Tag Archives: textiles

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?


Economy Block ANY Size! (With Cheat Sheet)

There’s a new craze out there promoted by Red Pepper Quilts, crazy mom quilts, and others, and it’s called the economy block. That’s a new term to me, as I know this block as “square-in-a-square” or “diamond-in-a-square.” Maybe the economy comes just in its name!

[See my post of seventeen free designs using this great block.]

This is the square-in-a-square made with TWO squares in the interior.

If you’d like to make the version with only ONE square inside, it’s the same as setting a block on point. You might do a large one for a medallion quilt center, or a small one as part of a block quilt or pieced border. See my tutorial here.

I’ve looked at a number of tutorials for the economy block. And none of them explain how to make it any size. That’s okay if you want to make the block their size, but what if their size isn’t right for your quilt? You don’t need to resort to trial and error. This tutorial will show you how to make the right block for your needs.

This trick is key: the whole block will finish at TWICE the size of the center. That’s right. So if the block’s center is 3″, the block will finish at 6″, assuming you use accurate cutting and seam allowances.

That also means that if you know how big the block needs to be, the center is HALF that. For example, if you want a 7.5″ block, your center will finish at 3.75″.

Simple, huh?

To see how, click here!

Large Prints

What makes a quilt successful? My local quilt guild is large and active, with approximately 150 members meeting monthly. A feature of each meeting is show and tell. We have so many talented quilters in the group, and I always enjoy seeing their work. Sometimes, though, I can’t figure out why one quilt is especially interesting or attractive to me. Certainly there are many different elements at work, including design, color use, and skill of execution.

As you know, I think a lot about quilting and I study designs and photos, trying to discern what makes a good quilt. This will be different for each quilter, depending on their tastes and talents. Exaggeration or repetition of design or color, and spotlighting your best talents while minimizing your weaknesses, are ways to create successful quilts. One author commented that we are often drawn to quilts that have a quirky or unexpected element, and she goes on to suggest that an exaggerated approach can work best. How do you use this in your projects?

For example, what do you do with large prints? By nature, they are exaggerated. It seems like there are a couple of different philosophies on this. One is to showcase the print, using it in large, alternating blocks, in the border, or in long sashing or alternating strips. The other is to cut the print in small pieces, allowing you to sort the patches by value, if not by color. Chopping it up allows you to literally minimize it, so it can mix in easily. Personally, I like large prints, though I find them hard to use.

Here is a project I made a couple of years ago, using a piece long in my stash. The ultra-feminine roses, along with the scale of the print, are pretty but a little difficult to use. The completed quilt is a lap throw, approximately 38” x 56”. I decided to leave the print in 9” alternating blocks, with simple nine-patches between to showcase it. For the borders, I cut through the large sprays of flowers to allow a scalloped effect around the edges.

Because the front is busy and traditional, the quilting is largely hidden. In contrast, for the back I chose a simple, contemporary print on which you can see the quilting.

Along the borders, I quilted long feathers that wrap around the entire perimeter.

On the interior, I used a simple loops-and-leaves freehand pattern.

This quilt was a gift for a friend who did me a big favor. I hoped the quilt conveyed how much I appreciate the time and effort she gave me.

Do you like using large prints in your projects? How do you use them?