Friday, 20 March 2009

On blocking quilts

First a quick report on the job situation. The new organisation has now been published, there are only two possible jobs in it for me: one full time job that sounds pressured and scary, and one job-share 3 days a week that sounds very overworked but it is stuff I know how to do. I've applied for both but stated the part-time as my first preference. It will mean a 40% salary cut but the siren call of going back to part-time work is too strong to resist. I have hated being full-time the past year, the only thing that has made it bearable is having one day working from home. Working five days a week makes me feel like I am in a cage, with life stretching bleakly ahead of me punctuated only by too brief weekends and the occasional week off. That is not how I want to live my life - yes, I need to work to pay the bills, but my time at home is equally (or actually, more) important to me. I looked out the window of my train this week as it pulled into the London station, and the ranks of black and grey suited workers tramping off to their daily imprisonment seemed briefly like some kind of science fiction horror film. So sometime in the next few weeks I will presumably get interviewed, then selection will be in mid-April. If I don't get either job, I go on notice from 1 May. Then it will be a waiting game to see if something else turns up before I have to leave the company towards the end of the year. Fun fun fun.

Anyway! I finished quilting my jellyroll single quilt today. I had a genius brainwave for quilting the side borders, which probably means someone else has already figured this out and documented it, but I haven't seen it anywhere. My frame is quite narrow, the 7 foot rollers have an actual sewing area of closer to 60". So I don't have the width to turn a quilt sideways the way a long-arm quilter can do, when it is time to quilt the side borders. Yes, I could quilt the side borders in 4-inch chunks as I quilt the main body, but that would mean lots of annoying and unsightly starts and stops.

It suddenly occurred to me that I could just pin the quilt back into the frame with the leaders on top, and let the excess hang down on one side, allowing me to still have the convenience of freehand quilting on the frame. So I tried it out and it worked quite well. I was quilting a scrolling feather, so when I got near the place where the quilt started hanging down, I stopped and cut the thread. Then I went back and quilted along the other side of the feather. This time, when I got to the stopping place, I left the needle in, unpinned the top, re-pinned the remaining segment, and finished quilting that line. Then I went back and quilted the remaining line on the first side. The layers all stayed aligned because when it was on the frame for the main quilting, I also basted along both sides with a Microstitch tack every inch. Having the bulk of the quilt top hanging down under the frame impeded the carriage slightly when the feather scrolled towards the front roller, at that point I just picked up the bulk of the quilt and lay it on the front roller temporarily.

After basting around all four edges and trimming back the batting/backing, I threw it in the washing machine for a short wash. I always block my quilts this way. If I think the quilt may be soiled, for example a long-term UFO, then I add a bit of non-bio detergent, otherwise I just give it a good rinse and a short spin. Then I lay it flat to dry, generally by suspending it over our rotary clothes airer outside, or over two clothes horses inside. Once completely dry, I give it a light steam press on a big blocking board (made from a segment from an old door, padded with a woolen blanket and a muslin cover), with the iron on half steam and just running it back and forth over the quilt without actually applying much weight. Only when the whole quilt is lying flat with no bumps or bulges do I trim the edges with rotary cutter and rulers so the sides are straight and the corners are square. And then I apply my single binding, pressing first lightly to flatten the binding outwards, and again once the binding is handsewn down, very lightly on both sides of the binding.

I use thin wadding, either Hobbs Heirloom (80/20 cotton poly) or Polydown traditional, (100 poly) and the result of the above treatment is a vintage appearance with good but softened texture to the quilting, and a square quilt that lies flat. I don't generally pre-wash fabrics any more, apart from reds or very dark colours. 10 years ago I pre-washed everything, but I have read/heard several well known quilters who say that manufacturers have progressed in their processes and very few good quality quilting cottons actually bleed although they may lose some colour in the first wash. Like many people, I prefer to work with crisp fabric that still has its sizing applied from the factory. Hobbs Heirloom shrinks slightly when washed the first time, and some fabrics will shrink slightly, and the result is a lovely vintage look where the quilting lines have embedded into the quilt.

If I was treating a quilt where either I had reason to believe it might distort (bias edges involved) or where it was very important that it be square (show quilt, or pieced borders) then I would pin it out flat on the carpet on a sheet, using my quilting rulers to ensure it was square, and let it dry. In our little house this means moving furniture around, so I rarely go that far. In this case, the quilt is likely quite flat once dry, and I would not apply the light steam treatment.

Why block? Some people are astonished that I would a) wash a quilt before binding, and b) steam press a quilt, however lightly. My thinking is that a quilt sandwich is an anchoring together not only of three disparate layers, but one of those layers is itself pieced from many separate pieces. The fabrics may have had different manufacturing processes and treatments applied to them if they come from different manufacturers, and the shape of the pieces themselves (bias edges) and even the type of thread used are all going to impact on what happens to that sandwich when it gets wet. The application of quilting stitches, both in quantity and location, will also affect how the sandwich is going to respond. My feeling is that the vast percentage of quilts are going to change shape on their first wash, the most likely effect being shrinkage in one or more dimensions, while the quilting is going to cause valleys and puffs to appear. If I bind and therefore restrict the edges before this shape-changing occurs, then I am just asking for waving borders and, if the overall shape changes, a polygonal quilt. Several of the quilting 'greats' block their quilts - in fact I remember one of them specified a new floor for her sewing area with big square tiles so that she could use the resulting grid when blocking quilts!

And so endeth the lesson. Tomorrow I have my Saturday club so I will plan to bind the jellyroll quilt then it is going to the same colleague at work that I gave the baby quilt to, he has an older boy and a wife who loves Cath Kidson so I think she will like the jellyroll quilt.

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