Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thinking about "What If?"

I've gotten some very nice comments about the colors in my quilts (thanks everyone!), which got me to thinking about how I approach color choices, which in turn had me thinking about my "what if?" moments. I guess the bottom line is that I've wanted to see what would happen if I purposely put restrictions on my choices. This, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, seems to spark my creative thinking---apparently some variation on the "necessity is the mother of invention" paradigm. 

On the day I said, "What if I don't buy any new fabric for quilt tops?" I had to come up with alternatives, which led me to the incredible bounty of inexpensive used clothing in this town. But very few clothes provide traditional quilting cottons. My fabric love drew me to glowing silk ties, wonderful wool suits, linen that I couldn't resist, mountains of cotton twill pants in umpteen shades of khaki and beyond, and more men's cotton shirts than I ever imagined. 

There's a good reason most quilters use the fabrics they do. Most of the other fabrics are a pain in one way or another (and often several at the same time). But I'm completely hooked on the what-ifs and on the quiet thrill of ignoring the usual rules. I'm happily pairing silk ties with wool suits, and figuring out ways to use heavy cotton twills without too many piled up seam allowances. Some things I try don't work out, but most do, at least in my view, and they lead to even more what-ifs. 

Monday, February 25, 2008

Figuring Some Things Out

Well, all that blathering earlier today about my quilter's block regarding the scrap star top made me feel a little better, but what really helped me was a little trip to Lazy Gal Quilting. Looking at Tonya's hand quilting is always nice, and I browsed through her past posts to see some more examples. 

Lo and behold, there was a photo incidentally showing some of her hand basting---with really short stitches. Why didn't I think of that myself?! Yes, it will take more time than the traditional long stitches I've always seen, but it will hold the layers better and the stitches won't be nearly as likely to get caught on things while machine quilting. This just might work! The other downside is, of course, picking out the threads from under the machine quilting, but I'm willing to deal with that, too. Thanks, Tonya!

I'm even getting excited about the prospect of marking some simple designs and trying to follow the lines. Hey, I have a new machine now, with a giant 10-inch bed, and my first attempts at some machine quilting on it were encouraging. I think the way the foot works keeps the quilt more stable than on the old machine. 

Pushing Past Some Roadblocks

This past weekend I made two more chenille pillows (containing the crab fabric as the base fabric, so the crabs are visible only if you push the chenille strips out of the way). I'm chenilled out! They're fine, but not wonderful. One problem is that I washed the pillow forms, and they shrank, leaving the covers a bit loose. Also, my pillow-design skills leave something to be desired, but I'm committed to posting not so good, as well as the good.

Next, I made a little curtain out of some of the linen quilt scraps. It needs a final ironing, and I still need a curtain rod. The strips stretched a bit while sewing, so there's some unevenness, but that's okay. This is for the knee hole below the master bathroom vanity, to cover up my Threads magazine collection and other quilt/sewing-related stuff that I'm storing there.

All this sewing left me with lots of time to think, and one of the main topics was my unfinished quilt projects. One quilt top in particular has run into roadblocks that I really want to clear. It's been done for well over a year now:
The thing is huge! Not any room left for borders, and I'm even thinking of taking off a row, but that's a minor distraction from the main problem, which is that most of the fabrics are from shirts made of very tightly woven cotton---especially the background, which is several varieties of very fine white pima. 

Here's a closeup. Sorry about the quality. This picture was taken later, and photography conditions were deteriorating rapidly.

First, I asked myself, can this be hand quilted? In short, no. With cotton batting, it's next to impossible, unless I stab stitch, which is not only slower than the rocking stitch but will inevitably lead to a messy-looking back with large stitches that are vulnerable to breakage, and this is meant to be a working bed quilt. With wool batting, it's a little easier, but wool is yellow, and I don't want the show-through. Adding a layer of thin white fabric will take care of the show-through but just makes the quilting harder. 

Moving along, I asked, what about machine quilting? I don't have a machine-quilting frame, so I need to baste the layers. First major problem: safety pins damage the tightly woven fabrics. (I looked with a magnifying glass, and yes, they literally break the threads.) I'm not willing to do that, and I can't find smaller good quality pins. I sometimes baste with straight pins, but only small projects. The pins tend to work themselves out, and the points are much too wicked! 

There's thread basting. Done on the floor (not something I look forward to, but doable) or on a table (less accurate but easier), it leaves long, loose threads on the top. Past experience shows that these get caught on just about everything. Done on my hand-quilting frame, the long stitches could be on the back, which I'm not sure is better. 

Or, I could get a machine frame. I can't afford a real set-up, and don't have room anyway, but experimenting with the Flynn frame might be interesting. But frames restrict the type of quilting, and mainly to the kinds I don't do well.

Which brings me to my machine-quilting skills, or, more to the point, the lack thereof. My straight lines done with a walking foot are okay, although I don't think this will complement the design well. As for free-motion quilting, yes, I've practiced---on two good-sized quilts and several small projects, using different feet and studying up on techniques and common problems. I'm not getting better. Meandering and small circles/loops are the only patterns that look decent, and I'm terrible at following drawn lines. Forget corners. I've come to believe that I just have to accept this profound lack of talent. 

I could send it to a professional. The $300 or so is beginning to look like a reasonable trade for the time, aggravation, and less than desirable results of doing it myself. 

Does anyone have any suggestions or comments? I'm open to it all! 

The star top was stored underneath partially sewn tumbling blocks, so I took a picture of some of those, too:
These blocks are hand pieced. I enjoy it, and I purposely do blocks that would be harder to piece by machine. They also contain tightly woven shirt fabrics, but fewer, and the eventual size will be a lot smaller than the star top, so I'm seriously considering hand quilting with wool batting and allowing the yellowish show-through. I'm really looking forward to seeing this one done!

I'd better get back to doing some paid work now, and preparing for the next snow storm. Yes, yet another one. 

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Linen and, Uh, Crabs

As Dave Barry would say, I Am Not Making This Up! A month ago, while scouring clearance tables for loosely woven natural-fiber fabrics for my chenille projects, I found a very nice 100% linen for $2 per yard. There was just one catch---it was embroidered with red crabs. 

They were nicely done crabs. 

But, come on. Who did this manufacturer think was going to pay full price for this stuff? Can you imagine some middle manager saying, "Our research shows that expensive natural fabrics embroidered with crustaceans will command significant marketshare this season"?

Even at $2/yd, I hesitated. I got some anyway, planning to bury it under several layers. I'll post the results soon. 

Monday, February 18, 2008

It Grew

This is the linen quilt top! Eventual finished size should be about 60" by 76", which is quite a bit larger than I planned, but I like it better. Also, I think it will fit the (huge) wall better, as well as being a very usable size. I had cut way too many little strips and couldn't bear to see them stored in the closet, so I kept sewing and had more than enough for four pieced sections instead of three. 

There was some difficulty adding the sashing and borders without distorting the pieced sections (i.e., lots of ripping!), and the raw edges are showing the wear. Good thing I used 3/8-inch seam allowances. I'm handling it as little as possible now (hence, the unpressed look).  

I've been playing with the camera's settings, and this photo is the best so far at showing the real colors. Well, it looks good before uploading, but not quite so good here. Ah, well. 

I'm completely out of appropriate backing fabrics and all batting, so it will be a while before this top gets to the quilting stage. I'm going to hand quilt, and since the weave of most of the fabrics is rather coarse, larger stitches are in order. As for patterns, the current choices are down to either freehand fans, or freehand horizontal wavy lines. Fans have the edge.

Tomorrow, it's back to work for me---a new project is landing on my desk. I'm a freelance science editor, and the middle of winter is traditionally a slow time, so I've had the past few weeks off, thank goodness. I really needed it after about eight months of being seriously overbooked (plus fixing up the house to sell, and buying and fixing up the condo). When you work on your own, it's very hard to say no because there's always the worry that the next offer won't materialize soon enough. But one of my resolutions this year is to keep my work at a saner pace, and keep time for quilting and other things, including blogging! 

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Rug and a Quilt

The rug is done! With all the channels cut, the whole thing washed and dried (in a big laundromat machine), the obnoxious plaids have melted, and the lower levels of fabric have emerged. The frayed bias edges bloomed beautifully! The only glitch is that the binding (which is the same fabric as the backing) shrank a bit, causing the rug to not lie completely flat. Annoying.

Simple stretching didn't help much, but maybe it just needs more. Need to enlist help for that. If it won't improve, I'll consider cutting off the binding (not ripping!) and rebinding. That really wouldn't be much trouble (a couple of hours). 

Here's a somewhat blurry closeup. Those black speckles are the frayed bias edges of a loosely woven black-and-white gingham-like rayon. I love it! There are four layers (left: black, white, the B&W rayon, beige 1; right: beige 2 instead of the black) plus the backing. The top beige fabric is a cotton-linen blend, and oh what a wonderful sheen the frayed edges have!

Here's another spot in closeup---not quite as blurry, but partly washed out from the flash (photo conditions are very trying today). The green is a fifth layer. 

With all those layers, it weighs more than a quilt, but it's still easy to pick up and lighter than a lot of other rugs the same size.

Since finishing the rug, I've been happily sewing together linen strips. This is a nice change of pace from the alligator-wrestling with the rug. You'll just have to trust me that the colors are very much nicer than they look here, if you're seeing what I'm seeing. The yellow is soft yet rich, the light green is a slightly soft lime, the dark color is actually a lighter forest green, and all the other colors are not nearly as drab as they appear here. 

The overall idea is to have three long rows of sewn-together strips (current width 11"), with long strips of yellow between and as a narrowish border (I'm shooting for roughly 45" by 70"). I think I'll put some of the lime into the sashing; I have some long strips left over (I cut them too narrow), and I like the color so much, I want to use as much of this fabric as possible. 

Originally, I considered a completely random order for the colors and completely random widths (up to 3"), but that idea was too scary. I didn't want a complete surprise. So I imposed a few rules: (1) yellow, lime, light green, medium green are all 3 inches wide (to showcase these colors), (2) beige, tan, dark green, off-white are all less than 3 inches and most strips are close to 1.5 (wanted to downplay these, and had only a little bit of the forest green anyway), and (3) the wide strips alternate with the narrower strips most of the time. Color placement is by whim. I'm liking the effect. 

This project is supposed to be for the living room wall, but linen is so wonderful to touch that I may want it as a working quilt instead. In any case, this top is coming together so fast that I'll soon have to decide how to quilt it. I'm considering freehand hand quilting, maybe in large stitches, which I've never done before. Never done much hand quilting at all, actually, and I'd like to do more.

I just noticed that it's snowing. Again. And the forecast is for below-zero temps. Again. If you've been reading Threadlines, just ditto that for me. 

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Bare Floors

Right after the closing on our condo, the first thing we did was tear out the carpeting---about 1200 square feet in all. Next, we had tiled installed. Everywhere. 1500 square feet. It makes the place look light and airy, and it doesn't harbor dust and crud. We love it. But, it is a bit stark. 
Since I knew perfectly well that it would highly unlikely that I would be able to buy rugs that (a) don't outgas too much, (b) are the colors I want, and (c) we have any hope of being able to afford, my brain started working on ways to make some. It's a challenge. Rugs are big. Rugs take lots of fabric. 

My first idea was braided rugs. And I am indeed starting a very interesting braiding project involving fabric from khaki pants (I'll get to that in another post). My next idea was chenille, sort of. In my Net research, I ran into Nannette Holmgren's Faux Chenille site. Hmm. Looked like it could be used for rugs. Eventually, I dug out my copy of Twenty Easy Machine-Made Rugs by Jackie Dodson. Yup, it covered a couple of similar techniques, although at the time it was written, the nifty little chenille cutter hadn't been invented yet. 

I decided to go for it. This is one of my weak points. I have a long history of starting very large projects using new-to-me techniques. Naturally, I run into all sorts of problems that could have been headed off by someone with some experience. So, this time, I actually started with some samples. A lot depends on the order of the layers, as well as the nature of each fabric.
Encouraged, I tried a couple of pillows. They're not spectacular, but they're certainly red, which was part of my goal.
On to making a living room rug! A search of my stash turned up a few loosely woven fabrics in white (that I'd been carting around for, oh, 20 years). I bought several wonderful clearance fabrics in various beiges, plus small amounts of two full-price ones that I couldn't resist. 

After washing and shrinking, I taped the backing to the floor and carefully smoothed the layers on top, overlapping joins a little, keeping everything on grain. I added blocks of light green (which goes with the walls) on top. The fabrics were in different sizes and had some different thickesses, which I factored in as I tried to create a pleasing 3-D pattern. I used safety pins to secure (or so I thought) the layers (not easy, considering that the base layer is a tightly woven, heavy cotton). I drew sewing guidelines every six inches. It wasn't enough. After getting some of the channels sewn, I had to lay out the rug again and add more pins and markings. 

Sewing the half-inch channels near the edge was fine. As I got further in, the layers shifted more (because I was constantly having to maneuver the whole thing), the marked lines became less accurate, and the bulk made guiding the fabric under the needle more error prone. And an accurate 45-degree angle and even channel widths are important for the finished look. Working from all the corners in toward the center seemed the only way to tame this beast, but that has it's hazards---you can see the puffiness forming, although most of that can be pretty easily eased in. It may yet, however, turn out to be a mistake.

The closer I get to the center (which is seeming further and further away), the more the maneuvering needed, and the more challenging it all is.  
I'm buoyed by the fact that it looks like the end result will be good. I am also delighted that I have the new sewing machine because it will automatically cut the threads at the end of a line of stitching (and pull them to the back), and each line ends well in from the edge. That was difficult to deal with on the old machine. 

In a few days, I hope to have the stitching done and be ready to slash and bind!

By the way, in the last photo, you can see several layers of snow on our window sill. We're only .7 inches from breaking the all-time snowfall record for the season. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A New Machine! And Old Ones

I took the plunge! I bought a Viking Sapphire 870. This line is the one with the 10-inch bed and lots of other quilt-centered features--every one of which I expect to be thankful for. I loved my old Viking 1100, and I expect I'll love this one. In many ways, my Bernina 153 has been a very good machine, but finally, I couldn't see living with its limitations when I had such an attractive alternative. 

If I allowed myself, I'm sure I could become a sewing machine collector. I'm not yet able to part with the Bernina, plus I have an old Bernette serger that I never use but am reluctant to sell or give away. And then, there's my 1953 Singer. Therein lies a story.

A couple of years ago, I was on my way home, driving through an old residential section, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw what registered as possibly a sewing machine. A quick double take confirmed it. So I went around the block for a closer look. It was garbage pickup day, and someone had dragged an old Singer in a decrepit sewing table out to the curb for collection. Yikes! It was in good shape! No rust, no dents, the wheel and the rest of the mechanism turned smoothly. And someone was sending it to the dump? Well, I certainly couldn't leave it there. 

If you've ever had one of these machines, you know how heavy they are. Add the sewing table, and, well, I tried valiantly to leverage it into my trunk, but no go. Then, out of the blue (in a very quiet neighborhood with absolutely no other traffic) a thirty-ish guy drove up and asked if I needed some help. Yes! Thanks to him, a few minutes later I was home convincing my husband that this little machine was indeed a real find. We unattached it from the table, and I carted it off to my sewing machine repairer, who charged $200 to replace a couple of small parts and get it into sewing shape. 

It took a lot of poking around on the Internet, but I finally tracked down that it was made in St. John's, Canada, in 1953. That's also the year I was born. I'm not a particular believer in fate, or even that things happen for a reason, but I can't help but feel that, somehow, the Universe conspired to bring us together.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Bare Walls

We moved into our condo nearly six months ago, but what with my superheavy workload and our other commitments, our walls and floors (that's a whole other post) stayed bare. This place has been one giant echo chamber. A few weeks ago, my poor husband couldn't take it any more, so we carved out a couple of hours and hung four pictures and one quilt. Here's the quilt:

Despite the wavy edges and not-quite-squareness (exaggerated by the perspective of the photo), this is one of my favorite quilts. I feel like I'm looking at the sky through a lattice. It's made of strips from khaki pants, which is a great way to get loads of color variation. The only other way is to hand dye. Yes, it's cotton twill, which is heavy, and one of the reasons I chose the log cabin pattern. The only really lumpy seam allowances are at the joins of the blocks. 

(And yes, we haven't finished the painting at the edge of the ceiling!)

This hasn't made much of a dent in the echos, but it's a start. We're planning to hang two more quilts today, and I have the perfect motivation for making more! Here's the fabric for the next one, waiting for cutting: 
I'm into linen lately. The yellow is yardage that I got on sale for $3 a yard, but the rest of these fabrics are from pants and shirts I got at the St. Vincent de Paul Dig and Save on days when clothes are 50 cents a pound. This is the only way to afford linen quilts!