Quilt Cheats from a Beginner

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Sunday, October 20th

     Quilting can be a relaxing hobby so long as the understanding that mistakes while sewing, or dealing with fabric snafus, will indeed happen.   However frustrating these elements may be, they are inevitable for the novice quilter inasmuch as for the professional one.  This makes the seam ripper the one must-have tool for either type of quilter.  The mistake of sewing the wrong side of one patch to another is probably the most common blunder for quilters, never mind sewing an entire row of blocks to the wrong row.  At which point it is best to just walk away from the project and return to it on another day when the frustration level has subsided.  This is probably the best piece of advice for quilters to follow since using a seam ripper when calm – rather than when irate –  would undoubtedly yield a better result.    

     There’s other advice to be offered as well for the novice quilter.  Before I took up this hobby (only about two months ago), I conducted some basic research to see if quilting would be a good fit for me.  Not only was I looking for something new to learn, but something that would help me unwind after work.  I was assured by friends and colleagues who also quilt, that quilting would exceed my needs since it is such a fulfilling hobby.  There’s definitely a plus in being able to show something tangible – and quite visually appealing – for your efforts.

     But I can barely sew on a button let alone hem (I’ve stuck pins in fallen hems and have gone to work this way hoping no one would notice).   Still, I listened to every quilter I know, watched quilting tutorials on YouTube (which are extremely helpful), and spoke with teachers at fabric and sewing machine shops where quilting classes are offered.   They all echoed the same sentiment:  “anyone, even people who don’t know how to sew, can learn how to quilt.”  So I signed up for a Beginner’s Quilting class at a nearby fabric store.  

     Here are some tips that I’ve learned since then and that might be helpful if you too are interested in taking up this hobby:

–  Start small.  If your first course is being taught at a fabric shop and they are teaching a basic quilt that is rather large, such as twenty-five 8×8 squares (or patches), I suggest informing the instructor/store owner that you want to reduce the total amount of squares to just nine (three squares across by three squares down).  Then purchase the necessary fabric accordingly.  Not only will this make the stage of sewing the front, batting, & back of the quilt easier when you’re ready to do so, but it will be less costly for you.  Keep in mind that a fabric store’s objective is to sell as much fabric as possible.   Yet to sew  25 large patches together as a beginner and then continue with the quilting process, can be a daunting endeavor.  So much so that it can lead to quitting on quilting.  

–  The sewing machine pitch.  Shops that teach quilting often provide sewing machines during class for their students.   If the shops are also certified dealers for a particular brand of sewing machine, the shop owner will of course try and sell that brand to the students.  Unless you’re in the market for a sewing machine and know exactly which type & model you want and that is within your budget, steer clear of persuasive selling.  Today’s pricey sewing machines are not your mother’s Singer.  The brands that I have found to be popular with quilters – because of their ease when sewing as well as their designer stitches and embroidery capabilities – are as follows:  Bernina, Pfaff, Baby Lock, and Janome to name a few.  Each brand offers models that range from basic to complex and priced at anywhere from $300 to $8,000 (if not more).   Based on the sewing machine’s bells & whistles, so goes the price tag.  

 –  Purchasing a sewing machine.  If you are indeed in the market for one and have decided to shop around, do find a sewing machine shop that you can easily access and establish a relationship with the owner.  My husband & children gave me a Janome DC1050 as a birthday gift and from a shop that’s only about a 20 minute drive away.  The purchase price also included a one-hour lesson in how to use the machine.  Not only did I learn how to actually sew on my new machine, but I also learned that the shop owner teaches quilting and participates in Quilting Conventions (yes, there are Quilting Conventions!).  I now have another great resource for quilting.  Not to mention that my Janome DC1050 was highly recommended to my husband by an expert quilter and is reasonably priced.

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–  Sewing machine pitfalls.  Chances are that you’ll prefer to bring your own sewing machine to your quilting class.  If it’s not the same brand that your instructor is familiar with and you come across a problem, your instructor may not be able to help you fix the problem right there on the spot.  This is not because it’s a competitive brand but because he or she may not be familiar with the operation of your sewing machine.  Not the end of the world if you can then borrow one of the machines in the class, yet knowing that something’s wrong with your machine and that it could not be fixed right then and there, adds to the frustration.  So the advantage in purchasing a sewing machine from a certified dealer who is also your instructor, is that he or she knows, or should know, how to repair most problems in order for you to easily continue with your project. 

–  Carve out a quilting work space for yourself at home.  Mine is tucked into a corner with all supplies sitting on a folding table that is big (or small) enough for 4 people.  Be aware however that once you start quilting, you will need to spread out throughout other rooms in your home, including available floor space.  Laying out your patches in rows is necessary not only for assembling your quilt, but in changing up the order of patches until you are happy with a final look or design.  I highly recommend that you take a photo of the final layout and before you sew all of the rows together. And then either take a close look at that photo a day or so later or show it to a friend for feedback.  You might be surprised that a change here or there can make a nice difference.  Even after doing so, don’t be frustrated if you realize too late that you’ve sewn wrong rows together.  Take note of the beige color patches sewn together in the following picture.  The green patch all the way on the bottom left, actually needed to be placed on the right.  Since this quilt is for one of my sons who wouldn’t even notice the error, I’ve decided to just leave it as is (I hope he’s not reading this):

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–  Be prepared for an initial layout of funds for items such as quilting tools, fabric, classes, instruction books, and sewing machine (if applicable).  Other than the fabric and cost of classes, these items are for the most part, a one-time hit.

–  Classes.  If you are a first time quilter, do take classes instead of relying on a book or YouTube videos to learn how to quilt.  The YouTube videos I’ve seen are phenomenal but they will be less intimidating after taking at least a few classes.  You’ll then be able to better understand the lingo, how to use the necessary tools, and the various techniques used for quilting.  Don’t forget that your instructor is there in real time to help you get through any snarls you come across when first quilting – and you will come across snarls!        

–  As time permits, stay involved with other quilters, go to craft events, and gather as many quilting tips as you can.  Be prepared that different quilters use different methods throughout the entire quilting process — including hand stitching versus machine stitching.  I say leave the arguing of which method is best to the professionals and simply work with the method that suits you.  Unless you’re planning on making a living as a quilter, this should be a relaxing and fruitful experience for you.

– Be patient when first learning how to quilt.  I have cut pieces of fabric to precise measurements only to end up with sewn patches that were off by at least 1/4 of an inch.  Incorrect stitching happens.  Don’t sweat it because you’ll probably be able to make the entire quilt work in the end since fabric gives.  And it’s okay if your first or tenth quilt is not perfect.  Expert quilters have pointed out to me the mistakes in their quilts and quite frankly, they are naked to the untrained eye.  Just have fun.  

–  The task at hand.  For beginners, quilting requires focusing on nothing else but quilting itself.  Maybe when you’re really good at it, you can quilt and listen to music at the same time.  I’m not there yet.  However, if you have a job that keeps you away from home for a good portion of the day (and weekends) or if your job consists of running after small children 24/7, then I suggest that you take up quilting at another time.  I cannot imagine learning how to quilt for the first time after working all day then spending an evening fixing dinner and changing diapers.  To throw quilting into that mix, would understandably end with a Quilting Quitter.  

     How far am I along with my quilt?  I’ve only sewn the front – yes 25 large blocks made up of 5 rows – together.  I will sandwich the front, batting, and back at my next class by pinning these 3 pieces together.  I then have the option of attempting to sew this gigantic quilt on my new Janome or, sending it out to be sewn for the final quilting stage.  I may very well exercise the “Quilt Cheat” option given the enormous size of this first quilt.  There are other reasons too for cheating.  Since taking my first class, I have been given some beautiful pieces of fabric as gifts.  I’d like to finally start small with these pieces of fabric and work my way through the final stages of quilting with my machine.  I feel confident, even after only 2 months of quilting, to begin a new quilt that will end up worthy of a wall hanging.  One of the fabrics in particular is a seasonal print so I’d like to start soon.

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     So yes, quilting can be a relaxing hobby to learn, especially if you’re looking to unwind with a new creative outlet (or so I’d like to think) and the timing is right for you.   I now view quilting just as relaxing after work as reading a novel.  Sometimes I fall asleep while reading and have to re-read a good 3 pages the next time I pick up the book.  Who hasn’t?  And sometimes I get distracted while quilting and make a mistake.  I then walk away from the project and simply put the seam ripper to good use the next time I work on the quilt.  Just like in novels, plot twists also occur when quilting.  

     To be quilt-tinued…

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