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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Machine-Quilter's Guide to Hand-Piecing

So... I was commissioned to do a baby quilt, and baby is expected by the end of February, so a couple of weeks ago I started making the pattern and cutting the fabric.

And piecing. Stars.

Not just any stars, mind you: hand-drawn, asymmetrical stars!

This is noteworthy for two reasons: One, I've never pieced stars before, and two, they're asymmetrical.

The most complex figures I'd ever pieced before this were triangles. And, let me tell you, I had PLENTY of problems with them! Needless to say, the stars did, in fact, produce their share of headaches, details to follow in a moment.

The fact that they're asymmetrical gave Hubby a mild heart attack, because he was doing his usual peering-at-me-from-around-the-corner, trying hard not to tell me what i was doing wrong... Unsuccessfully, I might add. He really can't help himself...

These stars aren't just mildly asymmetrical - they're WILDLY asymmetrical! Well, poor Hubby was thinking to himself, "Can't she SEE that they're the wrong shape?" and quaking in his boots, fearful of confronting me when he had plainly been told to BUTT OUT... So we had a good laugh afterwards, once he realized it was deliberate, and I realized just how stupid he really thinks I am...

Back to the piecing problems of the stars, then.

I'd seen how to do them on an episode of Fons 'n Porter, for once, paying attention. And good thing, too, since I accidentally erased the program and had to wing it! Even though they don't line up in traditional straight lines, it is possible to sew sections together which produce straight lines to connect the sections with. It took me a few tries, but I did figure out which sections would join properly.

All that was left was the actual sewing. Okay, quarter-inch foot on the machine, spider at the ready, careful now, go slow...

Okay, that didn't work...

On I progressed to pinning, which made matters worse. By the time I'd finished the first star, I'd undone it about seventeen times. I sat and stared at the sewing machine in blank despair, heaved a heavy sigh and tried the second star. I put in a call to my Quilting Pal, who did have a supply of freezer paper. I tried that, it stabilized the shapes beautifully, but it isn't meant to be sewn into the seams! And since the seams cross frequently, it defeats the purpose of stabilizing them if you're busy ripping out the stabilizer before sewing the next seam...

Out, freezer paper. In, Golden Threads Tracing Paper. Hmm. The seams are still inaccurate, for all that extra work.

More staring at the sewing machine.

Now an event happened which gave me the insight I was looking for. There was a quilting bee day for my guild - we put together six quilts for the community in one day. But during this day I had opportunity to watch other, more experienced quilters sew their quarter-inch seamlines - and got the surprise of my life.

My friend's machine had FOUR FEED DOGS touching the quarter-inch seam. Four!

I mentally pictured my machine. I had two feed dogs, and when sewing a quarter-inch seam, only the left-hand one touches the material! The right-hand one is outside the seam line!

Very quickly, two-and-two went together. In an earlier blog I mentioned that I have to hold my fabric an astonishing 13 degrees off-center in order to get a straight seam, and now I realize that on some other people's machines, the feed dogs stay in contact with the material at all times, even for a quarter-inch seam!

Woot woot, as they say!

So, FYI, the rest of my stars were hand-pieced, and everything lined up beautifully. I'm going back to my machine to figure out if I can change the fabric placement by moving the needle so both feed dogs can contact the fabric. But in the meantime?

In the meantime, all my fiddly-bits will be hand-sewn!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Fundamental Tool

I never in a million years thought I'd ever say these words: "I'm so glad I have a working iron and ironing board."

I have a tenuous relationship with irons. Without exception, after only a short time with me, I snag myself on the wires and they crash to the floor. A few falls like that, the steam stops coming out, or the temperature becomes uncontrollable, or it just won't work at all.

On average, I go through two to three irons a year. The rate of falling slowed briefly a couple of years ago when I bought an oversized and more sturdy ironing board. For a brief time thereafter my irons experienced fewer falls, since it was more difficult to topple the board.

But alas, not impossible.

I did enjoy a longer relationship with a Sunbeam cordless iron. By this time, I'd had Hubby remove the legs from the ironing board, so that it could only be used when placed on a table-top. Much less likely to fall. When I got the iron, I also insisted that a shelf be erected at the exact height of the ironing board/tabletop. This shelf was firmly attached in a shelving unit, and on that shelf I placed the charger for the iron. The power supply is screwed into the shelving unit, and the charger was plugged into the power supply. I even wrapped the power cord around the legs of the shelving unit so there was absolutely NO GIVE - not a single chance - that I'd somehow be able to drag the charger off the shelf. If and when I wanted to use the iron, I'd move the tabletop/ironing board over beside the charger and carefully rest the iron on it and turn it on.

For nearly a year I enjoyed a happy relationship with my Sunbeam cordless iron. Sure, it was heavy, since the charger heated up the soleplate, which held its heat by mass alone - no batteries inside the iron itself. It sprayed steam enthusiastically out the soleplate and kept me happily ironing away.

Well, almost. I do enjoy all the ironing I do, when I'm ironing clothing, which I do faithfully about twice a year, and I enjoy every minute of it.

Ironing for quilting though, can get a little tedious. The brain tends to balk at six meters of fabric to be ironed at one shot. And the day came when I didn't watch what I was doing just that little bit, and the iron did not land securely on the charger, but made a small dent in the hardwood floor. It was, alas, the beginning of the end for the little Sunbeam iron. It was never the same again. First, the steam didn't come out properly. Then it didn't get hot enough. Hubby took it apart and twiddled some bits, and then it scorched everything, including the ironing board cover, and gave one of my fingers a nasty burn, leading directly to me dropping it again, and the little Sunbeam was no more.

By this point, I was furious with myself for all the money I'd spent on irons. Hubby went out grocery shopping and came home with a little gift for me - an $8 iron.

Yes, you saw that right. Eight dollars, Canadian currency, for an electric steam iron.

It was the lightest iron I'd ever held. It heated up quicker than any iron I'd ever plugged in. It positively threw steam along its path, the most powerful jet of steam I'd even encountered.

Eight bucks. Hubby said we should just go back and buy a dozen!

Well, we didn't, of course. And, of course, something happened to my new, wonderful friend. But this time, it came in the form of a chemical attack.

I had occasion to be using a temporary spray adhesive to hold some pieces of a quilt together, some appliqué it was, I believe. And unnoticed by me, a teensy bit of overspray landed on my ironing board. The next time I attempted to iron a piece, it seemed to shrink as I was holding it, and when I lifted the iron, it was covered - COVERED - in some kind of sticky, fibrous mess.

Well, off I went to Fabricville the same day for a can of Hot Iron Cleaner. They didn't have any. This necessitated me ordering the stuff from my supplier. I had to wait.

In the meantime, I washed the ironing board cover and replaced it on the board.

Hubby in the meantime, tried alcohol, turpentine, acetone, non-acetone nail polish remover, and I think a small amount of muriatic acid, to no avail. Oh, and soap and water didn't work, either - at least, not after all that! He gave it a go with a razor. He tried it cold, heated at lot, heated a bit, and did succeed in getting the fibers to condense to a rather hard mass. But they remained firmly welded to the soleplate of the iron.

The grand day came at last when my can of goo remover arrived, and slowly but surely the hardened mass yielded up the ghost. Once more, my eight dollar iron was functional. Good thing too, because I had pieces to iron!

In the frantic rush to make Christmas gifts I was grabbing bits of fabric hither and thither, the iron steaming happily away. I reached at last for a bright bit of yellow, put the iron down on it securely, and watched in horror as it shrank before my startled eyes. "Noooooooooooooo......" I cried. Not again! I would have been thrilled to use the goo remover and proceed calmly, but in my pre-holiday rush, I'd managed to misplace it. I still can't find it. That's also why I can't give you the name, by the way...

This was the final straw. The iron was put away, the ironing board stripped of both cloth cover and pad. The yellow fabric was scrunched into a ball and pinned securely to a board so I would never again be tempted to iron it, just in case it was in fact the culprit all along.

Next payday, Hubby was forthwith dispatched to find me another eight dollar iron. And he did - almost. The price was now $9.99, but I was overjoyed. Taking no chances with overspray, underspray, or polyester masquerading as cotton. I used four thicknesses of cotton batting and poplin cotton for the cover. I traced the outline of the board, sewed the layers of batting together, made a tube around the poplin, threaded twill tape through it.... Five hours it took, but at the end of it, I had a VIRGIN ironing board and a BRAND-NEW iron.

Which tonight I very carefully used to flatten the fat quarters for a baby quilt due the end of February, holding my breath till I was finished, and sighing with relief. And said the words I never thought I'd hear from my lips, "Thank goodness I have a working iron and ironing board!"

Now if I can just keep the cat off it...