Monday, April 29, 2013

Quilts for Ann and Gandalf

Since last week's post about the quilt I made for my parents, I've finished two additional pieces.  That makes it sound like I'm pouring time and energy into the craft and making extraordinary speed, but actually what's happening is that I keep deciding to do something and then discovering that I've already done it.  A neat trick, you will admit. After getting back from the visit to my parents, I looked for this one, last seen back in February:

Back then, I was just making it to see what that arrangement of shapes would look like with a certain range of fabrics using a certain set of processes.  I was just messing around, in other words, and wondering what I'd do with the finished project.  Since then, it has been designated Ann's Other Quilt, Ann having expressed an interest it and having a fair amount of clout around here.  
(As the title would indicate, it's not her first quilt.  She also presumably still has Ann's Quilt, serial number 21, a wall-hanging sort of deal:
How does she rate two quilts, you ask, when you don't even have one?  Well, she's very nice.)
Anyway, where were we?  Oh, right, I went looking for Ann's Other Quilt and discovered that it was further along than I thought, and had already been pinned out.  So, I cranked up the Gibbon, planned out an offset diagonal grid quilting pattern, took a chance with red as the top-thread, and let her rip.  I'm actually pretty pleased with the result:

Hopefully, Ann will be pleased with it too.  If not, I'm sure she'll be polite. If you want to play Judge That Quilt -- a game of limited appeal, I know -- you can try to figure out the flaw that bothers me a little bit and the other flaw that bothers me a moderate amount.  (There is a third flaw, too, but it doesn't bother me at all.)

The Specs

Name: Ann's Other Quilt. 
Serial Number: 71

Dimensions: 76" x 56"
Batting: An old blanket I found somewhere.
Backing: Flannel scraps from backs of other quilts (right).
Quilting: Informal grid offset 30 degrees.

Begun: February, 2013.
Finished: April, 2013.

Intended Use/Display: Blanket for use.

So, having finished that one, my next move was to put together a blanket for a human-in-production who has the working title of "Gandalf."  I had decided which of the quilts-in-production was going to be right for Gandalf, so I went looking for it and discovered that I had cleverly not only batted and backed it, but even quilted it, at some unspecified point in the past.  Sweeeet!  So I bound it -- that means put the bit around the edges on -- with the same fabric I used in AOQ.  And it was finished in a little more than an hour.

I'm counting on Gandalf being a relatively mature and serious human, as this isn't quite a conventional baby quilt.  Note, for instance, the absence of elephants and horsies.  The interesting thing here (though I say it myself) is the slight mathiness that goes with the dark/light effect.  The dark squares were cut to 5 x 5 inches, whereas the light squares were cut to 4 x 4 inches (quilting, I'm afraid, is only possible using imperial measurements).   The border between the dark and light is therefore also a border between seven pieces and nine pieces.  In this world of quilting, this is vaguely like using a quirky time signature in music.  

If you are all like "BUT WAIT!!!  7 x 5 is 35 and 9 x 4 is 36, what happens with the extra inch!?!," then it is entirely possible you are Morgan.  What happens is that every side of every piece in a standard geometric quilt like this one loses a "seam allowance" of 1/4 inch of fabric when you sew it to its neighbors.  The seam allowance ends up tucked underneath the face, inside the quilt.  That way the stitches that hold the face together have enough fabric to hang on to.  So on the finished quilt face, what you actually see is "7 x 4.5 is 31.5 and 9 x 3.5 is also 31.5, everything's cool."  This is an example of what physicists call "relativistic effects."

The Specs

Name: Gandalf's Quilt. 
Serial Number: 72

Dimensions: Four square feet on the nose: 48" x 48"
Batting: A leftover piece of commercial batting, just the right size!
Backing: A leftover piece of light-blue flannel.
Quilting: Concentric squares.

Begun: May, 2012.
Finished: April, 2013.

Intended Use/Display: Baby blanket.

Then I decided what I wanted to work on next, and discovered that I've already finished a lot of the start-up work on it.  This is getting weird, but I like it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


Another joint post with some other blog I do.

I made this one for my parents, who recently celebrated one of those birthdays that is divisible by five. 
You might remember it from such recent posts as "How to Pin an American Quilt."  The pins are all gone now, of course; they held the three layers together until I put in the lines of stitching that are doing that work now, and then went on to pursue solo projects.  I'm pretty pleased with the piece, which is a good thing.  My mom's technical mastery of quilting is about a zillion times my own, so even though I understand that it will be used and valued, I cringe at the thought of her noticing the details. It is kind of like this one from three years ago:

Except it's, like, green. It's such a simple design that it's almost not a design at all.  The devil, as usual, is in the details.  You have to work pretty hard when you want to make something look like you threw it together randomly.  If you really do throw things together randomly, all sorts of screwy fragmentary patterns will start to emerge, and it will look like crap.  So, the essence of a piece like this is making sure that similar color values and textures don't end up together very often, and don't cluster, and don't recur in any particular pattern across the width of the quilt, but that they're not too obviously segregated either.  I did a better job of engineering the random look with the new one, having had three years to study the flaws of Purple & Blue.
The older one is still my favorite, because, well, purple and blue, but my parents have a green living room and and I guess you could say that the new one was an "occasional piece."  That it had the happy side benefit of helping me thin out my green fabrics was merely a side benefit, I assure you.

The Specs

Name: Let's just go with the pattern of Purple & Blue, and call this one Green. 
Serial Number: 70

Dimensions: I forgot to measure it, dang it.
Batting: Commercial batting.
Backing: Cream patterned flannel Quilting: Two parallel lines near the edges of each stripe
Begun: February, 2013.

Finished: April, 2013.
Intended Use/Display: Blanket for use; Birthday Gift.

Monday, April 15, 2013

How to Pin an American Quilt

A joint post with some other blog I do.

Some of you folks out there who are not practiced in the fiber arts may have said to yourself, of a sleepless nights, "I wonder how the three layers of a quilt get put together."  It's not likely, of course, but it's theoretically possible.  While those of you who know the craft may have some curiosity, or a polite simulacrum thereof, about how I, Michael5000, handle that part of the quilt-makin' process.  Well, I'll tell you.

 The first thing you do is put the back side of the quilt face down on the bedroom floor.  Why the bedroom?  Because it's the only room in the house with carpeting.  If it's an adult-sized blanket, as in our example, the bed needs to be partially disassembled to make this happen, which is as good a reason as any to continue sleeping in the ancient futon of my college days.

The back, in this case, is two lengths of fabric sewn together (or, looked at another way, a length of fabric cut in half lengthwise and sewn back together widthwise).  Sometimes backs are just a single piece of fabric, and sometimes they are more complicated.  It doesn't really affect this process. After spending a minute or two making sure that the back is as squared-up as possible, we're going to stretch it taut on the floor.  We'll hold it in place with these hefty T-pins, which we'll drive right into the carpet.  You were wondering about why the carpet was important, weren't you.  Now you know.

After we've gone all around the perimeter, the back should be relatively taut against the floor.  The next step is to lay out the middle part of the quilt sandwich, the batting.  "Batting" is the stuff in the middle that you can't see, but which keeps you warm on a long winter night.  Often I use old blankets, crappy old commercial quilts, or other salvage material for my batting, but since the current project is relatively high end (a present for my mom) I'm using a commercial batting.

This particular batting is a 50/50 cotton/bamboo blend, which is kind of cool (cotton, the fiber that I so love, is something of an environmentalist's nightmare in its modern production, whereas a lot of bamboos just shoot out of the ground unprompted with frightening speed and vigor).  I took it out of its bag to "breathe" about an hour before the picture was taken, and I'll spend the next few minutes smoothing out the wrinkles. Then it's time for the top, or face, to make its appearance.

Am I going to pull the batting and the top taut, like I did with the back?  No, and for two reasons.  First of all, the batting is kind of like felt in its makeup, and if you tried to pull it taut it would just rip apart.  Secondly, when we unpin the back at the end of this process, it's going to contract a little bit.  Since they'll be attached by then, it will cinch the face in with it, making the display surface slightly rumply.  We actually want that.  Having the face be slightly slack relative to the back will give the display side of the quilt more visible texture after we've sewed this whole sandwich together. On the other hand, you don't want to be sloppy or you will suffer the heartbreak of "pucker" -- folds of fabric caught unattractively within stitches -- when you are sewing.  To avoid that, we'll spend quite a bit of time at this point basically petting the face outward from the center, making sure that the two free layers are evenly spread, free of wrinkles, and squared up relative to each other and to the back underneath them.

Then comes the pinning.  This whole process is I'm talking about is called pinning, in fact.  We've got the three layers centered on each other just the way we want them, so we're going to put in about a zillion pins to make sure they stay that way until we get them quilted -- quilting being, of course, sewing lines of stitches that penetrate all three layers and thus hold the piece together more or less permanently. I'm using safety pins here.  One of the great humiliations of my career in the needle arts is that for YEARS and YEARS safety pins did not occur to me, and I used regular straight pins while pinning.  This made the process go a little faster, but had two appreciable disadvantages: (1) they fell out by the dozen, and (2) for the rest of the quilting process, your hands were progressively torn to ribbons by the hundreds of sharp sharp pins.

The first pin goes in the exact center.  Then you make a line of pins lengthwise down the quilt, and a second line of pins widthwise across the quilt, quartering it, always working outward from the center.  After that, you pin out each quarter in turn, still always working from the center outwards.  Why do it this way?  Because it's how my mom told me to do it, damn it.  But I think the idea and the reality is, this is the best way to keep the quilt squared up (really rectangled up, usually) while you're doing the pinning. This process takes a long time, plus you'll need to take breaks to rest your knees, so it's good to have some sort of recorded or filmed entertainment at hand.  The more seriously you're taking the quilt, too, the greater the density of pins you are going to use, and more pins means more time.    I watched The Seven Samurai while pinning out an especially large quilt, to give you an idea.

Working on a quilt consists of endless repetitive tasks punctuated by a small handful of lovely "ta da!" moments, of which taking a quilt up after its pinning is one of the best.  The back and batting should both have been somewhat larger than the face to avoid unpleasant mishaps, but now that your three layers are together for the long haul you can trim the back and batting away at roughly an inch from the edge of the face.  Me, I cut the quilt out right on the floor, before I take out the T-pins.  This is a satisfying moment because where you walked into the room with a boring back, a very boring piece of batting, and a fragile and unfinished-looking face, you now basically have a quilt.  True, it's not actually quilted yet, but it is starting to look like what it will become and can even be given a little modest use as a proto-blanket, if you're careful.

Since the three layers are now giving each other mutual support, it's already a much sturdier item than any of the three parts were when you started.  As you get ready for the next step you can just wad that sucker up and throw it on your sewing table.  The pins will take care of business until you get the actual quilting in.

And that's how blankets are put together.  Or at least, that's how I do it.  Other quilters, and industrial blanket manufacturers, probably have their own tricks.