Thursday, October 22, 2015

What exactly do you DO?

This is a question I get all the time. Friends often have a hard time understanding what it is that I DO, when it comes to all this quilting rigamarole. People often email me and ask if they can buy a quilt. But what they don't realize is that I'm not actually "making" a quilt. Not from start-to-finish.

I'm actually more of a sub-contractor. I provide a service. Sorta like how a home-builder might hire a roofer or a dry waller. I perform PART of the quilting process for other people. My clients are actually quilters themselves. They sew together pieces of fabric to construct a quilt top. Their step is called "piecing".

When I get a quilt top, this is what it looks like. This one was pieced by Jane Woods in Richmond Hill, Ontario. It was made for Kim Powell of Blue Grass, Iowa, to commemorate her family farm earning a "Century Award".

My clients also provide a large piece of fabric for the back of the quilt. I mount this on my quilting frame. It gets rolled onto two bars and gently stretched taut.

On top of the backing fabric I spread out a layer of batting. This is a soft, fluffy layer that gives the quilt warmth. Think of it like insulation inside the walls of your home.

Then on top of the batting, I spread the quilt top, making sure to keep everything straight, flat, and square.

If you'd like to see it in another view, watch this video (double click on the video to view full-screen mode):

Now it's time to start quilting! First I run a straight line along the top edge of the quilt top, to secure the three layers (backing, batting, and top) together. I also run a line along the edges on both sides - as deep as my frame will allow.

I sometimes add a few marks to the quilt top, to give myself a guide for even spacing. I use a variety of tools and marking pens to achieve this. For this quilt, I used a button-hole measuring guide and an air-soluble pen to mark gentle curves in the wide border that will become the spine of a feather motif.

Then, I start stitching. My machine is completely hand-guided. There is no computer doing the sewing. It's all me. The only automation my machine has is a stitch-regulator. It's a sensor that can tell how quickly or slowly I'm moving the machine, and it makes the needle go up and down faster or slower to match my speed, so that all the stitches are the same length.

Here's a video of me stitching the area you see above (double click on the video to view full-screen mode):

Another tool I use occasionally is a extra-thick acrylic ruler, designed specifically for longarm quilting.  It allows me to drag the machine's hopping foot along the edge of the ruler to make a perfectly straight line. I will often eye-ball a straight line if it's only an inch or two in length. But much longer than that, and I feel more comfortable using a straight-edge.

You can see here that my quilting frame is only about 16" in depth from top to bottom. So I have to work in sections. When I get a swath done, I roll the quilt up on the take-up bar and continue on to the un-quilted area. It's a lot like bailing hay or mowing the yard!

Here is a view of the side border. I have to stop at the bottom of my frame and then re-join my sewing line after I advance the quilt.

I continue on this way - quilting and rolling, quilting and rolling, until I've advanced myself all the way to the bottom of the quilt, and boom! I'm done! I take the quilt off the frame and trim off the excess backing and batting, as a courtesy to my customers.

Now, some customers also hire me to attach the "binding" to the front of the quilt for them. This is a long strip of folded fabric that secures the raw edges of the quilt. I attach it to the front, and send it back to the owner, ready for them to wrap around to the back side of the quilt and hand sew it there.

This is the place where the two ends of the binding adjoin. 

And voila! My part is done! I think the quilting adds so much to a quilt top. My goal is to always enhance a quilt top. Sometimes, this means simply being almost invisible. I wouldn't want my quilting to distract from the piecing or the patterns in the fabric. Other times, when there is a lot of "open space", I can add secondary patterns with the lines of my quilting. 

The discerning eye will likely notice that this binding has actually been finished (adhered to the back of the quilt). I borrowed this quilt back to photograph it as a finished piece.

Common questions and comments:

What's the deal with that fancy machine?
The machine I use (since I got it in August 2015) is called a "longarm quilting machine". It is honestly a lot like a regular sewing machine, just much bigger, which allows me to cover more territory much faster. The main difference is that unlike a regular domestic sewing machine, my machine is mounted on a structure of wheels and rails. On a domestic sewing machine, the machine sits stationary on a table, while the sewist moves the fabric. On my longarm machine, the fabric stays stationary on the frame, while I move the actual machine around. Before I got my longarm machine, I quilted for customers on my domestic machine. But now I can be so much faster and more precise!

Isn't that kinda cheating?
Well, I sure don't think so. Is it cheating if a cabinet maker uses a table saw or an electric sander? Should we insist that he/she uses a hand saw or just a piece of sand paper? Or should we all be driving horse-drawn carriages instead of cars - or for that matter, maybe should we be WALKING? I just see it as using a tool that is available to me to be efficient and quick. I've often wondered what my fore-mothers of quilting would say about all the tools and techniques we use today. And I think they'd say, YES! They used what technology was available to them at the time - needle and thread, or treadle sewing machine, or whatever! This is the technology that is available to use now. 

What pattern are you following? 
The one in my head! I quilt free-motion style. It's whatever comes out of my head and through my hands. It's like holding a pencil and doodling on paper. Watch this (double click on the video to view full-screen mode):

But the shapes look perfect!
Well, bless anyone who says so! I have had lots of practice, and I continue to get better every day. But if you look closely, you will see that my quilting is in fact NOT perfect. My goal is to try and be consistent, but of course, I'm human. That's what I think makes my quilting style endearing and authentic. It is from me and of me. It is not a pattern on a computer. I didn't just push a start button and walk away. There are machines that have highly sophisticated computer programs, but that did not appeal to me at all. I want to touch every square inch of that quilt and make my own mark on it. For me, it is a free-flowing, human art form. 

So, people actually pay you to do this? Why?
Well, for a variety of reasons. Many times, my clients don't have the time to get through all the projects they want to, if they also take the time to do the quilting process. It can also be very daunting to tackle a large quilt when using a domestic sewing machine. Many home sewing machines have just a 6" throat - trying to squeeze a king-sized quilt in there can be tricky! My longarm machine is considered small, and it has a 20" throat. Others simply don't have the ability or desire to be good at the quilting part of the process. By the time they are done cutting, piecing, pressing, etc., they just want it DONE. 

How did you even get into this? 
I started sewing in 4-H as a child - mostly garment sewing. I made my first quilt when my little sister went to college and a second one when my older sister got married. But I had no formal training and was really just going by what I thought was common sense. When I look back at those early quilts, I don't know whether to cringe or laugh! They were horrible and are falling apart as we speak! My first quilting class was in (I think) 2008, in Ames, Iowa, when a friend suggested we try it. And BOY, was I ever HOOKED! I quilted mostly straight lines with a walking foot on my domestic machine, before I got the gumption to try a darning foot. I stippled the crap out of everything! As I got more and more experience, my quilting improved. I took some online classes on Craftsy, and also watched a boatload of videos on YouTube. I started quilting for friends and then paying customers. It wasn't until I had babies of my own that I really got the itch for a longarm quilting machine. My free-time was so limited - I simply had to get more out of it. With a longarm I can go much more quickly, and I've also found I can be much more precise. Who knows what I'll gravitate toward next!

Can I buy a quilt from you?
No. I don't even have very many finished quilts on-hand. My clients send quilts that they've started. I finish them and send them back. I don't have any merchandise to sell! In fact, the quilts I do have here are just the ones that I did early on, that I now think are so ugly that I'm ashamed to sell/give them away! So the quilter has NO nice quilts! It's like the old saying, the cobbler's children go barefoot.

I want to have a quilt made for my friend who is having a baby, but I don't sew.
I have done quilts for people in the "whole cloth" style. This means there is no piecing involved. The quilt top is one solid piece of fabric. You can feel like you're making a special piece for your friend, without having to be an actual quilter. Go to the store and pick out your favorite fabrics for the top, backing, and binding, and I'll turn it into a quilt, like the ones below. If this idea interests you, let me know. I can give you pointers about types and amounts of fabric to buy.

How long does a quilt take to do?
That's such a variable answer. If the customer wants a simple all-over pattern, with no custom quilting, I could get a lap-sized quilt done in as little as a few hours. But if the quilting is denser, more intricate, more specialized - it takes longer. For instance, the barn quilt you see at the top of this post took me three days. I have no real concrete idea of how many hours, because it was done in lots of small segments, between helping babies potty, feeding babies, doing laundry, making meals, etc.


  1. Hi Carrie - just catching up on what you've been up to - and wow!!! You do such great work! I notice that you've taken off the third roller bar - any specific reason for that and do you miss it? I always float my tops so never use that bar anyway. A gal in Australia has removed hers too, because she's short . . . like you (and me). Love seeing your work - Bev

  2. Hey, Bev! Thx! Yes, I took the quilt top roller bar off, and I do NOT miss it at all. I don't think it is affected by my shortness, actually. :-) I took it off because I'm lazy. And since I always float my tops, I was never actually using it. And it was a pain to always have to stuff my quilt top and batting under it. The only positive thing I ever saw about it, was that it gave me a nice registration line to keep my quilts straight horizontally as I roll forward. But I just eye-ball it on my bottom roller (I use a homemade version of leader grips, which make a nice ridge under the rolled fabric). I also purchased this really long pink measuring tape, meant specifically for longarmers, and it wraps around each end of your frame and stretches across your quilt top, so it basically does the same thing for keep the quilt straight, but I don't even find myself bothering with that. I'm just so lazy! And I get pretty good results without hassling with it! But the real subject we should be discussing... The thing that I think is a CRYING SHAME is that there is a LOT of wasted space inside my quilting frame. That IS a consideration due to my shortness (my arm reach and my eye sight!). I've got, like 8" of wasted space, right at the FRONT of my arm reach. It doesn't matter whether the quilt top roller is there or not. It would still be wasted space. In my opinion this is a design flaw. I'm stretching to reach the back of my throat space and squinting my eyes to see detailed quilting, and then I've got miles of prime real estate at the front of my frame just sitting idle. I've talked about some ideas on how to get around this with Matt Sparrow (APQS Canada), and have never come up with a solution that I feel is practical. I tried putting my belly bar that holds the backing into the top roller holes, but it sucks the fabric down into a crevice as you roll forward - hard to describe, but if you tried it, you'd see exactly what I mean. I tried turning my roller end-for-end and putting it in the quilt top holes, but it was too high, and when my hopping foot came to the front of the throat space it hopped so violently on that higher quilt that I couldn't really even see where my needle was. I considered purchasing new arms for my frame - ones that were manufactured for the new "Larri" model. But they cost several hundred dollars and only give you, like 1.75". I also considered upgrading to a Luci head, but keeping my Lenni frame. The lovely couple from Dragon Heart in Pincher Creek even came to my house and brought a Luci and put it on my Lenni carriage to see if it would work. The problem was that the Luci machine head is JUST a little, tiny bit longer than the Lenni carriage. If we wanted to do that, we would have to machine some kind of bolt to put in place that would prevent the Luci from rolling right off the back of the carriage. So then, we're modifying the setup, and actually not using the entire throat space of Luci, and spending thousands of dollars, and I felt like it was just too much to risk and hassle. I really don't know why APQS doesn't just manufacture an optional set of arms for each model, for people who float their tops. I know LOTS of people do - I would guess a MAJORITY of quilters float tops. I can't be the only one who's had these thoughts. If they just subtracted, like 6" or so off the length of my frame's arms, I'd be in heaven and all my pet peeves would be gone. Okay, rant over!

  3. Carrie, this is a really nicely written segment and explains it all so well. I may reference this for people who ask me these questions too. I have recently found your blog, the 'prairie' got me right away as I am also a prairie girl raised on a farm. And, I have family that live in Lethbridge. Maybe I'll be lucky to take a class from you sometime. I don't run a business per se, but quilt for friends who ask. I also do freehand, occasional pantographs, but they take me longer! Your work is very nice, circles are so Round! Practise does help. I look forward to more posts and being inspired. Kudos!

  4. Carrie, your quilting is beautiful and I am amazed at how great you do without a template or computer program. My mother taught me how to hand quilt when I was a young girl. We had the old quilting frames hanging from our basement ceiling and we would sit around the quilt, and quilt by hand. Mom taught me to use small stitches etc. I don't know if you have ever seen one of those old quilting frames with "headless nails" that you would first tack your quilt back on all 4 sides, then batting on top of that, finally followed by the quilt top. Then you would roll up the frame from one side, and you were ready to start quilting. Anyway, I have just retired and want to begin quilting again...I haven't done any since my mother passed away nearly 30 years ago. I doubt that I will have room for a long arm but sure wish I did. Thanks for sharing your talent with us your posts.