Monday, August 30, 2010

Sewing for 50 years!

I sewed all day on Saturday—my birthday—and my husband made me steak au poivre, a peppery steak with brandy sauce. We drank good red wine, and it was a great day.

A friend wished me happy birthday on my Facebook page, writing, “Only two more years until the big one!” (She means 60.) After thinking about that a bit (only two more years and I’ll reach another decade…), I decided that after the year I’ve had, every birthday is “a big one.” In the past year, my daughter had a liver transplant and has struggled with chemotherapy and getting off steroids and morphine. Then I resigned from my job as an English teacher in a dispute over personal leave time. Life is fragile and things can change fast. Everybody knows that, but the reminders can be hard to take.

I also thought about how many years I’ve been sewing—at least 50! Here is a picture of one of my most prized possessions—the first quilt I ever made. My grandmother saved it, and my father found it and gave it to me after her death.
I was probably about 7 or 8 when I made this. It is about 11 inches “square,” made of 1½-inch pieces stitched together by hand. I can see the big stitches in the seams. My grandmother quilted it in diagonal lines using her treadle sewing machine, and bound it. I remember playing dolls with it. To this day, I love to use reproduction fabrics from the 1930s through the ‘50s. They make me happy and bring back memories.

So, I’ve been sewing for 50 years. I became a serious quilter in 1995 after years of sewing garments, gifts, and items for my home. By 1997 I was all in—a serious quilter. As my daughters became teenagers, there was no more need for cute little appliquéd jumpers, and quilting definitely satisfied my need to be creative. But when I began teaching in 2001, I almost stopped sewing altogether as I worked on an online master’s degree and teacher certification. And I always had a stack of compositions to grade. Had I been in the classroom this year, I would have had 150 students, an overwhelming load for an English teacher. Now I am “retired,” and after 50 years of sewing, I get to “reinvent myself,” as my sister says. I am sewing every day.

During the last several years, I became frustrated when I couldn’t get into my sewing room—too many papers to grade, lessons to prepare. When I wanted to sew but didn’t have much time, I would make a few log cabin blocks from my reproduction fabrics, and that would make me happy for a little while. I put together the start of two different quilt tops, shown below, but I never finished anything. I just stashed away the blocks for a project—someday.

This weekend, I “unsewed” these blocks, added another row to the smaller blocks, made 12 more, and now have 178 blocks ready to go for two twin-size quilts. My inspiration is the rectangle shape and Kaffe Fassett’s Target Log Cabin quilt in his book Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts. But why start over when I already have log cabin blocks in the fabrics that make me happy? Just look at this lovely stack of blocks!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mystery quilt II

Choosing fabrics for this mystery quilt was difficult. I started with the “inspiration fabric” you saw in yesterday’s photo, then followed the directions and tried to choose a range of light to very dark fabrics. This took more time than anything else. I rejected numerous fabrics until I got a combination (including pink, green and yellow) that I hope will work. I won’t know if I chose wisely until it’s all over. My choices include one sort of “ugly” fabric, which is one of my favorite little quilting tricks. Sometimes the ugly duckling reads as a neutral and makes all the other fabrics work better together.

Part 1 directions included cutting out ALL the pieces for the entire quilt, which took a whole day. I carefully stored the pieces in labeled plastic bags. Making the four blocks took another day. That was a lot of fun, because I could begin to see bits of the mystery quilt unfold. My four finished blocks from Part 1 are below, and I’m happy with the result. The star points look black in the photo, but that fabric is actually a deep maroon and black swirl. See if you can pick out the “ugly” fabric.

Now, after all that work, I have to pack the pieces away, try to forget about them, and wait for the next issue of American Quilter, which doesn’t come out until Sept. 15. To join the American Quilter’s Society and get the magazine, go to

Now it’s back to my Simple Shapes project! I have a UFO with rectangles—the log cabin block. Actually, I have A LOT of log cabin blocks, and it’s time they came together.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mystery quilt I

This week I finished Part 1 of the mystery quilt featured in the latest issue of American Quilter magazine. When you make a mystery quilt, you choose your fabric and follow directions without knowing how the finished quilt will look. This quilt seemed challenging and I had some pretty new fabric, so I jumped in. The fabric that inspired me is at the left below; on the right is a chart of the 12 fabrics I chose—dark, medium, and light according to the directions. (More about fabric choice tomorrow.)

The first step was to make 7 focus blocks, 4 to be set straight and 3 on point. I thought my fabric looked like aspen leaves (I had just been to Colorado), so I designed blocks with aspen leaves of various sizes, which I planned to appliqué to the background. But I just couldn’t resolve the aspen leaf theme with the pink in the fabric. Then Danica, my granddaughter who will be 5 in December, told me she wanted a quilt with pink butterflies on it. That did it. I redesigned the blocks. Where there are butterflies, there are flowers, of course, so I had a great time appliquéing butterflies, flowers and leaves. I thread-painted in a few details.

I use Steam-a-Seam 2 for appliqué. First I fuse it to the fabric, then draw the shapes on the paper-covered backing with the aid of a light box. (Yes, we have a light box. My husband bought it to view photo slides, but I think I use it more for tracing patterns on fabric. You can also tape your pattern and fabric to a sunny window. That method works just as well—the pattern shows right through, backlit by bright sunlight.) I cut out my butterflies and flowers, then removed the paper backing and fused them to the background squares. See my appliqué shapes below.

I used a satin stitch for the appliqué, stabilizing the block with Stitch & Tear on the back. When I painted in the details with thread, I used Sulky brand water-soluble stabilizer on top and a wash-away foundation paper on the back. I had to soak the blocks in warm water to get all that stuff out. They looked a little bedraggled, but when dried, ironed, and trimmed, they turned out just fine. My 7 finished focus blocks are below.

Tomorrow: The four finished blocks from Part 1.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Gypsy baby quilt

I finished another layette quilt for my guild’s “10,000 inches” project. This quilt looks like it could have been made for a gypsy baby—it is wild and colorful! It is an Unfinished Object—a UFO in quilter parlance. In 2002 I made two small quilt tops in response to a guild challenge to use stripes. I finished one, but this one has been sitting in a box and in the back of my mind ever since. I am glad to finally complete it, and I hope it makes some mother and baby very happy. Maybe I will see it again someday, wrapped around a baby at the grocery store.

For the batting, I zig-zagged two small pieces together, and I also pieced the backing. I really like using up those odds and ends. I even used pink binding left over from another project. This quilt is 33 by 36 inches, for a perimeter total of 138 inches toward my guild’s goal.

Tomorrow I hope to have pictures of my current project—part 1 of the mystery quilt that appeared in the last issue of American Quilter magazine. I’ve spent a lot of time on it!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The past

“We may be through with our past, but the past is not through with us.” That’s one of my favorite movie lines—from Magnolia (1999), a movie with a complicated plot featuring several famous actors (Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore and Jason Robards). Recently I’ve been thinking about the past more than usual because two weeks ago my family held a memorial service for my father-in-law, who died in May at nearly 89 years old. And an object from my past came back into my possession.

“Grandpa Jim” was part of that “greatest generation” that experienced the Great Depression and then came of age during World War II. The Army kept him in medical school during the war, and he served his time just afterwards. He married his sister’s friend, a woman from the East Coast, became a small-town anesthesiologist in Illinois, and raised three children. Eventually he taught anesthesiology at Washington University in St. Louis and directed the first out-patient surgery center at Barnes Hospital. After his first wife died of cancer, he remarried and had a second long and happy marriage. He wrote that he had had a good life and he was satisfied with it.

What does any of this have to do with quilting? The process of emptying out Grandpa’s apartment and distributing his possessions among the family members brought back to me an afghan I made for him and his second wife in the late 1970s. It is pictured below, with a close-up detail.

You can see it is rather like a sampler quilt. Each square is crocheted in a different stitch, then the squares are joined to make a whole afghan. The yarn is 100% wool, which was expensive for me at the time, but I remember choosing a very high-quality yarn because I intended to put a lot of time into making the squares and I wanted my final product to be very nice and last a long time. (Good advice for quilters: Use high quality materials that will last.) I have known how to crochet since I was a child, thanks to my grandmother, but I only knew the basic stitches. This afghan taught me how to crochet almost anything, and it certainly was an exercise in patience. I was an accomplished garment sewer at the time, but I can look at this afghan today and see the makings of a future quilter.

We also brought home from Grandpa’s apartment a set of twin beds and a dresser—very nice cherry wood—not technically antique, but certainly old family pieces that had belonged to his mother, my husband's grandmother. Suddenly my house has taken on the atmosphere of a furniture store as I am faced with moving other furniture and rearranging bedrooms to fit this in. The first step is to have the roofers come to fix a leaking skylight in an attic room so I can repaint and start moving beds around. It’s definitely true that one thing leads to another when you’re doing home improvement!

My empty nest periodically refills again when my three adult daughters come home to visit, except two are married, the third is getting engaged, and I have a granddaughter. My family has multiplied and I need more sleeping space! I lost a bedroom when I took one over for my sewing studio, pictured below.

I want to make a new little bedroom for my granddaughter in our attic room, then set up the twin beds in the room that was previously hers when she came to visit. As I incorporate the past into my home, I find I have even more beds to make quilts for—a good thing. In memory of Grandpa Jim, our family gathered and dispersed again, and I have tried to keep very busy the past two weeks, sewing and thinking about the past….

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A baby quilt

My quilt guild makes baby quilts for layettes that are given to women who receive prenatal care through the county health department. I used the 36 leftover blocks from Genevieve’s Recovery Quilt to make a baby quilt, below. The color of this quilt is very different from Genevieve’s. The focus fabric is navy blue with pink flowers, and there is a bright blue print in these blocks, too. Once again, a simple shape, the triangle, makes a very pretty quilt.

This year my guild members are challenging themselves to sew 10,000 inches of baby quilts for our layette project (measured by the perimeter of the quilts). My quilt is 35 inches square, so I have contributed 140 inches toward the goal. I have a number of leftover blocks from various projects, and this is a great way to use them up.