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 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. 

Apron

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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.

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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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