Sunday, December 25, 2011

Learning Experiences

It is said that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes.  If someone says something was a “learning experience”, they often mean that many mistakes were made along the way. Some births are more difficult than others and so it goes for quilts, it seems.  Some of my projects have gone off without a hitch and others have been a real trial.  My latest quilt is named Thorny Roses, because if I could screw something up with it, I did.  It’s a gift for a friend.  She wanted compass roses and I love freezer paper piecing, so I decided to give them a shot.  Turns out even these roses have thorns.  I got a book about them but quickly realized that I could easily draft a rose that was well beyond my capabilities to sew.  While the book does a good job of explaining how to design them, there’s no explanation of how to break the project down into sewable pieces. After months of trying to make my design work, I ended up buying some patterns on line and then enlarging them to the size I needed.

The sewing went no better – the blocks didn’t quite come out to the size wanted, but I fixed that with narrow sashing and in the long run, I think that looks better than without.  Then I discovered a block that was mispieced, so I had to tear out several seams to fix that. At least putting on the border went well.

Then I start to quilt.  All is hunky dory, but then I spy another part of one of the blocks that I pieced with the wrong color.  Oh well, too late and I am NOT starting over. Several times I run out of bobbin thread only inches away from completing a pattern.  The final straw came when I put in the final stitches on the border quilting, flip the quilt over and discover that part way through some of the backing had folded over.  So I had to tear out a bunch of quilting and redo that. I screwed up sewing the strips of fabric to make the binding. I am using batiks and so the right and wrong sides of the fabric are not apparent.  Thus I was not consistent when placing “right” sides together.  It took several tries to get it right. Sewing the binding on was no problem, but when I sewed the beginning and ending together, I managed to twist one end, so I had to redo that, too.

It’s washing now.  I gave it a double whammy of Retayne, so if it still bleeds I am going to cry and scream, whatever.  No, I do not wash my fabrics first.  My bad, perhaps, but I like working with unwashed fabrics better.  Ah, I just took it out of the washer – looks great.  WHEW!

Yet, despite all the goofs, this still came out nice and I think it will look great on her very large dining room table.

Thorny Roses top - 28"by 70"

Thorny Roses back
I discovered one very good thing during this project, however.  It’s hard to hang on to a larger quilt while quilting on a domestic machine.  I don’t want to use a hoop and I hate using quilting gloves.  I like feeling the fabric and I feel I have finer control without gloves.  Diane Gaudinski doesn’t use them but makes her fingers more tactile through hand lotion.  I am concerned that lotion could leave stains and I hate having sticky hands.  Recently I bought a used book by Nancy Zieman about landscape quilting.  In it she shows using the rubber finger tips people use to turn paper or count money.  You can buy a box of 12 at an office supply place for under $3. They come in 3 sizes. They worked fine, but I didn’t like the fact that the tips of the fingers were covered, which makes things like using scissors or pulling thread up in the machine difficult.  So I cut off the ends.  I find using one on the first finger and the thumb of each hand enough.  I sprinkle a little baby powder on my fingers before putting them on – keeps them from getting all pruny.  I can do all the fine motor stuff without having to remove them, but I can hang on to the quilt like I want.  The only issue I see for someone else is that I think they are made out of latex, which is a big problem if you have a latex allergy.  I luckily do not, although my dad did and my daughter does.
Finger tips for better grip while quilting.  The one on the left is as they come, the 2 on the right after cutting the tip off

So tonight my friend will receive the quilt as her Christmas present.  Hope she likes it!

To any readers of my blog – hope your Christmas was joyous and may next year’s quilts not be difficult learning experiences!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Printing PDF Files to Scale

In various discussion boards I have encountered numerous comments regarding inability to print out pdf pattern files to the correct scale.  I think the main reason is that people overlook a sneaky little thing that Acrobat Reader does when you want to print.

First, don’t print the file through your web browser.  Some browser settings can interfere and cause the file to print to the wrong scale.  Always save the file first.  Usually right click and save file or save page as does the trick here.

  • Open the file.  Either click on the Acrobat Reader’s print icon or go to File and Print.
  • A window pops up like shown in Figure 1 below.  
  • In the middle of it is a Page Handling section. 
    • I have pulled down the Page Scaling menu.  Often Reader will default to Shrink to printable area.  Notice the word shrink – that’s what it does.  Always select None, as shown in the Figure.  Now print it out.  Measure it several ways - it should be to scale.

Figure 1: Acrobat Reader's Print window.  Note the page scaling.  Make sure to select none!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Mitered Corners

I love mitered corners on multiple strip borders, although butted borders with cornerstones are nice, too.  In a small table top quilt I am currently making, the mitered corners echo the corners in the quilt block itself

However, getting everything to line up precisely isn’t always easy.  Borrowing on a technique used by Sharon Schamber, I have found an easy way to get the corners to match as well as possible.
  •   Sew your strips together.
  •  Sew the longer side strips to your quilt using a ¼ inch seam.  HOWEVER, stop and start ¼ inch from each end.  Backtracking at each end is recommended.  Press the seam towards the border or open, as desired.  Leave a tail of at least 1.5 times the strip width at each end. 
  • Sew the shorter side strips on, starting and stopping right at the point where you ended the sewing on the previous strips.  Again, leave at least 1.5 strip width tails at each end.
  • Lay one end of your quilt out of your pressing surface. 
  •  Fold under the top strip at the corner to form the miter, making sure that everything matches the way you want it to – it may take a bit of futzing.

      Initial positioning of the miter
    •  Press this fold, using starch to make sure you get a sharp crease.

Iron in the crease

    •   Fold the top piece back and run a fine bead of Elmer’s or Glue Baste It along the very edge of the fold.  Lay the piece back down and adjust it into place.  

    Add a bead of glue to the crease edge
    • Press again – this sets the glue.
    •  I then pin the ends just to make sure nothing shifts when I move to the machine.
  •   Open the top part to expose the crease and sew right in it, stopping (or starting) right at the corner where the borders seams meet. 
Open the fold and sew along the crease

  • After checking that all is well, trim the tails to ¼ inch.  Press the seam open – you are going to have to open the part that’s glued – spraying a bit of water will help with this.

Final corner

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Autumn Star

A few months ago I stumbled across a used book called Strips That Sizzle by Margaret Miller.  I was intrigued by all the things you could do to create great illusions and color play, 2 things that attracted me to quilting in the first place.

Basically you select at least 5 values from two color families.  The values should range from very dark to very light.  I selected browns and orange/yellow (okay, I know that’s 2 families, but it worked).  You cut a sequence of variable width strips across the width of fabric that range between 1.5 and 2.5 inches.  Then you randomly sew a strip of each value together, going from dark to light, to form panels.  I wanted 6”blocks, so the panels had to end up no less than 7 inches wide – not remotely hard to do.  You can use fat quarters or whole fabric width.

Taking a panel of each color family (let’s call them A and B), you lay panel A right side up with the dark strip towards you.  Lay panel B right side down on top of it, again making sure the dark strip is closest to you.  Now cut squares (finished size plus 1”).  Leaving these squares together, cut them diagonally – always make the diagonal in the same direction.  It’s best to move the squares as little as possible, so you don’t inadvertently rotate them.  Now sew along each diagonal using a ¼ “ inch seam: you are forming  Half-Square-Triangles.  Either press seams open or to one side, as preferred.  Trim to the desired block size.  I cut 7”blocks which I then trimmed to 6.5” blocks after sewing.

Now the fun begins.  This is where owning the book is good: Margaret Miller does a great job showing you the possibilities and how they work.  It’s out of print, but Amazon shows plenty of used copies available and apparently it is a print on demand book.  Visit her website as well.
I opted for a central Ohio Star pattern and as I wanted a rectangular quilt, I extended the top and bottom using some other placement strategies.  The outermost rows look a lot like Attic Window.
I quilted mainly feather motifs (see my previous blog about them). 

Autumn Star: 50"by 64"

Close up of some of the quilting

I love the overall result and my daughter is now begging for one.  It’s a great way to burn up stash.  Some examples in her book show quilts that used over 50 fabrics!  You also can do more than one color family – look at more examples of her website.

Autumn Star is a gift for a friend and is going to its new home in Germany in a few days. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I Got a Cool Gizmo!

Okay, I LOVE gadgets, especially if they really work.  Unfortunately most don’t really live up to their hype.  Anyway, I am also always looking for things that can be used differently than intended.  

I wrote recently about blocking and squaring quilts.  As I have gained confidence and efficiency, my quilts have gotten larger.  While the laser works really well to show you the way, with large quilts even the smallest angle error results in large errors at the other end.  Add that I have to cut 2-foot sections (my longest ruler, not to mention the cutting pad) along the edge and errors only get larger.

Robbi Joy Eklow uses drop ceiling panels as large rulers to square up her quilts.  They measure 2 ft by 4 feet.  So today I went to Lowes to check them out.  I was disappointed – they are pretty flimsy.  I know my hamfisted self would break one in a heartbeat.   They are expensive: over $20.  So I checked other departments.  In the sheet rock cutting tools area I discovered a metal ruler 6 feet long!  $10.50.  After I apply the little sandpaper disks, I think it’s heavy enough to stay put.  I can lay it along the laser line, slide the cutting pad underneath without it moving and cut a good edge.  I have, God knows, enough other rulers to make sure the long ruler is laying square at the corner.  Anyway, that’s my intent.  I’ll let you know if it actually works as envisioned!

My new 6 foot long ruler!  I will use it to square the quilt I am currently blocking.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fun with Feathers

Ever since I started quilting – not quite 2 years ago – I have aspired to being able to quilt feathers.  They lend elegance and movement to a quilt; they’re traditional if they need be but look great on almost any style of quilt.  The variations seem endless as are the places where they can fit.  They can be the main motif or they can be the filler – whether of an area or of a border.  They’re also hard to get right and take LOTS of practice.  Even Leah Day in some of her earlier videos lamented not being able to do feathers.  Then after however many hundreds of designs, she started adding more feathers and admitted that practice was what made the difference.  Although there are countless stencils and the like, feathers really are meant to be free handed and the organic aliveness of them comes through if you do them that way.  I mark at most the central spine.

People whose feather techniques I most admire are Diane Gaudinski, Karen Mctavish and Sharon Schamber, although the latter 2 do mostly longarm.  There are lots of videos and tutorials out there – one has to dig through them and try them all out to see what seems to work best for one’s particular style.

Feather sampler -  the numbers are referred to in my discussion below

So I prepared a feather sampler (shown above) of all the ways (numbered) I know and have tried to stitch feathers. It's obvious I am a beginner, but I am having fun with this.

Feathers 1 and 2 are done the way Diane Gaudinski does them: each complete feather frond done separately.  In number 1, you have to backtrack all along the feather back to the central spine before starting the next one.  Well, as you can see, I have LOTS more backtrack practice to do.  In fact, Diane recommends one use 100 weight silk thread so all the backtracking is less noticeable.  I have some silk.  It’s a dream to work with, looks great but costs 4 to 5 times as much as Isacord, Mettler and Sulky threads I usually use.  It would depend on the piece, whether I want to pay that much for thread.  In number 2, you make each feather a short distance away from the previous one.  Definitely easier although keeping the gap even is challenging.

Another way to make feathers is to only backtrack over a portion of the top and then make a second feather before returning to the spine (#3).  I think it looks better and it’s easier to do. 
Recently I got a book called Hooked on Feathers by Sally Terry.  Instead of backtracking over the top, you hook outwards and create the second feather partially around the first. (#4).  This is definitely easy, looks nice and is great for building confidence with feathers.  The book is well done and gives some great ideas for variations, such as feather based motifs.

Most of the instructions call for making the spine from the bottom up and either breaking thread or backtracking down or echoing down before starting on the feathers.  To avoid all that, I start at just short of the top end of the spine and stitch to the bottom.  Then most people will stitch up one side and either backtrack down the spine or echo around the outside of the feathers – which I did in feathers 1 – 4.  However, I have discovered you can do both sides at once: do one feather on one side and then the feather on the opposing side.  That’s how #5 and #6 were done to show that how the feather is created doesn’t matter.

Any straight edge can serve as a spine – you don’t have to stitch one.  #7 and #8 show how you could do a filler design (I wobbled at the end of #8, because I was so close to the edge and slipped).
Finally, if you vary the feather shape into a spiral or a leaf, then you can create neat plant fronds (#9), which I can see using on quilts where feathers aren’t quite the right theme.  I also did both sides at the same time on this one and backtracked over the top of every other leaf.

I am working on a quilt for friend and have been trying out the Hooked on Feathers approach (photos below).  Despite many wobbles, it’s looking fine.  Now, I am trying to figure out how to quilt the last rows and the borders.  Maybe more feathers?  Anyway, would love to hear from others their experiences with feathers!
Corner motif that uses "hooked on"feathers

Feathers in the inner star and one outer row.  Leah Day's design Matrix Rays in between.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fooling around with Bentos.

Bento blocks are one of my favorite blocks.  Very easy to make with little fabric waste, there are so many optical effects you can do with them.  I have made several, shown below.  I am slowly working on a bedspread made of them and a variety of fabrics, including an oriental one.  I’ll post pictures of that, once I get far enough along.

A while back Generation Q magazine posted a playdate with Thomas Knauer to use 40 2 ½ inch by 2 ½ inch squares he was going to send.  I was one of the ones chosen and received 40 very random squares in the mail a few weeks later.  When I saw them, I thought, “Oh crap, what am I going to do with these?”  After sorting them into color families, I decided that maybe I could make them into Bento blocks – I had enough for 2 full 12”blocks with 4 squares left over.  I was allowed to add solid colored fabrics as needed.  One block used the greens and blues in two of the 4 quarters and brown in the other 2 – see below.  The other used reds and blacks.  The alternate color was a variety of scrap white on white fabric.

Another thing I have done to good effect is the Split-9 block.  You create 9 patch blocks, but then cut them vertically and horizontally to yield four new squares that can then be arranged a variety of ways.  I have made 2 quilts using this technique – pictured below.

So I thought, what if I split the Bentos?  It looks like you could do a variety of things with them, but I didn’t really want to lose the Bento look.  I cut the quarters diagonally from the center outward to yield HST’s, swapped colors and sewed them together.  What you get is still more or less a Bento block, but not all the squares are the same size any more, which I think makes it look cooler yet.  If I had anticipated the skewed block sizes, I might have been a little more careful matching the corners within the larger blocks, but I think it still looks ok.  I framed the whole thing with more white, using the last four squares as cornerstones.

I kept the quilting simple, but since I don’t sew straight lines free motion well and really suck at stitching in the ditch, there are quite a few wobblies. I used a Sulky variegated silvery gray and white for the central section and Isacord white for the border area. By quilting the diagonal blocks formed by the seams, it makes the whole thing visually more interesting than keeping to the Bento itself.  

Overall it was a fun exercise and a fairly successful experiment.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Free Motion Challenge

A few months ago I entered Leah Day's Free Motion Challenge.  I was so thrilled that my little quilt was chosen as 1 of 14 semi-finalists.  After viewing the other 13, I knew I probably wouldn't be one of the 8 finalists. They were all so awesome.  However, this morning I got an email from Leah stating I was one of 8!  I am so surprised and happy!  Below are some photos of my winning quilt.  We had to use 5 of Leah's quilting designs - I used variations of her bubble and fern leaf designs.  The fabrics are all ones I painted myself, except the dark green.  However, it is also a hand dyed piece.

I want to congratulate my fellow finalists - like I said, their work was amazing and I cannot believe I am one of the winning group!

Seasonal Transformations  8.5"by 11"
Closeup of the quilting

Another closeup

Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Quilt Philosophy: Musings

Leah Day posted a blog about why she doesn’t want to use a long arm machine.  I left a comment but started really thinking about things and realized that she touched a nerve.  So rather than hog her comments page, I will expand on those thoughts here.  Comments most welcome!

I started quilting 2 years ago and am self taught (it probably shows).  I stumbled onto Leah’s website early through the videos.  Thank God!  Otherwise I might not have stuck with it.  Unfortunately I ran into some pretty snobby, snotty people from the get go. I have since met some great quilters who are encouraging and willing to impart useful criticisms and solutions.  I am exploring and trying almost everything I come across.  I have joined some Internet based bees and swaps, which force me to do and learn things I might have avoided and “met” some cool people from all over the world doing so.

One lady I know calls herself a “topper”.  She is upfront that she likes to create the top but doesn’t have the least desire to quilt.  She does beautiful work and is enjoying herself.  Other people I have met aren’t all that thrilled with the top creation but can’t wait to get to the quilting part.  Me?  I have set out to learn it all as well as I can.  I want to be able to piece, appliqué, whatever, to create a top, be it a place mat, a blanket, a piece of art. Both the traditional as well as the improvisational styles appeal to me.  Then I want to enhance it with embellishments such as paint, beads and of course, lovely threads.  I consider quilting part of the enhancement process.  I still lean towards making sure I can wash the quilt – I like the extra texture from the shrinkage, but have made one quilt that shouldn’t be washed.  I like it all – I like the variety of the work and the ability to work on whatever I want to when I want to.  

No matter how you do any craft, you have to sink some money into it.  Decent fabric and thread isn’t exactly cheap, although bargains can be found.  Good cutters, scissors, needles, etc., also aren’t cheap.  So even if doing everything by hand is the least expensive, you do have to invest in decent tools if it’s going to be successful and most importantly, FUN.

When I started quilting I still had my 25 year old Elna Stella.  It had had a rough life sewing outdoor gear, kid’s clothes, curtains, you name it.  But when I had to be sure of a ¼ inch seam and when I started to try to quilt with it, the poor thing shrieked.  So I gave it away and bought a new machine.  I set a budget, but quickly realized that I was 25 years behind the inflation curve.  I am also of the opinion that you should not skimp on tools, but buy the best you can reasonably afford.  You will save money in the long run.  So I researched and looked and tested for a long time and finally settled on a Janome 6600.  It cost about twice what I had initially set out as a budget but less than half of the equivalent Bernina or Pfaff.  I am still very happy with my choice.  I sew on it almost every day.  Yes, it has its quirks, but I now know how to deal with them.  It is still a very forgiving machine.  I wish I had bought a new machine like this years ago.

I then went through all my sewing tools and threw most of them out, even my pins.  I had bought new quilting pins and they were so smooth and glided into the fabric so well, I realized how burred my old pins were!  I also replaced my threads, many of which were at least 10 years old and very brittle.  Some had even faded!  

Making tops has its challenges, but that part is closer to the regular sewing I have been doing than quilting.  Quilting itself was a whole new area for me.  During the course of learning this craft, I have considered short arm versus long arm.  A work colleague builds long arm frames as a side business.  He could give me a really good deal.  So I played with long arms every chance I got – at shops, at quilt shows, etc.  I didn’t like it for a number of the same reasons that Leah articulated well:
  • The machine is big – you have to decide the largest quilt you would want to make and buy that size frame.  So if, like me, you know that very few bedspreads are in your future but more place mats, lap quilts and wall hangings are, this isn’t going to be for you.  The only place I could put it is in my basement.
  • They are really expensive.  Even with my discount from my friend, I would have to pay in thousands.  He quickly agreed that you would have to do a LOT of quilting or take in work to make this investment worth it. 
  • Even machine rental isn’t cheap.  It averages about 75$ to 100$ per day in my town.  Because of that and the time to set up, you would have to be ready to finish your work in 1 or 2 days.  Otherwise it would rapidly become too expensive.  That interferes with being able to quilt when you have time or when you get an idea or when you are inspired.  How are you going to practice so you can make the best of your time and get the quality you desire?
  • The long arm approach is very different from short arm.  In long arm the machine moves, in short arm, the quilt does.  It is valid to say the long arm acts more like a brush or pencil, but when I have used one, I felt like I was given a huge fat crayon – it would take a lot of practice to gain the ability to do fine detail (see the problem with affording that discussed above). I usually can spot long arm work: the patterns tend to be larger and the lines farther apart with relatively long stitch length.  Short arm work tends to have tighter designs and shorter stitch length.  I think this is an artifact of the difference in set up.  In long arm you have a larger work area which would lead to more expansive design, while on short arm your focus area is smaller.  The short arm work appeals to me more.  Yes, it also takes a LOT of practice, but I can easily fit in to my busy days.  I keep a couple of small quilt sandwiches near my machine and when the spirit moves me, I play with ideas or practice the latest of Leah’s creations, etc.  No big set up, no big expense.  Big payback in gaining proficiency.
I admire people like Karen McTavish, who are masters at the long arm.  They decided this way of quilting is for them and have invested the money and time to become proficient at it.  I equally admire people like Leah Day, Diane Gaudinski, Susan Brubaker Knapp, Ann Fahl and Robbi Joy Eklow, who all quilt on a domestic machine. There is amazing hand work out there.  Each quilter decided what she/he liked and have put in the time needed to gain the desired proficiency.  That’s what it is about and all their work is to be admired.

The other day I was in a quilt shop that specializes in long arm.  While I was drooling over some batiks, I heard a machine going full bore in the back room.  After 15 minutes non-stop, I started to wonder how anyone could go for that long with no stops.  So I peeked.  The long arm was quilting away, but the “quilter” was sitting off in a corner, her back to the machine and looking at her Facebook page.  Sorry, to me, that’s not quilting.  It makes me wonder about quilts entered in shows where the top was created by one person and quilted by another (usually, but not always long arm).  Did that other really do the quilting or just program the machine?  With short arm I don’t see that happening.

Anyway, I am going down the path I want to:  exploring new ideas for creating tops and learning to quilt with my Janome.  I couldn’t be happier. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Leaf Pile

Photo 1: Leaf Pile

As noted two entries back, Leaf Pile is an outgrowth of a smaller challenge quilt I made.  I wanted to explore both the leaf theme and Robbi Joy Ecklow’s puzzle quilt approach. It measures 25”by 31.5” and has taken over 7 months to complete.  Mostly I have been staring at it, trying to figure out how to quilt it and afraid to start. Creating the appliqué collage had been so tedious and I didn’t want to mess it up.  I finally said, “Screw it – just go.” And it went!

Initially this was supposed to have a different background.  I had taken Ellen Lindner’sInstant Art Quilt course on line and thought I could adapt the torn and rearranged fabric approach for the background.  But it just didn’t create the look I wanted – I’ll use that background in some future project since the concept certainly works.  After auditioning both light and dark backgrounds, I settled on a light one.  I also decided to just sew down the appliqué edges with a straight stitch and then quilt the vein patterns as they exist for each species, because there is good variety between them.  In the background I quilted the occasional small outline of maple, oak and aspen leaves and then echoed around them a bit before filling the rest with MacTavishing.  The border was alternating leaf outlines that I echoed around once. (Photos 2 and 3).  I was after texture and enhancement without overwhelming the appliquéd area.  It’s more subtle than the photos show. 

The appliqué leaves were quilted with a variety if almost matching colors by Isacord. The background thread was a cream Isacord and the leaf outline in the border was a variegated yellow/tan by Sulky and echoed in a brown Isacord.  I like the sheen these threads have.
Overall, I am happy with the result.  I learned a lot and would like to do more of this.  

Photo 2: Border and background quilting detail

Photo 3: Applqué, border and background quilting detail

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Gnomes and Shrooms

I am first generation in the US.  My folks came over at the end of WWII – my dad really was one of those German rocket scientists.  They stayed 25 years before returning to Europe, but instead of going to Germany they went to Switzerland.  Tough place to have to visit – NOT!
Anyway, I grew up with picture books that featured Zwerge, i.e. gnomes.  My daughter Tanya got those same books, so she has always really liked them. Red capped mushrooms are big in those books, too. The whole garden gnome thing is big over there – some people are serious about them and others (like me) think they are such marvelous kitsch (or as Tanya says, “Cheestastic!”)  I even have one, but don’t dare have him outside – he’d get stolen in a heartbeat. (Photo 1).  Couldn’t believe it, when I saw him and of course, I just had to buy him.  He has a special tag and the company Heissner that makes these have a whole series that are collected – like beanie babies or Steiff animals.  He wasn’t cheap.

Photo 1: "Frechdachs"  (scallywag)

Tanya received some really cool fabric that was themed on the work of Alphonse Mucha (a Czech artist who is synonymous with the Art Nouveau movement).  She got enough for a regular pillowcase, but the pillows she uses are the same as mine, which are typically used in northern Germany – they measure 30”square.  So I had to add borders, etc. to create a large enough pillowcase.  I didn’t want to mess up the fabric, which is out of print, so thought to make another case first.  That’s when I found the gnome and mushroom fabrics.  I made a pillowcase from those plus some red (Photo 2).
Photo 2: Gnomes and Shrooms 30"square pillowcase

It turned out well, so then I made a case from the Mucha fabric plus some other fabrics for the borders (Photo 3).  Tanya got the cases for her birthday and she was delighted.

Photo 3: Mucha 30"square pillowcase

I had a bunch of the gnome and mushroom fabric left over, so I made a 32”square baby quilt from it – it’s the one I used to illustrate my last blog entry about blocking.  The random bits of red are from the pillowcase border that I mitered – no sense wasting perfectly good HST’s!  It was fun and it gave me a chance to work on some quilting patterns. (Photo 4)

Photo 4: Gnomes and Shrooms quilt, 32"sqaure

I recently bought a book “Free Motion Quilting Made Easy” by Eva Larkin that takes a different approach to FMQ over the more freewheeling designs most think of.  She takes the basic square (up to 4”) and divides it vertically, horizontally and diagonally.  Often the seamlines from the piecing provide most of the necessary lines, or you can mark them or you can eye ball it.  Then using a combination of 8 basic shapes you create a variety of more formal patterns.  I really like the look – there are times when something like this is more appropriate.  In Gnomes and Shrooms I used this style in the corner blocks (Photo 5) – more for practice than anything else. 

Photo 5: The brown blocks quilted using Eva Larkin's style of FMQ

 The rest of the quilt uses a variety of more doodling type patterns.  The center is a sun, the brown around it uses Leah Day’s woven line, then nested arches in the next yellow band, in the next brown, a matrix design and then finally open swirls that are echoed in the outermost yellow area. (photo 6).

Photo 6: Quilting on Gnomes and Shrooms.

The final quilt should hopefully please some baby and his/her parents!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Blocking and Squaring

I have mentioned Ann Fahl’s book “Dancing with Thread” before.  In it I was also introduced to the importance of blocking your top and your quilt prior to squaring it up.  I have used her method ever since, although I have read about others.
Why block?  Well, sewing of any type will distort fabric.  So the blocking gives you a chance to get the fabric back to its original shape (to a certain limit) and to get everything to lie flat.  If I have done complex piecing, I might block the block or a section of blocks.  After quilting, where there is even more draw up, I will certainly block.
So here’s how to do it.  You will need one or more of the cardboard cutting mats that most big box stores sell for anywhere from 7 to 10 bucks a piece.  You’ll also need some sturdy sewing pins and perhaps a tape measure.  While you can use the lines of the cardboard, depending on how crooked the edges are, you may need to double check the measurements.
First trim up the quilt to within ½ inch of what will probably be the final edge.  While you don’t need to be super precise, don’t be too sloppy either.  Lay out the cardboard on the floor close to an electrical outlet.  Lay the quilt on top of it and align one of the edges (whichever one looks straightest) with a line on the board.  Pin this edge down to the board by inserting a pin with the head slanted outwards about every 4 inches.  This edge should be pinned to the final dimension the quilt was supposed to have, but don’t force it, if it requires a lot of stretching.  At this point I sometimes will pin the opposing corners to the final dimensions and then ease/ slightly stretch the adjacent sides and then finally the opposing side.  This may take a bit of futzing and measuring.  When done the quilt should look right and be flat. (Photo 1)
Photo 1: A quilt pinned to the cardboard, ready for the steam treatment.
 Now take a fully loaded steam iron set on high and hover about ½ to ¼ inches above the quilt.  Go all around the quilt several times – the surface will be damp.  Do not touch the quilt with the iron – you are using the heat and steam to relax the quilt into shape.  This also makes this technique fairly safe for embellishments that cannot take heat.  Hover higher, if you must.  Let the quilt dry several hours to overnight.  When you remove the pins, nothing should move!  If it does, do it again.
Once the quilt is dry, it’s time to square it up.  Here a larger ruler and a tape measure come in handy on larger quilts.  Robbi Joy Eklow (video) uses a plastic ceiling panel that comes a size of 2 foot by 4 foot.  I intend to try one of those.  She recommends using a laser pointer to show you the way, once you have determined what the dimensions should be.  It works great! (Photo 2)  Setting the first line in a bit tricky.  You have to determine which side is straightest (that’s where a border seam is helpful) and get that trimmed first.  Then everything else should be squared to that.  After that I set up my laser marker, place a rotary cutting pad underneath the quilts and start carefully cutting along the red line.  So far I haven’t screwed up a quilt doing it this way.  Occasionally I will cut once just beyond the final line, recheck things and then cut a second time.  Depends how wonky the edge and everything seems to be.  You know your quilt is squared correctly if the diagonal measurements are equal!
Photo 2: tape measure and laser marker help define where the trimmed edge should be.
 Once you have blocked and trimmed, you can rest assured your quilt be true and lie flat after adding the binding.

You can block a block, set of blocks and a top the same way – just be really careful not to stretch any exposed biased edges!  This will ensure that the quilt will probably need little coaxing to lie flat after quilting.  Unless I am blocking a subset of blocks that will still be pieced, I don’t trim any edges until after quilting.

The other cool thing about the cardboard – it’s great to use when pin basting a quilt.  Pin down the backing to the board, lay the batting on it and smooth out and then add the top.  Now you can pin away, knowing that the pins won’t scratch any surface underneath, especially if you decide to lay the cardboard on a table.  You can place multiple boards together – I use some masking tape to hold them together.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Quilt Challenge

Well, I was going to write about something else, but yesterday I got an email from Leah Day that congratulated me on being a finalist in her Transformation Quilt Challenge.   Needless to say I am stoked!

Leah Day is one of the quilters I follow – her tutorials, approach to quilting and her free motion quilting designs have been most inspiring.  So when she announced the challenge to make a 9” by 11” quilt around the theme transformation and using at least 5 of her quilting designs, I thought I would give it a shot.
The adage to beginning writers is to write about what you know – I would say that’s true for art quilters as well.  I am a forester by profession and I love trees, forests, leaves, flowers.  I have now made several quilts using leaves (Photos 1 -3), so I decided to express the wonder of the ever changing seasons as displayed by changing leaf colors.

Photo 1: Spring Leaf Dance.  The background material is fabric I painted.

Photo 2: Maple Leaf Runner.  Experimenting with Ellen Lindner's double reverse applique technique.

Photo 3: Persistence.  Made in an online class with Ellen Lindner.

Another quilter whom I admire is Robbi Joy Eklow.  In her book Free-Expression she has a tutorial on making a type of quilt called a puzzle quilt, which consists of overlapping objects.  The overlap is a different color from the two (or more) objects.  Instead of vases and bowls she shows, I elected to use leaves.  

So I started by making one quilt using commercial fabrics (Photo 4). The leaves are aspen leaves I collected, scanned and printed out. The result was nice, but lacked something.  I have been painting fabrics for a while and decided to try again using fabrics I had painted.  It has a much fresher look and that is the piece I submitted.  Photo 5
Photo 4: Seasonal Transformation using commercial fabrics.
Photo 5: Seasonal Transformation using my painted fabrics.

Since then I have made a third piece, tentatively called Leaf Pile. (Photo 6)  This quilt is poster sized and I used leaves from white oak, red oak, sugar maple, tulip poplar, Boston ivy and aspen.  These leaves all grow in the park I live on or in my yard. The fabrics are a mix of commercial and painted. I haven’t quilted it yet – still deciding exactly what to do. It was much more involved to create this piece, but very fun and I like the results so far.

The other finalists entered some beautiful pieces and only half will be selected as winners, so I am not getting my hopes too high.  But just to get a nod from Leah is already a huge boost!

Photo 6: Leaf Pile.  Yet to be quilted.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Some thoughts about piecing

I am in a couple of Internet based bees and swaps.  It’s my first time joining something like this and overall it has been fun.  In the bee, I sent out material and instructions and the members sent me back the finished blocks.  I have to now assemble them into a quilt.  They also made some border blocks for me.  (Photo 1)
Photo 1: My bee block and partial border blocks
What has surprised me is the range of seam allowances and the use of thread.  One block looked dirty when it arrived – but the reality is the contributor used dark purple thread, regular sewing weight, which I assume is 30 or 40.  The “dirt” was the purple color burning through the lighter fabrics.  Where the seam allowance had been pressed open, the thread really shows.  Every reference I have read has stressed using neutrals for piecing.  I use white, cream, light gray or light beige for piecing. I use black, if the fabrics are very dark. I have grown to love Mettler’s Metrolene (now called Seralene), which is a polyester 120 wt thread. (Photo 2)  That in a 70/10 topstitch needle and a stitch length of 1.5 yields a very strong but almost unnoticeable seam.  Yea, if I have to tear it out, it takes some patience, but a good quality seam ripper works with it just fine.
Photo2: Seralene (metrolene)
So many places want you to use a scant seam.  WTF is a scant seam?  Anything open to interpretation makes consistency a problem.  I like Sally Collins approach: cut fabric using the entire width of the ruler lines, which will account for seam thread width.  That combined with Seralene, and stuff just comes out dead on, if I have paid attention while cutting and sewing.

Speaking of the seam allowance.  I went to school for a while in Germany.  My sewing teacher there drummed it into us that a machine in good working order will sew straight.  The sewer is the cause of crooked seams.  So I handle everything with a light touch.  A ¼”presser foot really isn’t enough.  In order to make sure I feed the material in correctly, I have taped 2 seam guides to my sewing area using ½”masking tape.  (Photo 3).  The inside edge of the left hand piece is the needle position, the inside edge of the right hand piece is at ¼ inch.  The black line is at ½”, the outer edge of that is at ¾”.  That way even large pieces or angled pieces are lined up and fed correctly. I press my seams open: the results lie flatter and matching is easier.  That’s part of the reason for the very short stitch length.  However, I still have a problem with the seam ends opening, so I make one or 2 backtrack stitches.  They aren’t hard to open, if needed, but hold everything closed until the next seam is sewn.  Not every seam gets pressed opened.  On narrow borders I tend to press towards that border to make it stand out.  When using very light colored fabric, I also tend to press towards the darker fabric.
Photo 3: Guide lines for sewing using masking tape.
Sharon Schamber stresses that most iron surfaces are over padded and make it hard to really press seams correctly.  She recommends making your own ironing surface, which I found easy to do and cheaper than commercial ones.  My surface measures 2 feet by 4 feet – not too wide but long enough for a normal width of fabric.  I first laid out a piece of canvas that was about 2”wider all the way around than the plywood.  Over that came a piece of cotton batting the same size as the plywood and on top of that I laid a piece of 5/8”plywood (You can buy these pre cut at most larger home improvement stores.).  I then stretched the canvas tightly and stapled it to the plywood.  When it gets too messy with thread and bits of fabric, I use one of those red lint remover wands.  If the canvas gets too gross after a while, it’s easy to replace.  Don’t use plywood less than ½” thick as it will warp from the steam and heat of the iron.  It fits perfectly on my work table and can be quickly put away, as my sewing room is also the guest room. Photo 4. 
Photo 4: My work table with homemade ironing surface.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What I have figured out so far about quilting.

In June Leah Day wrote an excellent  blog on her thread preferences.  I pretty much agree – I love Isacord.  It holds tension well and has a nice sheen that enhances the design.  I also think Sulky falls into this category and their selection of variegated thread as well as the ability to get smaller spools for when you only need a bit of a color is great.

The bobbin thread is for me still an issue, sort of.  Leah recommends using the same thread in the bobbin, preferably the same color. It  helps with the tension issues, any thread pop ups are unnoticeable and the machine likes it better.  

However, that doesn’t always happen.  I currently am working on a quilt that is very different in back than in front – it’s meant to be reversible.  The person who commissioned the quilt wanted me to use cotton thread.  Ugh.  It’s been a royal pain, not to mention the prodigious dust bunnies that collect in the bobbin area;  I have to clean it out with every bobbin refill.  It shreds and if I vary my speed (machine or hand) the tension reacts poorly.  I am hoping that washing will help even things out a bit. In fact I have come to hate cotton thread for quilting – I have tried Guttermann, Essential, Robison-Anton and Mettler and I just have a hard time making it behave consistently.  Maybe I am still too much of a novice.  I also hate the lint it produces in the bobbin area.

I really like to use clear thread in the bobbin. Ann Fahl’s book Dancing with Thread  suggests this option.  It allows you to change colors on the top with no color change on the back.  It does not show through the front.  It is thin, so a spool holds a lot of thread.  Because it is a bit stretchy, you may have to increase the top tension.  I have a Janome and I have to crank the tension to about 6. However, if you are using a dark thread on top and the quilt backing is light colored, it’s still really hard to not have thread heads show on the back.  It comes as polyester and as nylon.  There’s some debate about whether nylon will become brittle and discolor with age, but since you can get a clear polyester (Sulky makes a good one), why bother?  That way, you are using the same composition of thread in both top and bottom, which helps with controlling tension.  I talked with one lady, who used to service Bernina sewing machines.  She said that nylon is tough enough to actually wear grooves into the bobbin case!  Not so with polyester.
Superior makes bobbin thread that I have had good luck with and Isachord and Sulky do fine as bobbin threads.

There has been some debate about whether polyester will cut cotton.  There is a great discussion that debunks this as a myth.  

Another must have or at least must read resource is Threadwork Unraveled.

Needles are another consideration.  I have pretty much settled on using topstitch 80/12 for most of my quilting.  Occasionally a 90/14 topstitch is warranted and a 70/10 can be used with very fine threads (like if you were to use clear both top and bottom).  The topstitch needle has a deeper guide groove, so shredding is usually not an issue.  Sharps are also good.  I haven’t had much luck with universals.  I just use topstitch needles for everything including piecing.  I change needles about every 2 to 3 bobbins worth.  Here’s how I stash my various sized needles that are still good:

This is a stick on magnetic strip labeled with sizes.  My sewing platform slides over this and keeps the needles out of the way until needed.

Finally the big bugaboo: Tension.  You just have to experiment.  I am coming to the conclusion that you need to always do some quilting on a test piece every time you start, with every needle change, with every bobbin refill and with every top thread change. I also think that weather changes (humidity, etc) cause the thread to behave differently. 

What to do about the ends?  Well, I have seen everything from just clipping them to meticulously knotting and burying them.  After having had to rip out a fair amount of quilting so I have seen what seems to hold and what doesn't, I have settled on starting and ending with some very small stitches that lock the threads.  I pull the bottom thread to the top both when starting and finishing.  I then just bury the ends – rarely will I knot.  I use a large needle that has a loop of thread tied to it.

The needle with thread loop and my second helper needle.  I use small embroidery scissors to clip the loose ends after they have been pulled through.
I insert the needle exactly where the threads come out and exit about 1 to 2 inches away and pull it through until a small amount of the loop remains.  I use a second needle to help me pull the thread ends through the loop.  Then I just pull the loop the rest of the way – the ends are pulled along.  I tug on them and clip them off.  I have seen self threading needles suggested, but for me, the ends got shredded too often.  I like the loop system better.

With every piece I quilt, I learn more.  I can see the progress and hope that it continues!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Free Motion Quilting Fun

When I first started quilting, the quilting part was the most daunting aspect.  I had hand quilted one piece - took forever.  However, machine quilting seems to be all over the place - some very formal and other completely haphazard.  I think I am some where in the middle, although my skills level leans to haphazard!

My biggest inspirations have been Leah Day, Robbie Ecklow and Ann Fahl.  I study their work and of course Leah has had this fantastic website to show you all the cool designs you can do with videos on how to do them.

I have discovered that place mats are a great way to practice and try out new designs before committing yourself to a larger project.  So this morning I finished quilting a place mat.  I tried out Leah's Spiral Paisley, some McTavishing, a feather and some echoed C's (I think another one of Leah's designs.)
A detail of the back of the place mat to show the quilting.

 For the border I came up with a spiral inside a clam shell.  While I only did a single row of it, it can be expanded into a filler.  Below is a practice piece.  I still haven't quite figured out how to elegantly go to the next row, but I'll work on that.  You start by making the spiral and echoing back to the beginning and then doing the clam shell outside of the spiral.

Spiral Clam shell
Here's the final result - I used a variegated thread by Sulky that went from purple to green.
The final place mat.

I have a long way to go to get really good at this, but it is coming along and I love it.