Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I was thrilled and honored to win the Quilts Japan Prize at last year’s Quilt National, an award given by Nihon Vogue magazine to commemorate the ties between US and Japanese quilters. The award is a trip to Japan, during which I will teach a workshop.

The trip occurs in July and for the last several weeks many, many emails have been exchanged working out the details of the workshop and its publicity. I wanted to teach my technique for piecing very thin lines – the same one that I introduced to you as the Quilt Date for April. Imagine my surprise when the Japanese organizers asked whether I could teach this as a hand-piecing project rather than using the sewing machine! “We Japanese quilters love our hand piecing,” they wrote me.

After some contemplation of alternatives, I told them I could teach it to hand-piecers, but we will have a few sewing machines in the room as well. (My suspicion is that after people hand-piece a couple of very thin lines they may decide that now is the time to get over their sewing machine anxieties.)

Since my total lifetime hand-piecing experience has probably involved about one yard of thread, I thought it might be a good idea to test-drive this concept before I get to Japan. So yesterday I spent the day with the Piecemakers of Lyndon Baptist Church, a delightful group of ladies who all have far more hand-piecing experience than I will ever have. We all made samples with very thin pieced lines.

As you might expect, we all learned a lot from the experience, and probably I learned the most. Our first realization was that when you hand-piece a 15-inch seam it is prone to pucker and ruffle. We talked about that and decided that hand-piecers rarely make seams that long; they’re far more likely to work with small blocks and with shorter seams, there’s less opportunity for the two pieces of cloth to get out of synch with one another. Solution: we stopped every now and then as we sewed to smooth and tug on the seams to keep them straight, and the people who were sewing 20 stitches to the inch, secured with backstitches, lengthened their stitches a little so the seams didn’t tighten up.

My second realization was that my process for keeping everything in place while machine-stitching didn’t work with hand-piecing. After you get your two pieces of fabric in place to sew a seam, the machine-stitcher will start at the left side and sew toward the right (actually, you will turn the whole package 90 degrees and sew from top to bottom). But the hand-stitcher will start at the right side and sew toward the left. So my well-planned organizational method of which side you stitch first and how you mark your edges to keep things in order was literally topsy-turvy. The one left-handed piecer in the group was the only one who was able to sew the seam the way I told her to.

My third realization -- the most serious – was that hand-stitched seams come apart far more readily than machine-stitched. So when I sliced across my previously-pieced strip to insert a second strip, the first set of seams entirely lost their footing and came apart. On my own sample I stopped and resewed the first half-inch or so of an opened seam before I stitched the crossing seam, but I missed another seam that had also lost its firmness. I didn’t discover that one until I had completed the seam and pressed it, and then realized my error. In real life I should have ripped back the second seam, repaired the first one, then resewed the second one, but this being a practice piece I just muttered. All of a sudden those 20-stitches-to-the-inch-plus-some-backstitches ladies didn’t seem so misguided after all.

Note how the seam at the bottom has gotten much wider than it should as the cut thread lost its tension and allowed the fabric to spread apart and the stitches to hang out.  Nasty!
This is a problem that I will have to think about a great deal before I hit Japan. Shall I tell people to slice their work open, then immediately add new stitching to the ends of the cut seams to secure them? Should they stitch along the cut edge for an inch to secure the ends? Or could a judiciously applied pin or two hold things together long enough for the new seam to cross the first one?

Any hand-piecers in cyberspace who have experience in this sort of thing, please feel free to send me all the advice you can think of!!

Most of the ladies started with fabric that was about 15 inches square. It took us about an hour to piece in one thin strip, then cross it with a second one – four lines of stitching, plus some time for pressing and thinking. At that rate it would take a long time to piece an entire quilt, so I suspect the Japanese students will have to use this technique more sparingly than I might do myself with my sewing machine. But knowing the Japanese artistic sensibilities, their lines will probably be far more elegant than mine.


  1. I love the way hand-piecing looks. I love that it's less forgiving than the "more precise" machine. That's what makes it appealing to me. Thanks for sharing.

  2. How prudent to do a test run before Japan. I can't imagine hand-piecing this sort of work but will be intrigued to see what you and your students come up with.

  3. Congratulations on your Quilts Japan prize. Gosh, that's a challenge. I hand piece, but I don't sew 20 stitches per inch! My eyes popped out a bit there. Is it possible to approach the design in a different way before you start cutting/stitching? ie design the whole thing in blocks and cut out pieces to fit the design, rather than piecing a whole section and cutting it up? Stitching and slicing seems to be exclusively a machine technique, whereas hand piecing usually tends to happen in smaller blocks that are joined together. I'll be interested to know what develops when your Japanese students get started on this.

  4. Kaye -- I suppose it would be possible to design the whole thing and cut everything out first, but that wouldn't be my technique and I wouldn't want to be in the same room with it because I hate the concept of pre-planning what's supposed to be improvisational. You're right that stitching and slicing doesn't seem to lend itself to hand-piecing, and that's a problem I have to solve (since all the publicity for the workshop has already gone out).

  5. uh oh... could you iron the hand-pieced fabric to lightweight interfacing before slicing? Would that help keep everything in place? I don't know... good luck!

  6. Staring at "Crazed 1:Tricolor" and then looking at the detail in your post, I started to perspire heavily thinking about how much work it would actually take to hand piece one of your quilts...
    It made me want to jump out of my seat and give my Bernina and Juki a big hug!

  7. I helped out running a workshop in Japan - they were well used to doing things by hand that we wouldn't dream of, think of all those hand stitched kimonos!
    We were demonstrating English patchwork over papers - oversewing makes a much tighter seam similar to some of the pojagi stich methods although I don't know how that would work with your technique.
    I also demonstrated how I'd made a journal quilt with printed photos chopped up and rearranged. I'd done that freehand cutting after machine stitching but ended up making templates with seam allowances for hand stitching - not very improvisational but it worked.

  8. Congrats on your award! And kudos to you for even trying to figure out how to do this by hand! I would have said, NO WAY! How about trying a dab of fray check on the seam ends immediately after slicing? Or maybe even before if they knew where they wanted to slice. just a thought.


  9. Wow! Thanks to everybody for their suggestions. Katy's idea for fray-check may be the winner. (the iron-on interfacing doesn't seem feasible since you would need a new application every time you made a new slice) I think the best solution may be to suggest a different pattern of slicing so the pieced-in lines don't cross one another quite so often. I'll report back as I contemplate the issue more. I appreciate everybody's ideas.

  10. If it is allowed to add a thought months later: The asian hand quilting method is right-side sewing, folding a scrap or a seam, holding it in place with one or two pins and attaching it with tiny stitches by hand. This is called "korak" and it is what I do. An easy and pleasant method, and it is quick. I discarded the traditional hand-sewing method.
    Slicing sewn pieces is just as difficult as in the conventional way -- I don't do that at all.

  11. Hi Eva! I have never heard of korak but I think it's similar to the pojagi technique of Korea. I am periodically intrigued by hand-stitching but the older I get the more I realize that there's so much yet to get done, and run for the sewing machine!!

    As it turned out, only one or two of the ladies in Japan decided to hand-piece at the workshop. One started out hand-piecing but switched over when she saw how quickly the others were zipping through on the machines.