Sunday, 15 February 2015

Made: The Bird and Flower Quilt (a.k.a. The World's Slowest Quilt)

A long time ago, many years before I ever imagined I would get into sewing, I studied with a particular academic at the university where I did my first degree. One day I turned up for a meeting with her and, as she was nursing a terrible cold, while she was talking to me she curled up in the  armchair in her office, half-wrapped in the most amazing quilt. She told me her quilt had been made for her by her grandmother from silk saris when she first left home. It was very brightly coloured, and since she was the sort of extremely chic woman who wore layers of black every day and had extremely shiny straight black hair, the image of her and that quilt has stuck in my mind long beyond the content of our discussion or indeed anything else she ever taught me. As I've since learned, it's actually not at all uncommon for academics to decorate their offices like their living room -- at my most recent place of work, one of the other lecturers had a teeny tiny sofa in his office covered in an enormous traditional Aran patterned knitted blanket that I coveted quite intensely.

When I started sewing, back in the summer of 2011, one of the first projects I hit upon was therefore to make was something for my own eventual I'm-a-serious-academic-no-really office, and I decided to make a quilt. I started working on my initial ideas for the quilt as far back as February 2012. Of course, because it's taken me THREE YEARS to actually finish the damn thing, my circumstances have changed so radically I am not sure when, if ever, I will be back to working as an academic. However, I guess that when/if I ever am, I'll finally have my quilt all ready for my theoretical office.

The inevitable finished product ~~folded quilt photo
I'm actually really happy with my finished project, though in some ways for reasons that have nothing to do with the sewing. I'm glad it's FINISHED and not lurking about in a bag taking up space. I'm glad it looks more or less how I expected. I'm glad I've done it so I can say to myself that I had a go at quilting at least a little bit. On the actual sewing front, I have to admit though that I feel like my quilt is successful in part because there are SO MANY mistakes and problems with it, I don't think any SINGLE glaring error leaps out pokes you in the eye -- it's all just a uniform level of quilting incompetence! I'm OK with that, because it's my quilt and I like it anyway. :D

Quilt top. Not going to lie, my favourite fabrics are actually the eggs and feathers!
The actual quilt top itself is a very basic design. I used a pattern called Turning Twenty (sort of -- I mean, I looked at pictures of Turning Twenty on the internet and then guessed at dimensions). I made a 6x6 square quilt, and in the end after rather more trimming than I expected, but plus the sashing, it ended up as a 1.4m square, which is sort of lap-quilt-ish in size. I really didn't do that much research into standard sizes for quilts when I first started this project. I knew I wasn't going to put the quilt on a bed, so other than "big enough to go over my lap" I decided it didn't really have to be any specific size. Not sure I'd be so sanguine about this if I were starting a quilt today.

The colours and fabric choices were based around a piece of William Morris cotton that I acquired from the factory shop in Lancaster. It's not the Strawberry Thief design although it has some elements in common with it: lots of birds and flowers. When I went looking for supplemental fabrics at the end of last year, those motifs and the colours in the WM fabric were what I concentrated on matching. As a result, my non-William Morris fabrics are a mix of florals and two "bird-related" fabrics -- one with feathers, one with eggs. I also used a beige and white dot and a stripe as sort of neutral elements both in the quilt top and as a pieced binding.. As I was buying online, I struggled with colour matching and some of the fabrics are not quite what I expected when I ordered them, though I am more or less happy with the co-ordination/colours. I definitely see why beginner quilters are encouraged to use pre-cut, pre-matched sets from the same fabric range, because it does take a lot of the guesswork out of this part of the project, particularly if you are limited to online ordering.

Quilt back -- you can just about make out my various quilting patterns
In addition to the William Morris fabric and quilting fabrics from various well-known brands for the quilt top, I used recycled fabrics for the sashing and backing, which I harvested from a duvet cover set that I used and loved for years. The top of the cover was a medium weight self-striped cream cotton fabric, while the back was a lighter weight cotton. It had shredded badly along one of the seams and had some minor marks in places so it was ideal for my purposes as it was no longer usable as a duvet cover. I took it apart, dyed the lighter-weight fabric green and chopped it all up into suitable pieces. For all the use of recycled fabrics was mostly a pecuniary decision on my part, I kind of like that it's also a little bit of a nod to older traditions of quilting as a recycling craft.

There were actually quite a few problems when I started sewing. I started this quilt right back at the beginning of my sewing career. I did most of the actual sewing in the last 8 weeks or so, but unfortunately I did a LOT of cutting and preparation work two to three years ago. At that time, I didn't necessarily have the same skills, understanding or patience with long jobs that I like to think I've developed since them, and as a consequence I inherited some... imperfections, maybe would be the best description from my past self. Not least of these is that for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to have the William Morris print only used for one particular shape in my quilt blocks, which I would not have chosen to do if I had been cutting out now. I also didn't do the best job of cutting my WM print top pieces, backing, batting or sashing very accurately. I mean, it wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great either.

Close up of quilt back and sashing. Observe how ABSOLUTELY NOTHING lines up /o\
I am also not sure I would have chosen to do Quilt As You Go if I were making that decision again. There were some things I liked about it, particularly how modular it made the experience of making the quilt, which was really good for me personally as I was able to keep working on it while I was feeling horrible in January in very short bursts. On the other hand, there are things about it that are aesthetically less appealing to me that you are forced into by the QAYG method, or at least the method I followed, particularly all the sashing.

I did most of the construction work in the last fortnight, including one epic day yesterday when I connected up the rows of blocks I'd been putting together into the finished quilt. I have renewed respect for people who make multiple quilts a year -- so much crawling around on the floor! so much physical effort to shove the quilt through the machine, especially when I was on to the last little bit of construction! I have no idea how people wrangle quilts for king-sized beds when a 1.4m square was so much like hard work. I did no hand sewing AT ALL -- everything is sewn by machine. I have no fear of hand-sewing, I just... didn't want to do it? I even did the binding by machine, which I understand is an epic quilting fail, but whatever.

I made two strip-pieced backing pieces, mainly because it seemed a shame to waste the ends of the fat quarters I used
So what did I learn? I am probably not ever going to be a massive convert to quilting, for one. Don't get me wrong -- I quite enjoyed making this one, and there were elements of the process I really loved (figuring out and then sewing the quilt top blocks and the strip-pieced backing blocks in particular), and parts that I enjoyed quite a lot (funnily enough, the construction process, because I really enjoyed seeing it all come together at last). On the other hand, there were quite a lot of things that bored me (quilting the blocks and above all, oh my god, the CUTTING OUT. I don't even like cutting out with garments, and quilting is a hundred times worse because of how persnickety you have to be, and I wasn't even fussy cutting.) Quilting is also expensive, especially if you insist on buying 100% cotton. Even with using some recycled fabrics this was really not a cheap project.

Faux mitred corners, achieved by following this tutorial for binding without hand-stitching
On the other hand, I did like being able to work on it a bit at a time. I don't like having unfinished things lurking about, but I did like having a project that repaid spending 15-30 minutes a day in my sewing room in obvious progress. With garment sewing I tend to struggle to actually get anywhere with that kind of short-burst sewing and therefore I binge sew instead. Overall, I don't think I'll be making another quilt any time soon (because I don't need another -- in fact, in my current situation, I no longer even need this one!) but I would never say never about making another one day.

In conclusion: \o/ World's Slowest Quilt: STICK IT IN A BOX MARKED DONE.


  1. Finishing a quilt is a fabulous accomplishment (I say sheepishly as I have one 3/4 completed that has been sitting untouched for two years). Love it and enjoy it!

    1. Thank you! I am SO glad it is finally DONE and not lurking in my unfinished projects box!