Under the Stars

Christmas 2013 has come and gone (at least, in terms of unwrapping presents), so I can finally talk about the presents I made this year. Sadly, most of my gifts wound up coming from the store this year, due to lack of time to prepare everything I wanted to. There were a few things here and there – a scarflette, some felt bird ornaments, a few homemade hand warmers – but not the same amount of handmade items I usually try to aim for. Robert’s stepmother will be getting a new nightgown in a few weeks, after she decides which pattern she wants.

The big item I worked on this year was a gift for Robert. Unlike my usual homemade gift lineup, I did not start working on it at the end of November. I actually began work on his gift way back in September. One day, while at his house, I was pondering some fabric I had with me while he toiled away on a project in his workshop. I had an idea to stitch some constellations using glow-in-the-dark embroidery thread. I used a book from Robert’s shelf as a guide for cutting the fabric into uniform blocks, and realized there was a little bit of a road block. I had the fabric, embroidery thread, needles, and a handy book of constellations that I borrowed from Robert’s dad’s library…but I didn’t have an embroidery hoop. I’ve tried stitching designs on fabric without the assistance of a hoop to keep the fabric taut, and I didn’t much like the results.

embroidery hoopI wandered down to the workshop to see if there was something down there I might be able to use, but nothing popped out at me. So I retreated back upstairs and figured I’d just pencil in the constellation outlines, to be stitched when I got home. A few minutes later, Robert popped into the room and handed me pieces of an old Tupperware set that he had fashioned into a makeshift hoop for me. I actually like using it a lot more than the hoops I get at the store, as there isn’t an annoying adjustable screw on one side, to catch the thread on while I’m working.

He watched what I was doing for a short time, asking what it was for, and I replied that I was just doing something to keep my mind and hands busy. I didn’t want him to know that it was going to be part of a gift for him.

The original 15 constellations are on the darkest blue (almost black) fabric.

The original 15 constellations are on the darkest blue (almost black) fabric.

I had originally intended Orion to be shooting at Draco...obviously, I made a mistake.

I had originally intended Orion to be shooting at Draco…obviously, I made a mistake.

I made 15 constellations, originally. Of course, when I placed them on the top of the bed later, trying to determine the layout, I soon realized it wasn’t going to be enough. I needed another row at the top, bottom, and both sides, to make the quilt fit a queen size bed. So I dug through my fabric stash again, came up with a good amount of blue fabric, and cut out even more rectangles for the quilt. In the end, I wound up making 20 more constellations.

The sashing and borders of the quilt required a trip to the fabric store, as I didn’t have star-themed fabric in my stash at home. I picked up the lighter blue swirl and the dark blue galaxy print first, thinking that would be all I’d use. While waiting at the cutting counter, though, I spotted another bolt of starry fabric. I fell in love with it, and really wanted to use it, but knew it would clash with the galaxy print. It went well with the swirled stars, though, and I decided to get a little bit of it, to use on the inner section of the quilt.

The shooting star corner block

The shooting star corner block

Last year, I made some quilted potholders for Connie. Each one was a different quilt block pattern. One of them was a pattern called “Shooting Star.” I remembered that Robert liked that one the best, and decided that would anchor each corner of the quilt. I paper-pieced them, using fusible interfacing (which I would change in the future, as it made it stiffer than I like), and set them aside as I worked on everything else.

Quilting, in case you didn’t know, requires a good deal of math. You have to measure and re-measure, and add, and multiply…at least, I do. I wanted to put sashing in between the constellation blocks, so there was a lot of figuring and re-figuring, and then drawing everything out on a piece of paper, because the numbers kept dancing about in my head. The funny thing was, when I did all my figures, I thought I was going to end up with an extra 4 inches of batting at the top and bottom of the quilt, but when I rolled the batting out, the quilt top fit perfectly.

The next step was to put the layers together for basting — loosely stitching the backing, batting, and quilt top together, in preparation for quilting. This does not require a large turkey baster or roasting pan in any way.

One of the biggest problems I had with this quilt wasn’t actually the size (though I’m still thrown by how enormous it is!). The biggest challenge was the batting. I had originally intended to use 100% cotton batting, but each time I went to the store, they were out of the queen size batting. Eventually, I gave up trying to find it, and used a package of polyester batting I happened to have on hand, knowing I needed to get started on the quilting.

Because the quilt is huge, and because “free space” in my house usually refers to a clear space on a table big enough to put your plate and silverware on, I took it over to the church to baste the layers together, with Mom’s help. We set out a number of plastic tables, and rolled everything out, little by little. I can’t thank Mom enough for helping me with this stage. It took the two of us four hours to get the whole thing stitched together. If I had been left to do the whole thing myself, I’m sure I’d still be there, stitching. Of course, the polyester batting wasn’t conducive to making this part of the job easier. The damn stuff sticks to everything! Fingers, clothes, the backing fabric, the quilt top, itself…it’s a nightmare. We fought with it the whole time, trying to keep it from bunching up, and we still had problems, with the backing fabric and the batting both puckering and bunching and folding over on itself. I vowed, when we were done with that stage, that I would never again buy stupid polyester batting, no matter how difficult it is to find the cotton batting I want!

IMG_20131203_200938_581 IMG_20131203_200949_346

Of course, after everything was basted together, it came time for the truly daunting task…quilting the damn thing.

I started off using one of my large, oval hoops, thinking I could make the work go faster if I didn’t have to take it out of the hoop as often, but the oval hoop just gets too cumbersome to work around with a quilt that large. It’s heavy, so it pulls, and the way I quilt means the ends got in the way several times. So I went back to using my smaller circle hoops, and things moved along fine. I focused on stitching around the constellations themselves, first, and then moved to doing the borders.

There are an assortment of stars and freehand designs I took to calling “infinity swirls” all along the border of the quilt. The stars are pretty easy to freehand – you just stitch them as if you’re drawing them with a pencil. They just take a lot of time to do. I worked on the border stars for 8 hours on Christmas Eve, and only barely finished them in time. I had stitched around the very edge of the quilt, to make sure the batting didn’t separate and pull out (as it kept trying to do), which helped when it came time to cut off the excess fabric and batting. This stitching line came in handy when I put the binding on, as it marked a half-inch seam allowance around the edge of the quilt.

I made my own binding for this quilt, rather than do the fold-over/self-binding technique I usually do. The muslin looked fine on

Stitching by candlelight, at the office of the National Colonial Farm.

Stitching by candlelight, at the office of the National Colonial Farm.

the back, but I wanted something a little more snazzy for the binding. I bought some interesting yellow-orange swirly cotton fabric from Hancock Fabrics, and cut it in 2″ strips. Crazy Mom Quilts has a pretty good tutorial on how to make and apply quilt binding. I stitched the strips together at work (by the light of several candles, when our power went out for a few hours), and sewed them to the quilt by machine. This was actually the only time I used the machine in the making of the entire quilt. If I had left myself enough time, I would have hand-sewn the binding as well. I’m not 100% happy with how the binding came out, but it was enough to get the quilt finished enough to wrap and give to Robert on Christmas morning.

Constellation Quilt whole_webRobert was kind enough to take some shots of the finished quilt, on his bed. He even managed to capture it in glow-in-the-dark status. I am so happy with how this came out! It is, hands down, the largest quilt I have EVER made, and I think it’s safe to say it’s the one that’s taken the longest to make. Part of that time was the size, and part of it was the fact that I didn’t use the machine. Certainly, stitching everything together on the machine would have cut out some of the time, but hand-stitching everything gave me a little more control when it came to matching the corners, and gave me something to do when I was sitting around. I worked on the quilt, little by little, at home, at the hotel up in Ohio, on long drives in the car (obviously, when I was the passenger) and, occasionally, during free time at work, when there was no one in the office and nothing else to do.

I even managed to keep the secret of what I was really working on from Robert, despite him spotting the fabric and the constellation blocks, before they were sewn together. Each time he asked what I was working on, I had to evade the question, and replied, “Oh, just trying to work through some of my stash.” Which, in all honesty, was true. I did have to lock him out of the room in the basement for a few hours one day, as I furiously tried to finish the quilting in time for Christmas. I will admit, I was a little sneaky and had purchased and wrapped another present for him, to keep him from thinking I was working on something for him. I am not above a little trickery in order to preserve a surprise. 🙂

It glows!

It glows!


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