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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

New and better tools

Last summer, I wrote a blog post entitled "It is all about the tools." I referenced the benefits of my new Dritz Petite Press mini iron. 

Today I'd like to expand on the tools theme to add my latest acquisitions--a new adjustable height task chair and a sewing extension table. 

I don't have space in my house for a sewing room, but I do have a dedicated sewing area off the kitchen. It is sometimes a challenge to work in a small space, but I manage pretty well. 

Probably the hardest part is keeping the area neat and clean. I just finished my latest quilt, so there were threads and scraps and fabric yardage everywhere. I had bags of this and bins of that littered all over the place. 

There is little hope of keeping this area tidy while I'm in the middle of a #quilting frenzy. That is what I call the time when I'm finishing up a project am so busy I forget to eat. Fortunately I have a husband who cooks. 

During those times even my coffee gets cold because I'm too engaged to remember to drink it. 

But once that time is over, I actually enjoy the cleaning. I like folding fabric, sorting into sizes and colors, and then putting it all back into flat storage bins I keep under the bed. That is the primary place where my stash is kept. And those bins are invaluable tools.

My sewing machine is new and I want to keep it looking good, so this is also a good time to clean the surface of all the thread and dust as well as all that lint that collects near the bobbin. It is amazing how much builds up there. 

I also like to change the needle and rotary cutter blade. Quilting just isn't possible without those essential tools. Besides, I love being ready for the next project.

Latest tools
Since this new chair has black fabric on the back and seat, I made a covering for it, one that will not be a magnet for white cat hair, since my cats love my sewing area. That window faces south, so the sunshine, especially at this time of year is attractive to those with paws.

My new sewing table, made by Sew Steady, was custom made, ordered through my local sewing machine dealer. It is a tool that extends the base of my machine, mimicking a sewing cabinet. The machine is flush with the table, so I'm hoping it will help to support large quilts. It hadn't arrived in time to finish my last quilt, but I have no doubt it would have made the process of binding all those individual blocks together just a bit easier. Sewing all those seams was a bugger, and gravity was not my friend. 

I also hope this table will inspire me to try something new--to quilt an entire quilt--rather than simply blocks at a time. I've been thinking of doing this for some time now, but until now wasn't quite ready. I am now. 

As it turned out, this new chair, a typical office chair with no arms, is a necessity since the height of the table requires me to sit higher than I could with the chair I had been using. It also allowed the fourth dinging room chair to go back to where it belongs.

Tools are meant to help us be more productive. Although there are many things I want, I'm happy to settle for the things I need, those things that make me more efficient. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Love those finished quilts

Saturday night concluded another epic quilting journey. I doubt there is little that is more satisfying than finishing a quilt. 

I finished this about 7 p.m. which is way beyond my quilting comfort zone, but the power went out at our house for a couple hours. The idle time gave me a while to contemplate the quilting journey I was just wrapping up.

This quilt is from the Building Blocks Quilting project sponsored by my FMQ (free-motion quilting idol,) Leah Day. Her pattern for this quilt-along consisted of 42 blocks that focused on both piecing and FMQ skills. When I began the class, I already had some FMQ experience, but I always like to learn new tips, ideas, and techniques. I also relish the opportunity to practice my skills. There are some that I just can't quite master, like interestingly enough--the most basic skill--stitching in the ditch. I'm terrible at it. I need more practice at it.

My first decision
The pattern called for two solid fabrics, so the stitching would reveal mistakes as well as show positive progress. Many of the gazillion people who signed up for this quilt-along, from all areas of the globe, had never done FMQ before. 

This is my third FMQ quilt however, so I'm not a complete novice, though I still feel like a beginner in many ways. 

I had always wanted to do something with black and white fabric, which I had been collecting. So I decided early on to use a variety of that with my other favorite color--pink. To be honest, I'm not sure pink is my favorite any more. I've grown to love ALL colors. 
I also made a decision midway through that I wanted a bigger quilt. I reasoned that since I had never worked with varied-sized blocks before, I wanted to give that a try. So when everybody else was finished with their 42 eight-inch blocks, I was still at it. At this point, followed the lead of one of my fellow quilters on the Building Blocks Facebook page, that had put tiny pictures of her finished quilt blocks into the pattern grid. It was a good measure of our progress, clearly showing the yet-to-be completed blocks. I loved the idea so using Windows Paint, I took the pictures I had already taken of my blocks, resized them, and copied them onto the pattern. This is what it looked like. 

I then cut out each of those squares and individually pasted them onto graph paper, moving them around and adding a few double-sized or half-sized blocks. Because there were so many 8" x 8" blocks, I thought just a few additions would give the quilt added interest. I decided on double-sized blocks. Then I had to decide on a pattern for those 16" x 16" blocks. I chose my signature block, the Double Star, a Dresden Plate, a Chain block, and a flower block, all of which were in other quilts I've made. I made a couple of 4" x 4" blocks, one that was 8" x 16", and even filled in with a couple more standard 8" x 8" blocks. My-six by -seven block quilt had grown to almost twice the size of the original. It was now 7 blocks wide and 10 blocks long. 
Finally, when all the blocks were done, and I laid them out and took a digital picture of the final layout. At the same time, I tried to vary the layout of the back of the quilt. The printout was my final diagram. Then I set out to join the blocks with the QAYG (quilt-as-you-go) method. 

This was particularly challenging for me. I never did binding by machine before. I had a really hard time keeping my seams straight at the same time as trying to hold the fabric in place. I used my walking foot, but I'm not sure if that was a help or hindrance. It seems as though this took arm strength to manipulate that heavy quilt. I found it to be exhausting. The last quilt I did used 12" blocks plus a sashing around them which resulted in far fewer seams to bind. 

With the varied sizes, I had to also figure out the proper order to sew the blocks. It was not as easy as just sewing all the verticals and then all sewing all the rows together. 

Once I figured it out, I labeled each grouping of rows. For example the first row was easy; one after the other. But for the second row, I marked the first 2 blocks as row 2 A because they had to be sewn to the top of the 16" flower block. The next 3 blocks were labeled row 2B because they had to be sewn to row 3B before they could be attached to the huge star block, and so on. The figuring wasn't difficult, but following my own directions were a bit iffy. I got pretty proficient in seam ripping. More than once I sewed the rows incorrectly and had to flip them and do it all again. 

It took three full days and part of the fourth to finish this part of the process. When I finally reviewed the method for making a two-toned border, I had far fewer problems. In fact, this was the first time I bound a quilt without having to look up the directions on how to finish. I joined the binding strips on the first try. 

Taking this quilt out of the dryer and seeing that nothing had fallen apart, the colors hadn't run, and all the quilted areas were all poofy and quilty-looking, I was a happy camper.  

If fact I am anxious to start the next one. 

See this and other quilts from the Building Blocks Quilting Project here.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Quilting challenges; jumping in with both feet

My quilting pursuit has led to an insatiable desire to further challenge myself. And, there are so many possibilities. It seems there are always new skills to practice and new ideas to ponder; there is always something to try that I haven't done before. From what I can see, quilting has no bounds.

This is such an exciting time to learn, not just about quilting, but whatever our interest. It is easier than ever before to get answers to each question that comes to mind. Just Google it. Someone has probably asked the same question already to which multiple answers are available.

For me, and my latest quilting obsession, my questions are often satisfied by the abundance of You Tube videos filled with instruction and inspiration. I'm so grateful to the many artists that have come forward to share information and techniques with the rest of us.

CHQuilts: Stars on Point quiltMy most recent quilt, 'Stars on Point,' was more to me than a comfy coverlet for the bed. It was a learning experience.

I learned new skills and honed some of those I had already become familiar with. I've already written about some of those in earlier posts, but to summarize, the following are just a few of my challenges from this project:
  • Moving bravely away from monochromatic projects; This is the first time I designed a two-color quilt.
  • More precise piecing; There is no end to the need for practice matching points and keeping seams straight. Precision is necessary in cutting, sewing, and pressing.
  • Practicing paper piecing; Some of these blocks were created using paper-piecing. I hated it when I first tried it. Now, I'm seeing how useful it can be and am anxious to further explore this technique.
  • Practice at free-motion quilting; I will always need to practice this skill. Thankfully, I have noticed an improvement since I first started. I am now more comfortable free-motion quilting. This is the second quilt I have done this way--as a quilt-as-you-go (QAYG) project, where the quilting is done before assembling the quilt rather than after. I'm hooked. I've learned that quilting is more than a way to anchor the piecing. It is a design element all its own, enhancing the look of the design.
  • First steps at modifying and enhancing a design; This was a Block-of-the-Month (BOM) project. When the year was over, there were 12 blocks that if sewn together and quilted traditionally would have made a perfectly acceptable and beautiful quilt. But I wanted more. So, I decided to set the blocks on-point, added 6 additional blocks and matching side triangles, to form a secondary pattern. Because the blocks are the same and form a linear pattern that travels across the quilt, they serve to draw the quilt together providing unity to what would have otherwise been just random blocks.
  • Laying out blocks on point, complete with figuring set in triangles; I have never done this before and didn't have the first idea how to start.
  • Carrying out the desired pattern into the set in triangles; I had no idea how to do this. Math equations, triangles and me, normally do not get along well, but I muddled through it.
  • Practice with Electric Quilt 5 (I bought it years ago and never used it); EQ5 saved me by allowing me to draw a template and figure the size pieces to cut for the setting triangles and corners.
  • Designing a pleasing patchwork backing; I wanted this quilt to be yellow and white gingham on the back, to be reversible, so I needed to follow a pattern on the front and on the back at the same time. I took digital pictures of the layout to help with that task.
The task at hand continues the challenge
CHQuilts: Black and white and pink all over quilt diagramI am currently working on Leah Day's Building Blocks Quilt Along, which I have also mentioned previously in CHQuilts. I've named it simply, "Black and white and pink all over."

The work on these quilt blocks is almost finished. The diagram at left isn't current, since I've already completed three of the six remaining blocks.

I've decided however, that it might be fun to challenge myself on this project as well. The blocks are going to finish at 8" x 8". There are 72 of them, so the quilt will be lap size. I've decided to add a few blocks to it. I have never made a quilt with varied sized blocks before, but that is my aim. I have no idea if this is going to work, or if it will look good until I lay it all out. I will do keep my fingers crossed.

CHQuilts: pink signature blockTo figure out dimensions and what I still need to accomplish my goal, I printed out this diagram. I cut out the individual blocks and pasted them onto graph paper, drawing in the additions. So far, I've sewed a couple of them. There will be a few 16" x 16" blocks, a some  4" x 4's" and perhaps a few 8" x 4" blocks.

My first endeavor was to add my favorite block--the double star block--which I refer to as my signature block. I have made several table runners using it and I have also put it into my last two quilts. This will make the third.

I just love everything about this block and I never tire of making it. I did, however, have to figure out how to cut the pieces to the right size since the instructions I have is for a 12" x 12" block. So, once again, I used EQ5 to draw the block and print out the proper dimensions. After many hours of trying to figure out the program again, it worked! This block is 16" x 16," so it will be one of three large blocks in the quilt.

CHQuilts: pink and black flying geeseI've pieced these three blocks, (left)--the second pic contains two 4" x 8" blocks--that will be used for fillers in this quilt. I haven't quilted them yet, but am thinking of an overall stippling design. I could probably stipple all day long. That is real progress, since the first time I did this overall meander stitch, it was anything but comfortable. Now, it feels perfectly natural.
CHQuilts: pink and black filler blocks
I enjoyed making these blocks. It was a day of mindless sewing as I was practicing making flying geese by sewing triangles together. That worked pretty well and this was the result. I was able to use up some scrap fabric, which also makes me really happy.

Waste not, want not!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Could there be a better compliment for a quilter?

CHQuilts: Ryan and Kasey snooze
With autumn in the air, the temperature  has cooled, both inside and outside the house.

I couldn't make the bed today, as it was still being occupied, long into the morning, even though I'd been up for hours.

When I got up, this is where I left them. It is apparently where they want to remain. Who can blame them? There is nothing more cozy than cuddling in a homemade quilt...just ask Ryan and Kasey.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Hold my breath, close my eyes, and hope for the best

Washing a new quilt is like making magic


CHQuilts: freshly washed 1
Last night, I decided to hold my breath, close my eyes, and hope for the best. It was time to wash my newly-completed quilt. I had put it off all day, nervous about this final process. So much work and time went into this quilt that I couldn't bear to have to do any of it all over again.

I don't know how I would feel if any of the fabric raveled, stitches fell apart, or colors faded or ran. So I just held my breath, closed my eyes, and hoped for the best. Because of the vast contrast between the palest yellow and most vibrant turquoise, I also tossed in a color catcher.


I never pre-wash fabric before making a quilt. There is something about working with material right off the bolt that I really like. Not only that, but I despise the wrinkles, knotting, and needed pressing afterward. When I finally make my fabric choices, I want to get right to it. I do admit though, I'm growing more nervous about new fabrics however, since we all know nothing is as it used to be.

When I took my quilt out of the washer, a cursory glance made me feel better. The color catcher was a pale blue-green color, so I am glad I used it. I put my quilt into the dryer and followed the same procedure--held my breath, closed my eyes, and hoped for the best.

CHQuilts: freshly washed 2I settled into my favorite chair and watched some television as I waited. (I opened my eyes for this part.) About 30 minutes later, the dryer alarm summoned me. I unraveled the jumbled mass and much to my surprise and pleasure, my quilt had been transformed. I liked it before, but I love it now.   CHQuilts: freshly washed 3
CHQuilts: freshly washed 4 
I know instinctively that washing a quilt is like making magic, but I'm always cautious. No need. The quilting, which was somewhat dense in some areas cause the open spaces to pouf. The stippling that was so prevalent in many of the blocks turned out great, with just a hint of what I refer to as the stipple ripple. Even the border, which I was so unsure about, came out great. The stiffness in the white fabric I used for the backing was softened. The entire quilt felt rather stiff before, but now was soft and pliable. 

Still warm, I wrapped myself up in it, and settled back down into my chair. Soon, I had a cat come to snuggle, then another, then another. Finally, I had three of our four cats cuddling on my lap. Then one left and the other appeared. This is by far, one of the greatest moments of this quilt's history. I absolutely love quiltmaking.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Speechless for now!

I can hardly think of a thing to say, except that I have finally finished sewing the last stitch on this quilt, 'Stars on Point'. I love how it turned out and couldn't be more pleased. Mostly I'm pleased because it is finally done! And it's reversible!

In the coming days I will be more able to reflect on what a monumental project this was for me, challenging me in every way, especially with new ideas, skills, and techniques. For now, since it is the first day of Autumn, I think I'll just wrap up in it and revel in the fact that it is finally finished, after 32 months in the making.

CHQuilts: Stars on Point quilt

CHQuilts: Stars on Point reverse
 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Nostalgia is more than a date on the calendar

I admit, I have been pretty remiss in posting here of late. I guess I just can't reconcile how to write about quilting while spending so much time at the sewing machine.

Over the last several weeks, I've been immersed in quilting, diligently trying to finish a project that in January will hit the three year mark. My aqua and yellow quilt, which I've written about many times before, is close to completion. I have no pictures to post; at least not yet. I swore to myself I wouldn't post a picture until it is completely FINISHED!

Not only has it been a joy to work on this quilt, but I have learned so much during the process. More about that when I post a picture.
 
Quilting is like sitting on a therapist's couch

Spending so much time at the sewing machine, it wasn't just my hands that were busy. At times my thoughts kept pace with the breakneck speed of my needle. 

One of the thoughts that popped into my head, came from a seemingly far away place--my first job--one that I held while I was still in high school. Perhaps my love of quilting was rooted far before I sewed my first stitch.

Nearly 50 years ago, I worked at Neisners, a five- and ten cent-variety store, located in a shopping center. I remember making $1.40 an hour, which was minimum wage at the time. It may not sound like much now, but it was enough to allow take the pressure off my parents when I wanted to buy bell bottom pants, mohair sweaters, Beatle records, and even to go roller skating on the weekends. 

As I was thinking about that job, I remember how much I enjoyed it. I worked after school and on weekends in the notions department. I didn't know very much about sewing in those days. But I liked all those little objects that were a part of it. Among the many tiny bins there were packages of needles, pins in heart-shaped plastic containers, pin cushions, safety pins, buttons, zippers, and the huge displays of thread. There were spools of thread in nearly every color, always neatly arranged. Rarely did we run out of a color. If I saw we were getting low, I ordered more. There were two or three rows of white and black spools, but there were also rows of colored thread arranged by varied shades from light to dark. In addition to waiting on customers, a big part of my responsibility was to keep all  the shelves, bins, and counters tidy. I was responsible for ordering, stocking, and arranging displays of all those items. In those days, workers were told to "look busy if there were no customers to wait on. I didn't mind that at all because I always had something to arrange or rearrange. I enjoyed the work, so I didn't mind.

I haven't thought about that job in years. Even now I struggle to remember more of the details. But, I remember enough to know that many of the practices I employed in that job have stayed with me, or perhaps come back to me. 
 
My sewing area is very small, so it is easy to make a real mess while working on a project. I have often laughed at myself for being so eager to clean up. When I finish for the evening or complete a project, I enjoy sweeping away stray threads, wiping away lint, sorting leftover fabric scraps, and generally putting everything in its place. I'm not a neatnik by any means; in fact, I'm quite the opposite in most other aspects of my life. But I really like a clean, efficient sewing area. I still like to arrange those little things. 

I'm relatively new at quilting--just 15 years now--so even though I thought all these tools of the trade were new to me, perhaps they really aren't. It wasn't until I really thought about it that I realize I am just revisiting a very old habit, one I undoubtedly was trained for from an earlier time in my life.  
 
I love that quilting is the kind of activity that lets me be alone with my thoughts. And there are times it is nice to revisit some of them.