Sunday, May 30, 2010

Next Up: A Swirly, Twirly, Princess Pettiskirt for Princess Petunia!

So, my sister Janice the Manice mentioned recently that she wants to get my 2-year-old niece, Princess Petunia, something called a "pettiskirt" for twirling around in circles, but she hasn't yet because they are so expensive.  Having only boys at our house, I didn't know what she was talking about until the Chasing Fireflies catalog came in yesterday's mail.  For those of you who are as ignorant of pettiskirts as I was, a pettiskirt looks like a tutu from a ballet costume, only a little longer, with satin at the top and some kind of bow.  I dug around a bit and discovered that Martha Stewart had a segment on pettiskirts on one of her television shows, there are a whole slew of tutorials on how to make them on the internet, and the high end children's boutiques and catalogs charge $80 for them.  This is apparently a very hot item for girly-girls.

Where were pettiskirts when we were little girls, dressed in drab maroon velour and plaid back in the '70s?  Not only have I decided that yes, Princess Petunia does need a pettiskirt to fulfil her inner twirler, but I probably need one, too.  I googled "pettiskirt pattern" and found this one by Kari Me Away

This site also sells kits with pre-cut rolls of polyester chiffon and everything you need to make one skirt, but they only had a couple of colors to choose from so I just ordered the pattern.  Like I said, I found several sites offering free instructions for this skirt, but they all seemed to have been written by sewers with more garment making experience than I have, and the directions didn't seem clear enough to me.  Also, whereas the Kari Me Away pattern calls for 16 yards of 54" wide chiffon to make one size 3T skirt, the free pettiskirt instructions only called for 4-6 yards per skirt.  I want this pettiskirt to be just as full and floofy and over-the-top as the boutique skirts, so I'm going with the double layer, 3-tiered, 16 yard version from Kari Me Away, like the purple one shown in this photo.  However, one tip I picked up from reading the online tutorials was to look for nylon chiffon rather than polyester chiffon, because the nylon chiffon doesn't fray.  I found a pretty azure blue shade of 100% nylon non-fray chiffon for just $1.59 per yard here.  Now I just need to get a little piece of satin for the top of the skirt and brush up on the ins and outs of my ruffler foot!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Update: The Very Hungry Caterpillar Blanky Quilt, Part 2: Embroidered Monogram & Quilt Label

Since I last posted about this project, I finished assembling and attaching my border strips (and re-learned the importance of fitting the quilt edge to the border strip rather than vice-versa).  Because I happened to end up with a blue stripe on the main border fabric falling right next to the corner block, I switched to a yellow fabric scrap for the corner blocks instead. 

I didn't want to use a polyester batting because I hate the way polyester fibers migrate through the quilt top and "beard" over time, which would be especially visible on these bright colors, but I didn't want to be committed to quilting too densely, either, since I wanted the quilt/blanky to retain the drapability and squishiness of the Minky backing as much as possible.  My quilting plan is to set forth boldly with no plan, and quilt just enough to add interest and texture without making the quilt too stiff.  Remember the quilting is not going to go through the Minky backing at all.  So I bought a thin 100% cotton batting with scrim that the manufacturer said could be quilted up to 8-10" apart for this project.  I don't remember who the manufacturer was, but I bought this batting by the yard from Mary Jo's Cloth Store in Gastonia, North Carolina.  Since this is a fairly small quilt project, and because my mantra right now is Simplify!, I decided to try basting the quilt top to the batting with temporary spray adhesive.  I used 505 and sprayed the batting, as per the instructions on the can, and then layed the quilt top onto the sticky batting and struggled to get it smooth and square.  It's a good thing the kids were at school, because I found it necessary to use some very bad language throughout this process.  Never again!  This spray basting method was a royal pain in the butt, and my previously perfectly square quilt top was not so perfectly straight and square anymore when I decided enough was enough.  I should have basted with my curved safety pins like I usually do; it would have taken the same amount of time, with no chance of distorting my quilt top in the process. 

Once I had the batting stuck to the quilt top, I stitched in the ditch with my walking foot in all the border seams to help secure the layers of the quilt a little bit better before moving on to the embroidery stage.  Here's the completed pieced top, stuck to the batting, and quilted only in the ditches:

Remember that the wide outer border is going to be mostly covered up by my 2" wide satin binding.  I laid the satin binding down over the corner to get an idea of how the border will look when the project is completed:

The satin binding looks a lot darker in the photo than in real life; it's a beautifully vibrant purple, leaf green, and royal blue that complements the fabrics.

So then I spent several hours the next day planning the embroidery.  Originally I thought of a three-letter monogram, but then I couldn't find a monogram style that I liked well enough.  Everything was either too grown-up, too commonplace, or else had too much going on that would detract from the spirit of the Eric Carle illustrations.  Finally, I remembered the Buttons monogram style from Embroidery Arts.  Eureka!  I have used Embroidery Arts' monogram designs over and over again and have always been pleased with the design quality, but this Buttons style never appealed to me in the pale pastels it's shown in on their web site.  But, by changing the thread colors to match the "marbles" in my Hungry Caterpillar fabric, this monogram looks like it was a custom design to go with my fabric.  I combined the 2" initial "P" Buttons monogram with the baby's first and middle names in my Bernina Artista embroidery software, which automatically converts any True Type font on my computer into embroidery stitches.  The font I chose is called Mufferaw.  Here's the template of my customized design that I printed out from my embroidery software, along with the Isacord thread colors that I selected.  I like to cut out my design templates so I can preview it in different locations on my project.  Isn't it perfect how the "P" fits so nicely into the space under the caterpillar?

I wasn't really worried about how the narrow satin-stitched lettering would stitch out on my quilt, but the "P" is a pretty dense design so I decided to stitch out a sample.  Sometimes thread colors look different stitched out in a design than they do on the spool, so a sample stitchout would also give me an opportunity to make any necessary thread color adjustments before stitching on the actual project. 

For my sample, I sprayed a scrap of the same batting used in my project and stuck a piece of cotton quilting fabric on top.  I hooped the two layers in my large oval hoop along with a single layer of tearaway embroidery stabilizer, and then I basted along the outer edge of the hoop using the basting design file I downloaded from the Bernina web site.  As you can see, I got a big bulging pucker at the top of the "P" and a good bit of fabric distortion.  Notice how goofy the fabric grain looks around the center of the design.  I decided that the hoop basting wasn't doing much good with this design because the basting stitches were too far away from the outer edge of the design at the top and bottom, where the distortion was occurring.  I decided to proceed with embroidering my project, but I applied two layers of light fabric starch to the quilt top first and added a topping of Sulky Solvy in addition to the tearaway stabilizer for additional support and to ensure that my skinny little letters didn't sink into the fabric too much.

Now, what I struggle with most in machine embroidery, other than puckering, is getting my project in the hoop straight and taught, with the hoop perfectly centered on the spot where I want the embroidery design to stitch out.  I taped my little template cutout to my gridded hoop template to help with that, but I still struggled a bit before I was satisfied with my hooping.

Here's how the design stitched out on my project.  I'm really happy with the design, the thread colors, and the placement, and I'm mostly happy with the way the embroidery stitched out...

...But I do still have some puckering around the letter "P."  It's better than the sample, though, and I think I might be able to smooth it away with a combination of ironing and quilting.  Next time I want to embroider on a quilt top, I'm going to try a couple of new things: I could pin-baste the layers like I usually do, and then quilt a 2-4" grid over the area that will go in the embroidery hoop, using wash-away basting thread in the top and bobbin, to better secure the layers and hopefully prevent this distortion, and then the basting grid will just wash away when I wash the completed quilt.  If that doesn't work, I'll go back to embroidering the quilt top before the batting is added, using one or more layers of fusible Poly-Mesh and tearaway stabilizers on the bottom and the Sulky Solvy on the top.  One of these days, I'll come up with the magical method for pucker-free embroidered quilts!  In the meantime, one good thing about baby quilts is that you know they are going to get ratty and ragged the more they are loved, and the baby isn't going to be looking the quilt over with a magnifying glass and passing judgement on the quilter for every little flaw.  I try to keep that in mind to keep my perfectionist tendencies at bay.  The quilt label stitched out without a hitch, as I knew it would.  It's the same True Type font that I used in the monogram, just a smaller size, and I tried to put it an inconspicuous location on the front of the quilt, next to the outer border on the upper right side. 

I'm making progress!  The next step is to add texture and better secure the batting to the quilt top with some free-motion machine quilting.  I've had the BSR (Bernina Stitch Regulator) update for my Artista 200 machine for several years, but never had the time to play with it and get comfortable enough to use it on a project before.  I always want things to be PERFECT, and if I'm hand-quilting it may take a few years to finish a project but at least I am in complete control of every stitch that goes into the quilt and it comes out exactly the way I envisioned.  But I've been inspired recently by Wendy Sheperds's Ivory Spring blog and her BSR quilting projects featured in Bernina's Through the Needle publication, so I'm determined to get over my fears and take the plunge.  I know that the best tools in the world can't give me the instant ability to achieve exquisite, heirloom quality machine quilting like Wendy's, but having the best tools does give me a head start on the learning curve, and the only way to get better is to get started and just do it!  Wish me luck...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In Progress: Master Bath Facelift for My Most Demanding Client -- Me!

It can be dangerous when interior designers go house-hunting.  When most people tour homes on the market, they notice everything they don't like about the property and discount their offer accordingly.  Designers tend to see all of the possibilities of what the property could be, with a few minor changes...  Those are the Famous Last Words.  Fortunately, when we bought our current home three years ago, it had been sitting on the market for awhile because other buyers weren't able to overlook a handful of goofy flaws, so we didn't overpay for the property even though I was seeing it through my rose-colored glasses of design optimism.  We immediately began ripping things out and replacing them, and those "few minor changes" were inevitably followed by a few more minor changes...
This is what our master bathroom looked like when we moved in:

Yuck!  At first I couldn't figure out why there was a blank space between the his and hers vanities on this wall, and I know this was one of the reasons why the home wasn't selling.  Prospective buyers were looking at this and thinking, "What do I do with that?  When I located the original plans for the house, I discovered that the entrance to the master bathroom was supposed to be between the vanities.  When the original homeowners asked the builder to move the door to the adjacent wall (so you enter the master bath directly from the bedroom rather than from the hallway), no one thought to reconfigure the cabinetry.  Mystery solved!

What's more, the doorway was moved right next to the vanity seat, so that if anyone is seated at the vanity when her husband comes sailing into the bathroom, she gets smacked in the back of the head by the door.  Ouch!  You can get a much better feel for the size of this room from the second photo, too.  I loved the soaring vaulted ceiling and the spaciousness of this bath, but the scale of the cabinetry was way too small for the space, like it had been reclaimed from a couple of secondary bathrooms somewhere.  The effect was kind of depressing.  I also hated the fluorescent vanity light fixtures (which created all the ambiance of a mental institution at night), the "cultured marble" plasticky countertops, the cabinet knobs...  But oh, the possibilities!  Cabinets, light fixtures, and hardware can all be changed, but the bones of the space were perfect.
Here's one more "before" photo before I move on.  Eventually, I'd like to replace the floor tile with something on a diagonal set, run the same tile in a smaller size up the shower walls, and replace the aluminum framed shower enclosure with frameless glass doors, but that's going to have to wait for Phase Two of this project.
We finally got around to starting the master bathroom project just before the holidays last year. Bernie didn't know we were starting the master bath.  He thought we were going to redo the master closet, and I kind of snuck the bathroom in with the closet, much like pork barreling in Congress. Here's how the master closet started out:
It's way too small for a master closet in a house this size -- but the only way to enlarge it would be to take away from the master bath or from my sewing studio, and I'm not willing to sacrifice the space in either of those rooms. However, the existing wire shelving was hardly maximizing the available space. Since the master bath is spacious and the closet is disproportionately small, I decided to do built-in cabinetry storage in the closet, centered on the door to the bathroom, that would match the bathroom cabinetry. The idea was to give the impression that the master bath and closet are one spacious whole. I also know that, someday when we put this house on the market, prospective buyers will be comparing our home to others in the neighborhood with larger closets, and I know that many of our neighbors have done California Closet type systems.  Stepping it up a notch with true custom cabinetry in the closet turns one of the home's flaws into a selling feature, because other homes at our price point will not have anything like it.

Here's the completed closet.  I wasn't using a wide angle lens so I couldn't get much in each shot; the first photo shows the built in cabinet and my slanted shoe shelving; there are hanging clothes units on the far right and far left as well, and the second photo shows the view of the closet from the bathroom.  Much tidier!  I couldn't resist the semi flush mount fixture with dangling chandelier prisms.  The empty space beneath the drawers is for a fabric-lined basket that will be used for drycleaning.

I would be a very cranky lady if I got smacked upside the head by my bathroom door every morning, so Bernie came to my rescue by building a new vanity area in the no-man's-land between the original cabinets.  The vanity lights in this photo were a temporary solution to save me from fluorescent hell; they were castoffs from a client's project that we later donated to Habitat for Humanity.

You can see that we raised the original vanity on the far right to the same height as the sink countertop.  This photo was taken before the new drawer fronts and doors came in.  My original plan was to match the new cabinetry sections to the existing cabinetry, both to save money as well as to remain consistent with the door and drawer fronts used throughout the rest of the home.  I was able to locate the source the builder used for the door and drawer fronts and ordered the exact same style, but unfortunately the supplier had changed router bits or something because the new drawer fronts were just different enough from the old ones that I couldn't use them side-by-side.  So the old cabinet doors stayed, but all the drawer fronts ended up getting replaced. 

I designed a much taller triple mirror spanning the entire wall, framed with trimwork and topped with heavy crown molding for a custom built-in look.  (The mirrors you're seeing in these photos are still temporary; we'll have custom beveled mirrors made to fit once everything has been painted).  I switched the overhead vanity lights out for a pair of dramatic, oversized sconces for several reasons: the overhead vanity lights drew attention to the fact that the sink on the right wasn't centered on its cabinet, overhead lights cast unflattering shadows when you're trying to apply makeup, and I wanted to emphasize the new large vanity as the focal point on this wall elevation.  Three new can lights were added in the ceiling to supplement the light provided by the sconces.

The cultured marble countertops (which were neither cultured nor marble) were replaced with dark brown Emperador marble, and I fell in love with these pricey bridge faucets from Brizo in Venetian Bronze finish.  Again, the larger scale and drama of these faucets was well suited to the space and complemented the over-the-top sconces nicely.  I also liked that, since Brizo is the high-end subsidiary of Delta and both lines share the same finishes, I was able to purchase less expensive towel rods from Delta that match the faucets perfectly.  You can see the new iron and crystal chandelier I added above the tub reflected in the mirror here, as well:

I love, love, LOVE my faucets and my cabinet knobs, and I was really pleased with the marble countertops as well.  However, I'm sorry to say, my bathroom has looked like this, half-finished with naked drawer fronts and mismatched mirrors, for several months now while I've been busy with clients' projects, High Point furniture market, and the IWCE Vision '10 trade show in Atlanta last week. 

I finally got around to scheduling my painter to come in yesterday to paint the walls, ceilings, trimwork, and all the cabinetry in the closet and bathroom.  I should point out that this is the first time Bernie has ever had professional painters working in our home -- usually he's the painter, but he didn't want anything to do with painting the cabinetry and he doesn't have time to do it, anyway.  But I have fabulous painters that I've used over and over again on client's projects, so I know they will do a great job for me.  Here's what my master bathroom looked like yesterday evening, after a full twelve-hour day of three professionals sanding and priming away like madmen:

Yikes!  Can you see why Bernie didn't want to tackle this paint job himself?  That's my newly-toothless first grader showing off his missing front tooth in the foreground, by the way, and that's just primer that you see on the cabinets and drawers.  As you can see, this is a lot more work than your standard run-of-the-mill interior paint job.  Things to keep in mind in case you're eyeing some outdated cabinetry in your own home: You can only paint your cabinets if they are real wood.  The white thermafoil cabinet doors that builders have been using over the past 10-20 years or so cannot be painted; the paint won't adhere to the plastic coating.  Also, if you're repainting existing cabinet doors you will need to sand down almost to bare wood to get the primer to adhere -- talk to your paint store about the best products for your situation.

After a great deal of hemming and hawing and multiple changes of mind, I opted to have my cabinetry, doors, and all the trimwork repainted in Sherwin Williams 6385 Dover White, which has just a hint of ivory to warm it up.  I pulled the shade from the not-quite-white veining in the countertop marble.  I almost went with more of a beigey antique white with a brown glaze for the cabinetry, but then I'd have to go darker with the wall color in order to get a good contrast and I really wanted to keep the light, bright, cheerful feeling.  If I feel like the cabinets are "too white" when they're finished, I can always add a little glazing.  The walls are going to be Sherwin Williams 6120 Believable Buff, and 50% of that color is going on the ceiling.  Of course, if this project was for a client, I would have finalized fabric selections prior to specifying a paint color, but I haven't gotten that far for myself yet.  The cobbler's children never have any shoes...

Meanwhile, the painters are upstairs working away, and I need to call the glass company and schedule them to come out and measure for my custom mirrors sometime next week when the painting is done.  The Hungry Caterpillar quilt is also on today's agenda, as well as the never-ending laundry and some work I need to wrap up to prepare for a client meeting tomorrow afternoon.  How did it get to be noon already?!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

In Progress: A Smooshy, Cuddly, Very Hungry Caterpillar Blanky Quilt for Melissa's Baby

My first-grader has been blessed with the most amazing teacher this year.  She is one of the hardest-working, most loving people I know.  Charged with teaching the Talent Development (formally identified "gifted" students) and top-achieving first graders who were grouped together for the first time this school year, Melissa has risen to the challenge of devising and delivering an enriched curriculum to these kids that made every school day challenging, fun, and thoroughly worthwhile.  What's more, Melissa has had the patience of a saint in dealing with my son's ADHD difficulties in a creative, loving way that emphasized his gifts and acknowledged his special needs, yet still held him accountable.  When your little boy goes off to school and spends more waking hours with his teacher than he does with his mother, it is such an enormous relief, such a gift, to know that his teacher makes him feel so loved and cherished in the classroom. 

So naturally, as soon as I heard that this teacher was expecting her first child, I knew I wanted to make something special for her baby.  At first I thought I'd buy a nice baby blanket and do a machine embroidered monogram, something like this one that I did for a favorite client's first grandbaby:

By the time I picked out a monogram style, combined the letters the way I wanted in my embroidery software, and stitched out the monogram, that would probably take me between 30 minutes to an hour to accomplish.  It would be done by now, and I would have been able to give it to the teacher before she went on maternity leave a week ago Friday.  But I decided this new mommy and her baby deserve something extra special, and I've been itching to start a new quilting project for the longest time, so I decided that Melissa's new baby was a good excuse to get back into it. 

Although I had wanted to do something wild and crazy for my niece, Princess Petunia's baby quilt, the traditional baby pink and green one with Minky backing and ruffled satin ribbon edges turned out to be a big hit.  Two years and many tumbles through the wash later, it's still her favorite blanky, the one she asks for when she's sleepy.  Here's Princess Petunia (whose parents insist on calling her Sarah) with her grandfather on her dad's side and her favorite blanky from Aunt Rebecca:

Now, how sweet is that?  Although I was sulking about not getting to use my tattoo fabric, I really liked the soft smooshiness I got from the Minky Swirl fabric I used as a backing (the swirls reminded me of rosebuds).  The top of Princess Petunia's blanky is actually a remnant of a Ralph Lauren home dec fabric leftover from a client's project; the fabric came pieced together like that.  I know I put some kind of low-loft quilt batting in between the layers, something that said on the package that it would be suitable for a tied quilt, but I don't remember exactly.  And I used the ruffler attachment on my Bernina sewing machine to ruffle a few yards of wide satin ribbon to insert in the edges, then hand-tied the quilt with embroidery floss.  I think I attempted to do French knots, which seem to have come undone over time but I like the cute, unplanned pom pom effect that created.

By the way, I made a quilt for Princess Petunia's older brother, James, too, and it's also his favorite for snuggling.  James's quilt has machine-embroidered alphabet blocks using designs from Sarah Butcher's Storybook Alphabet collection for Cactus Punch.  Here's James and one of his best pals, snuggling up together in his Alphabet quilt:

I should also probably mention that I incorporated a few scraps of the leftover striped inner border and binding fabric from James's quilt when I made Anders' Froggy Quilt of Many Colors for my son's third birthday.  I like to try and sneak in at least one fabric from a previous quilt whenever I can; I feel like that makes it extra-special somehow.  Here's that same striped fabric in my son's Froggy Quilt:

So, getting back to the project at hand -- I want to combine the best aspects of James's and Princess Petunia's quilts.  I need to finish this quickly, so it can't be too elaborate, and I want it to be super soft and snuggly with Minky backing, like Sarah's blanky.  But since Melissa's expecting a baby boy, we're obviously not going with soft pink and satin ruffles.  I love the bright, bold colors of James's quilt, and I enjoyed selecting the different fabrics and planning the layout for the quilt top.  I also loved how this quilt doubles as a fun learning-your-alphabet book; some of the designs are pretty funny and they are all too cute.

When I started shopping for fabric, I immediately fell in love with the licensed Eric Carle collection from Andover FabricsThe Very Hungry Caterpillar was one of my favorite books as a child, as well as a favorite of both of my sons.  I know that, as a first-grade teacher, Melissa will definitely be doing a lot of reading with her son, and the caterpillar growing up to be a beautiful butterfly theme kind of ties in with the baby's name.  The parents are giving him the first name Gage, which means "promise," and his middle name will be Kipling, because the father's favorite poem is If by Rudyard Kipling.  The poem is about what it takes for a boy to grow up and become a man, so the baby's name is a promise that the parents will help the baby grow up to be the best man that he can be.  See -- these parents are already amazing, and their baby hasn't even been born yet! 

I realized after I got home with my fabric haul that I wasn't going to be able to keep this blanky quilt as small and Linus-style drag-around-the-house as I wanted if I tried to use all of the coordinates I bought, so I settled on the large illustration panel in the center, flanked by the wide border print of the caterpillar eating holes through all the food on each side.  I felt like I needed something else between those two fabrics, though, and I was delighted to discover that the striped fabric leftover from Anders' and James's quilts would be a perfect transition between the two fabrics.  I am also going to use the stripe for an outer border around all four sides of this quilt.  I'm planning to finish the edges with multicolored 2" satin binding in Jewel, so the outer border will be sized with an extra 2" to be covered by the satin binding -- no ruffles for Gage!

I've found several projects for baby blankets online that advocate skipping the batting altogether when using Minky as a backing, but I don't think a pieced cotton quilt top would "marry well" with the slippery Minky backing.  Yet quilting through the Minky dot fabric would ruin the Minky texture on the back of the quilt.  I also want to do some machine-embroidered personalization on the quilt top, and batting might help the thin quilting fabrics to support embroidery stitches (hopefully with less bear-wrestling and swearing than was necessary to get James's quilt embroidered without a zillion puckers!).  I like how the Petunia quilt felt more balanced with the batting, but I don't want to tie this quilt.  I'm planning to use a thin quilt batting that can be quilted far apart because, not only do I lack sufficient time and talent to pull off dense machine quilting under the gun, but I also don't want the quilt to get too stiff.  So I'm planning to use adhesive basting spray to affix my batting to the quilt top only, then secure the batting to the quilt top by stitching in the ditch along the border seams and -- are you ready for this -- if I can get up the courage, I'm going to use the BSR feature on my Bernina Artista machine to do some free-motion outline quilting around the caterpillar, the butterfly, and the leaf.  With a little practice, some deep breathing exercises leftover from natural childbirth classes, and the power of positive thinking, I know I can do this!

Once I've got the quilt top/batting combo embroidered and lightly quilted, I'm going to sandwich it wrong-sides-together with my Minky backing and serge it around the edges on my other sewbaby.  Except that I didn't know how this quilt was going to come together when I was fabric shopping, and I didn't buy enough of the orange Minky dot backing fabric for the size this blanky will finish.  Of course not!  Because, as my husband will tell anyone who will listen, every project that involves me has to be complicated!  So, I'm going to cut the Minky backing up into squares and piece it together with Dalmatian spotted Minky fabric leftover from when my mother made a beanbag chair cover for this same teacher's story corner in her classroom (she's big into Dalmatians).  So yet another fabric scrap from a previous project, suffused with warm fuzzy associations and special meaning, sneaks into the Hungry Caterpillar Quilt!  I love it!

Okay, so when all of that is done, then the last step will be to pin the satin binding on with mitered corners and stitch that down on the regular sewing machine with a nice zigzag stitch.  That is the plan!  And I am going to finish it within the next week or two, even though I will be traveling for business most of next week!  Join me with positive thoughts and pray that God will send me a couple of 36-hour days...

So far, I pre-washed and cut my fabrics and got both the inner striped borders and the wide side borders stitched to the main panel.  Doesn't that stripe look like it was just meant to be used there?  I did have to cut my border strips from selvage to selvage to get the stripes going the way I wanted them, which means the outer borders have to get pieced from two strips of fabric in order to be long enough.  Another opportunity to incorporate Ghosts of Quilting Past!  I found some green and blue batik scraps from the Froggy Quilt of Many Colors that look nice with my other fabrics, and I'm going to piece one green scrap in the center of each outer border strip and put a blue square in each corner.  Here's a shot of the Froggy Quilt of Many Colors showing the green and blue batiks:

Side Note: I had originally planned for the Froggy quilt to be my first BSR-assisted machine quilted project, but I spent SO many hours piecing those flying geese units (and ripping many of them apart to restitch them until every triangle point was perfect) that I couldn't bear to diminish my hard work with anything less than perfect machine quilting.  And I was trying to finish that quilt quickly to meet a birthday deadline, so I didn't have time to do a lot of BSR practice, and hand quilting was out of the question.  So the Froggy quilt was quilted along the block seam lines with my walking foot, and I used a design from one of the Keryn Emmerson embroidery design collections for Bernina (either Quilting Expressions or Quilting Inspirations) to get the look of flawless free-motion quilting on the large frog center squares with the ease of my sewing machine's embroidery module.  I think this quilt could use more quilting on the flying geese as well as on the four square sections, so maybe after I finish the Hungry Caterpillar project I will go back to the Froggy Quilt and add more quilting in those areas.  Just because the quilt has been on the bed for 3 1/2 years and in and out of the wash machine doesn't mean it's finished!

Back to the project at hand: Here's how that green batik looks pieced between the striped outer border strips.  I love the way I got those slivers of red and green on either side of my green batik scrap, so I'm going to try to replicate that on all four borders.  Pay no attention to the ugly water stain on my ironing board cover:

After I got this strip pieced, I realized that I cut my border strips too wide by 1/4", so I'm going to need to trim them all down before I proceed.  I had wanted a 1" strip of the border to be visible after the 2" FW banding was applied, so I figured 3" plus two 1/4" seam allowances, forgetting that there wasn't going to be a seam allowance on the outside edge of the quilt.  It is SO much better to accidentally cut borders too wide instead of too narrow, especially since I only have a tiny little strip of this fabric left to return to my scrap bin!

Well, I've spent the last couple of hours writing this post off-and-on between cleaning the house, baking cookies, and moving laundry along.  I'm such a domestic diva today!  Now that everyone in my family has an abundance of clean underwear once more, it looks like I can sneak up to my studio until dinner is ready and spend 30 minutes or so working on this project instead of just writing about it.  Did I mention that my wonderful, amazing, handy, good-looking husband also cooks?  I snagged a good one!

Friday, May 7, 2010

How to Build Beautiful, Self-Watering, Maintenance-Free Custom Flower Boxes

In my Spring Gardening Update post a couple of weeks ago, I showed you pictures of the in-progress flower boxes my husband was building me for my birthday.  Now that they are finished, I have more pictures and construction details to share in case anyone wants to try this themselves.  Be forewarned, however -- Bernie says this is an "intermediate" project.  Keep in mind that this assessment is coming from a man who once told our neighbors that they could "easily" replace the rotten frame around their front door themselves.  Hours of disaster later, Bernie had to go to their rescue so they would have a door again...  If you're lusting after flower boxes of your own but you're not "handy" or you don't have the time or tools to tackle this yourself, you could always hire a carpenter to build them for you.  (No, Bernie does not have time to make window boxes for you, so don't even ask).  I apologize for not taking pictures throughout the process, but it didn't occur to me to write a how-to for this project until it was almost complete and I could see how cool it was going to be.  This project is my husband's original design, and these instructions are provided for your personal, non-commercial use only and we're not liable if you fall off a ladder, saw off your fingers, wreck your house, or get glue in your eye.  Blah, blah, blah...

Okay, so step one is deciding what you want your flower boxes to look like.  There are plenty of ready made options available at Home Depot and Lowe's, and you can find even more ready-mades online.  However, it was important to me that the flower boxes didn't look like they were stuck on as an afterthought.  I wanted them to complement the existing architecture of the home, and I wanted them to look like they were part of the original elevation plan and had always been there.  I wanted them to look custom.  So we went for a drive through a few of the high-end custom home neighborhoods nearby so I could develop ideas about what styles worked well with architecture similar to our home.  I decided that our traditional brick home should have "wood" flower boxes with decorative bracket supports, and that we should paint them to match the trim paint on the house.  Another thing I noticed on this window box drive-by was how few of them actually had flowers in them.  A couple of flower boxes actually had tacky faded silk flowers stuck into them -- yuck!  Discussing this, we decided that non-gardening, dual-income homeowners were having trouble keeping plants alive in the flower boxes, since they would need to be watered daily throughout the summer.  My husband began brainstorming about irrigation, while I worried about ugly hoses going up the front of the house.  One more thing I observed from the custom builder flower boxes was the width of the flower boxes.  Unlike the little ready made flower boxes, the custom home ones always extended the full width of the windows, and if there were shutters, the window box extended approximately 1/3-1/2 of the width of each shutter. 

So for our window boxes, we made them (and I say "we" only to irritate my husband, because I didn't lift a finger) the width of each window plus about 4" on each side.  The boxes are 9 1/4" tall by 7" deep.  Because flower boxes are going to be holding wet dirt all the time, Bernie was concerned about rot and maintenance, so he decided to build the flower boxes out of fake, plasticky, low maintenance "PVC wood."  I was concerned about this initially, but then he showed me that our window trim and shutters are all made of the same stuff and reassured me that, once the flower boxes had been painted, they were going to look just like wood.  The PVC boards can be cut with regular woodworking tools, are paintable, and come stamped with a wood grain that looks pretty fake up close.  I was skeptical, but he was right -- they look great now that they are painted and installed and, unlike real wood, they are termite proof, low maintenance, and guaranteed to remain rot-free.  You can get this stuff at your local Home Depot or Lowe's.

Bernie's next concern with the window boxes was making sure that the bottoms could support the weight of all that wet dirt without falling out.  Using a dado blade on his table saw, he routed a channel 1/2" up from the bottom of each of the side boards to accommodate the thickness of the bottom board and lock the bottom in place.  The boxes were assembled using 2 1/2" finish nails and PL Premium Polyurethane Construction Adhesive.  I had him attach some simple trim pieces to the top and bottom of each box.  I was tempted to go with something more interesting, but the trim work on my house is very plain and it was very important to me that the window boxes would not stand out as an obvious addition.  If my home had more of a country French or Mediterranean facade, I would have designed completely different flower boxes and ordered some custom Tableaux faux wrought iron pieces to overlay on the window boxes.  Maybe the next house!

The next step was drainage.  Bernie drilled drainage holes spaced 12" apart, using a 5/8" drill bit.  To prevent soil falling out through the drainage holes, he glued 2" squares of fiberglass screening over each hole on the inside of each flower box.  The only thing missing at this point was the decorative brackets I wanted, but I wasn't able to find anything I liked at Home Depot or Lowe's so I turned to one of my trade resources, Outwater Plastics.  I'm not sure if they sell direct to consumers, but if not, they should be able to direct you to a retail source for their products.  Outwater has lots of choices of decorative PVC, and they are also a great source for hardwood appliques and corbels, decorative glass, and other products that I use for mini-face lifts in kitchens and baths when clients are looking for an update but aren't ready to remodel.  The brackets I selected for my window boxes were backordered a couple of weeks, so Bernie went ahead with painting and installing the boxes while we waited for the brackets to come in.

I whipped out my handy Sherwin Williams fan deck and selected an off-white paint color as close as possible to the existing trim paint on our house.  Of course, I did this from the ground, matching my paint swatch to the trim on a window that I could reach, which happened to be shaded by a tree and some shrubbery.  Paint does fade and lighten from the sun, so the color that matched beautifully on the lower window ended up being a little too dark on the upper windows where the flower boxes were installed, but the house trim will need to be repainted soon anyway and then everything will match perfectly.

Masonry bits were used to drill into the brick to mount 5" L-brackets with a white outdoor coating to the house beneath each window.  I am not happy with the way these L-brackets are visible from the bottom of the window boxes, but the window boxes themselves are also glued to the brick as well as anchored with 3" carriage bolts, so Bernie has promised to cut off the visible part of those ugly L-brackets now that the construction adhesive has had time to fully cure. 

Now, you may be wondering about that little clear hose that is sneaking along the mortar line to the left of this window box.  Remember all those empty flower boxes I saw at the country club, and even worse, the ones with fake flowers stuck in the dirt?  We didn't want to have to schlep a watering can around inside the house every day to water our flower boxes through the windows, and we didn't want our flowers to die when we travel, so Bernie tapped into our existing sprinkler system, tying the flower boxes into the zone dedicated to the front flower beds.  The hose he used is just 1/4" clear propylene tubing from Home Depot, attached to the mortar with clear plastic C-clips and clear silicone.  Although you can clearly see the tubing up close, you have to look really hard to see it from the ground and it's invisible from the street.  There are five drip irrigation heads in each 7' window box, and three heads in each of the 4' boxes. 

We planted alternating colors of trailing petunias and miniature trailing petunias in our flower box, chosen because they don't require deadheading.  (When I say "we planted," I mean that I spent half an hour at the plant nursery picking flowers and diagramming the order in which they should be planted, and my husband climbed up the ladder and did the actual planting.)  See how you can barely see the irrigation tubing, even standing right below it on the path?  I'm really pleased with how that came out.

But I did not like how the flower boxes looked like, well, like big rectangle boxes just stuck to the house.  I especially hated how they looked at this point from the side view, so I was thrilled when the brackets I'd ordered from Outwater finally arrived.  Bernie had to cut the backs of the brackets so they would fit over that 1/2" lip at the bottom of the window boxes and lay flush against the house, since the idea is for them to look as though they are supporting the weight of the window boxes.  In actuality, they are purely decorative.  Here's what the brackets looked like with the notches cut in the back, all painted up and ready to install.  They're actually hollow inside, as you can see in the second photo.

The decorative brackets, or corbels, were attached to the window boxes with 2" finish nails and were glued to both the window boxes and the brick with construction adhesive, so they're not going anywhere. 

Here are some shots of my finished flower boxes.  Happy Birthday to me!

That handsome man on the ladder is my sweetie, the Flower Box Builder Extraordinaire.

Just for kicks, here's a picture of what the front of our house looked like from this angle when we bought it three years ago.  I think that's the home inspector with the back to his camera, so we hadn't even closed on the property yet.  The home was three years old when we bought it and the previous owner hadn't done a thing with landscaping beyond what the builder had originally planted.  In addition to neatening the unkempt shrubs, and revitalizing the lawn, we also expanded the depth of the bed to the left of the front door, added additional zones for the flower beds to the existing irrigation system, rearranged a few existing plants and added Stella d'Oro day lilies, the blue perennial ground cover flowers whose name escapes me at the moment, and the little yellow daisies with purply-blue centers.  We also repainted the front door a more attractive shade of red and replaced all of the door hardware and house numbers, and replaced the cheapo white hexagonal flush mount fixture over the front door with a pretty hanging lantern style. 

Man, it's been a busy couple of years!  It's so easy to get overwhelmed thinking about all the projects yet to be done in and around the house, especially for someone in my line of work who is constantly immersed in clients' design, decoration and remodeling projects.  I get paid to look at beautiful homes and come up with ideas for making them even better, and it's easy to get carried away looking at my own home with my designer eyes.  Sometimes looking back at pictures of where we started is just what I need to appreciate how much we've accomplished already.

Meanwhile, I've started a new quilting project (hooray!) so I'll post about that next time. It's not the tattoo quilt for Janice; it's a more appropriately themed Hungry Caterpillar quilt/blanky with Minky backing for my son's first grade teacher.  She's already out on maternity leave and her baby could be born any day now, so I'm going to have to resist my usual tendencies to overcomplicate things in order to get the project done fairly quickly.  I'm pretty busy with work and with my kids, and I'm headed to the IWCE trade show in Atlanta on Tuesday so no sewing will get done next week (although I may post some interesting design finds from the show).   It feels so good to be spending a little time in my studio again, even if it's only an hour or so at a time!