The Story of “Fusion,” Part Three: Finishing

Warning: Lots of photos ahead!

This is Part 3 of 3 about my current favorite quilt that I’ve made, “Fusion,” pictured below. I made it in 2017, after letting it percolate for about 18 months. If you haven’t read Parts 1 and 2 of this series, it’s going to seem like I’m starting in the middle. So go here and here and read those first — I’ll wait.

photo by Jeff White:

I’ve been struggling internally about writing this last installment, partly because I think it’s going to be difficult to write. Yesterday I realized that it probably won’t be all that difficult to write, because I know the story so well… But it’s just one of those Impossible Tasks that become stalling points when depressed.

And admitting that writing this is an Impossible Task is admitting that while I like to pretend that I’m “OK” or “fine” or “doing great,” I’m still not any of those. But today I am telling myself that it’s OK not to be OK. I miss my dad. I miss him a lot. I always will. And while I love this quilt, the story of finishing it makes me sad.

I did go to therapy for a while again last year, but I know what I need to do to get out of this slump. I need to engage with people more, come out from under my rock, exercise my creative mind again. Knowing what I need to do and DOING what I need to do are very different things, though… And the DOING is the Impossible Task again.

So I’ve decided that I’m going to try to attack one Impossible Task a day for a while, just to try to pull myself back up. Feel free to join in with me with your own Impossible Tasks, whatever they might be. So before I go forward with the rest of the story, I’m going to send you to watch a quick video about how friends keep you afloat when you’re struggling, which is something on which I have come to depend. Thanks for jumping down in this hole with me … Together maybe we can find the way out, one Impossible Task at a time.

Today’s IT? Finishing this story. So here we go.

Dad was diagnosed August 6, as I said, and Fusion had been loaded on the longarm quilting machine but not much quilting had been done yet. I loaded it so that the quilt top “floated” over the batting and backing, so the top itself was not secured to the machine in any way. This will become a critical part of our story later.

I decided that in order to let the piecework shine, I would use a ruler and quilt every.single.piece. of fabric in the quilt with matching thread 1/8″ from every seam, and both the top and bobbin threads would match. I like to match my bobbin thread to the top thread because it can help conceal tension problems if I turn a corner a little too fast or things aren’t set totally perfectly. I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to tension, and I do it all by sound and feel, since my machine isn’t computerized. With so many thread changes, I was going to have to be very watchful of the tension, and make adjustments often after rethreading, etc.

So I started quilting.

I would do all of the pieces that were the same color in a row in one pass, breaking thread after every piece and burying the 4 thread tails by hand with a self-threading needle, and then change threads. Then I’d go to the start of the row and do all of the new color. So that first row, with its 252 pieces, had over 1000 thread tails to bury by hand.

Incidentally, I always bury thread tails as I go when I’m quilting, for several reasons: then I don’t have to navigate around them as I quilt to avoid making knots, and so that when I’m finished with the quilting I don’t have hours upon hours of burying threads to do. Yes, it’s probably a bit less efficient, but it makes the act of finishing the quilting on a quilt much more satisfying. And if you collect the threads as you trim them, they can be really pretty to look at:

In any case, halfway through the first row I hated my decision to change threads so much, but I was getting the effect that I wanted with the quilting so I just powered through and kept going.

Two rows in, I was absolutely sure that the trouble of burying all those thread tails was going to be absolutely worth it, though I amended my usual approach to bury all of the threads of one color on a row when I got to the end of the row and before I changed colors, instead of every time I moved to a new piece of fabric. That helped speed up the process a lot, but it still took about 6-8 hours to completely quilt one 9″x72″ row of blocks.

As it started to roll up on the back bar, I got so excited. This was going to be epic, and I could already tell.

And then something went wrong partway through row 3. If I moved the machine trolley backwards and to the left for more than a stitch or two (which was something that had to happen on pretty much every piece since I was going around the perimeter of every section of fabric in the quilt), it would skip stitches. Not just one or two, either.

Because of the way I had loaded the quilt onto the machine with the top floating, I couldn’t take it off partially-quilted without risking ruin. I couldn’t take the machine in to be fixed by a technician without removing the quilt. Only 2/3 of the longarm frame was set up, so I didn’t have a lot of space to work with to access the machine’s insides, attempt to fix the problem, or test what I tried… maybe 6 inches on the left side of the quilt. That was it.

As I saw it, I had two options: fix it myself, or pay a ridiculous amount of money for a house call to have a technician fix it in situ, which would risk them doing something to jeopardize the quilt already on the frame. As that was not an acceptable option, I decided to do everything I could think of to fix the problem.

Dad had raised all three of us kids to be well-versed in the scientific process: try one thing at a time, test, then try something else, test again. If you try too many things at once, you won’t know which adjustment fixed the problem. So, one idea at a time, I tried to figure out what was causing the machine to skip stitches. I cleaned the machine the best I could. I changed the needle. I oiled it. I cleaned it again. I rethreaded the top and bottom multiple times. I tried a different thread. I tried a different fiber of thread. I loosened the tension all the way out and tightened it back up slowly to see if that was the problem, since that often worked with my previous machine. Nothing changed, and it still skipped stitches.

I posted the above picture on Instagram to ask for helpful suggestions.

Many longarmers had ideas of what the problem might be, and gave great suggestions. Again, I tried adjustments one thing at a time, and then tested on that tiny 6″ section to the left of the quilt. I didn’t have success, and while I could break thread more often and only quilt downwards and to the right, that would have doubled the number of thread tails I would have to bury. By this point, I had spent about 4 hours trying to fix the problem and it was nearing midnight on a school night. I had to go to bed. So I dreamed of fixing longarms that night.

The next afternoon, I came home from school and watched several videos on how to fix the timing of a longarm machine. The timing is exactly that — the alignment of the hook of the bobbin case and the threaded needle, so that it’s timed perfectly to make a good stitch. The working theory was that my machine had somehow gotten knocked “out of time,” which is apparently a common issue for this vintage of Handiquilter Avante longarm machines.

None of the videos that I could find were of my particular machine being adjusted, but after watching a few different ones I was able to figure out how it might work. So I set up a strange little workstation: a kitchen stool was directly under the nose of the machine, and my iPhone was on top of the stool with the camera in selfie mode so I could see the underside of the machine as I worked from the top. My iPad Mini had the timing video queued up so I could watch the relevant section over and over as needed, and all of the little tools I might need were carefully laid out where I could reach them easily.

As carefully as I could, I attempted to re-time my machine. My machine had two screws instead of three like the machine in the video that I had to adjust, and these screws needed to be tightened/loosened while the wheel was advanced so make it so that the needle and the hook timed together better. I’d make a small adjustment, tighten everything up again, move the stool out from under the machine, rethread everything, and test in the tiny 6″ of space. I couldn’t advance the quilt to do my tests on a different section of the edge without risking getting puckers and folds when I rolled it back to work after I fixed everything, so I had to keep ripping out the same little test section so that I could use it again. The photo below is probably the fourth or fifth time I set up a test section while fixing the machine.

After over 8 hours total of trying one adjustment at a time, I had retimed my machine such that the stitch quality looked good again, and it was no longer skipping stitches in any direction.

It was loud, though. Every time the machine took a stitch, the hook on the bobbin case would tap the side of the needle, so it made quite a racket. Since my quilting room was directly over Helen’s bedroom, I had to promise her that I would not sew after 9:30pm while it was making so much noise.

Around this time, Dad had his one and only chemotherapy treatment. The poor nurse missed his vein the first time, which had to have been frustrating for Dad and embarrassing for the nurse. As an anesthesiologist, he had a reputation for never missing when inserting IVs. I’m just glad I didn’t witness his reaction when she missed.

On August 25, 2017, both of my brothers had come to town to be with Dad since we didn’t know how much longer he would be with us. Pete was already going to be here for his work, so he just extended the trip so that he could linger with Mom and Dad for a while. Pete left for his hotel, and Tom and Lila stayed in the guest room at my parents’ house after we all had a visit together. Tom helped Mom get Dad up the stairs to their bedroom, and then everyone went to bed.

In the middle of the night, Dad got up to go to the bathroom and fell on his way back to bed. Mom couldn’t get him up off the floor, so she went down and woke Tom up to help. The two of them recognized that Dad was not doing well at all, so they called an ambulance and Dad went to the hospital with Mom and Tom following. Lila kept trying to call us, but the sound was off on my phone so it took me and Jerry way too long to pick up. Nobody knew which hotel Pete was staying at, and his sound was off too.

I suddently remembered that Pete had casually mentioned that his hotel room had a VCR in the room — not a DVD player or BluRay or Roku or Netflix access, but a VCR — and how funny he thought that was. So I looked up hotels near where his entrance to Redstone Arsenal would be, to see if any of them advertised VCRs in the room. One of them actually did, which was bizarre. So we called it and got the front desk to ring Pete’s room, but Pete had turned that phone off too. They finally went and woke Pete up, to tell him that Dad had been taken to the hospital.

Dad was in the hospital for 2 days, and he kept trying to get out of bed and causing the nurses all kinds of headaches. We had to have one of us in the room with him around the clock to keep him in bed, because he was delirious and would get enraged when the nurses told him to be still. His dreams were active, and he’d lift his hands up like he was adjusting knobs and dials, like on the dash of his airplane or on his anesthesia cart, and he’d mutter to whoever was in the dream with him.

The next day we met with the oncologist, and got an honest prognosis. Dad could continue with the chemo, and he might be with us for a few more weeks. Or we could stop the chemo and put Dad in palliative care with Hospice, and he might be with us for a few more weeks. As advanced as his disease was, the chemo wasn’t going to be able to do very much, and at what cost?

So we took Dad home, set up a hospital bed in the den on the main floor of the house with the bathroom right there, and he spent his last 2 weeks surrounded by family. Tom and Lila stayed as long as they could, then returned home to Seattle. Pete stayed as long as he could, and went back to Virginia. Valerie came as soon as Pete left. Dad’s sister Jan came and lived with Mom, reminding Mom to sleep and take care of herself and being bossy when she needed to be bossy with her big brother. Mom secured home health nurses to come around the clock in addition to the Hospice nurses that were provided by the hospital, and we managed Dad’s pain with morphine drops.

Early on in those two weeks, he resisted the morphine. He didn’t want to get addicted, he said. My exhausted reaction made it out of my mouth before I had a chance to stop: “How do you think this is going to go, Dad?” Mom and Jan flinched, ready for the full impact of his rage reaction, but he just blinked at me in understanding. He accepted the morphine after that.

So each day was the same: I’d get up, go to school and pretend everything was normal, then come home and sew for a while, then go visit Dad, then go to bed. And again and again.

Slowly but surely, the unquilted part of the quilt was shrinking as I advanced the quilt and it rolled up on the back bar.

And then I was down to the last two rows.

And then the quilting was finished. I pulled it forward off the rollers and marveled at the texture created by the simple quilting.

At night I had started wearing compression gloves to help manage the pain caused by gripping the needle and burying so many thread tails. The gloves I wear are sold by Dritz… you can get them here if your hands hurt too.

My cutting table was blocked on three sides by walls and the quilting machine, so I took the quilt over to Mom and Dad’s house to trim the edges square. I remember that Dad was out of the bed and sitting in his chair that day, and I was able to take the quilt in and show it to him with the quilting all finished. I told him that I had channeled him and his determination to fix my machine ALL BY MYSELF and he was proud of me.

The back looked really cool, too — it’s subtle, but because of the thread color changes you can see the design from the back. As always, Friday and Ella had to test it to see if it was a good surface for play. It passed!

I chose to face the quilt instead of enclosing it with a binding, using the tutorial at Art With A Needle. The finished piece is 72″x90″ so it took quite a while to get that finished.

The final stitches were put into the facing of “Fusion” late in the evening of Monday, September 11, 2017, while I sat at my Dad’s bedside. He died at 12:34am on Tuesday.

In the just over a month between Dad’s diagnosis and death, I spent a tremendous amount of time at my parents’ house or at the hospital, at school teaching other people’s children, over 100 hours quilting on this monster quilt (plus the 8+ hours fixing a broken machine)… I am reminded again how blessed I am to have the husband and children that I do. They encourage me to create and grieve in this expressive way, and that is an incredible gift. I was not available to them at all that month, and I’ve been a shadow of myself since.

This post is long enough now, so I think I’ll have an Epilogue for this series and detail what has happened with “Fusion” since its completion.

Maybe with this one Impossible Task down, I can start climbing out of this hole and rejoin my family. After 18 months they’ve been more than patient.

Depression sucks. And I’ve been in denial. But now I’m admitting it, and isn’t admitting that you have a problem the first step?

Love to you all.