This was a fun little project.
My mom and I had taken a class, probably ten years ago, on flannel rag quilts at Ladyfingers. I’m not even sure where that project bag is at this point. Suffice to say, I was not a fan. The instructor kept emphasizing how this was a quilt for people who didn’t care about accuracy, that “anything goes” with rag quilts, and if things didn’t line up, don’t worry because it wouldn’t matter. And while this approach may set some beginning quilters at ease, it was simply not what I wanted to hear at that stage of my quilting journey. I was just starting to feel like a decently competent piecer, achieving a fairly consistent 1/4″ seam and matching my intersections most of the time. The last thing I needed was a project in which precision was not only NOT a goal, it was a liability. (The ridiculous stretchiness of the flannel I was using meant that nothing stayed square, straight, or remotely the same size, even with a walking foot.) Throw in the fact that I was really not looking forward to clipping all those seams once the darn thing was finished, and this was a project born to become a UFO.
*Little bit of a tangent here: although the instructor for the flannel rag quilt class was very nice and very competent as an instructor, it was clear she and I were not on the same quilting wavelength. While we were working on our squares, she talked about how she designs quilts for fabric companies, incorporating entire lines of fabric for them. All well and good and very interesting. However, she then went on to say that she plans everything out in advance for all her quilts, not just those, and that she has NO STASH. Let that sink in for a minute. In fact, she said she had recently purchased 3 yards of a fabric that she planned to use as a border, and when it became clear that it would not indeed work as the border for this particular quilt, she was very upset because “now what am I going to do with it?” I absolutely could not relate.
After that experience, I can confidently state that I had given absolutely no thought to ever making another rag quilt until I started researching the purchase of my GO! cutter. Accuquilt makes rag dies that precut the fringes on the edges of the squares so that all you have to do is sew the blocks together and then wash the quilt: no hand-crippling, mind-numbing seam clipping to do! I still was in no hurry to work with flannel again, but I knew I had a stack of Dan’s worn-out jeans in the basement that were guilt-tripping me and making me feel like a hoarder, and the wheels started turning.
I had started saving the jeans after seeing a show on DIY or HGTV in which they discussed sustainable building practices including the use of recycled denim to make housing insulation. On the show, they promoted a recycling program that was doing drives throughout the country to collect the jeans. However, by the time I had any to contribute, the website said that drives were temporarily suspended for the year, and would I like to get on an email list for when they restarted? I did, but that was an email that never came. Since then, the only comparable program I’ve been able to find is Cotton: From Blue to Green, which only accepts mail-in denim donations. And they’re in Phoenix. I can’t imagine how expensive it would be to ship a big cardboard box of jeans to Phoenix, and I can’t imagine the carbon footprint of that decision would end up being particularly sustainable. So the jeans sat in my basement.
I had seen a magazine photo several years ago of a large denim picnic quilt, but had dismissed the idea for my own projects because the denim would be so heavy and difficult to work with. The die cutting definitely solved part of the problem; I had initially envisioned making the quilt much larger, but I only had six pairs of jeans to work with. (I think there are more in the basement somewhere, but these were the ones I could put my hands on.) In the event, I was fortunate to have the size limited by the amount of materials, because the 6 x 6 block quilt was heavy enough that my arms felt fatigued after putting it through the machine to join the last rows together.
I love the idea of a denim quilt for outdoors. I don’t scruple to take my regular quilts outside; I made them for my kids and I would rather they use and enjoy them, even if it means the quilts occasionally get a little dirty or abraded. However, a denim quilt is durable, HEAVY (having trouble keeping the child in bed? Lay one of these puppies on top of him!) and only improves with washing and wear, so it’s a natural for more rough-and-tumble settings. We really enjoyed attending some of the free outdoor family movies shown in Farquhar Park this summer, and quilts always came with us.
This one got to make its useful debut as a roll-around quilt for Finley as we ate our picnic lunch at Knoebel’s:
As to the actual construction of the quilt, I “deboned” the jeans, cutting each pair with dressmaker’s shears into two leg fronts and two leg backs by just cutting along the seam lines. I then removed the fly and the back pockets. (I had wanted to keep the pockets on the squares and thus have some blocks with usable pockets on the quilt, but the pockets on these jeans were too large and too close to the back yoke seam for that to work on this project. A future quilt made with different jeans, perhaps some of Ronan’s, will have pockets.) I then fed the resulting long denim pieces through the die cutter, only cutting one layer at a time since the fabric is so heavy. While cutting the squares individually and having to pull denim threads out of the die after each cut made this process much more time consuming than the typical die-cut project, it was still orders of magnitude faster than cutting all those fringes by hand. I was able to get 14 8.5″ squares (6.5″ finished due to the 1″ seam allowance), or 7 blocks, from each pair of jeans. Although there were plenty of oddly-shaped scraps that couldn’t be utilized for this project, I was also able to save 4 pieces (including the 2 back pockets) from each pair big enough to cut a 5.25″ rag square from once I purchase that die.
I was able to die cut the 6.5″ batting squares as well; this is a perfect project for using up those long odd leftover pieces of batting. I also cut 6 squares of the orange batik, and then die cut the Funky Flower out of the corresponding denim squares for a raggy reverse applique. I used a cute primary variegated YLI Jeans Stitch I’d had for years for the quilting, simple X’s in the plain blocks and echo quilting around the flowers. I used the walking foot for the quilting, but I found I had to switch back to my regular foot for joining the blocks because I skipped too many stitches otherwise. All those layers of denim are no joke: I even broke two #100 denim needles on this project.
The amount of lint when I washed it was ridiculous. I had heard that you should always clean the dryer lint filter mid-cycle when washing a flannel rag quilt. However, even pulling this one out of the washer involved handfuls of wet lint and a moment of panic that the whole quilt might have somehow disintegrated in the wash cycle.
Now to wrap this post up on an appropriately bizarre note, my sister Eleanore sent me the following text yesterday morning:
And some people think quilting is a boring hobby for mousy little homebodies. I like to think I’m keeping them guessing.
I had heard a lot about the GO! cutter when it first came out, because Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims are spokespeople for it, with promotional videos on The Quilt Show site. While I’ve long been intrigued by fabric die cutters, ever since first visiting the fabulous home quilting studio of a guild friend who has the Accuquilt Studio cutter, I didn’t really think of it as being a priority item for me. I thought maybe it might be worthwhile for someone who does an awful lot of applique, but I don’t, and on the odd occasion when I do, I tend to design my own. So while I was glad to know there were die cutters in the world, I didn’t really covet one.
Until… I had stopped by The Finishing Stitch on my way home from a wedding the day before Mother’s Day, and they had a Studio cutter and dies for sale for $600, listed as a $1500 value. A discount that steep is always going to pique my interest, but Finley was getting fussy so I didn’t investigate in depth. However, I started thinking about it more on the way home, and therefore spent some time on the Accuquilt website over the rest of the weekend. The main thing that I learned was how many piecing dies are available. As I am primarily a piecer, and cutting fabric has always struck me as tedious, this was very intriguing. Although a separate die is necessary for each different size or shape, I certainly tend to use certain shapes and sizes repeatedly in my projects (2″ finished half-square triangles certainly spring to mind.) And the idea, reiterated over and over on the website, that die cutting is “up to 90% faster than rotary cutting,” was extremely attractive to a full-time-working mom of two children under 3.
After all, although I know it’s an all-too-temporary stage, I don’t have a whole lot of free time to quilt right now. It’s a trade-off I’m more than happy to make to be involved in Ronan’s and Finley’s young childhood, but I don’t want to completely swear off quilting right now. (And several of the quilts I’ve made in the last few years have been for them, and they enjoy using them!) So anything that speeds the process without decreasing my artistic freedom or my enjoyment of the process is a good thing. I have no interest in using pre-cut kits because my favorite part of quilting is selecting the fabrics, but if I can choose my own fabric and then fast forward to the construction stage without spending such a long time cutting the fabric into pieceable shapes, I will get a lot more done. Additionally, I haven’t wanted to do much cutting when Ronan is awake, because I have an absolute paranoia that he could get hold of the rotary cutter. While there are still blades in the die boards, he would have to do handstands on them in order to hurt himself with them.
So Monday morning, I called Jean… and she told me that she was sorry, she should have taken the signs down, because she was selling the Studio cutter to the new owner of the shop as part of the shop sale. Having just spent the last 36 hours convincing myself that I desperately wanted this thing, it was definitely a letdown. But like Aesop’s fox with the grapes, I quickly recovered by realizing that the Studio would not have been the right choice for me. While it can cut more layers at once, and the dies are more numerous, varied, and larger, the dies are more expensive and the cutter requires a dedicated space, as it is heavy and does not fold up. It really seems like the good folks at Accuquilt really thought about all the factors that prevent quilters from buying a Studio cutter, and designed the GO! to meet those needs. I took my time researching the products and prices (another GO! advantage, as the Studio and its dies are only available through Accuquilt), then finally pulled the trigger in mid-July.
My GO! came in the mail July 23, the Tuesday before my mini-retreat at my house with Rhonda and Diane. I bought it from quilting-warehouse.com which offers significant discounts (30-50%) on the GO! and several selected dies, and although the shipping was expensive and the order took longer than their stated estimate to process, I cannot complain in light of the overall value. I got the 12″ block “mix and match” bundle, which is a collection of eight dies for shapes commonly found in 12″ pieced blocks. I also got some extra cutting mats, the 8.5″ rag square, which precuts the fringes for rag quilts (more on that later), the Funky Flower applique shape, and the 3.5″ mini tumbler, since I’m getting a new niece and a new nephew this fall who will each be in need of a baby quilt. With shipping, this all came to less than $450; accuquilt.com lists the cutter with the 12″ bundle alone at $581.90.
I spent all my work time at the retreat cutting: I cut almost all the pieces for the 2011 Shop Hop blocks; cut down several pairs of Dan’s old worn-out jeans to make a denim rag quilt; and cut 17.5 yards of solids into triangles for the guild challenge this winter. Although I didn’t get to work uninterrupted (see above re: two children under 3), I estimate that it took me less than 3 hours to cut all that solid fabric, so I stand convinced.
I’ve only started piecing the shapes I cut, so I can’t say anything definitive, but so far the accuracy seems excellent. There’s definitely a learning curve to using the cutter, but I’ve caught on quickly. And if using it means I get to spend more of my admittedly limited time on the parts of quilting I enjoy more than cutting fabric, I’m all for it.
Next up, a project I’ve already started and completed with my GO!
I managed to finish Finley’s quilt before she was four months old!
I can technically claim I started this quilt while in the process of giving birth to her. When I was in a holding pattern at Labor and Delivery, hooked up to the monitors with my IV started, I found myself all worked up with nothing to do. I had filled out all the forms they had given me; I had handed off my phone to Dan so it wouldn’t go missing (no pockets in a hospital gown, go figure); and I had no one to talk to, because Dan and my parents were working out the logistics of who would be with Ronan at various points throughout the day’s events. So, to keep myself amused and centered, I started to do math longhand.
I had seen this Rolling Stone quilt (Emeralds, by Mary Fons) on the cover of Fons and Porter’s Love of Quilting magazine, and thought it would be perfect. I wanted to use stash fabric, and I didn’t have an appropriate focus print handy like I had for Ronan’s quilt. However, I didn’t want to make it exactly as written, because as I’ve stated previously, I try to avoid the “corner cutter” methods when possible; I find them to be wasteful of fabric, and I’m an accurate enough piecer for my purposes that I don’t need to avoid cutting triangles. So I did my calculations for the pieces I would need to cut, and kept my mind largely occupied until they were ready to wheel me to the operating room.
Needless to say, I didn’t start to actually cut and piece the quilt until Finley was a few weeks old. Since I was making thirteen blocks, I pulled twenty-six pink and purple fabrics from my stash and cut 2 rectangles and 2 square-in-a-square pieces from each. Then from half of them, I cut an additional square for the block centers. I cut the background triangles and rectangles from eight light taupe fabrics, and then pieced everything together into component units. I didn’t plan the individual blocks until I had already pieced all the square-in-a-square units and rectangle squares, so when I laid out the blocks (my favorite part!) I couldn’t always achieve my goal of keeping similar fabrics as far apart from one another as possible. Still, most of the blocks avoid repeating fabrics.
Originally, I had imagined using another light taupe for the setting triangles, but when I actually tried it on the design wall, it really washed out the blocks. From there I tried a taupe and wasabi green floral on a light background, and if anything, that was worse. But that inspired me to try a very odd fabric that I’d bought some time ago to coordinate with some of my dark taupes that had wasabi green highlights. It’s from the Odyssea collection by Moda, and as soon as I put it up on the design wall with the blocks I knew I had a winner.
The only downside was that I didn’t have enough for the corner triangles. However, even that became an opportunity because it gave me a place for applique. This was the only new fabric I bought for this quilt, as I didn’t have a tone-on-tone or solid in the same green. Searching for that was the impetus behind Finley’s and my first Mommy-daughter trip to the fabric store.
I appliqued Finley’s initials, as I had done with Ronan’s quilt, in the upper left corner, and used the remaining three corners for her birthdate and two swirly hearts based on the design on a yoga t-shirt I have. In the interests of time I just did fusible applique with a mini zigzag in matching thread, and then quilted the daylights out of them. Those appliques are not going anywhere.
I managed to finish piecing the quilt before my maternity leave ended April 8th and I went back to work. I used the rejected taupe and green floral for the back (after all, it matches!) using the remnants of the green from the corners and a rejected green pin dot to stretch it to fit. The quilting was a mix of my old standbys and some new techniques; I did freehand flowers and leaves in the pink and purple rectangles and square-in-a-squares. I wanted to emphasize the illusion of circles created by the straight line piecing of the Rolling Stone block, so I quilted freehand feather wreaths in the center of each block, marking only the circular spines. I then filled in the other background shapes with pebble filler. I quilted the setting triangles with a 60-degree grid of serpentine lines, using the centers of the flowers in the fabric print as my guides. The corners got freehand mini Baptist fans with strings of pearls in the applique.
I left the center squares unquilted, both to avoid obscuring the print and because I couldn’t decide what the best design for them would be. I’ve been heavily influenced lately by Wendy Sheppard’s Ivory Spring quilting blog; she does gorgeous, creative, prolific work on a domestic sewing machine. She frequently leaves much larger pieced areas unquilted than I’m used to seeing, adjacent to elaborately quilted designs, so I thought I could do a lot worse than to emulate this in my own work. As of now, I think it’s successful! And there’s the additional advantage that if at any future point I change my mind, I can always add more quilting. After all, I learned my lesson from Alice in Wonderland:
`I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, `so I can’t take more.’
`You mean you can’t take LESS,’ said the Hatter: `it’s very easy to take MORE than nothing.’
I finished the quilt with a binding with inserted rickrack, using Susan Cleveland‘s technique, as I thought it added an appropriate element of whimsy.
And the quilt was done in time for Show & Tell at the June quilt guild meeting, a full week before Finley turned four months old. I think a happy dance is in order, don’t you?
I’ve gone to the Silly Symphonies well before for these video links, and this one from 1933 is esthetically beautiful, delightfully bizarre and, appropriately for this post, baby themed:
[Editor's Note: I started this post in January, while working on this quilt top. However, due to major recent life events named Finley, I delayed finishing it. The top has been done since before she was born, so although I think I changed all the time references to reflect that they happened in the past, if I missed any and it sounds weird, that's why.]
I was very proud to finish my 2007 Shop Hop quilt, Liddle Lamzy Divey, in time for our guild show in June 2012:
However, spending time with that set of blocks brought painfully to mind the fact that sitting behind them in my studio closet were the block kits from the 2008, 2009, and 2011 Eastern PA Shop Hops. And of course, in November my mom, Ronan, and I completed the 2012 Shop Hop, which meant I brought home yet another set of block kits. So when considering which piecing project I should bring to the guild retreat last December, I loaded up all four years’ worth of kits.
Of course, I had grand ideas of entering some sort of cutting and piecing flow state in which I would power through multiple years’ kits and leave with stacks and stacks of completed blocks. Naturally, reality was far different. I decided to start with the 2008 blocks, which were from the English Rose collection by Jo Morton for Andover Fabrics. Once again, although I am pleased with the result so far, this was not a collection or color palette I would have instinctively been drawn to. The focus print, an extremely large-scale floral featuring huge overblown cabbage roses, is just not my style at all, and the resulting palette, heavy on the hunter greens and burgundies, just strikes me as dull, dark, and dreary. The individual coordinating prints, however, are very attractive and varied, including a couple colorways of an interesting triangular leaf print, some Dimples, a really unusual curvy coral stripe (my favorite fabric in the collection,) and some smaller floral prints. And fortunately, the blocks themselves were designed with a nicely balanced amount of light cream background, and enough of the quilts at the individual shops featured light sashing or borders that kept them from getting ponderous. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t have chosen to invest in the kits.)
Here’s a gallery of the shop quilts (as always, click to enlarge):
I had started cutting the fabrics for the blocks several years ago, shortly after finishing the 2007 blocks, but got bogged down in the planning. The block kits are extremely generous, including fat eighths (9″ x 22″) of each fabric called for in the block, which is why I ended up with all those flying geese for the vertical borders of Liddle Lamzy Divey. However, such largesse doesn’t mean I want to waste fabric unnecessarily, and the block instructions are all written for people who prefer to avoid cutting triangles: all half-square-triangle squares are done via the “easy sandwich method” with the drawn diagonal line, and all flying geese units are done using the “stitch and flip method” with a rectangle, 2 squares, and leftover “bonus triangles.” I have tried these methods and found them to be, in my hands, no more precise (in fact, sometimes less so) than cutting the triangles, especially when I use rulers such as the Easy Angle and the Fons & Porter Flying Geese ruler. Plus, the rulers allow me to cut my triangles from strips with nice, normal, non- +7/8″ measurements, and give me pretrimmed triangle points resulting in fewer dogears.
Contrary to my initial attempt, rather than trying to come up with a Grand Unified Theory of Everything where I came up with a master list of every shape and size that needed to be cut, I pulled out all the instruction sheets and cut the components for each block separately, but from a single pool of fabrics. This may have taken a little longer, but the vast majority of shapes could be cut from 2 1/2″ strips, so it was fairly simple to keep everything organized, and I was left with roughly 4 3/4 total yards of leftover fabric, in fat eighths, after all the blocks were kitted up. More on what I did with that later.
The blocks themselves were significantly less varied in their design than the 2007 blocks. In fact, there were really only three basic variations: whether the corners were a standard four-patch, a four-patch with 2 squares and 2 half-square triangle squares, or a Birds in the Air unit . The closest analogue for the basic block I could find in the Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns by Barbara Brackman was BB1661, “Big T.”
All blocks shared the other elements of a central 4″ square of the large floral focus print surrounded along its sides by units consisting of a 2″ x 4″ rectangle sewn to a 2″ x 4″ flying geese unit. However, this apparent simplicity was contradicted by how much variation was introduced by subtle changes in the position of those flying geese, and by varying the value and fabric choices. From a distance, all you see in these Shop Hop quilts are samplers: you have to really study to see just how similar the piecing is. I had mentioned briefly in an earlier post that it would be interesting to do a quilt of “piecing twin” blocks where the piecing was all the same but the blocks looked different from one another due to fabric and value placement. Well, without trying to, I’ve now made that quilt.
There were 16 blocks that year, fifteen shops plus the kit that came with the passport. And despite working on them for pretty much all retreat weekend, I didn’t quite finish them all. (Needless to say, none of the other years’ kits even came out of the bag.) But the blocks were finished within a few days of the retreat’s end, and I decided to keep it simple and just do a straight 4×4 set with light sashing and cornerstones made from the large floral focus print:
This was a particularly tricky set of blocks to lay out, as I wanted to not only distribute the most eye-catching fabrics evenly across the quilt surface, but also keep blocks of overly-similar construction away from each other, and keep the three different colors of Dimples fabrics used in the corners of each block assorted. Ultimately, I made the corner colors my primary guide, and did my best with the other two considerations. As the top hung on my design wall, I had some mild regrets on some of the block placements I chose, but not enough to rip anything out. And the fancy borders I put on will probably be distracting enough to keep me from obsessing much longer on the blocks. More to come!