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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Minky Rules, Orange Peels, Omniscient Lady Pirates and Low-Volume Postage Stamps

...being a foray into all-over quilting pattern, with some success, and also Minky backing for which, it develops, there are Rules.

In my Big Excel Doc of Ideas and Scribbles, I had come up with a pattern I was calling Switchback, with repetitive squared off loops...and for a few of those loops, I continued the color onto the back, as you can see here in the far right two versions:

I was showing some of my plans to a couple of folks and my friend the Cap'n looked over my shoulder and declared, 'That one.  I like that one."  And to my surprised question, "The Switchback?"  she replied, "No, the back of it." And voila! (or perhaps that is "Argh!") A quilt is born.

I consider this to be "upside-down" though of course that is ridiculous.

A bit o purple on the binding.

A closer view of one square loop, and the postage stamp background

The Cap'n is an ol' college chum who lives enviably close to Vogue Fabrics these days.  These days, we have regular shopping dates through the year but ESPECIALLY on any Tuesday before Christmas, and share mystery and sci-fi books, Jasper Fforde in particular, baking recipes, a love of cozy couch napping, a bone-deep delight in the absurd, and tantrum-inducing hatred of summer heat.  Her banana bread pudding and goth-teen dancing swag simply must be experienced to be believed.  She is more knitting than my quilting, more Boggle than my Scrabble, has a far, far better developed color sense than I ever will, and is, in fact, solely responsible for the discovery that Peacock Blue was flattering on me. On a shopping lark, she once tried on a truly gawdawful pair of calf-strangling knicker-length Hammer pants which caused the dressing room lady exclaim in involuntary horror, and us both to laugh ourselves sick.  That is an invaluable shopping partner, people. Sometimes we write musicals. She has worn both an electric blue furry dress that was one of my first sewing projects, and a Joan Crawford costume that was seriously the scariest thing I've ever seen, with equal aplomb.

She also loves a bright jewel tone, and that was the adjustment she made to the Switchback Back pattern - instead of just more gray or cool dark colors in those central squares, she turned those into pops of different brights, like so:
This pile was missing the bright turquoise. 

Because I know well The Cap'n's deep, abiding love of cozy couch sitting, and share her obsessive, feline delight in soft, soft, SOFT fabrics, I decided to back the Switchback Back in a luscious dark gray Minky.  If you're not familiar, this is Minky, a distant relation of fleece but with a distinctive nap and more similarity to soft kitty fur.  I had been reading up online on all the pitfalls of sewing with Minky, and there was a bit of Chicken Little screeching going on about how perilous it was, but I didn't have any troubles - to be fair, I followed most of the various Chicken Littles' advice, to wit:

  1. Buy good Minky, not the cheap stuff.  I did that, and also bought 60" wide Minky so I wouldn't have to piece it at all for the back (so as not to worry about either sewing seams or matching the nap of different pieces).
  2. If you do sew it, use a 1/2" seam allowance rather than the usual 1/4".
  3. Minky doesn't fray, but right when you cut it, there's a line of fuzz that detaches from the cut pieces.  Defuzz your Minky piece by whipping it around outside, and you won't end up with a fuzz factory in your living room.  Some recommended using a pinking blade on the rotary cutter to defray the fuzz, but I didn't bother with that since I only made one cut.
  4. Minky doesn't shrinky - heh! - so if your other layer is cottons, wash it BEFORE you attach it to the Minky because if one shrinks and the other doesn't you'll have unsightly pulling and your blankie might no longer be flat (think fried bologna.)
  5. Be extra careful when basting the layers together - Minky is usually one-sided, and the smooth side is quite slippery.  I spray-basted the everloving crap out of this thing, AND added some pin basting which I never do, and this back turned out less problematic than some I've done previously with regular cottons.
  6. Minky doesn't necessarily require batting, but I used a thin cotton one, partly to absorb the many, many seams of my postage stamp top, and partly so the Minky's dark gray did not show through the numerous white and light gray fabrics I used.
  7. Instead of machine sewing the binding to the front and having to hand-sew into the fur of the Minky, I reversed the usual process, and machine-sewed the binding to the Minky side and hand-sewed it to the front.  Hand-sewing binding onto a Minky back would have been the equivalent of doing surgery on someone's head before you shaved the hair off it.
  8. Use a denim needle in your machine, which works on thicker fabrics and doesn't dull as fast as fine needles used for cotton.
  9. Use a walking foot with the Minky side down (preferably in a direction that smooths, rather than rumples, the nap, if you can), and frequently clean the teeth of both feed dogs and walking foot of any fuzz, especially if you ignored number 3 above.
  10. Use a mercerized or polyester thread on Minky.
One thing about Minky which was both a bug AND a feature was that you can't really see the individual stitches on it...which is great for hiding yer basic crappy wiggly sewing lines, but not so great for determining if your sewing machine tension was going wonky on you and the sewing was actually no good and wouldn't hold.  I hope for the best, but Cap'n, if anything starts unraveling, just bring it on back to me and I'll see if I can fix it up for you.

In my original drawing of the Switchback Back, I hadn't included this idea of a Postage Stamp background - which, just as it sounds, is a patchwork of little squares, sometimes a background and sometimes a quilt in its own right, like these by Red Pepper Quilts.  The Cap'n agreed to this enhancement, saying that she understood that crafting is sometimes about "conquering the next thing," which is so true!  Appreciate the perspective, Cap'n.  Plus, the postage stamps made this quilt sort of resemble the Cap'n's beloved Sunday morning couch-sittin' crossword puzzles.  So postage stamps it was, and mine finished at about 1.5" square.  Dang, that's small.  You can get a feel for this scale by seeing this test panel next to this quarter:
See the quarter? It's up there at the top.

The fabrics I used were mostly ones I had on hand, including a number of thrifted men's shirts, but I bought a few that were special for The Cap'n, including lady pirates, zombies, skulls, crossword puzzles, and throwing stars, since The Cap'n is nothing if not a kickass death-defying pirate ninja with a puzzle fetish:
Ahoy! Some pirate ladies

Throwing Stars, Zombies, and Crossword Puzzle fabric

Skully and Wood Grain

This quilt ended up being "napping size", which in my world is about 60" x 80" - big enough to cover you, when you are stretched on your couch, without leaving your tootsies out in the cold.  All told, that there are I believe just shy of 2,000 postage stamps in this quilt and about 70 different "low volume" gray and white prints, not including the colored squares or the dark gray loops.  Whoo hoo!  that's a lotta piecing, which I broke up into a series of smaller blocks and then sewed together in lumps, to make it less daunting.  Here's the progression, as it grew on my floor, in annoying, Flash-requiring GIF format:

If it already did it's thing, click the picture to see it again.

I found the postage stamp piecing to be pleasantly meditative, though, since it didn't take too much brain power or tricky sewing - I didn't do strip-piecing on this (like sew a bunch of longer 2" x 44" strips together and then cut them into 2" wide sets) because I wanted more variation in each square's neighboring square.  I probably needn't have worried, however, because now that it's all together I barely can make out any one square anyway, except some of the darker ones that stand out a bit more.

And that's part of the idea behind "low-volume" quilts, which are sort of on-trend these last few years, to the point where fabric stores sell bundles of low-volume prints all together - it's a way to make a scrappy quilt without it being  a super loud clash of colors or dominated by any color in particular. Low-volume fabric might be a subtle pattern, or extremely pale colors, or mostly white or light background, or any combination thereof, such that the overall effect is just neutral.  There are many many examples of cool low-volume quilts out there, including this excellent Courthouse Steps by Audrie at Blue is Bleu, this String Quilt by Jeanette at Gone Aussie Quilting, and even this low-volume Swoon, the same pattern I used for my brother's birthday quilt, by Melanie at IHeartStitching.

I was quite proud of my quilting effort on this one.  Rather than add more pictorial quilted designs which might detract from the simple, stark geometry of this design, I decided on an all-over quilting pattern that would help my low-volume fabrics fade together into the background.  And since the postage-stamp top provides a natural grid to use as a guide, I seized the opportunity to try one of my very favorite patterns, which is in fact also now the background of the top of my blahg: the Orange Peel.  This looks like a series of interlocking circles, and the petal shapes are what gives it its name (it's also a pieced-quilt and applique pattern unto itself).  I've also seen this pattern referred to as "wineglass", presumably for the impression of the overlapping stains left on your wood tables by wineglass condensation.  My Orange Peels aren't perfect by any means, but again, the Whole turns out to look greater than the sum of the individual, sometimes crappy Parts.  And thankfully, you don't have to make circles to quilt Orange Peels - you're just making wavy lines that intersect at the corners of your grid, which as it turns out is a very satisfying yankee doodle to do, too (I did every other square for the Cap'n's quilt):
Step 1: Practice on paper
Step 2: Practice on a practice swatch to learn The Minky Rules.
Step 3: Do a whole quilt, impress your friends and neighbors
I think it looks cool on the front, too.

You guys!  Eeek! So cool.  This pattern on the thick nappy Minky just itches to be smoothed out and then rumpled back up again - in fact, the practice swatch I created, the better to test my Orange Peel acumen, was so pleasant to touch that I carried it around the apartment with me and stroked it with embarrassing  frequency for several days.  This is what people who are deprived of pets must resort to.

On my test swatch, I had started with an invisible nylon thread so it wouldn't see a color, just the pattern the quilting made on the top.  But the nylon thread, when I cut it, left a little sharp sticky-outy piece that I could feel when I was petting my swatch, and this disturbed the luscious coziness of the Minky enough that I dispensed with the visual value of the invisible thread in favor of the non-tactile value of the visible white thread, which left the Minky-cozy undisturbed (though I quilted across the dark gray lines, so the white thread is very visible.  C'est la vie.  Neither I nor the Cap'n will ever be ones to sacrifice comfort for fashion).
Invisible thread, left, versus white thread, right, on the practice swatch.

Amusingly, regarding the Orange Peel pattern: this shows up in a style of Japanese quilt stitching called Sashiko, which is traditionally done by hand in white thread on indigo fabric to reinforce sections of kimonos or other outer wear.  Sashiko is just gorgeous, and when my hand-sewing is better, I will try a bigger piece of it.  But the reason I know anything about Sashiko at all is because for my birthday in 1995, lo these many many years past, and almost two decades before I got around to making my first quilt,  the Cap'n gave me a book about Sashiko, bearing this legend:

The Cap'n doesn't always know the future, but when she does, she buys you a book she knows you'll need 20 years from now.
And so, hunting through my books for this pattern for this quilt, I stumbled upon this happy coincidence and laughed aloud, and marveled at her prescience.  Which provided me with the last of the Rules for this quilting session:  always respect the Cap'n's wishes.  All these years I could have been wearing Peacock Blue, and eating banana bread pudding, and working on my Sashiko! If only I'd heeded the Cap'n earlier.

So ahoy, Cap'n, and happy quilting to me indeed!.  And a very happy quilt back to you, even if it took me 20 years to figure it out.  At least we've had some very great shopping expeditions, books-swaps, napping weather, absurd store names, and belly laughs in the meantime.



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