Block of the Whenever #1

A while back, on one of my “the shipping is flat rate, so I might as well add a few more things to my cart” shopping sprees from Missouri Star, I found a layer cake of Kaffe Fassett fabrics on special.  Kaffee Fassett is one of those fabric designers that you learn the name of very quickly if you follow any quilting channels or blogs, because everyone seems to be in love with his intensely colourful designs.  So as it was on special, I thought it was time I investigated the possibilities of this magic fabric.

I didn’t have any particular project in mind for it, so it may have ended up waiting in my stash for months until inspiration struck, except that the other day I was in Lincraft buying another spool of the blue thread so I can finish quilting the Birds in Flight quilt (which I will get round to finishing soon, I promise), and discovered they had a new range of cheap fat quarters in super-bright solid colours.  Which, I realised, would go perfectly with the colours in my Kaffee Fasset layer cake.  And that was enough for inspiration to strike on exactly what sort of quilt I wanted to make with it. So I bought a handful, plus some dark navy to use as a background colour, and came home and scribbled a few sketches, and a lot more calculations, in my little quilting notebook (which is actually just an old maths exercise book), and a design was born for a sampler-style quilt.

And along with that, an idea for a series of blog posts was born.  Everyone does those “Block of the Month” or “Block of the Week” quilts, with accompanying blog/YouTube posts for each block (I’ve even seen one that’s Block of the Day!), but there’s no way I could ever be that dedicated – my creativity comes in fits and bursts, not on schedule once a week.  So instead, this is a Block of the Whenever quilt.  I’m going to try and make a blog post for each block, but I’m making no promises about their regularity.  If I get inspired, you might get a run of several posts all at once, or if I’m too busy with other stuff, there might be long gaps between blocks.  But if all goes according to plan, the entire quilt will be documented as I go.

I also don’t promise these will be full-on tutorials.  How much detail I go into will depend greatly on how many photos I remember to take of the process as I go, and how inspired I feel to write it up afterwards.  And anyway, I’m intending that most of the blocks will be traditional block patterns that you can find a million tutorials for all over the internet.  But as I’ve had to do the maths to convert patterns for various sizes of blocks to fit the size I want (which is a 9 inch finished square*), I’ll try and at least share the measurements and enough basic instructions that someone who understands the principles of how blocks go together could reproduce them (and actually, mostly my aim here is just to produce a library of blocks for myself, so I can make them again in other quilts – that’s the traditional purpose of a sampler, after all).

[* In theory.  Except, spoiler alert, my quarter inch seams in my first block turned out to not be quarter inch, so my first block turned out too small.  I promise you the maths is correct though, it’s just that I need to learn how to use my quarter inch foot properly…]

Also, most of these blocks and techniques I’ve found repeated in multiple places around the internet, so I’m not going to give sources, because I’ve got no idea where they originally came from (so many quilt blocks come from long traditions of being passed from person to person, with no attribution).  But if there’s any that do seem to be someone’s original pattern, I’ll of course give credit.

Right, with the disclaimers out of the way, here’s the first Block of the Whenever: a Flying Dutchman (which I’ve also seen called a Double Pinwheel, or a Dutchman’s Puzzle).

The first step (and hardest part) was choosing the fabrics.  I didn’t want to start off with my favourites, just in case I messed the flying geese up (it’s the first time I’ve made them using this technique) and wasted the fabric, but it’s the first block of the quilt, so I wanted it to be a nice combination.  I think this one works, though:

And then the really brave part: cutting into the fabric for the first time.

You need:

  • Print: one 5 3/4 inch square
  • Solid: one 5 3/4 inch square
  • Background: eight 3 1/8 inch squares

This flying geese method is one of those quilting techniques that seems totally impossible.  You look at that combination of pieces, and there’s no way it adds up to eight flying geese.  And that impression continues all the way through until you iron open the final unit, and somehow it’s worked.  It still seems totally magic, even after I worked through the maths of it while I was working out the measurements.  Here’s the unlikely steps:

Mark a diagonal line across each of the background squares, and place two on diagonally opposite corners of each of the bigger blocks.

Sew quarter of an inch away from each side of the marked line.

Cut along the marked lines.

Iron open. So far, nothing like flying geese. More like weird fox faces.

Take the remaining four background squares, and line one up on the nose of each fox.

Again, sew on either side of the marked lines.

Cut along the marked line.

Iron open, and magically, you’ve got flying geese!

The units should each measure 5 inches by 2 3/4 inches. Mine didn’t. That’s because I was running the edge of my quarter-inch foot along the inside of the chalk line I’d marked, instead of the outside, and those few millimetres’ difference, added up over multiple seams, were enough to make the final units about an eighth of an inch too small.  Which means I really should scrap this block and try again.  But I decided as I’d got this far, I might as well carry on, just to see what the final block looked like.

Trim off the dog-ears, and lay out the block.  There’s two possible layouts, depending on which fabric you want to make most prominent.

I went with the print block on the inside, because the orange dominated the block too much when it was on the inside.

Sew the flying geese into pairs.

Then sew the pairs together as a four-patch for the final block.

In theory, it should measure 9 1/2 inches square (which would be 9 inches finished, because you lose quarter of an inch off each side when you sew it to another block). Mine is only just over 9 inches, so I can’t even pretend to myself that I’ll be able to hide the difference in the seam allowances in the final quilt.  It’s just wrong. But it’s such a pretty block!

So now I need to decide do I want to try and make another identical block with the correct seam allowances (I do have another piece of that same fabric in the layer cake, and I’m only planning on having 30 blocks in the quilt in total, and there’s 42 pieces in the layer cake, so in theory I can afford to waste a few), or do I try and adjust all the measurements for the rest of the blocks so they all end up this size (which would make the final quilt quite a bit smaller than I intended, and also mean the measurements I gave you for this block would make it bigger than all the rest of the blocks, if you were following along at home)?  I think the most sensible answer is to make it again, isn’t it?  It would give me a chance to practice getting those seam allowances right before I move onto the next block, too.

Yep, I’m going to have to make it again.  But not tonight.

Building blocks

I still haven’t got round to buying more of the blue thread I’m using for the Birds in Flight quilt, so in the meantime I’ve been working on the Lego quilt.  This time I’m quilting it much more loosely (to keep the quilt nice and soft, seeing as it’s intended for a baby), so it’s been going much faster.  There’s only a bit of the border area left to go:

I’ve been using a monofilament thread to quilt it, which has been… challenging (especially because I only just noticed the bit on that page where they recommend not using it in the bobbin… which I have been… oh well, it seemed to work ok anyway).  It sews great once you get going, but the thread is so fine and almost invisible (which is the whole point) that anything that requires cutting the thread and restarting (which means having to tie off the loose threads and threading them into a hand-sewing needle to bury them inside the quilt so they won’t work loose) is very hard work – just seeing the thread well enough to be able to tie a knot in it is hard enough, but threading a needle was almost impossible!  I did a lot of back-tracking over previously sewn lines to get to new areas of the quilt just so I could avoid ever breaking the thread!

The invisible quilting does look nice though, especially on a quilt like this where whatever thread colour I’d chosen would have stood out too much.  But I don’t think I’ll be using it on a regular basis – it’s just too difficult.

As you can probably see in the wee sample in the photo above, I used the different “bricks” of the Lego to experiment with different quilting patterns (inspired by Angela Walters’s Shape by Shape book, which is a seriously useful resource – although I don’t think I actually ended up using any of her patterns exactly as she has them in the book, they’re a great leaping-off point).  I’d originally planned to just pick a single design and use it in all the blocks, but I couldn’t find one I liked enough to repeat that many times, so I decided to use a few different ones.  In the end I think I managed to have no two exactly alike across the entire quilt (though some of the variations are pretty minor).  There’s a few bricks that didn’t turn out quite as well as I’d like, and one or two places I might have been tempted to unpick and redo if that wouldn’t have been so hard with the monofilament.  I suppose that’s one way to learn not to be such a perfectionist – make it too hard to unpick mistakes!  Hopefully none of the mistakes are too obvious – I keep telling myself that nobody knows what pattern I was aiming for, so they won’t know that I got it wrong 🙂

Back to the birds

Hey, remember this quilt?

Yep, that one I started ages ago (ok, I just checked, and the quilt-along started in January 2015, so pretty close to three years ago!), which I finished the top for, and then never got round to quilting, because semester started and I was too busy, and then Tartankiwi released three extra birds, which I wanted to incorporate into the back but couldn’t decide how, and then I thought I should probably get a bit better at free-motion quilting before I attempted it, and I couldn’t decide how I wanted to quilt it anyway, and then I was just totally intimidated by its size and by how long it had been sitting there waiting so I felt like when I did quilt it, it would have to be perfect, and then I kept getting distracted by shiny new projects (ok, so that’s been happening pretty much all the way through all the other stages as well), and finally yesterday I told myself it was time to bite the bullet and get it done.

So I spent the afternoon yesterday sewing the backing together, and ironing the top (because apparently if you leave a quilt top folded up in the bottom of your half-finished projects pile for a year or two, it gets a bit wrinkly – who knew?), and then this morning, after I’d scrubbed the kitchen table (and the kitchen floor, because have you seen the size of that quilt?  There was no way I was going to be able to baste it without some of it falling onto the floor at some point.), I finally got it basted, and started the quilting!

Did I mention this is a very large quilt?  And incredibly heavy?  I am going to have very well developed shoulder muscles by the time it’s finished – moving it around on the machine is a real workout (I am so thankful for my nice new sewing table – quilting it on my old setup would have been impossible).  But I’m pleased with how the quilting is turning out so far – it’s definitely not perfect (the other problem with it being so hard to move is that it’s difficult to keep the motion nice and smooth, so some of my swirls (the swirly patterns are supposed to be air currents or something – it makes sense to me, anyway) are pretty wobbly in places), but hopefully the effect as a whole will make up for the occasional oddity.

Don’t hold your breath for this to be finished soon though – there’s a lot of quilt to cover, and many many hours of work still to be done (and also, much as I enjoy quilting, I don’t really want to spend my entire break in my sewing room, when the sun is shining outside (well, it was earlier – it’s clouded over again now…)).

Not all my own work

When I was down in Alexandra the other day, mum gave me an old piece of appliqué she’s had for ages, and asked it I could quilt it and turn it into a cushion cover for her.  So that’s what I spent yesterday afternoon doing (in between writing that ridiculously long blog post).

Stupidly, I forgot to take a before photo, so you’ll just have to be satisfied with photos of the finished object (you can just use your imagination for the before shot – it looked like this, but flat, and with no binding):


I wanted the appliqué to really stand out, so I used the same technique as with the skeleton, stitching in the ditch around the main elements, and then using a really dense quilting pattern for the background (possibly too dense – it’s a bit stiff for a cushion cover, really, but I wanted to keep the scale of the quilting really small to be in fitting with the size of the piece).  I found a scrap of super-high loft batting to use, so the flowers really puff out:

I even managed to find some fabric in my stash that matched the colours in the flowers almost perfectly, so I could give it a nice colourful binding to frame the picture.  I reckon it turned out pretty good.

It’s a bit of a weird shape for a cushion (which is why it looks a bit strange here – I didn’t have a cushion the right size to fit it, so I just stuffed it quickly with an old towel for the photo), but the fabric was too small to square up, and adding extra borders on the sides would have looked strange, so it’ll just have to be a rectangular cushion.  I think it looks ok, anyway.

And it means that for once I’m showing off a completed project (even if most of the work on it was done by someone else), instead of a work in progress!

Hope you like it mum!  I’ll try and remember to take it into work tomorrow so I can post it to you.

Preparing and repairing

I spent the afternoon basting the little squares quilt, so hopefully I’ll be able to start quilting it tomorrow.  I’m so looking forward to quilting this one, both because I just love the colours so much so I want to see it finished, and also because I’ve been planning out how to quilt it.  I’ve got an idea for a design that responds to the geometry of it (rather than just using an all-over design like I’ve used in other quilts), and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

I had to do a little bit of repair work before I could baste it.  One of the Oakshott squares had a tiny tear in the fabric, which I hadn’t noticed until I came to sew all the sections together (by which time it was too late to change the design to not use that piece).  I put some interfacing on the back to hold it together, and did my best to adjust the seams so that most of it would end up in the seam allowance, but it was still reasonably obvious, and looked like it might fray over time.

Luckily though, I happened to have some thread that matched the colour almost exactly, so I was able to do a bit of tight zig-zagging to cover the rip.  It’s still visible, of course, but I don’t think it will be all that noticeable when you look at the quilt as a whole, and it will protect it from fraying.

Spare half hours

Ages ago I asked Deb Robertson how she manages to produce so many quilts while juggling work and children, and she told me she makes a lot of use of those spare half hours at the beginning and end of the day, when you can sew a few seams, or cut a few pieces, even if you don’t have time to do much more.

Now that I’ve got the new sewing table, it’s a lot easier to leave a project set up mid-process, without it being in the way, so I decided I’d give her approach a try.  So in the evenings this week (I’m not organised enough in the mornings to find spare time to sit at a sewing machine!) I’ve been sitting down with the aim of just making a little bit of progress (rather than my usual approach of thinking of the project as a whole (or even each major step of it) as being something that needs to be completed all at once, so therefore needs a huge chunk of spare time to work on).

And it’s amazing how much I got done.  Ok, so a couple of those evenings I got so engrossed in what I was doing that I stayed up way past my bedtime, but given that I was out two nights this week, I think I did pretty well:

That’s 341 sets of three little squares (it was supposed to be 339, but I mis-counted at some stage so did a couple extra by accident), all cut and sewn together.  Ok, so I sewed a lot of them by making strip sets then cutting them up, which sped up the process a bit, but that’s still pretty impressive, I reckon!

Now I’ve just got to sew the sets together to get nine-patches (which is exactly what it sounds like: a square block of nine patchwork squares), and I’ll have all my blocks ready to start laying out the quilt design.

I may end up spending more than half an hour working on it this afternoon, though – I’m too impatient to see how it’s going to look!

Quilts in progress report

(With apologies for the terrible photographs – I keep forgetting that the lighting in the study in winter isn’t particularly conducive to getting colour-accurate photos.  On the plus side, I have managed to reinstall decent photo-editing software, so at least I could crop and resize them without too much pain…)

The jelly roll race quilt is quilted! Although the quilting doesn’t actually show up all that well in the photo. It looks pretty good in person though. So all I need to do is the binding, and it’ll be finished.

It’s the first biggish quilt I’ve quilted on my new table, and it’s definitely a lot easier moving a big quilt around on the machine when everything’s at the same level. Of course, because nothing is ever simple in my life, I’ve now run into a problem with the thread shredding when I quilt in a particular direction, which I’ve read can either be a sign there’s damage to the throat plate or the bobbin holder of my machine, or it can just be caused by using the wrong size needle. I really really hope it’s just the needle – if not, the sewing machine might be taking another trip back to the repair shop… (or I could just never quilt anything in that direction – might make curves a bit tricky, of course)

I also finished putting together the top for the Three Dudes quilt. Well, sort of finished it – I can’t decide whether I want to add a border to it or not. It looks a bit unfinished without a border, but if I do put a border on, I’m not sure what fabric to use (ideally, I’d use one of the fabrics in the quilt, but I can’t find anyone in NZ selling that fabric line, and the postage for buying it from overseas would be ridiculous). This is the disadvantage of using precuts for a quilt – if you add in some random other fabric that’s not from that fabric line, it’s really obvious.

This has been a really complainy sort of blog post, hasn’t it?

Progressing

This new quilt is definitely slower going than the jelly roll race one (mainly because the seams have to be pretty accurate for it to work properly), but I am making progress.  I spent a couple of hours this afternoon sewing the squares I’d cut out back together again:

And then this evening I cut them up again:

The resulting block looks a bit weird at the moment, but just wait. It’ll get better once they’re sewn back together (again…)

A quick photo before it rains again

I finished off the binding on Monday night, but pretty much every evening this week that I’ve been home before dark it’s been too wet to hang the quilt on the line so I could photograph it (and I really wanted to take the photo outside in natural light). It’s supposed to rain again this morning, but while it’s daylight and the rain is still holding off, I dashed out for a quick photo.

I’m pretty pleased with how this quilt turned out, considering it was just supposed to be a practice run at making a really big quilt (it’s big enough to use on my queen-size bed (which I actually did on Monday night, when we had a sudden cold snap, and I couldn’t be bothered swapping out my summer-weight duvet for the winter one, so I just threw the just-finished quilt over the top for a bit of extra warmth), though, because it’s square, not quite long enough to go over the pillows).  The quilting isn’t perfect (and there’s quite a few wrinkles on the back, because of my struggles to find somewhere to lay it out flat to baste it – I’ve since found instructions for a better way to baste big quilts using a table, so I might try that next time), but the overall effect is pretty good, so I’m happy enough with it (and even happier that the things I learnt will mean I do a better job next time, which was the whole point of making a practice quilt).

What I’m most proud of is the border.  The main design of the quilt came out of some experimenting I was doing with snowballing pinwheels.  The block that emerged was (to me) reminiscent of a flower, so I decided to make a “Flower Garden” quilt, with a field of flowers on a green background.  As I was making the blocks, I decided the off-cuts from the snowballing were too interesting to throw away, so I played round with them and came up with the zig-zaggy triangles border pattern, which is my favourite part of the whole quilt (though I also quite like the negative space between the flowers – I might have to experiment with that a bit more in another quilt…)

So there you have it: my first ever designed-it-entirely-myself-totally-from-scratch quilt.  And my first finished big quilt.