Quilts: cut and sew

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I want to learn the core angles of quilt sewing. Since most quilts are simply tiling patterns writ in fabric, a large percentage of this work is done in squares or rectangles on the one hand; or triangles, diamonds, and hexagons on the other.  These shapes and their variants are pretty much the only ones that tile easily. 

I started by making some six-pointed stars using a flat triangle pattern. When three flat triangles are grouped, one gets an equilateral triangle. when one groups six equilateral triangles, a hexagon results. Half-hexagons can be used to form an edge to a field of hexagons, turning a hexagonal tile patttern into a rectangular ore square field. Many hexagons and half-hexagons together form a quilt… Who knew?? 

Much of the early work consists of lining up sheets of fabric and then putting a template on them to slice out triangles.  I felt like I cut out hundreds if not thousands of triangular fabric tiles yesterday. You can see the piles of them in the first photograph here, a lot of grays and blacks and very dark blues, with some Celtic knot work fabric, too. 
Once that fabric gets sorted by color and type, it begins to feel like not enough, though.  

Nonetheless, one has to keep going. Breaking up big pieces of fabric into smaller ones just results in a mess. Fabric has a warp and weft that holds it together.  Once you start cutting into it, you break up its internal integrity and it will start to unravel.  You’ve dissolved the bonds that hold it together.  Now you need to begin to recombine it.  

The key things to consider about that recombination are color, texture and weave.  People like complementary colors rather than clashing colors.  They like patterns, but they don’t want too many patterns next to one another.  There need to be places where they can rest their eyes on relatively neutral hues, so that a patterned fabric can then grab their attention. That’s a lot to hold together in mental clarity. 

And so we begin with somethiing relatively neutral, and matching the stars in certain particulars.  
Hexagons have a particular logic to them when you start with triangles, as I have. Quite naturally the three stars are going to draw the eye first and foremost.  So the quilt has to be built out around them. I have enough fabric to make twelve or thirteen more of these two-grays hexagons, but not enough to make a whole quilt this way. So my next step is going to be to construct another pleasing hexagon design, and interleaved the two-tone gray hexagons with that new design, while trying not to distract from the stars.  My partner also recommended making more stars but in radically different colors. That could work too. 

Yesterday at the fabric store, I met a woman who was making fabric furnishings for a Russian Orthodox congregation: linens for the altar and stoles and robes for the clergy.  She was working on the stiff linen and brocade chalice cover, and had come in to find some more gold braid for the cover. It was beautiful. I have a long way to go yet, but it was a reminder that all kinds of people need all kinds of custom sewing work. Increasingly I’m prepared to handle it. 

Quilts: new forms

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I’m working with a book on quilting called Hexagons, Diamonds, Triangles and More, by Kelly Ashton. It’s about using templates and jelly roll strips (and other strips of cloth in different sizes) to produce quilts and quilt blocks on the 60-degree angle — mostly triangles and hexagons, but also some other patterns. Some of the resulting piecework should really be assembled by hand rather than machine. The bits of cloth are too small to be easily machined together; hand stitching may be required. 

Um. No.
There are limits to what I am willing to do for a commercial quilt. This may be one of those things. In essence, though, the process is the same as it is for English paper piecing: cut out a group of pieces of fabric using a template. Do this by cutting up a plastic milk carton into a number of durable template parts, and then using a ruler and rotary cutter to slice through dozens of pieces of fabric at once. Then you will have enough pieces to work with, to build up larger structures. I chose to start by working with the flat triangle shape. This gets cut out of a strip of cloth about 1.75″ wide; I chose to use two gray fabrics and a black fabric. For this next quilt I want to have the geometry provide the visual interest, and let the color palette take a back seat to the design. That’s the intention, in any case. As you can see, I made up a number of templates all at once. This quilt is going to be triangle-heavy, but with a range of triangular shapes and structures that also rely on hexagons (because a hexagon is six triangles). These three shapes are symmetrical, which means they can be stacked in useful ways. I can either assemble them into strips as shown in the first photograph. Or I can assemble them into pyramids. Emergent properties of course become obvious once you lay out a number of pieces for sewing. Triangles oriented in a particular way become six-pointed stars. It’s worth noting that the template must have a seam allowance. Here I’ve got a 1/4″ seam allowance on the template piece, and so the layout has this weird hole in the middle when the pieces are aligned but not yet sewn together. 
But that hole disappears eventually. I am not yet skilled at sewingvthe central gap together. but a straight-line technique does not appear to work correctly. The work needs a little more finesse than that.

What’s really elegant here is that the templates in the book are intended to work together. So the finished triangles now woven/sewn into this hexagon are the same size as the triangle templates. Which means that if I finish the pieces I’ve cut into three full stars, I can then put those stars almost like appliqué structure into a quilt that is otherwise constructed of triangles. 

F. Buckminster Fuller devised a three-point grid rather than the Cartesian grid of squares that we use in modern mathematics.  It’s funny to discover that Midwesterner’s grid system underlying the designs of four-hundred-year-old quilt patterns. One wonders what he was sleeping under, growing up, and what dreams those blankets may have inspired. 

Quilt tops

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I finished assembling these three quilt tops today. They came out quite nicely. All three were assembled using jelly rolls strips, which usually come in packs of twenty. Like the earlier quilt, these were made by sewing together three strips, and then cutting those strips into squares of about 6.5″. These were then sewn into rows, and then columns sewn together.  

I made use of four jelly rolls: one of white fabric, one of black fabric, one of blue fabric, and one multicolored roll where all the fabrics had golden dots on them. I wish in retrospect that I had distributed the gold-dot fabrics more broadly among the three quilts. Next time I should buy 5+ jelly rolls, make them all into squares, and then assemble the resulting squares into a wider variety of quilts. 

 I still have to choose fabrics for the undergirding, although I already have the batting. I also need to get another jelly roll for the edge binding. 

My goal with these three quilts was to learn to work with jelly roll strips (usually 2.5″ wide and 42″ long) before learning to work with 60-degree parts, which is to say triangles and hexagons. Triangle and hexagon quilts are beautiful but they require an extra special level of work because of all the Y-shaped seams that make them up. 

Jelly Roll Quilts

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I made a quilt a couple of weeks ago from a jelly roll — not a fabulous pastry, but a roll of 20 or so strips of fabric sold in a bundle. Today, I processed the other three rolls that I bought at the same time into squares to make three more quilts. By mixing and matching the individual pieces, I got three more quilt tops for three more baby quilts. IMG_5491.JPG

Two of the quilts are made of squares that are black, blue and white in various combinations — florals, polka dots, triangles, and other dot patterns.i6qwQ.jpeg So the result is that two of these quilt-tops are going to be very similar to one another. They’ll both wind up looking like variations of the pattern in the first photograph.

The third quilt is much more different.  It consists of colored strips with gold dots on them. Those golden dots don’t come through on the photograph, but they’re there nonetheless.  The use of color in this quilt makes it a significant departure from the regularization of pattern that emerges on the earlier quilt.

There, the patterning of the fabric faded out in favor of the black-and-white pattern of H’s or I’s that is visible to everyone who sees the quilt.  Here what emerges is the color-blocks of purple and pink and red; the fabric patterns are less obvious, less important.

All three quilts are dependent on three important tools working together — the self-healing green mat from Olfa; the rotary cutter; and the quilter’s ruler.  The three tools work together to create the blocks of stripes that are visible in all three quilts.

IMG_5490I’m going to need at least one more jelly roll of strips to be able to finish these three quilts, of course: that jelly roll will go into making the borders around the edge of each quilt, and the edge binding that holds the batting, the underlayer, and the top together.  That process of assembly is getting easier for me, but it’s still not intuitive.  In another jelly roll, I’ll likely use all 20 pieces.

Quilt: black and white

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I have to pack for a weekend away. Naturally i spent the day making a baby quilt.

It turned out well, I’d say. The overall size is about 30″x40″, which is pretty standard for a new baby.  A crib quilt is about the same width but nearly twice as long: 54″ instead of 40″. 

The pattern more or less resembles a series of interlocking H’s or capital I’s. The front is all black and white fabrics, but they have patterns: little polka dots, triangles, nets, crosses. The white fabric is printed with white florals and spirals and polka dots. So on part of the quilt is very rigid and orderly, while the other is more fluid and natural. The white patterns are especially subtle. 

  I am not happy specifically about the quillting. I hoped that this cool grid pattern woild manifest on the back as I quilted through from the front. It did not work as I’d hoped. 

I put a border on this quilt, which I have not done before. Jelly Roll strips are 2.5″ wide and 42″ long, so they’re just the right length to assemble as a border and keep the corners simple. I didn’t have bias tape, but I simply double-folded four jelly roll strips to make my edging. It was the hardest piece of the work, I think. I “stitched in the ditch” for one side to be attached, and top-stitched for the other side. Machine of course, not hand-sewing. I am not that exacting. 

The quilt was assembled from most of two jelly rolls of precut strips. These run 14 bucks or so each, so there’s around $28 of fabric in this quilt, less some for unused strips, but added on for thread and a couple of broken needles. Call it $30 in materials, plus the time to go to and from the store for those materials. I used 60% of the jelly rolls, more of the black than the white; 

It was an eight-hour day to make this quilt. At $25 an hour, that’s $200 in time-costs. Add on $30 in materials, it’s a $230 quilt… I did some experimentation with the quilting,  I think that with practice, I could get this pattern down to a four- or five-hour project…. but there are quilts where the sewing machine snags or malfunctions and then I need extra time. As well, the most complicated piece of the work was edging and binding the quilt. As I get more skilled at that, I may be able to cut an hour off my time. But probably not.  There’s also washing — a quilt should probably be washed, and there’s a charge for water and soap and time: $40?

So this is probably a $250-275 quilt if I sell it. Shipping is likely somewhere between $15-20. Prices on Etsy seem to confirm this: big square quilts are around $80, more elaborate pieced works are $250-300 for the baby quilt size. I’m in the right market range of time and materials, I’m guessing. 
All in all it turned out well, I think.  

Next steps: work on regularizing the quilting pattern for this quilt. Working with other colors. Matching the thread to the quilt. Buying jelly rolls on sale, and in groups to make more quilts in more or less the “same pattern” (allowing for the variant fabrics in each roll).  Making all of the blocks in the two jelly rolls. And mix and matching across all the pieces for a more interesting quilt. 

Leftover strips: 40% of next quilt.

Poem/Song: Being a Tailor

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This spring (or early winter, really), I learned a new song from the folks in a band called Windbourne.  It’s called “Being a Pirate is All Fun and Games…” by Don Freed. (Words here, and him singing it is here.)

I love making up words to songs. And tonight as I worked on a sewing project, I kept losing tools. The pin cushion, the scissors, the tailor’s chalk, and so on.  I wound up composing a song to the tune of “Being a Pirate”.

Being a tailor is all fun and games, until somebody loses his chalk.
He hunts high; he hunts low, “ye gods! where did it go?!
the house elves are planning to balk!”
There is fabric to mark, there are seams still to sew,
Now Facebook is starting to talk!
Being a tailor is all fun and games until somebody loses his chalk.

Being a tailor is all fun and games, until somebody loses the pins.
He throws up his hands, all in ruins his plans,
he debates drinking all of the gins.
He scans all the tables, he cries to the gables,
“this is punishing all of my sins!”
Being a tailor is all fun and games until somebody loses the pins.

But… it’s …
all part of being a tailor, (a tailor! A tailor!)
you can’t be a tailor with all of your to–oo–lls!
It’s all part of being a tailor; (a tailor! A tailor!)
you can’t be a tailor with all of your tools!

Being a tailor is all fun and games, until somebody loses the shears.
He sighs to the roof and he feels like a goof,
and it grows his collection of tears.
He checks all around him and then it astounds him:
like magic, the scissor appears!
Being a tailor is all fun and games until somebody loses the shears.

Feel free to sing it while you’re waltzing around your sewing room.

Sewing: cut the pattern

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For a while now, this blog has concentrated on sewing as a specific form of creativity.  It’s a challenging one, because it involves converting flat, two-dimension surfaces into three-dimensional objects that can be worn.  When first starting out sewing, it’s a good idea to concentrate on smaller projects, of course. But sometimes, we have to take a leap.

So I’m going to work through a specific pattern, for a men’s costume, a sort of 18th century pastiche Pirates of the Caribbean coat, matching(-ish) pants, a shirt, and a vest.  I don’t know that I’m going to build the whole pattern, actually.  But I’m going to try to work through the whole pattern, and all of its instructions.

Why?

Well, sewing is complicated. It’s a skill that takes a good amount of time to learn to do reasonably well. It takes a good deal of time to master its vagaries.  It presents a range of challenges that are different from those of most materials — after all, when you cut wood or metal or plastic, it does have a tendency to retain that particular shape, for better or worse.  Fabric doesn’t.

But more than that — this set consists of a jacket, a vest, a pair of pants, and a shirt.  That’s a complicated amount of design work — and a lot of steps.  It’s at least four types of fabric, too — something stiffer, heavier, that can bear being sat upon, for the pants.  Something lighter and more breathable for the shirt.  Something thought-provoking or unusual or brocaded for the vest.  Something a little heavier for the coat.  Layers, in other words.

But first things first:  Cut out the pattern pieces.  This took me most of the morning.

One particular issue to be aware of. Some pattern pieces are cut “On the Fold.” These are marked by a long line with arrows at either end.  The fabric is folded so that half of the fabric is on either side; the pattern piece is pinned to the fabric so that the fold and the arrows line up, and only cut after you confirm that there’s enough fabric for a fabric piece that’s twice as wide as the pattern piece.  The fold helps create the necessary symmetry in the garment.  It is useful, as a reminder, to leave some extra tissue paper on the side of pattern pieces with the fold marking.

This is what I mean when I say that sewing teaches 2d to 3d thinking quite well.  Student make this mistake: they cut half the piece they need, because they don’t know that the “fold markers” matter. This has to be explicitly taught — and a student may still forget until he has to do it; or until she can’t make the garment that she wants.  Later on we’ll talk about conservation of fabric, but that’s a lesson for another time.

When you buy a pattern for a garment or any sewing project, chances are that it arrives in several sheets of tissue paper, each of which can contain two to eleven pieces of the overall pattern. These have to be cut up into their individual pieces.  Garments for small individuals use the S pattern; garments for big fellows like me use the XL pattern.  When cutting out pattern pieces, it’s important to save all the possible pattern lines. Just because you’re a size M doesn’t mean that you should cut out the M line, and lose some of the S and all of the L and XL size.  You might want to make the garment again in a different size for someone else, and then you’d have to guess.

Then read the instructions.  All the instructions.  Based on this, you’re going to choose which piece of the pattern you’re ready to try making first.  Based on my reading, I’m going to try to make the pants — breeches, really — because all the other projects look a little intimidating.

Then sort the pattern pieces into rough categories.  The categories for this project:

  • Cravat (always wanted a cravat)
  • Vest
  • Coat
  • Pants
  • Shirt

This means that when you go to assemble the pattern, you’ll be able to draw out the parts easily that go with your specific project: you don’t have to hunt and dig and unfold all 27 parts to the pattern to find the three pieces you want.

Then you’re going to put away all the pattern pieces for the sub-projects you’re NOT doing right now.  Don’t cut out the parts for a vest, a coat, a pair of pants, and a shirt, and then leave them sitting around. Do them one at a time, to be the sort of amateur tailor most likely to succeed.

Once you know which pieces you need, you’re going to turn your iron on very low, and without using water or steam, you’re going to iron all of the wrinkles and folds out of the pattern pieces you have.  The results are better when you do that.

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