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Thread for Hand Quilting

My first quilt was a grandmother’s flower garden made with Indian hand block printed fabrics. It was done with all dark colors. When it came time to quilt it, I went looking for thread. There were no quilting stores in my area in 1972, only quilting areas in other types of handicraft stores. I went into a predominantly needlework shop and asked for navy blue thread for quilting. I was told in no uncertain terms that you never quilt with colored thread. Quilting is done in only cream or white and if you ever used a different color thread and entered a competition, the quilt would be disqualified. I said I had no intention of entering this quilt into a competition and wanted a dark colored thread that would blend with the fabrics I used in the quilt. I knew quilting thread was slightly thicker than standard sewing thread and went to a decorator shop where they recommend using heavier thread for the heavier fabrics. I found a company which made a 40 weight thread that was perfect. It came in a wide variety of colors and I used it for years until it was purchased by another company and the manufacturing of the thread was outsourced to a foreign country. It was no longer the quality it had been.

 

 

I have learned a lot of my quilting lessons the hard way. When I was quilting one of my early quilts in 1976, I had chosen a poly-cotton quilting thread in white. It was a patriotic themed quilt designed for the bicentennial celebration. After about two weeks of quilting, I decided to take it out of the frame and check my stitches on the back. Much to my horror, where the quilting was done in straight lines along the grain of the backing fabric, there were small cuts that were made by the thread. The places where the quilting was done on the diagonal were ok. Polyester has a sharpness to it and it is also slightly elastic so if the thread is pulled too tightly it stretches and is even more apt to cut the fabric. I learned it is best to quilt with a thread fiber content that is compatible with the fabric used in the rest of the quilt.

I ended up taking out all the quilting I had done, replaced the backing and started over. Needless to say, that is the last time I used poly-cotton thread for either hand piecing or quilting and use only 100% cotton thread.

 

 

What color thread to use. For my early quilts, I used the same color thread throughout but as the years went by, I discovered that I liked using different colors depending on the color of the fabric I was quilting. It is not unusual for me to use three or four different colored threads in one quilt. I find I have certain “neutral” colored threads that blend with the fabrics that I often use such as light tan, grey/blue, dusty rosy red, grey/green, etc.

To wax or not to wax the thread. A lot of people ask this question. Waxing is where the thread is pulled over a piece of beeswax before sewing. I think it is a personal choice but I do not wax it. If a quilting thread is used it is already pre-waxed and my problem with waxing a non-quilting thread is I find that the waxing causes pieces of batting to be pulled out along with the thread, causing a “bearding” effect.

So much of the quilting process from beginning to end comes down to personal choices that we discover, as I have, along the way.

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What Kind of Needle Do You Use?

What kind of needle do you recommend for both hand piecing and hand quilting?

First let me say there are a wide variety of needles, sizes and styles available and there are no rules as to what to use. Generally, most quilters prefer “betweens”, but some use applique needles. It depends on how you hold your needle , your method of sewing and whether you do or do not use a thimble. I can tell you the kind I use and why, but you may have different preferences depending on how you sew.

 

Labyrinth up close

 

I use a between size 11 needle for both piecing and quilting and have been doing so for all of my quilting life. Many people find the size 11s are too small for them and prefer to use a size 10. Betweens are sturdier and shorter than applique needles which are longer and finer. I put a lot of pressure on the needle when I sew and if the needle is too long or fine, I break it within the first few minutes of sewing. The sturdiness of the betweens eliminates this problem. Also I find that the smaller the needle, the smaller my stitches.

There are also differences in the eyes of needles Some brands have larger eyes and/or put a thin gold coating on the eye. The idea being that both of these practices make it easier to see the eye for threading. For both piecing and quilting, I stack several stitches on my needle at time before pulling it through. As such, I find that when the eye is slightly larger than the shaft it is difficult to pull the needle through and even if the eye is not larger, but has a gold-plated eye, that little extra metal can affect the size of the eye and puts a drag on the needle. I have resorted to keeping a pair of small nosed pliers handy to pull the needle through each time.

Recently I have discovered a new needle. It is the John James Signature collection needles. The finish on it makes it very easy to go through the fabric, the eye appears to be the same size as the shaft and it is sturdy enough to handle the abuse I give a needle without bending or breaking, I like the packaging the needles come in—a small tube with 25 needles per tube. That may make them seem more expensive, but most needles come in packages of 10.  I have been using the Signature between 11 for both piecing and quilting and have be able to put the pliers away. For me it is definitely the Cadillac of any needles I have tried.

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Scrappy Quilts with Traditional Style Blocks

Growing up, we had a scrap bag. While I didn’t start quilting until I was an adult, as a child I was always sewing something. My sisters and I made a lot of our own clothes and there were always leftover pieces. I would look through the scraps searching for the right piece for various projects, including doll clothes, which I made by the dozens.

So naturally when I began my first quilt I automatically went to my scrap bag. I was living in India at the time and had fallen in love with the Indian hand-block printed fabrics. I had made clothes, bags and other items as gifts and for my own use and all the scraps went into the scrap bag. My first quilt, begun in 1972, was a Grandmother’s Flower Garden made with fabrics from that bag. Although I have to admit I made a few trips to the marketplace to purchase a few more fabrics for my quilt.

I “organized” the scraps so that I would use the same fabric in individual flowers, but then each flower would be put together differently. There were a few repeats.

 

 

From that point on, I have loved making quilts with lots of different fabrics. To me, the more fabrics the better.

I often am asked, “I understand how to use lots of different fabrics in quilts such as Baby Blocks or Thousand Pyramids, but how do you do it with block style quilts?”

First and foremost, you have to select a block design, shade it in grey scale, and determine where you want the lightest, mediums, darks and darkest tones.  I will illustrate with the block used in my quilt pattern Desert Star but the same process is used for all of my designs.

Here are two different ways you might choose to shade in the block, Desert Star.

 

Version A

 

Version B

 

I selected version A and then decided how many different value groups to have in the quilt. You can see here that I have six different values. Number 1 is  the lightest fabric. Fabrics 2 through 4 are light to dark with light in the center. Number 2 is not as light as the background fabric, number 1. Fabric 6 is a medium value and could be similar in value to fabric 3.

 

 

Once you have the block design and have decided on value placement within the block, the next step is to select a palette of colors. If you are at a loss for colors that look good together you might want to select one of our shaded bundles to start with. To get as many fabrics as possible, fill in with colors from your stash that fall within the same general color range as those in the bundle.

Next sort the fabrics into color groups. Here are the color groups I used when I made the quilt from the Sonoran Spring bundle:

 

Group 1, lightest fabrics for background

 

Group 2, star points light

 

Group 3, star points medium

 

Group 4, star points dark

 

Group 5, darkest fabrics for small triangles

 

Group 6, medium blues/blue grey for large corner triangles

 

Here are four different blocks made up of those color groups.  It is fun to see how many different blocks you can make using the same “formula.” Since this is a digital image, I have only used the four different blocks in the quilt shown here, but if I were making the actual quilt, I would follow the same formula. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be strict with the colors. For instance, depending on the other fabrics used, a fabric used as a dark star point in one block might be a medium point in another block. Just have fun and relax!

 

 

Stay tuned for another blog on how to incorporate border print fabrics in this design.

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Watch and Learn Online

We often receive questions and comments from quilters about a wide range of topics and often those questions will pertain to a wider audience and seem a good topic for a blog.

We received the following comment from Rosemary:

“Please consider creating online hand quilting classes or DVD-based classes for those of us who live far away and can’t get to your studio.”

While I do have two classes coming up at the Studio next week, including Hand Quilting, I certainly understand that our website reaches quilters around the world and most of you will never be able to visit the Studio.  This was one of the reasons that I began my mystery quilt series and include video lessons with them.

We do currently have classes based on our mystery quilts both last year and this year. Our mystery quilt lessons are free to subscribers of our newsletters during the length of the class. Each newsletter has the link both to the written pattern and to the video lessons. The classes cover a wide variety of techniques that I teach, including hand and machine piecing with topics such as sewing curves, joining odd angles, applique, foundation piecing, etc. We also discuss color, quilting, using borders prints and more. Once the year is up and we go on to the next project, the previous year’s quilt pattern and videos are available for sale.

Currently, last year’s project, which covers a wide variety of techniques, is available for sale as a pattern and DVD. That project is Moroccan Mystery.

The current year’s project is Kyoto Mystery. Those patterns and video lessons are free if you are a subscriber to our newsletter. Even if you start now, in each newsletter, there are links to the previous months’ lessons and videos. 

 

 

Kits are available for both of these quilt projects, but even if you do not want to make the quilt, the video lessons are valuable on their own as they cover many of the techniques that I cover in my classes.

Our web site also has many free videos and quilt tips on a wide variety of subjects. Click here to visit our “Tips and Lessons “page.

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And the Hustle & Bustle Continues!

We continue to make kits non-stop here for our 2017 Mystery Quilt BOM, Moroccan Mystery. We’ve made so many that we have run out of the border. See video clip here that explains where we are with the BOM kits.

 

 

One day we sent out so many packages that our packages alone filled the entire postal truck.

 

The staff at the Studio have been busy getting your BOM quilt kits out the door.
The staff at the Studio have been busy getting your BOM quilt kits out the door.

 

In the middle of all this, we had a planning meeting for Quilters’ Quest at Traditions at the White Swan in Hagerstown, Maryland.  Dick and Wendy, the owners, have a great shop and a new addition…three adorable miniature donkeys. How many quilt shops can boast that?

 

Miniature Donkeys

 

We are planning lots of new and exciting things for the Quilters’ Quest shop hop this year. We have decided to have a theme-based event and have selected “movies”. Each shop will choose a movie and will have fun things in the shop relating to the theme.

This week I also finalized my next batik collection, worked on the new replacement fabrics for the Palette collection and received strike-offs for a new collection that will be shown at spring market, Miyako. I also began doing colorings for another collection that is in the pipeline.

On top of all this, we changed our business email account from one company to another. This led to a lot of angst, but all is well now.

Not that I didn’t already have a lot to fill my head, there is always the antics of our dog, Luke. My husband made split pea soup for dinner the other night. I came home around 5:30, walked through the house, took one look at Luke and knew something was wrong…ears were down, eyes were practically shut and he was just sitting there looking miserable.

 

Sad Luke

 

I asked if Luke had gotten into anything, and my husband said he ate some split peas. The two packages of dried split peas had been soaking for a while and John was getting ready to pour them into the broth when the pan slipped and half the contents went on the floor. As always, Luke was in the kitchen hoping something would fall to the floor.  Sure enough, he was right there and cleaned up the entire mess. John didn’t realize that those peas would expand in his stomach.

Those of you who own dogs will probably know that when you need to make a dog throw up something he or she shouldn’t have eaten, hydrogen peroxide can be a life safer…literally. But did you know that hydrogen peroxide has an expiration date? I certainly didn’t.

We still had a bottle that we kept on hand when we had our Greater Swiss Mountain dog, Gretchen who ate everything. But a turkey baster of the peroxide down Luke’s throat didn’t do the trick, so we realized it might have gone bad and ran to the pharmacy to get more and tried again. Two minutes later, it worked and I had a big mess to clean up. I asked the vet about the peroxide and she said it has a certain shelf life and once the bottle is open it does not last long at all. Our bottle expired in 2010…oops.

This little tidbit of information might help someone else who has an animal that likes to eat things that they shouldn’t. Hopefully, the week ahead will be a little bit less exciting.

 

Coming soon to a mailbox near you!
Coming soon to a mailbox near you!

 

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Perfecting Hand Quilting Stitches

Periodically we get questions from some of you about various aspects of quilting and we try to answer those questions when we can.

The following came in some time back and I thought it would be a good issue to discuss:

Learning to do hand quilting any suggestions on how to practice my stitches?

 

Quilt Frame

 

First and foremost, the tools and materials you use really make a difference.

Fabric:

Use high quality apparel weight 100% cotton fabric. If the fabric is heavy, you will get larger stitches.

Batting:

I like to use 100% cotton batting. One of my favorites is Quilters’ Dream Cotton. This batting comes in several weights. I like the lightest weight, Request. The thicker the batting, the larger the stitches and the thinner the batting, the easier it is to quilt and get small stitches.

 

Dream Batting

 

Needles:

I use a between, size 11, for all my hand piecing and quilting. It is a sturdy needle and because it is so short it does not bend as readily. There are a number of needle companies and I have experimented with many of them. Unfortunately, as with everything else, many of the manufacturers are now having their needles made in China. Frankly, in my experience, the ones made in China are not the same high quality as those made in England and Japan. I would advise you to check the packaging. If it says “packed in England” and not “made in England,” the needles are probably made in China. My favorite needle of choice at the moment is the Colonial Needle Company, Super Glide, between, size 11. This needle is made in England and has a special coating that allows it to glide more smoothly through the fabric.

Thread:

I like a pre-waxed thread made specifically for quilting. There are many brands and they now come in a wide range of colors. The one I use most is YLI quilting thread. It is a little more wiry than standard thread and produces a nice quilting stitch.

 

Tools on Quilt

 

Spoon:

I can’t quilt without a spoon. You may wonder what that is.  When quilting, you need a hand underneath the quilt frame to receive the tip of the needle and push it back up again. After a while your finger gets really sore. There are various devices to use under the frame that will guide the needle back up. Some thimbles have sharp ridges around the top for just this purpose. Aunt Becky’s Finger Saver is another device.

Once, I encountered a group of older women around a quilting frame. One of them was quilting up a storm and I asked what she used underneath. She proudly held up her thumb where she had a quarter taped. She was using that to guide the needle back up.

I have tried many different things, but my favorite is TJ’s Quick Quilter Spoon. It saves many sore fingers.

Pliers:

When quilting, sometimes if you have stacked four or five stitches on the needle it is difficult to grab the needle and pull it out. I use a small pair of pliers for this purpose. I just keep them on my quilting frame and grab them when needed.

Quilting Frame:

I have saved the most important for last. To get good even stitches you must use some type of frame or hoop.  It is the same as doing embroidery. Without a hoop, the work is either too loose or too tight. I can’t stress enough the importance of this.

My book, Quiltmaking by Hand, has a whole chapter on quilting, designs for quilting, how to put a quilt in a frame or hoop, and so much more. If you have an interest in hand quilting, this book would be useful for you.

And finally…Thimbles:

I never sew without a thimble. I have written two blogs about thimbles and recommend you read, “Put A Thimble on It” and “Thimbles, Part II – My Favorite Thimbles.”  These blogs cover how to choose a thimble and what my choice is.

Now to answer the question above, if you have the right fabric, batting, tools and some sort of frame, the best way to practice your quilting is to put a quilt in a hoop or frame and start quilting. The first stitches will probably not be to your satisfaction, but you will find that you will improve as you keep stitching.

I was very disappointed when I started quilting my first quilt. Here is a close up of how those first stitches looked and another several months later when I was achieving smaller and more even stitches.

 

First stitches, about 4 stitches per side
My first stitches, there were four stitches per side.
At the edge of the quilt.  After four months, my stitches were better - about seven per side.
At the edge of the quilt. After four months, my stitches were better – about seven per side.
By my third quilt, I felt very comfortable.
By my third quilt, I felt very comfortable.

 

I am happy to see the renewed interest in hand quilting and hope you will give it a try!

 

My current project.
My current project.

 

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A Little Off the Wall

Intro Photo

 

I was sewing the border on the quilt for this year’s Quilters’ Quest the other night while watching the Washington Nationals vs. Baltimore Orioles baseball game on television and I found myself paying more attention to the brick wall behind the batter than the player himself.

 

Batter with Brick Wall

 

It took me back to the last Jinny Beyer Club meeting at the shop. One of the women stood up and was showing a quilt that she had hand pieced. It was beautifully done, but she was a bit apologetic, saying that she knew everything was not perfectly straight. I then had to give her my abbreviated speech on symmetry.

Pick up a leaf and look at it. At first glance, the right and left halves appear to be symmetrical but on closer observation you can see little discrepancies. It is those differences that make the leaf more interesting to look at than if was perfectly symmetrical.

Even though the human face looks the same on both sides, once again there are differences that make the face more interesting than if it was perfectly symmetrical. Look at this photo of Abraham Lincoln and the difference in how the face looks when you make the two halves exactly mirror each other. The face has now lost its character.

 

Abraham

 

To me it is the same thing in quilting. Quilts that are made with strips cut and pieced together and then cut up again into blocks or triangles and made into a quilt can be lovely but there is a certain charm in a quilt made with scraps or multiple fabrics where all the blocks are not exactly the same.

The same can be true of the quilting process. Computer-guided longarms have made it much easier to finish a quilt with perfectly completed quilting designs and opened the door to many who do not have the time in their lives to finish certain projects. But if you don’t try the quilting yourself because you feel you can’t be perfect, you may be missing the joy and pride of making the quilt entirely yours.

As I studied that brick wall behind the batter, I loved the fact that bricks were not evenly spaced and perfectly symmetrical. It gave the wall character and charm, making it much more interesting that a pre-fab brick wall. The same should be true of your quilting projects. Celebrate the little idiosyncrasies, and know that is what makes your quilt unique.

 

Brick walls

 

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Lucy Boston Patchwork of the Crosses Block

From the time I first began quilting I experimented with ways to “fussy cut” fabrics to give interest to the blocks I was making. Unbeknownst to me during that same time, an Englishwoman named Lucy Boston (1892-1990) was doing her own experimenting with fabrics and she created many spectacular quilts, probably the most famous being her Patchwork of the Crosses.

 

 

With the renewed interest in hand piecing and working with mirror-imaged fabrics, Lucy’s Patchwork of the Crosses block has become very popular. The block is made with with a single shape–the honeycomb (elongated hexagon). The blocks are then joined with squares.

 

 

Some people stitch the blocks in the traditional manner and some use the English paper piecing technique. No matter which technique you use, the most fun part is seeing how many different ways you can cut the fabric to create different effects.

 

 

I experimented with the Patchwork of the Crosses block using just two border print fabrics. Typically a mirror-imaged motif is centered in the middle of the template, such as you see here.

 

 

But what happens if you deliberately “skew” the template so that the mirror-imaged motif is not centered?

 

 

Mark a portion of the design onto the template and then flip it and find the mirror-imaged counterpart.

That technique was used in the corners of the two blocks shown above.

As we began playing around with Lucy Boston blocks and hexagons, or “hexies,” last year, we began to carry acrylic and paper templates for these projects making the process faster and easier. We also have some tips on our website for fussy cutting border prints for these projects. We’ve been having so much fun with these. Why don’t you give it a try?

 

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The Symmetry of Patchwork Blocks

Island TropicsOur web special this week is a bundle of coordinating fabrics. It’s easy to look at a bundle like this and admire the pretty colors. It takes a little more imagining, though, to figure out what to do with it. To help you out, we selected three different free pattern downloads as possible choices for using those fabrics. Two of the blocks are shown here.

First image for blog

Normally we just think of putting blocks together side by side, and all facing in the same direction. Blocks that have coloring that are non-symmetrical, or are symmetrical in just one direction can also be arranged in a variety of other ways.

For instance, we are used to seeing the Irish Chain block put together with the blocks side by side, and all oriented in the same direction.

4. Double Irish Chain col quilt 1But what happens if you pinwheel the blocks? You get a completely different look.

5. Double Irish Chain quilt 2a

6. Double Irish Chain quilt 2Here are 5 different layouts of the Triangle Charm blocks.

Blocks side by side oriented in the same direction.First set

Blocks pinwheeledImage 2

Blocks pinwheeled and then mirroredImage 3Four blocks mirrored and then those units side by sideImage 4

Four block unit all oriented the same way and then those units mirrored.Image 5It is fascinating to play around with all the possibilities. Which is your favorite?

Note: If you would like to recreate these blocks and use them in a quilt, please use the free patterns for guidance as to how much additional fabric you will need.

Triangle Charm: fabric 7 is 5748-02 and fabric 8 is 0213-10
Double Irish Chain: background fabric is Palette #58, 7132-25

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Hand Piecing 101

It has been great to see how many people are turning to hand piecing and enjoying the process.

I received a photo from David S, who recently took my hand piecing class. David has only been quilting for a little more than a year, but he has completely embraced hand piecing and has finished many quilts already.

He sent me a photo of the pieced border of a quilt, Columbia, that he is currently working on. A pattern for it is in my book Quiltmaking by Hand.

Columbia
Columbia

 

Hand Piecing 101-3What struck me was how David was piecing the border. I realized that that was how I would have done it when I began quilting too. But that method requires all of the second set of triangles to have a set-in seam. Many people flinch when they hear that term. Obviously, it doesn’t phase David because he executes them brilliantly. When sewing by hand, set-in seams are very easy. Watch this video here.

But when sewing by hand, I like to have straight seams, if possible, and a continuous line of stitching without breaking the thread. While David was able to use a continuous thread, his method did require a lot of set-in seams. I turned to my book to see how I recommended sewing that border (see diagram 1) and realized I would do it differently today.  The method in the book has all straight line sewing , but  it involves starting and stopping after each seam.

Hand Piecing 101-2- Diagram 1Today, if I were doing that pieced border, I would sew units of one square and two triangles as shown in Diagram 2. Following the arrows, I would sew a triangle and square together up one side of the square, and in a continuous line without breaking the thread, pick up the next triangle and sew down the adjacent side of the square.

Hand Piecing 101-2- Diagram 2Then, with a continuous thread, I would sew the triangles together as shown in Diagram 3.

Hand Piecing 101-2- Diagram 3Here is a photo of David’s complete top. Hand Piecing 101-4Note on Columbia:

I originally designed Columbia for a beginners’ hand piecing “Mystery Quilt” class. Students were not shown a photo of the finished project. The class ran for several weeks and each week they were given a task. For instance, the first week they just sewed squares and triangles together and they had to complete “x” amount of them before the next class. Each lesson was another learning skill and they just kept making sections of the quilt. In the end we put all the sections together and they were amazed. Almost everyone in the class said if they had seen the photo of the finished project, they would have never taken the class because it looked too hard. They were all excited at how much they had learned just taking it one step at a time.