Friday, November 27, 2015

What's on your playlist?

Thanksgiving isn’t a very big deal round here, mainly because our family is on the other side of the country. But the Other and I are always happy to have some time off from regularly scheduled programming, and though working for myself means never being caught up—there’s always some quilt I should be sewing, or a pattern I should be writing—I like to take advantage of the long weekends to indulge in my playlist.

Not a music playlist, but a crafting or needlework playlist. It’s easy to get caught up with whatever sewing I need to do for my work commitments, which takes away from the joy of creative exploration just for the fun of it. So I try not to let myself feel guilty when I work on projects that are just for play, and I always have an active “playlist” on the go of things I can pick up to work on when I just feel like sewing. Or embroidering. Or weaving. Or whatever—just creating.

But you don’t have to be a pro crafter to benefit from a playlist. Any kind of high-volume, deadline-based crafting can lead to burnout. Lots of quilters are extremely generous with their charity sewing, and this time of year especially handmade gift-giving obligations can get overwhelming. Even just feeling like every project has to be finished or have a purpose can take the fun away. I think taking a break for some play projects actually energizes the “work” sewing. Here’s some of my play. (Affiliate links included where appropriate.)

Needle threader shisha sampler

I add to this freeform shisha-embroidery sampler whenever the mood strikes, which is usually when I have new threads to try out. It lets me play with fibers and stitches without worrying that I might “ruin” something that has to get photographed for publication. But these experiments can and do lead to ideas that get used down the road, so it’s actually a useful exercise. Oh, and if you couldn’t tell, those are the tops of needle threaders instead of actual shisha mirrors. I’m fascinated by the different obscure faces on them but I don’t very often use a threader, so they might as well get stitched down!

Vintage bargello

I found this 1973 bargello needlepoint kit several years ago when visiting my parents. Embroidered with super-chunky yarn, it was already partially finished, so it was a relatively simple job to fill in the rest of the pattern. I just worked on it when I didn’t have appliqué or other handwork to do while watching TV. Maybe someday I’ll finish it into a pillow; maybe not. There are no obligations on the playlist!

Pigeon No. 1

I’ve mentioned my fondness for pigeons before. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s a big market for pigeon quilt patterns, so this appliquéd pigeon was just for me and just for fun. Before starting him, I’d sewn a quilt of yarn-dyed stripes for Stitch, and though the quilt was simple, I’d loved sewing it because it was such fun to fondle all the woven fabrics. I wanted more, so I started amassing shot cottons and shirtings in enough shades of grey to make a pigeon. But he only suggested more pigeons: scruffy pigeons. Fat pigeons. Pigeons wearing top hats. Pigeons made of silk. A whole series of pigeons.

Pigeon No. 2

The second pigeon stayed with yarn-dyed cottons and continued my experimentations (in other projects) with irregular English paper piecing. I’ve been delighted with the exploding variety of yarn-dyes available, and was able to include some slubbier ones in this pigeon, as well as some extra tasty Oakshott Cottons. Some of the tiny triangles in his feet were fairly challenging, but that was part of the fun. (Obviously he still needs an eyeball.)

Use your playlist to explore a new craft—for me, weaving.

The Other’s keen eye for thrift-store bargains has netted me a range of secondhand looms, so my playlist also includes tinkering with weaving. Sewing, quilting, and embroidering share a lot of tools and methods, but weaving’s a whole other thing, which I have no training in—but learning about it really engages the creative juices. So I’m going to take advantage of this weekend’s Black Friday sales to stock up on some weaving instruction. Pickup Stick & Finger Control Techniques looks intriguing on Craftsy, where all classes (including quilting!) are on sale for $19.99 and under. And Interweave’s $5.99 ebooks and videos sounds like the perfect opportunity to indulge my curiosity in inkle weaving. I may be a quilter by trade, but one point of the playlist to encourage such indulgences—you never know where they might lead.

So what’s on your playlist?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Irons for appliqué

I’ve had several students in my appliqué class on Craftsy ask about the mini iron I use and where to find one, so I thought I’d give a little info about a couple good options here. Any iron will do, but for small or detailed shapes, a smaller iron is easier to maneuver than a regular iron from the laundry room, and if you do a lot of appliqué with freezer paper templates and starch, it’s definitely worth the investment. If you can’t find one of these irons at your local quilt shop or fabric store, you can buy one online using the affiliate links below.

The actual iron I use in the class videos is a Dritz Petite Press, which is compact and lightweight, with adjustable angles for the head so you can position it most comfortably for you. I like a slender iron like this because it feels much more natural in the hand than a big clunky iron, so it’s easier to place precisely and move around along seam allowances. The weakness of this iron, though, is that it doesn’t quite get hot enough to easily press large freezer paper templates onto fabric, so I still have my full-size iron on hand alongside it.

An “iron on a stick” sealing iron like this one (often but not always branded as Hobbico) gets hotter and has a larger sole, so it reduces reliance on the regular iron for appliqué tasks. These are heavier than the Dritz ones, a good thing if you like a little more heft in your hand but not so good if you you have any hand troubles. The head is also fixed, so the handle angle is what it is. I’ve also seen heavy use by appliqué addicts burn out these irons, but you can extend their life somewhat by unplugging them to turn them off rather than ever turning the control knob to the off position.

I’ve personally used and been happy with both these irons, though there are certainly other options—many quilters have found travel irons that work well for them. Like any other appliqué tool, there’s no one-size-fits-all best; what works best for you is best. If you’ve used one of these or have another favorite iron for appliqué, please share your insights in the comments!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Mid-Century Monday: Mid-Century Mod quilts at PIQF

I attended the Pacific International Quilt Festival last week, and while it was primarily a shopping trip (first stop: delicious Oakshott cottons from Pinwheels!), I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon an exhibition of “Mid-Century Mod” quilts. Here’re a couple I found most interesting.

Grandpa’s Model Twenty #1 by Jodi Robinson, Enon Valley, PA, awarded Best Interpretation of Mid-Century Theme
The quilter of this first one was inspired by a mid-century modern stereo system owned by her industrial-designer grandfather. Classic mid-century shapes that look cool and graphic.

American Modern by Carol Krueger, Louisville, CO, awarded Judge’s Choice
Lots of detail, including machine embroidery, in this one. It’s inspired by Russel Wright’s American Modern dinnerware, and both the colors and the motifs reflect that.

There was a vast range of interpretations of mid-century modern among the quilts in the exhibit, and it wasn’t until later that I realized what it was that drew me to these two: they both take their cues from modern decorative art and design rather than fine art. Though the call for submissions suggested quilters consider “the work of artists such as Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, Victor Vasarely, Frank Stella, etc.”—i.e., mostly fine artists—it seems to me that mid-century modernism is really about the design of furniture, architecture, housewares, and graphics more than painting and sculpture. The Wikipedia definition concurs (for what it’s worth, none of the artists cited in the call for submissions are mentioned in the article, nor in its list of “additional mid-century modern architects, artists, and designers”). Modern art isn’t quite the same thing as mid-century design, though of course they’re connected.

But I guess that’s the beauty of exhibitions like this: they allow everybody to offer up their own vision of what a topic means to them, and we get to enjoy the eye candy that results. And there’s no denying that MCM design is fruitful territory!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Tips for appliqué with monofilament thread

My Craftsy class, Start Appliqué, launched this week! The student questions have started rolling in, and I’m not at all surprised to see that questions about monofilament thread were some of the first.

Often known as invisible thread, monofilament is a very fine, clear thread that’s, well, virtually invisible. Stitch down the edges of an appliqué shape with it, and you’ll pretty much never know the thread is there. Perfect!

Except when it’s not. Monofilament behaves differently from conventional threads because it’s made by a different process. Most threads are made from fibers twisted together into a thread with multiple plies, whereas monofilament is (literally) one long strand of extruded plastic. So the monofilament is usually springier and can be frustrating to work with when you’re used to conventional threads. Here are some tips for taming monofilament.

Use quality thread.

Bargain-basement brands can be stiff, thick, and harder to work with. This is one place where pinching pennies isn’t worth it. I use Sulky Invisible Thread—even the smallest spool has 440 yards, which will last a long, long time.

I use the clear thread for appliqué, but the smoke thread is shown in the photos below so you can see it better.

I recommend a polyester monofilament, mainly because it’s more heat resistant than nylon. It seems to me to be softer too, and it’s not supposed to yellow over time. But other teachers swear by nylon monofilament. See what you like best.

Pair it with the right needle and bobbin thread.

For the extremely fine thread, use an extremely fine needle: my machine likes a size 60/8 microtex (sharps) needle with the monofilament I use, but some students find better success with a 70/10. In the bobbin, use a lightweight cotton, around 60 weight. The texture of the cotton fibers can help grab the slick monofilament (or so I’ve been told!).

Aurifil’s 50-weight thread is 2-ply, so it’s similar in fineness to Mettler’s 60-weight fine machine embroidery thread.

Orient your spool properly.

The way thread is wound onto a spool determines which spool pin you should use: stacked spools on the vertical pin, cross-wound spools on the horizontal pin. Many threads will cooperate with either pin, but getting the orientation right for monofilament can vastly reduce tension and breakage issues. I made an infographic to explain this better and help you remember what spool goes where.

Thread Delivery Infographic
Click the image for a printable, high-resolution version you can keep near your sewing machine.

Read your manual and use your accessories.

Make sure you’re using the right spool caps, cups, platforms, pads, or whatever came with your machine to help thread feed properly. One of the most common problems I notice when teaching machine appliqué is students not using the right accessories to mount their spools. This especially happens with vertical spool pins, where manufacturers often provide some sort of base for the thread to rest on. If you don’t use it, monofilament will almost certainly wind itself around the bottom of the pin, increasing the tension until the thread breaks.

As the thread feeds, it’s winding around the spool pin below the spool.

The lip of the spool cup lifts the thread away from the bottom of the spool.
Every machine is different, so check your manual for the right accessories and threading details.

Watch for snag spots.

The bounciness of the thread makes it prone to catching on any protruding piece of the machine. Even with the right mounting accessories, monofilament may get wound up on the base or tip of a spool pin, or snag on a threading guide—I’ve even seen it catch on part of a machine’s handle.

See how the thread’s wanting to coil around the tip of the spool pin? When sewing at speed, this can cause a royal tangle.

Make sure there’s a clear path from the spool to the threading and tension devices. As you’re sewing, if the thread starts to feel like it’s resisting and getting tighter, stop and check if it’s caught on something on the top of the machine. Because the thread’s meant to be invisible, it’s hard to spot when this happens, but you can usually feel it and sometimes correct it before the thread breaks.


Try a thread stand.

If your machine isn’t equipped with the right spool pin, or if the right spool pin still isn’t preventing snags, an external thread stand can guide the thread to the machine in a clearer, smoother path, and the extra distance between spool and threading device gives the monofilament space to relax a bit. I bought a thread stand that screws onto the back of my Janome 8900, and it’s usually the best place to feed my monofilament from.

If you look closely, you can see the kinks in the monofilament as it comes off the spool. See how much straighter it is when it comes back down to the machine (in front of the white spool)?

My machine uses a secondary threading guide with the thread stand, which helps keep the thread away from anything it could catch around.


Adjust your tension.

Monofilament is a different beast, so you’ll need to adjust your top tension. I usually lower mine to about 1; the goal is to not see any bobbin thread on the top. Don’t be deceived by machines claiming to make “automatic” tension adjustments—it might sometimes feel like your machine is smarter than you, but I assure you it’s not! The auto tension can’t tell that you’re using funky, nonstandard thread.

“I’m your tension dial, and I’m made to be adjusted!”

Monofilament makes appliqué easy and fast if know these secrets to making the thread behave. And that behavior is all about cooperation: your thread, your machine, your fabrics, and you yourself should be working together, and with all those variables, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Just be willing to experiment, and make a note when you find the settings and supplies that work best.

For more appliqué tips and a detailed lesson in how to sew invisible prepared-edge appliqué using monofilament thread, enroll in my Craftsy class, now with $10 off for blog readers!

Friday, September 04, 2015

Giveaway: my new Craftsy class!

If you follow my Facebook page or have stopped by my freshly redesigned website, you may have already heard the exciting news: I’ve shot a class with Craftsy, and it’s coming out soon!

In the class, I walk you through preparing and sewing appliqué in several different ways, by hand and machine, and I share lots of tips for making appliqué easy and fun. For each technique, we’ll sew a pear quilt block I designed specifically to include all the things you’ll run into when appliquéing, like curves, corners, and overlapping pieces.

One of the great things about Craftsy classes is that you can ask the instructor questions, so if you run into any trouble spots, I’ll be there to help you out, and so will your fellow students. And then you can post photos of your work so we can all ooo and ahh over them!

The class launches in a couple weeks. Until then, enter here for a chance to win the class for free! And stay tuned for more details.
Congratulations to Craftsy member gtcoursey, winner of the free class! Thanks to everyone who entered. Click here to enroll in the class for 25% off!