January 23, 2012

The first time I ever tried quilting, I did it entirely by hand. I was pretty much scared of sewing machines. And anyway, I liked the way the hand quilting looked.

My first quilt ever.

I was into simple patterns, but I couldn’t resist adding a few flourishes- i.e. the not-completely-solid colored blue fabric, the cut-off corners. I hadn’t learned yet that if you lean towards the dead simple, it’s best be brave and squash your doubts that the simplicity isn’t enough. Because it is.

I was really proud of the star quilting around the borders, though.


It did take a long time to finish, but I found the hand quilting lush and meditative, hypnotic even.

It was around this time that I first saw the wonderful Gee’s Bend quilts. If you haven’t seen them, they’re a revelation- or at least they were to me.

For my second quilt, I wanted bed-sized. There’s something in me feels the absolute rightness of things that are both beautiful and useful. (Although I’ll admit this might be a bit of willful self-deception, given that handmade objects- and quilts in particular- are not really necessary or practical in the modern world).

I sketched lots of designs. I agonized. I bought fabric and started laying out the quilt. I made mistakes. The design was uber-simple, but cutting and sewing really big pieces of fabric in any kind of precise way can be surprisingly difficult. I did the piecing by machine, because the kind of long, straight seams involved would be so tedious to sew by hand.

I was staying with my sister at the time, and the only place to work on such a big thing was the middle of the living room floor, also accessed by multiple cats and one stinky rambunctious dog. By the time I got the thing basted together in a more or less wrinkle free way, it was covered with pet hair.

Then there were months of endless hand quilting, and months of me not touching the thing, because it was never going to be finished. I moved. I moved again. And, finally:


I continued to quilt by hand, but by then making something useful was feeling a little bit like an obligation. There was still that part of me that loves the utilitarian, but I was beginning to think there might be a place for completely useless objects.

For me, this is one of the distinctions between art and craft. I suppose this must be a controversial subject, and I don’t presume to speak for anyone but myself- but I look for art to shift my perspective or tickle my brain. I expect crafts to be pretty- even beautiful- and/or do something useful like keep me warm at night.

Anyway, the limitations of hand quilting are…very limiting. So I gave myself permission to do something small, quickly made, and therefore lacking any practical use.  I was in my local quilt shop looking at fat quarters- and I thought by god, I’m just going to buy some ones I like, and that I think will go together. I’m going to experiment. It doesn’t have to be useful.

Once again, I did the piecing by machine and the quilting by hand.

Quilty Thing #1

Another one- as yet unquilted

At some point, I decided I wanted to try quilting by machine. I’d already hooked up with the vigorous online interest groups dedicated to using vintage sewing machines, and lots of those folks use their old machines for quilting. It was a nice counterpoint to the people who maintain that using a domestic (i.e. not industrial or longarm) machine for quilting is a bitch.

I even took a machine quilting class at my local quilt shop, which was great, but of course we used their thousand-dollar Berninas, so it didn’t take away all my fear of screwing up a carefully-made quilt top with bad machine quilting.

So when I wanted to make a baby quilt, I went back to my old standby, machine piecing and hand quilting.

Lorenzo's Quilt

Since then I’ve been meaning to practice machine quilting on my treadle sewing machine. I figured I’d sneak up on it by making something useful, something that didn’t have to be beautiful.

I swear, my intentions were good. I got out a pattern for an oven mitt, which is sort of like two tiny quilts cut into a hand shape and then stitched together. But I didn’t have any whole pieces of fabric that I liked. I’d piece some more of the pink-and-orange fat quarters leftover from the quilty thing above.

Then I saw a quilt I really liked.

And I thought, hey, I’ll just piece something like that, quilt it, and then cut it into a hand shape. Except I didn’t want to cut it into a hand shape. So it looks like I have another quilty thing in progress.

Another quilty thing in progress