Monday, August 22, 2005


I wanted to explain how I began hand quilting and then realized that I couldn't do that without telling about how I began quilting.

Quilting had never been important in my life. My Mom had taken a course on hand piecing and quilting in the mid-1970s while she was working on her Master's Degree, so there were a few brown-fabric pillows around and she'd made a king-size bed quilt in yellows and browns that I think her mother quilted (sorry, but was it ever ugly). And Mom made a Christmas banner that says JOY that I absolutely treasure. I don't remember her working on any of these peices - in my memory they are always there. After Mom made these things, she went back to knitting sweaters. I know both my grandmothers quilted, but I don't recall ever seeing a quilt at their houses.

I'm not going to go into detail about my first quilt, which I worked on only to get a dramatic red and black and white bedspread, and which I only pieced the Roman Stripe squares of before getting bored and quitting. (Mom finished up the top, one grandmother quilted it pretty poorly with knots on the top, and the solid red I shouldn't have used bled like a bad horror movie. ) I had no further interest in quilts or quilting.

A couple of years later, in 1987, my parents and I were travelling together on the east coast and went to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In the People's Place Museum I had a life-altering experience seeing the Amish quilts on the walls. Stunning, brilliant, luminous in bold patterns. That was it, I was hooked on those colors and on quilts. I decided I had to have a Sunshine and Shadow double bed quilt, so Mom and I went into a local store (Zooks' Hardware or something like that) and bought poly-cotton blends in solid colors that I loved: pink, fuschia, magenta, teal, turquoise, royal blue and purple. Didn't know how much we'd need, so we winged it.

That winter I was living at home with my folks and taking my final university classes. Mom and I started working on the Sunshine and Shadow quilt using rotary-cuttered strips sewn into tubes, cut apart, shifted, and resewn. I did the cutting and the keeping track of what got sewn where; Mom's job was to sew. Looking back, it's pretty funny how concerned I was about all those seams not meeting "properly." Mom was excellent at getting things done and not worrying about the small stuff - a trait I didn't develop until years later.

It's amazing we only ran out of one fabric. Had to use a 100% cotton in a similar color to replace it. The cotton doesn't have the shine of the poly-cotton, so it's obvious where it is. Of course if I were making this quilt now, I'd have intentionally switched out fabrics to make the quilt look more interesting.

I chose a bright pink flannel to be the backing and we put the quilt top on the frame my Dad had constructed. Mom showed me the basics of the quilting stitch and that was it - we were off. We marked with slivers of soap, a bit at a time, going from corner to corner in each square and not worrying about the quilting line itself being straight. I think the squares were about 2 1/2".

This is my Mom working on the quilt.

I actually pulled the darn knots into the quilt through the top (making holes that the batting still oozes out of) just like I was supposed to.

We were rapidly running out of time before I was due to graduate and head off into the world. We knew we couldn't get all the quilting done, so we did every other line going in one direction to stabilize it - no basting necessary. The quilting stitches from this period look terrible. Part of it was due to the rush and part due to me learning.

So eventually there I was, far from Mom, working to finish this quilt. I purchased a huge oval quilt hoop and tried to quilt with it. I hated it and gave up using it in despair. If I had to use this hoop, I was never going to get the quilt finished. It never occured to me to buy a new hoop. Anyway, tried quilting without the hoop and loved it. Eventually my stitches became smooth and even and I just left all those knots on the back of the quilt, cuz I could.

It took me five years to quilt the Sunshine and Shadow quilt, taking breaks to work on other projects. The quilt graced our bed for many years and is now living in storage. Foolish woman that I am, I thought it was going to be too hot in Cairo to need quilts. I was wrong.

So I continued making quilts using standard quilting thread and a size 10 between needle. Enjoyed it immensely. I still find nothing more calming than the act of quilting.

In the mid 1990s, my friend J made a fantastic folk art quilt that she quilted with perle cotton, the first time I'd seen that done. And she didn't use patterns, she created designs that enhanced the image - she quilted "oink" in an appliqued pig and created a sunrise behind the rooster. The big stitches, as well as her designs, made a big impact on me.

So when I was in charge of organizing a quilt for a friend I chose to use perle cotton on the very bold quilt we'd made. I echo quilted around the images in the quilt, taking 1/4" stitches. As I continued quilting, my stitches kept getting smaller and smaller as I got used to the huge needle.

When I made my first liberated houses quilt in 1996, I used embroidery floss in many different colors to quilt it. I tried to make my designs reflect what was going on in the block - I quilted bricks, chimney slates, stars, snowflakes.

Since then I've used floss and perle cotton on numerous quilts, often in the fan pattern, because I love the bold look of it. It all depends on what the quilt needs. With the bigger threads, I do leave the knots on the back of the quilt; they don't bother me any.

On a final note, my Mom died 12 years ago. I still miss her a great deal and am thankful that we had a common interest in quilting. After she worked on my quilt, Mom made many more for herself and others, in much nicer colors than the yellows and browns available in the 70s.


Sarah said...

Thanks for sharing your story. Me and my mom both are quilters too and it is so fun to share this hobby with her. In fact I am headed to her house this weekend to go to the Nashville AQS quilt show together!

Finn said...

Great story of how it all came to those !
I have one friend who began making quilts about the same time I did. She never could get the hang of using a hoop, and does fine without one..altho she's never done a big quilt. She loves the mini quilts, and has had some published in the Minature Quilt magazine several years back when it was new. Don't know if she still does or not, haven't seen her in years.

The other person I am aware of that quilts EVERYTHING without a hoop or frame is Beth Gutcheon, Jeff Gutcheon's first wife. They did a really neat book about quilts and quilting back in the 70's, just checked and it's 1973. It's called The Perfect Patchwork Primer. I found a used copy at Goodwill. I'm sure it's out of print, but maybe ebay or Amazon would have it.
I don't know that it's mentioned in the book or not, I might have read it in a quilt magazine, but Beth pins the quilt to her jean legs while sitting cross legged on the couch or floor. Just a safety pin on the two sides and then quilts the area in the space between her knees. I've never tried it but it sure works for her.

Tonya Ricucci said...

Sarah, enjoy the quilt show with your Mom. Buy lots of fabric or beads or whatever cool stuff you find.

Finn, pin basting a quilt to the clothes you are wearing? Now that's a new one on me. Think I'll stick with pinning just the three layers together.

Finn said... too Tonya, me too ! But it was certainly an interesting approach to not using a hoop. I looked for the pic I had seen of her doing that..but not in the book I have.

Catherine said...

Thank you for telling your quilt history...I loved reading it. Then I went to read your comments and realized it was posted in reference to my hand quilting questions. Thank you again for such a personal response. I love that you have the photo of your mother working on the quilt. I want to make a quilt with my mother so that I have a tangible item that I can say we worked on together. We don't live in the same town so originally my thought was that we could work on parts of it and mail it back and forth. Problem is: she isn't a quilter!! Anyway, my digital camera was broken yesterday by one of the children so unless I get one for my birthday (fingers crossed...its in 2 weeks)I won't be able to take any new photos. Right when I was getting the hang of it. I will try to get some photos of this quilt asap..I can probably borrow one. What is perle cotton? Floss is the DMC stuff, right?

Tonya Ricucci said...

Catherine, sorry to hear about your camera - I will cross my fingers too.
I love the idea of working on a quilt with your mom. Does she have a sewing machine?
DMC floss can be found everywhere, but Anchor also makes good stuff too.