Monday, June 29, 2015

What makes a quilt a quilt?

This is an "Ohio Star" in a recent sampler quilt of mine.
Quilting is an old-fashioned art form in a modern world. I love most all the aspects of constructing a quilt, but my favorite part is the QUILTING itself. Now, to most people, that sounds redundant - quilting is simply making a quilt, right? Well, yes and no. In a broad sense, you're right - yes, quilting is just making a quilt. But there are several steps within the process, one of which is actually called "quilting". And without this favorite step of mine, no matter how beautiful the piece is - it's not a quilt. But first things first. I'd like to outline for you each of the various steps of the quilting process, because you might be surprised at how involved it is. There are even people who outsource parts of it.

Selecting fabrics - many quilters think this is the most fun part. Seeing all the rich colors, textures, and patterns of modern-day fabrics is such a heady feeling of creativity and sensory perception. Other people are overwhelmed by all the choices. Each and every fabric you select impacts the end result of your piece. And sometimes you perform MANY hours of work to get to the end, and realize you've made a mistake - you HATE one of your fabrics. But of course by then, it's too late. There are companies that actually make quilt "kits", that include the proper amount of several fabrics to complete a designated quilt pattern. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a big fan of quilt kits. It takes the agony out of all those fabric decisions!

Prepping fabric - many quilters believe that you must pre-washing all your fabrics before doing anything else. All fabrics shrink when washed and dried - and what's more, they shrink at their own whimsy. This can wreak havoc on the resulting quilt. One fabric might not shrink at all and others might shrink a ton. If they weren't pre-washed, but were sewn together straight from the store, it might not be a problem at first. But if the finished quilt ever gets dirty and needs washing - and those fabrics shrink differently - there could be a veritable potpourri of puckering and wrinkling throughout your quilt. 

Most all quilters believe in at least ironing. Fabrics off the "bolt" or "roll" are always creased from where they were folded and rolled. These make it impossible to accurately measure and sew. You wouldn't BELIEVE the amount of money some quilters have wrapped up just in their IRON!

Cutting - In the days of yore, when quilts were made of scraps of discarded clothing and other
Rotary cutter, acrylic ruler, and self-healing mat.
materials, the pioneer quilters would usually trace around templates and cut out fabric pieces with scissors. They were resourceful women who used every inch of every fabric they could, and I've often said they would be horrified at our modern-day process of buying expensive gourmet fabrics and cutting them up! The faster, more modern approach usually taken these days is "rotary cutting" - using a specialized quilting blade that's actually more like a wheel, along with various rulers. This method allows us to be quick and very precise. You can cut strips and rectangles and triangles, and anything with straight lines - and also your own appendages. They are SHARP - and one of my former quilting teachers cut off the end of her finger with a rotary cutter!

Piecing and pressing - This is probably what most quilters have the most fun with - NOT ME! In my opinion, this is definitely the most time-consuming part of the process. Sewing a "scant" quarter inch seam, over and over and over again. Trying to make sure you are following the pattern properly. Ensuring that you have the "right" side of the fabric up (or down, depending on what you require). Pressing (aka ironing) every single seam and trying not to distort the fabric or stretch the bias. Matching seams - praying that corners meet perfectly. Don't even mention to me complex piecing disciplines like curved piecing, paper piecing, appliqué, etc. This is where award-winning quilt makers earn their salt.  The finished piece after this step in the process is called a "quilt top". When I made my first quilt, this was the part that I focused on - it seemed like the most important step - the part that actually MADE the quilt. I didn't really give much thought to what happened AFTER the quilt top was assembled. And now I can't get through it fast enough - because I LOVE what happens next.

Basting and quilting - For people who do this step for themselves on a home (aka "domestic") sewing machine or by hand, there is a mini-step called "basting", which is also called "making the quilt sandwich". Quilts most generally consist of three layers - the backing fabric (which is often just a single fabric - some quilters even use bed sheets), the batting (which is a fluffing material that resembles insulation you would put behind the drywall in your home but much softer and not so itchy!), and the quilt top (achieved in the previous step). If you're going to be quilting on a home sewing machine or by hand with needle and thread, you've got to secure those three layers together, so that they will stay in place while you're wrestling around with your quilt to access various areas of it while quilting. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways - hand basting (taking vary large stitches with needle and thread), pin basting (placing safety pins through all three layers every few inches throughout the quilt), spray basting (with a temporary adhesive aerosol product), or using heat-fusible batting (which adheres the backing and top to the batting by applying heat from an iron - my favorite method).

Once you've basted, you're ready for QUILTING. YAYYYYYY!!!! Quilting is often what gives the quilt texture and depth as you look at it. In its simplest form, it is stitches running across the quilt, securing all three layers of the quilt together. It gives the quilt strength, because it takes pressure off of all those pieced seams in the quilt top. It gives the quilt durability, because it tacks the batting in place throughout the quilt. It gives the quilt dimension, because places where the quilting is dense or heavy are much thinner and stiffer than places with sparser quilting. Quilting can be simple, straight lines. Or it can be practically invisible - "in the ditch" quilting simply follows the seams of the quilt top. But it can also be incredibly complex and ornate. Free-motion quilting (which is what I do), removes the "pulling" ability of the sewing machine and allows you to slide the fabric any which way you want. You could even write your name in thread if you wanted! There is actually a whole discipline of quilting called "wholecloth", which consists of a solid piece of fabric for the quilt top. No piecing - the quilting lines are all that make the visual presentation of the quilt.

The white space of this client's wallhanging was a perfect opportunity for me to have fun with free-motion quilting.
WORTH NOTING: Many quilters who enjoy the other parts of the quilt making process choose to send their quilt tops to a professional to do the quilting. I have many clients who send me beautiful pieces and trust me to finish them with the quilting step. It is an honor and GREAT joy for me! Up to now, I have done everything free-hand on my home sewing machine, BUTTTTTT...... (big but!) I have ordered a longarm quilting machine and anxiously await its arrival! I'll be sure to post photos. It is a machine much bigger than a regular sewing machine, and it is mounted on a 12-foot frame. My husband has actually walled off a whole area of our basement for my soon-to-be quilting studio. I am hopeful that it will allow me to do more detailed, higher-quality work, much faster than I'm used to, and with less physical strain on my hands. As a pianist and quilter, I really fear the dreaded "carpel tunnel" that often comes with age/over-use. With a home sewing machine, I'm using my hands/arms/neck/back/shoulders to drag that (often large and heavy) quilt around on my sewing machine. With a longarm quilting machine, I'll be able to use the specially-designed structure of the machine and frame to glide the machine around, while the quilt stays stationary.

Binding actually attached to the back, wrapped to the front, and machine sewn.
Binding - this is the last finishing step that completes a quilt. There are a few methods, but the one I see most often is strip-folded binding. You cut fabric into long strips and piece them together into one strip long enough to cover the perimeter of the piece. Then you attach the binding to the front of the quilt with your sewing machine, fold it around the raw edges of the trimmed quilt, and sew the other side of the binding to the back of the quilt by hand. This is a little more time-consuming than some of the other techniques, but creates a beautiful finished piece.

And that's it! In just one hundred thirty-one easy steps, you've got a cozy quilt that can be laid on by the dog, dragged through the mud by a child, or forgotten in a closet by a newly married niece. Orrrr.... it can be put to work and/or displayed in a loving home, used for warmth and feasted upon by the eye! If you have received a quilt as a gift from someone, use it with honor and give it life. Personally, I make my quilts to be USED. Not folded up and stored away, never to be touched or seen. If you are a quilter (or want to be one), remember that our fore-mothers put a lot more time into template-cutting, hand-piecing, and hand-quilting, and yet, they made their quilts WORK for their families. And I bet most every American family has an heirloom quilt that has lasted the test of time and been passed down through the generations. Our quilts (and more-to-the-point, our quilting methods and materials) are much sturdier than those pioneer quilts. Don't be afraid to use them!

Pieced, quilted, & bound. Giving our house a touch of "home".
If you (or someone you know) think you might be up for tackling a quilt top, but are intimidated by the quilting process, please let me help you! My website has prices for quilting and helpful tips for preparing your quilt top. I accept quilt tops by mail or by drop-off, and I have pretty quick turn-around times. I'd love to be involved in your next quilting project!