Tuesday, 9 October 2012

On quilting by hand


After learning English paper piecing at the start of the year, I'm finding there are yet more hand-sewing skills to be practised and fallen in love with. I decided to hand-quilt my daughter's Liberty print quilt and, other than hand-stitching a few flower emblems on my mother's silk quilt, it's not an area in which I've dabbled before. When it comes to hand-sewing, the learning of each new skill feels like being returned to square one as a sewing novice once more and it's a feeling which I love. Perhaps because it's an uncertainty that's wrapped up in some confidence - in most others areas of life where I may give up too quickly and never see the outcome of persevering, when it comes to sewing I have a concrete belief that if I keep going I really will somehow improve. So for several hours I kept this faith at the forefront of my mind: when my sewing was awkward and the effort of wielding the needle clumsily through the fabric felt something akin to sewing with a pitchfork; when the hoop seemed unwieldy and I failed to find a way to easily rest it in the crook of my arm; when my shoulders ached through my poor sewing position; and when I forced myself to unpick previous lines of stitching every time I saw my more recent stitches becoming neater.


I spent hours striving for the elusive rocking motion that the lovely Ruth Eglinton had told me about when I'd met her at the Festival of Quilts and frequently reminded myself of my book's words: Initially, it's more important for the stitches to be an even, regular size than for them to small.

And finally, after several hours, I remembered someone telling me that hand-quilting is easier if you sew toward your body - and it was this which made the difference. Suddenly the rocking motion appeared, my shoulders felt more relaxed, my stitches more even, my fingers beneath the quilt rocking the fabric up and down to meet the needle at just the right time to allow a few stitches at a time to slip painlessly onto the needle. And once the rhythm had been felt, I realised that I could sew away from my body with just as much ease.


For the central square I am following the lines of the large hand-pieced medallion. When, at first, the stitches hug the edge of this motif they are the clear outline of the flower, but as they radiate out toward the edges of the square they begin to look like indistinct undulating waves of stitching which remind me of the whirls of a finger print. They are not tiny and perfect like Ruth's stitches which I aspire to but they are, for the most part, even.

I hadn't realised how pleasingly different hand quilting would feel to machine quilting. But it is deliciously tactile. When I run my hand over this dense hand-quilting it feels soft and smooth, but simultaneously, bumpy and puffy. It has a confusing, enjoyable feel that leaves my hand wandering back for more smoothing and stroking of the fabric. My daughter came and sat with me last night while I quilted and from the moment that she touched a finished area she too seemed drawn to sit and run her hands over it, admiring its bobbly softness.
 
My fingers feel slightly painful, from trial and error as I experimented with thimble use and which fingers it was best to wear them on.
 

I have something of a selection. The lovely tan leather thimble delights me with its softness, good quality and the feeling that it could become a well-worn friend but, on a quilt with a lot of white fabric, the tiny flecks of leather it leaves behind are an irritation. The most comfortable and practical thimble has been the one which Ruth advised me to buy - it has a strange stretchy latexy sleeve which fits to your finger snuggly and the tip has a ridge to stop the needle shooting off the sides. I am also enjoying using my needle catcher (the cream flat disc) on the rare occassions when I've found I've loaded too many stitches onto my needle and it's difficult to pull through the fabric.


The thing which I've been most surprised by though is how much more well-basted one's quilt must be for hand-quilting. I've always felt that the one area of quilting in which I excel is preparing a smooth quilt sandwich which stays in wrinkle-free and smooth throughout the quilting process. However, hand-quilting has wiped away any feelings of self-assurance in that department. Frequently placing the quilt in and out of the hoop and repeatedly stretching different areas of it taut means that the quilt needs to be basted together much more firmly at the outset with pins placed more closely and perhaps a more generous attack with the basting spray! This is such a learning curve.

During the day I have been writing up my Dresden plates messenger bag patten, but I am finding that often I have a flip-floppy stomach feeling of excitement whenever I think of the evening where I can sit hand-stitching while watching past episodes of the Great British Bake-Off on iPlayer (my husband is out for a few hours several evenings a week as he has numerous sporting commitments, but I am slowly drawing him into this as he invariably arrives home mid-episode).

What tips do you have for hand-quilting? Do you have a favourite book or tutorial, a beloved tool, a way of marking out quilting lines or a unique stitching method which ensures perfect stitches? I would love to hear.

Florence x

39 comments:

  1. Love the needle catcher idea. I've been hunting WHSmiths for those old fashioned cash-counting rubber thimbles, as it's the sticky needle which is driving me most insane. Off to search out your latex thimble now.

    Beautiful stitching - mine is nowhere near as perfect!

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    1. That's a really super idea - I think I may have a look for one of those too.

      I've seen your stitching now - it's beautiful! x

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  2. I love your quilting - if I have the time I love to quilt by hand. Somehow it makes it so much more personal. I tend not to use thimbles though, I just buy a big, cheap box of plasters and position them where I'm being bashed. I do use a thimble when I'm piecing, but I can never find one that's long enough but small enough for my slightly spidery mitts for when I'm quilting. Can't wait to see how this ends up!

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    1. That's odd - I'm the reverse: more plasters and Thimble-its when I'm piecing, but want more reinforcement for quilting. Jenny was telling me recently what an avid (and wonderful) hand-quilter you are. Lucky you with your spidery mitts - I had a funny moment with at Ruth at the FofQ when she was helping me choose a thimble and she said: oh you're small so you'll need the smallest thimble, only for me to stick my sausage-like finger through the sizing hole on the cardboard packet and nearly get it wedged in there permanently. Ruth was very polite and refrained from laughing at me - I did inside my head though :)

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  3. Hi Flossie,

    What a lovely narrative on the joys of hand quilting.

    I'm so glad you're enjoying the process. It can take a while for the stitches to be even, but don't worry, it will happen... and then the more you do the smaller you can make them (although I admit I prefer a slightly bigger bolder stitch).

    A couple of additional tips I can offer is don't have the quilt taut in the hoop, you need the layers to be bendy to allow easy manipulation. One easy way to get the right 'tautness' is to lay the quilt on the bottom ring whilst it's on a flat surface, ease on the top ring (don't have this tight, just enough to move it easily). Then put the flat of your hand on the middle of the quilt in the hoop and press until your palm is on the flat surface below the hoop. I find this is the perfect amount of slack to hand quilt with ease.

    My other tip is hand baste, about every 4 inches in a grid across the whole quilt. It’s much more user friendly when hand quilting, no nasty pins to move and no glueyness to impede the passage of the needle. Yes, it takes time, but it’s worth it every time you pick up your project.

    Oh, one more thing.. I use the clover thimbles on both hands, middle fingers.

    Ruth xx

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    1. Hurrah! I tried your technique for tension in my lunch hour and I see exactly what you mean - thak you.

      The basting...I think basting the whole quilt may make me feel a bit stabby - do you recommend those basting guns?

      Thank you so much for all the advice - I'm so pleased I bought all those goodies that day as it would have taken me weeks of indecision to make all those product purchasing decisions. x

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    2. Hiya,

      Don't much like the guns, the little tags tickle and make my arms itch! On the matter of basting a larger quilt I'd recommend inviting a friend to help, a bottle or 2 of wine smooths the process immensely and generally avoids all types of stabby.

      Ruth x

      PS I helped Maggie (Sunflower Fabrics) pack a wonderful selection of Libery 1/8th packs ready for Ally Pally yesterday! Bought a few.. well 10 quarters myself too!

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  4. My mum has an old tin box full of needles from my granny. I have found the perfect needle for my hand sewing, it's long, slightly bendy and nice and thin. It's so much better than any of the shorter needles I was using before.

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    1. I've been wondering about longer needles - I'm using a size 10, but have kept wondering what the wisdom behind such a small size is. I may investigate...

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    2. The reason that quilting betweens are so small is more about how thick they are than long they are. The finer the needle the easier it will slide through the layers, but fine needles are not very strong and bend very easily, therefore the quilting needles are made shorter therefore less bendy. If you use the rocker quilting technique then it's easy to put a lot of pressure on the needle and snap it (happens pretty often to me!)

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  5. Have always used the sewing machine but this post just might have spurred me on...
    Need to get a thimble that fits me properly! x

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    1. Do! It's insanely good fun (yes, really - I know that sounds like an overstatement, but whenever I start something like this I actually feel like pinching myself that it's possible to have this much fun legally).

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  6. Your hand work is coming out beautifully, I need to do more hand quilting, it is relaxing. Thank you for sharing. The quilt is lovely.

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  7. I'm so glad to read about a hand stitcher! I love to hand quilt, and my stitches aren't as small as I would like, and my lines aren't always perfectly straight, but I love doing it anyway.

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    1. It's very much about the process isn't it. I share your pleasure in it despite a lack of perfection!

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  8. I usually lurk but thought I would come out of the woodwork to add a little comment. I have been doing a lot of paper piecing lately and discovered Thimble-it. It is a little piece of plastic that you stick on your finger where you need it. In my case, that turns out to be the left side of the nail on my ring finger (!) They are really convenient and once you get going the needle makes a little groove so that it becomes a better and better thimble. You can reuse them many, many times too. You forget that you have one on. I can't tell you how many times I find myself in the kitchen and go to wash my hands only to discover that I still have a little thimble on.

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    1. Firstly, thank you so much for coming out from the woodshed! I use Thimble-it's for piecing, but for some reason I'd assumed I needed something more sturdy for quilting - I'll try them out later. I too often nearly deposit them in cooking hours after I've first put one on...they stay on amazingly well.

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  9. Such a beatufiul quilt and I love your "learning" story!

    I hand quilt rarely now. When I did years before, I went for even and neat over tiny. Cross stitching certainly helped keep the stitch length to a consistent one.

    Beautiful post!

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    1. I think you have a patience I can only aspire to - the few times I've tried cross-stitch the reverse side has looked like a horrific knotty mess - it somehow feels like a very different skill set to sewing - do you find this too or do the two skills feel similar and interchangeable?

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  10. Aaah, hand quilting, I think it must surely be a case of practise makes perfect. Like Nathalie, I highly recommend the "Thimble-It", made by Colonial, an American company (I am just looking at the packet). You get 64 in a pack and they are about £4-5. I pick them up at quilt fairs. I use the leather Clover thimble on my right hand middle finger (haven't found little leather bits coming off?) thought they are pricey and I'm already on my second one as the first wore through. I use the Thimble-It on my left hand index finger, under the quilt. They tend to flex to your finger after a bit and as Nathalie says, you forget they are there.
    Your uilt and the quilting is looking lovely. I too am loving hand quilting at this time of year and shall be joining you in front of the GBB-O tonight, and a roaring fire!
    Hen x

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    1. Thank you so much for the tip, Hen. As I said to Nathalie, for some reason I've only used these for piecing.

      I think the issue with the leather one is that it's so new - I don't think it would do that if I used it for a couple of hours, but I'm not willing to break it in on a white quilt - they are indeed hideously pricey.

      I will think of you tonight as I watch GBB-O knowing that we are both stitching away (feeling slightly envious of your roaring fire as our fire is gas and putting it on this early in the year receives disgruntled looks from my environmentalist daughter).

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  11. Your hand quilting is beautiful! I use a thimble on both middle fingers - one with a ridge round the edge on the top hand (like the thimble with the latex skirt) and one with a smooth top (like the one on the right of your thimble photo) on the bottom hand. I also have my quilt slightly 'loose' in the hoop, as if a fat cat has been sleeping on it! I don't have a needle puller so I use a square of the non-slip shelf protector that you can get in supermarkets, etc. - it's handy if I need a jar opening!
    I'm really looking forward to seeing more of your quilt, it's exquisite!

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    1. I love the idea of a fat cat sleeping on it. Do you pull the stitches slightly taut after you've pulled them through? My books says this gives some relief around the stitches and makes them stand out a bit more...but my book also said that the quilt should be tight on the hoop, which seems to go against general wisdom.

      Thank you so much for your lovely quilty compliments. x

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    2. Just jumping into the conversation to say I run my thread through beeswax before I start hand stitching. This makes the thread less slippy so that it has the "staying power" to give the effect that you're talking about above.

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  12. I'm halfway thorugh my first proper quilt and just need to finish peicing the backing and then put it all together. I intend to hand quilt so this post is great for me, could you explain what you mean by "hand-quilting is easier if you sew toward your body"?

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    1. It's hard to explain, but I think normally when one sews you tend to stitch with the point of the needle parallel to the body or pointing away from it. However, if you tilt the hoop upright a little and sew from top to bottom of the hoop (rotating it to keep it this way as you follow the curves of your design) and use the needle so that it is coming down toward your body it somehow seems easier, despite it being counter-intuitive. That is possibly the most indecipherable and unclear description, so perhaps it really needs pictures!

      Good luck with your quilt. x

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  13. Ah, Florence! So glad I didn't put you off; I think the hand-quilting has elevated your quilt to a whole new plane of loveliness. My quilting's nowhere near as neat or as dense and if I was going to offer a tip it would be something non-helpful like "regard uneven stitches and wobbly lines as part of the charm". Ha. That said, the first bit of quilting I did looks much worse than the rest and I'm actually thinking of re-doing that section.

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    1. I don't think the whole of my quilt will be that dense - just the centre square.

      Like you, I really do feel that wobblyness is part of the charm, even though I strive to better my stitches all the time. I want it to be lovely and neat, but I think I've said this to you before, but one of the things that I found most touching about the quilts exhibition at the V&A a few years ago was seeing the humanness shining through in the mistakes and areas of imperfection in the beautiful and intricately pieced quilts. So no, not non-helpful - I agree with you completely, even though at times I do try to iron out signs of my own humanness, as you will with your unpicking! x

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  14. Dear Florence
    Thank you for sharing your sewing and quilting techniques and experiments. I thoroughly enjoy reading about them.
    Re basting a quilt, you may like to see this Youtube video which is a tutorial for handbasting which I have found really useful. The technique works well giving a good result for preparing for machine quilting and avoids all that crawling around on the floor!It could make hand quilting easier. I used it as I really dislike all those holes made by the chunky safety pins. If you are interested and the link doesn't work, mention it here and I'll send it to your email.
    Janella

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhwNylePFAA&feature=relmfu

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    1. What an absolutely fantastic link - she does virtually everything in a way that feels unfamiliar but instantly logical. Thank you so much. x

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  15. You are off to a beautiful start. I can't wait to see more.

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  16. Your quilt looks great, I love Liberty fabrics and I love to hand quilt as I find it so relaxing especially during winter evenings when the quilt keeps me warm as I go along. I have done some machine quilting but am not very good at it. I always use a thimble since I did courses years ago and now couldnt think of hand sewing without one. I never use a hoop and just hold the quilt. I hadnt thought about which direction I sew in until you mentioned it and I realise I sew toward myself. I have hand basted and used pins and spray. I find spray holds everything in place well but I like to make baby quilts and wouldn't use the spray on them incase it releases any toxins. I think large tacking stiitches hold layers in place well but also like the speed of curves safety pins. I use quilting betweens and so long as my stiches are consistent in size I am happy, although I do try on each quilt I make to try and get the stitches smaller each time. It lloks like to me, that you are doing a great job!

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  17. I much prefer quilting by hand than by machine. I've made one small north country quilt, have a half pieced quilt top hanging on the wall in the sewing loft and a hex quilt, English paper pieced, under way.
    I find it so soothing to sew by hand, and I can sit with my husband in an evening and do it whilst we watch a film.
    I also love the connection to all the generations of women who have gone before me (us) who have spent their evenings sat with their husbands slowly crafting beautiful quilts for their loved ones.
    I just really need to crack the rocking motion. And try one of the latex thimbles. Most thimbles are too loose on me...I only have one beloved thimble that fits me.

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    1. You sound like you have many projects underway! How lovely - something different for every mood.

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  18. Just a quick comment about the needle catcher - we just cut a finger off an old rubber glove and wear that while we quilt. That way it's always right where you need it!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message - it's always really lovely to hear from people.

I now tend to reply within the comments section, so please do check back if you've asked a question or wish to chat.

Florence x