Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rebecca and the Back-Basting Applique Brouhaha

Still Life with Applique and Morning Latte
Greetings, stitchy friends (and non-stitchy friends)!  I've been working sporadically on Applique Block 4 of Erin Russek's Jingle Block of the Month quilt.  You can see my progress in the photo above -- stems embroidered, pomegranates and center circles appliqued, all of the regular sized leaf shapes prepped, glue-basted and pinned in place.  The leaf on the bottom right, without a pin, has already been stitched in place and I'm about halfway around the leaf just to the right of the little gold frog magnet (holds onto my needle so it doesn't get lost and end up in someone's foot).  There are also two ridiculously tiny little leaves that go on top of each pomegranate, but I'm still fretting over the best way to approach those.  Stay tuned...

I would have finished this block sooner, but after getting impatient with the amount of time it takes to prepare applique shapes using Erin's recommended Starch and Press method, I decided to investigate other techniques for hand applique for this block in hopes of speeding things up a bit.  I've learned that a medium-to-low iron setting is safer for my fingers and less likely to warp my little plastic templates than a hotter iron, but it takes SO LONG to starch and press all of these little pieces before I can stitch them down.  The applique part is fun, but the prep work, not so much.

Availabe on Amazon here
I had heard some buzz about an applique method called Back-Basting, so I ordered Barbara J. Eikmeier's Back-Basting Applique: Step by Step, by Hand or Machine from Amazon and decided to give it a try.  Eikmeier's instructions and photos are very clear, and it seemed like the back-basting method could be used sucessfully for fairly intricate applique shapes, based on the cover photo.  Instead of turning and starching the raw fabric edges of each shape at the ironing board before stitching, with this method you overcut each shape, baste the shapes in place along the turning line FROM THE BACK (either by hand or by machine), and then trim all but a turning allowance of 1/8" to 3/16" around each shape prior to appliqueing it in place.  You clip away an inch or so of basting stitches just ahead of you as you stitch the applique, and the basting stitches (done with a largish needle and fairly heavy thread) are supposed to perforate along the turning edge to facilitate needle-turn applique.  It looked really easy in the book.  No more iron!  No more paintbrush!  No more glue!  Instant portability!  Wahoo!
Traced Design on BACK of Block, Placing Applique Fabric with Light Box
So, here you can see that I've lightly traced the reverse image of my applique block design on the back of my block background in ordinary pencil.  I had already hand embroidered my stems and appliqued my center circles and most of my pomegranates in place using the starch and press method, so I was just experimenting with leaves here.  I used my light box to trace the design onto the back of my block as well as to place each applique fabric so that there was plenty of fabric all the way around the drawn edge of each shape for a turn under allowance.  So far, so good.

Basting Leaf in Place Along Drawn Pencil Line, from Back of Block
Now, I didn't really dig the idea that I was going to sew these leaves down first with a basting thread, and then I was going to have to rip out those stitches and sew them down again, so I decided to try the Machine Basting method, using a 90/14 Topstitch needle, 40 weight quilting thread in the needle, and 50 weight cotton thread in the bobbin.  For the first leaf I attempted to stitch along the drawn line with my feed dogs down and the free-motion foot on my machine, but as you see in the photo above, that resulted in a bit of a wobble.  Eikmeier's book warns that the finished applique is going to end up exactly like the line of your basting stitch, so I switched to using an open-toed applique foot with my feed dogs up, pivoting after each stitch as I neared the point to ensure a perfectly smooth basting line around the shape of each leaf.

Basting Along Pencil Line with Open Toed Applique Foot #20
I got much better results with the feed dogs up and the open-toed #20 foot.  It didn't take long to baste all eight leaves in place by machine.

Front of Block After Basting Leaf Shapes
Here you see the block from the front, with all of the leaf shapes basted in place.  At this point I was feeling pretty optimistic about this back-basting method...  But then I started the actual applique process.  This is one of those processes that is difficult to explain in words, but instantly makes sense when you look at a picture:

Needle-Turn Applique Along the Broken Basting Stitch Line
See?  You clip partway into that turn allowance to get started, pull out about 3/4" of basting stitches, and then use the tip of your needle to swipe the fabric allowance under as you stitch exaclty along the line where the basting stitches were, which is visible due to the large holes created by that 90/14 Topstitchig needle I used when I machine basted.  Sounds easy enough, right?  Except that I REALLY don't like this method!!

Two Back-Basted Leaves Appliqued: Meh!
If I had never tried any other applique method, I might be satisfied with those two "beginner" leaves and stuck with the back-basting method.  They aren't THAT bad, right?  But, with the starch and press method that I've gotten used to, all of the work of shaping the applique pieces is done ahead of time, and by the time I'm appliqueing shapes in place I have perfect points and perfectly smooth, lovely curves on every piece.  Stitching perfect little shapes in place while visiting or watching television with my family is relaxing and enjoyable, and because I have a crisply pressed and starched edge on every shape, it's easy to precisely position my needle so that it grabs just two or three threads of applique fabric and then disappears just beneath the edge of the applique, as invisible as possible.  Like magic.  Fun! 
With the back-basting method, though, you are trying to create a smooth curved edge from wimpy, floppy fabric that doesn't want to cooperate with you at the same time you are stitching it down.  For me, this method resulted in less perfect shapes, more visible applique stitches, and increased swearing and scowling throughout the applique process.  Not fun!

Two Back-Basted Leaves at Left, Lots of Prettier Starch and Press Leaves at Right
See the difference?  This cardinal block on the right was my very first ever attempt at applique, using the starch and press method.  Compare those first leaves -- smooth, plump, and invisibly stitched -- to the two leaves I appliqued using the back-basting method, on the folded block at the left side of the photo.  Blech!  So I got out my seam ripper and removed the remaining six overcut leaf shapes from my block.  Then I had to remove the two misshapen leaves I had already appliqued in place, which was VERY difficult to do and which prompted me to wonder whether there was such a thing as applique stitches that are TOO small and TOO closely spaced?

My Applique Stitches -- Should My Stitches Be Longer?
Initially I was concerned about making sure my applique stitches were small enough to be invisible and closely spaced enough to securely hold the applique in place for the life of the finished quilt.  Now I've gotten into a hand stitching rhythm and this is how my stitches come out automatically, without thinking about it.  I didn't think tiny stitches could be a problem until I realized that I couldn't fit the tip of my seam ripper into most of my stitches, and removing the stitches at the points of my leaves, which I had secured with a few extra stitches, was an extremely precarious undertaking.  If I had accidentally cut into my background fabric at this point it would have been a disaster!
Jubilation!  My Leaf Is Lovely Again!

I did manage to remove the leaves safely, and then I made eight new starch and press leaves for my block.  I glue basted them in place, using the needle holes from the machine basting stitches as placement guides, and added a little 1/2" applique pin to each one for added security.  Now I can get back to the fun part again!
I've pretty much decided that back-basting or traditional needle-turn applique is not going to be for me, but there are other methods for preparing pre-turned shapes for applique that I have not yet written off.  For instance, in Harriet Hargrave's invisible machine applique class, she had us preparing applique shapes by ironing freezer paper templates to the wrong side of the applique shapes, cutting around the templates with a turning allowance, and then using fabric glue stick to turn and secure the edge.  Then we basted the shapes in place with fabric glue sticks prior to stitching the applique.  With that method, it was faster than the starch and press method and even easier to get smooth curves and sharp points.  My only concern is the added resistance to my needle as I'm hand stitching through three layers of fabric, glue stick, and a piece of freezer paper.  Of course, this method also requires you to cut into the background fabric afterwards so you can pull out the freezer paper templates.  I think I might give it a try anyway, and see how it goes.
Happy Tuesday, everyone!  Enjoy that sunshine while it lasts.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cindy Needham's June 2012 FMQ Challenge Tutorial: Divide And Conquer!

No, that isn't a typo -- this free-motion quilting challenge was released over a year ago, but SewCalGal has given those of us who are straggling a second chance to complete all twelve FMQ challenges from last year.  As of today, I have NINE completed and only THREE more to go...

11" x 22" June Challenge Piece, quilted with 40 wt King Tut variegated cotton
Cindy Needham's very thorough and informative June 2012 tutorial can be found on SewCalGal's site here.  The idea was to divide the sample quilt sandwich into random, odd-sized intervals with a meandering line, and to fill each space with a different quilting motif.  Cindy suggests a mix of circles, straight(ish) lines, and S-curves.  I tried to incorporate a mixture of those, as well as some other designs I needed to practice.  My soap bubble/pebbles are getting better, don't you think? 

The lettering was machine appliqued with the Jumbo Hoop on my Bernina 750 QE several months ago, and as you can see in the photo below, I initially did not have enough stabilizer and I floated an additional sheet beneath the hoop after the "U" stitched out.  I was able to easily quilt out ALL of the puckering and wrinkles.  This piece is destined to become a carpool tag to stick in the windshield when we're in the line waiting to pick the kids up after school.  Plain white paper with black lettering just isn't fancy enough for me...  ;-)

Machine Appliqued and Pin-Basted Prior to Quilting
I have had the best luck in the past using very fine threads for free-motion quilting, like 60 weight cotton embroidery thread or #100 silk thread, but these challenge exercises are all about moving OUT of your comfort zone and trying something new, so I used a spool of Superior Thread's King Tut 40 weight variegated cotton machine quilting thread.  I thought it would pop nicely against the solid black background fabric.

King Tut #906, Autumn Days 40/3 Cotton
What a pain in the butt this heavy thread is to quilt with, though!  I started out trying to use the King Tut thread in the needle as well as in the bobbin, and I just couldn't get the tension to look nice consistently on the front and back of the work. 

King Tut in the Bobbin, Back Side -- YUCK!
50/3 Mettler Cotton in the Bobbin
I consulted Superior's web site, where they recommend a 90 Topstitch needle (check!) and a much lighter weight thread in the bobbin.  I didn't have any of Superior's Bottom Line or Masterpiece threads, so I wound a bobbin of yellow and white variegated 50/3 Mettler cotton thread instead.  I experimented with much lower needle tension, and it got better, but still looked pretty beastly-looking on the backside, especially any place where I had to backtrack over previous lines of stitching.

I decided to just make sure the front looked as pretty as possible for this exercise, but it I ever use this King Tut stuff again I'm going to have to do a lot more tweaking to get an attractive stitch with it.  I don't really like the look of heavy weight quilting thread anyway, so I'm going back to my skinny threads after this!

It does look cool from the front, doesn't it?  I tried to follow Cindy's advice about balancing curved line designs with straight lines.  This finished piece measures approximately 11" x 22."  I've decided to make it into a pillow cover (which will hide the ugly stitches on the back) so it can serve double-duty for extra lumbar support.  Also a 10" x 20" pillow is just the right size to wedge between the windshield and dashboard so my carpool "tag" can be clearly read by school staff who are calling out names on their walkie-talkies. 

I'd like to thank Cindy Needham for providing this wonderful tutorial, and SewCalGal for hosting (and extending) the 2012 Free-Motion Quilting Challenge!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Creme de la Cutting Table, Finished At Last!

My Finished Cutting Table: 97" x 42" top, 38 3/4" height
My cutting table is finally finished!  Well, mostly, anyway -- I still haven't gotten around to ordering the other two cabinet knobs for those red drawers, and Bernie hasn't finished the little shelf that goes on top of the red drawer base unit, either. 

The red drawers are a Kraftmaid kitchen cabinet that we ordered from Home Depot in white and then painted red ourselves.  All of the white units were built by my husband from scratch out of MDF, sized to perfectly fit the 17" x 21" double-depth (7" deep) wire baskets from ClosetMaid.  The surface is a John Boos 1 1/2" thick solid maple butcher block counter top, unfinished so it "grips" my cutting mat and won't let it slide around.  We ordered that from Butcher Block Co. online.
New Base in Place, Old Dark Brown Table Top

In the photo above, the new cutting table base is in place but the countertop hadn't been delivered yet so we just had the old top from my previous temporary cutting table in place.  See how much smaller it was?  The surface of my new cutting table is 42" x 97", and the height of the table is 38 3/4".  I'm about 5'8" tall and this puts the cutting surface about 4 or 5 inches below my elbow when I'm standing -- perfect for rotary cutting as well as for cutting with scissors.  I need lots of space in this area, because I don't just cut on my cutting table -- I pile all the fabrics and supplies I'm using around the perimeter.  I also discovered that, now that I have that fabulous 200 watt Ivanhoe Sky Chief pendant fixture from Barn Light Electric, I really like sitting at the cutting table for things like hand hemming, cutting and tracing applique templates, etc., so we incorporated an open space in the center for a stool. 

Another change from my previous cutting table designs is that this one is up against the wall rather than floating and accessible from all sides.  It won't work as well for basting quilts, but I only have to do that a couple of times each year and I think I can come up with a temporary setup for that when the need arises.  Meanwhile, I gained back a lot of floor space by putting the table against the wall.

I really love the built-in storage in this table.  I keep my scissors, rotary cutters, cutting templates, and tailor's ham in the red drawers.  I have plenty of room for my fabric stash in those breathable wire bins, and I have ClosetMaid metal base units with more wire bins at the back of the table, on both sides.  No wasted space!  I really love how this turned out.  The lighter color of the maple surface (compared to the dark brown finish on the old tabletop I had before) reflects light without any glare whatsoever, and it will last forever. 

As you can see, a lot of thought went into planning this table.  The size, location, lighting, materials and finishes were selected with great deliberation and care.  A lot of thought was NOT given to the weight of a 97" x 2" solid maple countertop, or to how we would get this behemoth up the stairs to the studio once it arrived.  According to the Bill of Lading from the commercial freight carrier, this countertop weighs 364 lbs!  Yet somehow, Bernie and I managed to get it up the stairs, around the corner to the studio, and then heaved up onto the base without damaging the butcher block, the walls, or either of our backs.  I think this must be one of those phenomenon where women acquire a burst of superhuman strength in an emergency situation, like when a car must be lifted from a child, or when a long-awaited countertop must be lifted onto the cutting table base. 

So, next?  Well, the little shelf surface for the unfinished top of the red base cabinet needs to be made, painted, and installed.  That will be a great place to store the extension bed for my big, bad Bernina sewing machine.  I'd like to find a more comfortable stool.  Also, once I have emptied the shelving unit on the adjacent wall and moved it to the other side of the room, we can install some white pegboard on the walls adjacent to the cutting table for storage of my acrylic rulers and machine embroidery hoops.  No wasted space!  I also have another piece of furniture in this room that I want to repaint and repurpose for storage.  But meanwhile, I've been working on the design for a new, improved sewing cabinet with back-to-back work stations.  Stay tuned...

Sunday, July 14, 2013

No Painted Brick Houses for Rebecca

Yesterday my husband innocently queried, "What color should I paint our shutters?"  Ah, thinks me, what color, indeed?  So I went outside, across the cul-de-sac, and gazed thoughtfully at the family abode for awhile.  I had been asked for input.  My creative vision had been called to action!  Yes, loves -- Bernie started it.  For it's no fun at all to choose a paint color for shutters when one is constricted by a sea of reddish-orange brick: the only attractive(?) options are going to be black, blackish-brown, or a very dark green.  But who says the bricks have to STAY reddish-orange?  And, if we (and by that I mean HE) were to paint them, what impact would that have on our curb appeal, hmmm?

What My Brick Might Look Like Painted

The Boring Red Brick Persists...
But alas -- my husband does not WANT to paint our house.  He choked out something like, "Do you know how much that would cost in paint alone?  Do you have any idea how LONG that would take?  I was only going to paint the SHUTTERS!!"
And so, friends, another design dream dies and fades away, and I find myself looking aghast at the time and wondering where my afternoon went.  Hopefully your day was more productive than mine was!
Updated July 18th, 2013: I no longer want to paint my house.  I don't like how the painted brick looks with my peaked roofline.  So the hours spent on that rendering weren't wasted, after all -- I saved myself the expense and heartache of having the house painted and THEN realizing I didn't like it after all. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Judy the Featherweight and the Quarter-Inch Seam: Jingle BOM Pieced Blocks 3 and 4

Jingle BOM Pieced Block No. 3

I finally sewed something with the 1951 Singer Featherweight 221 sewing machine that I purchased a couple of months ago!  I had two pieced blocks to catch up on for Erin Russek's Jingle Block of the Month quilt, and I decided it was the perfect first project for the Featherweight -- especially since my 'Nina 750 QE is all set up for free-motion quilting and I wanted to leave her that way because I've got some quilting planned for the imminent future.

The outer border of that block was very difficult to piece, with all those bias triangle edges, but I love it now that it's finished.  Very Christmasy!  You know, late last night when I finished that block, I thought I had finally gotten it perfect, but looking at the photo now I see a sloppy seam intersection right at the top, where my white triangle does not have a sharp point on the left.  I have to fix that or it will drive me crazy! 

UPDATED 7/9/2013: Guess what?  I didn't have to resew that seam after all.  The bulk of the seam allowance was "eating" my triangle point.  All I did was press that seam in the other direction, and voila -- pretty darned perfect (or rather, no longer imperfect enough to warrant ripping that triangle border apart yet again):

"Fixed" by Pressing Seam Allowance in the Opposite Direction

I also completed Pieced Block No. 4 -- TWICE.  Here is the first one:

Jingle Pieced Block No. 4, First Version

Lovely, isn't it?  I thought so, too -- until I put it up on my design wall next to the others:

Hmmm...  I cut everything twice but it's still too small!  ;-)  What happened is that, since I'm using Kaye England's Cut For the Cure specialty rulers, I disregard the pattern instructions and cut all of my squares, triangles, or whatever from the same width fabric strips.  The width of those fabric strips is determined by the size of the finished block and the grid of the block pattern.  The previous pieced blocks for this quilt have all been based on a 3 x 3 grid, so I've been cutting my HSTs (half-square triangles) and QSTs (quarter-square triangles) from 2" strips of fabric.  Unfortunately, I did not notice that the Dutchman's Puzzle block is based on a 2 x 2 grid before I started cutting.  I was so absorbed with fabric selection and then with getting comfortable with the Featherweight and learning how to get my perfect 1/4" seam on that machine, that I didn't notice this block was too small until it was completely finished -- and measured exactly 6 1/2" x 6 1/2" instead of 9 1/2" x 9 1/2".  Ah, well -- another "oops" for the FMQ practice pile!

Since I had to redo this block anyway, I decided to switch out some of the fabrics to get more contrast and to make it a bit livelier.  It needed more red!  This is the final version that will be going in my quilt:

Jingle Pieced Block No. 4, 9 1/2" x 9 1/2"

The Featherweight was fun to use, once I got used to it.  The biggest issues I had were the challenges of inadequate machine lighting (by today's standards) and figuring out how to get an accurate 1/4" patchwork seam.  I have ordered a replacement LED bulb from Amazon (affiliate link) that is supposed to fit the Featherweight, although it has mixed reviews on the Internet, and that may help.  Meanwhile, I set up a desktop Ott light to shine in front of the machine, and that improved visibility a lot without creating too much glare.

Since my Featherweight's original stitch plate (sans markings, which were a later innovation) had a significant amount of chrome worn away around the needle hole, I bought an after-market replacement stitch plate that does have markings for various seam widths, but the lines are very difficult to see.  I tried out four different after-market 1/4" patchwork feet that other quilters recommended for the Featherweight, but I finally realized that my presser bar is not set perfectly straight in my machine, causing the presser foot to angle  ever so slightly to the right.  For that reason, I can't use the front edge of any foot as a seam guide.  I'm sure that a tech, or even my Handy Husband, for that matter, could easily turn that presser bar so that the presser foot would be perfectly straight, but I didn't want to wait for that.  I also thought that all of the after-market presser feet seemed pretty flimsy and lightweight, with too much side-to-side play for my taste.  I went back to the original Singer foot that came on the machine, and I think it feeds the patchwork more smoothly and glides across the bulky seam intersections more easily and with less distortion than those other, wider feet.  I aligned a piece of low-tack, neon pink tape (sold for temporarily marking lines on acrylic rulers) to the 1/4" line on my stitch plate, and used that as a visual guide for my fabric edges.  I also found that the fabric pieces fed more consistently, without flagging at the beginning or end, if I positioned my left hand just to the left of the presser foot and watched the edge of the fabric at the tape line right next to the needle instead of watching where the fabric lined up with the tape in front of the presser foot:

Getting a Perfect 1/4" Seam on My Featherweight

(Yes, I know...  Time for a manicure!)  I was using a 70/10 Microtex needle with Aurifil 50/2 cotton thread and got a lovely stitch with my tension set just below the 3 mark on my tension dial.  I did notice a couple of times that the stitches weren't looking good on the backside, and both times my tension dial had somehow moved down to 2 instead of 3.  I'm not sure whether I bumped the dial by mistake when I was sewing or if it is loose and moves by itself -- not good!  I'll have to watch for that next time and get that tightened up if necessary.

Meanwhile, here's what my design wall looks like today, with all of the Jingle blocks I have completed so far.  I'll be switching gears back to hand applique next.  There's been one more applique block released that I need to get caught up with, and I still need to do the large center medallion applique for this quilt as well.  The finished quilt is going to have a total of 16 blocks, 8 pieced and 8 appliqued, so I'm almost at a halfway point.  I'm really glad I decided to do this project.  It's a lot of fun and I'm learning a lot along the way!

Have a wonderful weekend!