Quilt Squares

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One of the things that came up recently was how to use Making to teach traditional subjects like, for example, history. I’m of the opinion that teaching Making for the sake of making things is valuable, but not everyone finds that argument convincing. So I figured, its time to learn some more advanced quilting techniques. A lot of the techniques, though, involve cut and reassemble: that is, assemble nine squares into a 3×3 block (or assemble 3 strips into a square);  use a rotary cutter or scissors to slice and dice the 3×3 in a variety of ways — mostly diagonals, and side-midpoints; and then sew and re-assemble. The first step, therefore, was the assembly process. I had to make up a number of 3×3 squares out of experimental fabric squares of various sorts. This has led to the creation of the various squares of fabric that illustrate this post. These are mostly 5″x5″ squares of fabric that I cut up from the remnants of my scrap bin — none of these squares would exist, were it not for other projects. But I find that I’m not entirely ready to slice and dice the 3×3 grids to make new things….Except that finally, I got over my fears. I did a four by four grid, to make an approximation of the form called the “Card Trick.”. I learned quite a bit about quilting from this one— the card trick is usually produced on a diagonal, and out of triangles.
 Finally, I got out the rotary cutter. And I sliced up one uninspiring 3×3 grid both directions: both diagonals, and both side-midpoints. Then I sewed these triangles together to form this crazy form of a cross. You can see that I need more practice at accurate cutting — but you can also see that complexity emerges from the Solve Et Coagula: the dissolution and recombination of parts. 
That is to say, when we take the raw material and subject it to both geometry and the knife, to both the straight edge and the rotation, new properties emerge from the old ones.

This isn’t to say that all of these patterns are beautiful — some of the cutting and sewing results in asymmetry or dullness or plainness. Some patterns won out for being more interesting or vibrant — some lost for being less interesting or uninspiring.  But it’s clear to me that quilt patterns emerged from certain standard practices to preserve fabric waste, and the discovery that the principles of geometry (not necessarily formal geometry, but more practical elements of it — straight edges, diagonals, rotation, and other practices) could be applied to fabric. 

Remarkable realities lurk inside any raw material — wood, glass, paper, metal, plastic, and yes even textiles — but it’s the mind and hands of the artisan that bring these materials to the surface. 



I had a couple of video interviews this past week for jobs. It’s hard to tell sometimes if you’re being invited to express a free opinion as a consultant, or if you’re being considered for an actually-open position. No matter. You have to dress the part. That means putting on a tie, and something serious.img_3108

Like a pinstriped business apron.  My mother had the idea several months ago, when she pointed out that in the 1800s, before the factory floor did away with them, that serious-minded artisans and master makers often wore ties to show their professionalism (and their membership in various trade organizations, too), and aprons over their work apparel. Part of it was that the economic and political revolutions of the 1800s had made work clothes and business clothes more or less synonymous.  Everyone wore more or less the same designs of shirts, jackets, coats — the industrialization of the printing of patterns affected all of the classes together (chances are, most armchair historians have never thought about the way that women on the frontier had to make their own patterns, and not just their own dresses; or that they were stuck with the styles of clothes they’d brought with them. Have you ever made a pattern from an existing piece of clothing? I have — it’s relatively easy; and some of it boils down to taking a worn garment apart quite carefully, tracing the shapes of the pieces onto paper or even directly onto new fabric, and then cutting and assembling carefully. Before the advent of photography, think about the level of commitment and care and memory this required!

img_3110No matter… I have the Internet.  I must have looked at dozens of apron designs before selecting mine.  I made a pattern, figured out the fabric I wanted to use —  bright jewel-tone blue for the backing, and some serious gray pinstripes for the front.  I figured this was a good way to show off my interest in color theory, and to demonstrate a commitment to good artisanry.

Any good business costume should have a pocket close to the heart.  I put my businesslike apron’s fabric to work by cutting a square of fabric out, and applying it counter to the pattern, with horizontal stripes contrasting against the vertical stripes of the pinstripes.  This pocket was the hardest to make, and taught me a great deal about making dedicated pockets for pens, pencils and bone folders (a bookbinding tool), which always seem to go missing at the worst possible moment during a project.

The waist pockets were less specifically dedicated to particular tools.  I wanted them large enough to let my hands go in them easily, and I wound up setting up eight pockets in the waist of various sizes. Some are large enough, and deep enough, for a pair of full-size fabric scissors; others will only hold a bobbin, if I’m changing thread colors often.  Here you can see the jewel tones of the back side of the apron.img_3118

Once the pockets are attached, it’s time to zipper-stitch lickety-split the back and front together, neck strap and waist ties inside, right sides together. The result, an apron — a sort-of three-dimensional garment assembled out of essentially flat materials like fabric.  Turn the work, poke out the corners, press… voila. An apron.

It’s funny. I think about the number of times that former students complained about getting sawdust on their nice clothes, or having oil or grease from a tool or from a project on their hands.  How nice it would have been to have a place to wash it, to smear it, to remove it; or to remove the sweat from your hands when you’re sawing a board or planing a chair leg, or carving a stamp for leather or paper.  I should have had the students make aprons. They could have personalized and kept them, or made them in general purpose ways for the use of the students that came after them.  They’re an important part of a workshop’s culture, and they have a place and purpose in them — not a noble and glorious purpose, so to speak, but a proper place in the world, nonetheless.

Because there is something important about dressing the part you intend to play in the world — and not simply looking the part, but playing the part, and being the part.  If you’re going to be a Maker, or more than that, an artisan, it’s beneficial to know your tools well enough that you can use them to make yourself look good… you know, like a professional in pinstripes.


Practice Effect

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Doing anything over and over again usually results in improvement, at least to a point. Back when I was new to sewing, I had a project I was working on — making a stole or sash for one of the fraternal societies of which I’m a member.   I used cheap cloth, and used white thread to sew right-sides together, and didn’t properly adjust the tension on my sewing machine.  The result was the sash on the right, which has been an embarrassment to me almost every time I put it on.

While my sewing machine was out for repairs, though, I purchased new fabric that was more jewel-toned.  I sewed some trim onto the ends before sewing the back and front together, as well, which you can see in the second photograph.  And I sewed much more carefully and much more slowly as I worked my way through the project overall.

The result is a much higher quality sash (which in truth is almost the same as a deacon’s stole in an apostolic-orders Western church like the Episcopalians, Catholics and so on, though not the same as an Orthodox deacon’s stole, which wraps around the body quite differently).

My seams are much better.  The jewel tones of the fabric are much nicer, and the golden thread in the trim is a nice touch against the variant blues in the trim.  The project still needs some final touches of pressing and seam matching and so on.  But I know how to do those things now, and I didn’t when I first began learning to sew.

And that’s the relevant point, here, I think.  Schools do a great job of teaching about subjects: Here’s what you need to know about English. Here’s what you need to know about history.  Here’s what you need to know about biology or chemistry or physics.

But the Maker movement does things differently.  It doesn’t rely on about.  You don’t start off reading about sewing in a sewing class, or reading about table saws in a woodworking class.  You start off learning how to sew, how to saw wood to the correct dimensions.  A good teacher starts with some very simple projects, like an eye pillow, or a glasses case or a pencil case or a komebukuro, that are designed to build confidence and know-how.  Later on, you might move up to quilting, or making clothes. Later still, you move to English Paper Piecing or more elaborate constructions in garments.  At each step, the skills you already have, help inform the skills you’re trying to acquire.  You make mistakes, but the mistakes are often a frustrating combination of the old, basic errors and completely new ones.

Most of us hit natural barriers to improvement from time to time.  That’s normal. Often, it’s because there’s a mismatch between  your standard-issue solution that worked in all the other examples of projects you’ve ever done, and the brand-new-to-you! solution that’s been best-practice in your craft or Maker art form for decades (if not centuries).  That’s when you have to seek out a teacher, or a YouTube video, or an essay or a book. That’s when you learn about your craft — somewhere in the middling range of your skills, not at the beginning.  Some of these small things learned along the way, as a result of seeking to learn about my craft?

  • Thread your sewing machine with thread the same color as the fabric
  • — unless you want the contrast between thread and fabric as part of the design.
  • Use the right weight of interfacing that’s appropriate to your project.
  • Regularly change the needle on your sewing machine, approximately every four hours that the machine is in use.
  • Sew right-sides-apart after fold-press-pin
  • Iron more frequently than you want to.
  • Use your fabric scissors only for fabric; pink the extra fabric as needed.
  • Service your machine at least annually; save the old parts.
  • Improve your hand-sewing skills alongside your machine sewing skills
  • Learn to cut fabric accurately.
  • Modify patterns with a ruler and with French curves, not by eye.
  • Pinning is important — but pin in proportion to the desired finish-quality.

It’s nice to return to a project I did some years ago, and discover that I can do it better and more effectively and faster now, while also taking my time.  There’s an efficiency of process and movement that comes from knowing what you’re doing the second or seventh time around, that’s simply unbeatable.  But it takes time to acquire that level of skill.  No amount of knowing about will replace doing, when it comes to Making things.


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My sewing machine is back up and running. After a full service, and the repair of a pulley, it’s working again like a brand-new machine — under $100 in parts and repair costs.

The first thing to do was finish this little ‘doily’ that I had made using English Paper Piecing techniques.  I did a ‘right-sides together’ bag technique to finish the edges with another piece of fabric (a nice blue-tile motif).  I then did some decorative top-stitching as the quilt motif.  I should have done the work with a quilting ruler and a free-rotation foot. But I don’t have a small quilting ruler or a free-rotation foot.  More things to add to the list of tools/gear that I want, I guess.

Mistakes: The doily quilting pattern wound up borrowing freely from the pattern of hexagons. The ‘right sides together’ bag-making technique did not work well — I would have done better with a ‘cut, fold under and stitch’ technique with right sides apart. Applique, in other words, was the way I should have gone, rather than sewing right sides together.  The result was an outer edge that doesn’t have the precise hexagons of the original paper-piecing.  Oh, well. This is how we learn, right?

The back side is reasonably nice.  The white stitching resulted in a repetition or reiteration of the hexagon pattern on the front side, without slavishly duplicating it.   The tiles of the front are replicated in the tiling motif of the fabric on the back.

All in all, it was a successful project to learn a new set of skills: English Paper Piecing.

The first article in the series on EPP is here.

English paper piecing: further insight


I’ve done some more English paper piecing while I wait for parts for my sewing machine to come in. I’m really enjoying it a lot, but I’ve hit a wall in terms of planning, at least a little bit.

Planning a Pattern? or random?

The core issue is not what to make — I have plenty of ideas about that — but rather, what is the scale at which I wish to work? These hexagons are 1 1/4″, and in some ways they’re too small for what I’d like to do — but if I go much bigger than that, my intended projects will get Way.Too.BIG, Way.TOO.FAST.  That’s always the way of it, though, isn’t it? Whatever project or plan we might be intending to pursue, there’s always the question of limitations and boundaries — old Saturn binding us in his everlasting chains?  Perfection and decrease follow from increase and growth, as surely as sunset comes sometime after noon. More

English paper piecing 


Trust that, given enough time on the internet, that I will discover a craft I haven’t mastered yet, but that will intrigue me enough with its complexity and weirdness that i will have to try it. The last few days, that craft is English Paper Piecing (EPP). This technique is found in quilting, where it is used to make appliques and decorative elements for quilts and clothes, particularly jackets.

Puzzling it out

The essence of the technique is pretty simple. Take “squares” of paper, or hexagons, or triangles or diamonds. Use pins or basting stitches to wrap small scraps of fabric around the paper; it’s a good idea to use both methods. Whip-stitch multiple scraps together without including the paper scraps. A pattern or a design emerges from the connected scraps of fabric. Remove the papers and the basting stitches; repeat until the quilt reaches its desired size. More

Quilt advice

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Weird thing happened to me today at the fabric store. I’d gone in for a piece of interfacing for a project. But on my way there I got a coupon for my total order, and fat quarters (18″x21″) were already 50% off. So I was likely to get a good deal on FQuarters… I went looking. 

While I was browsing the fat quarters in the far quarters of the store, a woman turned to me. “How’s your color theory? Are you good at putting patterns together?” She had a fat quarter like a yellow argyle pattern, next to a few panels of an orange floral pattern. It was very…. busy. 

In the course of the subsequent conversation about color, I pulled out my phone and made this 9×9 grid of one possible sub-square of her possible quilt. I showed her pictures of my quilts. This was going to be her first effort ever at a quilt. I’m not that far ahead of her. What business have I got advising her? 

Nonetheless, I advised her. I said, “your patterns are nice. I like them both. But what I would do is mix in some of these other solid colors. If you think of each square of your quilt as a 3×3 grid, then make a few panels patterned, like this orange floral, and a few panels solid colors, like this pastel orange and pastel yellow. Use a contrasting pale blue, something soothing, to put against all these vibrant colors.”

“And,” I said, “make a baby quilt. They’re 36 by 54.”

“But I’m making a lap quilt for myself, for when I watch tv or something.”

“A baby quilt is about the right size for a lap quilt. But if you don’t like this quilt when it’s done, you can give it away as a baby shower present, and no one can refuse it because its handmade.”

“I like the way you think,” she said, and waltzed off to pay for her day quarters. She wound up taking most everything I advised her to take…

… including the fat quarters that I’d intended to buy. Oh well. 

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