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. 

Quilting

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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

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I’ve completed the assembly of the front side of my first English Paper Piecing project: a quilted mat for the lazy Susan in our dining room. The design might be called geometric-abstract.  Three simple blue-and-purple “flowers” against a gray background— or perhaps three solar systems being ripped apart by a quartet of black holes.  🙂

The backside, some paper still placed

The essence of the work is still the same: decide on colors, fold cloth around a paper shape, baste the folded cloth, sew the edges of several basted shapes together, remove the papers as you complete sections and return the papers to circulation. This crinkled hexagon shape has four smaller hexagons on a side, and it’s in four colors: purple, blue, gray and black.  The whole thing needs pressing, and it needs backing and quilting. I haven’t decided if I’m going to use edge-binding tape or sew it right-sides-together into a bag and then turn the bag.  It’s possible I’ll have to do both.

I’m not convinced of the wisdom of removing the papers as one goes, either. I’ve seen it argued both ways now, from both remove and leave in place. Now that I’ve tried remove, I’m tempted to try leave in place for the next project. Either way, the challenge seems to be to get the paper shapes to exactly the right dimensions and in a stiffer paper than simple copier Paper. Card stock might work better, but it also might be too stiff. Cardboard is definitely too stiff.

Front side, some basting stitches still placed

I don’t know that this work is sustainable. I can see why its a hobby craft, and not a financially successful profession — this small project took a lot of time, even granted that I was learning the method. It does use up a substantial amount of otherwise-wasteful scrap fabric, so I can see the appeal of the method. What was unuseable garbage is now useful material for building something larger.  As a school-child project, I can see this method being useful for an after school activity, but it’s not part of the main curriculum of a school day. It requires a lot of attention to detail and almost-obsessiveness. I think I would teach it as part of a quilting program, for making appliqués for a larger project, but concentrate the bulk of the class work on making an actual quilt. For me, one of those purple flowers was really enough to get the idea.

You can read the other parts of this series on English Paper Piecing here and here.

English paper piecing: further insight

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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 

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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. 

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.

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