Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Orphanage Quilt

If old WIPs make a satisfying finish, imagine all the good feelings brought on by finishing six at once! This quilt has been on my mind for along time, back when I asked my Do Good Stitches bee back in February to send me some scrappy improvised blocks. And then as they arrived, I added them to my orphan block pile, wondering when I was finally going to take the plunge and sew this thing together. To say it made me nervous was an understatement. This is not usually how I quilt. It's not a pile of squares sitting next to the machine and sewn together at random and it's not carefully laid out blocks that need concentration and working out. It sits somewhere in the middle, not in a happy medium kind of way, but in a road-less-travelled, throw-the-rule-book kind of way.

My orphan block box is a scraggly mix of leftovers from finished projects and abandoned quilts that started with a bright future but quickly resulted in disillusionment. It is a place of discomfort and guilt, bereft of inspiration.What else do you do with leftover blocks? It's times like this I realise that in my quilting life, more than anywhere else, I am a hoarder.

And it's a good thing I am, don't you think? I used only about half of my leftovers, but with the ones that made their way back to the box, I now feel a sense of peace and purpose. One day I'll do this again. Maybe it can be a yearly ritual. Like a jubilee. Setting those old expectations and dreams and "I don't know what to do with this so you can go here" into a quilt to start afresh with new projects and a little less guilt.

As I was showing my progress on Instagram, a few folks asked me to explain my progress, so I took lots of photos to give you an idea here. Like I said, there's no rules in improvisation. I went mostly by feel.

There's no way I could have achieved this without my design wall. I laid out the blocks, keeping in mind that I want to sew them together without going around corners. So I made them into bigger blocks of 2-4 pieces. Coincidentally, most of these were divisible by 3. That means they were 3", 6", 9", 12", etc, so a little mindful arranging made them fit together easily. When they didn't, I had strips and strips of leftover half-rectangle triangles from my Tent City quilt that I added to anything that was too small, and then trimmed back down if I needed to without worrying about keeping my points intact.

I sewed those bigger blocks into 3 large slabs and was almost going to sew those together when I realised I was out of wadding. This actually felt a lot like providence because I did have long, wide strips of wadding, leftover from other quilts mostly the perfect size for my slabs. The one that was too narrow, I sewed to another and pressed the seams open so it would fit.

I used a Quilt-as-you-go method I first came across on Maureen's blog, which I had only ever used with smaller blocks. I spray basted the quilt top slab to one side of the wadding and then quilted lightly over the two layers. Then I trimmed all the way around the excess wadding. And then I did the same with the other two slabs.

I trimmed the whole quilt a little again, just where there was uneven edges. Then using a 1/4" and my walking foot, I sewed the quilted slabs right sides together. I lay out my backing fabric and taped it to the floor so it would stay taut, sprayed and laid out the quilted top.

I then went back to my machine and first quilted either side of the thick seams to hold them down. Then I used a straight, meandering stitch, basically zig-zagging my way around the quilt. I wanted to try something different and more improvised than straight line quilting, but now that I'm done, I wish I'd stuck with my favourite! I used a mix of hand-quilting, thick variegated Aurifil thread, and my go-to white. It was a fun experiment, trying to keep with the improv theme, but I think simple, horizontal lines would have held it together more.

Undoubtedly, the very best part of quilt-as-you-go is when you suddenly remember that you can use you backing as your binding! I simply trimmed around the backing 1" from the quilt top edge. I then folded it in half towards the quilt, then over the edge of the quilt again, and top stitched. When I came to a corner, I folded the overhanging pieces to the left to make a little triangle. The I folded the same method, folding the fabric in half and then over again to make a neat mitered corner.

I'm not sure if I would usually use a binding this dark, I generally pick out a colour somewhere in the middle, but I love how this all hangs together. In a quilt with a lot more low volume than I usually try in scrappy quilts, I think it makes the darker tones shout out happily.

There is much joy in this quilt, in the trying something new, using something old, freeing myself of quilts hanging over my head, some for years. Some were hard to let go, like my Penny Sampler. I would love to make that quilt again someday! But for now, the colours stumped me, I was never sure about them. Other blocks were a relief to use, like the Ohio Stars and the leaves. The leaves were generously made for me by an old bee and the colours just didn't go together like I hoped. Oh, it's good to see how much I've learned about colour over the last five years! I also love the contrast and interest the lovely flowers add, but I was sad when they arrived late, lost in transit for weeks before getting here. I'm glad they finally have a home!

All in all, this quilt was made by about 20 people from about 15 old quilts! Because half were for do. Good Stitches, it'll be heading to a charity next. A quilt of previously hope-less blocks for someone struggling for hope. Gosh I love long-coming finishes! I love new starts, renewed confidence, and stories with happy endings.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Corn and Beans - Red Sky at Night Quilt

I was amused this week to discover that 'Corn and Beans', the name I've always had written next to this block in my notes, can only be called Corn and Beans if it's made from yellow and green! The block was first published by the Ladies Art Company, who sold mail order patterns, somewhere between 1890 and 1906. Then along came Carrie Hall in the 1930s, and claimed that if the colours weren't yellow and green, then the block was named Duck and Ducklings, or Hen and Chicks, or Shoo Fly, or Handy Andy. All of these names were, as far as we can tell, first published by Carrie Hall, but I cannot find out any more to the story. Did they all have colour codes? Or was she just recording the names she'd come across. Of course, the latter is more likely. Still, I've decided to be rebellious, and stick with my original name.

It got me thinking about rules in art. Which ones we break and which ones we keep. I've spent a little while recently looking through my old quilts, deciding which could be considered 'Modern', and if I'd enter them into Quiltcon this year. I've never really considered myself a 'Modern Quilter' in the strict sense of the word. I don't really improvise, I don't really use negative space, I'm not much into wonky. Am I only a Modern Quilter if I break the rules? Because the rules have served me, and others for a few hundred years. The more I make old blocks, the more I appreciate their timelessness. I like their sharp, classic lines that change mood depending on size or colour or contrast. I appreciate their inspiration and motivation, to tell stories, to fight against injustice, to warm their household.

So then I started thinking about what stories were important to me, what injustices I wanted to fight, what patterns I want to pass on so that others can tell those stories too. What shapes and lines express my concern for the politics of refugees? What celebrates the birth of my new nephew? What retells the old quilt stories that I want to make known so that we don't forget them? The ideas I've started to play with are inspired by the old techniques, much like modern music still uses a key signature, but they say something that's meaningful to me. They break rules, partly to play and see what happens and partly to make it my own. It makes me think that spending the year learning old quilt blocks and their history, has been a bit like learning classical piano. I now have the tools and ideas to compose my own music. I know what the rules do, and therefore which ones I can break.

I also know that back in the day, people changed block names all the time, so I'm keeping Corn and Beans!


You will need:

Red: Five 4.5" squares, two 2.5" squares, four 2.5" x 4.5" rectangles.

White: Five 4.5" squares, eight 2.5" squares.

1. First, take the red rectangles and small white squares. Sit a white square over the rectangle as above and stitch diagonally through the centre. Trim the small outer triangle and press outward.

2. Repeat with another white square on the other side. Sew in the opposite diagonal direction to make a red triangle.

3. Match your 4.5" white squares to your red squares. Sew all the way around them.

4. Cut through the squares along both diagonals. Open and press.

5. Trim to 2.5".

6. Lay out as below.

7. Pair the little squares together into twos and sew. Press and sew those together to make 9 patches.

8. Sew the patches into rows. Press seams open.

9. Sew the rows together.  

It's funny how many times I've wondered what I was thinking making this quilt this year, and how many times I've been so thankful for the process, for what I've learned. This week was the first time I'd likened it to learning my scales as a child.  I know I'm going to appreciate this all the more as I embark on my future projects. And we're on the home stretch! Only 2 more blocks to go!

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Take Out - Travel Happy Stitching

October started with a happy chaos. Pulling out all my old projects for #WIPtober to give them my attention again, flitting between ideas and quilts with abandon, throwing around old blocks and yardage and scraps in a kind of was an exciting couple of weeks that have have left me feeling tired and a bit lost. I've become disillusioned with finishes for the sake of finishing. I want some meaning and purpose in my sewing again.

It's not the search for meaning that brings me back to Nana Mac, my English Paper Pieced quilt coping an Australian pattern from the late 1800s. It's the fact that about a month ago, I put a lot of work into organising this quilt to make it easy to take out. So while I ponder the point of it all, trying to decide what project motivates me most, and wondering whether I should push myself to sew even when love has been lost, Nana Mac is making slow but steady progress, because she waits, ready in little zip lock bags, for the next time I'm heading out for a meeting or appointment.

So I thought I'd share this little arrangement with you, in case you're in a similar spot to me. Because glue and cardboard and zip lock bags are a fun little change of head-space when the sewing you is having a nap.

I started stitching Nana MacIntyre's quilt from the centre, cutting and basting my shapes as I needed them, and always adding the next piece to the larger patchwork, rather than stitching in sections. I found it easier this way until I finished that round of yellow and orange stars and my next job was to add 'star blossoms' in rows. In this section, it's easier to keep track if I work on a single star at a time, and add them together at the end. Also, my patchwork is getting so big that pulling it out all the time is wearing the seams, so my plan now is to get all my separate stars made and stitch them together over a couple of free weekends. (Sewing retreat anyone?)

I started Basting Day with a tonne of 2.5" strips in the right colours. My 1" hexies, jewels, and 2" diamonds all sit nicely on a 2.5" strip. I then sat the paper piece on the strip and cut with a generous 1/4" seam, put the paper and new fabric shape in a pile, and grabbed another paper piece to cut around. When I had a sizeable pile, I started to glue baste.
I've used every basting method imaginable, and my favourite for this project is glue basting. I like the special glue basting pens you can get, but they're $10, and these are $1 and available in town, so guess who wins! If you just use one swipe of glue along each edge, the fabric should come off the paper again easily, without tearing the cardboard, or warping the fabric.

Then, when I had a large pile of fabric covered jewels, I sorted them in to bundles of six, with one coordinating hexagon. Then I added to each pile, the next border of diamonds, and then the next border after that. And sadly, this is where I ran out of diamonds, so I have some stitching to do before I can free some up and reuse them.
I dug out every zip lock bag I could find, and the little satchels the paper pieces came in, and bundled them in their separate star blossoms. And now, whenever I'm walking out of the house to go to our weekly staff meeting or Bible Study, I grab one or two, and my little stitching purse, and sew while I listen.

I enjoy this pace of stitching. It's ticking over nicely without a whole lot of thought or effort. It doesn't have to be my 'main focus' quilt, or interrupt any time I need to give to machine sewing. It's like a bonus quilt, a free gift with all the sitting and meeting (and any TV) time in my weeks, added up to make something quite wonderful. It's like my very own sticker chart! And it's why I think everyone needs a hand-stitching project on the go, in little zip lock bags.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Puss in the Corner - Red Sky at Night Quilt

I have spent the last week thinking about cats in preparation for this week's tutorial! I don't have a cat. I used to when we were growing up but I didn't pay it much attention. I can't even remember its name. And I can't remember it minding all that much. In fact, the only thing I can remember is it disappearing for days when we had visitors, and only coming back when it could be sure the coast was clear. Nope. I can't tell you any stories about cats.

After searching my books and coming up dry, I finally decided to try my hand at Google. Anyone following along here will know that Google hasn't been a very helpful friend in this process. Google most blocks, and if you're lucky to actually come up with a quilt block, and not a pub in Oxford or an American football team, it's usually just a tutorial or picture.

So imagine my delight when I asked Google about Puss in the Corner and discovered it was an old children's game! Old like mid 1800s! It was usually played by five children, four in a corner of a room, or behind a group of trees, and one in the centre. The four would sneakily swap places and the one would try to snatch a corner spot, a little like musical chairs. I thought it was wonderful that in a collection of blocks inspired by Bible stories, politicians, the Temperance Movement, and ordinary household items, a sweet children's game also features. I can just imagine the long simple dresses and aprons that you see in period dramas swishing around with the screams and giggles!


You will need:

Red: Four 4.5" x 2.5" rectangles, twelve 2.5" squares.

White: One 4.5" square, eight 4.5" x 2.5" rectangles, twelve 2.5" squares.

Today's flying geese are being made the easy, 'extravagant' way. After forty odd weeks of making half square triangles, and playing with other ways to make them, I've decided, waste or no, this is my favourite!

1. Place a white square on one end of a red rectangle. Sew a line from the centre of the rectangle, diagonally through the square to the opposite corner.

2. Trim off the little triangle on the outer side of the seam. Push the white triangle over to complete the square. Press.

3. Repeat on the other side. The repeat with all the other rectangles, both white and red. They should look like the ones above.

4. Sew the red 'goose' (the red triangle above) to the white 'goose', with the red goose on the top. You should have four little arrows.

5. Lay out your block as above. Sew the little red squares to the white ones next door. Press open.

6. Sew this new rectangle to the white one next to it. Press.

7. Sew the block together in rows.

8. Sew the rows together.

This block feels so different to me now that I know its history. I've always liked it, with its interesting lines and clear, modern feel. But now it has a touch of whimsy too. It makes including a story with a tutorial absolutely worth it, don't you think?

Saturday, 17 October 2015


Every so often, you have a sudden realisation that your kids are growing up. This week has been one of those moments. It's never anything earth shattering, maybe just overhearing their conversation about their day while in the bath, or that they get through their morning chores without cajoling, or they can start to help out with quilt photos, rather that me needing to work creatively around them. But somewhere in there you look at them and think, "Listen to you! Look at you! You're bigger!"

I'm not the kind of person to mourn this change. I love grown up conversation, help with the washing, wee in the toilet. This is the stage I've been waiting for. The one where we know we are done having more, and we just sit back (in a figurative sense) and enjoy the ride. No more cesareans, no more morning sickness, no more stopping every 2 hours in car trips to pull over and breastfeed.
I have friends with teenagers and I know there's still some stuff ahead of me, but right now, I have a big boy that I can still beat in a wrestle, and a little girl who I can still beat trying to escape under the front gate, and one in between who doesn't like to wrestle or escape (yet). Right now it's nice.

This quilt was pulled from my Works in Progress box already sewn into quarter-square triangles. I cut those up diagonally and sewed them back together without too much thought or design. I think it's good to do that with WIPs sometimes. I thought a little about how to make it bigger, or add some white or grey for interest, and in the end, I had two spare blocks, and could have cut some more to make an extra row, but I just kept making that decision to keep it simple. I sewed the finished blocks together, spray basted, quilted and bound it in a long afternoon. I have other quilts I want to throw my creativity and thoughtfulness at. I could just let this one be a happy, scrappy gift for a friend.

I started this blog almost 5 years ago because things weren't all that nice. Because I wanted to take photos and tell stories that processed what was hard, but mostly recognised what was good. Today, taking photos of these sweet kids, and a quilt I didn't have to fight to finish, it felt good to stop and say, "Hey, look where we are! How good is this?" Life is chaotic and interrupted and full and it's easy to find things I want to change, to think, I can't wait till we're nappy-free or till Tim finishes his Masters, or the kids are old enough to leave for an evening. But right now, in this moment, I am surrounded by beauty. I have much to be thankful for.