Adventures in Hand Quilting

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In a recent post I mentioned that I wanted to learn how to do hand quilting. I had pieced together a little dresden plate block, bought a small hoop, hand quilting thread, and quilting needles (called “betweens”), and set out to learn the craft.

To be honest, I really struggled. I simply could not get the hang of it. I started to get a bit frustrated, but felt that maybe I just needed to plug ahead and practice more. But it wasn’t very much fun and I put it aside for a while to focus on needle-turn applique instead. One day I stopped in to a quilt store and was chatting with one of the ladies who owned the shop and I mentioned my attempts at hand quilting. When she found out I was using heat-resistant batting (the dresden plate project was supposed to be a quilted potholder) she said “No wonder you are having so much trouble! I’ve been quilting for over 20 years and I wouldn’t hand quilt that kind of batting!”. So I felt a bit better after that.

I recently finished piecing a small applique project (more on that in a later post) and decided to try some hand quilting to embellish some of the applique pieces. It definitely went better than before, but still I wasn’t “wowed” by the process, and kept thinking it would be much easier, and look just as good if not better, if I just machine quilted the whole thing.

And then I had my epiphany.

I  previously mentioned a video by Sarah Fielke that I’d watched to learn the technique for hand quilting. She quilts with perle cotton, a thick and somewhat glossy thread with a corded look to it. It sounded interesting but I’d only seen limited examples of this technique and hadn’t appreciated it’s potential.

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One day I was browsing quilting stuff on Pinterest (my latest obsession) when I came across a Pin (shown above) showing a quilt by Polly Minick from Minick and Simpson (they are Moda fabric designers who I’ve watched many times on the Fat Quarter Shop’s YouTube videos of the twice annual Quilt Market show, in particular the Moda Schoolhouse sessions where all the Moda designers get together to show off their new lines; each one is about 40 minutes long and makes a great “show” for anyone interested in soaking in quilts and fabrics; plus I got to put faces and names to all the “stars” who designed the fabrics I see in the quilt shops). Anyways, the photo shows hand quilting done with perle cotton. I loved the look and so off I went to browse Pinterest and other places looking for more information on “big stitch quilting” or quilting with perle cotton. I discovered that not only can you do some amazing things with this method, but that you can also use embroidery floss in much the same way to achieve very similar effects.

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I really wanted to try this technique, so finally the other day I went out and found a few precious spools of perle cotton from the only store in town that carries them (in only a few colours) and also picked up some embroidery thread in colours that matched my applique project. I got some big-eyed needles and couldn’t wait to try this technique. My hope was that, with bigger thread and bigger stitches, this technique would be an easier start than traditional hand quilting.

Well, I’m happy to report that after only one evening of hand quilting I am in love with this technique! I will also confess my “dirty little secret” in the quilting world, which is that I have ditched the hoop. I simply could not seem to get used to it, and my stitches were really far apart and uneven. By removing the hoop I can really “fold” the fabric and get the stitches much closer together. I’m not the only one who quilts without a hoop, but we seem to be in the minority. I also took a tip from Anna Maria Horner’s tutorial and “allowed” myself to quilt one stitch at a time, rather than trying to place two or three on the needle like the “pros” do (her other great tip was don’t feel like you have to pull the thread all the way through with each stitich – why didn’t I think of that?).

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Not only is this technique easy and relaxing but I simply LOVE the look of the perle cotton. The embroidery thread was also easy to work with and the look was similar but with a smoother look. The perle cotton has a more “ropey” look to it, which adds a nice touch, especially if you want a more folksy look, but since I have yet to find a local source of the stuff I will probably end up doing more with embroidery thread (the neat thing about that is you can vary your thread size simply by choosing how many strands to use, AND you can mix strand colours in one “thread” to make a neat variegated effect).

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I’m so happy that I’ve found my hand-quilting groove and I can’t wait to start incorporating this technique into other projects I have in the works.

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The Joys of Hand Quilting

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When I first became interested in quilting it was the hand-sewing aspect that turned me off. While I admired the patterns and fabrics used in quilts, the idea of all that hand-sewing made me feel it was something I would never really have the patience for. Luckily, I discovered machine quilting and it gave me the courage to try this wonderful craft.

I’m loving the creativity of quilting and all the many techniques that can be used. This is a good thing because I’ve found that with each new project I want to tackle a new skill. I went from a very simple pattern with My First Quilt to an improvisational pattern with my South Pacific quilt. I learned machine-finished applique for the Star of David quilt. My current project, a bed quilt for my daughter, gave me a chance to try English Paper Piecing – I made hexies!

Hexies for Miss Em's quilt.

Hexies for Miss Em’s quilt.

It was while I was making the hexies that I discovered the joy of handwork. I loved that I could sit in front of the TV in the evenings and watch shows or Netflix while I was sewing. While my machine is in the same room as the TV, the noise makes it difficult to hear the show, for me and other family members. So if I was really interested in following the show, I couldn’t use my machine at the same time.

On another occasion, it was raining and I was sitting on the sofa doing some paper piecing. I loved the peacefulness of hand sewing while listening to the rain falling on the roof. There is so much noise in the world and sometimes you just want to do something quiet. Now, I do have my knitting, which I often do in front of the TV, but sometimes it requires a bit more mental focus, like if I’m working a complicated pattern, counting rows, or making cables, for example. Basic hand sewing is fairly mindless, in a zen kind of way and also, if I’m doing this for a while, it helps to have different things to work on so your hands don’t cramp or get injured from repetitive strain – mixing up sewing, quilting, and knitting during a long movie or a few episodes of binge watching is like cross-training for artists!

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Anyways, I became hooked and soon I was hunting around the web for inspiration for other paper piecing projects. Well it didn’t take long for me to realize that hand quilting might be just as much fun. I immediately came up with a small project idea that could incorporate both paper piecing and hand quilting: dresden plate potholders. With Christmas just around the corner (from a crafting perspective) I decided they would be a gift for my Mother-in-law. Just the excuse I needed to buy fabric and supplies!

Example of a dresden plate block.

Example of a dresden plate block.

The next chance I got, I headed down to my fave fabric/quilting store and picked up a small, cheap hoop, some quilting needles, a thimble, and hand quilting thread (it’s lightly waxed). I also bought two charm packs from Moda: Esprit de Noel is a lovely, old-fashioned series that I thought my Mother-in-law would like; the more modern In From the Cold series combines beautiful greys with greens and blues – I like it so much I’m going to make myself something from it.

Esprit de Noel, by Moda

Esprit de Noel, by Moda

In From the Cold, by Moda

In From the Cold, by Moda

Back at home, I couldn’t wait to start practising hand quilting. A oncoming cold gave me the excuse I needed to put aside housework and lay down on the sofa with some tea, a good movie, and my hand quilting supplies. I’d watched several YouTube videos and I thought that the Thimble Lady’s technique made the most sense – I was not satisfied that I needed to poke my fingers and sacrifice my skin for the sake of my craft! However, I just couldn’t get the hang of it, perhaps because I lacked the specialized thimble she uses, or just that I had zero experience with hand quilting (or hand sewing for that matter). I was starting to get a bit frustrated so I hunted around for some other videos and came across Sarah Fielke’s video for Craftsy. I found her method to be easier and her tip about not pushing on the needle before you make the “hill” with your thumb was key for me. Soon I was making straight lines with fairly evenly spaced stitches. Not bad for a beginner! I was hooked. But practising on a scrap square was not very satisfying. Time to start a real project!

I’m almost done paper piecing the dresden plate for MIL’s pot holders. I just need to applique the dresden and centre circle to the background fabric and I’ll be able to start quilting! I’m super excited and can’t wait to figure out what quilting designs I’m going to use.

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I’ve got lots of ideas for future projects, and since I’ve decided to focus more on small projects and art pieces for the next little while (bed quilts are expensive to make and I get tired of dealing with all that fabric after a while, plus I was recently inspired by a fabric arts showing at a local gallery – more on that in a later post), I’ll have many opportunities to practice hand quilting techniques. Between that, paper piecing, and hand applique I’ll have lots to tinker with as the season brings us back indoors.

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“Star of David” Quilt

It has been one year since I started quilting. I have made two bed-sized quilts. The first was from a pattern, the second I based on a certain design (stacked coin) but modified it to suit my desires. After that I felt that I was ready to design a quilt from “the ground up” and I wanted it to be an art quilt. I also knew right away that I wanted it to be a memorial quilt for a dear friend who passed away last year from cancer.

His name was David and he started out as my mentor and ended up as my colleague and friend. He and his wife became dear friends and his passing was hard for me. I saw making this quilt as a way to work through my grief, and a way to do something for his widow (they live very far away, in another country, so it was hard to be of help during that rough time). I made it as a gift for her and planned to send it on the one-year anniversary of his passing. It ended up taking me a bit longer but she received the quilt last week and seemed very, very happy with it. We shed a few laughs and a few tears on the phone when she called to thank me.

The design didn’t take long to put on paper, although I made a few modifications along the way. I started out with a Star of David because a) his name was David, b) he was Jewish, and c) it’s a traditional quilt square design and easy to find a pattern for it. I chose the fabrics, put them together the way I liked, and then appliqued his name in the centre in Hebrew. I had to look up the Hebrew spelling and I also had to learn applique. I took a great online course at Craftsy.com to do so. If you ever want to learn machine appliqué, this course is fantastic.

Initially I was going to piece the star into the quilt background, but I ran into some problems and, in the end, simply machine appliqued it to the background after piecing the star itself.

 

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The rays were done using free motion quilting, and it was finally a chance to experiment with some patterns that aren’t well suited to bed quilts because they are so dense. I spent so long auditioning different designs and colours of thread for this quilt. Finally I settled on using Leah Day’s “Boomerang” and “Concentric Circles” designs. I used a dark grey thread for the boomerangs and a yellow-ish grey thread for the circles.

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Initally the star was going to be in the centre of the quilt, but it didn’t leave me much room for the appliqued pieces, so I moved it and was pleased with the result. This photo of the whole quilt allows you to see how the threads and quilting patterns produced different “looks” on the quilt. Here you can see the difference in tone with the two threads used for the rays.

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I chose the symbols and created them myself (after I had taken the Craftsy course). I used some line art from Google Images as a baseline and then modified the designs for what I had in mind. My friend was a scholar and mentor and so the Torah scroll symbolizes that. The tree is supposed to represent the Tree of Life, and the candle is to represent the anniversary of his passing (in the Jewish tradition, so I learned, one lights a candle on the anniversary of a loved one’s passing). David was also a real light in the world, bright and funny. I chose the fabrics for all these pieces and machine appliqued them (except the leaves, some of which I ended up doing by hand because they were small and finicky). For the background I used Leah’s Flame Stippling design with a low thread density. I didn’t want it to compete with the rays.

Here are some closeups of the designs:

Candle

Candle

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Torah Scroll

Torah Scroll

And here is a photo showing the backing material. I also made a label but since it has personal information on it I’m not going to post it.

Blue fabric background, light grey binding.

Blue fabric background, light grey binding.

I had a lot of fun creating this quilt. At times it was hard work, but always worth it. I also think it really helped me with my grieving process, giving me time to focus on David, what he meant to me, and celebrating his life. In the end I worried that it was not attractive, etc. which I think is normal for any artist when you have stared at your work for so long. I think, based on her reaction, that his wife truly liked it and that it will find a place on her wall somewhere. I’m so very glad that I could send her this message of love and support. It has made me realize that quilting is so much more than a hobby, it is a way to send gifts that are from the heart as well as the hands.

Quilting Project: “South Pacific”

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I call this quilt “South Pacific”. I made it for my mother as a Christmas present. She was away for two months over the holidays (in the South Pacific, coincidentally) so I haven’t had a chance to give it to her yet.

This is the second bed-sized quilt I’ve made since I learned to quilt. My first quilt was made from a simple block pattern I got online, with the squares arranged neatly in rows. This second quilt was based on a pattern too, but involved more modifications and creative input.

I started with a jelly roll of batik fabrics. My mother spent much of her life in the South Pacific (New Zealand) and Southeast Asia (Hong Kong and Singapore) so I knew when I bought them that my project would go to her. I stated with a Stacked Coin quilt design and modified it by using both horizontal and vertical sashing. I spent quite some time putting together blocks of four or five strips, testing out various colour combinations, and working on the finished dimensions. Then when the blocks were made I spent a lot of time moving them around on a white sheet until I was happy with the layout and colour placement. Finally, I had to audition the quilting designs.

The quilting for the blocks was easy. I chose a pattern of free flowing, roughly parallel lines to create the idea of ocean waves. But I got stuck on the sashing. I auditioned many different designs by making test “quilt sandwiches” using scraps leftover from piecing the top. Finally one day I was hit with inspiration. Leah Day, whose Free Motion Quilting Project blog was what got me into quilting in the first place, posted a new design she called Spiral Ornaments. I thought it looked perfect for sashing, then was hit with the idea to use seashells instead of spirals. I tested it out and loved it.

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I chose a wine-coloured batik for the quilt trim, which went well with the fabrics (Note: the sashing and border is a pale sea green colour but it doesn’t show up well in these photos). I also chose a lovely batik fabric for the backing. It was quite expensive but by the time I realized that I had chosen it and had it cut. It did teach me a lesson about quilting though – budget is an important consideration! Making a quilt with scraps sounds very frugal, but a bed-size quilt can use up a lot of fabric for the backing. I’ve become much more careful with fabric purchases now.

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Finally, when the quilt was done, I played around with making labels. For the title I used free motion quilting to “write” the words in fabric. Inspired by other labels I’ve seen, I also sewed an element from the quilt design onto the label (a seashell). When writing my name and the date I found it hard to stay even and within the margins so instead I used my machine, which has an alphabet stitch.

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There were definitely mistakes made in this quilt, but they are likely only going to be noticed by me. I’m really proud of this quilt. It’s far from perfect, but it was made with lots of love and creativity, and I can’t wait to give it to my mum.

First Quilting Projects

I have just recently learned to quilt and completed my first project. This twin-size bed quilt is made from pre-cut fabrics. Pre-cuts come in sets of patterns and colours that go together. This one is by Moda Fabrics and it is called Salt Air. I got a “charm pack” (a set of about 40 5-inch squares) and a “jelly roll” (a set of 2.5 inch strips, each about 40 inches long) and made this Jelly Charm quilt. I learned about this pattern watching the wonderful videos on YouTube by the Missouri Star Quilt Company, starring Jenny Doan. I also took an online class at Craftsy with Joan as the instructor. But really I did the class for confidence and fun: I learned pretty much all I needed to know watching videos.

So this quilt consists of one block pattern that is sewed together in rows of 5 blocks. The centre of each block is a charm square, and I used the jelly roll strips to make a border around each square. It was fun figuring out which fabrics to pair with each other. Then I had to arrange them on a work surface to decide on where each block would be placed. I eventually want to build a “design wall” – a vertical surface onto which you can place or pin blocks to plan out a quilt. But for now I use an old white bed sheet laid out on our bed. The border and back fabrics were chosen from bolts of fabric within the Salt Air collection.

After putting together the top (“piecing”) I had to “baste”, which means put together the three layers of the quilt. I had to use my kitchen table, which wasn’t big enough, but I made it work. I used safety pins to hold the three layers together (top, batting, and backing) and then it was time to quilt!

This is what I was most looking forward to. I was inspired to begin quilting by reading Leah Day’s blog, the Free Motion Quilting Project. The design I chose for my quilt is called Spiral Knots. It was an easy pattern for my first time, and I thought the spirals went well with the patterns in the fabric. After many trouble-free practice sessions I was dismayed after doing a full quarter of my quilt to see that the stitches beneath were loose and I had to unpick it all. Turns out I’d forgotten to adjust the thread tension when I switched from my piecing foot to my quilting foot. I won’t forget to do that again! Otherwise it was so easy and I really have to give Leah Day credit for her wonderful videos. After watching her for ages waiting to get my own sewing machine it was really easy to pick up and do it myself.

I was really happy with how this quilt turned out. It will be for my daughter when she gets her own room (in our current tiny home there is too much clutter and cats and messy little brother in the kids’ room and I don’t want this quilt to get stained and ruined).

My second project is a quilt I’m making for my mother as a Christmas present. It uses a selection of lovely batik fabrics in a Jelly Roll. It is proving more difficult but only because I keep changing my mind about how it is going to look!

But I took a break from that quilt to work on a special project for charity. A local family, who are not known to me but are known to a few families in our homelearning community, are going through a difficult time. Their 9 year old daughter has leukaemia and must go to the mainland for therapy. The family needs to raise funds so they can be there with her for the few months it will take. I made a table runner out of a charm square pack of lovely Christmas fabrics, and am donating it for their silent auction. I decided to quilt with a simple stippling pattern since I didn’t want to make any mistakes. I was really pleased with how it turned out and am looking forward to building up a collection of seasonal table runners for my future dining room.