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. 

Crib Quilts

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Normally the Monday article is a book review. I’m a little behind in my reading due to other projects this weekend. So that will appear later this week. Instead…

Quilts

Quilts are relatively easy. All you do is beat your head against the sewing machine while flogging your back with a quilting ruler. 

Maybe it’s not that difficult.  It does seem to involve a lot of cutting of fabric into squares or strips; sewing those together; the resulting squares into different pieces; and then sewing those together. 

I tend to go more simple on baby quilts. After all, babies do grow up sooner or later. And then the quilt will be retired to an attic or given away — becoming an appropriate link in a chain as children become adults and bring children of their own into the world. 

So far I’ve produced four baby quilts. I gave the two described here to the happy parents this weekend. They gray roses is for a small baby born a few months ago. The blue and red quilt is intended for a baby who will be born in a few weeks. 

The essence of a simple quilt is this: make squares of fabric. The fabric squares should be all the same size or pretty close. The challenge with one of these quilts, the gray one, was that the quilt squares were neither squares, nor the same size. Getting stuff to line up was challenging. The blue and red quilt is more regular, with squares of 10″, all of them pretty exact. 

These two quilts are what are known as “crib size” meaning about 36″x54″.  They’re not actually that size though. I wish they were. When you consider the common denominator between those two numbers, though, it means that we’re looking at squares smaller than 10″… probably about 9 1/2″, to account for a quarter inch seam area around each square. 
The most difficult part of making a quilt, for me, is sewing the backing and batting and front of the quilt together. Making squares, particularly these single panel squares with no decoration, are easy. Sewing rows together is easy. Sewing columns together is easy. It’s the challenge of sewing through three layers — the decorative front, the batting or felt layer, and the backing fabric — that wrecks my sewing machine and tangles my thread. 
The specific challenge with these quilts, and the assembly of the layers, was a question of thread. every time I got more than a few inches into the quilting of thr three layers together, the thread would snap. Then I’d discover that the back side jad become a whorl of loops and tangles — what experienced sewers call birdsnesting.   When the sewing machine creates birds’nests, the cause is either the tension disks, or the tension on the needle thread, or the tension on the bobbin thread, or the motor…. But! I learned this week that sometimes it’s cheap thread!

Cheap thread. Who knew? When you use badly-made thread, wound on a substandard spool or bobbin, the thread often snags or breaks. It doesn’t come off the bobbin smoothly. The result is birds’ nests on the underside of your sewing!

So now I know that. And now I have to remember that… because the risk is always to save money on materials and not to go to too much expense on a project. But going down to the cheapest available materials usually results in complications later in the project — usually at exactly the point that the finished project is nearing the point of looking professional or amateur. 

I think, at this point, I’ve made as many simple-square quilts as I want to make. I think my next challenges are hexagons and triangles.

Sewing: buttonholes

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Buttonholes. Does anything drive a tailor or seamstress (seamster?) as crazy as a buttonhole? Especially if you dont have the special foot attachement for your sewing machine? I don’t think so.

My first button ‘hole’…. HA!

Only a zipper comes close to the level of annoyance that a buttonhole possesses. A button hole is literally a hole in the fabric.  If a button hole hasn’t been made properly, the fabric will unravel and shred quite easily. Before long, the bag will come completely undone. Bye-bye bag.

And yet, the other challenge of button holes is that they are the last part of the project that must be done.  They’re the most challenging work, and the most visible, and the most susceptible to inaccuracy, and the most likely errors to be noticed, and the most likely errors to result in the critical failure of the whole finished object.

That is to say, adding a button hole to an amateur project is most likely to make the project either…

  •  A) amateur, or
  • B) ruined.

My fourth and fifth …

So of course it was time for me to tackle the challenge of a button hole. Fortunately, I had a ready-made project that needed button holes: the Komebukuro or Japanese rice bag made of eight squares of fabric.

A Komebukuro has eight button holes. Technically, they’re not button holes. There are two holes in each of the side walls of a Komebukuro, and a cord is woven in and out of them to pull the bag shut.  So, the beginner looks upon these eight holes as eight perfect opportunities to ruin the whole bag, and puts in an internal drawstring, instead.

Or… one can look at it as eight opportunities to master another aspect of one’s craft.

My seventh and eighth button holes

My first button hole was terrible. First of all it was not a frame of sewn edges.  It was a garbled mass of threads that didn’t look anything like a hole at all. The Ted and fourth (not pictured) were garbled and not really square or even obviously rectangular.   My fourth and fifth were heavy handed: a lot of thread and bunched fabric.  Not very pretty at all. But they were recognizably better.   The seventh was square.  By the eighth buttonhole, I was… still not a master. But the hole was recognizably a button hole.  Maybe a bit large, but still a buttonhole.

The finished Komebukuro is not as elegant as I’d like.  I think I should have used a cord, as is traditional, rather than a ribbon. And it’s a little small for a lunch box or lunch bag.  But expanding the size of the squares from 7″ to 10″ should take care of that problem.  Don’t you think?

In a program to teach sewing, the Komebukuro should occupy pride of place.  It teaches button-holes, straight sewing, pinning, measuring, measured cutting, the basics of the idea of quilting based in mathematics, and both straight stitches and top stitches.  With colored or patterned fabrics, it can also be used to teach pattern matching and right-sides-together protocols.  In other words, it’s a nice complement to some of the other beginner’s sewing projects I’ve proposed here.  But it’s also clearly the work of a master, as well.

Someone who’s mastered button holes, for example.  Which I promptly used to help make the Viking dice bags.

Komebukuro variant

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The Komebukuro form lends itself well to a lot of variation. The squares can be made into rectangles, as here, to create a longer or rather taller bag. As shown here, the Japanese rice bag is simply two sets of vie squares — a base and four sides. The bag sides are sewn to the base, four straight stitches. Then you sew the four sides to each other, one edge at a time. the result is sort of a box or five-sixths of a cube; you could add a zipper and a lid fairly easily to this design, really.

In the photographs here, I’ve shown as best I can what I’m talking about. The gray fabric in the middle is the BASE of the bag, while the floral print in gray are the sides of the bag. I’ve laid out the fabric of the liner in all floral print, while the outside of the bag has a single white panel where I can write my name, or the name of the person the bag is for.  Embroidery could be done here, for someone who was particularly ambitious.

Seven inches appears to be a good size for the Komebukuro. You can get a lot larger than that, of course.  You can also get a lot smaller, but there’s a point of diminishing returns under about five inches on a side for the squares that make up the base and sides of the bag.  I also don’t tank I’d want to go much larger than a foot on a side.  More than that would be unwieldy, and you’d be better off with two or more bags.

Back to construction…


Once the two boxes of the inner and outer bag are made, they are nested, and the top edges are folded down and in between the two bags. We then top-stitch the seam between them. As ive discussed elsewhere, the last step as the sewing of the eight buttonholes.

There’s a picture, here, of the outer shell of the bag already assembled, but still inside-out. This is to show inside-out construction. When building a bag, the fabrics are sewn right sides together. This puts the seam on what will eventually be the inside or in-between space of the bag, between the liner and the shell.

Then you sew in the button holes.  Each side of the bag is now two panels of fabric, the shell and the liner. Each of those panels takes two buttonholes, which are maybe 3/4″ down from the top edge of the bag, and evenly spaced on the bag’s walls, about a try of the way in from the corner.  The corners of the bag’s open top should be fairly visible.  Threading a cord or a ribbon through the buttonholes creates the closure mechanism, but also creates a carrying strap.

My sense of this is that it’s fairly easy to vary the size of the squares into rectangles. But the square that forms the bottom or base is fairly rigid. You can’t alter that from a square too much without unbalancing the bag as a whole, I think.

This would look stunning in indigo-dyed fabrics, or with Japanese embroidery patterns done on the outside of the bag (doing them on the liner would create all sorts of things for your keys or other objects inside to get hung up on; stick to the outside).  Many of those patterns are based in triangular geometry, so there is some real potential for elaborate, hands-on mathematics here.

My mother has made several of these bags, without the button holes or cording, to use as trash cans for her art studio. Paper and beads and parts that can be recycled go in one of the bags; while trash goes in another. They’re prettier than regular trash cans, and collapsible. She can fold them up and put them away when they’re not in use.

I may have to make some of my own for that.

All in all, I think I’m going to make a lot of these, both with with and without cording, in a number of sizes.  They’re a good size for kids’ lunch bags, for example, or for an art kit for the car, or for portable storage of related items while camping. I think I’m going to try making some in 10″ and maybe 14″ sizes, but I think that a shoulder bag or something like that will work better as another project for teaching sewing for school books.

 

Baby Quilts

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This is the first time I’ve ever made quilts in sewing work (I try to avoid typing “sewer”, because you as the reader never know how to pronounce that, I’d I’d rather you thought of me as someone who sews rather than something that transports filth).

img_2312I’ve been making a pair of baby quilts for two friends of mine (technically two pairs of friends), who have recently had babies. The first blanket has already gone to the loving home of the happy but tired parents; the second will probably be delivered this weekend.  These quilts had their origins in two rolls of fabric squares that I bought at IKEA several years ago, and only found again while packing up my things to move.  These fabrics are normally used for quilts — bright colors, interesting patterns, natural materials… and already cut in squares.  Perfect!

Quilt assembly is not particularly complicated. Straight seams work, mostly — sew five or six squares together to form a column; sew five or six columns; sew the columns together in rows; press the seams flat regularly; trim/pink with shears periodically.

img_2316The quilt front is then paired with a parallel back panel, usually a single sheet of fabric. Between them is a panel of a material called ‘batting’ — a dense felt of natural cotton or wool intended to serve as a warming layer.

These three layers are then quilted together.  Quilting, technically, is the name given to the process of stitching these three layers of fabric together; the ornamental squares on the top, the batting i the middle, and the backing fabric on the bottom.  Some quilting patterns get very fancy; vines and leaves and roses and wings are not uncommon.  My quilting was simply big squares, following the rough outlines of the squares of the front side of the quilt.

img_2319I ran into my share of challenges. At one point, the timing of my sewing machine came undone. This is probably the most serious set of troubles a sewing machine can have. Fortunately, the YouTube provided me with a set of guidelines and how-to videos on how to fix the timing. Replacing the needle, as well, provided additional help. The two quilts challenged the limits of my thirty (maybe forty-)year old sewing machine, as the layers became thicker. I had a lot of occasions when I had to cut and rip stitches out, and replace them.

img_2320But…  Gradually, things did come together. First of all, someone introduced me to pre-made quilt binding. The edges of a quilt have to be ‘bound’ with a tape of some kind, usually fabric of a solid color that’s been fed through a bias-tape maker, a little device that nominally takes a narrow strip of fabric and folds it in on itself twice to make a sort of tube that clamps around the sides of the three layers of fabric that make up the main body of the quilt. The bias tape hides the interior guts of the quilt, and finishes the edges.

I had never wanted to make a quilt before, because the task of making the quilt binding for the edge seemed so daunting. But then someone told me that you can buy pre-made quilt binding. What a revelation! It made everything so much easier! Instead of fumbling with the stupid little doohickey, I could just spend my time pinning the bias tape (also called quilt binding), and sew!
img_2380

I finished the second quilt with this gray quilt binding that you see at the right.  And that quilt is now done — this funny, bright, crazy color of the front side, and this red vine pattern with gray binding on the edges to complete the quilt.

Done.  Two quilts, something like four or five days of partial effort.  A lot of straight seams, a lot of planning and thinking and a fair bit of seam-ripping and cursing.  Quilts, especially the first two, do not come easily.

img_2381But neither are they particularly hard, either. I mean, there’s one long (long) seam for the quilt binding/bias tape. There’s (in this second case) eleven straight seams from one side of the quilt to the other, six in one direction and five in the other. There’s a number of crazy seams in assembling the blocks of the front side of the quilt — but even there, the quilt is six squares by five squares: that means there are five seams in each row of six, and four in each column of five. Even allowing for some seam-ripping and errata, there’s something like thirty seams, all straight, in the front side of a baby quilt of simple squares.

And simply put, it’s magic. This will keep a baby warm through the winter, possibly for several years.  IT will pass into a family’s treasured heirlooms after a while; or maybe get passed on to another family, to keep another infant warm for thirty months; and then another.  It will cycle through the wash numerous times, becoming softer and more flexible and useful.  It will ever bear the marks of its hand-made-ness, an expression of practical love and care and concern.

And it is well within the capacities of the average Maker program to teach a group of students to churn out three or four quilts a year — and the students will learn to sew, besides keeping infants warm and parents less concerned.