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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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Golden Ratio and Nature

One day I was walking along the Potomac River near my home and met a man who was studying one of the plants with great interest. I asked him what was so fascinating about the plant. He told me that the name of the plant is Horse Tail and that he was very curious about the sections of the stem and how they seem to follow some sort of pattern. I took one look at the stem and immediately knew what it was. Then I also realized that I had the same plant growing in the fish pond in my yard. I was anxious to get home and see if my theory was correct.

 

 

Several times in the past I have written about the Golden Ratio (also called the Golden Proportion, Golden Mean, Devine Proportion or Phi) . Its appearance in nature, design and the entire universe is uncanny. It is the division of a line segment where the ratio is 1 to 1.618. One is the shorter length and 1.618 the longer one. BUT it is also the ratio of .618 to 1 where .618 is the shorter segment and 1 the larger. This is what makes this ratio so magical.

Now I know that the mention of proportions, ratios or anything mathematical can make the eyes of most people roll back in their heads (unless you are a math geek). So, a few years ago, I designed a set of calipers for quilters that open up into these pleasing proportions of the Golden Ratio. I got them out when I returned home from my walk and took one of the Horse Hair stems from my pond and tried them out. Sure enough, when I place the calipers along one of the longer sections, the shorter piece next to it fits the proportions of the Golden Ratio and vice versa. One note, the sections at the base of the stem don’t quite fit into the ratio, but they fit more perfectly as I reached the tip of the tip of the stem. It is fascinating for me to see how this proportion shows up in so many aspects of our world.

 

 

Go to the blog section of my website and do a search for Golden Ratio or Calipers and read what I have previously written about this proportion and how we can easily apply it to quilt design.

Do an internet search on the Golden Ratio and you will be amazed at what comes up about this magical phenomenon.

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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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Learn Without Leaving Your Sewing Room

Often I hear comments from some of you that you wish you lived closer and could take advantage of some the classes that I teach. Many of you watch our class calendar and plan your trips to the Washington, DC area so that you can attend my classes. One of the most popular ones I teach is Quiltmaking by Hand. In that class, I cover all of the techniques you would need to know to tackle any hand piecing project. Those techniques include:

Supplies to have on hand
The basic running stitch
Making templates
Joining 4 points
Sewing curves
Joining 3 points
Joining 8 points
Setting in seams
Working with border prints

 

 

It occurred to me as I was proofing the DVD containing all of the video lessons for the 2017 Mystery Quilt, Moroccan Mystery, that everything I teach in my Quiltmaking by Hand class can be found in that DVD. The lessons in the DVD include all the techniques described above. You do not need to make the Moroccan Mystery quilt to learn the techniques. The DVD works as a stand-alone product for learning all the basics of hand piecing.

 

 

Speaking of a “mystery quilt,” our 2018 Mystery Quilt, Kyoto Mystery, will be launching April 7th. Subscribers to our newsletter will receive the first clue and video lesson on that day. The quilt is rectangular, 59” x 63”, and we are preparing kits in the four colorways shown here. Those kits will be available for purchase starting March 3rd. Keep an eye out for our March newsletter.

Watch this video teaser for more information on our new BOM mystery quilt.

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Quilting Questions

I will be teaching hand quilting at the Studio this weekend. I love teaching this class because I only hand quilt my quilts and I love passing this skill along to others. In preparing for the class, I was reminded of the questions I am frequently asked about the topic. In an earlier blog, I talked about my favorite products but there were a few other areas I didn’t address. What color quilting thread should I use? Do I change the thread color when quilting over different fabrics or do I just use one? And then there is the most frequently asked question at the Studio concerning quilting: how should I quilt my quilt?

 

hand quilting class

 

Let’s start with the last question first. My absolute favorite way to quilt and what I use most often is outline quilting which is to quilt a little bit more than a quarter of an inch around every patch. Why “a little more” than a quarter of an inch? That’s because if I try to do exactly a quarter of an inch I would probably be hitting the bulk from the seam allowances which would make my job much more difficult. By quilting a little bit more than a quarter of an inch from the seam line, I will miss those extra layers of fabric. I eyeball the quarter-inch but, if you prefer, you can use a quarter-inch masking tape made for quilters as a guide.

When I get to the borders or in areas with large-scale prints, the design decision is easy.  I let the printed design on the fabric dictate my quilting design.

Now, concerning thread color and whether or not to change thread, I would have to give the very unpopular answer of “it depends.” First of all, I don’t like to use bright colors. I like the look of more muted thread colors. Here are the colors I use most: a grey-blue or teal being my favorite plus ecru, black and rust.

 

Hand Quilting Thread

I try to use the same thread throughout but I do sometimes change.  An easy decision is using black on black, tan on tan, etc.  When choosing a thread color, I tend to go a little darker than the fabric I will be stitching on.  I pick up the darker lines in the fabric.

 

Thread on Quilt

For more information, you can refer to my book, Quiltmaking by Hand.  But above all, remember that this is your quilt. There are so many possibilities. Experiment, try new colors and products and find what works best for 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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Golden Ratio and Proportions for Borders

A comment on one of my recent blog posts asked a question about how to use the Golden Gauge Calipers and the Golden Ratio in choosing borders for quilts.

For those of you not familiar with the Golden Ratio or the Golden Gauge Calipers that I designed see these blog posts. Or just search “Golden Ratio” on the internet and be prepared for a wealth of information.

 

 

The Golden Ratio is thought to be the perfect proportion for all sorts of art and even in nature.  The ratio is 1 to 1.618 or 1 to .618. The calipers open exactly to that measurement and save the math. I’ll show you here how I planned the border for Wings.

I wanted the first border to be the same size as the frame around the hexagons. That frame is ¾ inches wide. But how wide should the second border be?

I placed the calipers on the first border with the small opening across the ¾ inch. The wider opening gave me the size that would be a good proportion for the next border.  That measurement was 1.21 inches. I just rounded up to 1 ¼ inches.

 

Now, I had two choices for the last border. First I could put the smaller opening of the calipers on the red and the larger opening would give me the size for the final border.  Or, if I wanted a wider border I could put the small opening of the calipers on both of the first two borders and the outer border would be wider.

 

 

Here is the image of both variations of the border. I felt that the design was so bold that the wider one looked better. But in either case, there is a pleasing proportion between the widths of the borders, no matter which one you use.

Give it a try!

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Printing Templates Using Your Home Printer

With the Lucy Boston and Millefiori craze, I have been pleased that so many people are finding the joys of hand piecing, and are exploring more complex designs.

Cosmos redMany designs can be cut using rotary cutting techniques but others such as my 2016 BOM, Cosmos, are template based. We usually make our templates by placing semi-transparent template plastic over a pattern and tracing using a permanent marker. It’s a quick process if you are making only a couple of templates. I demonstrate the process at the beginning of my video Magical Effects with Border Prints.  This is a free video to watch.

Sampler quilts are another story — they might incorporate dozens of templates. Furthermore, some template plastics are very hard to write on. They are usually smooth, so they slip on the fabric and it is hard to get a good mark with pen or pencil. It is also easy to lose a little accuracy as you trace the templates onto the plastic. I wanted to find a faster, easier, more accurate way to make the templates.

After much searching we found the perfect product and have packaged it as Jinny Beyer Template Film. This all-purpose template material is matte on both sides, making it very easy to write on and adheres to the fabric without slipping.  Best of all it is heat resistant and can be run through your home laser printer or copier. If you don’t have a laser printer, most office supply stores have copying facilities and can run it through their machines.

Please note that it will not work on an inkjet printer or copier. The ink will not be dry and will smudge and give uneven lines.

For printing on a laser printer or copier follow these steps:

  1. Print a sample template page on paper and make sure that the size is 100%. If it is not the correct size, adjust your printer until you get it to print at 100%.
  2. Feed the template film into the printer one page at a time. Since both sides have a matte finish it does not matter which side you print on.

Template1Many of my patterns have pieces that are enhanced by “fussy cutting” border prints or other fabrics with mirror image motifs. For instance, a border print square is made by cutting four identical triangles. In order to insure that the triangles are cut exactly the same, I recommend marking some portion of the design onto the template. These registration marks will serve as a guide for cutting the additional pieces. BP1It is amazing to see how many different squares you can get from the same border print.

BP2If you are trying to make all of your squares just a little different, very soon it will be easy to get confused by all the different marks on the template. The nice thing about the Jinny Beyer Template Film is that the marks can be erased. Remove pencil or pen with a standard eraser. Remove permanent pen with rubbing alcohol.

**Tip: Put the registration marks on the side of the template that has not been printed. That way you will not inadvertently erase some of the template information.

Many of my patterns are template based and, in the future, we will be offering pre-printed templates that can be purchased separately from the pattern. We already have these available for the six pages of templates required for the 2016 Block of the Month.

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Where Did Those Stems Come From?

Craftsy BOM final quiltI hope you have been following my Craftsy Block of the Month. This has been a new endeavor for me. While you’ve been learning different techniques for making this quilt, I’ve been learning about how online classes work. You may be surprised to hear that I don’t know how the classes will look after the editing process until they are each released at the beginning of the month.

This month’s installment contains several lessons, the final being adding the appliqué. In your online lesson this month, I pull out these lovely appliqué flowers connected by stems and talk about how to place them.  But wait…what happened to the lesson on making those stems with bias bars?  Not everything we taped can be shown and making the stems uses the same technique as we used earlier in lesson 4 making the appliquéd basket handles for the cherry basket. Here, then, is a quick review. If you made the basket handles, you’ll remember that they are easier to make than they look.

I once again use the aluminum bias bars from Celtic Design Company. Making stems with bias bars is a very precise method and you do not have to turn your stems after sewing which is next to impossible with such skinny pieces.

Let’s start by cutting your fabric. Make sure your fabric has been squared up and use the 45-degree line on your ruler to position it diagonally across the fabric. Make your first cut along this diagonal edge. From there, cut bias strips at 1 1/8”.

Take your first strip and fold it WRONG sides together. Machine stitch 1/4” from the raw edge. Trim the seam allowance to a scant 1/8”.

Insert your 1/4” bias bar into the tube of fabric. Remember that you are dealing with bias so handle it gently. Rotate the seam to the center of the bar. Press the seam to the side.  Pull out the bar but be careful if it hasn’t cooled down.  You are now ready to add these to the appliquéd flowers.

Remember that if appliqué isn’t for you, these blocks still look lovely without it. It is, though, fun to try.

bias bars blog

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The Perfect Piecer is Perfect for Machine Piecers Too!

Perfect piecerIn Jinny’s class for Craftsy’s 2015 Block of the Month quilt, some of her students have questioned whether or not the Perfect Piecer is useful for those who prefer to piece by machine. Since Jinny does all of her quilts by hand, she decided to let one of us on staff address this.

As a confirmed machine piecer, I made the mistake one day of saying to Jinny, “I think I can be more accurate piecing by machine than by hand.” Jinny, of course, disagreed and I decided to give hand piecing a try. I cut 60-degree diamonds from border print fat quarters and scraps. The Border Blocks quilt became my carry around project for the next year. Loaded with inset seams, I soon found that marking the seam intersection with a ruler to be quite cumbersome. I bought my first Perfect Piecer (after working for Jinny for 4 years!) and couldn’t believe how easy it was to mark the intersections and sewing lines.

Border Blocks 2014And the result…my quilt turned out to be EXACTLY the correct size and, I discovered I missed having that hand piecing project to carry around.

Jack's Chain VintageMy next hand project came along while on a trip to New York City with fellow staffers to see the famous “Infinite Variety” exhibit of red and white quilts. In addition to being wowed by the display of red and white quilts, we fell in love with this humble Jack’s Chain quilt at the American Folk Art Museum. We soon planned to do our interpretations of this quilt starting with an exchange of red and white nine patches.

With all of the inset seams, it did make a great hand project but I soon found I wanted to work on it at home on my machine. My Perfect Piecer helped me with both.

Check out Jinny’s video of Sewing Inset or Y-Seams here.

Piecer marksHere are the 3 components of the Jack’s Chain quilt. Each needs to be set in so all stitching lines need to stop at the seam intersections. When hand piecing, I mark my sewing lines. For machine piecing, I only need to mark the intersections which can be done very quickly with the Perfect Piecer.

PP-closeup Jack's ChainWhat do you think about how it came out? No points were lost; no fudging had to be done. The top went together like a dream and lies smooth and flat. And I found another use for my Perfect Piecer.

Since I have four sewing machines, I like to make sure I give each attention. Going from one machine to another can wreak havoc on your “perfect” quarter-inch seam allowance. Here’s what I do to be consistent.

Piecer with machineThe Perfect Piecer makes a great seam guide for finding that perfect quarter-inch on your machine. By hand, lower your needle through one of the holes that run along the 1/4″ mark. Mark your exact 1/4″ along the edge of the Piecer with tape, post-it notes, removable adhesive strips, etc. The will give you the same quarter-inch on each machine.

Check out Jinny’s video and guide on using the Perfect Piecer here.