Friday, February 27, 2015

Basted Badly, and Basted Again. On To the Quilting!

Basted... And Basted Again
Several hundred safety pins later, my thumbs are sore, but my quilt is FINALLY basted and ready for quilting!

The internet is rife with tutorials instructing quilters to crawl around a hardwood floor on their hands and knees to accomplish the basting procedure, but I don't do hands and knees.  I prefer to baste my quilts on a standing height worktable, without inflicting any agony on my hands and knees, and I've done this successfully in the past -- but not on tables that were pushed up against the wall like this one is.  I opted to move the worktable back up against the wall when I remodeled my studio in order to economize space.  Since my worktable base consists of kitchen cabinetry and wooden cubby units and my butcher block work surface weighs over 700 pounds, it's not like I could just scoot the whole thing out a few feet from the wall temporarily, either.  I thought I remembered that I had somehow managed to baste a similarly sized kiddo quilt with Minky backing on this new worktable two years ago, but I could not for the life of me remember how I managed to do that. 

So I decided to wing it.  I spray basted with 505 and then I pinned like a madwoman.  And then I flipped the quilt over after a couple of hours of pinning and discovered THIS:

Backing Side Up, The Wrinkle Of Doom
Ugh, right?!  I had worked with the top 2/3 of the quilt that fit on the table first, then spun it around to do the other side, but that slippery Minky formed a crease all the way across the quilt where it had been hanging over the side of the table.  If I left it that way I would have horrible pleats and puckers all over the back every time my line of quilting stitches crossed over the Minky Mountain Range on the back of my quilt.  So today I had to take all of the pins out of the bottom third of the quilt, pull that Minky taut, and repin.  I think it's good now, but note to self here -- next time I baste a quilt, I need to have Bernie get the folding utility table out of storage.  We can set it up in  the middle of my studio temporarily and raise the legs to a comfortable height with pieces of PVC pipe.  That way I can tape or clamp the backing in place to the table edges on all sides, do my pinning from the center out, and when I'm working on the outside edges the weight of the pinned areas of the quilt will help to keep the backing taut and wrinkle free.  Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, I'm pretty sure that's how I basted the last quilt I completed, the raffle quilt for the kids' school.  It's probably how I did the Dresden plate Minky quilt, too, and I'll bet I'm hallucinating this whole idea that I managed to do it on the new work table.

(In case you're interested in the CORRECT way to baste your quilt on a table surface rather than the floor, there are excellent instructions in the book Quilts! Quilts! Quilts! by Diana McClun and Laura Nownes). 

Essential Basting Supplies: Curved Safety Pins, Kwik Klip Pin Closer, and Pinot Grigio

Meanwhile, I'm just excited that the basting is behind me and I get to start quilting tomorrow!  I am not 100% sure how I'm going to quilt this one, but I do know that I'm going to start by stitching in the ditch along all of the non-black patches and along the borders.  I haven't decided whether I'm going to do that with black thread or with monofilament nylon "invisible" thread.  My new Westalee ruler foot and quilting rulers finally showed up a few days ago, so I'll probably want to test out some ruler work on this quilt.  Stay posted!

I'm linking up with WIPs on Wednesday at Esther's blog.  Have a great week.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dilemma du Jour: In Which Rebecca Gives Up Brain Cells -- and Spelling -- for Lent

Embroidery Finished, but Needs Fixing!
So after seventeen long days of procrastination, I finally touched the Amish Baby 54-40 or Fight quilt again yesterday.  I finished adding the borders on January 31st, and then I digitized (for machine embroidery) a Dr. Seuss quote that is special to the baby's parents and agonized over where I should embroider it on the quilt that would be visible, but not look like "what is that doing there?"  I also digitized the quilt label information to embroider on the front of the quilt, because I don't like to add a separate label on the back of a Minky-backed quilt.  I really dislike doing machine embroidery, hence the delay in actually stitching all of this out, but last night I decided to JUST DO IT and get it over with so I could get to the fun quilting part!

Against my better judgment, which seems to have abandoned me, I did not stitch out a sample of either design.  It was just simple lettering, right?  As long as I stabilized properly it would be fine.  Hah.  Okay, so here's what I did right: Organ embroidery sharp needle in size 75/11, black OESD PolyMesh cutaway stabilizer, and I very carefully measured, marked, and hooped the quilt to ensure that the lines of text would stitch out straight and centered in the 1" wide light green border.  I found the little hoop clips that came with my Mega Hoop and even figured out how to attach them to the hoop:

Mega Hoop Clips Properly Positioned
I made sure the center of the design lined up with my centering marks on the quilt, and I used both auto basting options -- the hoop perimeter and the tight basting right around the design -- to guard against distortion during embroidery:

Auto Basting Completed, Ready to Stitch Design
But once my design started stitching on the quilt top, I saw that the tension was off -- black bobbin thread was showing at the edges of the satin stitched lettering.  I suppose I could have stopped, picked out the stitches, and started over after testing and trouble shooting, but I decided to proceed anyway, lowering the top tension ultimately from the default of 2.0 to 1.25, which was better, but still not perfect.  I wonder whether any of the 7 Series sewing machine updates made changes to the default embroidery tension?  The first time I ever embroidered on my 750 QE I had problems with the top thread looping and I resolved those issues by putting the embroidery thread on a stand behind my machine, putting a thread net on the spool, and passing the thread through a couple of additional thread guides, all of which increases tension on the upper thread.  I'm going to need to experiment now and see if I don't get better embroidery tension with the embroidery thread on the regular spool holder on the machine itself, either the vertical or horizontal spool pin.  But that's an adventure for another day.

Meanwhile, I decided that the bits of black thread don't bother me enough to try to rip the embroidery out and redo it, since it gives kind of a mottled look to the lettering that is similar to the mottled, textured look of the fabrics I used in the quilt.  Those stitches are so tiny and so close together that it would be a miracle if I could remove them without accidentally ripping a hole in the quilt top.  It would almost make more sense to remove and replace the borders (ugh!)  But next time?  Not only should I STITCH A SAMPLE FIRST, DUH -- but why did I even need to use black bobbin thread in the first place?  After all, I have lovely 50/2 Aurifil cotton Mako thread that matches every fabric in this quilt, that I bought for my quilting thread.  There is absolutely no reason why I could not have used the royal blue Aurifil thread in the needle AND bobbin for stitching these designs instead of Isacord polyester embroidery thread in the needle and OESD bobbin thread in the bobbin, and the tension perils of tiny satin stitched letters would have been invisible if I had matching thread in the bobbin. 

Bobbin Thread Showing On Top :-(

So, first design stitched, and aside from the tension I'm pretty pleased -- it's legible, it's centered, it's straight, and it didn't pucker my quilt top one iota:

On to the easy part, the embroidered quilt label info for the bottom right corner of the quilt.  I did not make further adjustments to the tension because I thought it would be better if both lines of embroidered text had black dots instead of one line black and blue and the other line all blue.  My label info design fit nicely into my Large Oval hoop, but other than that I followed the same procedure as before.  I did float an additional layer of the PolyMesh cutaway stabilizer beneath the hoop during embroidery.

The design stitched out great, once again perfectly straight and positioned exactly where I wanted it...  But there was one little problem:

Stitched With Love by a Nincompoop!
Do you see my mistake?  Here I'm so concerned with picking the perfect font and thread color, and where I'm going to position the embroidered text on the quilt, and which stabilizer will support the stitches without making that area of the quilt noticeably stiff, and making sure everything is straight and centered -- and I don't even notice that I only put one T in Charlotte! 

Oh, the Shame!
GROAN!!!  This is pretty bad, folks.  The new momma-to-be is a college professor, and I'm pretty sure she knows how to spell Charlotte.  It can't stay like this.

After sleeping on it, and looking at it again this morning, I think I need to carefully rip out just the "t" in Charlote.  Then I will write two "t"s in its place with a disappearing fabric marker, and use a satin stitch on the sewing machine (with the same width as the embroidered font) to manually stitch over the letters that I have marked.  Wish me luck!  If I botch it up royally, I can always take the borders off.  Actually, it just occurred to me that there's no reason I couldn't have embroidered the borders prior to attaching them to the quilt.  I cut them wide and then trim them to size after attaching them anyway, but if I embroidered the border before stitching it on I could have just hooped the stabilizer, drawn a straight line on it for positioning, and stuck the border in place with some 505 Temporary Spray Adhesive.  It would have made hooping easier.  Maybe next time!

Happy Ash Wednesday, everyone!  The kids are home again today because of ice on the roads in some parts of the county and more cold temps and precipitation expected this afternoon.  I just hope the weather doesn't get bad enough for Ash Wednesday service to be canceled at church tonight -- I like both of the anthems and I want to sing them!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

In Which Rebecca Eats Crow, As Long As It's Decaf

I have been known to say things like, "Never trust people who drink decaf coffee, nonalcoholic beer, or who have fake tattoos."  We can talk booze and tattoos some other time, but today I'm coming clean on caffeine.

I've been drinking coffee almost as long as I can remember, definitely going back to high school, maybe even 7th or 8th grade.  As a young adult I was drinking strong coffee all day long, convinced that the caffeine had no effect on me because, after drinking a few pots of coffee a day, if I tried to drink even MORE coffee to pull an "all-nighter" it would make me so ill that I had to go to bed anyway (and would fall immediately asleep). 

I have also "not been a morning person" for as long as I can remember.  I thought I was just an outlier on the bell curve, someone whose body needed 10 hours of sleep to feel rested...  Except that I never did wake up feeling rested and energetic, no matter how long I slept.  When my alarm went off, my subconscious would harness my imagination and use it against me in a desperate plea for more sleep-- I have had so many dreams where I am standing in front of my home security system panel, trying to shut off the alarm, and I can't remember the code so the alarm is blaring away...  Or it's the smoke detector going off and I'm on a step stool trying to smack it with a baseball bat and it keeps going off anyway.   Sometimes the dream is a little more honest, and I'm standing in front of the alarm clock and can't find the button to turn it off.  But eventually I wake up and realize that the alarm clock actually has been going off for an hour and I am still in bed.  And no matter how long I did sleep, I would wake up groggy and irritable, looking forward to that first cup of coffee that would make me feel sharp again and get me going.

Rebecca With Latte
Aside from the caffeine-free interludes of pregnancy and breastfeeding (I developed a strong aversion to coffee with both boys -- go figure!), the caffeinated coffee cycle continued for years.  When I was juggling my interior design business with home and family, I was drinking an average of eight to ten shots of espresso per day, stopping at Starbucks once or even twice every time I got in the car.  My kids thought that I-485 was a toll road and that the Starbucks drive-through was the toll booth.  My husband added up the Starbucks charges on my American Express statement and we decided that we would SAVE money by installing a commercial espresso machine and a commercial coffee grinder in our kitchen so I could make my own lattes at home.  Bernie even hooked the machine up to the plumbing so I would be spared the inconvenience of ever having to fill the water tank.  And I discovered Lavazza, a strong, intensely flavored Italian espresso that makes Starbucks coffee taste like wet cardboard.
My Crazy Espresso Machine

So a few months ago I was annoyed that my jeans were fitting tighter than I'd like, and after adding up the calories in those four or five lattes per day (130 calories in each Starbucks grande nonfat latte), I decided to cut back.  First I cut off the coffee after 3 PM, then pushed it back to noon and allowed myself two double-shot lattes each morning -- one when I first woke up, and another as I headed out the door.  I didn't notice any kind of caffeine withdrawal or anything -- so again, I felt that the caffeine did not affect me, that the nice, hot lattes in the morning were more of a comfort ritual than a true need for caffeine to wake me up, and that I was drinking "high test" coffee instead of decaf because the decaffeination process strips too much flavor and makes the coffee taste bad.

Meanwhile, I finally listened to my father and joined our church choir at Christ Lutheran this past Fall.   I have been having some difficulty with the upper range of my singing voice for the last few years for whatever reason, so my plan was to hide out in the Alto section and blend in.  I did not know about the choir hazing that happens at our church, whereby new choir members are randomly assigned to sing solos.  There are no auditions for solos, no calls for volunteers -- Mark just passes out the music and says "Rebecca please sing the solo" in the same tone of voice that my father used to say "Rebecca please wash the dishes" or "Rebecca please be home by eleven."  And so I find myself on the Internet, googling things like "performance anxiety" and "how to sing better in the morning."  And I find that not only is caffeine bad for singers because it dries out your throat and tightens your vocal folds, but caffeine has also been shown to relax the lower esophageal
sphincter muscle, which can lead to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) (Boekema, P. J., Samson, M., van Berge Henegouwen, G. P., et al (1999) Coffee and gastrointestinal function: facts and fiction. A review. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology Supplementum, 230, 35–39):

This could explain the acid reflux diagnosis I got from my ENT doctor, who stuck a camera down my throat two years ago and informed me that stomach acids have been coming back up my throat while I'm sleeping, burning and inflaming my vocal folds.  Incidentally, I know of at least two other coffee-swilling Lutheran singers whose doctors attributed their voice problems to this same silent acid reflux disorder.  Hmmm...  And here I thought those ENT doctors were just getting really good kickbacks from the pharmaceutical company that makes Nexium!  Granted, one cup of Folgers every morning probably doesn't instantly cause GERD, but remember I was drinking four or five double-shot lattes per day for years, each one containing somewhere between 80-100 mg of caffeine.  Even when I cut back to two lattes in the morning, that was still probably close to 200 mg of caffeine on a daily basis.

But the thing that really got my attention was when I read about the connection between caffeine and anxiety:

"Clinically, caffeine may be involved in the precipitation, exacerbation or maintenance of anxiety disorders (Kruger, 1996). Sensitivity to caffeine is increased in people with panic disorder and social phobia, and administration of caffeine can provoke panic attacks in these individuals (Charney et al, 1985; Tancer et al, 1991, 1994). There are clinical reports of anxiety symptoms improving on caffeine withdrawal or limitation (Greden, 1974; Bruce & Lader, 1989), and people suffering panic attacks may benefit from a reduction in their intake (Charney et al, 1985)".  You can read the full text of that article here.

I do have some general social anxiety that escalates into full-blown panic just THINKING about singing a solo, especially when the song sits near the register shift where I've been having trouble with my voice cracking.  What if that happens during the solo, in front of everyone?  My heart pounds, my hands get sweaty, and my breathing is shallow -- I can't get enough air.  The muscles in my neck, shoulders and throat get tight and rigid.  I feel like I'm going to vomit.  None of this is conducive to good singing technique!  So now I'm thinking about my Sunday morning routine -- Get up, turn on espresso machine, feed dogs.  Guzzle down 100 mg of caffeine.  Shower and get dressed.  Make another double shot espresso beverage to drink while driving to church and imagining all the horrible things that could go wrong with the solo, and all of the nasty things people will probably think and say if I mess up the anthem for everyone.  Instead of "The Scream," let's call this "The Solo":

Der Schrei der Natur  or "The Scream," by Edvard Munch (1893)
Norwegian painter Edvard Munch wrote the following poem and inscribed it on the back side of a later pastel version of "The Scream":

"I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."  -- Edvard Munch, 1895

That's exactly how I was feeling about an upcoming solo entitled "Let There Be Peace On Earth."  How was I supposed to sing about peace on Earth while feeling anxious and terrified, and fighting the urge to flee the sanctuary?!  I figured it was at least worth experimenting to see whether cutting out caffeine might help with my anxiety.  I could always have a triple espresso as soon as I got home from church, right?

So I stopped by Rush Espresso CafĂ© with Bernie on a Thursday and rather reluctantly ordered a decaf nonfat latte, which tasted like a cup of warm milk flavored only weakly with coffee, but better than no latte at all.  On Friday morning I made myself a decaf skim latte, took one sip, and dumped it down the drain.  Then I made a half-caff latte by putting one scoop of ground Lavazza Dek decaf coffee and one scoop of Lavazza Gold regular espresso in the filter basket.  It didn't have that instant "zing" of a fully caffeinated latte, but it was tolerable.  I turned off the machine for the day.  And on Sunday morning, I didn't turn on the espresso machine at all.  The solo went better than the last one, but that could be attributed to the wonderful sermon about not listening to negative voices in our heads that say we aren't good enough, or maybe nerves just diminish on their own from getting up and doing the thing we're afraid of again and again. 

[NOTE: Interested friends and family can listen to the anthem and/or Kevin Vandiver's inspiring sermon on the church as the body of Christ by going to the Christ Lutheran Church web site's Online Worship page here, clicking "On Demand Video" and scrolling down to the Feb. 1st 2015 Traditional Service video.  Kevin's sermon starts about 22 minutes into the service, and the Let There Be Peace On Earth anthem with my solo starts around the 50 minute mark.] 

I couldn't be sure that caffeine was the sole culprit behind my anxiety attacks, but to my surprise, I wasn't experiencing any of the caffeine withdrawal symptoms I had expected.  And I had bought a whole bag of decaf espresso beans...  So I continued with my experiment, making just one half caff latte each morning and then shutting off the machine for the day.  And something really weird started happening to me, within just a few days.  I have been waking up EARLY in the morning, BEFORE the alarm goes off, feeling wide awake and CHEERFUL!  Between 5:30 and 6 AM!  Before having ANY coffee!  Me, who could sleep undisturbed until noon -- I am seeing SUNRISES every morning!  It turns out, I LIKE sunrises!

Winter Sunrise in the Carolinas
And I am dumbfounded.  My caffeine had not been keeping me awake at night.  I never had insomnia.  I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, and I was usually pretty good about getting at least 8 hours of sleep in each night.  Could all that caffeine have been messing with my sleep cycle somehow?  Back to the Internet, more research -- and I find studies showing that yes, caffeine inhibits our ability to develop and sustain the deeper non-REM stages of sleep.  So all these years that I thought I was just genetically wired to require 9+ hours of sleep, maybe caffeine was causing me to "sleep shallow" so that I never woke up fully rested no matter how long I slept.  Despite my late morning snoozing, I've been chronically sleep-deprived for decades.  This sounds bizarre, right?  But it has been two weeks now since I had a full-caffeine latte, and I am consistently waking up on my own, without an alarm, after only about 7 1/2 hours of sleep, and I have never felt better in the morning.  I don't drink any soft drinks or energy drinks, so my total daily caffeine intake is below 50 mg per day for the first time in probably 25 years.  And it is making such a huge difference for me that even my husband is cutting down his own coffee consumption -- and that man couldn't drink more coffee if he was hooked up to a coffee IV!

I'm not saying everyone should immediately stop drinking coffee or completely eliminate caffeine from their diet.  Most of the studies concede that genetic differences result in a lot of variation in the way that caffeine affects different individuals.  Apparently I'm one of those people who are very sensitive to caffeine, because most of the subjects in those studies did not have diminished sleep quality as long as they cut off their caffeine 8 hours prior to going to bed, and I didn't see this weird personality change (going from Oscar the Grouch to Ernie in the space of two days!) until I had almost completely eliminated caffeine consumption.  I plan to continue with my half-caff lattes while I experiment with different decaffeinated espresso roasts.  Hopefully I'll find one that tastes good enough that I can enjoy a decaf latte without mixing in any of the high-test beans.  And I'll take life one sunrise (and one solo) at a time.

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!