23 secrets for stress-free quilting
1. Drop-kick perfectionism.
Perfection is an admirable trait for a job hunt, but it is rarely a noble (or fun) endeavor in quilting. Any true perfectionist could never have as much fun with quilting as I have with making do and moving on. Making a quilt is your hobby, ladies, not your job! That said, you still want to improve your quilting, so read on.
2. Measures of truth.
I’m amazed that the same people who don’t believe the bathroom scale always believe the little printed numbers on every ruler! Repeat after me:
Rulers can be wrong! Measure your rulers against a steel rule. Measure them across the whole width of the ruler, not just inch-to-inch. And as you measure, watch what happens when you are cutting a 3-inch piece and then a 4.5-inch piece and then a 6.25-inch piece. If you are seeing the sight lines move from left to right and sometimes center (and sometimes not centered), your first
problem is your ruler.
3. Stay sharp.
Without an odometeron the rotary blade, we think we can just keep on cuttin’ until that not-so-magic moment when we’re chewing through the fabric. Cuts with bite marks don’t translate into happy piecing. I know you’ve heard this before (because Mark’s told you): Change the blades! You
wouldn’t date a dull guy . . . why would you quilt with one?
4. Shop smart.
Buy your blades in packs of five or more. Having extra blades keeps you from a starvation mentality (oh-my-gosh, I can’t change the blade because I have only one left!) and makes you use the best tools. Packs of five blades are also cheaper than a onesie.
5. Cheap is not chic.
Stop with the cheap thread already! Short staple cottons are held together by firing and waxing, which often make the resulting threads heavier than you need in your seams. If you struggle with the price of good quality thread, calculate how much thread you actually can go through in an hour of piecing. I guarantee that expense will be less than you'll pay for the wig you’ll need after you end up pulling your hair out from using the cheesy stuff!
6. Skinny it up.
Your post-quilting snack may be a calorie bomb, but “think thin” when you’re still at the machine. Switch to a thinner, 2-ply thread for piecing. Too many people sew with thread so heavy that it actually fills the seam and creates bulk and weight for the fabric to pull around. Fat seams are not flat seams. The same goes for stitch length, so stretch it out a bit. Every needle penetration weaves that much more thread into the seam allowance. I know, I know, this is picky . . . but if you have gone to all the trouble to perfect your quarter inch, why undo it by larding up the seam?!
7. Get centered.
It’s okay to be a bit wacko yourself, but always use your machine needle in the staid center position. If you have to adjust your needle position to make the perfect quarter inch, you are adding a little zig to your bobbin thread because the thread must reach the needle position away from center position. That little zig adds more thread bulk to your work.
All needle points aren’t the same, girls. Use sharp, denim, or topstitch needles, which will cleanly perforate the fibers (rather than just moving them over to find the hole in the weave). These needles—not universals—will give you a straight stitch without adding bulk to your piecing.
9. Thread savers rule!
Thread savers—those little bits of fabric you start off and end your chain piecing with—are your friends. When you use them, your stitching is less likely to start off with a scant stitch and evolve into the much-prized quarter inch. A thread saver also prevents your needle from cramming your first corners into the stitchplate, and it’s a great tool for tidying up your quilt back. Trim threads close to your stitching and let the thread saver hold those thread tails from snaking around on the back of your quilt top. Never did such a little
10. Focus, start to finish.
If you’re using traditional cutting methods, make sure you know exactly where to start—and end—seaming so you hit the quarter inch. Guesses are for games, so use a quarter-inch ruler to mark your starts for triangle points. And learn about the specialty rulers on the market that cut notches for starting points. (My personal favorites are Nifty Notions rulers by Kaye England and Marti Michell’s templates that provide notches and edges to point me to placement and stitching.)
11. Sticking it.
We’re evolved, remember? So make tools work to your quilting advantage. Use a tailor’s awl, stiletto, seam ripper, or even a bamboo stick to guide pieces into your machine. These tools help you get the starts of your blocks positioned correctly before the first needle falls. Getting your first stitches well positioned prevents you from turning a straight stitch into a dart.
12. Be cutting edge, not clumsy.
Cut all parts to fix, rather than sewing them first and then trimming. For example, I always cut log cabin block parts to the width and length of each log. Then, when you work from log to log, each new section will have been pieced correctly if it fits the next component.
13. Stop the presses!
This is hard to believe, but true. Don’t press each unit of your blocks until the whole block is sewn together. If you have cut and pieced accurately, there won’t be much need for pressing because every unit in the block will match its little friends. This saves spin time on your chair and you’ll sew and sew, rather than sew-iron-sew. (Sorry, there goes your aerobic exercise of jumping to the ironing board!)
14. Rest in piece.
When you do iron your blocks, let that quilting cotton rest and cool before you move it—especially if you’re using steamed heat. When fabric is heated or steamed, and then moved before it’s cooled, you’re begging for bumps, girls. (That’s how trapezoids were invented.)
15. Lose the limp.
Limp is never good, ladies! Sometimes our hunt for the perfect fabric with the perfect value brings us to fabrics that are limp, but don’t abandon those pieces. Just use a muslin backing and/or spray-size the fabric before cutting and piecing.
16. Eek! Cellulite!
Our thighs aren’t the only things susceptible to that orange-peel look. Some of your quilting pieces also have annoying bumps and ripples. Here’s how to tame the lively beasts. When you are ready to add sashings and borders, measure and cut. Then measure and cut again. Cut all sashings and borders to fit your rippling blocks or quilt set. Pin on borders and sashings in increments by matching centers and quarters and ends. The afflicted blocks will obey when properly framed. Just think how happy your machine quilter will be.
17. Bad math.
When you add 2 + 2 in quilting, it should equal 4.5 inches. If you are using a scant quarter inch, your seam equation comes out to 4.67 inches, and a scant quarter inch simply isn’t good math. Lots of people have scant quarter inches because they used fat thread and bad pressing practices. Let’s break the myth that some of us are bad at math by practicing good piecing.
Yes, our quilting hobby can help us work out lots of problems, but sometimes those problems show up in our finished pieces. If your new-and-improved quilting techniques don’t fix the problem, remember there’s always appliqué!
19. Piece with pride.
Improving your piecing is a mind game. Don’t feel guilty about not using a fabric you don’t like. You won’t take the time and care with it if you don’t like the stuff. Go through your stash and get rid of those fabric dogs. Now! Those uninspiring fabrics are weighing you down with guilt and preventing you from practicing your art form with pride.
So you pieced the great American fiasco and are embarrassed. (Who hasn’t?) Learn to laugh. Take it to your next guild meeting and present it as your finest masterpiece. Announce it by saying, “I am so pleased with this piece and would like to hear your opinion.” Laughter is good medicine for everybody—even quilters.
21. Dump the police.
Do you find yourself listening to critics evaluate your stitching precision? Few people can work well under the scrutiny of the quilt police. If these are your friends, for heaven’s sake find new friends! Your piecing skills will improve and your self-esteem will soar.
Accept your skill level. You aren’t destined to piece only barn-sized blocks. There are thousands of patterns out there waiting to be tried, including some really great ones that aren’t symmetrical or squared or even! You can find something to help you celebrate this tremendous art form.
From now on, never announce any quilt with, “Let me show you what’s wrong.” Instead, say, “Wait ’til you see this one…it’s my best so far!”
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