A Creative Process: First Steps in Designing a Quilt

There are times when whim governs my quilt-design process–I just jump in and see where an idea takes me (believe me, it’s a hit-or-miss strategy). More often, though, my ideas are jumbled mental clutter. I’m sure there’s something doable in the mess, but I just can’t grasp it. One way I dig myself out of a mental morass is by perusing my collection of torn-out magazine pages because I like to see what my subconscious is telling me (sometimes very cool things). Nowadays, armed with a digital camera, I’ve added another element to my creative process by taking photos of appealing things.

Here’s what I have so far . . . enjoy! (Yeah, I know, I’m clearly attached to pinks, oranges, and yellows right now.) FYI:  I’ve embedded links in each photo so you can visit the sources that interest you.

Seasonal flowers at one of my favorite local shops, Florali.
Judith Lieber pillboxes at Nieman Marcus. The display of Red-Carpet-worthy evening bags at the Union Square Nieman's in San Francisco is glorious (but a challenge to photograph).
A stellar glass still life of fruit by Flora C. Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.
One of the astonishing floral displays at the 2012 Bouquets to Art exhibition at the De Young Museum San Francisco. A floral interpretation of the sculpture of Ruth Asawa by Yu-Mei Chen and Chin-Huat Chang of San Jose, CA.
Of course this is an Amy Butler fabric--I LOVE ikat prints!
German glass beads and miscellaneous other beads.
Spools and spools of my favorite variegated threads from DMC.
Don't you just love a well organized rack of notions? A peek at the ribbon wonders at Britex Fabrics, Union Square, San Francisco.

More of Britex's wondrous notions collection . . . what can I make with velvet ribbon?
Britex also features Dupioni silk in every imaginable hue.

Till next time, happy sewing!


Burp Cloths for New Babies – An Absolute Must with a Designer Touch!

Any new mother will tell you that a great burp cloth is essential, and that you need a whole drawer full of them! The secret to making a super-absorbent (and easy) burp cloth is the combination of chenille and flannel. A couple of years ago, when my favorite nephew, Joel, and his wife Jenny were expecting their son, I went just a little overboard making these. I searched fabric stores up and down the West Coast for a variety of different shades of chenille. It’s not always easy to find, but it’s out there. Two of my favorite color finds were cocoa brown and sage green. Then I selected just the right flannel prints to coordinate with each color of chenille. Even though I knew they were expecting a boy, I made girl-themed ones as well – I couldn’t resist a plush, soft pink chenille and the adorable “girlie” flannels. Who knows? Maybe they’ll have a girl some day.

Not only are these burp cloths quick and fun to make, but with all the wonderful flannel prints available today, they can be works of art!  A half yard each of chenille and flannel will yield three burp cloths. Here’s how to make them:

Cut one rectangle (12½” x 17″) each of chenille and flannel (I couldn’t resist this beautiful print flannel from the Freshcut line by Heather Bailey for Free Spirit). Layer and pin the two rectangles wrong sides together.

One rectangle of chenille and one of flannel layered wrong sides together.

Cut out a heart (or any shape you choose) from freezer paper and iron it (shiny-side towards the fabric) to the center of either side of the rectangle “sandwich.” Stitch around (not on) the outside edge of the freezer paper; this is all you need to “quilt” the two pieces together. Remove the freezer-paper heart (it can be re-used many times). If you want to make it really simple, skip the freezer-paper heart and just stitch a square or rectangle (but then you forfeit the designer touch).

The "designer" quilted heart stitching shown from the chenille side.

Finish the burp cloth by stitching around the edges. Serging is ideal, but if you don’t have a serger, just use a decorative (or zigzag) stitch.

Here's a little friend who thinks he's found a new quilt! There's an empty bottle next to it - he better watch out for what's coming next!

I think these burp clothes are a useful gift that will make the life of a new mother just a bit easier. If you’ve made a baby quilt from flannel, why not add a couple of coordinating or matching burp cloths. Won’t your gift just be the envy at the baby shower!

Happy Spring!

A Quilter Confesses: I’m “Mad”…and Loving It!

Oh, but my intentions were good. I had it all planned. A meaningful, “meaty” post, complete with a clever little project. Time came to make the samples, write the instructions, take the step-by-step photos. And then, IT happened.

No. Not my hand!


I should know by now.  Once March rolls around, and college basketball heats to a boil in the insanity of its annual “hoops” tournament, I can kiss productivity good-bye. For three weeks, I’m a prisoner to my passion. Basketball becomes my life. Reading the previews, choosing my favorites, watching the action, reading about it afterwards. Basketball fills my days, and my dreams.

Once March arrives, I see basketballs everywhere.

There was a time when I actually owned a hat fashioned from a real basketball, which I sported in front of the TV when my team was on the court.

Luckily, no photos survive.

Even though my team didn't make it to "the dance" this year, I'll be in front of the TV for every tip off.

Despite my temporary “madness,” I do manage to squeeze in my resolved 30 minutes of creativity a day, but even that is affected.

Minor Madness, 3" x 5". This was totally unconscious. Honestly! I didn't realize what I had created until it was finished.

So I hope you’ll forgive me for “taking the bye” this time around. I promise to get that project together and post it sometime very soon. Meantime, I think I’ll step outside and shoot a few hoops before today’s games begin.

March Madness with Sunbonnet Sue, 22" x 26". Pattern appears in the Martingale & Company book, "A Year in the Life of Sunbonnet Sue," by my friend, Chris Porter, and me.

May your day be a “winner,” and ’til next time, happy stitching!

PS: Speaking of winners – Congratulations to Carmen Wyant,winner of the book, Quilt National 2011: The Best in Contemporary Quilts, donated by Lark Crafts in conjunction with my March 9 post. Carmen, please send me your mailing address via seehowwesew@gmail.com, and we’ll get that book on its way.

Y Fear? Help is Here. The Oft-dreaded Y-seam Construction…Simplified!

I’ve frequently had quilters stop by my booth at shows and ask if a pattern has “y-seams.”  If I reply with a cheerful “yes,” often I hear a groan, or the comment, “I don’t do y-seams”…or both. What is it about this particular construction that brings out the fear in some of us? Perhaps a bad experience with y-seams in the past? Whatever the cause, I’m hoping that this tutorial will help simplify the technique and encourage you to give y-seams a try. Look at some of the wonderful designs you can achieve with just a little patience and practice.

Quilt by Diana McClun and Laura Nownes.
Pattern by Diana McClun and Laura Nownes.

Y-seam construction is used in piecing when three shapes meet to form the letter Y as shown in the photo below. I am showing the back sides of the shapes to give you a clearer understanding of how the technique works. I’ve marked the shapes with lines 1/4″ in from the cut edges, all the way around the shapes. These will be the stitching lines. Notice that there are dots at the intersections of the lines only on the “wide” angles/corners, not the long, narrow or pointy angles/corners. The first time you attempt this technique, you might find it helpful to mark these guidelines. Just be careful that you don’t use a marking pen/pencil that will show through onto the right side of the fabric. (More on these dots later.)

These 45-degree-angle diamonds are found in the eight-pointed star designs such as LeMoyne, Star of Bethlehem, North Carolina Lily, and so many more.

The two quilts that I have shown above use 45-degree- and 60-degree-angle diamonds. To cut 45-degree-angle diamonds, first cut strips any width you like. For this example, let’s cut a 3″-wide strip. The instructions that follow are for right-handed cutters; left-handed cutters will want to reverse them.

1. Place the 45-degree-angle marking on your ruler on the bottom edge of the strip. Make a cut to get the first 45-degree angle.

Notice that the edge of the ruler is touching the top upper left-hand corner of the strip and the 45-degree-angle marking is in line with the bottom edge of the strip.

2. Keeping the 45-degree angle on the bottom edge of the strip, slide the ruler to the right until the 3″ marking on the ruler is in line with the first cut. Cut the diamond.

3. Repeat the previous step, cutting along the length of the strip until you have cut as many diamonds as you need for your project.

The process for cutting 60-degree-angle diamonds is similar to the process for cutting 45-degree-angle diamonds with the exception that you’ll use the 60-degree-angle marking on the ruler instead.

Now for the sewing: You’ll sew the three shapes together in three separate steps, first joining two shapes to make a pair and then adding the third shape. It honestly doesn’t matter which two shapes you start with. It also doesn’t matter if you start or end at the dot, as long as you never stitch beyond it. Think of the dot as a stop sign. NEVER stitch beyond it, not even one stitch!

Because of the precision required for stitching the lines,  you’ll need to see the dots clearly as you sew. I find an open-toe foot (shown on the right) to be a big help, as there is no center bar to obstruct my view.

I have better visibility with my open-toe foot (shown on the right) than with my general purpose or patchwork foot.

I refer to the stitching lines as the three “legs of the Y.” The next photo shows what the first leg of the Y looks like when two of the shapes have been sewn together. I started at the dot, took a few backstitches to reinforce the corner, and then stitched all the way to the opposite raw edge (no dot there, so no stopping). No pressing yet.

I started at the dot, took a few backstitches, and then stitched all the way to the end.

Note: If you are stitching toward the dot, it is not always possible to hit it perfectly each time. As I approach the dot, I slow down and turn the hand wheel on the side of my sewing machine to carefully “walk” the last stitch or two. Often I must make the decision between stopping short and leaving a small space before the dot, or taking one more stitch that will go beyond the dot. It is always better to stop short of the dot. The small gap will be filled in once the unit is pressed.

Next, add the third shape for the second leg of the Y. You can start either at the dot or stitch into it. I like to stitch with the fabric that gives me the best view of my previous stitching line on the top.

I started at the end and stitched as close as I could get to the dot, without overshooting it, and finished with a few backstitches.

Before sewing the third leg, pull the shape that will not be involved in the seam out of the way. Sew the seam.

Pull the shape that is not involved in this seam out of the way so it doesn't get caught in the stitching line.

Now you’re ready to press. Here’s a photo of the unit, wrong side up, showing how I press the seams.

Pressing on wrong side for both 45-degree- and 60-degree-angle diamonds.

And here it is, right side up, with no puckers where the seams meet. That’s the goal.

Right sides of finished units.

There you go. I hope this little tutorial will give you the help and confidence you need to try some of those patterns you may have been avoiding. “Y” not? You might find that you enjoy it!

Happy Quilting everyone!

p.s. I’m all about teaching, and writing tutorials are some of my favorite posts. I would like to know if you find them helpful. If so, feel free to let me know if  there are any other techniques or subjects you would like to see covered. I appreciate your input.

Half-Baked Ideas (& Brownies)

Last year I pledged to tackle my UFO pile in a “true confessions” post.  All told, I’ve succeeded in finishing the most pressing ones, and I feel great about that, but I’m still facing a towering pile of plastic project boxes. Frankly, some of those suckers depress me and I don’t want to do them. Which leads me to pondering the nature of UFOs—what’s a half-baked idea and what’s a dead end? Let’s be plain here:  what can I cross off my list?

Towering possibilities or quilting purgatory?

It turns out that my question isn’t all that lame. My blogging sisters had a good bit to say when I asked them. As quilting teachers they see students who are determined to finish everything they start even though they’d be happier and more successful as quilt makers if they’d cull their guilt-inducing  collections of half-made projects. Quilting is, after all, the great recycling craft—if it doesn’t work in one project, it’ll work in another.

The reality is that not every inspiration will be fruitful. Sometimes an idea is merely a stop along the way to a better one. In effect, an unfinished block or quilt can function like a rough draft that just needs to be rewritten in order to shine. Take this example from my pile of UFO’s—I’d call this one a half-baked idea that might yield a quilt someday.

A pretty tumbler from Orla Kiely for Target--inspiration for a personal project. Click photo to visit her website.

Here’s my Target plastic tumbler. Isn’t it cute? It was the inspiration for the diagram I sketched. My challenge was to make floating floral blocks using a Snowball block. I was hot on the project for a couple of days and then, somewhere between whim and reality I boxed up the project. Hmm—I’m not ready yet to pop the lid and sew, but I still like the colors and that’s a good sign.

How about dead ends? You know the UFOs that give you the creeps—I certainly do. There’s one in my pile; it’s a dimensional rose-and-daisy wreath set on a pink and white damask background. Separately, the components are wonderful; together they’re a snooze. My gain is that I figured how to make dimensional beaded daisies with tulle, plus I repurposed the roses I’d made for other projects. Hey, I think it’s time I emptied that box—yeah! How many more can I eliminate?

A reasonable start on a prototype dimensional daisy.

You know there are other good (even delicious) aspects of half-baked things. Brownies are especially delicious in an underdone state. So, while you mull over your UFOs, consider indulging in my spin on caramel-scented bittersweet chocolate brownies. My gift to you fellow UFO busters and blog readers! (Keep scrolling for an extra-special offer from The Quilt Show!)

Click the photo to open the recipe PDF or click the Recipes tab above.

In honor of International Quilt Day (March 17), The Quilt Show, the web TV show hosted by Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims, will “open” all of its shows from the first nine series—that is, from show 100 through show 913—for the entire weekend of March 16 –18. This means that—for three special days—everyone will have the chance to view these 117 shows, featuring some of the quilting world’s leading artists, for FREE.  Two of my sister bloggers—Laura (Episode 710: Conquering the Y-seam Tumble) and Darra (Episode 805: Feedsacks, Fun, and Old Friends: Quilts of the 1930s) have appeared as featured artists on TQS. If you didn’t have the opportunity to see their shows first time around, now you’ll have the chance to see them—and so many other terrific shows—at no cost in this unprecedented three-day offer.

March Block of the Month – Plus a Wee Bit of Green

A wee bit of green to bring you luck!

With St. Patrick’s day coming up (and green has always been my favorite color), I thought I’d start with a wee bit of green inspiration. When I was a child, I can remember that if you didn’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day you would get pinched. How barbaric! Am I the only one who remembers this?

On to our March block of the month! Are you keeping up? Because I’ve been so enthused with the project I started a third quilt. The “new kid on the block” is made from my favorite gray and citron palette (initially inspired by a tree trunk).  I’m still collecting those fabrics, and it seems to me that the designers are doing a fine job of supporting my addiction. Click here to download the instruction sheet for the March block. Here’s the “new” sample of Block 3:

And here’s a second sample of the March block, made mostly of fabrics from Kathy Davis’ Happiness line:

Keep sewing those blocks. And happy St. Patrick’s Day to all of our Irish friends!

Coast-to-coast “Don’t Miss” Exhibits, Part 2: Quilt National 2011 in San Jose (CA)

In my last post, I told you about next week’s exhibit of spectacular vintage Amish quilts at the Lancaster (PA) Quilt and Textile Museum. In Part 2 of our virtual tour, we travel to the other side of the country for a completely different visual–and inspirational–treat.

Our destination is the San Jose (CA) Museum of Quilts & Textiles, where the quilts currently on display represent the cutting edge of the medium today. From now through April 29, the SJMQ&T is featuring 46 outstanding works from the most recent (2011) version of the prestigious biennial show, Quilt National.

Con Brio (With Spirit), Katie Pasquini Masopust, Santa Fe, NM, 64" x 64", 2010. One of the quilts currently on display at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles.
The Dairy Barn Art Center, Athens, OH, the traditional debut venue for Quilt National

Since its inception in 1979, Quilt National has been recognized for fostering and celebrating “artistic innovation and diversity in the contemporary quilt world.” The exhibit debuts in odd-numbered years at The Dairy Barn Arts Center, in Athens, OH, where it remains throughout the summer. Following this initial run, the show is divided into three touring exhibits and begins a two-year tour of galleries and museums around the country. This is the first time since 2006 that any part of Quilt National has been on view at the San Jose venue. The current exhibit encompasses two parts (A and B) of the 2011 traveling show.

Color x 3, Bonnie J. Smith, San Jose, CA, 48 1/2" x 50", 2010

Competition for inclusion in this acclaimed juried show is fierce. Three jurors are charged with winnowing down 1000+ international submissions to the 85 works that comprise the final selections. Quilt National 2011 includes work produced by quilters from 24 states and six foreign countries: the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Canada, Germany, and France. Almost half of the artists are first-time exhibitors.

Sunsplash, Fenella Davies, Bath, UK, 47" x 65", 2010. One of the works by international artists included in the San Jose exhibit.

On Sunday, March 18, from 1:00 – 2:30 p.m., the museum will present a special program, “Insights into Quilt National ’11,” with quilt artist Nelda Warkentin. Ms. Warkentin, one of the jurors for the 2011 show, will share observations about the jury process, the exhibit, and her own work. The presentation will include a gallery walk.

Lingering Image, Japan, Patty Hawkins, Estes Park, CO, 44" x 46", 2010

Recently, my blogging sister, Christie, and I took a road trip to see the touring quilts in San Jose. We were blown away by the variety, the quality, and the sheer inventiveness of the work. The artists altered and manipulated the surface of fabric in almost every way imaginable: it was dyed, discharged, painted, stenciled, silkscreened, inkjet printed, digitally processed, and more. In addition to cotton, materials included silk, tulle and other sheers, felt, canvas, plastic grocery bags, velvet, recycled bedsheets, blanket binding, corregated cardboard, and other non-traditional “ingredients.” We were surprised by the amount of hand stitching, which included lots of embroidery and straight-line, big-stitch quilting.

Cross My Heart, Judy Martin, Ontario, Canada, 33" x 35", 2010

If a springtime journey to San Jose is not in your stars, the beautiful, hardcover catalog of the complete 2011 Quilt National show is a delightful alternative. Quilt National 2011: The Best of Contemporary Quilts, published by Lark Crafts, features large photos of each of the 85 quilts; descriptions and artist statements; an intro by Kathleen Dawson, Quilt National Director; informative essays by the three jurors; and more.

You guessed it! Lark has generously offered a giveaway copy to one of our readers! Just  leave a comment below by midnight (PDT), March 21, and you’ll be entered into the drawing for this terrific giveaway. Have you ever attended Quilt National? Have you entered? Thought about entering? What are your thoughts about the impact of this exhibit on quilting in general? As always, we love to hear from you! I’ll announce the winner in my March 23 post.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour. Special thanks to Deborah Corsini, Museum Curator at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles for providing the quilt photos and for her assistance with this post.

Viewers enjoy the quilts at a previous EBHQ show. Photo by Jane Herlihy.

One final “heads up.” If you’re in the SF Bay area next weekend (March 17 – 18), be sure to put the East Bay Heritage Quilt Show, Voices in Cloth 2012, on your schedule. It’s at a lovely new venue, The Craneway Pavillion on the Richmond waterfront. There’ll be over 200 quilts on display, vendors, special exhibits, demonstrations, and more.

That’s it for now. ‘Til next time, happy stitching!

Making Narrow Bias Tape: Perfect for Appliquéd Stems, Vines and More

While working on the stems for my class sample of the North Carolina Lily block this week, I was reminded how easy the process is with the help of a Clover Bias Tape Maker. My students were thrilled with the results, and although this tool has been around for awhile, it was new to all of them. I hope you too will find this tutorial helpful.

The North Carolina Lily is one of my favorite blocks...lots of piecing and a bit of appliqué.

The Bias Tape Maker allows you to neatly fold and press the sides of a bias strip of fabric. It is available in five different sizes, which make finished strips ranging from 1/4″ to 2″ wide. I generally use the smaller size tools for my appliquéd stems and vines, but they are also perfect for Celtic appliqué. The larger sizes can be used for bindings and other projects.

These tools neatly fold bias strips of fabric.

This is how it works.

  1. Cut a bias strip of fabric to the desired length. (The width of the strip is determined by the size tool you are using). Usually, when bias strips are cut, the ends will be cut diagonally. If yours are not, use your cutting tools to angle them. This makes for easy insertion into the tool. For a quick lesson on cutting bias strips, click here to watch my instructional video.
Cut ends of the strips on the diagonal.

2. Lightly spray the fabric strip on the wrong side with spray starch or a starch alternative like Mary Ellen’s Best Press. This will help hold the creases after pressing.

3. Place the tool onto a pressing surface with the metal side facing up. Then, with the right side of the fabric strip facing up, feed it into the opening on the wide end of the tool. A pin is helpful for feeding the strip all the way through the opening and out the narrow end.

Use a pin to gently feed the fabric strip through the opening in the tool.

4. Turn the tool and fabric strip over on the pressing surface. Use a pin to secure the extended end of the strip to the surface. If you are right-handed, position the tool as shown in the photo. If you are left-handed, reverse the placement for easy pressing.

5. You will want to work slowly and carefully on this next step. Use a dry setting on your iron.  Gently pull the tool down the length of the fabric strip with your free hand while firmly pressing the starting end with the iron.

6. Continue pulling the tool down the length of the strip while slowly and firmly pressing the folded end. If you work too quickly, the center fold may shift out of alignment and not fold evenly. Not to worry if this happens; simply pull the tool back over the unevenly folded strip and re-press.

This is not uncommon but is easily corrected.

7. If you are using the bias tape for stems or vines, it is now ready to be attached to the background fabric. I like to lightly mark the placement lines onto the fabric and then use a basting glue such as Roxanne’s Glue-Baste-It to secure the strips. They are now ready to be stitched either by hand or machine.

If you haven’t yet tried this tool I hope this may inspire you to add a few appliquéd stems or vines to your next quilt.

Before I sign off, I just want to share with you one more darling (if I do say so myself!) apron I worked on last week. I added a bib to the pattern I showed you in my previous post.

What makes it so special for me, aside from my favorite color polka dots are these two lovely treasures I found at Sur la table. Aren’t they just perfect? Ahh…I see more happy baking in my future.

I love this tea towel and matching measuring spoons.

Congratulations to Susan Shamekh, the winner of the “Happiness” bundle of laminated fabrics from my previous post.

It is a glorious day here in Sunny California. Aside from the fact that I woke to a 4.4 earthquake, it is a perfect day. Hope you are enjoying yours.

Sunny-Side Up—Vacation Therapy for a Color Addict

I’m a creature of sunlight, so that’s probably why my head’s so easily turned by bright colors. It doesn’t matter if it’s fabric, flowers, or food, it’s the colors that lure me. So it’s no wonder that my souvenirs of a recent visit to my Florida hometown are all about oceanic aquas, swampy greens, and citrusy oranges, pinks, yellows.

Liquid sunshine from Florida.

I’m channeling a serious case of coloritis—alas, not a graceful word for such a joyous affliction. What’s my cure? A dose of color therapy, which I think will result in my making not one, but two quilts with Christie’s block of the month series. At least that’s what I’m anticipating . . . but there’s that year of finishing UFOs still hanging over me. I’ve already started one BOM with a Kate Spain jellyroll so what’s another one?  It’s only March after all.  I can throw another on the pile, can’t I?

Unlike most of my projects, where I jump in and hope for the best, I thought I’d do things systematically and build a color story based on my Florida holiday. Maybe I’ll even pull out my trusty Joen Wolfrom 3-In-1 color tool, which I now know how to use thanks to Laura’s excellent tutorial. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

1.  A  Room with a View, so to speak.

Vacations are tough aren't they? The tropical Atlantic Ocean shows its beautiful aqua waters.

2.  A citrus medley with white and pink grapefruit, blood and navel oranges, and as a special treat, the ephemeral Honeybell–a tangelo variety that appears/disappears from Florida’s produce markets in mere weeks from January to February. Incomparable juicy D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S-N-E-S-S!

Check the middle row for the Honeybell segments with their true orange color and glistening juices.

3.  A drool-worthy slice of “Sunshine” cake from Teapots & Treasures in North Palm Beach, Florida. Despite pitiful begging, the guardian of the recipe would not divulge its secrets. Here’s what I do know:  Fresh coconut-dressed seven-minute-boiled frosting, orange extract for cake flavoring, and finely grated orange peel. (All similar recipe contributions from family vaults gratefully accepted via seehowwesew@gmail.com.)

A deliciously moist and deeply flavored citrus cake--not too sweet either!

4.  A new fave artist found at Artigras in Abacoa, Florida, Rick Lewis. Yes, the Sunshine State has glorious beaches, but it’s hinterland is a steamy swamp whose haunting beauty and wildlife Rick captures beautifully.

Blue Cypress Lake by Rick Lewis

That’s what I’ve got for color reference, now what stash plunder will capture those colors?

Ooooh! I like this . . . I guess I’m committed now to making two versions of Christie’s Block of the Month!