Alice by the numbers

(photo-heavy post today… even more than the last two!)

Today is Alice’s 9th birthday, so I thought it would be a good day to post about the making of her new bedquilt.

When I repainted her bedroom periwinkle a few years ago, her original quilt didn’t match as well. It still looked fine, but it didn’t look like it had been made for that room, if that makes any sense. I saw Swoon blocks popping up all the time on Flickr, so I grabbed a piece of graph paper and drew out the block pattern. The pattern I linked to has 24″ finished blocks and uses fat quarters of fabric, but I wanted to be able to use my batik charm squares (I had probably close to 500 of those 5″ squares to choose from) and 2.5″ strips of natural fabric (I had most of two jelly rolls of natural batiks), so I had to resize the block to 16″ to use what I had. I really didn’t want to go out and purchase new stuff for this, partly because of the financial implications of doing that and partly because I’m discovering that I really like a scrappy look for my quilts.

I scribbled out calculations and measurements on a scrap of envelope that stayed next to my sewing machine for a long time as I assembled all of the blocks. I wish I still had that scrap of paper because it was kind of cool how I did it, but I think I threw it out after the fire since the quilt top was totally assembled by then.

Anyway… I figured out that I needed 2 different contrasting colors for the blocks themselves (8 charms of one color and 7 of the other to get the full block), plus the 2.5″ strips of natural batiks. I went through my batik charms stash and sorted them all by color. Then I found groupings of 8 and 7 of the same color and value that could work together in a single block. I paired the groupings to get a good balance of colors, and started cutting them and prepping the blocks.

(All of this busywork was occurring while I discovered “Downton Abbey,” by the way, so this quilt will be forever tethered to that show for me. I made the quilt top as I watched the first two seasons, and quilted it while thinking about the third season between episodes: there’s no TV in my sewing room anymore.)

So. Here’s several blocks prepped and pinned together, ready for a chain-piecing marathon back in February of 2012:

chain piecing prep

I made a few blocks to see if I liked them done scrappy, and I did! Each block has 81 pieces of fabric in it after I cut all of the required elements.

six blocks

So I kept going. At this point I wasn’t making the quilt for Alice yet, but as it grew she got attached to it and wanted it for her room, especially after I made a periwinkle block.

Occasionally I would make a block with really bizarre color combinations, just to see how it would come out. This one ultimately ended up being my absolute favorite block in the quilt, so I put it in the center so that it will show no matter how she makes her bed. I will definitely explore more quilts with this color combination — very striking.
acid green and brown/black

So it grew…
9 blocks

And grew…
12 blocks

And the more blocks I made the more obsessed with this quilt I got. I couldn’t stop! Luckily I wasn’t finished watching the first two seasons of Downton yet, so I had plenty of TV to entertain me while I cut and cut and cut and pinned and pinned and pinned and pressed and pressed and pressed… The blocks are really cool, but I won’t lie: they’re quite tedious to make.

And it still grew…
19 blocks

I ended up making a total of 23 blocks so I’d be able to choose the best ones for Alice’s room that would give the best balance to the quilt. I’m very glad I did that, rather than forcing the red and gray one to be in it, and another green and black one… And I had one more that was kind of a repeat of one I had already made and I didn’t notice until it was done, so it was also eliminated from the final quilt.

This photo was taken on February 27, 2012, when I finally had the whole top sewn together:
quilt top

There are 1699 fabric pieces in the top, including all 20 blocks, all of the cornerstones, and all of the sashing pieces. Yes, I counted them. This is what I do to entertain myself when I’m machine quilting. My mind wanders, and usually goes to math. It’s a sickness.

And I had all of these little 2″x2.5″ cuttings left over from the batik charms, so I assembled those into little strip sets while I was at it:
strip sets

And made a Dresden Plate out of them:
Dresden Plate

Which I assembled into a pillow for a swap that I was in on Flickr:
Pillow Swap
(The one on the left is the pillow I received in the same swap — I thought they looked really cool together.)

The above photo was taken on March 10, 2012. This photo was taken a month before, while I was working on the Swoon quilt, but other things were on the design wall at the time. The TV was at the other end of the room, so if I was standing at the cutting table or ironing, I could see it. I’d pause Downton, go chain piece, and then stand up and watch until I was prepped and ready to sew again.
sewing setup

Around the 15th of March, I put the Swoon quilt back up on the wall (I had to have something up at low levels all the time to protect the design wall from the cats, who would claw it if the soft batting was exposed). I left on the morning of the 18th for my trip to Nashville with the Randolph kids. Then the frantic phone call from our house/petsitter Christa and the next morning I came home to this in my husband’s office upstairs:

burnt office

(PSA: please check your smoke detectors. If ours hadn’t gone off and alerted Christa, the fire would have jumped to the attic, shot across the house, and we would have lost everything. We lost a tremendous amount, but we didn’t lose everything. If not for the smoke detectors and Christa’s quick thinking, I’d be telling a very different story now.)

Back to Alice’s quilt.

It was on the design wall when the house filled with smoke. I carefully pulled it down, and my friend Claire washed it for me in her bathtub and laid it out on her back patio, smoothing the seams as much as possible. When I was ready to face it again, in late summer of last year, I re-pressed all gazillion seams and starched it smooth again, so that I could layer it and prepare it for quilting.

Emily helped me baste the quilt, as always:
Emily supervises

and kept getting in the way, also as always:
Emily's in the way

Those photos were taken August 13 of last year in the rental house, about 5 weeks before Emily died of kidney failure. I have a audionote of her talking to me that night that I’ll treasure. I knew we were nearing the end with her because she was starting to get obsessed with water.

I wanted to start quilting it, but life got in the way…
My husband did this to himself:
Shattered Collarbone

And then Emily died, and then we moved, and then school got really busy, so time got away from me during first semester. And then I was scared of it because I didn’t want to mess it up. But finally, FINALLY, in January, after finishing three other quilts the first 2 weeks of January, I worked up my nerve:
Swoon under the needle

I quilted the swoon blocks simply, and then had a blast in the negative space. I got a lot better at feathers in odd spaces, and I figured out how to quilt a double helix!
Double Helix

And then I finished it! Binding took a while… it’s big. And I had a lot of interference.
Binding and Tango

Finished Quilt

Favorite Block


blue block



On the bed


And Alice LOVES it!

Alice and her quilt

It took around 40 hours to machine quilt the whole thing. I’m very glad I took my time and waited until I was truly ready to quilt this one, rather than rushing it to get it done. I’m finding a lot of pleasure in custom quilting my quilts these days, so it’s hugely satisfying when I finish one.

I’m hoping she’ll let me borrow it to enter it in the local quilt show this fall. She may not. We shall see.

The $35 Experiment

So I’ve had this idea in my head. Every time we get to parallel lines and quadrilaterals in geometry, the idea resurfaces. So pretty much every January.

This time I decided to see if the idea actually worked.

So I found an orphan Jelly Roll in my fabric stash (the $35), and started playing with it (the experiment). I’ll post a tutorial for how I created this when I do it again (because I’m GOING to do this again with fabrics that are more planned), but for now I’ll just show you what I came up with.

On Friday night, I paired all of the fabrics and prepped them for sewing. I got all of the light fabrics sewn so I decided to toss them up on the wall and see what happened.

This is what happened:

lights on the wall

Pleased with what I saw, I kept going and added some of the mediums to the mix by the time I went to bed on Friday night.

lights and mediums

By bedtime on Saturday night, I had finished sewing and cutting all of the fabric pairings, and tossed them up on the wall. I asked Jerry for his advice, and he surmised that the horizon line was “too contrasty, maybe” (how’s that for definitive?).

all pairs sewn

I decided to call it a day and revisit the layout when I got up in the morning.

Bringing all of the warm colors towards the horizon line and towards the right side of the piece gave me the look I decided I wanted, so I started to assemble the wedges into columns. In the photo below, the left 5 are in columns and trimmed, and the right 5 are still just in wedge pairs on the wall.

5 columns sewn

Once all of the columns were assembled and trimmed, I needed to square it up so I added the fabrics at the top and the bottom.

top and bottom fabrics added

I apparently sewed the far right column slightly out of order (just realizing that now, actually) at the horizon line, so it didn’t behave appropriately with the full piece anymore. The column needed to move. If I had realized that it was just 4 wedges out of order I could have picked those seams and placed them correctly but I didn’t. Silly me… All these pictures and I forget to check my work as I go?

Anyway… I decided to try moving that column around the next day and see if I could fix the problem. The next few photos are kind of “Where’s Waldo?” — can you find the problem column?


Still unresolved, I took the Problem Column out completely:

nine columns

I didn’t like that either. It messed up the aspect ratio, and I want this piece to be pretty close to the Golden Ratio, since that tends to be more pleasing to the eye and I talk about it in my classes.

So Jerry had one final suggestion for the placement of the problem column, and it worked, probably even better than the original design would have if I didn’t sew that section backwards in the first place.


I assembled the whole quilt top and trimmed it.


Its current dimensions are 55″x39″, but I plan to quilt it and then trim it to about 55″x34″ so that it will be almost exactly the Golden Ratio. Hopefully I can get it quilted soon before I lose momentum.

I declare this $35 experiment a success!

Reporting In

One thing I want to try to do better this year is blog. I’m a great reader of blogs, but I pretty much only consume. I should try to contribute more.

SO. Without further ado…

January has been a quilting frenzy for me as I have worked very hard to get my sewing room set up and functional now that we’re back home in our new-again house. It’s been rearranged several times, including yesterday, but I think I have a setup now that will work for me. I just wish that they had fixed the squeaky floor in here — as it is, I’m directly over Helen’s head so I have to stop working when she’s trying to get to sleep at night. I can go back after she’s asleep, but it sometimes breaks the rhythm.

In any case, I’ve still managed to get a lot done, mostly because Jerry is very patient and recognized that I needed time in the sewing room to start to feel normal again. It’s definitely helping. I need to remember that next time I get seriously depressed — just go hide in the sewing room and make something and I always feel better about my place in the world.

So. I have finished three quilts so far in January, which is a huge record for me. I finished 11 pieces in all of last year, and most of those were mini-quilts, mug rugs, or pillows. I think there were only 4 quilts total. Granted, a lot happened last year that kept me from sewing, but still. I managed to build up the UFO pile and not finish a lot.

Here are the three so far this year:

January Finishes (so far)
1. “Start As You Mean To Go On”, 2. Something Out of Nothing, 3. Helen’s new bed quilt

The first one was started December 30 when I was sucked in to the #scrappytripalong vortex on Instagram and Twitter. I finished it in just over a week, including the binding. It’s 60″x72″ and the perfect size for a sofa quilt. The design is Bonnie Hunter’s Scrappy Trip Around the World, and be warned: it’s very addictive! Like Lay’s Potato Chips, you can’t stop at one! I already have the second quilt top assembled and waiting for a backing, and the third one has strips cut already. It’s really difficult to stop. They’re quick, they’re FUN, and they use up scraps. As long as you have a piece that’s 2.5″x16″ you can use it. And anything goes, really — even the ugliest fabrics will look fantastic sewn up in this manner. If you have a few minutes, you can browse the Flickr group that was created for the quiltalong. Lots of different varieties there… Some very controlled (like mine — I used a single fabric line), and some really scrappy and wild. To be honest, I like the really scrappy ones the best. I think “scrappy” is going to be my theme for the year when I’m not being arty. I’ve got to use up some of my stash before it completely takes over. Hence, I named it “Start As You Mean To Go On.”

Start As You Mean to Go On

I made a “kitchen sink” backing for it out of every last piece of the remaining fabrics in that collection, and quilted a simple wavy diagonal. It was very quick to quilt, and I think that the effect is fantastic.

Kitchen Sink back of Start As You Mean To Go On

closeup of the quilting

The quilt in the middle has a neat story… 3 weeks after our fire I went to a retreat at the Red Rooster. We had been in the rental house for about 4 days before the retreat, so not all of our items were back with us — including my fabric stash. Friends had been so kind as to take all of my fabric and wash it for me, and that process was still happening as I have a lot of fabric. As a result, I only had a few things to work with that weekend. I had pulled a few bagged fabric lines out of the sewing room before it was packed out because I knew they didn’t get smoky through the bags, so I had those. But when I got to the retreat I wasn’t in any state to plan or design something, so I didn’t want to cut into them. I just needed to sew mindlessly. The restoration company had brought back four gallon-sized zip bags full of batik scraps that they had pulled out of boxes and bins when they packed out the house. Some of these scraps were very small — around 2″ square. Some were larger chunks, but all had odd angles and pieces missing out of them. They were, for all intents and purposes, unusable for a usual quilting project. I also had two odd-sized pieces of White Kona cotton, so I cut that into the largest squares I could to create a foundation for a string quilt.

And then I sat down at the retreat and just started to sew. I sewed scraps together until I had enough to work with and then I attached them to a white foundation. At the end of the weekend, I had this:

Something Out of Nothing

It sat in a stack for a long time, waiting for a backing, until a few weeks ago. I created a backing out of more odd-sized difficult-to-use batiks that have been lingering in my stash for too long.

Kitchen Sink backing of Something Out of Nothing

And then I quilted it, with flames. Of course. Why wouldn’t I?

Flame Quilting

I love the way it turned out. I even love that I ran out of the blue binding and had to improvise with a small section of teal in the same value… Can you see it?

See the binding scrap?

And the last one… I had made this quilt top for Helen before the fire, and it was buried in a pile of other fabrics and quilts so it was unharmed by smoke. I just needed to put borders on it and then quilt it.

quilting the borders

I got a lot of it quilted at the rental house, and then we moved back here and my efforts were put on hold. I needed to finished the last 2/3 of the pink border and put a binding on it. So I just hunkered down and finished.

Helen's new quilt, finished

I’m especially pleased with how the quilting in the middle turned out:

closeup of quilting

When I finished sewing the label on it, it was after 11pm… Jerry and sneaked downstairs and replaced the old quilt with the new one so that Helen could discover it when she woke up. She was very happy, because she’s been waiting for this one for a long time. She had her new room painted to match it so she’s been asking since September when her quilt would be finished.

Next up… Alice’s new bed quilt is in the process of being quilted now, and I have another one layered and ready for quilting… So hopefully I’ll get at least one more finished this month. Think I can do it?