Tag Archives: Machine Quilting

Fierce Little Bear

The first quilt I completed this year named itself, as many do. It is called “Fierce Little Bear.” The bear in the name refers to the bear’s paw block that centers it. “Fierce” and “little” describe the owner of the quilt, my niece, a petite young woman who has faced tragedy and trial with grit.

I started the project last fall with a bear’s paw block, made with fussy-cut paws. In a post called Transformation, I showed you the beginning of it, including changing corner blocks to the dark blue you see below. 

I finished the top, posting a few photos on Instagram of the progress. By mid-November I was ready to load the layers for quilting. And by five days later, I took it off again because of tension issues. This photo of picked stitches gives a small sense of the trouble. I unpicked more stitches for this quilt than … any other since the last one I finished! (I’ll tell you about it soon.)

I’ve mentioned (many times, probably!) that I’m trying to learn how to tell stories better with quilts. There are many ways to do that, including the choice of fabrics, block style, and layout. Any words or pictures added through appliqué or other means can help tell a story. Another way to tell a story is with the quilting, which was a big part of my plan with this one.

Because I wanted the quilting to be special, and because my machine was having some erratic tension, as I continued to quilt, I checked the back every couple of minutes to be sure it was going okay. Now mind you, “checking the back of the quilt” while it’s on the frame usually means getting on the floor, scooting under the frame, craning the neck while holding a light up to the back, scanning across all the work done, burrowing back out from under the layers, and standing up again. All doable, but not always comfortable.

With holiday and project interruptions, I finished quilting and binding it early in January. At that point, the next step was delivery. My niece lives near enough to see in person but far enough that it requires a special plan.

And then! Then I saw that IQF had a call for entries to the Chicago show in the spring. One of their exhibits was Midwest Traditional quilts. Well, what could be more traditional than a medallion? So I entered it, putting off delivery of the quilt to my niece. It was not accepted — I think their idea of traditional was somewhat different from mine — but I’m glad I tried.

Finally at the very end of March, Jim and I took a short trip to see my niece Emily and her dad, who is my brother. I had three quilts with me and said I just thought she would enjoy seeing them in person, since mostly she sees my work on facebook. I showed one, then another. And then I had her open the third, Fierce Little Bear. Below is a gallery of photos of Emily examining it with her husband Adam. Click on any to open and embiggen.

Here is the quilt.

Fierce Little Bear. 67″ x 67″. Finished January 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

The piecing design of this quilt, along with the fabrics, begins a story. The bear’s paw center is a traditional block design. Each of the “paws” is fussy-cut from fabric designed by Julie Paschkis. Here are two of them.

The combination of this fabric and the batik surrounding the center drove the color choices, including the emphases on cobalt blue, turquoise, and red. The Julie Paschkis prints also included black backgrounds, allowing use of black, also. This is a wildly unusual color combination. (And I will say, Jim and I took dozens of photos of this quilt, more than anything I’ve ever done, and in various set-ups for lighting. The colors simply do not show well together in photos, but they are quite beautiful in person. sigh…) 

The inner borders of turquoise and yellow create a faux-on-point setting, and also allow the illusion that the center block and its batik border float on top of the rest.

The middle borders are intentionally sharp and jagged, and have a subtle reference to Native American designs. And the outer border repeats the batik, tying it all together.

The quilting finishes the story. It reads from left to right as a whole picture framed by trees on either side, canopied in leaves and clouds. At the base is a field of flowers. Butterflies float next to the tree trunks. An owl hides in the tree on the left, while a squirrel is on the lower right. And a fish swims in an aqua pool. You truly can’t see the detail without close examination. Here are a few pictures to give you a taste of it.

This is a very long post and I am omitting so many pictures I’d like to include, but you have to stop somewhere. The last photo I’ll show will give you different information. It is a black and white image of the top, prior to quilting.

While I made this, I fretted a lot, hoping it would turn out well and suit my niece. She is strong and vibrant; she loves the outdoors; she is generous and kind; and she is unique. That’s what I wanted the quilt to be. Over and over I showed photos of progress to my brother, and he continually encouraged me, reassuring me that she would love it. But the colors, though beautiful, are no one’s idea of an expected combination. Finally, I looked at the top without color, in the black and white version above. And finally I was reassured that it worked. Exactly as I wanted.

Finished: Christmas Is Coming!

Recently I told you about the looping problems I’ve had when machine quilting. Even with the tension good — top and bottom threads balanced so they meet within the quilt sandwich — there’s been some extra loops appearing on the back of the quilt. Though no loops would be best, an occasional loop is likely to happen and is something I can shrug off. However, a lot of loops in a small area is messy looking and structurally not stable. It shouldn’t happen, and if it does, it is a problem to be fixed.

I took my bear’s paw quilt off the frame and put on a test sandwich. When a lot of effort and adjustments didn’t lead to the quality I want, I took the machine to the factory and worked with a technician to get things fixed. When I brought it back home, I tested the machine again by quilting a table runner.

Things looked pretty good, but I still didn’t feel very confident. At that point I decided to mount my Christmas quilt on the frame. This quilt is not intended as a gift, so the stakes were not very high.

I use free-motion quilting for most of my quilts. What that means is I guide the machine stitching by hand, without a pattern or a computer program. Also, for most of them I do an edge-to-edge or allover design, rather than choosing different designs for separate borders or other segments.

This quilt, called “Christmas Is Coming!”, didn’t warrant special quilting, in my opinion. The design impact is in the fabric and piecing, not in the quilting.

I often use a great big double meander — cross the quilt surface once with a big meander, and then cross back the other way, ribboning in and out through the original stitching line. Doubling the line allows you to fill more space if needed by sweeping out a little farther from the first line, or tracking closer where stitches are nearby. It creates a nice, soft texture, and it’s super easy to execute.

The double meander seemed like a low-risk way to test my machine again. If there were unacceptable looping, unstitching would be relatively easy because of the open design, and restitching would be simple, as well.

Here is the finished quilt.

Christmas Is Coming! 67″ x 67″. December 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

The quilting was easy and the stitches were generally of pretty good quality. There were a couple of small areas with a little messiness on the back, but they were limited and very close to the edges. I decided to ignore them.

Once quilted, I added the green binding with machine stitching to finish. There’s so much I love about this quilt. The twisting red and gold ribbon border, the green packages with red bows in the last pieced border, and the dizzy geese block in the center all add to the festive look. I love so many pretty fabrics, few of them designed and sold as seasonal ones. I enjoyed using up a lot of scraps to complete the packages and the puss-in-the-corner blocks. And I really like the Y-block pinwheels in the corners. And it was fun to make. Over all it really works for me — you could say it’s the complete package!!

If you’d like to see more pix of this project before it was quilted, you can find them here.

Once this project was off the frame, I started again on my bear’s paw quilt. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well, and I stopped. For right now, the project is waiting until I can get back to it. That won’t be for several more days. Hopefully at that point, things will go better and I can get the quilting done.


Like Jewels in a Treasure Chest

[Note: I wrote this post a couple of years ago, before starting Catbird Quilt Studio. The audience for that post was primarily non-quilters.]

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a quilt, perhaps one from your past, perhaps one you are making yourself, perhaps a dream quilt. I see colors spilling forth, like jewels toppling from a treasure chest, tumbling onto the sand, glimmering, gleaming in the sun. I see leaves cartwheeling from trees in fall, nestling on the ground in patterns of dark green, plum, scarlet, gold. I see stark contrasts of blood red on snow. I see muted browns and double pinks, plaids and paisleys and calicoes.

I am a quilter. Often when I say this, people will respond by saying, “My grandmother was a quilter. I’m glad to know people still do that.” Yes, people still do that. According to Quilters Newsletter and the Quilting in America 2010™ survey, the total number of quilters in the U.S. now exceeds 21 million, and the total size of the quilting industry (annual sales of fabric and supplies, machines, publications, etc.) exceeds $3.58 billion. (The link is dodgy so may not work for you.) Statistically, the typical quilter is female, 62 years old, and affluent. This largely coincides with the quilters I know, though I know many younger (including myself), and I know many with a relatively meager household income.

It’s hard to explain what quilting is, what it means, to someone who hasn’t held a quilt in their own hands. Traditionally, a quilt is coverlet for a bed, made of two layers of fabric with a soft filling between them, and stitched through all three layers to keep the filling from shifting. In addition, quilted fabrics have been used for centuries to make warm clothing, and they still are. Besides bedding and clothing, these days quilts include small pieces to use as wall-hangings, tablecloths, placemats, lap rugs, and couch throws. Some people even make post card-sized pieces and send them through the mail!

Though a quilt can be made from as little as two pieces of fabric stitched in layers, most quilts are made by taking large pieces of fabric, cutting them into little pieces, and sewing the little pieces back together to make large pieces of fabric.

I wanted to share a recent project of mine. The finished quilt is a gift for a friend, and it measures about 52” x 68”. The fabrics are 100% cotton, which is typical. The batting (filling between layers) is polyester with a low loft. The dollar value of materials used was approximately $50. I don’t track the amount of time involved with making a quilt, but it includes plan/design, shopping and prepping fabrics, cutting, sewing, quilting, and finishing with a binding. For this quilt, I’d estimate more than 40 hours of time. So if you wanted to buy a quilt like this from me, no, I wouldn’t charge you $50. I’d charge you several hundred dollars. Few people are willing to spend so much for a quilt that wouldn’t even cover their bed.

The first step in my process was design. Sometimes I use quilt design software called Electric Quilt 7. With it I can try different colors, blocks, and settings, determine the finished size of the quilt, and even calculate the yardage required for each fabric. Here is a picture of the quilt as designed.


I’d purchased fabrics earlier in the year in very strong colors, with the intention of broadening my color palette. They were just the right thing for this project. With fabrics chosen and a design, I started sewing blocks. Here are two I made that are left over. One is right-side-up and the other is upside-down, so you can see the stitching.



After I made a number of blocks I took another picture. I didn’t have a specific plan when making them, but chose from colors randomly, usually trying for good color contrast between the star and its background. Some stars are “fancy” with extra piecing in the centers, or with differently colored points, or varying backgrounds. Others are plain. In addition to the star blocks, I made alternate blocks from just two fabrics in turquoise and purple.

Once I finished making blocks, I assembled them into the center of the quilt top and then added borders. You can see from the design above that I planned a narrow green border. When I tried the green, I decided it needed a stronger color. A rosy orange color seemed to be just the right thing.

With the top done, I needed to quilt it. I have a long-arm quilting machine, with which I can quilt pieces big enough for a king-sized bed. The quilt layers are stretched on the frame, and the machine itself moves, allowing 360 degree motion by the needle. The needle moves rather than the fabric layers.


Here is a link to a cool demo on how the needle brings the top thread and bottom thread together, to create a stitch.


After I finished quilting, I removed it from the frame and trimmed the extra backing fabric and extra batting away.


The last step was to bind the edges. On most quilts, this is the only stitching I do by hand.


It is done except for writing and applying a label. Quilt historians advocate labeling, including the name and town of the maker, the name of the recipient, any special occasion, and the date made and/or given. Once I have labeled it, I will mail it to my friend. She is not expecting it, which makes it the best possible kind of gift.


Have you ever made a quilt? What do you enjoy about creating things yourself?

Design Process — Lesson on Quilting

I am not very good at quilting. Simply put, I don’t practice enough. That, really, is the main problem. I know the skills fairy isn’t going to come sprinkle magic quilting dust on me. And if she (he?) did, it might just make me sneeze. The other problem, which is less, is I don’t have wonderful fine motor control. Never did. But really, practice, or lack thereof, is the problem.

I commit here, in public, to practicing more in 2014. I’ll tell ya later how much more, when I think a little more about my goals.

That said…

(big sigh) Okay, lesson learned today: custom quilting a top that is very busy may be an exercise in futility. The quilting may not show. While that’s great from the standpoint of hiding all those flaws, it’s also a waste in other ways. Waste of time, frustration, physical maneuvering of the quilt, etc.

How do I know? I finished quilting my Mexican embroidery quilt. (Sorry, Sarah. I guess no sneak peaks yet.) The top is fabulous, one of my favorite things ever. But it is VERY BUSY. And I wanted to get complicated with the quilting. And I just shouldn’t have.

This whole post is not much more than whining. But I think it’s still a valid lesson. A very busy quilt top may be a candidate for very simple quilting. It doesn’t need more embellishment. Alternatively, a simple top may be perfect for complex quilting. The simplicity may be complemented by it.

Thanks for listening.

Making Progress

I’m not quite half done quilting the medallion quilt.

The piecing is dense, and it took me a long time to decide how I wanted to quilt it. Anything very fancy would disappear, but it warrants something more special than a simple meander.

I looked at several of my machine quilting books for inspiration, and I didn’t get very far with that. Frankly, I need A LOT more practice at free motion quilting.

And ultimately I decided to use a pantograph, for an edge-to-edge design.

HA! Well, that’s rich. If you think I need a lot more practice with FMQ, guess how much I’ve had with pantographs. Go on. Guess!

Yeah, none.

Well, then, I guess it was time.

I have several pantograph rolls, some that came with my machine and a few my sister gave me. I dug them out of the closet and unfurled a few. The one I picked is wide, with an 11″ stitching pattern.

The next challenge was to figure HOW. I know the theory, and it’s easy. Simply use a stylus, in this case a laser pointer, to trace a drawn pattern, in this case with the needle and thread. But operationally it’s a little more difficult than that.

We have a wealth of resources available to us, and I used one of my favorites. I googled pantograph quilting and found a couple that were very helpful. The best one for me was written instructions from Longarm University.

They have a free tutorial on getting started. It’s clear and easy to read. I have to admit there are a couple of things I don’t get, but I’ll certainly read it again if I get into trouble.

How’s your project coming along?