Sewing: potholder

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In almost any quilting project, it’s always the case that you wind up with one or two or six extra squares. It’s basically a byproduct of mathematics —  x number of squares will only fit into y number of columns and z number of rows.  But the cut-and-sew process of generating the squares — this one was the result of piecing together six strips of 2.5″ cloth into two units of three strips each — one arranged blue-green-blue; the other arranged green-blue-green. Those were then sliced into strips 2.5″ wide, and then reassembled into 3×3 grids — all the while picking up noise and getting smaller along the way, because I’m apparently messy like that.

Yesterday, I bought a walking foot for my sewing machine, and I was delighted with the results.  Posting about it on social media brought me a host of discussions about replacing my store-bought 100% polyester bias tape with hand-made 100% cotton bias tape.  I said I didn’t know how to do that, so I was sent a host of tutorials.

I bollixed up the making of the bias tape yesterday.  But there are a few important things to know about making bias tape — start big. Don’t try to make 1/2″ double fold bias tape the first time; go big, and make 191″ length of 2″ single fold bias tape, so you wind up with 1/2″ double-fold.  It’ll be much easier.

I also discovered that I had a gadget which allows you to feed a strip of tape into it at one end, and folded tape comes out the other, ready for the iron.  I bought it a while ago on the recommendation of someone, and then never used it.  Now I’m using it.

It’s a nice discovery.

This morning I made my first potholder (at least, my first potholder since I was six or eight years old).  Two leftover quilt squares from one project with some leftover batting between them, and a couple of strips of bias tape — one to make the jaunty red loop for hanging it up by the stove, and one for the blue trim around the outside edge of the potholder.  It still needs some trimming and some extra zig-zag stitching to hold it together, but it’ll do for a first effort.

There are worse things to do before breakfast.

Quilts: walking foot

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Ivy at Circle Thrice responded beautifully to my comment with a post about the magic of making things ourselves, and particularly for people that we care about.

It’s not a post I wrote myself, alas.  I shoulda.

Because this blog, for better or worse, is a blog about magic.  In large measure it’s a blog about the power of making things; it’s blog about the power of co-creation — the act of pulling the materials of the world to you, shaping them and changing them according to a particular vision, and producing something on the other end which is more than the sum of its parts.   Something of your self is woven into the finished product, for better or worse.  Yet in many ways, it is better than something bought through anonymous channels, through the mercantile trade of your hours for abstract concepts, and the trade of abstract concepts for the physical goods of your life.

Today I broke down and went to the local fabric store. It has a name that sort of rhymes with pollyanna, but not really.   I’d heard there was this magical tool there, something akin to a wand of fire or a disk of earth — a walking foot.  (I also needed binding for the quilt I’m holding in these pictures. The binding is the pale green band around the outside of the quilt — it’s better to make that by hand from a 100% cotton fabric, but I am not good at making bias tape or binding — I could spend as long making enough bias tape to make this quilt, as I spent making the quilt).

A Walking Foot? I hear you ask.  Don’t most normal feet walk? Not on a sewing machine, they don’t.  A walking foot attaches to the low shank of a sewing machine; and it has a mechanically-driven lever arm that hooks on to the needle’s drive shaft. The result is that the walking foot engages a second pair of dog-legs (those are the feet on the face of a sewing machine, that advance the fabric through the needle’s binding mechanism.

This particular quilt had been giving me trouble. Truthfully, all of my quilts give me trouble in the same way. The first part of the work involves stitching together squares. I’ve gotten a LOT better at that work. The second part involves quilting three layers together — in this case, the topper of green and blue squares; the batting, basically a thick layer of felt; and the backing fabric (the dark blue in the first picture).  The three layers can be seen in the third picture.

Today I broke down after doing the first half dozen straight stitches of this quilt. I needed quilt binding anyway. So I went to the fabric store for binding for this quilt, and got the walking foot.

What a difference the right tool makes! The walking foot guides the fabric sandwich into the needle-space with great diligence and accuracy. It’s a supremely powerful focus for the sewing machine, like a lens focusing a powerful beam of light into a laser — swiftly went the work of sewing the quilting stitches.

I was able to finish the rows of the quilting, and then the columns, with great accuracy. And then the binding around the edges went quite easily as well. Before the Walking Foot, this might have taken me the better part of two days of work with my old sewing machine. With the Walking Foot, a few hours at most.

This is my seventh quilt, I think.  It might be my ninth, but I think it’s probably the seventh. It’s taken me seven quilts to learn how to do this well enough, and effectively enough, that I learned what sort of problems I was having, and was able to do the research necessary to find the solutions.  Every single one of seven quilts, I’ve gotten better at this.  They may not be Etsy quality, but they’re a lot better than they were.  In a short while, they’ll be a lot better than they are now.

All aspects of Making are like this — you have to be an apprentice before you can be a journeyman; and you have to do the journey-man or journey-woman’s work work before you can be a master of a craft.  It doesn’t matter if you’re talking poetry or quilting or fashion design or musicianship or painting or carpentry or engineering or basket-weaving — or even magic and re-enchanting the world: Start somewhere near the beginning. Get Better. Keep Going.  To Walk the Path Of Power, the Work Is On You.

Quilts: finished

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Two quilts finished in three-ish half-days. The top one is the penguins from earlier, the bottom one in pink is the owls quilt.  Both are already spoken for, you can’t buy them.

Really, it’s three quilts but I’m having my doubts about the arrangement of materials for the third quilt. I think I could get the third done if I could get some feedback on whether or not people think it’s a good layout.

Here’s the third quilt. Tentatively, anyway.  I’m worried that the dark blue of the starry swirls doesn’t really match the green or the blue of the top of the quilt; and that the baby-blue trim doesn’t match either.  I suppose I could tie it all together with some thread of the right color… but it still makes me a little nervous.

What do you think? Leave me a comment.

Quilt: penguins 

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I find that I’m enjoying a great deal the process of laying out a quilt, and then sewing the rows and columns together to make the quilt.  These squares are 5″ to a side for this quilt with a penguin theme. The quilt is going to be much wider than a typical crib quilt, but about the same length.

Unfortunately, the dark blue fabric is polyester and slippery.  I don’t know if this is going to work.  I’ve found conflicting opinions about quilting with polyester fabrics — some people love them, some people hate them.  I’ve decided on a 100% cotton backing fabric, though, so if the baby winds up being sensitive to poly they can always flip it over and display the quilt top to the world and wrap the baby in two layers of cotton away from the artificiality.

Why use poly at all? Do you know how hard it is to find penguin fabric to begin with?  I also didn’t choose the fabric, in this case. This is a custom order, and I’m not sure that we knew it was poly when we ordered it.

In any case, there’s this delightful process that you can see in the third photo, where the rug gradually vanishes behind the fabric as the quilt takes shape. This one should be done later today, or at least it should be done later today.

There’s another thing that I quite like about quilting with these sorts of prints.  When you look at the whole fabric, it’s very hard to admire it — it’s the same pattern repeated over and over again.  It’s mind-numbing in its regularity.  And it’s often dull to look at.

But then something happens when you cut it up.  As the fabric is sliced in two directions, the pattern becomes more randomized. Sometimes it’s the father and mother penguin in the foreground, sometimes it’s in the background, sometimes it’s the large line of penguins in the middle ground that becomes prominent.  The pattern’s regularity becomes irregular, as the rotary blade cuts and slices the repetitive imagery into squares that don’t respect the pattern’s repeat mode.  And so something new emerges.  It’s the original cut-and-paste, in some ways.  Except that with quilting, it’s cut-and-baste.

Quilt: arithemtic

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Increasingly, I find myself making diagrams like this. It’s a tentative layout for a quilt I am making for a friend; it’s one of two that she commissioned for some of her nieces. This one will be fairly simple, just 5″ squares sewn to some batting and backing with a bound edge. The accent fabrics are nice. I’m worried whether I have enough blue for the quilt; the fabrics that fill in the squares that are currently empty — I don’t know yet if they’ll be random or in neat rows. I don’t know if thequilts will be on diagonals or just crazily assembled.

I do know that the quilt will have to be 9 squares wide by 11 squares long. Ninety nine squares. There are 42 in this array; another ten on the cutting bench— I need 47 more. In some ways it’s pointless to lay out the squares before the cutting is done. In other ways it helps refine the thought processes that go into planning the quilt and figuring out if your next steps will actually work.

Entirely abstract processes in quilt design should work, in theory. In practice, just using theory doesn’t work.

Quilt: crib squares

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I received a commission for a baby quilt, to go in a certain niece’s crib. The bedroom of his niece has an owl theme, and so my patron scavenged up some owls fabric; I did the cutting and assembly. The assembly of the quilt front is now basically done after a day’s work. The backing is cut, and the batting.
What remains, is the quilting of the three layers together, and the attaching of an edge binding. The quilting will take the morning tomorrow; I can have the binding done by late afternoon.

It bears saying, though: not including the trips to the fabric store, or the discussions with the patron, a “simple” baby quilt is a 10-to-30 hour project. It is akin to a student research paper or a project for the county science fair. It takes as long to make a quilt, as it does to read a book, write several papers about it, and deliver a final oral report.
It’s for this reason that so much of what comes out of school MakerSpaces is, essentially, junk.  It’s rarely beautiful or complete — the child may be able to communicate a lot of truths by building and assembling a model of the thing — but a finished thing usually involves dozens if not hundreds of hours of labor.

Which is part of the reason why the rush to 3D printers and laser cutters and CNC milling machines in schools is so dismaying to me.  All of these sorts of high tech tools do amazing things, of course. But many of them put substantial amount of intermediate work between the student and the finished product —

  1. design a thing
  2. input the design as a vector graphic into a computer
  3. dial in the amount of cutting to be done, layer by layer
  4. Run the finished 3D model or graphic through some sort of confirmation process
  5. print ( CNC carve or laser-cut) the design
  6. Note mistakes
  7. Edit design
  8. Re-print (CNC carve, laser cut) the design again.

So much of that work involves hands-on… the computer.  Not with the materials.  Not with the machine itself. Students are effectively learning to do a small range of things only, which is to transmit designs from their brain to a computer screen, and then edit those computer-compatible designs to a specific range of functions on one type of robot.  Which is fine, if you’re training robot programmers.

And don’t get me wrong. Seymour Papert and Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez are right — computers allow you to do things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do.  So do robots in the classroom.

But a human being is more than a robot — and in schools particularly, we have to privilege human beings above robots.  A human being is more important than a robot, and deserves to be more than simply a tool for transferring human creativity into less than humane designs.

But I’m drifting far from quilting.  A sewing machine makes clothes, makes quilts, makes bags, makes fashion, makes hats, makes accessories, makes banners, makes stuffed animal shells, makes art.

And they require a substantial amount of basic mathematics.  My squares were cut on a rotary cutting mat, to be exactly 5 in.² The seam allowance is 1/4 inch. This means that the square is in the middle have an apparent size of 4 1/2  in.²  So, each square is losing a quarter inch from the top, bottom, left, and right.

The quilt is nine squares across. So, 9×5 = 45. So the materials for the quilt edge are 45 inches long. But every two squares sewn together means a loss of a 1/2″ or 3/4″ along the way… because quilting is not a perfect art.  So if I want a quilt to be such and such a number of inches wide, I have to plan for the loss that accumulates from sewing the squares together.

And so, slowly but surely, the quilt gets assembled from a variety of pieces.  It’s possible to observe the progress of the work from beginning to end. There’s something to put in a bin at the end of the day, and something to take out from a bin at the start of the working day.  The project picks up steam along the way, too, as the work trudges along toward completion.  Little by little, the work gets done.

Which I think is one of the things that I admire and notice about sewing as a form of Making.  Sewing, ideally, produces not junk, but actual and useful things — blankets to keep people warm, clothes to keep them dressed and fashionable, bags to put things in and store them, banners for celebrating all the seasons of our lives, and more.

If your MakerSpace and Maker program doesn’t have a sewing machine and sewing supplies in it… well, what are you waiting for?

Consider this blog post your permission slip (just be aware you need an ironing board, an iron, some scissors for fabric, some rotary cutters, and some rotary cutting matts too — I can help you figure out what tools you need, and I can even come teach your class.  Let me know.


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. 

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