Monday, May 19, 2014

Quiltmaking 101 -- the quilt production line

When all your blocks are finished, pressed and trimmed, it's best to have a system for sewing them together, to make it less likely that you'll get confused and sew them in the wrong order or put one upside-down.  Here's an efficient method that allows you to put the entire quilt top together at only two sewing machine sit-downs.

After the blocks are arranged on the design wall in the order you like, take a good look at your design and picture the blocks in numbered vertical columns, starting with column 1 on the left side.  You might want to take a photo of this arrangement to consult if you get confused (especially recommended if breezes blow through your studio, if pets or children visit, or gremlins have been known to drop in while you're in the bathroom).

Now, move the blocks from the wall to a big cutting board or piece of foamcore, arranging them in columns, starting with the bottom block of the right-hand column.  The next block up from the bottom slightly overlaps the bottom one, and finally the top block of the column is the top block of the pile.  Place this pile at the right-hand side of your board.

Transfer each column of blocks in the same manner, slightly overlapping piles if necessary to fit them on your board.  For a very large quilt, take down several columns from the right side first, sew them together, and then take down the rest of the columns and sew them.

Carry the board carefully to your sewing machine and place it somewhere that you can reach without getting up from your chair.

Begin with columns 1 and 2, the two left-hand columns of the quilt, and the two left-hand piles on your board. Take those two piles off your board and place them near the sewing machine.

Pick up the top block from column 2, flip it right side down onto the top block from column 1 and sew the blocks together down the right side of the pair.

When you reach the end of the block, don't cut the thread; just keep stitching onto the next pair of blocks, which are the next two blocks on the piles.  Keep going until you have sewed all the blocks in column 1 to their next-door neighbors in column 2.

You now have a long chain of pairs of blocks, looking like a series of closed books.  The blocks from column 1 are on the bottom, and those from column 2 are on top (right side down).

When you get to the last pair of blocks, you can cut the thread at the machine, but leave the chains of stitching between the pairs of blocks.  Go back up to the top of your chain, to the two top blocks in the columns, and open the "book" so you're looking at the right sides of the fabric.  The block from column 1 is the left-hand "page," and the block from column 2 is the right-hand "page."

Get the column 3 pile from your board and place it by the machine. Pick up the top block from column 3, flip it right-side down over the top block from column 2, and sew.  Just as you did on the first line of stitching, don't cut your thread between blocks, just sew from the first pair onto the next pair.  When you get to the end of this column, your chain is just as long as it was before, but it's three blocks wide instead of two.

Repeat this process, one column at a time, until you've sewed all the blocks together.  Notice that it's impossible for any blocks to get out of order, once they're sewed, because they're all held in their proper place by the thread chains between the blocks.

After all the columns are sewed, press the seams.  Make sure you don't cut the threads while you're pressing, so all the blocks stay in the right order.

Return to the sewing machine and turn the quilt a quarter-turn so the sewed-together horizontal rows of blocks become sewed-together vertical columns.  Now you have a series of strips running vertically, joined delicately but firmly to their neighbors with a bunch of thread chains.  Arrange them on your work surface with the right side facing up.

This time, start at the right.  Flip the right-hand strip back toward the left, closing the book by folding along the line of threads.  Align the edges and stitch.  You may want to pin the seam together at each block intersection if it's quite long or if you really want the corners to match.

Next sew the third strip to the second, and the fourth strip to the third, and so on until everything is in one piece.  One more session of ironing, and you're done.

On most quilts I don't much care if the corners of the blocks match exactly.  Often fabrics are similar in color or value and you can hardly notice where the corners fall, especially on print fabrics.  But if you want your corners to line up perfectly, put pins exactly through the seams.

As you start stitching across the first pair of blocks, hold the pin at the end of that block and pull the fabric taut.  Even if the two blocks aren't exactly the same length, the shorter one will ease a bit to match the longer one.  It's important that you establish this slight tension as early as possible: an eighth-inch of extra fabric will stretch better across a 6-inch expanse than if you wait till the last inch to ease it in.

Remove the first pin one stitch before the needle hits it, sew carefully across the seam intersection, then shift your grasp to grab the second pin and repeat the process across the second pair of blocks.

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