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Sew-In at Home: Learning From Our Mistakes!
by Ashley Fritsche

Before we started this project, the kids and I were very undecided if we were able to handle such a huge undertaking. None of us really knew how to sew that well, or how to assemble a quilt for that matter. But, we knew that this year was one that has brought a lot of new experiences into our lives! So, why not go big - and we meant BIG (and at the time did not really understand just how big of a quilt it was.) Understanding that we were going to have a lot of roadblocks, and hiccups, we decided to just go with it, have fun, and not worry if it did not turn out perfect. This quilt was going to be ours, and we would have so many wonderful memories, stories, dance parties, neighborhood "pinning parties" and more that we will always look back fondly on with this quilt.

Read the Sew-In at Home HERE

Now, let's take a look at a few of these lessons we novice quilters learned..... and how we went into this project with the attitude of "learning from our mistakes!"

The Pattern - Follow the Dotted Line

Who knew there were so many quilt patterns to choose from! So, when we picked out our quilt pattern as beginners, I desired simplicity. Having precut fabrics and papers to trace sewing lines was like having a helping hand to begin more easily. We still read through the instructions about fifteen times before we got started, though. Tip: take a look at PATTERN, CAKE Mix Recipe #4 by Miss Rosie's Quilt Co. for a simple piecing method using paper "recipes".

What I loved about the Cake Mix patterns for our first quilt: The nifty little dotted lines and arrows to follow and sew. Then, after we were finished sewing, additional lines to follow for cutting were provided. Think paint-by-numbers, except for sewing and quilting. It really is a wonderful introduction to making a quilt!

 

 

Pressing the Fabric

As new quilters, one tidbit that we learned the hard way - DO NOT STEAM FABRIC!  Before we had invested in our handy-dandy iron (which is one of the kids' favorite parts of sewing now) all we had was my favorite steamer that I use to steam the wrinkles out of my clothes. So, trying to be conservative with spending, I went ahead and steamed a bit of the fabric, thinking it would have the same outcome as ironing. It does not; the steam wrinkles and distorts the fabric. When pressing with an iron, however, it pressed the fabric, enabling us to cut nice, straight lines when cutting our squares. 

Cutting the Fabric

Learning how to properly cut large pieces of fabric was a bit of an undertaking. We did not know where to start with this, so we went down the Google rabbit hole of information and found quite a few blog and video resources.  These two are especially helpful.

1. Fabric Cutting 101

2. Power Cutting

 

Quilting & Sewing Terms
There are so many terms and tools that we needed to look up and learn about when reading through the instructions. Let's go through a few of them:

WOF (Width of Fabric) This means the distance between the two selvage edges of the fabric off the bolt. This term is mentioned quite often!

Selvage Edge: The finished, lengthwise edge of the fabric

Binding: Quilt binding is the fabric strip that is folded, sewn and stitched along all of the quilt edges. 

Quilt Sandwich: The quilt sandwich is made up of the quilt top, batting, and quilt backing.

Quilt Block: Made up of many cut pieces of fabric, sewn together to make up a square block!

Squaring Up: When the quilt block is sewn, using a ruler to trim off the excess fabric, "squaring" the sides to make a perfectly square block!

Scant 1/4" Seam: a seam allowance that is a hair's width less than an exact quarter inch. This minuscule amount less than a quarter inch ends up being exact, however, when the seam allowance on the back of the block unit is taken into consideration.  Each sewn seam allowance on a block gets pressed, easing in the full quarter inch needed for accuracy. We carry a number of attachments & tools to assist with accurate seams, and it is all a matter of quilter style and preference as to which one to choose.

 
Pinning:
For our pattern papers, we quickly learned it was important to align the paper with the fabric.  We did not realize just how much of a difference it made to correct this. But, it was very helpful to make sure that the layers of fabric line up with the pattern papers, or that the pins were properly pinned to keep all the layers together while we were sewing. Yes, it took a bit of extra time, but the end result was worth it!  For those we missed, we noticed that the few squares of fabric were a bit lopsided. No matter, though, we decided it was an object lesson and did not go back to redo them.  Rather, we opted to continue on, pinning more carefully for all subsequent seams. (We were enjoying our learning process!)

 


Sew Those Quarter Inch Seams!

So I am sure many of you understand the Quarter Inch Seam, but for us, it was a new concept. I had heard the term in passing, but was not really sure how it was applied, and the impact it had on the quilt. We sure found out, though! The Quarter Inch Seam is the standard seam allowance when piecing quilt blocks and is the measured distance from the needle to the edge of the fabric.

When we sewed too close to the edge (and our seam allowance was too narrow), we got holes in our seams! Not to worry, as this was easily fixed. We just went back and corrected our seam allowance by resewing to the quarter inch.  There are two handy tools that helped keep us on track (we ended up purchasing them part way through and they were very beneficial for greater accuracy)!


Uh-oh!  Even with keeping a more careful eye on our seams, we still noticed a few holes *after* the quilt was finished.  Using a hand needle and thread, those little holes were quickly patched, giving us a life lesson in mending!  Nothing like a little bit of handmade personality to add to our quilt, right? 

Investing in Tools

As with anything, the right tools helped us progress in our new craft. There were a number of tools that I learned we needed, either to have more available on hand and ready, or to replace the tools I was attempting to make do with.


Staying Organized - First Block Sewn

It is so exciting to sew the first block! But, that also means more learning as well. We laid out what we had planned on the floor, thinking we were going to zip right through all the blocks (not really understanding just how much time it takes, but let me tell you, making a quilt takes a lot of time!). We pinned our first block, took it up to the machine, and sewed it all up! After we were finished, we did not realize our tasks were somewhat out of order, but we were learning.

The lesson for us on this was to sew one row at a time, double check our work, and stay as organized as possible. These great little markers, called Alphabitties, helped keep our rows better grouped and coordinated.  Even though our first block was a bit out of sequence, we decided to leave it just how it was sewn; it was our very first one, after all, and a very special first quilt accomplishment!   The first block reminded us of a Christmas Tree, actually, which goes with our Christmas Quilt theme! 

*Note: Storage of these blocks was a major roadblock for us. Because we do not have a dedicated sewing area, we ended up placing all of the individual sewn squares in a large ziploc bag and reorganized the squares as we sat down to sew each day. Throughout this process, we were able to whittle our way through by keeping each of the block units separated out and stacked together. This way, when we took them out in preparation to sew, we just laid them back out in the same order we put them away.  




Sewing Through Difficult Times

When working on a project during such a long timeframe (seven months) we had our share of ups and downs. We found that pulling out the machine, sitting down, and sewing in spite of our frustrations helped chase the blues away! On one of the days, Nathan was set to start Middle School, but due to the events of 2020, he was starting his schooling online.  Unfortunately, the school district had a complete website failure the first day, so we seized the home-learning opportunity and sewed all day instead! We actually sewed until he was finally able to log on - 20 minutes before the end of his schoolday. What warmed my heart was that his teacher asked if he would share something special from his day.  Nathan ran out into the room, grabbed his quilt block, and showed his online "class" what he had made!

Focusing only on our tasks at hand got us through some difficult times, and now, each time I look at his "middle school" block, it brings a sweet memory and a big ol' smile to my face!




Skipped Stitches, Thread Jams, and Machine Maintenance

We ran into a couple of thread jams, yet from these four simple stitch tips, are forming new helpful habits.

Here are a couple more tips that helped us as well:
1. We trimmed any extra long threads coming from the needle and bobbin case so that they did not get all caught and tangled before our first seam stitches.
2. We changed our needle often, making sure it was inserted the correct way (read more on needle positioning here) to avoid any skipped stitches.  



Quilt Math..... (Not Our Best Subject!)

Quilt Math was a new term that I had never heard before! Basically, we were trying to figure out how much sashing, borders, and binding fabric we would need to finish off the quilt once the blocks were finished. The first thing we needed to figure out was the dimension of the finished block. After this, we decided that we wanted 3" strips to go between each of the blocks, with a 6" border around the entire quilt. I am a visual learner, so it helped me to draw out the quilt, with each of the blocks (with the dimension in the middle), the strips, and the border around. Doing this allowed me to see how many strips I needed and the exact dimensions. What I had not accounted for, however, was that there would be overlap at the block corners and I would need to create 3" x 3" squares or cornerstones.

After figuring out all the dimensions, I was able to determine the amount of fabric needed for the borders and trim. Thankfully, there was enough leftover fabric for the binding as well. Because this was our first go at all of this, I made extra strips and squares, which also gave us a little extra wiggle room in case we had any more mistakes. These extra pieces came in handy! Read about the construction of the borders here.



Quilting - Not For the Faint of Heart!

When we decided to do the quilting on the Christmas Quilt, we thought it was just another step in the process. Well, it was a whole lot more steps! Thankfully, there are many resources on constructing the "Quilt Sandwich" and how much extra batting and backing to leave around all four sides, etc.

We kept several inches extra all the way around based on the information we read online, but it really depends on the quilt size and quilting technique for how much is actually needed.  So, definitely do your own research or check with your longarmer for more details based on your own quilt.

Making the "Quilt Sandwich" itself was not that difficult (placing the quilt top, batting, and backing together then pinning) but what came next sure was a challenge!


This should have been cut down even further for this particular quilt, but extra batting pieces can be zigzagged together for another quilt so it won't go to waste!
Stitch length! 

About a quarter of the way through quilting the top, we learned that we needed to adjust the stitch length. If you take a close look at these two lines, the lower one has very tight, short stitches, whereas the top one ihas much longer,  uniform stitches. We used the Walking Foot designed for the Singer Featherweight and when quilting multiple layers, we adjusted the stitch length to 6 stitches per inch. (Watch April Henry's video on walking foot & stitch length here!)



Our quilting lines are not necessarily straight or even.  I had read quite a bit on this and found a number of ways to attempt it. We began by just eye-balling the proverbial "lines" of all the sewn pieces. What I had not accounted for was that these visual "lines" of the quilt would take us in an uneven direction because the blocks of the quilt were not all aligned.



So, after a few failed attempts at sewing our way across the quilt following the "lines," we ended this directive and decided to follow a method of drawing the lines first using an erasable marker and ruler, spacing the lines equidistant to one another and then essentially tracing those drawn lines for quilting. It made for a much cleaner looking quilt (and a lot straighter lines, too!)



After all the quilting was complete, we needed to start work on the binding. I found a wonderful blog that spelled out all the steps needed to finish up our quilt with machine binding from Cluck Cluck Sew! 

Admittedly, we did have one MAJOR "woops!" when we were binding the corners. (O my, these corners were not our friends!) But, a finished quilt is better than throwing in the towel at the end, so we wrestled through it.  I am excited to follow-up with April on this soon, though, as she has promised that binding corners is easy and fun!  The kids and I look forward to a future tutorial from her so we can gain better binding skills and learn the fun tricks of the trade.



Here's what happened:  We trimmed off the binding at the corner, rather than folding  (see photos 8-18 here), creating a major gap in the fabric!  We were so close to the end, and being our first quilt experience, just secured the fabric over the edge as best we could, and sewed and sewed and sewed until we felt that there was enough stability.  We know there is a raw fabric edge or two peeking out, but this little corner will be an encouraging reminder that we did not give up!
 
Overall, if you are considering starting a project, go for it! Start it! Go big! It may not be perfect, but it will bring you years of happiness and fond memories. Each quilt brings many lessons and more knowledge to take onto the next quilt!