Sometimes, You Fail

cutting out the lining

I’ve had Butterick 5951 in my “Ooo! I want this!” pattern pile for a little while now. Last weekend, I finally pulled it out of the envelope, pulled some fabric out of my stash, and got to work. I cut the bodice of View A and the skirt of View C and have been sewing on it over the past couple of days – a little bit here, a little bit there. Usually, I want to get through a project SO FAST! because I’m anxious to try it on and see how it fits. While I admit I still wanted to know how this pattern would look, I really wanted to take my time, enjoying the process, spending a little more time getting to know my sewing machine, etc.

I love a clean finish to the lining

I was also really enjoying little things like delicately slip-stitching the lining along the zipper tape, and fixing a slight mistake that occurred while I was cutting out the pieces. Sometimes, it’s nice to take your time and not hurriedly rush through a project, with a deadline hanging over your head.

When I cut out the front bodice pieces, I realized that the fabric was uneven along the bottom side, which meant one side of the bodice needed a little patch.

Last night, I wrapped up all the finishing except the final hem. I went to my room to slip it on and check the fit…

…and I hated it.

It was just wrong, wrong, wrong. The wrong style, the wrong fabric…everything was just wrong.

the patched bodice corner, from the wrong side.

And, while there are often things you can do to tweak a pattern and make it work, I honestly don’t think I could tweak the whole thing enough to make me happy with it. It’s just not-right-for-me overall.

Which is frustrating, when I’ve spent so much time on it, and was excited to see how it turned out. But that’s, unfortunately, part and parcel of any great sewing adventure. Sometimes, you fail. Sometimes, you do everything right and it still doesn’t work. Even after 20+ years of sewing, it still happens to me. And probably on a more regular basis than I would like.

Not to worry, though. I plan to take the pieces back apart and use the different components in other projects. The skirt gives me the most material to work with, and I already have an idea about how I’m going to use it.

[I should note…the lining for this dress was already salvaged from a different failed pattern experiment. Sometimes, you fail repeatedly.]

And they call the wind Bernina

That reference doesn’t really make much sense at all, but I needed a title for this post, and sometimes they just don’t come, and you end up with a stinker like that. Oh well.

A while back (much more than a year ::wince::), I helped my friend David move all of his grandmother’s things out of her old house. She had a lovely sewing collection – jars of vintage buttons, bins of vintage thread, a giant Tupperware full of binding and hem tape – and he was kind enough to pass on a number of those things to me. And, believe me, they have been getting a lot of use. I haven’t had to buy buttons for a project in some time, and I made a bunch of baby bibs last summer that each had a different color of binding.

One of the things that David included in that oh-so-kind giveaway was this little beauty.

That right there is a Bernina 1260.

Now, for those who might not know, Bernina is a really good sewing machine. I have heard it referred to as the Cadillac of sewing machines. Growing up, I always worked with Singer machines, which are not bad, but are a lot easier to find and get your hands on. For one, most of them don’t require financing, the way most Berninas do.

The Singer that Mom had purchased for me was humming along just fine at the time, so I wasn’t necessarily looking for a new machine. David was originally planning to take the Bernina home, himself, but at the end of the day, as we were packing up the last few things, he looked at the box and said “You know what? You sew a lot more than I do, and would probably get more use out of this than I would. Why don’t you take it?”

I asked him several times if he was absolutely sure. Like I said, Bernina is a good company. Even though the 1260 is an older machine (made in the 90s, I think, and believe me…it hurts to call anything from the 90s “older”), it is still a great, dependable machine. Plus, it’s made of metal, unlike pretty much everything made nowadays. It feels like a more permanent, steady, reliable machine because it’s not made out of plastic.

The machine and the accompanying sewing cabinet sat at the church for a little while, until I could finally clean out the basement area and set up space for it. Finally, I was able to move it in, set it up, plug it in, and hit the power button…only to have the light briefly flash and then die.

I figured it was probably a fuse, which was inconvenient. You can change those yourself, but it’s difficult to get in there and change everything out, and I wasn’t comfortable taking everything apart myself. So the machine sat on the table for a lot longer than I really want to admit, waiting for when I had the free time to pack everything up and cart it over to the shop.

Back in January, my office was closed for the Inauguration (one of the perks of being located in the DC metro area), and I knew the Quilt Patch was going to be open. I called ahead to make an appointment to drop off the Bernina, and was told the turn around was around two weeks.

Saturday morning, a little more than two weeks later, I headed back to the Quilt Patch. The machine is back, and everything is fixed. It turns out it wasn’t the fuse after all. The power supply had to be replaced. Since the machine is older, you can’t get a new part, but the repairman happened to have a rebuilt motherboard on hand. He then proceeded to tell me it was a real nice machine, with a smooth satin stitch, and that it was worth it to replace the broken part instead of getting a new machine.

Always something I like to hear.

The gummy bear council has deemed the machine worthy of use.

I switched my machines out (don’t worry, I still expect to get some use out of my old machine – especially since she’s much easier to cart around than the Bernina. The sewing table that David gave me is designed specifically for my “new” machine, with a nifty clear drop in that makes the sewing plate even with the rest of the surface, instead of the fabric having to shift up and over and back down the Singer’s plate.

Knowing I needed to jump into a project in order to know Bernadette (as I shall now call her) a little better, I busted out a pattern I had picked up a few months earlier, but hadn’t yet gotten around to.

I had been impressed by the design and instructions for the Comox trunks, by Thread Theory, so I picked up a few more of their patterns, to add to Robert’s handmade wardrobe. Since I’ve now made him two shirts, I thought I would try my hand at a pair of pants. The Jutland Pants were the obvious-to-me choice, as they are similar to the pants Robert already wears.

I showed him the pattern, and he was intrigued…but he had a request. He likes cargo pockets, but he prefers ones that are inset, much like a welt pocket, rather than the ones that have a flap on them. Could I make a pair like that? I think I probably can, but for the first run at the pattern, I’m going to move forward, just following the pattern as written. If the fit works, then I will attempt what he has requested with the second pair.

Finding suitable fabric to make a (hopefully) wearable muslin was a challenge of its own, largely owing to the fact that I was tired that day and really didn’t want to trudge out to the regular fabric store. Instead, I headed to Walmart, where I figured they would have some twill fabric. I did find a lovely, brushed twill in beige, but there was barely a yard on the bolt. I settled for some chocolate brown cotton canvas, and another, lighter tan twill that has a slightly slick feel (it’s supposed to cut down on wrinkles, and repel a little bit of water).

Knowing I only needed about half a yard of fabric for the waistband facing, pocket, and lining the cargo pocket flap, I dug around in my stash boxes at home. I pulled out a box of fabric that came from my grandmother’s house – some of them reclaimed from old dresses or shirts, and some of them, miraculously, several yards of uncut cotton prints. I opted for a dark green/black/ever-so-slightly-visible-pink plaid. i can’t remember exactly what it used to be, but I know I reclaimed it from a previous garment. I can still see some of the old stitch holes, and there were obviously darts in the original piece. I had just enough for all of the pieces I needed, with enough scraps left over that they can be used for quilt squares or other small projects.

[I love it when a new sewing project can have little bit of history in it, like this pair of pants.]

I had picked up some metal zippers when I was at Walmart, but I didn’t have any jeans buttons, and the zippers weren’t quite right, so I ended up swinging by Stitch later, during one of my lunch breaks. So convenient to have that shop around the corner from work!

Most of the construction for the pants breezed along pretty easily. The directions are incredibly detailed, with little blurbs about terminology for those who might be new to sewing. I thought that was a great touch, as many other patterns assume you are familiar with all sewing terms. That’s not generally the case, starting out. [I’ve been sewing for at least 25 years, and I’m still learning things.] The only section I had trouble with was the section focused on the zipper fly front. I read, re-read, re-re-read those instructions so many times! I’m still unsure whether I put the zipper shield on correctly, but the pants seem to work fine.

I loved the plaid lining for the flap….but the placement of the pockets didn’t work out and I ended up removing them all together

Mid-way through the construction, I had Robert try on one of the legs. I was worried about the fit at that time, as it looked like they might end up being too tight when everything was finished. Turns out, I shouldn’t have worried about that part. Robert had mentioned that his usual, store-bought 30s were starting to not fit right, so I cut the 32 size. It’s a little roomier than I think Robert really wants, so I think I will aim for a midway point between the two sizes when I cut out the next one. The knee patches need to be moved up about 4 inches, and the cargo pockets on the side were also situated too low. This should be solved by making a length adjustment to the pattern before cutting out the next pieces. I’m going to remove the pockets from the first wearable muslin, so they won’t look weird, but I’ve made some notes for the next version. Robert also requested I reinforce the corner of the right-hand front pocket, to allow for where his knife clips to his pocket.

The first stab at sewing up the Jutland pants took about 12 hours, spread over four days. [Keep in mind that I only had a few hours here and there to work on them.] That includes cutting out the pattern, the actual construction, and the final fitting/hems. I feel pretty confident that I could get that time cut down a fair bit, as I become more familiar with the pattern. Of course, working with welt pockets will probably slow me down considerably. I dislike sewing welt pockets, even if they end up looking nice.

Bernadette came through for me on this project. There were a couple of hiccups here

Robert’s initials, stitched onto the back pocket

and there – mostly when lint build-up affected the thread tension, or when I had to experiment to figure out how to position the needle to sew with the zipper foot, but the machine did all of the things I needed it to do. I was even able to add a little personalized touch to one of the back pockets. I think, with some extra practice, I’ll be able to do some great things with this machine.

Flax for Sam

[The title brings to mind the short story “Flowers for Algernon,” which just made me sad, and I’m kind of wishing I chose a different title, but nothing else popped into mind so I’ll just have to deal with it.]

Finished sweater, pre-blocking

I have finished my first sweater! Huzzah!

[Pattern: Flax, from Tin Can Knits. Yarn: Ice Road Trucker from Fiber ‘n Ice]

I sort of feel like I did everything possible to keep from finishing this dang thing. I made a mistake on the shoulders, but soldiered forward. I realized I needed to make the body longer, after I had already finished that and moved on to the sleeves, so I had to frog the original bottom band and re-knit. Then, I took out the original collar, because the white yarn was acrylic and felt a lot scratchier than the superwash wool I used for the main sweater.

[That last was the most nerve-wracking, as the rest of the sweater was perfectly fine, but could have all been undone if I messed up when picking up the stitches from the body and then taking out the old collar — resulting in at least a month of work down the drain.]


It’s all finished! I’ve woven in the loose ends, closed up the small holes that form at the underarm of the raglan sleeves (that’s part of the actual pattern), and the sweater is currently blocking on one of my foam pads.

I’ll have a short reprieve before I start Joey’s sweater, simply because I have to wait until I find yarn at the end of April/beginning of May. Although my hands are happy to have a little break, my brain is super excited about getting to work on Joe’s sweater (and actually doing things right from start to finish).

[I also managed to set a whole bunch of skeins yesterday, as I was working from home. As you can see, I had a lot of things piling up on my to-be-set table. The small skeins are, largely, samples from the recent Fiber Farmer Market. So many pretties! I’m almost through spinning up all the samples — in between working on a big spin of alpaca and roving from Avalon Springs Farm.

Plus, here’s a picture of Alvin in his cat burrito. I had to take  him to the vet for a teeth cleaning, hence the teleworking. He did so well, the dental tech put stars and hearts on his file under the description for “how did the cat do?”]

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Sweaters for Penguins

No, I’m not really knitting a sweater for a penguin. Unless you count my youngest nephew as one and, honestly, he’s about the size of some of them.

When I was up in Alaska, I picked up some yarn (Fiber ‘n Ice, colorway: Ice Road Trucker) with the extremely optimistic goal of knitting a sweater for little Sam. Keep in mind…I only learned how to knit in January. Attempting a sweater with only four finished items under my belt? (those items are incredibly simple) Like I said – extremely optimistic.

However, I had pulled up the Flax sweater pattern from Tin Can Knits, which purported to be a simple sweater that even a beginner can knit. I printed out a copy and searched around for some tutorials online (I find it helps seeing what other people have done, and learning from their mistakes, as I fumble through a new skill). Tools in hand, I set about making my first sweater.

I am surprised at how quickly I am progressing through the pattern. Of course, this being me, I did make a mistake fairly early on and didn’t notice it until it was time for me to start dividing for the sleeves. It’s okay, though. It doesn’t affect the physical construction of the sweater, just the end look.

[The caps of the raglan sleeves are currently all in garter stitch, instead of there being a thinner panel starting up at the neck, like there is supposed to be. Once I realized what I had done, I made an adjustment to my pattern, so I’m back on track for the rest of the sleeves looking the way they’re supposed to.]

The Flax sweater pattern is, as it claims, remarkably simple. There were a few times here and there where I needed to look up how to do something (more to clarify that I was doing it correctly), but the pattern moved along pretty quickly. If you’re a beginner knitter like me and you’re looking for something that will push you a little more, I recommend trying the pattern out.

Halfway through making the sweater, I decided that Sam’s older brother, Joe, needed a matching, hand-knit sweater as well. And, because I never do anything halfway, I’m thinking this may become an annual tradition. Sure! I’ll just hand-knit sweaters for my nephews each Christmas, like Molly Weasley! They’ll get a new pattern each year!

Sam’s sweater is almost done – I started on the sleeves about a week and a half ago. It’s my first stab at using double-pointed needles (DPNs), which meant a slow start to actually knitting the sleeves. I’m really starting to get the hang of them now (I’ve finished one sleeve so far), but I’m also looking forward to being able to use the circular needles when I make Joey’s sweater.

As I mentioned before, Mom and I went to the Fiber Farmer’s Market on Saturday. I had hoped to pick up the yarn for Joey’s sweater (Sam’s should be done soon), but there were fewer vendors selling the weight and colors I was looking for. Most of the vendors on Saturday had roving — not a bad thing, but not what I was looking for, for Joe’s sweater.

Not to worry, though. The Powhatan Festival of Fiber, and Maryland Sheep and Wool are coming up at the end of April/beginning of May, and my goal is to find a lovely worsted or Aran superwash wool yarn for Joey’s version of the sweater. His favorite color is purple, but I haven’t decided yet whether I want to get yarn in a single shade of purple, in variegated shades of purple, or another color all together with accents of purple.

I’m really like this color that I found on Etsy (and got to see in person at the Fiber Farmer Market) but I think that’s more along the lines of what I would wear. For Joe,  I’m thinking it will probably be more along the line of “Purple Haze,” “Ziggy Stardust” or “Severus Snape” from Dancing Leaf Farm.

I’m also really tempted by “Bed of Iris,” from Kim Dyes Yarn, which she had at the farmer market.

Of course, it’s just as likely that something else will jump out at me when I’m at one of the upcoming festivals, but I’m really leaning towards that Bed of Iris.

I might have to contact her for a specific weight.

A Little Bit of Healing

I have been sick for about two months now – mostly coughing (which is putting it mildly), with some congestion and a little bit of soreness in my throat from time to time. Most folks automatically assume it is allergies or asthma…despite my insistence that it is not. This is not allergies. While I admit allergies can develop later in life, I also know my body pretty well, and this was something different.

It has taken two months, two steroid inhalers, an albuterol inhaler, acid reflux medication, allergy medication, regular Mucinex DM, a round of heavy-duty antibiotics, and a final round of oral steroids, but I am starting to see vast improvement, at long last.

Of course, some of the improvement could have happened sooner, had we known at the onset what I learned halfway through the treatment cycle — apparently, my body does not handle inhaled steroids OR albuterol well. Lessons learned, and all that.

When I don’t feel well, I let a lot of things slide, and often don’t notice how those little things add up and contribute to my wellness (or lack thereof). I had a bit of a reminder this weekend.

I am of the belief that taking time for hobbies and personal care are a big factor in keeping one’s body and mind in good health. It’s called “self care” for a reason, after all. And, while I was trying to do some self care things these past two months – working on some knitting and sewing – I didn’t keep up with some of the other things that I know make me feel better but often fall by the wayside.

Like laundry. And tidying up. And spending some time with my mother. And seeing friends. And engaging in creative ministry.

This weekend, I got to do a little bit of each of those things. Mom and I went to a Fiber Farmer Market on Saturday morning, Robert and I had a lovely picnic dinner date, I planned a Sunday service that involved prism glasses and silly videos, my friend David came over and we grilled out, and Robert, David and I tried our hands at an edible craft that has been saved on one of my Pinterest boards for some time.

[Robert deemed the craft “Pinterest Plausible,” which is a level we reserve for something that wasn’t as rousing a success as the original Pinterest post, but also does not fall into the category of a fail, either.]

All those things (plus the third day of a course of steroids, I’m sure) contributed to a growing sense of well-being, but there was one additional thing that helped to make the weekend one of healing.

Robert tidied up my basement.

I’ve had a blanket fort set up for some time and had been meaning to break it down (while it makes for a cozy retreat, it also makes the main room downstairs a little cluttered and dark). While I put away groceries and cleaned the dining room table, Robert took it down, put away the tent poles (I take my blanket forts very seriously), and folded all of the sheets.

He also vacuumed much of the basement, put the downstairs living room back in order, cleaned the cat box, and washed and folded several loads of laundry.

So, when I came downstairs after what I already felt was a relaxing and fulfilling weekend, I was greeted with a tiny bit of order in my hectic basement living space, and a part of me that I didn’t realize was out of alignment slide back into place — like tapping a Jenga brick back into its original spot, to rebuild the original tower.

Tonight, I’m thinking of tackling my work table and one of my shelves.

Gee Haw!

No, that’s not me mistyping “yee haw.” That’s me still excited about a little outing I just got back from.

Standing on the ice road from Bethel to Oscarville

I went to Alaska for a work trip last week. It’s the second one to Alaska in three months, which just seems incredible to me. I have a personal goal of making it to all 50 states by the time I’m 40 (by my own rules, I can’t just drive/fly through them. Otherwise I’ve already hit all 50). When I first set that goal, I naturally thought that Alaska and Hawaii were going to be the hardest to check off the list. Of course, that was before I met Maggie, whose family largely resides in Alaska.

Everyone is lining up to take a picture on the ice road

I have now been to the frozen expanse that is our 49th state three times. All in winter.

This time around, the group I was with was going out to the village of Oscarville – one of the easier Alaska Native villages to get to, but one that still requires a flight from Anchorage to Bethel, and a trip down a frozen river to get to.

That’s right. I rode on an ice road.

Fish drying in front of a house

The village itself…actually kind of reminded me of a lot of places in Indian Country, albeit with some challenges that are unique to living in a place that is frozen for half of the year. Waste disposal – both human and physical trash – clean water, heat…all of these things are a part of the huge concept of “energy.” I know most people think “energy” and they think it’s just about putting lights in a house so people can read at night or maybe watch television or use a computer, but it’s a much bigger picture than that. More and more, I think it’s easier to consider “energy” as a giant wheel — what some folks in the industry are referring to as the water-food-energy-waste nexus. Because, really, all of those things — water, food, waste — are affected by our access to reliable energy, whether it be solar power, diesel fuel, or whatever.

Rabbit tracks in the snow

Hoo boy…I feel like things are getting away from me at the moment. Can you tell I’m really enjoying the things I’m learning through my job?

Anyway, in addition to traveling out to the village and driving on the ice road, I had a wonderful visit with the curator of the museum in Bethel’s cultural center. I spent 2.5 hours chatting with Eva (whose name I will remember, as I have an aunt with the same name) about masks, stories, kayaks, and the museum’s new exhibit of Edward Curtis photographic prints. She pointed out the friends and family members who are featured in the photographs, which is a wonderful connection to the photographs that you just don’t get if you see them in other museums.

Honestly? I get much more out of visiting Native-run museums and cultural centers than I typically get when visiting larger, “formal” institutions. The items on exhibit are not empty relics, but instead cultural touchstones. They spark traditional stories and personal anecdotes, and you end up learning far more about an actual living culture than you might by reading a plaque on the wall. I think that visit was the ultimate high point in a stellar trip.

Returning to Anchorage, we had another meeting

Folks were calling this guy “The Polar Bear.” No, that wasn’t made of polar bear fur.

Saturday morning, before letting everyone loose on the street to watch the Iditarod. The ceremonial start of the race also coincides with the annual Anchorage Fur Rendezvous – otherwise known as Fur Rondy, or just plain Rondy. It’s a week(ish) long festival with sport contests and races, art markets, fur auctions, a blanket toss, performances, and dances, and it is absolutely bonkers. At least, that was my takeaway from watching the Reindeer Run on Saturday. Also, there were a lot of people wearing/selling fur, which makes sense….the festival has its roots in the years when trappers and miners used to come in to Anchorage with their yearly “haul.”

I re-visited the Wooly Mammoth yarn shop while I was in Anchorage. This time, I picked up some yarn to make my littlest nephew a sweater. I tend to stick with the Alaska-made yarn and dyers when I visit the shop. It adds a little special something to the finished project – “This yarn came all the way from Alaska.” This time, I picked up a DK weight in the colorway: Ice Road Trucker, from Fiber ‘n Ice. I was very tempted to purchase the “Northern Lights” colorway from The Alaskan Yarn Company, but they didn’t have enough skeins there. Also, I think it would have really clashed with Sam’s hair (the kid has a nice shock of red hair). However, I think I might just order some online to make a sweater for his older brother — Joe’s favorite color is purple. It looks like they only have the sock weight listed, but I’m sure I could contact them or Wooly Mammoth about a heavier weight yarn.

Long-Term Project – quilt restoration

The full quilt, pre-reconstruction.

The full quilt, pre-reconstruction.

Beware: This is LONG post.

One of the projects I started work on back in the frigid months of early 2014 (and finally finished February 2017!) is a restoration-type project. Before I get much further, I want to specify that I am not a trained textile conservator. I have not taken the many required chemistry classes that accompany a degree in conservation. Hence, this is not a conservation-type project.

I have, however, spent a number of years trying to fix the much-loved, worn-out things that I can. I have patched and mended jeans and skirts and shirts and old dresses, and altered newer dresses so the owner can wear them again. I have stitched up teddy bears and stuffed cows and rabbits, and repaired many a broken truck or action figure. I am, slowly, learning the correct way to darn socks and other worn-out, knitted items. I have even patched a quilt or two in my time. So, when Robert’s friend Sheba asked if I might be able to fix her quilt, I said I’d take a look.

And I was a little scared.

This was, quite honestly, the largest restoration project I’ve worked on. I’ve had to fill in some replacement quilting stitches from where they’ve come loose before, and had to fix tears and patch holes, and I’ve completely replaced smaller sections of a quilt before (Mom had, thankfully, saved the red flannel fabric left over from the original construction, so it was just a matter of cutting a replacement piece and carefully stitching it back in.

This one, however, tested all of my skills. A number of the squares had pieces of fabric that were starting to fray, as the seam allowance has worn away over time, or the fabric had shrunk in the wash and pulled at the original stitching. It’s a common enough problem. Textiles are fickle things, and they break down over time. It’s just the nature of the beast.

However, it’s a whole other level of challenge when you add in textiles of different weave, strength, and fiber content. Some of the pieces look to be woven cotton prints, others to be knits – possibly polyester, but I’m betting on rayon blends, due to the way they shift and feel. Each of these kinds of materials have their own tactile quality (or “hand,” in textile speak), and this translates to specific pros and cons. This is one of the things you learn fairly early on, when working with different fabrics – some look beautiful, but are the very devil to work with. Like velvet, and it’s stupid tendency to hold on to itself while sewing (though, sometimes that can be a blessing). Or trying to work with a fabric with a fair amount of Lycra in it. Or anything described as “lamé.” Seriously, the next time someone asks me to sew lamé, I’m going to throw a pressing ham in their face.

So, fabric is a jerk sometimes, but as long as you understand the special character of what you’re working with, you should be okay. Unless, of course, you are working with several different kinds of fabric, all with their own quirks, all in the same project. And you have no definite idea about what they are. That’s where things start to get a little difficult.

With some of the blocks, I was pretty sure I could just unpick the stitches, turn a little more fabric under, and use an applique stitch to reapply it to the quilt. There were a few places, however, where I could tell that the fabric had pulled too much and needed to be replaced. Obviously, I don’t have any extra pieces of the original fabric sitting around, so I had to do my best to do some creative matching and piecing using some of the pieces in my stash. Thankfully, I found a nice little collection of vintage cotton prints while going through boxes in the storeroom last year.

In addition to the quilt, there was a small throw  pillow that needed a little TLC, as well. I figured it was as good a place to start as any. It has the same pattern as the other quilt blocks, was in a slightly better condition, and would give me an opportunity to gauge the fragility of some of the materials. It was missing a small piece (the handle of the umbrella), so I used a small piece from my stash, inserting it while I had some of the original stitches picked out. I had to turn in a little more of the seam allowance on the skirt, so it’s not as round as it originally was, but I think it’s close enough to the original look to fit in with the rest of the quilt.

After all of the pieces were reattached to the main block of fabric, it was just a matter of stitching the front and back pieces back together, re-stuffing the pillowcase with an actual pillow form, instead of the quilt batting that had originally been used as the pillow stuffing, and slip-stitching the opening back together. Voila! A repaired appliqued pillow case!

Now, it was on to the rest of the quilt restoration! The quilt is made up of 9 appliqued blocks, with sashing filling the space between each block and around the edge. Because it’s always good to know which section you’re talking/thinking about (and because I have a background in history and a love of archaeology and archival collections), I assigned each square a letter and a number, corresponding to where they fall on the quilt. The top row of blocks is A, the second B, the third C. The first column is 1, the middle is 2, and the right hand column is 3. Simple enough to follow.

C2, barely holding together

C2, barely holding together

As I mentioned, the pillowcase was in slightly better condition than some of the other blocks on the original quilt. There was one square of the quilt in particular – C2 – that was in rather rough shape. Most of it had torn away from the seams around the block, with a four inch tear eating in towards the middle of the block, skirting the edge of the parasol applique piece.

There were two approaches I could have taken to fix this square. I could either carefully cut the fabric around the applique, leaving a seam allowance that I could then turn under and stitch on to a replacement block piece. Or, I could take out the block altogether, carefully remove each piece, reapply them to a new backing in the same pattern, and then sew the whole thing back in to the original space.

Perhaps the first method would have been a little easier. I’ll never know, because I went with the second option. The main reason I decided to do this method was the major damage that had already been done to the original backing. The four inch tear was pretty substantial, and had weakened the integrity of some of the rest of the backing. Plus, I also knew that I was going to have to fix some of the edges anyway, where the original seam allowances had frayed and started to come away from the quilt block.

First, I had to remove the quilting stitches that held the entire quilt sandwich together. These stitches included machine sewn lines around the block (that weren’t always of a uniform length and were, often, quite small), as well as some hand-sewn back-stitching that, I think, was part of an attempt to save the quilt from further shifting and damage. After an hour of careful picking, I had undone all the quilting stitches.

Next, I had to remove the quilt square itself from the sashing. The base of the appliqued square was very worn and torn in places, as it had shifted and pulled over time. In order to transfer the applique to a new piece and stabilize that section of the quilt, the whole block needed to come out and be replaced. I carefully removed the seams, all around the block, and then handed the square off to Robert. I had a stash of linens and cottons that might work for a replacement supporting material, and I set him the task of figuring out which one matched the best, as I set about carefully picking out stitches on the quilt.

While he cut out the square – making sure to add a few extra inches all the way around, to allow for some leeway when placing the new piece back into the quilt – I moved on to the next step: removing the old batting from the same section of the quilt. Because a large portion of the top layer of the quilt had been torn away, it left the normally sheltered batting open to greater wear and tear. The batting was rather thin in several places, and had several holes in it, so I went ahead and removed it. After the batting was cut away, I had to fill the space with a replacement.

This is why it’s important to not throw away the pieces of a restoration project until the very end.

When I had taken apart the seams in the pillowcase, I found that there wasn’t a regular pillow form inside. Instead, the original quilter had used leftover batting from the quilt to fill the pillowcase. Pretty ingenious use of extra materials, and a good thing for me when I needed to find the right kind of batting for the empty section of the quilt. Since pillow filling had been made out of leftover pieces from the original quilt, that meant the batting was the same age, type, and thickness of the batting I’d had to remove.

Unfortunately, none of the extra pieces of batting were quite big enough to completely fill the needed spot. I was IMG_20150212_213732_447expecting that (though hoping otherwise), and planned accordingly. Occasionally, when you work on a quilted project, you’ll find that you have to join two or more pieces of batting together. Sometimes it’s because the project is bigger than any regular size of prepackaged batting you buy at the store; sometimes it’s because the project is an odd shape. I’ve had to join batting before, so I wasn’t too worried. I cut out a piece that was almost big enough to cover the empty spot, and began whip-stitching it to the edges of the batting that fell under the sashing part of the quilt. When the large section was secured, I simply cut another, smaller strip of batting and whip-stitched that to the bottom of the not-quite-big-enough batting. I went ahead and pinned the bottom edge to the bottom of the quilt backing, so that the batting wouldn’t shift while I worked on the quilt square.

Pinning the petticoat piece into place.

Pinning the petticoat piece into place.

With the new-ish batting in place, it was time to rebuild the quilt block. First, I started to pick out the stitches running along the bottom edge of the bodice piece and around the skirt. This piece also had a thin petticoat piece that would be attached under the bottom edge of the skirt. Sadly, the piece was in rather rough condition, so I cut a replacement piece out of some blue fabric that I had and started to apply it to the new square backing. I adjusted the seam allowance all the way around the skirt and stitched it down, using a running stitch. That’s how most of the pieces are actually attached to the quilt, but as I worked I started second-guessing using it. While I wanted to stay as close to the original material as possible, I felt a blind hem (or blind applique stitch) might actually help the quilt fray less. It seems to me that the running stitch allows for more wear along the (admittedly) small, loose edge of each piece, whereas the blind hem stitch seems to hold the edge of the appliqued fabric closer to the backing fabric, leaving less room for wear. At any rate, I went ahead and attached the rest of the pieces with a blind hem stitch.

Some of the pieces were more worn and frayed than others. I managed to roll the edge of the flesh-toned pieces

Finished reconstruction - with a new bodice piece.

Finished reconstruction – with a new bodice piece.

under just a little, and still use them, but the bodice piece would have been made too small with a larger seam allowance, so I cut another replacement patch from my stash of similar fabrics and stitched it in. I saved the bodice piece, hoping I would be able to use it when I had to replace one of the pieces on the bonnet, but it wasn’t quite the right size or shape, so I set it aside.

The big question came when it was time to figure out how to make the parasol handle. With the pillowcase, I had just cut a totally new piece, because the original pattern was missing a handle. On this square, though, the original handle had been made with some blue yarn, sewn directly onto the quilt square backing. I debated pulling out the original stitches and resewing the handle onto the new applique backing, but I was worried about pulling the fabric and making a hole that might destabilize the new piece, so I opted for carefully cutting out the original handle, turning over a 1/4 ” seam allowance, and applying it to the new backing, just as I was doing with the other pieces.

IMG_20150217_192833_298With everything transferred over to the new quilt square, it was time to stitch the block back into place. Using the edges of the original piece as a guide, I marked off the size of the opening, and left at least an inch of space on each side. I pinned the top edge of the block to the top side of the sashing, right sides together, and hand stitched the block and sashing together. Then, I pinned the sides and bottom of the block to the rest of the sashing, being careful to fold the sashing a little more, to make sure there was a 1/2″ seam allowance. Since the positioning of the quilt, and the fact that I hadn’t taken out all the quilting stitches in the surrounding area, meant I couldn’t sew the block to the sashing the same way as I had along the top, I finished joining the pieces with some more blind hem stitches. Additional quilting stitches around the block will help to stabilize these seams, and keep too much pressure from being put on the blind hem stitches.

Voila! The first rebuilt panel was now back in place!


Now, I had done a quick once-over of the quilt before starting work on the above quilt square, but I hadn’t gone too in depth with my evaluation of each piece, as I felt it was more important to fix the heavily damaged square as soon as possible, before it was damaged any further. I knew there were a couple of other places where the seams were starting to wear, and there were a few holes that needed to be darned, but I didn’t think there were any other places where the blocks had torn away. A minute into a more in-depth analysis of the quilt showed that squares B2 and B3 had also begun tearing away at the seams. Neither one was in quite as bad shape as C2 had been. Looking at B3, I realized that it was the easier fix. The block was actually bigger than the space it was sewn into, so all I had to do was unpick three of the seams, adjust the block, and stitch it back down.

IMG_20150218_200200_967B2 was a little more worse for wear (though, again, not as bad as C2). There was a one inch hole near the corner of the block, and the seams on both the top and left hand side of that same corner had started to tear. I was wondering if I could reliably patch the block with another piece of linen, when I realized that this block, like B3, also had a little room to play with. I carefully picked out the stitches along the top and left hand side of the block, as well as about an inch along the bottom corner. While I had the backing fabric free, I took advantage of the opportunity to fix the applique on the square. That, incidentally, is the main issue with most of the blocks – it’s mostly fixing the appliqued pieces. Some of the fabric has started to disintegrate (again, that’s the nature of some textiles) and some of it has just become unattached from years of wear on the stitches. It’s not necessarily hard work, but it can be time-consuming.

Thankfully, all of the applique pieces were in good enough condition that I didn’t have to replace any. A little turning of the edges and stitching them back down was all I needed to do in this case. Once the pieces were all secured, I repositioned the edge of the block and stitched the sashing back down. I did much the same for B3, with the addition of having to replace a few pieces. The arm piece had really come apart, so I needed to create a new one. Luckily, one of the fabrics I had pulled out of my stash matched the fabric on the shoulder piece, and the repair didn’t stick out.

I moved on to working on C3. The backing fabric of the panel was in good condition, but many sections of the applique were in need of restitching. I carefully removed all the pieces from the backing and restitched them, without removing the backing fabric from its “frame” on the quilt.

I then moved my attention to panel C1, thinking I would finish up the work on the quilt from the bottom up. Like panel C3, this panel required the removal/re-stitching of the applique pieces, as well as some repair work to some of the seams and a complete replacement of the bodice piece. Unfortunately, when I began removing the stitches, I noticed a few additional problems.

  1. The backing fabric for the panel had been made by sewing two pieces of fabric together. Unfortunately, there was a large tear in the seam. It was not immediately visible, as it was hidden underneath the applique. When the applique was removed, the hole was revealed.
  2. Unfortunately, the tear in the fabric requires a complete replacement. There is not enough of the original material to sew up the tear and allow for a large enough seam allowance around the edge of the panel.
  3. As I removed the panel for reconstruction, I noticed that the original batting was almost entirely gone. Unlike the C2, this was not wear caused by exposure, but wear which occurred completely encased within the quilt top and bottom.

At this point, I hit a little bit of despair. I had originally planned to replace as little as possible of the quilt. Not because I didn’t want to do the work…but because I wanted to preserve as much of the original look and feel of the quilt as possible. I didn’t want to hand back a quilt that looked completely different than the one I had originally started work on. This meant I was trying to keep the same look and eccentricities of construction as possible, only adding stitches to make the applique and quilting more secure, and replacing pieces only when I had to. As I removed the C1, however, it was clear that I was going to need to amend my original plan. This was confirmed when I started removing the quilting stitches at the top of C1/bottom of B1 and found that those sections of the panels had never been stitched to the sashing during the piecing stage. Instead, they had been attached at the time of quilting, and were only held in place with the quilting stitches.

And so, I started the process of unpicking ALL of the stitches on the quilt. Not just the quilting stitches, or the stitches holding the panels I’ve not yet worked on to the sashing. All of the stitches. Including the pieces I’ve restitched into their place already. Since I need to completely replace ALL of the batting in the quilt now, that means I need to completely remove the quilt top from the backing fabric.

::Sigh:: At least this should make some of the repairs to the backing fabric a little easier (yes, there’s even a section on the quilt back, which is pieced, that needs to be re-sewn).

Friday night saw me carefully labeling each panel square with a little fabric tag (pinned to the front of each skirt piece), in preparation for the monumental task of removing all of the quilting, instead of just strategic areas. Once everything was labeled with fabric scraps, I began the tedious process of separating the quilt top from the bottom, and breaking down the pieces into piles of applique squares and the sashing. It took two days worth of work to get most of the quilt apart – even then, I left some of the sashing around a square or two, in order to get to work salvaging the remaining applique squares.

With the batting removed, the new applique stitches on C3 were a little too loose (the stitches had caught some of the batting while I worked, and I had carefully pulled the disintegrating batting away). I pulled the stitches a little tighter and restitched in one or two places, making sure the pieces were once again secure. With that, I completed a full line of squares! All of the C row squares have been fixed.

With this little ray of sunshine smiling on me, I moved on to some of the other panels. I started on one of the A panel squares first, as one of the pieces was falling off of the backing material.

Realizing I was only one square away from having another whole row fixed, I went back and worked on square B1. B2 and B3 had been the second and third squares I had worked on, so it felt right to complete that row before going back to finish the other A squares. Again, I tried to keep most of the original materials in the same square, only replacing when I felt I couldn’t save a piece. However, in the interest of maintaining the integrity of each piece, I do, occasionally, have to re-size a piece. This mostly just means the seam allowance under the applique edge is almost gone, and I need a little more to work with. Unfortunately, this also means that the re-applied pieces tend to take up a slightly different footprint than the original square. Hopefully, this won’t be too obvious once everything is put back together and the quilt undergoes a thorough cleaning, to even out the wear and discoloration. 

Fast forward a couple weeks – all of the sashing had been taken apart, ironed, and placed to the side for later re-assembly. Almost all of the blocks had been rebuilt, and I was down to just one more square. A3. The backing was in pretty good condition, as were the skirt and bonnet applique pieces. However, the bodice piece and the parasol were in pretty rough shape. I cut a new bodice piece, extending the bottom edge to make it slightly bigger than the original piece. I had hoped there was enough of a least one of the parasol pieces to salvage and reuse, but they had frayed quite a bit and I had to cut two new pieces. I think they ended up looking okay, though. Thankfully, most of the fabric I used appears to fit well with the original color scheme of the quilt. In fact, the fabric I used to replace some of the arm/neck pieces was an exact match!

The next step was to evaluate the backing fabric. While the fabric wasn’t as badly damaged as some of the front blocks were, there were places here and there where the fabric had torn, or spots where tiny holes had worn through. There was also the little matter of the fact that part of the backing wasn’t really sewn together. Instead, it had been held in place by the quilting around the blocks. While most of the blocks (the backing is pieced, as well) had generous seam allowances, there were a few edges where the allowance was just barely a quarter inch. Since this quilt obviously sees a lot of use and love, I wanted to shift some of the seams, to allow for a stronger backing piece.

So…I grabbed the seam ripper again – by now we’re good friends – and set to work separating out the different pieces. I started with the first “column,” being careful not to disturb a piece appliqued to the back, representing the ASL sign for “I love you.” I trimmed a little bit of the old batting away from this section, again careful not to pull or damage the original stitching (the creator of the quilt stitched her initials on the back, below the appliqued piece. I went back around the applique, reinforcing the stitching and tucking the thin seam allowance back under, and then ironed everything, altering the seam allowances just a bit.

Once I had separated the backing blocks and ironed them flat again, I repaired the small tears and holes. Then, the blocks got stitched back into columns, and the columns stitched back together into one big whole.

At long last, all of the squares were complete, the backing was repaired, and I could begin the process of reassembling everything. I started with re-stuffing the pillowcase. Since that was the first piece I had started work on, all that time ago, it seemed right to complete it before I did anything else. I bought a new form – remember, the original pillow form had been made out of scraps of batting, and they had shrunk and stretched over the years. It took some work getting the new pillow form inside the rebuilt pillow case, but I managed to do it. Then, I stitched up the hole on one side, and VOILA! A finished pillow.

Next came the task of laying all of the panels out and figuring out how the sashing should go back together. Usually, the sashing is cut in even widths and lengths and is inserted in horizontal, then vertical order (or vice versa). However, the original sashing was sewn on in a sort of quilt as you go fashion. Taking all of the panels apart for the repair meant that the sashing wasn’t going to be the same as it originally had. So I took each of the ironed sashing pieces, and began the process of laying them out alongside each of the panels, puzzling out where each would fit best. When I had the sashing set out, it was a (relatively) simple matter to stitch the vertical pieces between the blocks of each row together, stitch the horizontal sashing pieces together along their short edge, and then assemble the panel and sashing rows.

[I say “relatively” because, compared to the process I went through to fix each of the quilt blocks, figuring out the sashing was a breeze. It still took about half an hour of setting pieces down, staring at them with my head cocked to the side, swapping pieces out, and frowning at the lot of them before I was happy with the result]

Of course, in the middle of sewing the pieces together, I managed to turn one of the panels around and stitch two rows together in a way that one of them was upside down…which meant sitting down and grumbling about my not paying attention while I carefully unpicked a rather long seam. The stitching was pulled out, the panel flipped the right way around, and everything went together fine after that.

I did have to get a little creative with two of the corners. Because none of the sashing is cut to the same length, determining which side was going to be longest took some guesswork, and I got it a little off two times. But this wasn’t really a problem. I just went back and stitched the extra length on one side to the edge of the other sashing panel.

At long last! I had a finished, repaired quilt top, and a repaired quilt backing to work with!

Then came another difficult decision…did I clean the quilt top before basting everything together, or after everything was assembled and the raw edges of the quilt were bound?

I don’t think there is any one real “correct” answer. I think one’s decision either way largely depends on the condition of the restored quilt, the type of material, and whether you can clean it easily without damaging the raw edges.

In the end, I decided to assemble the layers, quilt around each block, and finish the edges before subjecting the quilt to a thorough cleaning. I was mainly worried about affecting the raw edges of the quilt top, if I washed it before everything was back together.

Basting everything together had to wait until I had space to set everything out. While I had laid things on the carpet at home, in order to determine layout when piecing the top back together, I needed to lift the quilt up to at least thigh height in order to baste or pin it correctly. This meant waiting until the renovation of the fellowship hall at church was finished, so I could go back in and use the large tables.

Mom accompanied me to the church, where we laid out each layer and went to work. Usually, I will pin all three layers together with straight quilting pins, and we’ll go back over the whole thing with our basting needles and thread. Of course, even with smaller quilts, that takes a LOT of time, and I inevitably stab myself with pins or drop them on the floor, or they fall out before I’m finished basting. This time I decided to take a different route. I had a bunch of quilting safety pins that came from a generous sewing room donation from a friend. Since I was planning to use my machine to do a stitch-in-the-ditch grid, I thought the safety pins would be a better option. They would hold the layers in place without falling out.

Even without using needle and thread to baste everything, the whole process still took over an hour to do – and that’s with two of us working! Just further proof, in case you needed it, of the amount of work that goes into making a quilt.

Of course, part of that time was related to the unique challenge of this top in particular. Because the pieces were cut by eye, rather than using a template (and because, wanting to keep to the aesthetics of the original design, I didn’t measure and cut them down to exact size before piecing them together) the whole top is a little uneven. It is basically a square, but some edges are a little wider than others, and the blocks do not form an exact grid. This meant we would pin the layers, stare at the quilt with our head cocked to the side, re-pin it, stare at it again, and then fix the pins again.

Even then, the edges did not completely meet up — meaning I would have to do some quick thinking when it came time to do the binding, but I set that thought aside for the moment.

The first step of machine stitching was completed that night, following the lines of the sashing. That couldn’t be the only stitching, though. Each block is roughly 15″x15″ (one or two have slightly smaller dimensions), which means you have a pretty sizable amount of loose fabric between some of the stitching lines. This is what caused many of the tears in the first place. Quilts get put under a lot of stress – they get caught under heavy things and tugged free, they get wrapped around bodies tossing and turning in their sleep, they go through the wash (and not on a delicate cycle)…all of these things put the fabric under tension. The more quilting stitches there are, and the closer together they are, the more this tension gets distributed across the wider area. When the quilting is spaced out, though, say…across a 15″x15″ block, the weight of the quilt pulls at only a few seams, putting stress on a very focused area. It’s only a matter of time before the fabric strains so much that it starts to tear.

Now, different types of quilt batting have different recommendations for quilting stitch density. This could be anywhere between 2″ intervals, up to 8 or 10″. These recommendations are printed on the bag that the batting comes in (or printed on the dimension tag, if you’re purchasing your batting off the roll). Personally, I don’t like leaving a huge space between stitches, even when the batting tells me I can. I just figure it’s safer for the life of the quilt if the stitching intervals are no more than 5″ (and even that is pushing it on some quilts). Plus, stitching closer together allows for that “puckered” look a quilt gets when it’s run through the wash the first time.

Since I didn’t want to leave that great expanse of a quilt block un-quilted (as it would mean the quilt would need to be repaired again sooner rather than later), I went ahead and hand quilted around each of the sun-bonnet ladies and their parasols. This should secure the center of each quilt square, not only putting less stress on the backing and batting, but also on the applique itself. Even though the original quilt hadn’t utilized that kind of quilting around each piece (that would have added even more hours to the time spent unpicking all the stitches), the quilt still had the same basic look to it.

As I stared at it, though, I decided to go a few steps further and quilt some channels in the white space of each block. I wanted to make sure the life of this quilt was extended as long as possible, and the added quilting – though not an original feature – would keep everything together even better. With the quilting finished, I turned my attention to the binding. I considered stitching on a completely separate binding, made of a different fabric – white muslin, or blanket binding, or something of the like. It would make doing the binding easier, and could be easily replaced down the line, as it became worn out, if the owner so desired. Unfortunately, it would drastically change the look of the quilt, not to mention require some serious trimming of the fabric. I did not want to cut of and throw away any of the original fabric, so I did a turned edge binding, performing some jiggery-pokery on one side, where the backing fabric was actually shorter than the sashing on the front.

With the edges bound and the layers safely quilted together, it was time to move on to the final step…cleaning.

You would think that cleaning a quilt would be a simple matter, as easy as tossing it in the washing machine. You would be wrong. Ask a group of quilters about cleaning a quilt and chances are you will get a variety of opinions and recommendations. Some people do put their quilts in the machine (I often throw the ones I made for myself in there when they need a good wash)…though most will also tell you it’s a good idea to run the machine on the gentle cycle and not to use harsh detergents. The average washing machine is pretty rough on textiles, especially quilts. Using a gentle cycle and something like Woolite can help protect colors and extend the life of a much beloved quilt.

What you shouldn’t do is stick them in the dryer (again, I have been guilty of this). The heat from the dryer, as well as the tumbling, just adds to the amount of abuse heaped on the quilt. Of course, some would argue that this abuse is part and parcel of a quilt’s existence.

Since this was not one of my quilts, and the fabric had already seen its share of wear and tear, I decided to err on the side of caution when it came time to wash the quilt. I did a pre-treat on several places with Grandma’s Secret Spot Remover Laundry Spray (no, I haven’t been paid to advertise them – I just happened to use a very specific item), and then washed the quilt on delicate with some Woolite. The wash helped to even out some of the discoloration on the backing. I ran it through a second wash (again, on delicate), this time using a smidge of regular laundry detergent, and spread it out across my work space to dry.

I still think the quilt could use another wash – or maybe a trip to the dry cleaners – but it is finally ready to go back to the original owner.

I am so upset that it took so long to get this whole thing finished, but I try to keep reminding myself how much work went into getting this thing back into a usable condition. It looks a bit different from when I first got it, with new pieces added in and some of the original eccentricities gone, but I hope that the few changes mean that the owner gets many more years of love out of their quilt.

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