Saturday, June 18, 2011

Stages Seven-Nine

I'm squeezing the final steps together here, because they take so much less time! They really are the finishing stages for a quilt project.

Sometimes I love binding. Sometimes I’m just okay with it. It is the final, crucial step for quilting, which is satisfying. Sometimes, if I’m stuck in impatience, I just want it done already.
I got smart with the most recent quilt I made—I made my binding before I did the quilting, so it was ready to go, which seemed faster, even though it wasn’t.

I better back up. You can buy bindings for quilts, which I have done, or you can make binding. I prefer making binding, generally using fabric that I’ve used for the quilt itself. You can do single or double/French binding. The main book I use (Quilters’ Complete Guide, by Marianne Fons and Liz Porter) has great instructions for how to make bias binding, and I always use them. It involves cutting a square of fabric, cutting it into two triangles, sewing the triangles together a certain way, drawing lines, sewing the triangles together another way, to make a tube, then cutting a continuous line and voila, you have binding, a long strip of fabric.
I’d explain better, but honestly, it’s like magic. I usually make extra binding, just in case. I also usually make French binding, because it’s more durable. This means ironing the fabric strip on a center fold to make it double thick.
At this point, I will have decided whether I’m doing a straight edge or a scalloped edge, if I’m doing piping, and any other such bits. For a standard French binding, you just place the rough edges on the quilt top’s edge and stitch, through all thicknesses, all around the quilt, breaking at corners and…well, doing something else magical that works when you fold it to the back to make a corner (you stop stitching ¼ inch from the edge, turn the quilt, fold the binding back on a diagonal, perpendicular to the previous side, and fold it back down, again aligning the rough edges with the quilt top edge. See? Hard to explain.). When you get back to start, you have a few options for making a finished seam, usually folding back the first end a bit, and continuing to stitch the new end for a few inches over the first part.
Then, you trim the edges of the quilt, all the extra backing and batting. You then fold over the binding to the back and, if you have French binding, you have a nice, smooth folded edge to slipstitch into place.

I know, I know—probably most of what I just said makes no sense. It’s hard to describe without pictures. Fons and Porter do an awesome job, so I really recommend their book if you have any interest in quilting.
The quilt is officially bound. This is when I usually remove all the basting and any stray threads, really examining to make sure everything is right.
I’ve done a few special bindings in the past. With my nephew, I worked it so the binding matches the fabric of the quilt parts next to it. I did some piping on my niece’s quilt, and scalloping for a couple of friends (as demonstrated at right, just before turning the binding to the back.) But just simple cotton is fine, too, and helps solidify any color message you want to send.

Best part: The quilt is DONE!
Worst part: Sewing up the bit where the two ends join. I always have problems making that smooth and not too bulky.

I always have baby quilts dry cleaned before presentation. It is not something one would normally do with a quilt—in fact, washing quilts is seldom done for heirloom pieces. But after I’ve worked on a piece, especially in summer, I feel better getting any of my hand oils and dust from the floor off it.
I only twice had problems post-cleaning. One quilt pilled a bit at the dry cleaner. I no longer use that fabric. Another time the quilt came out with brown spots on it. The cleaners sent it elsewhere for a different treatment, and that took care of the vast majority of the problem.
Sometimes before and sometimes after cleaning, I will photograph the quilt for my records.
My usual photography spot now is hanging from two clip-style hangers, on my front door. The space is just big enough to get it all in, and the lighting is the best in the house.

Best part: Relinquishing the quilt—it’s out of my sight for a few days.
Worst part: Relinquishing the quilt—fearing that it will somehow get destroyed!

Obviously, the quilt presentation is a time of joy. I always get excited about “handing it over.” I joke about the “secret” gift, but no matter how well known it is that I’m making a quilt for somebody, the final product is always a surprise. I can’t think of a time that anyone other than my parents saw a full quilt design before it was made.
My favorite reaction is my sister’s to my nephew’s quilt. She nearly cried, and instantly wanted to photograph it. Since that is also my favorite of all the ones I’ve done, and because she is a craft goddess in her own right, that was particularly rewarding.
I’m not very good at accepting compliments, or accolades, but I do like to deliver the quilts in person. It is as much about delivering love as delivering a loved object. And I always get to hold the baby.

And that's it! That's how I make a least, usually. I always try to do something a little different so that I'm always learning and solving new problems. Just last night, for instance, things came together for my next project, after a bit of a struggle, and I'll be using new technqiues, including hand embroidery and more pronounced sashing. And, it's black and cream. It's great when everything seems to come together all at once--that's the point at which I know I'm doing the right thing and I'm ready to move forward!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Stage Six: Quilting

This part is, admittedly, the more mystical part of the whole quilting process. I didn’t know how it was done until I read a book or two. And, as a further admission, this is the part with which I’m the least patient. I always do less quilting than someone with more talent would do.
You can quilt by hand or by machine. My first quilt was done by both, with pictures quilted by hand in a hoop and letters quilted by machine. I am not very good with hand quilting—it takes a lot of dexterity, patience, and the ability to use a thimble to make stitches small and even. I enjoyed learning how to do it, but it was time-consuming and not, anyway, the best choice for a baby quilt that I’d like to be used.
It took me a while to figure out how to quilt by machine, too. My mother’s machine is actually better at it than mine, though I’ve gotten my machine’s quirks mostly figured out. Here is the process:
step one: backing. I cut a backing piece to a few inches longer/wider than my quilt top borders, and iron it as smooth as possible. This gets laid, right side down, on one of the cutting mats. I favor just regular quilting cotton for my backing, but I sometimes do a medallion backing—one print or color with a larger patchworked piece in the middle. I also have done stripes and squares for the back. That way, the piece is reversible. I sometimes kick myself for buying large pieces of fabric that I don’t have a plan for, but I can’t tell you how many times that’s come in handy for the backing!
step two: batting. The batting gets cut to the same size as the top, and gets placed over the backing piece, gently, and smoothed as much as possible. It helps to fold it and center it that way. I also usually pull back the batting and backing together, as if they were one piece, and smooth that out before smoothing it back down. This helps the batting and backing kind of stay together.
I favor Mountain Mist’s Cream Rose batting—it took me a while to come to this, but it’s great. It’s easily needled, warm but not too thick, and super soft. I’ve heard it called insubstantial, but I find it just right for baby quilts, and it doesn’t bunch up in the machine.

step three: top. The quilt top completes the layering, and it gets smoothed over the other layers as tidily and squared-up as possible. I have learned to take a lot of care making sure the three layers are together evenly and that they almost cling to each other. You can get fusible batting, but I prefer this way.

step four: basting. There is pin basting and stitched basting. They say that pin basting is best for machine quilting, but I have to be honest—it doesn’t work. Not for me. Sometimes I’ll pin baste the edges of the quilt and a few parts of the middle, but only in combination with stitched basting. Basically, for stitched basting, you cut long threads and take long stitches through all three layers of the quilt, making sure the layers don’t shift. You can do a grid or a sort of starburst. Basting should be about four inches apart and should go from the center out, which is also the way you…

step five: quilt. Once the basting is done, I check to make sure the back is still smooth and nothing is puckered or bunched. Then, I figure out how I’m going to quilt the thing. In blocks? “In the ditch” of seams? In patterns? Around figures? In something abstract? I usually choose to quilt around my blocks or shapes, in either clear or matching thread (I’ve used machine quilting thread, but honestly, I’ve seen no difference from regular cotton thread, and I always have some from making the actual quilt top). I also use a machine quilting needle—I’m not sure what the difference is, but I have some, so I use them.
To do the actual quilting, I sort of half-fold, half-roll parts of the quilt so that they’re easier to manage. With large projects, they suggest using bicycle clips to secure the folds. Baby quilts aren’t usually that hard to manage, and sometimes I hardly find it worth it to roll it, especially because I often change direction, and I don’t have a long-arm machine, so I have to fit whatever I have all the way around. Folded or not, I then just stitch away, in whatever design I’ve decided, using the same straight stitch I’d use for any other sewing. Sometimes I do have to adjust bobbin or thread tension, so I usually do a test before I start on a few scraps layered together.
I mentioned that you’re supposed to quilt from the center out, which is true—it’s less likely to get unsightly puckers on the back, or layer shifting. They also suggest you outline blocks first, then do any internal, more fiddly work, which makes sense. There is also a way to quilt where you ignore the design and just quilt a pattern all over, but I’ve never really done that.
I mentioned not having much patience with this. A lot of times, the quilting involves doing a few lines, smoothing the whole thing out on the floor, picking it back up, then stitching more lines, and repeating until finished. This is not really all that time-consuming, but, you see, the quilt is almost finished at this point. The end is near, and you can really feel it. I’m thinking about getting it cleaned and delivered, and my mind is often on the next project, or wanting not to sew for a few days. On top of that, my patchwork pieces are often pretty elaborate, so I want them to have the most attention. I could just do a tied quilt, but that’s not really right, either. So, I compromise by doing just enough to set pieces off and give the piece a few extra tidbits of interest, and then I quit.
Best Part: A couple of times recently I’ve had quilting come out really well, with no major problems. That was a really good feeling, since I feel so inept with this part.
Worst part: Puckers/bunches. No matter how good the basting, sometimes lines aren’t straight or a layer will pull a bit too much. There is usually nothing you can do about it, or you can pick the whole thing out and try again.
Next: Binding! We’re almost home!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Stage Five: Assembly

As noted in my prior post, assembly happens sometimes simultaneously with the cutting of pieces, depending on the project. This part of the project is pretty simple—you just sew the cut-out pieces together (with ¼ inch seams) to make sub-blocks, iron them, then stitch them together to make blocks. Just like any other sewing.
There are some complications, though, such as:

  • Triangles with long edges are sometimes hard to figure out as to placement. Sometimes I will pin the template pieces, right sides together, to see how they should be placed when I’m sewing. I once had to redo an entire unicorn because I’d been sloppy about the placement of these really long, shardlike tail pieces.

  • Squaring—I confess that I’m not that great at making blocks truly square. I could do ten of a block and have them all come out slightly different. The birds I made recently were a great example—the beak ends were all completely out of whack.

  • Matching Seams—Because of the above problem, when combining sub-blocks to make a full block, seams don’t always match properly. Sometimes it doesn’t matter and you can fudge it. Sometimes you have to pick out the seams and try again.

These problems are part of the same problem, which is that I am not the most evenhanded and tidy seamstress. I admit it.

I usually wear something very casual and loose when I quilt. In cold weather, I wear layers to keep warm. In summer, I wear as little as possible. I find it hilarious that my nails are polished in this picture, because sewing is not a good time to keep a manicure.

Once all the blocks are together, it’s time to assemble the whole quilt top. Are you ready? Here we go.
Actually, it’s not that hard. Especially now that I have my two cutting board options. I stitch blocks together, laying completed sections in place on the cardboard mat, then I use the puzzle mat for making sure blocks are aligned before they get sewn together.
Assembling the top is where the previous mistakes with squaring come get diminished. I have to use my grids to make sure seams are straight and reasonable. Pin, and stitch. Iron. Pin, and stitch. Iron.
Eventually, the whole shebang is together, one roughly thirty-fiveish by forty-sevenish quilt top. I usually do a pretty thorough job of ironing at this point, to make sure everything is as flat as possible. After this point, you can’t fix internal seams.

Best part: Just like the previous stage, production. Usually by this stage I’m flagging with the project, but getting blocks done makes me feel that the marathon is nearing its end.
Worst Part: Ironing. I hate ironing. I’ve gotten used to it from sewing so much, but figuring out some often bulky seams and where they should lie is a pain.
Next: Quilting