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: 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. 

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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