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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Project 1

Like most new quilters, I completed my Quilting 101 class with ease. Yes, I struggled a bit here and there, but all in all it was a pleasantly easy and fun filled course. So it was with a light heart and unbounded confidence I signed up for Quilting 201: "Beyond the Basics". 

It was there that my true education as a quilter began.

The blocks were much more complex. By the end, we were piecing up to 32 units to make each block...tiny  sub-elements of larger parts of the blocks. When I had to "un-sew" and resew a couple of the blocks four times, I learned that my Quilting 101 accuracy skills had to be sharpened up considerably. And that was before we even approached fitting all these complex blocks with cornerstones and sashing...

It is that necessity for accuracy that leads so many crafters to reject quilting. It's too fussy, they say, too hidebound. You can't have any fun. I would qualify those statements, and offer up this translation: quilting is a wonderful medium for working with colour, texture and shape. But to quilt well, you must master several basic skills, and master them well. And the most critical of these skills is accuracy.

In particular, sewing a deadly accurate 1/4" seam.

It seems silly but that 1/4" seam is absolutely the foundation of your quilting ability. Sew a consistent 1/4" seam and your pieces will fit together, your blocks will fit together, your intersections will be crisp, and your points will be clean and sharp.

More to the point, mastering the 1/4" seam means no ripping, no fudging, no making-it-overs. And your finished quilt will not only look better, it will give you more pleasure. You will look at the finished quilt and think "I love that quilt!"...not "Dang, there's that mistake I made!".

Just note that if you are working from a pattern, that pattern should state a specific seam allowance. In blocks with points or multiple seams, you must work with the same seam allowance that the designer built into the pattern. You may well find the seam allowance is stated as a "scant" 1/4". Since no one has defined exactly what that is supposed to be, try taking a two thread count space off your full 1/4". Sew up a complex block in the pattern and see how that goes. If points are consistently not meeting by a specific margin, adjust accordingly.

Accurate piecing calls into play two basic skill sets:

1/ You must be able to square up your fabric and cut it accurately. Most of us adopt the rotary cutter and mat for this purpose, and take a workshop teaching rotary cutting skills. Check your cut strips or pieces to ensure they are perfectly accurate, and if they are not, cut them again. As with carpentry, measure twice, cut once!

2/ You must be able to consistently sew an accurate 1/4" seam.

After weathering a few months where stress and work commitments made it impossible for me to get to my quilting worktable, I found that sewing a consistent 1/4" seam is like riding a bicycle: you may always be able to get on that bike and ride, but if you are out of practice, things are going to be wobbly and wonky! So I thought I would do a little Accuracy 101 page for those of us just learning to quilt, just returning to quilting, or just wanting to check or refine your accuracy skills. Because, in the immortal words of Master Yoda:

There is no try, only do.

Project One: The 1/4" Seam
This is one easy exercise!
Cut fabric into three strips, all strips EXACTLY 1 1/2" wide. Measure your strip widths to be sure the width is the same all down the strip. The strips don't have to be long, but in order to use these strips in the next step, make the strips a minimum of 6" long. If you want to make extra for more practice, make your strips longer.

The strips can be of the same fabric, but for extra fun, let's set things up so you can complete some pretty nine patch squares by the time we are done. Choose two fabrics you like, one light, one dark. Take two of the dark strips and one of the light strips. Using a 1/4" seam, sew the strips together down their long edges such that the light strip is in the middle:

Now take one dark strip and two light strips, and using a 1/4" seam, sew them together down their long edges such that the dark strip is in the middle (for small pieces like these, I prefer Roxanne's Glue Baste-It or white glue to pins (which, however lightly, do warp the seam), and unlike Roxanne, I do use a long pin to cap the glue between uses! Yes darlings, the pin does get rusty over time, but I then just use another long, stainless steel pin):

Once your sewing is done, check your seams. Are your seams exactly 1/4" wide? I use a Quilter's Quarter Marker ruler to check this right at the machine (I love this quilting teacher recommended it and it is a real favourite):

Press your stitch lines to set the stitches:

Now press the seams to one side, in this case, toward the dark fabric:

Before we go any farther, here is the point of Project One:

Measure your sewn strips...

The width of the piece should be EXACTLY 3 1/2".

The width of the middle strip, seam to seam, should be EXACTLY 1".
The width of each of the outside strips should be EXACTLY 1 1/4".

If your measurements show something different, only two things can be responsible: either your initial strips were cut inaccurately, or your seam was not a perfect 1/4". Get out the ruler and figure out what went wrong.

Do this exercise until your 1/4" seams are perfect and your numbers come out right. 

The Elephant in the Room:
For accurate 1/4" seams, that elephant is equipment. If you are fortunate, you began your quilting life with the perfect tools, but most of us do not. I began quilting using a wonderful sewing machine, one which had wide feed dog teeth and a gazillion functions. But in wide feed dog machines, the right edge of your 1/4" seam fabric is barely on the right feed dog. That means the left feed dog pulls more securely and your piece swings under the needle. This can make sewing a steady 1/4" seam a difficult exercise, particularly at the beginning and end of your piece, although using a scrap to begin and end seams helps. Narrow (5mm) feed dogs are a much better choice for 1/4" seams, although there are a number of work-arounds.

Using a wide (9mm) feed dog machine, you can move your needle and thus position your 1/4" seam such that the right side of your fabric is more securely on the right feed dog. The penalty for doing this is giving up the use of your straight stitch plate and 1/4" foot; you will have to switch to the zig-zag plate and whatever presser foot works best for you with the altered needle position. Unless you have no choice, this makes for a lot of fussing.

No matter what feed dog width you are working with, there are options to explore in terms of presserfeet. You will have to experiment to see which suits you best, but the main options are:
-a dedicated 1/4" foot
-a dedicated 1/4" foot with a guide
-a narrow foot with a guide that can be set to 1/4"
-a guide applied to your machine bed and adjusted to the 1/4" position, allowing the use of various presserfeet...that can be as simple as a strip of masking tape several layers thick, a plastic cling strip or an accessory guide made for your machine bed.

I am a big fan of guides placed well in front of the needle. If you can get things organized and feeding properly, you will not have to make last minute (aka wobbly) corrections under the needle as you sew. Guide strips are hugely helpful if you are losing your near vision, as most of us do in middle age...bright lighting helps with that too.

You can view a very helpful video on using Q tools guide strips here.

Thread can make a difference.
Conventional quilting wisdom states that a very fine, strong thread will work best as this thread will not bulk up your turned and pressed seam. The traditional call for sewing a "scant" 1/4" seam was based on using thicker thread that forced an enlarged fold, thus making your finished units a tad small. While I suspect you adjust to using whatever thread you like, I am not happy with using, as my critical yardstick, a hazy descriptor like "scant", and while I think as long as you stick to a consistent seam width your piecing will go well, choosing user-defined seam allowances causes problems on team projects, and in patterns based on a specific seam allowance.

Whenever possible, I prefer to stick to an exact 1/4", something I can measure accurately. I depend heavily on my Quilter's Quarter inch ruler; only by checking my work against that objective measure (and it uses a true 1/4") will I get any feedback when my technique, for whatever reason, begins to slip.

When it comes to thread, I have been using Aurifil Thread, which is very fine, very strong, and comes in different weights. I like 50/2 for piecing and 40/2 for quilting. Note that for piecing, a buff and/or grey will get you through most quilts, no matter what fabric colours you are using. For a white based quilt, you will likely want a matching white thread for piecing. But for your final quilting, you will want to consider the entire thread palette available.

Finally, fabric prep.
I like to take my new yard goods, stitch a fine line down the raw edges if I am using a top loader (the delicate or short cycles on front loaders are usually gentle enough to wash raw goods without a lot of fraying),  and machine wash and dry. Why? Fabric tends to be warped on the bolt, and I want it to lose all its distortions before I start working. I then spray starch it as I iron it smooth. Because of the heavenly scent, I use either the Linen Scented Niagara Spray Starch (manual pump, not the aerosol) or  Best Press Caribbean Beach . The light starching helps stabilize your fabric, which helps your pieces, especially your small ones (or the ones you have to rip out and redo several times...oh, ask me how I know!) stand up to all the handling.

For quilting then, the equipment wish list is:
-narrow feed dog machine with a nice straight stitch (my preference is a 5 mm Bernina with CB hook)
-a straight stitch plate
-a presserfoot and guide combo of your preference
-fine, strong thread that will not bulk up your turned and pressed seams
-bright lighting
-sharp rotary cutter, mat, good matched set of rulers (I prefer the frosted Olfa rulers as the tiny dotted lines allow great accuracy...I line the left edge of the dotted lines up with the raw edge of the fabric I am cutting)
-hot iron, spray starch

Because I use a scrap piece to begin and end my piecing, I do not need the auto thread cutter option for piecing. I bought an elderly, used narrow feed dog Bernina with the vertical (CB) hook just for piecing and I love it!

Fabric used was:
Pueblo Traditions (the blue)
Quilter's Paradise, Yellow Y3
Dancing Bugs, Floral Mix on Pink

Quilting Accuracy 102 - Joints