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Sunday, October 23, 2011

A weekend Spent Quilting

I have just completed a full weekend by myself, which I spent quilting. It was a make-or-break situation: I have to now decide whether to go ahead and try to finish this quilt top by November 10, or whether to let it drop till after then. November 11 and 12, you see, is my guild's show.

That leaves me 18 days. In that time, besides working, I need to do baking for the bake table and tea room, quilt a baby quilt, and make a sleeve for the king-size quilt that's finished.

The project I was working on has been hanging around (my neck) for some time now. Once upon a time, about 5 years ago, I taught the basics of quilting to three elementary school classes. One of the young boys in one of the classes experienced a trauma - his father passed away. He got his mother to ask me to make a quilt out of his father's clothes.


Not just one quilt, mind you, three. There's a little girl as well, and mommy.

Being relatively new to quilting at the time, I accepted the challenge.

That's because I had no idea how difficult it was going to be!

They were in no hurry - and just as well, because it's been five years and three moves since I started lugging around the bags and boxes of the deceased gentleman's clothing. In the meantime I've learned a fair bit more about quilting - enough to know I should have never agreed to do this project!

I have trouble making my seams line up in designer quilting cottons, where all the fabric is the same density and the same thickness.

This gentleman wore sweaters (thick ones) and tee-shirts. Jeans. He owned one pair of dress pants and one dress shirt. Everything else, absolutely everything, is stretch fabric.

Uh-oh. Time to shoot myself.

My friend D gave me two bottles of spray sizing to help with controlling the stretch. She advised me to sew a stretchy fabric next to a non-stretchy one. She also told me to cut ruthlessly, turning all those clothes into rectangles and throwing away everything else.

It was a formidable task. Not to mention depressing - every time I'd get started cutting away at the garments, I'd start thinking about the men in my life - father, husband, boyfriend, friends, cousins - and start to choke up thinking about how much I would miss them if they were gone.

So it took me a long time to get to the point of even starting to look for a pattern. At first, all I could think of was straight blocks - but it soon became apparent while I was cutting that I simply didn't have enough non-stretchy material to pair blocks up as per my friend's suggestion. At one quilt retreat, where all I brought to work on was the clothes to cut up, another pal, C, came over to look at it and said "Oh my, that is dreary!" She suggested I mix in some proper quilting fabrics with some color in them.

So that led to me thinking perhaps straight blocks with sashing all around them would work. But when I tried to picture it, it seemed still too plain, very un-quilt-like. Not artistic.

Off to the internet, then, where I finally found my pattern. It's by Janet Wickell and it's called "Turning Nines into Sevens." Well, that's what the pattern started out as - I altered it. What I liked about this pattern was the central "cross" - which I've made out of quilting cotton. This helps control the stretch. I quickly discovered I had to make the small square in the center of the cross out of quilting cotton as well, otherwise there was no way to get the seams to line up.

Instead of making small nine-patches, I cut strips the width of two squares and sewed them onto strips the width of a single square. I need eight of these for every block. I used two of the non-stretchy garment fabrics for the middle section of each nine-patch. This means that within each nine-patch I'm sewing the stretchy strip to the (relatively) non-stretch strip, then putting sashing in between each of the nine-patches.

Finally, I put sashing around all the sides: dark fabric on the top and left sides, and light fabric on the bottom and right sides. And then a second layer of sashing, in a contrasting color, with lights and darks opposite the first layer of sashing.

This is what the sashing is supposed to look like.

It takes between 40 minutes and an hour to complete one block. The thinner fabrics, like tee-shirt material, go together quickly. The thicker ones, like fabric from sweatshirts, take longer because I have to fight with them.

Every single seam I sew has to be trimmed, because even though I'm using a walking foot and have lowered the pressure, the seams distort at the beginnings and the ends. So a good deal of the time it takes to make a block is time spent trimming.

By now you're wondering how I can predict the size of the blocks, since I have to trim them constantly. Ah - it's that inner layer of sashing that saves me. I start out with strips 2 inches wide, but once they're attached to the block I trim to a standard size. This means my inner layer of sashing varies in width from block to block, even from side to side. But the finished size remains constant. After that, I add the second layer of sashing, usually without incident.

Well, I got eight blocks done this weekend. That may not sound like much, but in order to get those eight blocks I had to cut and sew hundreds of strips from the fabric, because I've got three quilts to plan for, not just the one I'm working on. I'd make three sets of strip sets, but only be able to use one. And I needed 35 blocks to make a decent-sized quilt.

Of course, it's not like when you go to a quilt store, pattern in hand, and say "I need twenty fat quarters to make this quilt." My strip sets vary in length, so I don't know how many pieces I'll get from each of them. And until I make a set, cut it, and try it in a block, I don't know how the fabric with react, how much it will stretch, or what problems it'll cause. Once I've used it in one block, I know how long it'll take me to do another from the same set, but that's about all I can predict.

I keep asking myself why I'm doing this project. I can't decide if it's karmic debt, an inability to say "no," or blatant stupidity. I'm pretty sure the young man who made the request has no idea how much work is involved, since I didn't even know myself till I got in the middle of it. His mom has no way of paying me - she's been on welfare since her husband died. And after I finally get the quilt top made, then I've got to figure out how the quilt the blessed thing!

The answer is, I don't have a clue why I'm doing it. But I do expect that, once I'm done, I'm so going to enjoy quilting with real, genuine quilting cottons - and I expect each and every seam to line up easily, by comparison with this behemoth!