQs were called “Methodist Quilts.” The women who made these quilts were called “Ladies of Baltimore. This type of quilt had a pretty short shelf life in terms of popularity.  Once the trend started began 1846 it was over by 1852.  This is one of the shortest (if not THE shortest) quilting trends in history.  And while Album Quilts were certainly not a new type of quilt, the style of the Baltimore quilt was.

Quilt historians believe Achsah Goodwin Wilkins (1775-1854), a convert to Methodism who married a Methodist in defiance of her father, a wealthy merchant, actually began the Baltimore Album period.  She designed quilts and was a patron of quilters, to whom she supplied money, materials and the use of her home. The research has also identified one needlewoman, whose expert stitching is its own signature in quilt after quilt, as Mary Evans Ford, daughter of a bricklayer. So far, at least 50 quilts with one or more blocks by Mary Evans Ford have been identified.

Why did the production of these quilts stop in 1852? Some say that album quilts were no longer fashionable in the 1850’s. It’s also likely The Ladies of Baltimore probably dispersed and that some married. Then, in 1854, Mrs. Wilkins, its guiding design genius, died. Though this burst of creativity was short, it was one of the most important needlework expressions in this country’s history.

Technically, these quilts are among the finest of any kind produced in this country. And from quilt to quilt there are recurring devices favored by the quiltmaker. The padding and rouching add sculptural effects to the surface. Three-dimensional white roses appear again and again. The cut work is deft, especially when used to create the bent cane of baskets. The eyes of birds have been so carefully inked in that they seem almost alive, and the bodies of birds are crafted of moire fabrics to suggest feathers.

It’s also important to remember that lots of album quilts were made before, during, and after the 1846-1852 Baltimore Album period.  Many of these quilts look very, very much like Baltimores, but three different style of blocks set Baltimore Album Quilts apart from the others:

 Style One:  These blocks are highly styled multi-pieced blocks which are elaborately appliqued with floral wreaths, baskets of flowers or fruit, monuments, cornucopias, patriotic designs, eagles with the American flag, and birds and butterflies.  These blocks can consist of between 100 to 175 individual pieces. 

Style One

Style Two:  These are simpler blocks with fewer applique pieces – generally between 10 and 30 pieces.  Many, but not all, of Style Two blocks are red and green.

Style Two

Style Three: These blocks consist of primarily solid fabrics with 35 to 50 applique pieces involved in the setting.  These blocks have been found in Baltimore Album dating from1846 to 1848, but a few have been discovered dated post-1848. Many of these blocks have a stylized rose we call “The Hotdog Rose.”

Style Three Blocks. The “Hot Dog Rose” is demonstrated on the first blocks in the second and third rows.

As gorgeous and truly wonderful as these quilts are, it’s easy to see how some writer could throw out the statement, “These are the quilts which set the standards for all others.”  However, that’s not completely true.  While I do think these quilts set quite a few guidelines and near perfect techniques for applique quilters to live up to, I can’t see why this one set of short-lived, geographically locked quilts could be “THE Standard.”  Yes, they are important.  But no more important than the Stickle Quilt.

8.  The Beatles Quilt

Raw-Edge Applique Perfection

I was introduced to this quilt several years ago when I was in Paducah for the AQS show.  This happened to be my first pilgrimage to the Mothership of AQS Shows and Quilt Town USA.  Friends who had made the trek before mentioned no pilgrimage would be complete without a tour of the National Quilt Museum, which I dutifully undertook.  This quilt was hanging in the center of the museum, and you just couldn’t miss it – all the bright colors made it stand out from the rest of the quilts on display.  I also found out another wonderful thing about the NQM during quilt week.  The creators and designers of the quilts on display can drop by, unannounced, and talk about their quilt.  There really isn’t a time schedule, they just come by, and they’re handed a mic and a speaker.  I was lucky – so, so lucky – to be there the day Sue Nickels and Pat Holly (The Beatles Quilt creators) dropped by for a chat. 

They explained their creative process and who does what.  Since they’re sisters, they think alike on many aspects and encourage each other.  They divided the work equally and used the folk-art styles of the 1800’s for inspiration. There is a Tree of Life in the center, and each of the four album blocks represents one of the Beatles – the blocks have guitars, hands, and each Beatle’s name and birthdate.   The applique is done using a stitched raw edge fusible machine technique.  Pat did most of the precision piecing and Sue did most of the machine quilting.  The quilt took about two years to complete and took Best of Show in 1998.  Every section, every detail of this quilt means something…the Beatle’s wives…Yoko…each musical hit.  It’s all somewhere in this quilt.  See if you can spot the Yellow Submarine, the Octopus’s Garden, and Penny Lane. 

So why do I think this quilt represents raw-edge applique perfection?  Well, it did win best of show.  But beyond this, if you closely examine the quilt, it’s filled with the tiniest of tiny pieces of applique, each one stitched down with near perfect stitching.  It’s bright, it tells a story (the best quilts tell stories), and it’s fun.  And if something’s fun, it encourages you to try it.  Even the quilter who is most reluctant to try raw-edge applique would want to give it a go after viewing this quilt. 

This blog has covered a lot of ground and a lot of quilts.  All my choices are probably not all your choices.  As a matter of fact, some of you may disagree vehemently with me.

And that’s fine.  When I began writing this blog over 6,000 words ago, I hoped it would open up some dialog between us about the quilts which set technique standards and historical quilts.  Don’t agree with all my choices?  Let me know in the comments.  Want to add a quilt for consideration?  Put that in the comments, too. 

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference (they certainly did concerning the quilts in my blog)!

Love and Stitches,



Are There Quilts Which Set Standards?

I love quilts.

That, folks, is no secret.  I love making quilts, looking at quilts, and reading about quilts.  I was perusing a new book about quilts (or at least new to me) the other night when a phrase caught my eye and made me pause.  The author was writing about Baltimore Album Quilts and stated, “We know that these quilts set the standards for all other quilts.” 

I puzzled over this for a few minutes.  It’s not that I necessarily completely disagree with this statement.  I’m just not so sure quilt standards are that cut and dry.  Plus, the Baltimore Albums, as lovely and intricate as they are, can only boast of being a particular genre of quilts, and one which was relatively short-lived.  This started me thinking – what quilts have set the standards of quilts and quilters?  Is there only one or are there many?  And even more important, what exactly are these “standards?” 

Thus I began researching this blog.  I googled quilting standards and only came up with quilt sizes.  I grabbed some of my quilt history and technique books off my shelves and turned to the back, searching for any content dealing with quilt standards. 


In this blog, I want to discuss the quilts which set some standards for us quilters.  The ones we return to again and again for inspiration and comfort.  Please note this blog is my opinion.   I don’t own the right to dictate to anyone what makes a good quilt and what doesn’t.  Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder and what may be important to me may not mean beans to you.  So don’t get your quilting thread in a twist if you don’t agree with my choices (trust me, I won’t).  What I do hope this blog does is open up some discussions about quilts – which ones are important historically and which ones are important for technique. 

For this discussion, I will divide quilts into two categories:  Those quilts which are important due to their technique, and those quilts which hold historical significance.  Those technique-laden quilts promote a specific quilting skill.  They introduce the technique and then gradually push it to near perfection.  However, it’s the introductory quilts which are more important to me.   If the quilt can’t make the technique seem simple enough for anyone to master, then as intricate as the quilt is, it isn’t significant.  We can’t master a quilting skill set if we start out in the deep end of the pool.  We start swimming in the shallow part first, and then jump off the high dive.  And in my quilt world, quilts are divided into two different techniques:  applique and piecing.

Log Cabin Quilt
Grandmother’s Flower Garden

Two quilts come to mind when I think about important pieced quilts:  Log Cabin and Grandmother’s Flower Garden.  Both of these are old quilt blocks, with the Log Cabin block showing up on Egyptian mummies (they were painted on the sarcophagus, not sewn into the wrapping).  This block has been found depicted by some method in almost every country.  The techniques may vary just a bit, but the Log Cabin block is probably the most well-known quilt block ever.  While it sets no standards for size – the logs in the block can be wide or narrow – the setup has remained the same.  Rotating fabric strips around a square center which is traditionally made of yellow or red fabric to symbolize a fireplace. Variations abound and layouts are limitless, but the block teaches the importance of straight cutting and consistent seam allowances.  The log cabin block is taught in more beginning quilt classes than I can count, and these blocks often make up a quilter’s first quilt (it did mine).  Thinking about a Log Cabin Quilt universally conjures up feelings of home, warmth, and coziness. 

While the Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt pattern isn’t quite as old as the Log Cabin, hexagon-shaped patches (“hexies”) have shown up for centuries in tiles and mosaics.  Once it was transposed into a quilting pattern, it was called Honeycomb, Flower Garden, Mosaic, Six-Sided Patchwork, French Rose Garden, and French Bouquet.  The pattern made its debut around 1770 in Godey’s Ladies Book.  Not quite as ancient as the Log Cabin images on mummies, but still pretty old. Most (not all) Grandmother’s Flower Gardens are hand pieced.  This quilt is significant to me for several reasons.  First it promotes the technique of hand sewing.  While long ago this was the way many quilts were made (until the introduction of the sewing machine), most of these quilts still are hand pieced.  Second, this may be the first quilt which, when its name is mentioned, the majority of people – even non-quilters – can immediately call to mind what the quilt looks like.  Why is this important?  It’s the quilt which levels the knowledge playground.  Mention Grandmother’s Flower Garden and nearly everyone knows exactly what type of quilt you’re talking about.  Third, this quilt ups the hand piecing game.  A Log Cabin, or any other quilt made of straight strips, squares, or rectangles, is hand pieced pretty easily.  Grandmother’s Flower Garden takes a bit more of a skill set.  You’re working with a slight bias.  There are points which must match and there are set-in “joiners” in some of the quilts.  Yes, it’s straight stitching on an angle, but there’s a lot of other issues you must contend with.  However, master hand piecing this block and you should be able to tackle hand piecing anything else. 

Broidery Perse Crib Quilt

Applique quilts are harder for me to nail down, because I love these quilts.  The whole applique category got started with Broidery Perse quilts.  Women took fabric panels and cut them apart, then carefully turned the raw edges under as they hand sewed them to a background fabric or used a fine buttonhole stitch against a raw edge.  For a while these quilts were wildly popular, and then applique’s popularity waxed and waned until the 1930’s when Marie Webster introduced this little girl to our quilting world.

We know her as Sunbonnet Sue (although historically her real name is Molly).  As sweet as she is, this is the quilt which brought applique front and center again with quilters.  Marie Webster “borrowed” Bertha Corbett’s image of the bonnet bedecked Miss and put her on a quilt during a time when Sue was at the height of her popularity.  Sunbonnet Sue pushed applique quilts into a realm of popularity which has lasted until today.  Not only was this little girl popular, but she was also super easy to make.  The basic Sunbonnet Sue is only six pattern pieces – the bonnet, its band, Sue’s dress, the sleeve, the hand, and the shoe.  There are no deep V’s or points or tight curves.  The pattern is easy enough for any appliquer at any level to make.  I believe it’s because of this simplicity that applique became popular.  Sue wasn’t intimidating in the least, and from her sprung a new generation of applique artists to take the place of those who pretty much disappeared after Mary Evans and her Baltimore Album Quilts faded out of existence.

There you have it.  The four quilts which I think pushed quilting into the general public’s knowledge and taught beginning quilters techniques which they could base the rest of their quilting work on – Log Cabin, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Broidery Perse, and Sunbonnet Sue.  I’d love to know if you agree with me about my choices.

Now let’s move into historically significant quilts.  For me these are the quilts which inspired both quilters and non-quilters to make quilts.  These are the quilts that make even the most seasoned quilter pause and wonder at the beauty and the technique.  Again, my choices are subjective to me, and again, I would love to know your opinion.

  1.  The Jane Stickle Quilt
Jane Stick Quilt at the Bennington Museum

Perhaps the Most Well-Known Quilt in the World

For my generation of quilters, the Jane Stickle Quilt (better known as “Dear Jane”) was the historical quilt which put many of us on the path to reproducing a historical masterpiece.  There are books, blogs, and software for those of us who want to make this quilt.  I’ve seen this quilt reproduced in everything from batiks to 1930’s prints to Civil War reproduction fabric.  I’ve seen folks take the 4 ½-inch blocks, enlarge them, and then set them on point.  There are Dear Jane’s with the traditional triangle and kite border and then there are those with custom borders designed by their maker.  It’s on my bucket list to make a quilty pilgrimage to the Bennington Museum in Vermont to see the actual quilt.  Jane Stickle’s quilt was brought to this museum over eighty years ago.  While the fabric is now fragile, the museum does display the quilt for a short time each year.  It goes on display right after Labor Day and then comes off the floor after Indigenous People’s Day.  According to the museum’s website, hundreds of folks come through the doors from all over the world to see this quilt. 

And if you’ve ever constructed this quilt, or even a few Jane blocks, you realize the process teaches you a great deal about lots of different quilt techniques.  I used paper piecing, reverse applique, regular applique, traditional piecing, and fussy cutting when I made my first Jane.  The great thing about this quilt is it really doesn’t come with any real directions.  You use the construction method you think will work best to make a block.  If you’re in doubt, there are more than enough resources on the web to help you figure it out.  Plus the blocks can be hand pieced or machine pieced.  So many options in this quilt.

For me, the Jane Stickle Quilt is one of the historical standards due to the fact it prompted a new generation of quilters to begin reproducing historically significant quilts.  If you’ve read any of my blogs on quilt history, you may remember quilters such as Rose Kretsinger, Mary Shafer, and Marie Webster believed it was important for quilters to remake antique quilts so the patterns would not be lost to history.  Dear Jane spurred my generation of quilters to pick up the needle and repeat the process.  From this masterpiece of piecing and applique have sprung quilt patterns and groups for the Caswell Quilt, the 1718 Coverlet, Baltimore Albums and the Mountain Mist Quilts.  Added plus for a Dear Jane – it packs a good handful of different techniques. 

2.  Harriett Powers Bible Quilt

The Quilt That Caused a Revolt

This quilt was constructed about 1886 by Harriet Powers.  This African American Farm woman of Clarke County, Georgia exhibited the quilt at the Athens Cotton Fair, and it caught the eye of Jennie Smith.  The quilt captivated Smith, who later wrote, “I have spent my whole life in the South, and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I have never seen such an original design and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork…The scenes on the quilt were biblical and I was fascinated.  I offered to buy it, but it was not for sale at any price.” 

Four years later, Harriet Powers and her husband suffered some financial setbacks.  Her husband urged her to look up Jennie Smith and see if she was still interested in purchasing the quilt.  Smith was, but she had also fallen on hard times and could not give Harriet the $10 requested for the quilt.  She could only offer $5.  Again, Harriet’s husband encouraged her to take the money.  Harriet agreed and delivered the quilt to Jennie in a clean flour sack enveloped in a clean crocus sack.  However, before Harriet turned over her precious creation, she explained the eleven panels to Jennie.  Briefly the subjects are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a continuation of Paradise with Eve and a son, Satan amidst the seven stars, Cain killing his brother Abel, Cain goes to the land of Nod to get a wife, Jacob’s dream, the baptism of Christ, the Crucifixion, Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver, the Last Supper, and the Holy Family.

Eventually Harriet Powers quilt came to live in the Smithsonian.  It’s rarely, if ever, on display due to its fragility.  However, in 1992 this wonderful quilt became the touchstone of controversy which rallied thousands of quilters.  In 1992, the Spiegel catalog (remember Spiegel?) featured handmade copies of historic 19th century quilts from the Smithsonian Collection.  The Smithsonian had licensed the reproductions to American Pacific Enterprises, Inc., to generate needed revenues.  There were four quilts which received this licensure:  the 1851 Bride’s Quilt, the 1830 Great Seal of the United States quilt, the 1850 quilt called Sunburst, and the beloved 1886 Bible Quilt by Harriet Powers.  The quilts were to be stitched in China. 

Quilters revolted in an uproar.  Some quilters felt the reproductions would “compromise their provenance and create confusion about their [the quilts’] origins.”  Others argued the Smithsonian should have contacted American quilters to stitch the reproductions, not folks overseas.  Some feared the quality of the Chinese reproductions might be sub-par and as a result, negatively affect the market for American-made quilts.  Some quilters wanted the quilts to be clearly labeled “Made in China.”  Others wondered why the Smithsonian would have reproductions made in China when the US was running a $12.7 billion trade deficit at the time with this country.  And still other forward-thinking quilters wondered if other museums which collected quilters’ works would license their creations without permission in the future.

Thousands of quilters protested at the doors of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  They also telephoned and hand-delivered petitions signed by thousands of other quilters to their Congressional Representatives.  The National Quilting Association faxed its official position paper to its member chapters requesting action.  Smithsonian officials finally did meet with quilters to try to understand their viewpoints.  Some concessions were made – one was that the Smithsonian would ensure its name and copyright year (1992) were printed on each reproduced quilt. 

Facts gleaned from the New York Times and the Washington Post offer a few tidbits of info about the controversial quilt reproductions:

  • Each of the quilts took 50 hours of labor by three or four workers.
  • American textiles were used for the applique and Chinese-made cotton was used for batting and backing.
  • Each quilt was sewn by machine but quilted by hand.
  • Anticipated royalties during the three-year period were between $500,000 – $800,000.
  • American Pacific sold more than 23,000 copies of the four reproductions by March 1993.

Occasionally, if all the Ebay stars line up correctly, one can find a Harriet Powers reproduction Bible Quilt on there, including the 12-page Smithsonian Collection booklet with photos and descriptions of each of the four quilts and numbered Certificate of Registration card. 

To me, Harriet Powers quilt is historically significant in several ways.  It is no secret many of the quilts belonging to Southern households during the 1800’s were completely or partially made by slaves.  These enslaved women were usually given no credit for their artistic workmanship. Even though slavery was abolished in 1865, it still would have remained a rarity to have any quilt widely attributed to an African American artist.  To have such an early quilt with a clear provenance to Harriet Powers is indeed highly significant.  It gives credit where credit is due.

Secondly, the applique on the quilt represents people.  Most applique done during this era (and even now) is overwhelmingly floral.  The fact that actual people were depicted was not the norm.  And thirdly, over a hundred years after this quilt was constructed, it rallied thousands upon thousands of quilters together to protect its integrity and provenance.  This righteous anger made not only museum juggernauts like the Smithsonian pause before it blatantly reproduced the quilt, but it also issued a warning shot to other entities to think twice before replicating any historical quilt without taking serious precautions. 

When I started writing this blog, I had no idea it would be so long. At this point, we’re over 2,500 words and I’ve found folks’ attention tends to wane when I produce much more than that. I have a total of eight quilts which I feel are historically significant. We’ll cover the other six next week.

Until then, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,



Good Lighting is Like Eating Cheesecake

Most of us take the lighting in our sewing area for granted.  I mean flick a switch and we have illumination.  What’s there to really think about?  We need light. Flick.  We have light.  Honestly what’s the big deal?

Well lighting is a big deal.  The correct lighting is a bit like having all the cheesecake you want with no calories to deal with the next day – or that horrible, bloated feeling.  Incorrect lighting is kind of like eating all the cheesecake and having to deal with all the calories and that horrible, bloated feeling.  The first part of this blog will explain lighting just a bit and the second part will show you some areas where you may want to change the lighting in your quilt room.

Humphrey Davy — the man who really invented the incandescent light bulb

We tend to laud Thomas Alva Edison for the invention of the light bulb.  Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he didn’t invent it.  The incandescent light bulb was invented by an Englishman – Humphrey Davy.  What Edison did was improve this light bulb and then worked to make electricity affordable for everybody.   Over the years other scientists and engineers picked up Edison’s light bulb and continued to change and improve it.  Just shopping for light bulbs is overwhelming now.  An entire aisle at your local hardware store has hundreds of choices and wattages.  A search for light bulbs on Amazon yields over seven webpages of choices.  However, for us quilters, we’re dealing with more than wattages and colors of light.  We work with fabric and it’s important for us to see its hues, tints, and shades in their purest form.  What kind of lighting gives us the best odds of making sure we actually can do this?


Yup.  Sunshine.  This is why you may see quilters carry the fabric bolts of their choice to a window for their final audition.  I wrote another blog ( about that a while back.  So it’s important we  get lighting which mimics daylight in our studios.  Let’s take a short (but deep dive) on lighting before we talk about our studios (this is one of those rare times when my physics background and quilting mesh…)

Lighting is measured in color temperature (sometimes referred to as Kelvin) and CRI (Color Rendering Index).  It’s the CRI we’re most concerned about in our sewing area.  Lighting with poor CRI can make true purples appear red or true creams seem brown-ish tan.  CRI is rated on a scale from 0% to 100% to reference the accuracy of a light source (such as the light bulb in your lamp) in comparison to natural daylight – which is a true color hue.  The higher the CRI rating, the closer it is to true, natural daylight. 

This is not to say the Kelvin aspect of lighting isn’t important, too.  Kelvin is a unit of measurement used to describe the color temperature of a light source.  You use this all the time when purchasing light bulbs.  Soft White is 2700K – 3000K; Bright White is 3500K – 4100K; and Daylight is 5000k – 6500K.  For the more intimate areas of our homes, we may choose a soft white.  Study areas may require a bright white.  We probably would choose a daylight bulb for dressing and make up/hair areas.  For our quilting studio – really any type of art studio – we want bulbs which are between the 5000K and 6500K range with a high CRI rating (at least 90 – 95).  This is the best lighting you can have for a sewing area or fabric shop (which sadly, most fabric shops rely on the florescent-type lighting provided by their landlords). 

Years ago, before the development of LED lights, this type of lighting was expensive.  The fact LEDs are readily available, last longer, and are better than incandescent bulbs have pushed the prices down.  Some even come with dimming capabilities, which is super.  Personal Zone of Truth:  The best prices I have found – at least in my area of the country – for these light bulbs are on Amazon. 

I realize there may be some dissention from a few folks about now.  You may not buy all this illuminating information I’m shedding.  Let me throw this out.  How many of us use Ott lights?  Don’t you just love them?  Guess who has had this lighting concept nailed down for years?  That’s right.  Ott.  So this lighting construct has got to be valid – Ott has sold hundreds of thousands of lights and has hundreds of thousands of satisfied customers.

Now that I’ve explained what makes a good light bulb, where should these be placed in your quilting area? 

Overhead Lighting

Most of us inherit quilting spaces which already have established overhead lighting.  In my wildest dreams I win the lottery and can splurge on a quilting space I design.  Besides having electrical outlets in the floor, lots of shelves and built in drawers, custom pressing and cutting areas, I would have the overhead combination of 5000K – 6500K and 95 CRI either in LED tube lighting or recessed or flush mount lights.  However, I have not won the lottery and must work with what I have – which is two overhead light figures with two daylight bulbs in each.  One is directly over my primary sewing area and the other is over my long arm.  These are augmented by two east-facing windows and two sliding glass doors which lead out onto a deck. 

I imagine a lot of you are in a similar situation.  You’re working with the overhead lighting (also called “fill light”) which came with the room you quilt in.  There may not be a great deal you can do about it but do use LED Daylight Bulbs with the highest CRI index available.  If your room has windows, open the shades and let the sunshine in.  These two steps will allow you to maximize your fill light.  And if you haven’t used the Daylight LED Bulbs, you may be surprised at the difference they make. 

Task Lights

Task lights are those additional lights we use which are focused on specific areas of our quilting space.  Even if somehow you’re fortunate enough to snag custom overhead lighting, task lights are still important.  These reduce eye strain, headaches, and backaches.  Exactly where you place these lights and how many you have can be a personal decision, depending on how good the fill lighting is.  I will hit the most common areas of a quilt studio – which by coincidence are the exact places I have my task lights. 

Your Sewing Machine – Most sewing machines come with at least one light built into the mechanism.  The newer sewing machines have LED daylight lighting.  Older versions don’t.  Those use some type of incandescent bulb which will yellow with age and generally becomes very hot with extended sewing times.  The good news is there are lots of supplemental LED daylight lighting for sewing machines.  There are LED daylight strip lights which attach under the top of the machine head.  I have not used any of these, but I have quilting buddies who have, and I can tell you these have been met with varying degrees of success.  I suggest reading the reviews before purchasing any of these supplemental lights. 

Many sewing machine manufacturers have developed LED replacement bulbs for their older machine models.  They look similar to the old bulbs, but they’re LED daylight bulbs.  These are even available now for Singer Featherweights. 

Of course, there are always the smaller Ott lights which can be used beside your machine.  I used one for years behind my old Memory Craft 6000, until I updated to Big Red years ago. 

Your Cutting Area – Accurate cutting is one of the first steps which guarantees a successful quilt journey.  Rotary mats are marked well, but time and use cause these to fade a bit.  A daylight LED light on or beside your cutting area is a big help.  Personally, I like the kind I can adjust, so I have this light

Clamped to my cutting table.  I can move the head directly over the fabric if I need to fussy cut or move it to the side or up and down if it causes too much of a shadow on my rulers.  I can also dim it or brighten the light if needed.

Supplemental Lighting Over Your Primary Sewing Area – Even if your sewing machine has the best LED Daylight bulb available, realize that light is concentrated primarily over your harp and needle area.  Additional lighting (especially if you’re quilting) is very helpful and can reduce eye strain.  I use this light

This lamp has LED Daylight bulbs and clamps onto the front of my sewing table.  This allows the light to “puddle” exactly in the area I’m working on.  This is valuable not only if I’m quilting, but also if I am working with dark colors.  I can dim or brighten this light as needed.  I do like that it’s longer than my sewing machine, which means the light “puddle” covers the entire area that I’m working with. 

Your Pressing Area – This one may catch you by surprise, as lighting the pressing area may not have crossed your mind.  However, the “Holy Trinity” of accuracy is cutting, consistent seam allowances, and pressing.  It’s important you’re able to really see what you’re pressing.  I have a large pressing area (ironing board) near my cutting table, so I can swing the light I use on the table over to the ironing board.  However, I also have a smaller pressing area near my sewing machine, which I use when I’m piecing and machine appliqueing.  I have this little Ott light

That I clamp onto this pressing area.  It has a goose neck, so it’s adjustable and a clothespin clamp, which means it’s super-easy to move.  When I was using Big Red, I often clamped this machine to the top of her for additional light.  If you applique via freezer paper or Apliquick, this light is great to have in your pressing/gluing area.  You can really see what you’re doing. 

Those are the task lights recommended for a sewing area.  Ideally, between your fill lights and the task lights, your studio is evenly lit with concentrated illumination in important areas. 

I would also add these recommendations.

  1.  If you sew anywhere other than your studio, make sure you have supplemental lighting.  Specifically, if you’re like a lot of us and hand sew while you’re watching television in another area of the house, make sure you have some additional lighting other than the overhead fill light.  I have an Ott light with a magnifier my DH gave me for Christmas.   It works wonderfully.
  2. If you take your sewing with you when you travel, or you like sewing bees, or you attend workshops, travel lights are great to have.  Outside your studio, you can’t guarantee how good (or bad) the lighting may be.  Having a light you can count on is priceless.  A few years ago I received this Ott light for Christmas

It’s super convenient because it has compartments in the base you can store needles, beeswax, scissors, and small fabric pieces in.   

I also have this light, which is a recent purchase. 

This light has LED Daylight bulbs and is chargeable – once charged it lasts for several hours before needing a re-charge.  It folds flat and it, its electrical plug head, and charging cord fit neatly in its storage case.  It is surprisingly heavy, so be careful if you pitch it into your sewing bag and then pick the bag up. 

There are literally hundreds of options for portable lighting.  Read the reviews carefully and ask your quilting buddies what they use, which ones are their favorites, and how much they cost.  Ott lights are the most expensive, but they have always received stellar reviews, have excellent customer service, and last forever.  However, with the flood of good LEDs hitting the market (I have seen decent LED portables at dollar stores), they may have to lower their costs.  Of course, Otts are available at Joanne’s, and you may opt to wait for a good coupon to offset the price.  Minimally, you may want to replace your current light bulbs with Daylights.

I hope this blog has “illuminated” the importance of good lighting in your quilting space.  Until we win the lottery so we can design our own custom quilt studio, it’s helpful to know how to best use what we have. 

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference (even in lighting!)

Love and Stitches,



Eating a Quilty Elephant (or How to Gain Quilting Confidence)

We’ve all been there.

You know the spot…

The place where we gaze at a quilt or quilt pattern and we’re just in awe.  It’s beautiful and it speaks to us, and only one thought goes through our head:

I have to make this quilt.  I must make this quilt.

So we look at it more closely.  If it’s a pattern, we may find ourselves pulling out the directions and reading them.  If it’s an actual quilt, we may look at it as closely as we’re allowed, trying to reason out how it was constructed and what techniques are used.  If it’s a picture, we summon Google to our rescue, investigating the name, if there’s a pattern available, or how the maker constructed it.  Then at the end of all this research, come away with this conclusion:  I can’t make this quilt.  It’s too hard.  I don’t have the skill set.

Well, if you think this is one of those blogs that’s sunshine and unicorns and I’m going to tell you to just jump in with both feet and give it try, you’re wrong.  This blog won’t do that.  If I told you to go ahead and begin constructing a quilt you’re not quite ready to make, I would be doing you a horrible disservice.  Chances are, you would give up on it (and me) before long and toss the quilt and perhaps quilting itself, in the circular file (trashcan).  What this blog will do is tell you at some point you will be able to make that quilt.  Just give yourself time.  What you need to do is build your confidence and skill sets as a quilter before you begin cutting out this quilt you want so badly to construct.

The first step you must take to become a confident quilter is kiss the idea of perfection good-bye.  No quilt is ever perfect.  No quilt you make will be perfect.  No quilt I make will ever be perfect (believe me, I can point out every error in every quilt I ever made).  In a way this is a difficult thing to do.  We work so hard to make sure all the little details are just right – corners meet, points aren’t chopped off, all of our cutting is accurate – it’s not easy to let go of the fact  even if we are contentious in every facet, there will still be mistakes.  However, on the other hand, it’s also very freeing.  If you chop off the tips of a few flying geese blocks, it is helpful to realize other quilters have done the exact same thing.  It’s also comforting to know that someone standing six feet away from your quilt won’t notice three of your geese have blunted beaks. 

After you’ve kissed perfection good-bye, it’s time to eat the elephant.  Remember the old joke – how do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re making any quilt – even more so if it’s a quilt you’re struggling with a bit.  Try not to look at the whole thing – don’t view all the instructions as one huge unit.  Only deal with the step you’re on at the time.  Yes, I know I’ve told you one of the very first actions to take before cutting out your quilt is to read the directions through until the end.  Then read them again and mark them up.  And I stand by this.  But once your quilt is cut out, organized, bagged and tagged, work through one step at a time.  Don’t worry about step 10 when you’re on step 1.  Get through the first step successfully, and then the second.  By the time you get to the part of the quilt you’re most concerned about, your quilting confidence will allow you to work your way through that step.  Plus, by the time you’re there, the quilt instructions may make a lot more sense to you. 

The same process applies if you’re working on a quilt you don’t have a pattern for.  Let me throw in a personal experience.  As I was reading a book on Mary Shafer and her quilts, I saw a picture of her quilt Flowering Almond.

I fell in love with this quilt.  The colors drew me in, and I knew I wanted to make it.  So before long, I Googled the quilt name and my search returned lots of images, but no pattern nor even a block I could break down into units.  I had to view the quilt and find out where the blocks began and ended.  Then I had to break the block down into units.  It’s an applique quilt, so I couldn’t define units like four-patch or flying geese.  I had to look at the block and determine where else I could pull in those applique shapes.  Eventually I found the same shapes or similar ones in other applique patterns.  Then it was just a matter of deciding how big I wanted my blocks, if I wanted to use the same border treatment, and how many of each applique piece I needed.  It’s all one step at a time, and don’t view the whole quilt at once.  Just like eating an elephant – one bite at a time. 

With perfection and the elephant behind us, now it’s time to take baby steps.  And these baby steps are important to take because they walk us out of our comfort zone.  The third process you can take to build your quilting confidence is to start making quilts just slightly out of your comfort zone.  Notice I didn’t say waaaaayyyyy out of your comfort zone.  No.  Just slightly.  Again, let me throw in some personal experience.  When I teach beginner quilters, the first block we tackle is a four patch.  This is one of the basic – if not THE basic – quilt blocks.  It’s versatile.  It can work as a block unit or a block unto itself.  I can teach accurate cutting, strip pieces, nested seams, and squaring up, all in this simple little block.  I can then take this block, make it the center of an economy block, set them in rows with sashing and add a border.

The next class I teach is Confident Beginners.  We graduate to a nine-patch, use those as the center of a star block, set those on point, and then teach setting triangles and mitered borders.  The second class — Confident Beginners – is just a bit harder than the first class.  It pushes those new quilters out of their comfort zone just a tad.  Enough for them to learn some new skills, but not enough to overwhelm them.  As you pick and choose the quilts you want to make, you may want to re-examine the patterns.  While it’s comforting and less stressful to make simple patterns (and let’s face it, we all have times when we need mindless sewing to get us over the demands of the day), it’s nice to have a bit of a challenge to deal with, too.  I wouldn’t jump from a beginner’s pattern to an advanced one, but I would advise a pattern labeled “Confident Beginner” or “Intermediate.”  As you successfully tackle new techniques or more difficult blocks, your quilting confidence will grow. 

Classes will also help build your quilting confidence.  While it’s true I often take a class in something I’m pretty proficient in just because I like the teacher or have several friends in the class, most of the time it’s because I want to learn a new technique or become more skillful in one.  Classes help you grow in a couple of different ways.  First (and most obviously), they teach you something new.  You’re enrolled in the class to master another technique or block or quilt.  You may have been reluctant to try it on your own, but with some help and demonstrations, you will come away knowing exactly how to make that block or quilt or execute that skill set.  Second, you may make some new quilting friends.  This is great, because I have learned so much from my quilting buddies.  They are my “go-to” for advice, knowledge, and opinions.  Third, there’ll be a lot of quilting knowledge handed off which has nothing to do with the class itself.  For instance, a year ago I took a long arm class with a well-known teacher.  We were learning how to quilt floral motifs, but in the middle of the demonstrations and hands-on exercises, she happened to mention the two colors of quilting thread she absolutely must have on hand at all times is dusty pink and pale yellow “because believe it or not, they blend with almost everything except black.”

Well.  I had never even considered that.  As soon as class was over, I hit up Superior Threads for a cone of each.  Three days later I loaded up my long arm with a practice sandwich made of a multi-colored print fabric and tried out each.  To my amazement, it worked.  I learned something new on two different levels and my confidence as a long arm quilter got a little better.

After you’ve gained experience as a quilter, try teaching what you know.  There’s nothing quite like seeing the light bulb go off in someone when they have grasped something new.  It’s addictive.  It taps the dopamine in your brain like almost nothing else.  Plus, before you teach someone, you have to make sure you really know and understand your subject matter, so teaching makes you review your skillset and reinforces it.  Teaching what you know to someone else and then watching them grasp it makes you feel super-good, and your confidence grow.  You don’t have to teach a class – teach a kid, teach a friend, teach a fellow quilter a trick you learned. 

Lastly – and this is most important – don’t let failure or fear of failure play with your mind.  Honestly, just don’t.  I’ve quilted for over 30 years, and I can say with all genuine frankness, there are very, very few quilting “errors” which can’t be fixed.  Just because you tried a new technique and it didn’t go so well the first time, don’t get discouraged.  The majority of us don’t get something right the first time we try it.  If a quilter is making technique look easy, it’s because he or she has performed that skill set lots and lots of times.    Keep practicing.  If one method doesn’t work, Google it.  You’ll be amazed at all the different ways of doing something.  Allow me to add one more personal experience.  I love to applique by hand.  Many of my fellow appliquers use silk thread.  I was never able to.  It kept sliding out of the eye of my needle.  Cotton thread didn’t do this, so for years 50 or 60 weight cotton thread was all I used in my applique.  However, I loved the way silk thread seemingly “melted” into the fabric and disappeared.  Then a quilting friend of mine showed me how to make a tiny knot with the silk thread at the eye of my needle.  It didn’t impede my stitching any, but it kept the thread from sliding out of the needle.  I had to look at another way of using the technique which worked for me.  At some point in your quilting journey, you will face similar challenges.  Find the technique which works for you.

Don’t let fear of failure freeze you out of trying something new.  What’s the worst that could happen?  You have to rip out a few stitches and start over?  Back up and try a different method?  Don’t let fear of failure paralyze your quilting.  Push forward.  As you garner success after success (both big and small) your confidence will grow, and you’ll know with certainty you can make the quilt you want the way you want to make it.

I hope this blog has shown you ways to build your confidence as a quilter.  Zone of Truth here – we all feel less than confident at times.  We’re all human.  Take the process one step at a time and trust it.  Your confidence will grow, and you’ll successfully tackle any quilt you want to make.

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,



Publications and Quilting

If there have been three constants in quilting, it’s these:  fabric, patterns, and publications. I realized this as soon as I started quilting.  Fabric, patterns, magazines and books are seemingly always in constant supply.  And of the three, quilting publications are the most recent addition.

In many ways, today we have it super easy to learn about quilting.  Curious about a new technique?  There’s YouTube and blogs.  Want to get a glimpse of the latest fabrics?  Well, there are quilt magazines out there – both the kind published on paper and the e-versions.  What do they all have in common?  They’re clickable – decide what you want, find it, and with a click of the mouse it’s downloaded to a laptop, iPad, or phone.  There’s no waiting.  It’s instant quilting gratification.  Of course, it wasn’t always like this.  The internet had to be developed.  Electronic devices had to become affordable for everyone to access. 

That is true.  But what you may not know is how hard quilters worked to get to the point-click-download part.  Do you have any inkling of what went on behind the scenes to move us from the first quilting pattern in magazines to internet programs  such as The Quilt Show?  Truthfully, until I began researching the blog The Kansas Phenomena, I honestly had no idea.  Vaguely, on some level, I was aware of certain books and magazines and when they were published.  But there is so much more to it than I imagined.  So many people worked incredibly hard to get us here – to the point where there is more quilting information and history available than at any other time.  With this blog, I’d like to give you a rough timeline and mention the names behind this effort.

The Holy Trinity of Early Quilting Books

We have quilt books and magazines coming out our ears today.  Don’t want to buy them?  Chances are good your local library has a fine selection.  Don’t want hundreds of books taking up shelf space?  You’re in luck.  Many of these are available as an e-version and the patterns are in a separate file which can be downloaded as you need them.  However, prior to 1915, quilting books were nonexistent. But with the Arts and Crafts Revival pushing the interest in “home arts” it didn’t take long for publishing companies to figure out how they could cash in on this craze — books about quilts and quilting. Before long, we had what most quilt historians call “The Holy Trinity of Early Quilting Books.”  These were the best ones, the most well-written, easiest to understand, and the earliest of serious quilting publications.

Marie Webster

The first extensive book on the subject was written by Marie Webster.  Titled “Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them,” it was published in 1915.  Marie Webster was an avid quilter who managed to make applique a high art as well as an accepted technique.  Along the way, she became a businesswoman, producing some of the earliest quilt kits and patterns.  Her book traces applique and quilting in the ancient world, medieval Europe, and early America. Twenty-four of Marie Webster’s own quilts are illustrated in color, with 60 additional black and white photos of historic quilts and needlework from the original editions, as well as photos from Marie Webster’s family album.

The book originally took two forms.  There was a blue cover book (center) which was a limited edition and a cream-colored one (right) which was the standard trade edition.  The one we’re most familiar with is on the left, and it is actually a 1990 reprint of the book by Rosalind Webster Perry – Marie Webster’s granddaughter.  Prior to writing the book, Marie had fourteen patterns published in Ladies Home Journal and her wildly successful quilting business (The Practical Patchwork Company) was growing rapidly.  It didn’t take long for Doubleday, Page, and Company publishers to knock at her door and request a book.  “Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them,”  delves into quilt history, pattern names, and how to make a quilt.  It was the very first book to discuss quilt construction.

The reprint edition is still fairly readily available.  A quick Amazon search turned up a few hardback and paperback editions.  Thrift Books also has several copies.  It is 244 pages and if you’re interested in quilts pre-1930, you will want to add this book to your library.  If you’d like to read more about Marie Webster, you can go here:

“Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them”  is the second book.  Ruth Finley wrote this one and a few paragraphs about Ruth herself are worth going into (which I will shortly).  First published in 1929, this record of the most picturesque of all American folk arts is an enduring contribution to the study of women’s history. The first printing had 200 photographs of quilts, quilters, and diagrams.  “Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them,” was reprinted for the third time in 1990 and it added more pictures and diagrams as well as eight color plates. Barbara Brackman wrote the forward to the third edition.  This book is still widely available (used, of course). 

Ruth Finley

Now, back to Ruth Finley.  Born on September 25, 1885, her father was Dr. Leonidas Ebright who served as surgeon general of Ohio, an Ohio state representative, and Akron’s postmaster.  Her mother was Julia Bissell.  She was a graduate of Oberlin College, the first American college to grant degrees to women.  Ruth’s family had colonial roots dating back to 17th Century Connecticut, including two governors.  She used this pedigreed background to her advantage in her creative undertakings.  In 1902 she enrolled in Oberlin College, but only stayed one semester.  She transferred to Buchtel College (later the University of Akron), but only completed two additional semesters.  When she left Buchtel, she spent a year touring the western United States, writing stories and poems as she traveled.  By 1907, she began her career as a journalist.  She worked as various newspapers, first as an investigative reporter (she went undercover as Ann Adams to report on the harsh working conditions of women in factories and households) and then as an editor.  She met and married her husband – also a newspaper reporter – Emmet Finley in 1910. 

Ruth grew up with a knowledge of quilts through her family connections.  During her years as a newspaper writer and editor, she began to collect antique quilts.  From 1910 to 1919, as she traveled the country both for business and pleasure, she would look for quilts.  When certain quilts hanging on a clothesline caught her attention, she stopped at the farmhouse and asked for a drink of water.  With this simple introduction, she would inquire about the quilt(s) she was interested in.  She would ask about the name of the quilt and the story behind it.  Many times her offer to purchase the quilt was accepted.  From this, Ruth began to collect patchwork patterns, making diagrams and identifying them by name.   If more than one name was given to the same pattern, she recorded all the variants and included in her book the name she thought most appropriate. 

This meticulous research continued for several years, until she began writing Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them.  The writing process began in 1915 and ended in 1929 – a fourteen-year effort.  When the book was published in 1929, it included information about more than 300 quilt patterns and Ruth’s empathy for the women of the 19th Century was clearly evident throughout the book.

There is no doubt that Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them had a profound influence of designers of Ruth’s time period and those who came after.  Quilters such as Pine’ Eisfeller, Rose Kretsinger, and others drew their own patterns based on inspiration from the black and white pictures in the book.  However, throughout this entire research and writing process, Ruth Finley never put the first stitch in a quilt of her own.  She researched them, preserved the ones she purchased, and wrote about them extensively, but never made one.  She did design one, though.  In 1934 she designed a quilt in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The quilt design was published in Good Housekeeping.  Photographs and descriptions of the quilt portray it as “rectangular wreath of fantasy flowers appliqued in gorgeous bas-relief.”  A great variety of brilliant calicoes were used for the flowers on the wreath, which was placed against a background of black sateen.  The quilt was lined and corded with lipstick-red fabric. 

Ruth Finley’s last known writing was the start of her autobiography.  Fourteen typewritten pages, with penciled margin notes, are all that remain of it.  After a lingering illness, Ruth died in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, on September 24, 1955, the day before her seventy-first birthday.  She was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 1979 – the year the first group of quilters were inducted. 

Ruth Finley’s Quilt in honor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The third book of this Holy Quilting Trinity is The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt

This book is written by Carrie Hall and Rose Kretsinger, with Kretsinger writing the section “The Art of Quilting and Quilting Designs.”  Carrie Hall wrote the rest of the book.  And unlike Ruth Finley, Carrie Hall sewed prolifically, claiming “I was born with a needle in my hand.”  We are forever indebted to Hall for her rich record of America’s early quilt heritage. 

Carrie Hall in Historical Red Moire Costume

Carrie Hall was born in Caledonia, Wisconsin on December 9, 1866, and attributed her mother for her love of books, desire for knowledge, and discriminating taste in fashion.  Her mother taught Carrie to sew and by the age of seven, Carrie had pieced a LeMoyne Star Quilt, which won first place in the county fair.  By ten, she was out-pacing adult sewers, winning ribbons and a subscription to Godey’s Lady’s Book. By the age of 23, she had moved to Leavenworth, Kansas and launched her career as a dressmaker.  Her business prospered, as she catered to the well-to-do, copying the styles from Paris and importing French fabrics to make her dresses with. 

It was after World War I that Carrie began making quilts.  As the quilt revival grew in the 1920’s, she created 16 quilts, including an original design she named Cross-Patch.  She was captivated by all the beautiful quilt patterns on the market, but realized she would never be able to make a quilt from each pattern.  As a sort of compromise, she decided to make a sample block of every known quilt pattern at the time.  Eventually, this massive undertaking yielded well over 800 blocks, along with dozens of scrapbooks filled with quilt related clippings. 

Carrie Hall’s Cross-Patch Quilt

By the late 1920’s, the availability of ready-made clothing caused her dressmaking business to decline.  Redirecting her life, Carrie became a quilt lecturer.  Dressed in a colonial costume of red moire’ trimmed with frilled net fichu and cuffs, she presented more than 80 quilt lectures, illustrated with her extensive quilt block collection, to women’s groups and at department stores.  The presentations were received with such enthusiasm that soon her friends were encouraging Carrie to write a book.  So, in 1935, Carrie, along with Rose Kretsinger, wrote The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America.  The book combined quilt history drawn from personal accounts, women’s magazines, and the scrapbooks in Carrie’s collection.  The photographs of Carrie Hall’s quilt blocks made it the first comprehensive index to quilt patterns, their names, and their histories.  First published in 1935, the book has been re-printed several times because it’s still popular due to its well-organized illustrations of more than 800 numbered blocks in traditional and early 20th century designs.  It does get a bit confusing when Hall mentions things like “the war.”  You have to bear in mind the book was written five years before the beginning of World War II, so “the war” means World War I.  Many quilt and books critics think The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt continues where Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them leaves off.  And it does seem to do this.

After completing her book on quilts, Carrie pursued other sewing-related business ventures, including a second book in 1938 titled From Hoopskirts to Nudity, which reviewed the fashion follies from 1866 to 1936.  Carrie’s fortunes rose and fell, but eventually she became financially stable again when she began producing a line playtime and character dolls of historical figures.  Fellow quilters (and Quilters Hall of Fame inductees) Florence Peto, Grace Snyder, and Bertha Stenge encouraged and supported her in this effort.  In January 1955, Carrie machine-pieced a Delectable Mountains quilt top for a special friend and a Nine Patch for a new baby.  These were the last two quilts she made.  She died at the age of 88, on July 8, 1955.  She was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1999, the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art, along with the American Quilters Society, republished Carrie Hall’s 800 quilt blocks in color.  They also included over 200 quilt patterns which could be made from the blocks, as well as assembly diagrams.  In many instances, this book is more difficult to find than Romance of the Patchwork Quilt.

Book by AQS and University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art.

It’s important to keep in mind other quilt books were also published during this time.  However, these three were (and are) still the best and do a great job in tracing quilt history and construction.  All three of the books helped usher in the second Great Quilt Revival.  And as women purchased or borrowed them to read, three other publishing concepts were finding their footing in the quilt world:  Syndicated Quilting Columns, Quilting Newsletters, and Round Robins.

Just Who Were Laura Wheeler, Nancy Cabot, and Alice Brooks?

During the Thirties, many newspapers would publish a quilt block.  This was usually a line drawing of a block, with maybe a few rudimentary details.  The Kansas City Star newspaper was especially well-known for their quilt blocks.  Women would see the quilt block, read the few details, and then could either try to break down the block and make it themselves, or drop a few coins in an envelope, send it off, and receive the pattern via the US Postal System.  Most of the time, the construction directions were necessary, as many of the blocks were not designed by Laura Wheeler, Nancy Cabot, or Alice Brooks.  They were actually drawn by graphic artists with no quilting background – which rendered some of them downright impossible to construct.  The directions varied according to the complexity of the block.  Some of the patterns were good.  Others were confusing.  However, nearly all of them were attributed to one of the three women.  So just who were Laura Wheeler, Nancy Cabot, and Alice Brooks?

“Laura Wheeler”
“Nancy Cabot” I could not find a picture of “Alice Brooks.”

Figments of the publishers’ imagination.  That’s right.  They didn’t exist.  The actual face behind the women was a man named George Felleman Goldsmith, Jr.  He was the founder of Reader Mail, Inc., a service dealing with dress and needlework feature articles.  These were distributed throughout the United States, England, and Canada by King Features.  And how the distribution worked was nearly like a shell game.  The first group of patterns were published in 1928 and used the byline Laura Wheeler and Alice Brooks.  If a woman perusing a newspaper found a pattern she liked and it was attributed to one of these imaginary quilters, the woman could mail cash for the cost of a pattern (usually around 15 cents) to a New York City address and the pattern would be mailed to her.  There were several different post office boxes and at least eight different pattern house names listed for The Reader Service (at that time known as The Old Chelsea Station Needle Craft Service).  The addresses ran the gamut from Eighth Avenue, West 14th Street, West 17th Street, West 18th Street, and Sixth Avenue.  This allowed the company to advertise two or more feature patterns in the same newspaper.  Eventually the pseudonym Nancy Cabot had to be added, because there was no way two “women” could come up with all these patterns.

Actually there was a large group of individuals behind these syndicated patterns.  At least thirteen individuals (many of them women) served to develop the patterns, write the directions, take care of newspaper syndication, and the distribute the patterns to the folks who mailed in a dime.  And while the whole situation does sound like a shell game of Limited Liability Companies, the syndicated patterns linked quilters together across the United States and unified quilt block names.  These newspaper patterns solidified quilts such as Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Sunbonnet Sue, and Double Wedding Ring.  Prior to the publication of these blocks in the newspapers, they were known by many names.  Because the syndicators gave these blocks a name and that name was published across the country, those quilt block names were unified.  If someone mentions a Grandmother’s Flower Garden, you automatically know we’re talking about this block:

The same thing happened with other quilt blocks names.  While they may have many monikers, syndicated publications promoted their primary name. 

Syndication also provided the same pattern to hundreds of quilters in America, Britain, and Canada.  As hundreds of patterns were mailed out, hundreds of women found themselves making the same quilt.  The regionality of quilts somewhat faded as the universal popularity of some quilts pushed it out of the way.  Love it or hate it, these syndicated quilting columns and patterns were very successful and remained a feature in many newspapers until around 1962, when quilting’s popularity dipped a bit as women in large numbers entered the work force.  By 1967, they were almost totally absent from newspapers. 

Round Robins

When you mention the quilting term “Round Robin” to quilters today, it means a communal quilting event.  You make a center block and pass it off to a quilting friend.  They add borders to it and pass it off to another quilter.  This continues until everyone in your Round Robin Group has a chance to put a border on your quilt square and then returns it to you.

Early Round Robins had plenty to do with quilts but were nothing like today’s Round Robins.  From roughly the early sixties through the seventies, Round Robins were letters passed between quilters who shared patterns, thoughts, quilt research, and color palettes.  Sometimes if there were questions concerning construction, one of the quilters who had made the block in the past would include an actual quilt block in the correspondence.  However, the fact remains that a large chunk of what we know about quilt history is due to the United States Postal Service and these Round Robins.

Mary Schafer

One of the best-known Round Robin writers was Mary Schafer.  If you’ve never heard of her or read anything about her, I strongly recommend you read Mary Schafer:  American Quilt Maker by Gwen Marston.*  Mary Schafer, an unassuming woman from Michigan, was one of the people responsible for the modern American quilting revival in the seventies.  A prolific quilter (quilting from 1952 – 1995) creating hundreds of quilts, she also was a prolific letter writer/Round Robin leader.  During the heyday of these Round Robins, her address book read like a Who’s Who in American Quilt Making.  By the time the seventies rolled around, and our country was poised for another Quilt Revival, Mary and her friends had documented and verified oral quilt histories, block histories, and quilt scholarship.  Barbara Bannister, Mary Schaffer, Cuesta Benberry, Betty Harriman, Edna Ford, Florence Peto, Joy Craddock, and Delores Hinson not only wrote to each other about blocks and quilts, but also discussed what might be the next “big thing” on the quilt market.  In 1964, they predicted doll quilts would make a comeback, and sure enough, it happened. 

These women wrote detailed letters to each other, often including drawn diagrams of quilt blocks on onion skin paper (so as not to add too much weight to the letter).  These diagrams were often carefully shaded in with colored pencils to suggest a fabric palette.  The recipient of the letter and diagram would add her information and then send the letter on to the next person.  Sometimes these letters would only be written between two people, and sometimes more than two folks were involved.  These Round Robins forged strong friendships between quilters which lasted for years and eventually turned to phone calls and even visits.   Besides the women listed above, Maxine Teele, Lenice Bacon, Ruth Finley, Sally Garoutte, Joyce Gross, and Ruth Parr either participated in the Round Robins at one time or another or with singular correspondence with Mary Schafer.  Not only would these women exchange quilting knowledge and information, but they also exchanged antique fabrics.  All of these women enjoyed re-creating antique quilts and they deemed it important to use as many fabrics as possible from the era of the original quilt.

The one detail which cannot be ignored about these literary Round Robins was their quilt scholarship.  Often these Round Robins resulted in quilt histories we still use today.  Mary Schafer was the recipient of Betty Harriman’s unfinished quilts when Betty died.  Mary finished every one of those quilts, and now many of those dual-quilted treasures reside in museums and universities’ textile collections.  In turn, Mary Schafer gave Cuesta Benberry more than one hundred quilt blocks she constructed.  Cuesta donated the blocks to the Quilters Hall of Fame.  Eventually the bulk of Mary Schafer’s correspondence was donated to the Michigan State University Museum in 1998 for quilt research.**  And if there is any doubt about the importance of these Round Robins or the women behind them, note that six of them – Mary Schafer, Cuesta Benberry, Lenice Bacon, Florence Peto, Sally Garoutte, and Joyce Gross were inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame.

Quilting Newsletters

In the midst of the Round Robins and syndicated quilting columns exists another source of quilting information – quilting newsletters.  Notice I didn’t say magazines.  Quilt magazines weren’t published until the seventies.  However, some enterprising quilters thought it would be great idea to have quilt blocks, quilt history, and questions from quilters all housed in a publication available for a small fee.  These weren’t the slick publications we’re used to now.  These newsletters bore only a few pages, printed on a traditional typewriter, and run through a mimeograph machine or printed at a shop.  The pages were stapled together, and it was mailed out to subscribers.  Relying heavily on manual labor, some of these were monthly publications and others were quarterly.  And while there were several, we will discuss the four up-and-comers, and then the one newsletter who spearheaded the quilt magazines we’re so used to today. 

Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee – This publication was begun in 1962 by Glenna Boyd (1919-2006) and published until 1980. Printed on glossy paper with some fuzzy black and white photographs, this publication gives us a wonderful look at our quilting heritage.  Aunt Kate also re-published patterns from the 1920’s and 1930’s, crocheted edges from a book originally published in 1916, contemporary apron and potholder patterns as well as original quilt block patterns from her readers. 

With this little newsletter, it was all about the quilt blocks.  No slick advertising or guest quilters.  Most of the quilts discussed were comprised of complex quilt blocks meant to be hand pieced.  If you were lucky enough to be published in Aunt Kate’s, you could earn up to $9 – and that’s if you completed all the required elements in good order. 

Subscribers were expected to create templates from the printed instructions and put those into labeled folders or large envelopes for future use.  There was a section in every issue where women asked for other block patterns to be swapped or purchased.  Blocks by Nancy Cabot were in high demand (“Nancy Cabot” was published in the Chicago Tribune in the 1930’s and in two pamphlets of block patterns in 1934 and 1935).  There was also a section in the newsletter where subscribers wrote in looking for pen pals and Round Robin opportunities.  Not only were full names and addresses printed, but birthdays and wedding anniversaries as well. 

This little newsletter was very much a labor of love from Glenna Boyd to her fellow quilters.  Glenna wrote and published Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee while she held down a full-time job and had children.  She designed over 396 of the quilt blocks herself.  Yes, there were a few typos, but she loved her fellow quilters, calling them rather fondly her “girls.”

4 J’s – Joy Craddock published the 4 J’s from her home in Denison, Texas.  She was an avid pattern collector and very much interested in researching and documenting quilt history.  Unfortunately, this is really all we know about Joy and her newsletter, the 4 J’s.  Repeated internet searches returned little except this newsletter contained quilt patterns in a similar set up as Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee.

Jay Bees (or JB’s) – Again, this newsletter had a similar set up as the first two.  Claudine Moffat published Jay Bees from her home, a black and white publication with stapled pages.  Heavy on quilt patterns and construction, it also dealt with quilt history.  It was popular enough that it is mentioned in the 1993 Uncoverings:  The Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group.

Little N’ Big – This newsletter was almost a carbon copy of the other three.  It was also mentioned in Uncoverings:  The Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group, which means it had a fairly large readership.  Unlike the other three, Betty Flack sought and obtained a copyright for her publication.

These four basic, black and white, no frills, no advertising, heavy-on-the-quilt-patterns newsletters offered quilters a chance to obtain new patterns, connect with other quilters, join Round Robins, and try new techniques.  Suddenly the quilting world reached beyond the confines of their towns and states.  And set up the market for this “little” newsletter…

Quilters Newsletter published by Bonnie and George Leman.  It began publication in September 1969 and was distributed monthly except for July and August (which were combined into a summer edition).  When it finally ceased operation in 2016, it had served quilters for 47 years.  This is truly the mothership of quilt magazines.  The newsletter grew to look like editions similar to the one above…

But they started like this…

Some of my old copies of Quilters Newsletter. I purchased a box of feed sacks from one of my mom’s friends who was cleaning out her mother’s house. In the bottom of the box I found back issues of Quilters Newletters, dating from 1969 through 1977, along with two incomplete feed sack dresses. What a find!

When printing and postage became too costly, it moved from monthly to bimonthly subscriptions.  Along the way it lost its “homey” look to transform into the professional quilters magazines we’re accustomed to today.  From Quilters Newsletter, other quilting magazines took inspiration and began their publishing debuts:  Fons and Porter, McCall’s Quilting, Quiltmaker are just a few who followed in Bonnie’s and George’s steps.  Quilters Newsletter was the first quilting publication I subscribed to, and from its pages I learned quilt history, construction methods, and saw the latest quilting supplies and fabric.  There are still back issues available via the internet if you want to see how it transformed itself over the years.  Quilters Newsletter led the way, broke the path, set the mold for the slick publications we’re used to finding in our mailboxes (either the one the US Postal Service drops it in or the inbox of our email account). 

In closing, I’d like to suggest things haven’t really changed all that much.  We still have books about quilting.  Type “quilting” in Amazon’s search bar and literally thousands of book suggestions appear.  These can be purchased in e-versions, hardback, or paperback versions.  Quilters haven’t stopped writing books.  As a matter of fact more books on quilts, quilters, and quilting are available than at any other time in history. 

Newsletters have changed.  Long gone are the black and white mimeographed publications with the fuzzy black and white pictures and template-based quilt patterns.  Today even our guild newsletters take on a professional look and are primarily available only as e-versions.  Printing and postage are prohibitive of anything else.   And there may be a few syndicated quilt columns around.  Social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like – have removed syndication from a few and placed it squarely in the hands of posters, bloggers, YouTubers, and Tic-Tockers.  I post my blog every Wednesday mornings myself, across all of its platforms.

In my opinion, Round Robins are still very much the same.  However, instead of writing letters by long hand and including hand drawn diagrams on onion skin paper, we send group emails and texts, complete with pictures we just took with our phone.  We ask our quilter friends if they have this pattern, or more of a certain fabric.  Do you think this color scheme will work?  And instead of waiting patiently by our mailbox for a week or so, we get instant responses.

Yes, quilting has changed.  But in so many, many ways, it’s stayed the same.  And in my opinion, I think that’s a good, good thing.

Until next week, remember The Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


*Mary Schafer, an American Quilt Maker written by Gwen Marston. UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN REGIONAL; Illustrated edition (March 25, 2004) ISBN10‏:0472068555 ISBN-13‏:978-0472068555

**Let’s pause and talk about Michigan State University and their acquisition of Mary Schafer’s quilts.  Mrs. Schafer was a prolific quilter, and as she grew older she divided her quilt collection into two categories according to date.  Each collection contained quilts she made, quilts she finished for Betty Harriman, and antique quilts Mary collected.  When Michigan State University obtained the quilts, they sold some of them to pay for the purchase.  The quilts which were sold were one-of-a-kind, completely handmade quilts, purchased by individuals at a price far below their value.  These quilts, for the most part, have become completely lost to quilt researchers, appraisers, and textile aficionados.  Personally, I have an issue with MSU selling those quilts to reimburse the university for the purchase.  Gwen Marston goes into much detail about this in her book about Mary. 


Finishing Your Photo Applique

Okay… If you have your supplies and your sewing machine is in good working order, it’s just about time to start having some serious fun. 

First give your quilt top a good press on both the right and the wrong sides.  This will not only make sure it’s wrinkle free, but also ensure all the applique pieces are still firmly attached.  Square up all the corners and then layer your quilt (backing, batting, top) and pin, spray baste, or Free Fuse into place.  Be sure your batting and backing is at least two inches larger on all four sides than your top.

Second, let’s talk about your sewing machine’s tension.  Every sewing machine comes with its tension pre-set at the factory, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change it.  And chances are, you may have to, especially if the thread on top of the machine and the thread in the bobbin are two different weights.  Adjusting the tension will not hurt your machine – just remember to return it to its regular settings when you’re through.

The key with any tension is you don’t want the bobbin thread to show on the quilt top and you don’t want to see the thread used on the front to pop through on the back.  Usually your tension is factory-set in a neutral position (generally somewhere between four and five).  When you move the number higher, you increase the top thread tension and when you lower the number you decrease the top thread tension.  To change the bobbin’s tension you must work with the bobbin case.  Normally with this type of applique quilting you only need to worry about the thread on top of your machine, since it will be heavier than the thread in the bobbin.  I have used a 12-weight thread on my machine – which is pretty thick – and I’ve lowered my top tension to almost zero.  Which is fine.  The main idea is to keep the tension between the top and the bobbin thread even.  If you see “pops” of bobbin thread on the top surface of the quilt, lower the top tension gradually.  Sudden moves with tension adjustment are not a good thing. 

If you’ve lowered the top tension as much as you can, and you still see the bobbin thread peaking through, you may need to switch to a heavier thread in the bobbin.  Usually if the same thread weight is on top and in the bobbin, the tension issue goes away.  However, there are always exceptions to this and if even after you’ve played with the tension and changed bobbin thread and you’re still seeing “pops,” you may want to check your needle to make sure you have the correct size and type inserted.

So….what if the opposite is happening?  What if the top thread is showing on the back of the quilt?  You reverse the process.  Slowly tightened the top tension, number by number, until the tension evens out and there are no more “pops” of top thread on the back of the quilt.

Now we’ll get to the part of the actual applique quilting (it’s a type of thread painting, but don’t let that term may you anxious).  If you’ve free motion quilted on your domestic machine before, you can skip over the next couple of paragraphs.  If you’ve never free motioned, have only done it a few times, or it’s been a while since you’ve tried it, stick with me here.  Before you begin working with your “real” quilt – the one you’ve spent hours of effort on – let’s make a practice sandwich and try work on it first.  Take a square of fabric at least 12-inches square (it’s helpful if you have a scrap about this size of the actual fabrics used on your “real” quilt) and fuse a few leaves and petals on it.  Using the same batting, make a quilt sandwich.  Drop the feed dogs on your machine and practice free motion quilting.  Get comfortable controlling the speed of your stitches, quilting the background, outlining the petals and leaves, and making sure your tension is correct.  Once you’re satisfied with your quilting, load up your “real” quilt. 

Stitching in the ditch. It’s straight quilting stitches done by a walking foot or regular sewing foot as close to the seam as you can get. Do not stitch in the seam, as this weakens the piecing stitches.
  1.  Step One – If you have added borders, put your walking foot on your machine (a regular straight stitch foot will also work if you don’t have a walking foot) and stitch in the ditch near the seam where the border joins the background.  If there is a second (or third) border, stitch in those ditches, too.  This will help anchor the quilt layers together.  Even if I don’t have borders, I stay stitch the edges my quilt to add some stability to them.  I also stay stitch the outer edge of the last border.  
Stay stitched edges. This is simply a line of straight stitches about 1/8-inch from the edge. Sometimes it’s called edge stitching.
  •  Step Two — Remove the walking foot or straight stitch foot from your machine and attach the darning foot/free-motion presser foot.  Make sure you have the correct size needle inserted and the feed dogs dropped.
Almost ready to rock and roll….but first I add this….
A Supreme Glider. This fits over the bed of your sewing machine and makes the surface super-slick and smooth so it’s effortless moving the fabric. It comes with a hole cut out for your feed dog area. In my opinion, this is a “must have” for free motion quilting on a domestic machine.
  • Step Three – The edges of the applique pieces need to be sewn down first.  Thread your needle with a color of thread which will blend with the shapes in the middle of your quilt (because that’s where we begin). 
  • Step Four — Lower the presser foot and if your machine has a needle-down option, engage it. 
  • Step Five — Position your needle over the edge of a piece of the applique.  Using the handwheel or the needle up/down function, lower the needle and then bring it back up.  A loop of thread from the bobbin should come up with the needle.  Pull the bobbin thread up to the front of the quilt.  Then holding both the top thread and bobbin thread behind the presser foot, take a few stitches in place to lock the threads.  Then clip the thread tails behind the presser foot off, even with the quilt top.  If you repeat this process every time you change thread, you will avoid those ugly “thread nests” on the back of your quilt.
Outline stitches around applique pieces.
  • Step Six — Begin sewing around the edges of the applique pieces to permanently adhere them to the quilt top.  There are a couple of thoughts to bear in mind as you do this.  First, these stitches may be a bit longer than you’re used to.  This is fine, but you don’t want them as long as basting stitches.  Second, speed is not your friend.  If you’ve watched videos of quilters quilting with their domestic machine or long arm, you know it appears they are quilting super-fast.  This is not the case.  The videos are sped up on purpose.  Watching someone quilt for longer than 10 minutes can get boring.  Video producers speed up the quilting in order to keep viewers’ attention and to move the video to the next part.  You do want your hands to move at the same rate as your needle (remember your feed dogs are down and you’re moving your fabric).  If you’re uncomfortable with the speed, take your foot off the petal and allow the machine to come to a stop.  Then try again.  Give yourself a few minutes, but soon you’ll pick up a rhythm and be happy with it.
Pull the bobbin thread up by lowering the needle and then bringing it back up. Stitch in place for a few stitches to lock the threads, then snip the tails.
  • Step Seven — When you’re finished with tacking down the edges of the first piece of applique, stop with the needle in the down position.  Lift the presser foot and use the handwheel or the needle up/down button to raise the needle to its highest position.  Gently pull the quilt towards you so you can see where you stopped sewing.  Tug on the top thread so it pulls a loop of bobbin thread to the top.  Clip the top and bobbin thread off.  This will prevent the threads from forming a “nest” of threads on the back. 
  • Step Eight — Continue working around each piece of applique in this manner, until each piece is tacked into place.  Always work from the middle of the quilt out towards the edge and change thread as needed to match the fabric. 
I used varigated thread with the entire piece. This meant I only had three thread changes: Pink, green, and the goldy-brown I used over the flower centers.
I purchased a yellow eyelash yard, thinking I might use this to couch the center, but decided it actually detracted from the flower, so I didn’t use it.
I’m pretty satisfied with this little quilt. I still have to echo quilt the flowers or meader around them (haven’t decided which one I’ll use). And also need to determine how to quilt the borders. I know it looks as if this quilt has a pink and a black border, but the black is actually black batting.
  • Step Nine – Once all the pieces are tacked down, now it’s time to add highlights, shadows, and other details you can’t add with fabric.  This time begin working from the outside edges in and concentrate only on what’s under your needle.  Don’t worry about any other area of the quilt.  Go over the area as much as you need to in order to make it look like you desire.  Change thread colors as needed, being sure to bring the bobbin thread to the top of the quilt each time so there won’t be any thread nests on the back.  Use darker thread for the shadows and lighter thread for highlights.  When you’re working on petals, follow the curvature of the shapes.  At first, you may need to mark the areas with a chalk pencil or Frixion Pen.  For the leaves you can quilt in veins as well as add highlights and shadows. 
  1.   Step 10 – Once the appliques are tacked down and detailed out, now we must quilt the background.  Generally I tackle this in one of two ways.  I will either echo quilt the applique by stitching about ¼-inch away from the shapes and then without lifting the presser foot or cutting my thread, stitch another ¼-inch away from the first stitching.  I’ll continue echo quilting this way until the background is filled.  Or I may decide I want to meander quilt the background.  Sometimes the process I decide to use depends on my mood…at other times I’m way more practical.  If I have a lot of open space, I usually echo quilt.  If everything is tightly spaced or the piece is small, I tend to meander quilt. 
Echo Quilting
Meander Quilting

And that’s it.  That’s all there is to applique quilting.  Once the quilting is complete, you’ll need to square the quilt up (trim off the extra batting and backing and make sure the corners are 90 degrees), press it, and bind it.  Then add a label and a hanging sleeve and step back and admire your handiwork. 

I hope you enjoy this process as much as I do.  If there is any quilting technique where you can truly make the quilt you want to make and enjoy adding all the details to, it’s this one.  I encourage you to give it a try.   I would also advise beginning with medium sized wall hanging.  A small one can be difficult because it takes some time to realize what details you need to keep in and what you need to leave out. A small space just compounds that problem.  A large quilt may be too taxing for the first attempt. 

Until Next Week, Remember the Details May the Difference!

Love and Stitches,



The Next Steps in Photo Applique

As promised, today we’ll get to the fun part of photo applique – the fabric.  Like I stated in the first blog about this process, the best thing about applique is it doesn’t take a great deal of fabric.  You don’t have to break the bank purchasing lots of yardage.  However, this also can be the worst thing about applique quilting.  You’re not buying huge amounts of fabric, but you may end up with forty 1/8-yard cuts.  I will tell you in all honesty, you do need a lot of variety for this process.  Keep in mind, you’re “painting” with fabric.  You will not only need a lot of colors, but you will also need some shades, tints, and values of each color.  Let’s review these terms before you start pulling fabric for your project.

Hue – This term is used interchangeably with the word color.  Hue is the purest form of a color and contains no white, gray, or black. 

Value – Value is the lightness or darkness of a color.  For this type of applique, you will need a good range of values in order to make it look more realistic and give it dimension.  Remember way back in the first blog on this topic, I told you to go for a walk and take pictures or examine photos on Google.  Go back and look at those now.   You’ll notice not all the leaves are the same color of green. Sometimes stems and stalks aren’t green at all.  Flower petals can run the gamut from the lightest value of a hue to the darkest all in one petal.  You will need a range of values to realistically reflect this. 

It’s also important to remember that value is relative to the fabrics surrounding it.  For instance, let’s say we have this stack of purple fabric.  We can see the stack has a nice range of values, from light to dark.  However, if we place one of the light purples next to a medium purple, the medium will actually work as a dark.  If we placed one of the lighter medium purples next to the darkest one, the medium could work as a light. 

Tint – A tinted color occurs when you add white to it.  Most of us call tints “pastels.”  I use tints to indicate areas where sunshine or another light source is hitting.  If I am working with fruit, a tint could be used to show unripen areas:

Tints will also make an object look closer.

Shades –  A shaded color occurs when you add black to a hue.  Shades are used to represent areas of an object distant or in the shadows.  Shades recede into the background, making the object look further away.  If you only need a slightly shaded hue, add gray instead of black.

Shaded Fabric

As you’re auditioning fabrics, it’s a great idea to have the original picture in hand, and keep imagining the photo in 3-D.  As you examine the photo closely, ask yourself these questions: 

  • What is the background?
  • What elements are in the foreground and most prominent?
  • What elements are in the background?
  • What are the objects between the foreground and background (if any)?

The elements which are most prominent will require the most detailed work, the objects between the foreground and background, not so much detail, and the background elements require little or no detail.  And in some cases, they can even just be hinted at, not directly dealt with. 

Fabric Choices

My cardinal rule of fabric shopping for any quilt is use what you have first.  If you have fabric in your stash which will work for a project, use it first, and then fill in what you need with additional purchases.  However, there are certain characteristics all the fabric needs to have, regardless of where it came from.

First it needs to be tightly woven.  The fabric will be subject to heat (sometimes through several pressings) and needle abuse.  A homespun or other loosely woven fabric will be difficult to work with.  They simply won’t hold up to the heat and quilting.  Because of this, one of the most ideal fabrics to use is batiks.  These are tightly woven due to the dye process used to create them.  And the undulating colors can give the impression of tints and shade all in one fabric.  Over the last several years I have discovered ombre fabrics, which are equally wonderful. 

Ombre Fabric

These are some apricots I appliqued for a quilt. Every one of them were cut from the same half yard of ombre yellow/orange fabric.

You can have several tints and shades in a single yard of fabric.  Other cotton fabrics work equally as well, just as long as they’re not loosely woven.

Second, generally speaking, a solid or a fabric which reads as a solid works best.  This means tiny prints, tone-on-tones, and small geometrics will work well.  Most of the work in photo applique is small.  Large prints would lose their integrity in such small places.  However, don’t count large prints totally out. Parts of the print can work really well.  For instance, several years ago I purchased this Tula Pink print.

Peek-a-Boo…see the elephant?

If you look closely, you’ll see elephants.  And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the elephant ears as flower petals.  They work fantastic! 

The largest piece of fabric needed is the one for the background.  Just like with all other types of applique, you will want that piece to be larger than needed.  The applique process will shrink the background just a bit.  My rule of thumb is I like a generous inch of extra around the top, bottom, and sides.  If you’re piecing the background (which is a great way to add interest to your quilt), the same rule applies – make sure it’s bigger than needed. 

How much fabric to purchase is sometimes difficult to determine.  This is an easy question if you’re working with a pattern.  Someone else has done all the math for you and you know how much yardage you need.  Working from a photo is different.  You really don’t have a solid idea of exactly how much fabric you need.  This is where a flexible stash and knowing what type of photos you gravitate to come in handy.  If you know you like pictures of buildings or barns, you will want to collect fabrics which reflect those colors and textures.  If photos of lakes, streams, and oceans are your thing, blues and greens will probably dominate your stash.  I like animals and flowers.  I have fabric in lots of colors and textures, but I don’t have a lot of yardage.  I have found fat quarters are great for this technique and half-yard cuts are even better. 

However, if I had to pick a dominant color for nearly any of these, it would be green (unless you settle on applique portraits, which is an entirely different blog).  In my experience, I have found a large palette of greens is necessary.  Grass, stems, leaves, trees…so much green.  And these run the gamut from the yellow greens of early spring to the almost black greens of some evergreens and pines.  One other tid-bit about greens occurring in nature – most of them are shades of greens, not hues or tints. 

With your original photo in hand, pick out your fabrics and set them aside while we consider the last fabric issue:  Do you prewash or not?  My regular readers know I am pretty much a devout prewasher for several reasons – primarily to stop any fabric bleeding.  However, my stance about prewashing fabric for wall hangings is not so devout.  Wall hangings are usually not washed.  They’re vacuumed or wiped down, but not thrown in a washer.  They may get dusty, but generally not stained or heavily soiled.  Fabrics which are not prewashed are crisper, and for this applique method, you may actually prefer this over the softness of a washed fabric.  The only caution flag I would throw in would be this – do a test swatch of the fabric with the fusible webbing.  Sometimes the finishes manufacturers put on material keeps the fusible from adhering to the fabric securely.  If you find this happens, you may need to change fusible, prewash your fabrics and then starch and press them, or plan to use a little basting glue to securely adhere the applique pieces to the background.

The Process – Step One

For this first step you’ll need the original photo and one of your enlarged line drawings.  Remember earlier when we were discussing fabrics and I told you to think three dimensional?  You’ll need to do this again as we prep our applique pieces and see our quilt take shape.  This is easiest to do if you make your appliques in order, from the bottom to the top.  Start by making the shapes which will be fused closest to the background fabric and then work forwards to the ones in front.  Remember, nothing is permanent until you fuse it down, so if you need to adjust something or make an additional applique, you can. 

A light box is extremely helpful for this process. And I will walk you through the way I perform these next steps.  As you work with this applique technique, you’ll fine-tune your own method.

  1.  I cut my Steam-a-Seam into manageable “chunks”.  I use a lot of this fusible in my quilting, so I purchase it from Joanne’s by the bolt with a coupon.  Having a piece of that’s 5-inches x 18-inches is a lot easier than wrangling with the whole bolt. 
  2. Taking one copy of my enlarged line drawing, I place it on my light box with the right side of the copy facing the surface of the light box (you’re reversing the image).  I keep my photo and the second copy of the line drawing next to the box.  I start tracing the objects from the background out and numbering them in sequence (be sure to leave about a half-inch of space between pieces).  I write the number of the applique piece on the fusible and the second line drawing.  I continue doing this until I’ve finished making fusible drawings of all the applique pieces.
  3. After everything is traced, I rough cut the pieces from the fusible webbing.  I don’t cut directly on the drawn line, but about ¼-inch away from it, leaving some margin outside the drawn line.  I have found it’s easier and less confusing to do a few pieces at a time.  When you have lots of these fusible pieces laying around, it’s easy to lose one.
  4. I fuse the primary piece (such as a leaf or a petal) to the wrong  side of the fabric.  Once the piece has cooled, I then cut it out on the drawn line.  Then I repeat the process for all the detail pieces which go on the primary piece.  Once I’ve arranged all the detail pieces so that I’m happy with it, I press those into place.
I cut my fusible web pieces out with about 1/4-inch margin around the drawn line.
I press these to the WRONG side of my fabric and then cut out along the drawn line.

It’s easy to see why it’s important to have some kind of tag line on the back of the main piece to know which flower each petal belongs to or where each leaf is placed.  If you don’t, laying out your photo applique gets super confusing really quickly.  Once I have all the pieces for one unit (such as a flower) prepped, I bring out my Teflon pressing sheet.  I slide my second line drawing under the Teflon pressing sheet (most of these are sheer enough to see through), I carefully peel the paper backing from the first piece and lay it in place.  Then I proceed to the second, pressing with a hot iron as needed.  You can continue this way until the entire unit is made.  Let the unit cool completely before lifting it off the Teflon pressing sheet and set it aside.  Continue this process until you’ve made all your units.

Begin my pressing all the small, detailed pieces on the petals and the flower center.
This is the final line drawing of my coneflowers. Notice all the smaller details on the petals. Those will have to fused to the petals and then the petals fused together.
I have positioned the Teflon pressing sheet over the first coneflower. An opaque Teflon pressing sheet is really necessary with this technique. I know there are other great types of pressing sheets on the market, but in my opinion the Goddess sheets are the best.
I begin by pressing small groups of the petals together, overlaying them. I have personally found using a smaller iron, such as the one in the picture, gives you better control. A large iron can send everything flying off the pressing sheet.
After I’ve pressed the small groups of petals together, I fuse them together into the flower ring.
Then I add the flower center. The center is what holds the entire flower together, so it’s super important to make sure all the tops of the petals are beneath the center.
After the flower has completely cooled on the pressing sheet, you can carefully peel it off and move it somewhere else while you fuse your other units together.
This is the second cone flower.
  • The next step is to mark your background fabric.  Depending on the complexity of your design, you may only need registration marks or (if you’re OCD like me), you want a bit more preciseness and want to mark more details on your background.  First, mark the finished size of your quilt on the background fabric.  Remember, we’ve cut our background fabric at least one inch larger than the finished quilt.  This marking will serve as a framework for our applique placement – all the pieces should fall somewhere in the finished size marks. 
  •  Grab your light box and position the background fabric on it.  You may not be able to fit all of the fabric on it at once, so you may have to work in sections.  Anchor the background fabric with some tape so it won’t wiggle out of place.  Then place a piece of transfer paper (usually shiny side facing the background fabric – you want the side which will transfer the markings in contact with the fabric) on the background fabric.  On top of this, place one of the line drawings.  With an embossing tool or similar object, trace the main parts of your applique onto the background.  You don’t have to draw every petal, leaf, or feather – just a rough outline so you know where to place all the units.
  • Once the line drawing has been transferred, take the background fabric to the pressing area and arrange your units.  Press into place.  If some pieces don’t want to stay fused in place, use a little basing glue on the back of the piece and repress.  If you’re not a basting glue fan, you can always use glass head pins to keep them in place. 

Now you’ve got to make some decisions.  The first decision concerns borders.  If you decide you want borders on your quilt, now is the time to trim your quilt along the lines you drew on the background fabric in step 5 above.  Make your borders and sew those onto your background fabric.  If you’re not so keen about adding borders, you can trim your quilt now or wait until after it’s quilted.  It’s entirely up to you.  If you decide you want to wait and trim after it’s quilted, once the top is sandwiched with batting and a backing fabric, stitch along the framework lines prior to quilting.  Then trim after the quilting is complete.

The second decision we need to make concerns thread.  If you are a regular reader, you know I’m a thread snob.  I like long-staple cotton thread to piece with and micro thread to quilt with (usually).  However, this type of applique is different.  In this type of applique, the thread is a co-star along with the fabric.  The thread will serve as sort of a “paintbrush” to give your photo applique a finished look.  It will add shading, highlights, and details (such as the veins of a leaf), as well as hold the quilt together.  For this reason, you will want a heavier thread than you may normally use.  My beloved micro thread would get lost in this type of applique.  I generally use 40 weight thread or even lower (remember with thread, the lower the number the thicker the thread) and I have used polyesters and rayons to give glints of shimmer.  Also, unlike a lot of quilting, you will be switching thread colors.  So, just as you auditioned fabrics for this quilt, now you’ll need to audition thread.  Pick the colors which are in your applique units.  Unspool a few inches and lay them on your applique.  Thread looks so different when laying flat against the fabric.  Value is also important when choosing your thread, so pick lights, darks, and mediums of each color.

Audition as many spools of thread as you did pieces of fabric! Thread is defintely the co-star of this applique event and needs just as much consideration as the fabric.

If all this thread choice is a bit overwhelming, you may want to use variegated threads.  These swing throughout the values of one color on one spool of thread.  The only cautionary statement I would issue is this:  Avoid variegated threads which have large areas of white as they switch values.  This white will stick out like a sore thumb on your applique.  Allow me to name drop here – Tula Pink has some wonderfully gorgeous, variegated thread. 

Tula Pink Varigated Thread Set

You will need a lighter weight thread in the bobbin, and this thread should match your backing fabric (which we will discuss in detail in a bit).  I usually use 50-weight my bobbin.  This lighter weight thread allows me to wind a lot more on my bobbin than a heavier thread, which means I won’t be stopping to change out bobbins as frequently.  However, depending on the tension and your machine, you may have to use the same thread on top of your machine and in the bobbin.  You’ll find out if you need to do this in the sample we’ll work with before quilting the actual quilt. 

Along with your thread choices, you will need a few more supplies before we begin quilting the top. 

A busy quilt back hides a multitude of quilting sins.
  • Backing fabric – If you don’t remember anything else from any of these blogs, come away with this fact:  a busy quilt back covers a multitude of quilting sins.  Stay away from solid-colored backs or backing fabrics with lots of wide, open spaces.  These will show every stitch.  And unless you’re just a master quilter, you probably don’t want every quilting stitch to show.  Fabrics with strong color contrasts and geometric designs may not be the best choice either.

It’s really tempting, at this point when you’re so close to finishing this project, just to riffle through your stash and pick something – anything – just to be done.  Or to use the cheapest, available fabric option.  Let me encourage you not to do that.  A good backing allows your quilting stitches to melt into it and it will help your quilt hang better.  A cheaply manufactured backing won’t do either of these. 

  • Batting – Choosing batting for a wall hanging is a bit different than choosing batting for a show quilt or a one which goes on the bed.  With a bed quilt, I’m concerned about drapability and durability (if the quilt will spend some time on the inside of a washer).  With a show quilt I’m concerned about a batt which highlights the applique and stand up to heavy quilting.  Batting for a wall hanging should help the quilt hang flat against the wall and be thin enough it doesn’t cause too much bulk for a domestic machine.  For those reasons, I tend to lean towards 100% cotton batting for wall hangings.  One hundred percent cotton battings are generally low loft and work very well for photo applique quilts. 
  • Sewing machine – You don’t need a super-fancy sewing machine with 10,000 different stitches to work with photo applique quilts.  You do need a sewing machine with a good, straight stitch and has the ability to drop the feed dogs.  You will probably want to clean your machine before starting this process and again after it’s complete, as well as make sure it’s oiled (if it requires oiling).
  • Sewing machine needles – This depends a lot on the individual quilter.  Personally, I prefer 90/14 or 80/12 denim or topstitching needle.  The super-sharp point allows the needle to penetrate all three layers of the quilt sandwich without missing a beat and the wide eye easily accommodates heavier weight thread.  If I’m working with a photo applique top  which has a great deal of fusible webbing, I have used Schmetz nonstick needles – the fusible won’t stick to these.  If the applique has some specialty fabrics which may be a bit fussy in the applique process, I’ve turned to Organ’s silk needles.  If the needle in your machine has been there for a while, you will probably want to change it before beginning the quilting process.  And if the stitch quality changes, the needle begins producing large holes, or the thread starts breaking, stop and change it again.  Normally sewing machine needles are good for about eight hours’ worth of normal stitching (twice as long for titanium-coated needles), but this process puts some serious stress on the needle.  Just keep the picture below in mind as you stitch.
  • Scissors —  Curved scissors or embroidery scissors are handy to have with photo applique because they will let you clip threads close to the surface of the quilt.
  • Safety pins or Spray baste or Free Fuse – Again, this is a personal choice.  You will need something to hold the quilt sandwich together, so it won’t slip as you stitch.  Some quilters like safety pins, others like spray baste, and still others like Free Fuse.  There are no wrong choices here – it’s whatever works best for you.  Personally, for small quilts such as these, I reach for the spray baste or free fuse.  I dislike stopping to remove pins.
  • Free motion or darning foot – When I decided to upgrade from my Janome 7700, I was chagrined to find lots of different feet now claim these titles.  What you need is a foot which looks like this:

Or this:

You want a foot you can see around, but you don’t want an open-toed quilting foot such as this:

The toes will catch on the fabric edges and threads and make a mess.  If you machine didn’t come with a darning foot, google your machine to see if there’s one available.  Sometimes local dealers will carry them and generally you can always find them on a web site somewhere.  If your particular brand of machine doesn’t have a darning foot, you can order a generic one – just make sure you know if your machine is a high or low shank, so you’ll get one which fits. 

  • Quilting gloves – One more time with the personal choice disclaimer.  Some quilters find they can’t quilt without these, others never use them.  Personally, I find the gloves allow me to have a better grip on my quilt so I can manipulate it where it needs to go. Quilting gloves have something on their surface which allows them to hold onto the quilt sandwich better than just your bare hands.  Sometimes it’s the fabric the gloves are made of:

And sometimes it’s these plastic-y dots. 

Some quilters have told me they simply go to a dollar store and purchase gardening or work gloves and use those.  My personal favorites are these:

Admittedly these are a bit pricey, but they do allow my hands to breathe better and when I’m not using them, I can pull my three fingers out of the gloves and allow them to hang around my wrist (so no looking for the gloves when I go back to quilting).  I also use quilting gloves when handling yardage – such as when sewing on borders or blocks into rows. 

Get all this stuff together, because next week we start the quilting process. 

Until Next Week, remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,