Monday, April 14, 2014

My first quilt

So Quilting Daily, the emailed newsletter from Interweave Press, is daring us to write the story of our first quilt.  Never one to shy away from a challenge, I will take up their prompt and take you back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when I was still in high school.

I had started sewing my own clothes, and got the idea to make a quilt from the leftover bits.  I can't say why I got the idea; my grandmothers had both quilted, but apparently looked upon it as work rather than creativity and neither one of them thought to pass the skill on to me, even though they had been enthusiastic about my embroidery and garment-sewing.  But somehow I had come to know that you could stitch fabric down to a ground, and maybe put some embroidery on it, and eventually you would have a quilt.

This was pre-polyester, so at least my first quilting attempts did not involve double knits.  My leftovers were cotton, many of them in a weight that we would today call quilting fabric, although there were some heavier ones in there.  I was especially fond of a fabric called Kettle Cloth, resembling homespun with some slubs, but more firmly woven.  It made fabulous dresses and I had used it in many different colors (interestingly, I only saw one printed Kettle Cloth in all the years it was on the market, and some of it is in the quilt).

two colors of Kettle Cloth -- the green has faded, the turquoise is just as it was

This was also before the quilting craze hit the U.S. and I had no books or magazines to provide helpful hints.  So, for instance, I used 5/8" seams, just like in garment sewing. And despite my math proficiency, I somehow hadn't figured out that it would be a good idea to make all my blocks the same size.  But eventually, over a period of several years, I accumulated enough scraps, and enough blocks, for a quilt, and got them sewed together.

I did lots of embroidery, and sewed on bits and pieces of upholstery trimming and other miscellaneous fabric-like substances.

I knew that quilts had three layers.  I chose some nice sturdy mattress ticking for a back, and flannel for batting.  I tied the quilt with embroidery floss, faced it with one-inch bias tape, turned the bias to the back and sewed it down with a decorative machine stitch.  It went on my bed for a while, then I put a sleeve on it and hung it on the wall.  I loved it -- in addition to having cheerful colors and pleasant composition, it was a scrapbook of my high school and college wardrobe.

Decades passed.  We moved.  I noticed that the quilt was covered in dust and worse, so I threw it in the washing machine.  Oops.  Mattress ticking shrinks about 10%, while most of the rest of the quilt didn't.  And since it was tied, rather skimpily, the new effect featured bulges and droops.  After I kicked myself for a while, I decided the quilt was still beautiful and hung it back on the wall, droops and all.  And you know what? The light wasn't very good in that room, and nobody even noticed the droops unless I masochistically pointed them out.

grosgrain ribbon -- obviously shrinks more than other fabrics

More years passed.  I inherited a huge painting from my father and the quilt wall was the only place to put it.  I took the quilt down, inspected it, and decided it needed a second life.  So I washed it again and took it apart.  Note to self: don't use decorative stitches if you plan to unsew later -- the stitches were so close together I couldn't get a seam ripper in.  It took weeks of TV watching and cussing to get the facings off.

The flannel "batting" layer had started to disintegrate, so I pitched it. The mattress ticking, which I had also enhanced with additional decorative stitching, still looked fine (although it was several inches smaller than the quilt top).  And the quilt top itself still looked great -- at least from the front.  From the back, it's obvious that I didn't waste any time worrying about workmanship, pressing, or other such niceties.

I bundled everything up, stuck it in a bag, and stashed it on a shelf.  Here's the top, wanting to be re-quilted so it can come out in public again.


Update:  If this turns out to be the best first-quilt story in the bunch, here are the five books I want from the Interweave store (which by the way has a bunch of nice marked-down books that you might want to check out:


  1. Coincidentally, my first quilt was made of kettle cloth. I knew it "had" to be cotton, and that was all I could find in 1978 at the local fabric store. A solid white, and a blue and white print. At least I used 1/4" seam allowances. I quilted the whole thing, by hand, using a stab stitch. Took me all summer.

  2. Love the story and the quilt. Can't think of anything more precious to you. I didn't make quilts back then, but I do wish I'd saved some of my old sewing projects. Have fun quilting it again.

  3. wow! great story. I was hoping as I read it that the quilt survived, and I'm happy that you still have it. the first quilt i made fell off the car roof as I backed out of the driveway and is gone forever.

  4. Loved your "first quilt" story, Kathy. The random piecing is a theme you've continued throughout. I made clothing from kettle cloth in high school. The fabric had an interesting weave and washed well.

  5. I love your first quilt! The story and pictures are so great. You do amazingly beautiful and creative embroidery too. Looking forward to checking out your blog!

  6. Kathy you should finish this, or should I say refinish it. It would pass for a great crazy quilt.

  7. Fantastic first quilt! Mine seems so humble and petite by comparison. But it is a masterful piece of art with lovely colors, crazy piecing and handstitching. Thanks for sharing your story.