I have been working on sandwiching and quilting this for far too many months. It’s embarrassing. I was waiting to post until it was done, and I’ve come to realize that date is still a few months off in the future. So here are my mistakes and some lessons learned about different methods of putting your quilt together.
I started the way I always have in the past, preparing to put it on a longarm machine. These quilting machines are incredibly helpful, letting you roll the quilt top and backing on two separate rollers. They come together as you roll them onto a new roller bar up at the top, allowing the quilter lots of free play space without the weight of the quilt dragging you down or the bulk getting in the way like it would on your home machine. I’ve actually only ever assembled my quilts this way.
I usually do an allover free motion design, which is just a continuous line that winds its way through the quilt. There are a multitude of patterns you can find online to do this, but the most common and easiest is a stippling, or meandering. I’ve done a few this way, and I just wanted something more organized and traditional for this quilt. I had purchased a few stencils at the quilt expo that were fairly simple loop and wave designs that I hoped would be an easy first pattern to follow and try to trace as I quilted. I had also purchased pounce powder which seemed to hold up well and make a better mark than pencils.
The pounce worked great. I spent an afternoon transferring my patterns to the whole quilt top, assembling my backing, and pinning the quilt to the leaders on the machine. I left with everything on the machine and ready to go, prepared to come back without a baby in tow so I could more freely move. Longarm quilting is really a whole body motion, and you need to be relaxed and zen to breath and move to keep the stitches even and your lines smooth.
I first tried a border that went horrendously. No problem, I know that it always takes awhile for me to find my zone. I tried an inner border. And a block. And a second line of the outer border. Switched direction and tried doing the vertical lines instead of the horizontal. And it all looked like a drunk monkey’s work. I just sat there trying to figure out where I went wrong, how I could improve, and nothing was coming to me. So I left it on the machine and went home.
As happens, someone else needed to use the machine (it belongs to a friend and lives in a shared work space). So I thought, I’ll just channel across it in straight lines. Like basting. Bring it home and keep staring at it there. I can proceed on my home machine or put it back on the longarm, but at least it’s all spread and stuck together. And even the basting looked like crap. The top and the bottom weren’t evenly tensioned, the top was pulling all out of alignment, even the batting wasn’t laying flat. And to top it off, I was pretty sure the needle was dull because I could hear that telltale stabbing sound and see the snags, but I couldn’t find any new needles to replace it with. I knew it would leave huge holes when I took the basting, out, but I just kept going.
We have a phrase in my family that my dad picked up from a college roommate: I WILL NOT BE BEATEN. We use it when something just keeps throwing darts at us, and we’re too stubborn (or driven?) to change course. That’s how I felt bringing this home. I was determined to finish my original design. It looked too good together. I could make it work, I just needed a different technique, different tools.
I brought it back out about a month ago, when we were mostly unpacked at the new house and I had floor space to lay the whole thing out and see what was up. And it was bad. The tension was just all over the place. The stitching wasn’t good enough to even be a starter row. I spent an entire Sunday ripping out every stitch I had put in it, scratching over the giant holes made by the needle with my fingernail, and ironing it all back out.
I spread the backing on the floor, and it was perfectly square and smooth and flat. The batting came next, and I could see it had just been so sticky between two layers of flannel, I forgave myself for letting it bunch up weirdly as it fed through the machine. Then I laid the top on, in the exact middle. You want a few inches of backing and batting extending in all directions when you quilt, to make it easier to handle and in case the top stretches a bit as you stitch.
And here lies my problem. I cut the sashing strips on the straight of grain so they would be firm and not stretch out. I went back and forth before I made this decision, knowing that cross grain sashing would stretch and be more forgiving with the blocks. But I knew straight grain would effectively corset up the blocks and keep me honest when it came to size. Blocks can stretch out immensely while sewing and pressing, especially with bias seams as this has. And especially out of flannel, which is more stretchy and loosely woven than traditional quilting cotton. By cutting them straight grain, and making the blocks fit the strips, it would help true up and ease back in anything that had stretched out too much.
But it backfired. The sashing was so tight, when trying to tension on the quilting machine, the vertical rows wouldn’t stretch at all the and blocks would sag or puff or pull and distort where not confined. Both front to back and side to side. Especially with the side clamps that you use to tension horizontally. I realized that trying to longarm something simultaneously so stretchy and so rigid was a fool’s errand, and I would have to figure out how to quilt this one at home.
I started in the middle, and pushed the sashing strips in all directions outward to effectively stretch them as much as they were going to move. Using my quilters grid, made sure that they were staying in straight rows and at right angles, I worked in quadrents and safety pin basted as I went. I then had to pat in the outer border, which I had cut on the very stretchy cross grain. Most outer borders are cut this way to conserve fabric, but out of stretchy flannel it was just laughable. I pinned around the outside edge with tiny close together pins. Rolled it up towards the center and prepared to put it under my home machine.
Rolling the quilt from side to side and up from the bottom to maneuver it under the machine.
Quilting on a home machine means working center out so that you never have more than half of the quilt stuck in the arm space of your machine. I was incredibly grateful to have my machine sunk into a heavy duty cabinet that would support my work as I went. I wanted the feed dogs to work to help pull the quilt through, so I attached my walking foot as to help feed the top as well. Anything to help pull the weight of this puppy. I went back in and straight pinned along the rows as I worked to keep the lines straight. Dialed my stitch length up a bit to 3.5, used a size 14 topstitching needle that has a long eye specifically made to help your thread not ball up and snap, and used the fancy King Tut variegated thread I’d bought at the quilt show.
And it worked. This was how I should have approached it in the first place. Securing the most inflexible parts of the quilt and coming back to the areas that needed finessing later. I still wasn’t sure if I’d be able to free motion the blocks, but at least the whole quilt would be held together.
We ended up having some down days as a family over Christmas, and had a lot of time snuggling together on the couch. One of those days I pulled out the quilt and on a whim, just started hand stitching one of the blocks. And I realized then how perfectly traditional this design looked when quilted by hand. By doing it this way, I would not only achieve the look I was going for, but I could better control the stretched out blocks that I had fought with under the machine. It wouldn’t be easy, as flannel is thick and hard to work your needle through in small precise stitches that hand quilting tries to achieve. But it would look the best.
I ordered an Edmunds quilt hoop and John James gold n glide needles in a 10, slightly longer than traditionally used, watched a ton of Youtube videos (love all the Fons and Porter series) on how to achieve the best rocking motion, and started going. I have always loved hand work of any kind, but the thought of quilting an entire top by hand has always terrified me just due to the scale. I lose interest in a project fast and was sure this was destined to become a half done and tossed aside project. But I quickly fell in love with the slow, easy rhythm that comes with working tiny stitches one small area at a time. I learned how to rock the needle instead of stab stitching as I’d done as a kid, and had to get a piece of leather to help me pull the slick needle through. It’s not fast. But it’s beautiful.
A block at a time, maybe one a day, maybe only a few a week, and this quilt will be done by the spring. Quilting is not meant to be a fast craft. There’s a reason that quilts are considered heirlooms and handed down in reverence. Participating in this process feels like honoring the art. At the time of writing, I’m already a quarter of the way done, which I never would have expected. I think I may end up keeping this one for my kids after all.
Love from Wisco,