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. 


Gramma Quilter said...

Glad to read your comments on short arm quilting. I too was saved by Leah Day. I was in a bit of a funk before that lucky day. (no punn intended). I had all of these tops and thought the only way that they will ever get quilted is to have a longarm. They are beyhond my pocket book to say the least and I live in a house too small to have one. Then I stumbled onto Leah's site and also Patsy Thompson's site it is worth a look) around the same time. Glory! I was so excited and still am. Practising Leah's designs when ever I can. I am looking forward to reducing my pile of tops this winter for sure.
Love your little "finalist" quilty. That is how I got to read your blog. Keep going and improving and above all HAVE FUN!

danih03 said...

I agree completely! Leah Day ROCKS! I want to do my quilts from start to finish and programming a long arm to do your quilting, or having someone else do it, just takes away from the art and self satisfaction that I did it all myself. I am in the market for a new machine myself. I have a Singer 500a which was top of the line in its day. i did research, and when it came out, the price of it was equivelant of about $2400 dollars today. So I am giving myself permission to spend about that much.I am looking at the Janome 7700. Can't wait to get it. I have to wait until tax time :( But, I am having a blast trying out Leah Day's designs. I even came up with one of my own;)

Chloe said...

Nice read regarding the long and short arm argument. I too am a Janome women - I have a simple machine but it fitted the budget and does most jobs satisfactorily - my expertise needs to grow rather than the machine improve. My mum wants me to share in a long arm set up, but I agree with your comments, linking them to computers removes the craft expertise for me. And the expense is large. Thanks for sharing.