Category Archives: Quilt Basic Skills

The quilt that nobody loved


The scrap quilt project … rejected by me and sewn by my mother.

This is a sad story with a happy ending.

It began at a quilt retreat about 3 years ago. The project was to create a mystery quilt, which turned out to be a scrap quilt. Instead of getting a kit of brand new fabrics, the quilt shop staff had been asked to donate their scraps. Many of these scraps, we all recognized, were from discount shops and not good quality fabric. Since I’m too much of a control freak to enjoy mystery quilts, I hadn’t planned to do the project anyway. So this sad bag of scraps and instructions found its way where most castoff’s do … to my mother’s house.

Now my mom is a great quilter and she did a wonderful job making the top. But I felt guilty asking her to quilt it, so it made the trek (once again) from Canada to the United States, where it waited for 18 months for me to put it on the longarm machine. I was dreading doing the quilting. I’m a pretty funky quilter and my mom is a traditionalist — plus I really hated the quilt — so I had no idea what to do. Finally I settled on a pretty pantograph of maple leafs, which I thought would add some texture to the design.


Here’s my husband’s first attempt at un-quilting, as he helped me with a 20-hour rip-out project. Thanks, honey!

I was too embarrassed to take pictures of the pantographs. Let’s just say they were a big mistake. I hadn’t used a pantograph for a couple of years and my lines were atrocious. By the time I was one-third of the way through the quilt, I’d determined that I wasn’t getting any better. With my husband’s help, we spent 20 hours ripping out those darn stitches.

The quilt is now finished and it looks fine. I even sort of like it. I used a star template for the larger white blocks and did a freehand loopy design over the rest of the squares. Hopefully someone will love this quilt, because it’s certainly had a tough beginning!


Here’s the background. Isn’t it perfect for hiding errors? However, trying to pick out black threads on this background was almost impossible. I guess that’s why you’re supposed to do things right the first time!

Longing for my Longarm Skills


This is how little longarming I’ve done in the last few months … I had not even changed the needle since July, when we moved the longarm machine from our living room into our basement. In the course of the move, I buried misplaced  my instruction manual and the packet of needles that worked best. Two weeks ago, I spent 3 hours (no kidding — THREE HOURS OF MY LIFE) trying to find the correct needle and to keep the thread from breaking. I was beyond frustrated.

All I wanted to do was make some Christmas stockings. I had panel yardage and I had loaded 3 yards (which worked out to six Christmas stockings) on my machine. I learned to quilt using panels and I love them, because they are interesting and fun to do. Plus non-quilters think you are a genius!

Yesterday, I finally got the thread issue resolved. I think I might have been putting the needle in backwards. I’m not sure. But I tried again and it worked. And, if I quilted slowly and evenly, the thread stopped breaking.

Back to quilting the panels. Let me rescind my previous statement and say that panels used to be easy and fun to do. They actually require a lot of accuracy and some major planning skills. In addition to feeling clumsy with the longarm, I did a really horrible job of planning my quilting. I had problems exactly tracing the lines and my fill stitches were uneven. I quickly decided that the first panel would be a learning piece. I’m embarrassed to post photos, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Today’s lesson is: Practice makes perfect, while lack of practice makes you feel like crap. My longarming muscles are clearly out of shape. However I’m in a lot better position today than I was last week, now that I’ve got my threading issues resolved.

There is one more issue. Unless my quilting skills return with lightening speed, there’s no way I’m going to be happy with those Christmas stockings. Now I need to figure out new gifts for the people on my list

Sunday Sewing Day Totally Sucked!


For the past several weeks, I have been taking a weekly wellness course at our local hospital. The basis of the course is that our lives need to be in balance. We were asked to set goals in the following areas of our lives: relationships, career/finance, health/fitness, spirituality and mental/emotional. Let’s just say that I’ve been focusing almost totally on my new career, with a bit of time carved out for exercise. I wasn’t the class model of a balanced life!

Yesterday, I came up with the idea of designating Sunday for recreation. (I believe I am the first person to declare Sunday as a day of rest!!!!!) So I admitted to a couple of friends that I was rededicating myself to quilting. After a wonderful morning walking in one of Long Island’s beautiful parks, I came home excited to sew.

Since you’ve already read the headline, it should come as no surprise that yesterday did not go well. I had decided to quilt a few Christmas stocking panels on my longarm. (You may recall that, over the summer, we moved my longarm from our living room into the basement.) First of all, the fabric I’d chosen wasn’t stored as neatly as it could have been — and it all needed ironing. Then I spent 90 minutes trying to keep the thread from breaking, because I couldn’t remember what kind of needle worked best, I couldn’t find my notes in the piles of yet-to-be-put-away papers that related to my longarm, and I seemed to have forgotten the precise needle placement tricks that I knew a year ago. By 4:00 PM, I was done with Sunday Sewing Day and ready to go back to work!

Instead, I forced myself to watch a 3 hour DVD called Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Royal Albert Hall Celebration. I opened some mail and did a little bit of housework.

So this morning my back is sore from a combination of  a long walk and too much time bent over the longarm machine. But I definitely feel refreshed and excited to get back to work. Even though my step toward quilting wasn’t very productive, it was a step in the right direction.


Horrible Halloween Quilt — Part 2


When we left off yesterday, I had made a pretty ugly convergence quilt. To try and fix my problems — and just for fun — I decided to add an image to the front of the quilt.

I did this by downloading a skeleton cartoon (similar to the one on the left) from Google Images. I made a few modifications, then had the image blown up to 36″ x 42″ at the copy shop. Next, I traced the image — using a sharpie — onto Golden Threads  paper. I then pinned the images to the quilt top on my longarm.

I love using Golden Threads paper. I use it frequently to transfer designs onto quilts. In the past, however, I’d only transferred a simple, single line design. This time I decided I would thread paint over top of the paper.

As you can see, the thread painting basically just munched up the paper and made it get caught in the threads. The more I tried going over an area with thread, the more embedded the paper became. It soon became clear that the variegated thread was lost in the bits of paper, and that there was no way of removing the paper from the thread.

Once I had completed the project, I decided that perhaps running the quilt through the washing machine would remove the bits of paper. Not a chance. However I did learn why we bind quilts before we put them in the washing machine — I had strings of batting all over the place.

You can see the “completed” quilt below. The paper is still embedded in the design, so the thread painting was pretty ineffective. Overall the quilt doesn’t work. I decided that it was not even worth binding.

Personally, I think we grow as quilters by trying new things. Some are successful; some are not. This was clearly in the “not” category, but I did learn quite a bit and I doubt I’ll make the same design decisions again!


Why Didn’t I Pay More Attention in Math Class?


Here’s my 10.5″ block. I ended up making 25 of them and sewing them into a quilt for myself.

A group of us are doing a friendship block exchange. It’s Americana fabric (of which I had none) and had to be red, blue and cream in color. I found a block I liked on the 2012 Quilting Pattern a Day calendar and purchased three appropriate-colored fabrics. I then cut and sewed the blocks together, assembly-line style, all the time congratulating myself that all 13 blocks were completed more than a month ahead of deadline.

Unfortunately the unfinished  blocks turned out to be 10.5″ instead of the required 12.5″.  At this point I stopped congratulating myself and started berating my stupidity … but I had (clearly wrongly) assumed it as a 12.5″ block.

I pulled myself out of the funk and purchased even more fabric, intent on making the new blocks during the monthly “Sit and Sew” at our local quilt shop.When I sat down to work out the math to convert the block from 10.5″ to 12.5″, I quickly discovered that 5 equal pieces don’t fit evenly into a 12.5″ inch block. Clearly it was time for Plan B — and possibly a review of 5th grade math.

Plan B involved searching the internet for 3 color, 12-inch finished blocks that didn’t require making  half-square triangles or flying geese. When that search failed me, I turned to my Block Bible called “5500 Quick Block Designs.”

I’m embarrassed to say that I spent more than 2 hours looking at blocks and — using a very old solar calculator — trying to reconfigure them to fit into the 3 color and 12.5″ final size parameters.  I was finally successful and made another 13 blocks. I was so glad to be rid of them that I forgot to take a picture! (They consisted of two 4-patches that were red and cream, and two 16-patches that were blue and cream.)

Today’s lessons are:

1. Think carefully before joining a block swap.

2. Measure a finished block before you make 13 of them.

3. Not all blocks can be easily scaled.

You can find the 5500 Quilt Block Design book at:

You can find the Quilting Block & Pattern-a-Day calendar at:

Mitered Corners the Hard Way


Every once in a while I come across a quilting skill that I’ve somehow avoided learning. A few weeks ago, it was mitered corners. But I had a quilt with a great funky striped border and I just knew that it was time to learn.

There is an easy and a hard way to do mitered corners. The hard way is to sew on the borders to 1/4″ from the end of side. Then try and handle the fabric (not easy, trust me) and mark the 45 degree lines with a ruler. Sew the adjoining two border fabrics together along the 45 degree angle. Then try to cut the fabric without hacking it into little pieces. This was the method I used and it turned out pretty well, especially considering that the stripes were not completely even.

Mitered Corners

About half-way through the process, it dawned on me that there was likely an easier way to do mitered corners. I was right. The easy way involves pre-cutting the border ends at 45 degree angles and THEN sewing them on. This would be the method I’d recommend. You can learn all about this method at the youtube link below.

Both methods get the job done. And I have to say that a mitered border gives a quilt a wonderful, finished look.

Quilt Blocking: The Real Story


I am relatively new to the quilt show circuit and have never before (gasp!) blocked my quilts prior to showing them. (I’m sure this partially explains the lack of ribbons in my quilt show adventures!) As a result, I signed up for a quilt blocking class at MQX East this year. The teacher, award-winning quilter Cathy Wiggins, made the process sound pretty simple.

Essentially you get a foam board (she recommended insulation board with metallic coating) and place your quilt on the board. Wet it using a garden sprayer (clearly marked as “water only” so it’s not also used for bleach!). Then — using a set square and a straight edge as guides — use T-pins to hold your quilt in place. Let it dry and, voila!, you have a perfectly square quilt. Sounds easy, right? It would have been easy, if the experience had gone as planned.

Today is the deadline for our local quilt show. Quilts must be turned in between 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM. I’d procrastinated the blocking process because I was afraid it would ruin my quilts. The first quilt was tough. Clearly I was not channeling Cathy Wiggins because I found blocking the quilt to be very difficult. Here’s how it worked for me:

1. Go to Home Depot with the intention of purchasing the 4 ft by 8 ft insulation board recommended by Cathy Wiggins. Realize that insulation board is too big for my car. Decide on a substitute (package of foam boards made for re-insulating garage doors) that fit easily into my vehicle. Add a tarp (for under the foam) and a piece of painters’ plastic (for on top of the foam) and decide I am a brilliant problem-solver.

2. Refuse to admit that my basement is too cluttered with crap to have enough space to block the quilt. Decide that the garage will be a great substitute. Ignore the fact that a garage floor is very hard and garage lighting pretty much sucks. Fortunately there are several variety of bugs flying around in the garage to provide some entertainment.

3. Buy a garden sprayer (for wetting the quilt) that requires an engineering degree to figure out. Seriously. My husband has an engineering degree and he had to help me. Wetting the quilt required a lot less water than I’d anticipated, so a squirt bottle would have worked just as well and saved me $15.

4. Don’t buy enough T-pins. I bought 2 packages, but didn’t realize there were only 25 pins per package. I had to finish blocking the quilt with quilting pins.

5. Make sure that I’m blocking my quilt on the hottest, most humid weekend yet. This has two effects: (1) It ensures that I am dripping with sweat and in a foul mood, and (2) It takes the quilt 48 hours to dry.

(Please check my blog at if you can’t see these photos.)

My “do-it-yourself” quilt blocking station. The bottom layer is a paint tarp. Next is a double layer of foam (the kind used to insulate garage doors).

Here’s my finished blocking station. You can see the painter’s plastic underneath the quilt, as well as the sprayer I used for wetting the quilt.

As you can tell, I did not enjoy blocking my first quilt. However, after 48 hours of drying time, my quilt hung incredibly straight. All the sudden I was a fan of blocking and ready for quilt #2.

My second quilt was MUCH easier. I knew what I was doing and the blocking process went smoothly. Unfortunately it was even more humid and drying was a problem. After 24 hours the quilt was still very wet, so I opened our garage door yesterday to let the air circulate. This would be a no-brain solution except that I live in a rural area where critters like to come live in our garage. (I still haven’t recovered from the crazed squirrel who gripped all of the foam insulation off our garage door as he was trying to escape.)

I checked the Quilt #2 this morning (it is still pinned to foam on my garage floor) and am pretty sure it will be dry by this afternoon’s deadlines.

Here’s Quilt #2 in our garage. Instructions for the show say that quilts must be free of threads and animal hair. I didn’t see anything that required them to be dry!

The Perils of Piecing Quilt Backing


First let me say that I love the look of pieced backing. It is a fun, economical, and visually appealing choice for backing. So it’s hard to believe there could be any downside. But there is –especially  if your quilt is being done on a longarm.

The job of a longarmer is to make sure that the backing is square and rolled evenly on the rollers. Otherwise you get sags and tucks in the backing.  The easiest way to achieve a tight, square back is to use a single piece of fabric. This has lead to the popularity of 108″ (and wider) backing fabrics.

When you piece the quilt’s back, you are introducing different fabrics that may not have equal amounts of stretch. You may have seams that introduce fullness into one piece of fabric. You may also have fabrics that are cut partly on the bias, which again increases the stretch in some of the backing.

If you do seam the backing, it is best to do it parallel to the longarm bars. This is  because seams add additional bulk to the quilt.  Pieced backings need 1/2″ seams, so you have an additional 1″ of fabric bulk for each seam. If you put the seams perpendicular to the longarm bars, you are introducing bulk in part of the quilt, which makes it impossible to roll it evenly.

One more complication … longarmers generally load the quilt with the widest sides attached to the roller. So the backing seams should generally be vertically in the backing, because the seams will end up being parallel to the rollers when the quilt is loaded. However this is not a carved-in-stone rule, as the quilt design also determines which direction the quilt will be loaded.

Some longarmers have different preferences, so check with your longarmer before you piece your back. In my opinion you can never go wrong with a wide backing!

(If you can’t see this photo, please check my blog at

A great example of pieced backing (which I pieced together for my customer Rochelle). They are incredibly effective but much harder to work with than a single piece of fabric.

Lessons from a Mother’s Day Quilt


My mom has been quilting for more than 5 decades. She has given beautiful quilts to everyone in our extended family, mostly as wedding and baby gifts, as well as to a large number of friends. She’s also done countless charity quilts. And they are all beautiful.

Soon after I took my first quilting course, in which I made the requisite lap quilt, our local quilt shop offered Quilting 102. This was a twin size quilt made with half-square triangles. At the time, that was a big challenge for me. I was determined to make a quilt for my mom, as she had a special birthday coming up. More importantly, nobody had ever made a quilt for her, and I was honored to be the first.

I worked hard on this quilt. I chose a floral theme, since she also loves gardening. I bought some variegated purple thread that matched beautifully and proceeded to start quilting on my trusty Janome. Here’s where the quilt taught me my first lesson: free motion quilting on a domestic machine is HARD. I quilted the borders and decided to take a break.

Soon after, I bought a longarm machine. I added muslin leaders to the half-finished quilt and proceeded to finish quilting it. The longarm stitches looked great, but they made my Janome stitches look terrible by comparison. I decided to rip out the Janome stitches and re-quilt these areas with the longarm.

Here’s when I learned lesson #2: It takes a very, very long time to rip out stitches on a quilt. I finally realized that it would be much faster to re-make the quilt top and give up on the ripping. So I re-made the top using similar fabrics.

Two years later, the quilt top remained in my UFO pile. I was determined to get it finished before Mother’s Day this year. I hung the quilt top up to photograph it and realized it was extremely wavy. Lesson #3: Boy my piecing has improved a lot in the last couple of years!

You need to know that my mother is a hand quilter. She’s old school and likes minimal quilting. She’s not a particular fan of machine quilting, because she feels quilts aren’t as soft. So I was determined to just do some light stitch-in-the ditch quilting and give it to her.

Now we come to Lesson #4: There’s a reason why we shouldn’t be our own doctor, and the same premise applies to quilting. If anybody else had brought me such a wavy quilt, I would have explained that stitch in the ditch was not enough. There needed to be a fairly dense overall design to smash down the lumpy piecing. However, for some unknown reason, I convinced myself that this was not necessary.

Lesson #5: You can not get rid of bad piecing using stitch-in-the-ditch. You need a dense overall design. As a result, I ended up quilting this quilt twice — once for the SID, and the second time with flowers on each half-square triangle. This resulted in a lot of stitching over stitching that didn’t particularly enhance the quilt.

Overall, the quilt turned out nicely. I had to get over the fact that my piecing skills had improved a lot over the last 2 years and accept it, as well as acknowledge that my longarming could have been better. Regardless, Mom loved the quilt. This brings me to the final lesson: Quilts made with love are always beautiful.

Happy Mother’s Day to my mother, and to all the other mothers in cyberspace!

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Square is Good!


For us less-than-perfect quilters, the only way to learn how to quilt is to spend time quilting. Lectures, magazines and tutorials are wonderful — and they do help improve our skills — but there’s no substitute for sitting at a sewing machine. The same holds true learning how to use the longarm.

Every time I go to shows, I hear stories about people who bought their longarm machine and immediately started to quilt for customers. This amazes me. My first year’s worth of quilts were … um … let’s just say learning experiences that I wouldn’t want to inflict on a customer.

This red and white quilt is the first large quilt I did on my longarm. The piecing was decent. I had a beautiful red and white backing. There was a guild challenge coming up and I was determined to enter this quilt. I can’t remember the details of how I squared up the back (because it certainly was not square). However, when I took the quilt off the longarm, the back had some major pleats. I was devastated. I’d ruined the quilt because I’d skipped a crucial step of properly preparing the backing. Needless to say, the quilt did not make it to the guild challenge. I shoved it in a storage bin and tried to forget about it.

Is there a happy ending to this story? Actually, yes. First of all, my teenage daughter loves the quilt and it now has a good home in her bedroom. This quilt taught me the importance of squaring up the back fabric, so that pleating has not been a problem in future quilts. I’ve also used this quilt in lectures to show others the importance of a square backing. Finally, it made me realize that I could only concentrate on so many new things at once — until this quilt, my focus was largely on getting good tension — and that it was okay to have some fumbles on my road to being a quilter.

A year later, I just finished a large quilt. The back turned out beautifully and it hangs straight. I can now look at this red and white quilt and feel thankful for the lessons it taught me.

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