Thursday, May 24, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- pressing curved seams

Just as sewing curved seams is a bit trickier than straight seams, pressing is also a bit more worrisome.  But with any kind of seam, you should get into the habit of pressing as a two-step process.  First press lightly from the back side, then turn the work over, check that the seam is good from the front, and only then press enthusiastically.  You want to find and fix any problems before you set them in with lots of pressure and moisture.

If you have sewed parallel freehand strips into a larger module, as in the block above, wait until you have them all stitched before you press anything.  Then sweep your iron across the entire set, pressing all the seams in the same direction in one swoop.  Fabric has a lot of forgiveness and will usually ease itself together nicely even if the edges aren't mathematically exact.  But it seems to lose a bit of flexibility every time it's pressed, so the first time is always the best.  If you have to return to a finished module and add more curved strips, spritz your existing seams well with water before you press in the new seams.

With more pronounced curves it is important to press the seam allowances toward the outside edge.  It's easier to get fabric to spread out under the iron than to get it to squeeze in and still stay flat.

When you press toward the outside, the dark fabric gets to keep its exact original shape; the seam allowance on the lighter fabric has to spread out a bit on the edge to lie flat.  Not a problem; fabric is usually willing to stretch.

When you press toward the inside, the dark fabric gets to keep its exact original shape and things look good from the back.  But underneath, the lighter fabric has to squeeze in to make the extra fabric fit.  

Sometimes this will work out just fine, but sometimes, especially with very tight curves, the underneath fabric can't squeeze in enough and instead it forms pleats.  A problem. 

No matter which way you press, you may come up with the occasional extreme situation where there seems to be just too much or too little fabric in the seam allowance.  If you have sewn garments in a past life, you may be tempted to get out your scissors and cut notches in the seam allowances to make them lie flat, just as you would do at the underarm of a set-in sleeve or at the curved edge of a patch pocket.  Please overcome that temptation!

Instead, try pressing first with plenty of moisture and see if you can encourage the fabric to stretch out and lie flat.  If it still resists, you can get your scissors, but instead of cutting slits in toward the seamline, cut around the edge parallel to the seam to reduce the width of the seam allowance and see if that works.  You can safely cut to within an eighth-inch of the seamline on a quilt that's intended for the wall; stick with a quarter-inch if you plan to use and wash the quilt.  If all else fails, it's better to make several slits that stop at least an eighth-inch shy of the seamline than to make a few that go all the way in.

One last word about pressing: we all were brought up to think that pressing occurs on the ironing board.  But quilters would be better off using the ironing board for fabric storage, as I do, and making another surface to actually iron on.  That's because it's important to have your entire piece lie flat as you press.

As soon as your piecing outgrows your ironing board, you're only able to get part of it to lie flat, and then you have to shift it around.  What frequently happens is that each segment is indeed flat, but the whole thing isn't -- just as you are able to press a garment in flat segments, even though the whole dress curves to fit your body.

So make yourself an ironing surface on your work table or a countertop or even on the floor.  You don't need fancy metallic ironing-board cloth; an old mattress pad, wool blanket or two thicknesses of a towel will do very nicely.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- freehand and curved seams 3

If you want to sew S-curves or even more complicated curves, you probably need more precision than you can get from the just-sew-it approach described in the last blog post.  Instead you need to establish a seamline and cut seam allowances on either side.

You don't need to go all quilt-police-traditional and make templates to accomplish this, but you do need a way to make a copy of the curve that will become your seamline.  Why not do templates?  Because you would lose the spontaneity of the freehand curve and change the character of your improvisational composition, and also because exact templates are so fiddly and time-consuming.

Instead, here are two methods of making your curves fit together perfectly while keeping the freedom of the immediate free-cut line.  I call them semi-templates.  You don't need to cut templates to accomplish this, but you do need some way to "remember" your curve so you can add seam allowances as you cut.

The first method uses a template, but it's a free-cut template with a minimum of tedious fuss.  Start with some pattern material that's big enough to draw your entire curve, and a cutting mat big enough to let you do it with one swoop of the rotary cutter.  The pattern material can be freezer paper, newspaper, interfacing or tissue paper.  Lay it out on your cutting board.  Take your rotary cutter and slice a gorgeous curve through the pattern.  If you want, you can stop there, or you can cut more curves as long as they don't cross any of your previous cuts.

(In the photos below I've made four cuts, the start of a large "striped" panel that can keep on going as long as I want. After these pieces are sewed together, I'll have to retrieve the template paper with the curved edge of 5, then make more cuts for more pieces.)

Don’t separate the two halves of the cut yet – first take a pencil and mark across both pieces every six inches or so, and/or at critical points on the curve. And mark across both pieces at the exact top and bottom of the curve.

Pick up one piece of the pattern and lay it on your fabric, making sure you keep track of whether this is going to be the right-hand piece or the left-hand piece. Now visualize how wide you want your seam allowance to be, and free-hand cut that distance away from the template.

It doesn’t have to be a perfect quarter-inch – no need to fuss with rulers, just eyeball it. There’s enough give in the fabric that you will not have problems. Finally, pin the two pieces together at the marked points, and sew. The seam will press perfectly flat.

Look at that beautiful curved seam!  Now put template #1 aside, get templates #2 and #3 and repeat the process for the next curve.

Place template #2 right up against the seam, and cut along its left edge, adding the seam allowance by eye.  In this photo template #3 is waiting, but I will actually cut it from a third piece of fabric, not maroon.

Note that I do not suggest you cut out all the pieces at once.  It's way too easy to lose your place and try to sew the wrong pieces together (ask me how I know).  Instead cut two pieces (one curve), sew and press, then move on.

With this method you can make curve after curve, as in this quilt of mine.  With some practice you can use this method to make winding-road seams with multiple changes of direction, as long as you mark and pin the seams carefully.

A variation of this method uses a marking wheel to draw your curved seamline directly onto the two layers of fabric, thus eliminating the template.  If you're not familiar with this tool, it's like a rotary cutter except its "blade" is dull, not sharp.

Instead of using the rotary cutter to make your curve, you use the marking wheel, which works exactly like the rotary cutter, with the same arm motion that gives you those nice, loose, artistic swoopy lines.

Layer two pieces of fabric where you want the curve to go, giving yourself plenty of fabric underneath (you don't want your curve to run off the edge of the bottom layer).  Limber up your arm and make a swoopy curve, pressing hard enough to crease both layers of fabric.

The creased lines don't show up all that well in the photos but they do in real life, at least long enough for you to cut and sew as needed.

Now separate the two layers, noting carefully which direction you need to extend for seam allowances. Switch to a rotary cutter and by eye, follow your creased curve a quarter-inch away.

As you did with the paper templates in the first method, put one or two marks across the seams and pin them so you match the curves before stitching.  The more complicated the curve, the more places you should mark and pin.

In the next post I'm going to tell you to press your seam allowances toward the outside of a curve.  That's great with a C-curve, but how about an S-curve?  The "outside" may be toward the left as you start, but then the curve changes direction and "outside" is toward the right.  I can't give you a hard-and-fast rule for these situations.  If one leg of the curve is more gentle than the other, press that one toward the "inside" so it will become the "outside" when the going gets tough.  If all else fails, flip the direction of the seam where the curve changes direction.  Use your best judgment, and plenty of moisture and elbow grease at the ironing board.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- freehand and curved seams 2

If you have chosen to cut your quilt pieces freehand instead of using a ruler, or if you are deliberately using curved seams, you face a construction issue: how to make the finished seams lie perfectly flat.  If the curves are gentle -- think the profile of a watermelon -- and if they curve in the same direction, you can usually just sew one to the other and they will be fine.

This approach works as a new construction method if you layer two pieces of fabric on top of one another, then cut a gentle curve through both layers.  Swap the pieces and stitch them together.

The piece above was made with three cuts, not one, and of course it yielded a mirror image piece with the same curves but the opposite color arrangement.  Note that the middle seam ended up wonky, with the black quite a bit longer than the orange, even though they were presumably the same length to start with.  This is not a failure of sewing skill; it's an unavoidable and unpredictable result of the process of sewing two bias edges together.

When this happens to you, and it will, don't feel guilty, don't try to rip the seam and redo it, just trim off the edge.

The just-sew-it approach also works with random pieces that you may find in your stash and want to sew together.  As long as the curves have approximately the same radius, and point in the same direction, you'll probably be fine.  But if they point in opposite directions, or are too radically different in profile, you'll end up with bulges or clots.  Plan ahead, and don't do that.

These pieces will most likely go together beautifully.  

These pieces won't.

With gentle curves the actual sewing will be very much like holding straight edges together -- no big deal.  But when you sew more pronounced curves -- as the watermelon profile becomes more like a cantaloupe or a grapefruit -- it's harder to maintain the proper seam allowance because the two edges are so different in profile: one a distinct hill and the other a valley.  It will be easier if you hold the "valley" curve on top and the "hill" on the bottom, even though that makes a lousy mnemonic.

Establish the seam allowance at one end of the seam and put your needle down through both layers.  If possible, set your machine so it automatically stops with the needle down, to make sure the pieces don't slip out of alignment when you stop to reposition the fabrics.  Carefully align the edges of the two layers and stitch for maybe a half inch.  Stop needle down, and reposition the fabric.

Make sure you can see the edge of the under layer, because it curves away from the needle and if you're not careful you can sew right off its edge.  If you stitch with a hint of pink peeking out from under the yellow, you'll be fine.  Yes, this is slow going, but this is how you get a perfect seam.

The top layer will form ruffles behind the needle as you stitch around the curve.  Don't pull tight on the top layer as you hold it in position; if anything, ease just a bit of extra fabric into the curve as you sew.

After you get to the end of the seam, flip it over and check whether you have inadvertently sewed any pleats into the bottom layer of fabric that you couldn't see.  If you have, get your seam ripper and open the seam for a quarter inch on each side of the pleat.  This time sew with the "hill" side up so you can watch carefully as you ease the fabric under the needle and get it smooth this time.  It's important to fix any glitches before you press, while the fabric is at its most flexible.

Sometimes you'll sew curved edges together, press the seam, and it looks as though everything is perfect.  But when you flip back to the right side, you'll notice that the two edges didn't match perfectly. When you turn that curved seam over, run your fingernail along it from the downhill side to find any hidden pleats.

If you find one, don't worry -- it's very easily fixed.  Turn it back to the wrong side and notice that the iron has creased the fabric at exactly the right place to give you your perfect seamline.  Restitch the seam along the crease mark and the curve will look exactly as it did before, except the new stitching will have closed the pleat.

Looks great from the front, but....

....there's a huge gap at the end of the seam between black and  yellow.

Go back and stitch exactly on the crease line. 

You will note that all the curves in this post go in one direction only -- no S-curves or multiple-winding roads.  If you want to sew these more complex curves, you'll need a more precise method to make them lie perfectly flat; stay tuned for the next tutorial.

And then there will be more about pressing curved seams in a further installment of Quiltmaking 101.  Wait and read that before you take your seam to the ironing board.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- freehand and curved seams 1

The rotary cutter is a blessing for anybody wanting to make straight edges, a huge improvement over tracing around a template with a pencil and then cutting along the line with a scissors.  Rotary cutters, paired with rulers, make perfectly straight edges with very little work.

Although traditional quiltmakers have always worked with ruler-straight edges and seams in most block construction and when sewing blocks together, contemporary artists often prefer the looser look of freehand cutting.  You still use the rotary cutter and mat, but instead of lining your blade up against a ruler you cut without a guide.  Even when an edge/seam looks almost straight, you can see the artist's hand in a freehand line where you don't get that vibe from a ruler-cut line.

On the left, freehand straight lines; on the right, ruler-cut:

Can you see the difference?  It's subtle, especially if you're only looking at one block, but gives a different character to the finished quilt.

The problem with freehand cutting is friction.  In an ideal world, your fabric wouldn't be the least bit slippery and your rotary cutter would be so sharp and roll so smoothly that it would cut a clean edge without pulling at all on the fabric.  You would finish your cut with the two pieces of fabric exactly in their original places, so perfectly aligned that you would barely be able to see that they were cut at all.  In the real world, the blade catches just a bit and pushes or drags the fabric along with it a hair as it rolls along; you'll often see a bubble of fabric moving ahead of the blade as it cuts.  This is especially true if you are cutting two layers of fabric at the same time.

To prevent this, and to make sure that the cut goes exactly where you want it to, it's helpful to hold the fabric in place as you cut.  For short cuts, you just hold it down with your fingers (being careful, of course, not to cut yourself).  For longer cuts, anything over a foot, I like to hold the fabric in place with the plastic ruler, but keep the cutting line at least a quarter-inch away from the edge of the ruler.  That way you get the best of both worlds: the freedom of the freehand cut, where you can wobble or curve your line if you want, plus the ease of cutting fabric that stays where it's supposed to.

When you're joining almost-straight strips and blocks, you can pretty much just put them together and sew a straight seam; the fabric will have enough give to press flat. But as the seams get longer, or as you're joining long rows of blocks, or if your freehand cut had a bit of curve to it, you have to be a little more careful.  If you're not, you can end up with a hill or a valley or both, and even the most diligent pressing won't make them disappear.

Stay tuned for tips on how to sew not-straight pieces of fabric together and still have them come out perfectly flat.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- batting cleanup

Several years ago I started a series of blog posts that I call Quiltmaking 101 -- tutorials on all the basics of machine-pieced quilts.  Early installments deal with how to use the rotary cutter, how to stitch seams and how to press.  Moving along through the production process, you can learn how to efficiently sew block-to-block quilts together, how to put the quilt sandwich together, and how to quilt it.  Finally, you can learn how to finish the quilt, with bindings or facings, and how to put a sleeve on for hanging.

I think that somebody who never saw a quilt before could probably learn 99 percent of what she needed to make one by following this series of tutorials.  If you want to read them, they're all right here.

But I realized recently, as I went back to check out one of the posts, that I had left some gaps in the instruction.  Most embarrassing, I realize that I never explicitly discussed freehand cutting -- the heart of improvisational quilting -- and how to sew together a quilt with curvy pieces.  So I am putting together a series of posts on piecing curves.  By that I mean both gently curved seams like these:

and more severe curves like these:

I'll be posting these new tutorials in the next couple of weeks.  Meanwhile, I invite you to look at the Quiltmaking 101 link above and tell me if there are other basic skills that you'd like to see additional tutorials on.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Kimono everywhere 4 -- my pieces

For our Kimono Challenge I made two small pieces using only small scraps.  I searched out torn and frayed bits and areas where the kimono had been mended in the past.  As we went through all the garments we had noticed that many of them had been mended, generally by cutting a piece of matching fabric larger than the hole, placing it underneath and invisibly stitching the layers together.  I found only one piece with a large mend, and turned it upside down so the patch was obvious.

I sewed everything down to a background mostly using running stitches, but late in the project started adding french knots.  When I was using silk or rayon thread the knots were tedious and small, but then I found a spool of 28-weight cotton Aurifil thread in a variegated ivory-pink-coral-maroon colorway, which made beautiful fat knots and was very easy to work with.  So I made large masses of knots, piling them right next to one another or even climbing on top of each other.  I love this effect, and it's a seductive technique for those of us who enjoy going into a zen state and stitching for hours at a time.

The other two pieces didn't have mends to showcase but I used the same techniques -- raw edges on the bits of silk used in the collage, lots of running stitches to hold them down to the background layer, french knots, dangling threads at the bottom.

These pieces eventually need to be mounted in frames or on panels, but not right now.

Friday, May 4, 2018

A quiltmaker's dilemma...

Last summer I took four quilts out to hang at a doctors' office as part of a program that PYRO Gallery has had for a few years.  Twice a year we hang a new "show" of as many as 50 pieces of art at the office, and in return the doctors agree that a certain amount of art will be purchased.

The good news is that one of my quilts has indeed been purchased, and though I will be sorry to see it go I know it will be going to a good home.  The quilt is "Linear B," which was the ultimate fine line quilt -- it consisted entirely of machine-pieced fine lines!

Each of these little strips is cut from commercial striped fabric and is approximately one-eighth inch wide.

Linear B won the juror's choice (aka second place) at Art Quilt Elements in 2016 at the Wayne Art Center in Wayne PA.

When we went to hang the art at the doctors' office that quilt was the only tall, skinny piece that anybody had brought, so it got to hang right by the elevators in the main lobby.

So this week I went out to collect the quilt and pack it up to be shipped to its new owner, and was appalled to see that in the months since I left it, it had warped!!

Instead of lying flat against the wall, as in that installation photo above, it was gaping at the sides, as much as four inches away from the wall in the center.  As you walked off the elevator, you got a great view of the back of the quilt.  Yuk.

Obviously I have to do some remedial sewing before this quilt can be delivered, but what?  Do I want to sew three additional horizontal sleeves with slats at the quilt's shoulders, waist and knees?  Or should I sew vertical sleeves along the edges of the quilt and slip a very tall rod into each one to hold the sides against the wall?

If any of you have had experience with this kind of gapping, please let me know what you did and whether you're happy with the solution.  The new owners are waiting!!

Thanks in advance...

And by the way, I put up "Big Ice" next to the elevators after I took down "Linear B."  Maybe it will go to a new home too.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Kimono everywhere 3

I realized in looking back on past posts that I never finished telling you about the Kimono Challenge that our local fiber and textile arts group held last year.  (Look here and here for the first parts of the story.)  It comes to mind now because we have just learned that later this year we are going to have a public exhibit of all the art made in the challenge.

Several people made wall art from the kimono in our challenge project.

Particularly intriguing in this one is the "Japanese" lettering in the center right of the piece.  It was achieved by cutting up some silk-screened fabric in an allover pattern and sewing it in vertical strips!

This one combined silk with handmade paper and Japanese paper, with hand and machine stitching.

I'll show you what I made in the next post.

Monday, April 30, 2018

A quilt show that I'd like to see

Catching up on my digital reading for the week, I finally got to read a review from Hyperallergic about a show of quilts at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  They're made by Stephen Towns, a black artist who turned from his customary painting practice to make a series of ten quilts depicting scenes from the slavery era.  In particular, most of the quilts focus on Nat Turner, who led an unsuccessful slave rebellion in 1831.

Stephen Towns, Birth of a Nation

I was impressed that the review avoided almost all of the cliches that sadly show up in so many critical discussions of quilts as art. The reviewer did not make a big deal out of Towns being a man in the predominantly female world of quilting.  There was no mention of these quilts not looking like grandma's quilts.  There was no flogging of the fake history that quilts were used to mark the route of the Underground Railroad. 

I was also impressed that Towns apparently made the quilts himself by hand -- the review talks about his bleeding fingers -- instead of farming the work out to his mom.  I liked the fact that he ransacked his parents' home for scraps from clothing made by his mother and sisters.  Most of all, I was impressed that these quilts were hung in a mainstream art museum.

If you're in the vicinity of Baltimore, you might want to check it out; the show will be up through September 2.  And I can testify that the rest of that museum is pretty wonderful too.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Spell check strikes again

I've never been a big fan of spell check because spell check can't think.  As long as a word is in the dictionary it's OK with spell check, even if it's the rung worm.  People neglect to proofread their own work because after all, they ran spell check!  And I particularly hate spell check with autocorrect because -- well, you know why.

But when I was getting ready to send a new book off to Blurb for printing, I allowed the spell check to run just in case.

This is a spell check that suggests alternatives for the words it doesn't like.  It didn't like "artwithaneedle," which was understandable.  But I was surprised to see what it suggested instead:

(In case you can't read it, spell check suggested that I change it to "trichloroethane.")

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Daily art report 5 -- maps of the USA

Recently I started a challenge to myself in my daily map project, having to do with the map of the United States.  What is more familiar to us than that map -- we see it every day in the weather report, not to mention on schoolroom walls, in textbooks, in road atlases, and who knows where else.  But I bet few of us know it so well that we can draw it without a cheat sheet.

I decided a map of the lower 48 would fit nicely on the page of my sketchbook, so I set out to draw it.  I have been working quite a bit with copying maps from books, and enjoy trying to make good replicas by eye.  I decided it would be a good challenge even if I had a map to copy from, so I tore out the weather map, which had the outlines of the states, and set to drawing.

And I should mention that I draw in ink, a deliberate choice of medium that encourages you to get it right the first time.  (I love the ink lines; pencil seems too tentative, too faint.)

The outer perimeter of the map turned out pretty accurate, especially the Great Lakes.  But when I started filling in the states I ran into difficulties.  I would start from one corner and start to draw states, and maybe start again from another corner, but when it was time to meet in the center things didn't work out all that well.

Arizona and New Mexico ended up twice their real size, while Montana was half its real size.  Texas ended up with an interesting northern edge, Tennessee was just downright strange and you can't find Delaware at all.

So I decided to do it again the next day.

This time things turned out better; I was careful to get Arkansas where it belongs.  New York, West Virginia and the Dakotas flunked the shape test, but Maryland and Delaware were a whole lot better.

I was so excited with this exercise that I wanted to do it every day.  Only problem: it took me two hours to draw the map and color it in.  That's more time than I'm willing to devote to daily art, so I'll have to wait for days when I'm sitting around a table all afternoon talking and drawing.

If I do the map often enough, maybe I can achieve two goals by the end of the year: to be able to draw a stunningly accurate map while consulting a real map, all the states having their proper shapes and sizes; and to be able to draw an accurate map without consulting a real map.  I think those are two separate skills and it would be nice to get them both.

The next week I decided to draw the outline of the United States while consulting my cheat sheet, but try to fill in the states from memory.  This was such a spectacular failure that I drew over it again and again, trying to get a bit closer.  Still need a bit of work on those skills.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Women / Impressionism 6

One last post from the exhibit at the Speed Museum.

Whenever my friend Marti and I go to a museum we play a game at the end: which piece do you want to take home with you?  It requires us to take one last walkabout, reminding ourselves of everything we've seen, and to discuss why this one is our favorite.  (It's an exercise that I recommend to any serious art viewer, making sure that you haven't just looked without seeing and thinking.)

Here's Marti's favorite, which we both thought screamed "Vermeer" for its gorgeous light coming in from the side window.

Anna Ancher, Young Woman Arranging Flowers, ~1885

It struck me that hardly any of the paintings showed those classic Impressionist subjects of landscape or still life.  Those have always been my favorite Inpressionist genres, and I had a hard time choosing my favorite from the few possibilities.

Fanny Churberg, Waterfall, 1877

This artist got no respect from the Finnish art world: they called her paintings "strange" and "abnormalities." Unsurprisingly, she gave up painting.
Marie Cazin, Evening, 1884-88

The dramatic smoke plume made me think of all those paintings of trains, especially inside the huge open-air railroad stations. 

Helene Schjerfbeck, The Door, 1884

Anna Bilinska-Bohdanowicz, Unter den Linden in Berlin, 1890

This was my favorite, reminiscent of all the Childe Hassam paintings of New York street scenes with flags flying.  I loved the way the precise detail of the architecture dissolved into hazy radiance.

Well, maybe not my absolute favorite -- how about a tie between that one and this beautiful still life of pink satin shoes.  Not only do I love the painting, I sure wish I had a pair of shoes just like it.

Eva Gonzal├Ęs, The Pink Slippers, 1879-80

And that's all, folks!  You still have a couple of weeks to see the exhibit, "Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism," which closes May 13.  As the Michelin Guide says, it's worth a detour.  Maybe even worth a trip.