Monday, August 18, 2014

Sawtooth Stars, Take 3: a Book Review of Quiltmaking Essentials 1 by Donna Lynn Thomas

Design Wall With Bloody Sawtooth Star
So, good Monday evening, everyone!  I have not made great strides with anything since finishing up my sewing machine cover last week, but the boys start school again ONE WEEK FROM TODAY so hopefully that will mean more sewing time for this mama soon enough.

In case you missed my earlier posts, I wanted to make sawtooth star sashing posts at the intersections of my 10 1/2" (finished size) bear paw blocks.  At first I thought I wanted 3" sawtooth stars, but I felt the scale was wrong after paper piecing the first one (the one on the right in the photo above).  So then I had grand, ludicrous aspirations of piecing a whole slew of 4" sawtooth stars while I was at the beach a few weeks ago, but that didn't work out very well.  I packed up one of my vintage Singer Featherweight sewing machines, rotary cutting tools, and my travel iron, along with precut strips of Kona solid in Snow and a bundle of hand marbled fabrics from Marjorie Lee Bevis.  Unfortunately, I just didn't have good enough lighting in our rental digs to see what I was doing in the evening.  My cutting was off, my fabric edges weren't perfectly aligned, and things weren't working out generally, so I packed everything up and picked the seams out once I got home.

Available here on Amazon (affiliate link)
For the third try at my sawtooth stars, I decided to incorporate Donna Lynn Thomas's methods from her new book, Quiltmaking Essentials 1: Cutting and Piecing Skills.  I was given a copy of this book to review nearly a month ago, and although I read and enjoyed it immediately, I wanted to wait until I had a chance to actually try out the ideas I'd read about before writing my review.  My sawtooth star blocks gave me the perfect opportunity to "test drive" Donna's best practices for piecing.

This book, the first volume of a planned series of two, is a thorough overview of everything a beginning quilter needs to know to piece just about any quilt block.  Although there are lots of beautiful quilt photos sprinkled throughout the book for eye candy, there isn't a single project in this book.  I LOVE THAT!  Here's why.

Quilting magazines can be a great "point of entry" into quilting, especially for those who don't know any other quilters.  Barnes and Noble, Michael's craft store, and even many grocery stores sell a variety of quilting magazines these days, just waiting to catch a would-be-quilter's eye with tantalizing cover quilts running the gamut from traditional to modern, in trendy of-the-moment color schemes and seasonal themes.  However, due to space limitations, the instructions in magazine projects tend to assume that readers have a basic understanding of the quiltmaking process.  This can be confusing and frustrating to someone who might never have touched a sewing machine and has no idea what terms like QST, SOG or 9-Patch means.  A beginning quilter's odds of successfully completing a magazine quilt project without any outside help or additional instructions is usually pretty slim -- and once that beginning quilter has wasted money on fabric and hours of his or her time just to end up with a frustrating mess, that first quilt is liable to be their last.

That's where Quiltmaking Essentials 1 comes in.  This book explains everything you need to know to get started with any quilt pattern, whether it's a standalone pattern, a magazine pattern, a project from another quilt book, or an idea you came up with on your own.  It's a book that will help establish good habits and techniques from the very beginning, that you'll dog-ear and highlight and refer to again and again. 

There are a lot of how-to quilting books on the market, and I've read most of them.  So, what makes this one a must-have?

  • So many books geared towards beginners downplay the need for accuracy in cutting and piecing.  How many times have you heard quilters comforting one another by saying, "there are no quilt police" or "as long as I can't see the mistakes when I'm galloping by on horseback it's fine"?  Yet, as Thomas points out, tiny inaccuracies in cutting and piecing have a way of compounding into a great deal of frustration and disappointment, and quilters who never learn to cut accurately and piece with a precise seam allowance are doomed to remain beginners forever.  Quilting Essentials 1 will help beginner quilters establish good skills and habits with their very first quilt, and will help many veteran quilters to correct bad habits that have may have been holding them back.
4" Sawtooth Star, Right on the Money with Nice, Sharp Points
As you can see, the sawtooth star block that I cut, pieced, and pressed using the methods in Quilting Essentials 1 came out pretty close to perfection.  (Except that I neglected to check that hand marbled red fabric for color fastness, and the dye ran when I attempted to steam and starch the finished block -- shame on me!)

Seams Pressed As Per Quilting Essentials 1
  • The section of this book on pressing is worth its weight in gold.  Those who were born in the 1970s or later grew up with permanent press fabrics and missed out on the home economics classes of earlier generations, and we don't know how to use an iron.  I have read so many quilting books that warn me to "press, not iron" and that I should "be careful not to distort the bias," but I had no idea what that actually meant.  I thought "press" and "iron" were synonyms, and naturally I'm not going to distort the bias on purpose!  Thomas explains how to press seams open properly with handy little diagrams showing which way the iron should be pointing in relation to your half-square triangle seam, and it was NOT the way I had been doing it.  When I pointed my iron like the iron in the book illustration, lo and behold -- my half square triangle unit looked much more like a square after I pressed it open.  This book is also very thorough in explaining the hows and whys of creating a pressing plan for your block up front.  That's another issue I've struggled with in the past as I followed another book's admonition to "always press to the Dark Side" and ended up with lumps and distortions in my blocks where several seams come together.  Seriously, this chapter alone could have saved me so much frustration and tears if I'd read it 10 years ago.  As it is, I'm planning to go back to my bear paw blocks and press some of the seam allowances in the opposite direction to eliminate the bumps and bulges I created with my "press to the Dark Side" mentality.  I don't think I've ever seen another beginning quilting book that teaches you the logic behind how to create a pressing plan for your quilt.
Bear Paw Bulges, All Seams Pressed to the Dark Side

  • Directions on how to wash your quilts with quilt soap so the dyes don't fade prematurely -- IN A FRONT-LOAD, HIGH EFFICIENCY washing machine.  THANK YOU!! 
So, thank you again, Donna, for giving me this opportunity to improve my own piecing and pressing skills and to review your book  -- it's definitely a keeper, and one I'll be reaching for again and again.  If you're ever teaching a class near Charlotte, North Carolina, please let me know!

Now, since I originally meant for this to be my Design Wall Monday post, I just have to show you this monstrosity that was on my design wall briefly yesterday, and is now going to be bundled out of the house as quickly as possible:
Anders' 60" x 80" Finished Quilt Top for Lutheran World Relief

I got this brilliant idea over the summer that my 10-year-old son Anders and I should go and help a group of quilters that meet at our church on Wednesday mornings, making mission quilts for Lutheran World Relief.  I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to strengthen his budding quilting skills while we worked together for a good cause.  Skeptically, he asked me, "What age group is this quilting group for?"  and I cheerfully told him "Quilting is for ALL ages!" 

Well, true as that may be, Anders and I were the only quilters under age 70 who showed up that morning, and he was the only male in the room.  We were told to pick fabric from a tub of precut 11" squares and to sew them together with 1/2" seam allowances in a 6 x 8 grid to create a 60" x 80" finished quilt.  The fabrics were slim pickings, not very exciting choices for a little boy's preferences, and he was disappointed that there weren't enough squares of the same fabrics for him to create any cool patterns.  The ladies explained that they used fabric from donated draperies, bed sheets or whatever they could get their hands on, so it was all different weights and fiber contents rather than the 100% cotton quilting fabric we are used to.  The 11" so-called "squares" were very roughly cut (with garden shears, perhaps?), varied up to a quarter inch or more in size, and Anders whispered to me, "Aren't squares supposed to have right angles at the corners, Mom?"  I felt like it would be rude to criticize someone else's cutting skills or attempt to recut the fabrics in front of them, so what could I do?  I just pinned the blocks together for Anders the best I could and my little trooper worked diligently at sewing those blocks together into rows with his trusty Featherweight machine for two and a half hours.  Bless his heart! 

When the meeting wrapped up, I know Anders hoped he'd never have to look at these blocks again, because his little face clouded over when he was told that he could "finish it up at home."  The project sat at the back of my cutting table for a month, until finally I told Anders that we needed to finish it because we made a commitment and we have to follow through.  My son was unenthusiastic, and he was pretty certain that Mom was the one who roped us into this commitment, not him!  I revived his interest by allowing him to swap out some of the fabric we got from the church bin with a frog print fabric from my stash, and that gave him the motivation to get back to work. 

Anders arranged the layout for this quilt by himself, and he sewed all of the blocks together into rows.  But at that point, Mom had to take over because -- as Donna Lynn Thomas pointed out in her book, accuracy is not about pleasing the Quilt Police; it's about reducing the frustration and disappointment you get when you spend hours working on a project only to a get to a point where the errors have compounded and multiplied to the point where nothing fits together and you want to throw the sewing machine out the window and take up macramé!  I have never had to do so much pinning, easing, steaming, begging, pleading, and swearing to get quilt seams to match up in ANY project before.  If these blocks had actually been 11" squares to begin with, this would have been an ideal project for Anders to do all by himself, but due to careless cutting, it was a nightmare to assemble this quilt top. 

Granted, the person who cut these squares had no way of knowing a child would be trying to work with them.  Experienced seamstresses who have been sewing all their lives probably don't need a high degree of accuracy in order to put together a quilt top like this, and the faster they can get them together, the more quilts they can donate to help people in need all over the world.  I have the utmost respect for these ladies.  However, in retrospect, I should have done more research and attended one of the meetings without Anders ahead of time to ensure that he would have a positive experience.  In hindsight, I should have let him pick out his own fabrics and cut them precisely for him at home.  The next time Anders and I make a charity quilt, we are going to make a Project Linus quilt instead, and Anders gets to pick out all the fabrics.  The Charlotte Chapter Coordinator for Project Linus tells me that they always have a shortage of boy quilts, especially quilts for older boys in middle school and high school.  Now, who better to fill this need than a young man who is always begging me to buy more Star Wars and pirate fabric at the quilt shop?

I've been very long-winded today, even for me, so I doubt anyone is still reading this.  But, just in case you're still here, I'll tell you that I'm linking up with Design Wall Monday over at Patchwork Times.  And now, I'm off to check out what everyone else has been working on.  Happy stitching, everyone!


Lane said...

I think the quilt has a certain charm. And, it certainly has a story. I'm glad you took Anders to that meeting. You've let him see an example of a different style of quilting, making quilts to keep people warm out of whatever is at hand, without regard to precision and beauty...the way our fore-quilters did it.

And, I think Linus is a great compromise. Our local chapter is a younger group, so that might be another good meeting for him to attend.

Take care. And, my best to your budding male quilter. Lane

Jenny K. Lyon said...

Without your review I never would have given that book a second glance. I rarely piece but when I do, I want it to be accurate. I'm going to go out and buy the book-thank you!

Barb said...

Thank you Rebecca for your review. I struggle with correct pressing and hope this book will help me. I ordered it right away from Amazon. Thanks again!

Carole @ Fresh off the Frame said...

Oh, my...poor Anders! I sincerely hope he regains his enthusiasm so there will be a "next" quilt. I'm not sure I would have been very diplomatic about the squares being off. I probably would have recut on the spot, making a comment about how much of a control freak I am, if anybody asked! Noting aloud that everybody cuts differently, and that it is only logical that squares cut by many hands won't match, might also ease the tension. Anywho - you both survived and followed through with your commitment. Well done!

Karen - Quilts...etc. said...

love that block!

colleen said...

Yes please do a project Linus quilt. My grandaughter burned her foot (she dropped a pot of boiling water) age 7 she was given a Linus blanket ( a fleece blanket) that someone donated . It was a very comforting to her during her treatment at the hospital and during her weeks ( youth and good health = quick) of recovery. Now all healed her sleeps with that fleece blanket every night. Who ever made that blanket has no idea what a wonderful gift it has been to my granddaughter

Vivian said...

Well I came to find out about the red sashing stars but instead I got a great book review, Thank you! I wouldn't have picked that book up but some of the things you point out that are covered in it show that some of us old dogs DO need to learn some new tricks! I fully admit to espousing the "galloping horse theory" but you're right, for true beginners it is not really helpful advice.

Kudos to you and Anders for sticking to your commitment, just as important a lesson to learn as trying to help others. Now for me, I'm sticking with this and going to the next linky to find out just what you did with those Bear Paw blocks.....