My First Quilt

Quilts in My Past

When I was around eight years old, we moved from Augusta, Georgia, to Virginia. My mother gave bags of stuff to the man who moved us. He gave us a quilt made by his wife. It was a tied quilt made of all sorts of fabrics. Big square scraps, nothing modern or sophisticated about it, but I was always interested in crafts, so I thought it was cool.

Pink QuiltFlower QuiltBlue Quilt

Then when I was 11 years old, my parents moved to a small town in south Georgia. My mom met a family of quilters and bought a bunch of quilts from them. All hand-sewn. I have three of them now, in various stages of disrepair. (My favorite of these quilts is sun-faded from sitting on my couch by a sunny window . . . argggghhhh!) These quilts were the first time I got near a craft that was an outlet for design and creativity and created a useful item. These are very traditional quilts: a log cabin, a double wedding ring, etc. It’s amazing to look at all of the hand stitching on them. The pink one I had repaired by a hand quilter – one of the fabrics had worn away, so she had to appliqué over a bunch of worn off fabric pieces. It was expensive, and although I’m glad I did it (as opposed to tossing the quilt), I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the experience (she tried to squeeze more money out of me and she missed spots). These quilts are quite traditional and don't appeal to me 100% in an aesthetic sense. One is a double wedding ring, lovely pattern, but all pink (not my favorite color). One of them is an appliqué of blue and green morning glory flowers on an off-white background. It’s not bad, but not something I would ever buy. My favorite is a log cabin in all blue (my favorite color). It's not terrible (my idea of terrible: a beautifully executed uber-traditional pattern out of murky green and brown, cheap floral fabric). But it's not one of the more modern or transitional designs that appeal to me.

I’m a knitter, but my right thumb hurts all the time, and knitting doesn’t help. Once it got really bad, I thought, well, I could quilt instead. Quilting isn’t the perfect craft hobby, though. It’s not mobile (like knitting). The most useful quilted items are big, pretty much by definition. A long arm machine is expensive. But I did read books by quilters who used regular machines, which is what I have. My heart is set on a Juki TL-2010Q, but it is out of my price range at the present time. (I have a terrible habit of buying crafting supplies . . . instead of crafting! No $900 sewing machine should be purchased by a person who has yet to actually quilt!) On the other hand, if the machine I already own can’t handle quilting, then I either buy a machine that can or I pay someone to finish my quilt. At least $150 for a queen-sized quilt -- probably more. And that money could be put towards buying a machine that can handle quilting. My Juki!

My Sewing MachineHere's the machine I actually own: a Kenmore 385.15510200. I can't complain about it. My mother bought this for me from Sears fifteen years ago. I doubt she spent more than $200. As far as how it works, I have no complaints. I slipcovered a huge couch with it. I've sewn through multiple layers of denim with it. I've made Halloween costumes. I've mended things. Any trouble I've ever had with it is due to my own inexperience. For quilting, however, it has a small harp or throat (approximately 4" high x 7" wide). It's going to be difficult to stuff a big quilt through that hole. Also, the bed isn't flat on a table. In other words, the weight of a heavy object (like a quilt) is going to pull down on the needle while you're sewing. When sewing a heavy pile of fabric, it is helpful if it is lying flat and not pulling. An extension table for the machine would help, and those aren't expensive. My final complaint is that it didn't come with a walking foot. I bought one, but it is wonky. It works, but it just looks a little out of alignment and that's not good when you're machine sewing. I am very suspicious of my walking foot and I should bite the bullet and buy another one. Or buy my Juki.

Watching Craftsy Courses

Anyways, I finally took Yoda’s advice (do or do not) and watched two Craftsy courses: Learn to Quilt: Colorful Bed Quilt with Amy Gibson and Start Machine Quilting with Paula Reid. The second course covered the actual quilting (sandwiching batting between two layers of fabric, pinning the whole thing together, trimming it, and sewing through all the layers) and all kinds of interesting topics in depth like tension (I think I finally understand it thanks to Paula!), choosing thread, choosing batting, technique, etc. The first Crafty course made the quilt I’m going to make. The instructor goes step by step through the whole process, which I needed, since I’ve never quilted. And most of all, the finished product was appealing. I dithered for months about whether to buy the quilt kit, so I wouldn’t have to pick my own fabrics. I’m still on the fence – I don’t trust my design choices. Why didn’t I buy the kit? If I only make one quilt in my life, I need to choose colors that are “me.” Which means navy blue. Not pinks and oranges and purples and yellows. I love her finished product, but it isn’t “me.”

Buying Quilting Fabric

So I dove in to buying fabric. In retrospect, I should have gone to quilting fabric stores. Why didn’t I? I simply didn’t want to talk to people about my potential for quilting or my design choices. I felt uncomfortable, since I’m such a newbie. I’d rather fumble along by myself (with the help of Craftsy). The reason I should have gone, though, is that I would have saved money. Even if the fabric was all full-price, I’d have bought less. I bought all my fabric mail-order, and some of them just don’t work. Some of them don’t work because I changed my mind, but a few of them don't work because the retailer identified black as navy blue. Grrr. Anyways, my fabric choices were supposed to be: a dark blue background or main color plus other colors (not just white). And I went to town. It was really fun picking out fabric, even through mail order. Here’s where I bought fabric:

Did you know that fabric.com has a 30 day return policy and will pay for return shipping? I never thought anyone would take a cut piece of fabric back! Maybe the other stores do as well, and I just haven't discovered it yet. It does make it easier to buy mail-order. I haven't returned any fabric and don't have plans to, but it is nice to know I could!

It was always fun to get something on sale, but since I had to buy 22 pieces of ½ yard each, they all seemed cheap. Some of the cheap places make you buy a whole yard (and the stash accumulation begins). So I got this pile of fabric and I narrowed it all the way down to 22, plus white. I’m still deliberating on whether I should use navy blue instead of white for all the contrast-providing triangles. The Craftsy instructor talks about contrast providing some of the visual interest, but I still think there’d be contrast with pattern-free navy blue. Hmmm. I am too indecisive to make decisions, so I end up just mentally flipping a coin. I don't know if it was the right choice, but I decided to make the triangles white, which is what she does with the original pattern. There is a negative, though, and that is to do with the dark and light fabrics and the washing machine. I will wax on about that later. At this time, I restrained myself from buying the batting and the backing fabric. Why not, you ask? If I never get to the quilting phase, I don’t need those items! The batting I want is on sale at Craftsy right now . . . I’m trying not to think about it!

Buying Quilting Tools

I had to buy a bunch of tools, but it wasn't as bad as I thought. I got them all from Amazon: Tools

Pre-Cutting: Ironing, Starching, and Making Pattern Templates

For making the quilt top, the first step was printing the patterns for the pieces and cutting templates out of corrugated cardboard. I was extra, extra careful because if there’s one thing I learned from knitting, it is that a tiny little difference in size adds up to a noticeable difference if it is repeated many times. To keep this quilt un-wonky, make those templates as exact as you can! The second step was starching and ironing. I hate ironing, but I’d have to say that ironing flat pieces of cotton fabric in 22 different patterns is another story. It was fun! I made my own spray starch because I’m trying to avoid aerosols. The spray starch left a horrid white mist on all the navy blue, but I believe it will wash out (if I ever get to the “wash the quilt” stage). I’d advise beginning quilters to view the starching and ironing as something not to skip. Creating flat, regular, exact quilt pieces will aid you in avoiding wonkiness.

Cutting the Fabric

The third step: cutting. I was scared to start this. I watched Amy do it a couple of times, and I wrote out what I’m supposed to do, to refer to it as I do it over and over. Why? Because this is the “no going back” moment. If you cut a piece wrong, it is probably wasted. If you cut a piece wrong and don’t notice, that’s even worse. On the other hand, once I get these cut, moving the fabric pieces around will be fun, I think. I think my DDs might enjoy laying them out (yes, they did). I delayed cutting for as long as possible (did a workout video, unloaded the dishwasher, watched the cutting part of Craftsy #1 again, wrote this document). Finally, I couldn't think of any other legitimate way to procrastinate. It was time to cut. First, square off the crossways edge. Then cut the strips (I cut all 22 pieces of fabric into strips all in a row). Then I cut my strips out of the white fabric. At this point, I will have to confess that I’m not good at cutting and now I am contemplating watching a Craftsy video about using a rotary cutter. Every once in a while, I’d cut a strip perfectly. But more often than not, not so perfectly. I wonder if the fabric plays a role? All of this is high-end quilting cotton, but it seemed like the white fabric was so much harder to cut than 90% of the prints. I am still trying to be precise, but precision is definitely not something that comes naturally to me.

Cut Fabric StripsIn my picture, you can see my quilt fabric and my newly acquired stash of fabric. This would be much reduced by the sensible practice of going to the fabric store to buy fabric instead of being an online shopper! On the left, my white strips. Next to them, the 22 fabrics for my hexagons. Next to that, the extra fabric left over from my strips. Note that I have 44 extra jelly roll strips (they’re all about 3” wide). I see a jelly roll quilt in my future! On the bottom right, all of the not-chosen fabric. I like a lot of these fabrics, and in the picture they probably look pretty close to the chosen ones. I rejected them if the background color was black (annoying) or too purple or too green or too grayish. It’s so subjective, though, and I don’t trust myself! In the future, I should just copy someone else’s choices.

Back to the subject of cutting. Let me say that in 25 years of knitting, I never cut myself once. As I cut the second strip, I grazed my left hand with the blade and it took half an hour to get the bleeding to stop. Crazy! I was being careful before but now I treat that cutter like it is my pet cobra. The instructor for the Craftsy class uses the smaller (28mm) cutter and that’s what I used for the triangles. I tried using my cardboard template, but I am not good at it. I ended up using the template to draw lines and cutting against my plastic ruler. For the hexagons, I used my cardboard template and was very slow and careful. I also used my old 45mm cutter (purchased from Ben Franklin a million years ago for $16.49, retailing on Amazon today for around the same price. Mine was made in Japan – I wonder where the new ones are made?). I think that I preferred the larger blade. I was slow and careful and it went fine.

Thread Color

Once I had all the pieces cut, I could put away all the cutting gear and start sewing. I dithered over the thread color. My research seems to say that for piecing the quilt top, it doesn’t matter, since that thread should never show. I’m going to use white. A lot of people use gray. The wisdom of crowds also seems to advise against using two different colors of thread for the actual quilting (if your tension is as questionable as mine certainly is, sometimes you’ll see the thread from the wrong side) and against using a contrasting color (unless that’s part of your design). I wish I could find a good backing fabric, which would be either orange or gray with some orange/navy/blue/other colors. And then I’m thinking of using navy blue thread to quilt the whole thing. Or maybe I should use white or navy blue for the back? It’s so hard to decide!!!

To Pin or Not to Pin?

I managed to dither a bunch over pinning the pieces. I don’t mind pinning all of them; I’m good at repetitive mindless tasks. But I feel like my pinning pulls on the fabric. And right at this moment, after pinning a million of them, I remembered that I have Clover Wonder Clips, which could be used to pin the middle or maybe the beginning of the seam together. Argh. Or, since these are small pieces of crisp, thin fabric, do I really need to pin or clip at all? That is the question. It is early (ha! 9 a.m. in the morning) and everyone else in the house is asleep, or I would get my sewing machine out and do some experimenting. Sew with clip, sew with pin, sew with nothing. I should have done this experiment last night when everyone was awake, but instead I lay in the recliner in front of a binge-watch Veronica Mars session that’s going on in my living room.

Sewing Pieces Into Rows

Sewing Pieces of Fabric TogetherAfter everyone woke up, I did the experiment, and of course the results weren’t conclusive. There’s no need to pin the fabric pieces, except that if you pin them, they’re all ready to go and you don’t have to be as careful with the pile of pieces. Pinning them at the center of the piece holds the two pieces together, but it doesn’t hold them together at the very start, which is where you’re beginning to sew, which would be more helpful. I think that every one of my sewed pieces has slid a tiny bit at the start, meaning that many of the blocks aren’t sewn together exactly in the right spot. This is probably because of my crappy sewing technique and/or my sewing machine’s inability to grab both layers of fabric exactly at the same spot. It will impact my precision, and I’m dreading the outcome. Because it is two thin pieces of fabric, the clips didn’t have an advantage over the pins. After I had a big pile of pieces, the triangles started to stick to the wrong pieces of fabric, so it probably worked best to have them pinned. Unless you’re quick enough to put two pieces of fabric together as you’re feeding them through the machine.

I laid out the pieces on the floor, as randomly as I could while also alternating between busy and not busy fabrics. Then my kids moved pieces around. They have both taken high school art courses in the recent past and I know their design eye is better than mine. It did give them a chance to critique my fabric choices, but they weren’t too harsh. I’m not super-thrilled with my fabric choices either and in the future, I hope to buy a kit or copy someone else’s quilt. Anyways, after they laid out the whole thing, my DD piled up the rows so I could just sew them. I sewed the pieces together into rows without incident.

Once I had the rows sewed together, my next move was to put them on the floor again to make sure the design was okay. And that’s when I realized that I hadn’t placed the pieces correctly the first time around. The rows alternate between shorter and longer. When I had the pieces on the floor (prior to sewing the pieces into rows), I had all the short rows placed on the floor, followed by all the long rows. This means that all the time my kids put into piece placement was pretty much for nothing. Well, not nothing, since they made sure that fabrics didn’t repeat in a row. However, after I’d sewed the pieces into rows, and put the rows back on the floor in the right order, I had a terrible time trying to space out fabrics so certain patterns didn’t pool (that’s a knitting term) in one place. Which would have been much easier if I placed the rows correctly per the pattern the first time around (when the pieces weren’t sewn together). Rookie mistake!

A different problem: spots where my fabric doesn’t line up perfectly. In the Craftsy video, she talks about that issue, so I’m hoping that (1) the unevenness will be be reduced by ironing and then (2) when I sew the seams, it will hide the uneven spots. It is caused by either crappy shape cutting or crappy sewing triangles to hexagons. I tried so hard to be precise, but as I’ve said before, precision is not my forte. I imagine that plastic shapes can be purchased for quilters, and I should probably invest in some of the basics, because I don’t think the cardboard shapes helped me out. Plastic would have worked better, because you can lean the blade right against it instead of trying to keep the blade away from the cardboard. I did get better at cutting (practice makes perfect as usual!) which is why I think my hexagons are better than my triangles.

Sewing Rows TogetherWhen I sewed the rows together, my normal inclination would have been to go row by row, adding to the bulk of the quilt. Because I’d watched the Craftsy course, I knew not to do that, which makes a lot of sense from the perspective of how not-so-fun it is to wrestle a huge piece of fabric through my poor Kenmore. It’s much easier if you seam two rows at a time, working through your entire collection of rows (fifteen for this quilt), then you sew two of the new sections together, etc., etc., until only the very last seam finishes the whole quilt top. It is a lot of ironing and stray thread cutting, but for some reason (maybe the differing fabrics? Maybe the puzzle piece coming together? Maybe that I can listen to NPR? Maybe just the creativity?), it was fun. Finally I sewed two-thirds together, and then I sewed that two-thirds to the last one-third. At that point, I wasn’t wrestling the fabric through my machine at all (it is just two layers of thin cotton, with lots of seams), but it is a tiny preview of what it will be like to quilt the whole thing and I am very concerned that I won’t be able to use my machine and/or I’ll break my machine. With this in mind, I researched renting a long arm machine, but there aren't any for rent near me, that I could find. I would love to take a class on using it, and then quilt my own quilt. But it doesn't seem like there's one near me for rent. Quilt Top

Fabric for the Back of the Quilt

Backing FabricI dithered for hours over choosing fabric for the back. People use fabric that's on sale, they use whatever they have on hand that they want to get rid of, they use contrast fabric, they use matching fabric, they use wide back fabric, they piece normal width fabric. There is no "one way" to go. My first choice was a wide backing (less seams to sew!) bright orange "Rhoda Ruth" fabric. Then I thought something similar in gray. Then I finally decided on white with medium small navy stars. Of course, after I ordered my backing fabric choice, the store notified me that my order of 8 ½ yds is not in stock. I decided to piece together what they’re sending me (1/2 yd short) and if I have to, I’ll make a row of rectangles across it to make up the ½ yd. That will be creative, but it isn't what I was planning to do, so I'm not excited about it. I fantasize that the 8 yards will somehow be enough (that perhaps the pattern calls for a little extra and perhaps the pieces they sent me are a little extra?). We'll see.

Color of Thread for the Quilting

I was even indecisive about thread color. I never really considered anything besides navy blue and white and I finally settled on white. I still don’t know which one would look good. The variety of advice on the Internet on this subject is amazing. Make it blend in. Don’t make it blend in. Use different colors. Use the same color for the bobbin and the spool. I think this is truly a design choice. What do you want your quilt to look like? Do you want to see the quilting or have it blend in? I am a beginnner, so you'd think I'd want my quilting stitches to blend. Unfortunately, I chose a high-contrast quilt top, so the thread can't blend with both the navy blue and the white. On the bright side, I plan to quilt in straight lines, which will be easier to do.

Online Shopping vs. Going to the Store

I went to Joann to get batting, quilt pins and thread. And here is my dilemma with brick and mortar shopping. I got to Joann, and they didn’t have the batting that I wanted (they were having a sale, and somebody had bought it all). Additionally, their thread wasn’t identified by weight, so I wasn't sure what the weight of the different threads were (I wanted 50wt). They didn't have the color I wanted on a large spool. They did have the quilt pins that I ended up buying, but I was hoping to buy colorful ones (I never found them). So I didn't buy anything, and it was a waste of time to drive all the way down there (about twenty minutes away). On the bright side, they had so many quilting rulers that probably would have solved my triangle issues. And plenty of other quilting notions –- things I didn’t even know existed. This is the irony of online vs. brick and mortar. If you go online, you can look for exactly what you want and order it, but you have to wait. If you go to the store, they may not have what you want but they might have other things which lead to purchases that you may or may not need. I walked out of there with nothing and felt like I had wasted my time. I came home and ordered from Amazon.

To Pre-Wash or Not Pre-Wash?

At this point, I was perusing fabric online and I came across a review of a fabric in my quilt. The review complained about how badly the dye bled in the wash (ruining the quilt). I was sad to read it. I did not pre-wash my fabrics, for one reason: the fabric manufacturers all say “we don’t recommend pre-washing our fabrics!” After I read that review, I did some research online and there are some horror stories out there. My quilt is dark blue and white and I'm a bit concerned. In the future, I will definitely be a pre-washer (even if it doesn't fade or bleed, fabric shrinks. It makes sense to pre-fade, pre-bleed, and pre-shrink). Unfortunately, it is too late for this one.

To Pre-wash or Not Pre-Wash?I decided to experiment with scraps. My plan was to wash some scraps together with just soap and water (note that I'm using cold water because I never wash anything in hot water. Hot water might get different results), and to wash similar scraps with a Shout Color Catcher. I did the first wash: just the fabrics, water, and detergent. It was cold water, but I wash everything in cold water. I didn’t notice any bleeding at all. So I stopped my experiment. I do think I will put two color catchers in when I wash my quilt for the first time, though. Another option is something called Synthrapol. I didn't use it, but evidently it will counter all the dye bleeding from fabrics and the reviews even say it will take away the bleeding that already happened (even washed and dried quilts!). Definitely something to try if you've already had fabric bleed all over your quilt. Here is a photo of my scraps after my wash. On the left, scraps washed together. On the right, unwashed scraps. I don't see a big difference.

At this point, my time off work was over. I've been quilting during the winter break from my day job at a middle school. Once I went back to school, I stopped working on this project, although I didn't stop thinking about it. I am looking forward to the next step, which is making a Quilt Sammie (yes, Tom Haverford is always with me). I would go ahead and do it, but since I'm probably short on my backing fabric, I don't want to cut a piece for my Sammie and then find out I needed that 6" square. What is a Quilt Sammie, you ask? For me, it will be one of my extra hexagons and white triangle pieces and my backing fabric, with a piece of batting in between. Then I'll quilt it with some white thread, and I'll quilt it with some blue thread. And I might even quilt it with some orange thread. I'll get to see how the quilting goes with a tiny little easy quilt, and I'll get to see how the thread possibilities look.

I have kept track of how much time I spent actually cutting and sewing (I'm not including all the time I spent watching my Craftsy courses, looking at fabric, and being wishy washy). At this point, before my hiatus, I have spent twenty enjoyable hours on this quilt top, which is finished. That's not very long! I truly think that I could quilt a baby quilt in a day. Let's hope I get to do that someday (after I finish this one). To be continued . . .

Quilts I'd Like to Quilt

A blue and white big twin size, with Ralph Lauren Nanking fabric as part of top and whole back (I think I have all of the fabric for this one already). A pink and green one (release my inner preppie -- I grew up in the 80s). Baby quilts: a pink one and a blue one. A lap quilt for mom? She would like blue and white. A gray and white quilt. An American flag quilt with red, white and blue parts all patterned (a la the Lily’s Quilts Union Jack – copy someone else’s because it is probably out there).

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