Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- freehand and curved seams 3

If you want to sew S-curves or even more complicated curves, you probably need more precision than you can get from the just-sew-it approach described in the last blog post.  Instead you need to establish a seamline and cut seam allowances on either side.

You don't need to go all quilt-police-traditional and make templates to accomplish this, but you do need a way to make a copy of the curve that will become your seamline.  Why not do templates?  Because you would lose the spontaneity of the freehand curve and change the character of your improvisational composition, and also because exact templates are so fiddly and time-consuming.

Instead, here are two methods of making your curves fit together perfectly while keeping the freedom of the immediate free-cut line.  I call them semi-templates.  You don't need to cut templates to accomplish this, but you do need some way to "remember" your curve so you can add seam allowances as you cut.

The first method uses a template, but it's a free-cut template with a minimum of tedious fuss.  Start with some pattern material that's big enough to draw your entire curve, and a cutting mat big enough to let you do it with one swoop of the rotary cutter.  The pattern material can be freezer paper, newspaper, interfacing or tissue paper.  Lay it out on your cutting board.  Take your rotary cutter and slice a gorgeous curve through the pattern.  If you want, you can stop there, or you can cut more curves as long as they don't cross any of your previous cuts.

(In the photos below I've made four cuts, but I've only sewed together four pieces of fabric; one of them already has a curved edge ready for another piece to be added later.)

Don’t separate the two halves yet – first take a pencil and mark across both pieces every six inches or so, and/or at critical points on the curve. And mark across both pieces at the exact top and bottom of the curve.

Pick up one piece of the pattern and lay it on your fabric, making sure you keep track of whether this is going to be the right-hand piece or the left-hand piece. Now visualize how wide you want your seam allowance to be, and free-hand cut that distance away from the template.

It doesn’t have to be a perfect quarter-inch – no need to fuss with rulers, just eyeball it. There’s enough give in the fabric that you will not have problems. Finally, pin the two pieces together at the marked points, and sew. The seam will press perfectly flat.

Look at that beautiful curved seam!  Now put template #1 aside, get templates #2 and #3 and repeat the process for the next curve.

Place template #2 right up against the seam, and cut along its left edge, adding the seam allowance by eye.  In this photo template #3 is waiting, but I will actually cut it from a third piece of fabric, not maroon.

Note that I do not suggest you cut out all the pieces at once.  It's way too easy to lose your place and try to sew the wrong pieces together (ask me how I know).  Instead cut two pieces (one curve), sew and press, then move on.

With this method you can make curve after curve, as in this quilt of mine.  With some practice you can use this method to make winding-road seams with multiple changes of direction, as long as you mark and pin the seams carefully.

A variation of this method uses a marking wheel to draw your curved seamline directly onto the two layers of fabric, thus eliminating the template.  If you're not familiar with this tool, it's like a rotary cutter except its "blade" is dull, not sharp.

Instead of using the rotary cutter to make your curve, you use the marking wheel, which works exactly like the rotary cutter, with the same arm motion that gives you those nice, loose, artistic swoopy lines.

Layer two pieces of fabric where you want the curve to go, giving yourself plenty of fabric underneath (you don't want your curve to run off the edge of the bottom layer).  Limber up your arm and make a swoopy curve, pressing hard enough to crease both layers of fabric.

The creased lines don't show up all that well in the photos but they do in real life, at least long enough for you to cut and sew as needed.

Now separate the two layers, noting carefully which direction you need to extend for seam allowances. Switch to a rotary cutter and by eye, follow your creased curve a quarter-inch away.

As you did with the paper templates in the first method, put one or two marks across the seams and pin them so you match the curves before stitching.  The more complicated the curve, the more places you should mark and pin.

In the next post I'm going to tell you to press your seam allowances toward the outside of a curve.  That's great with a C-curve, but how about an S-curve?  The "outside" may be toward the left as you start, but then the curve changes direction and "outside" is toward the right.  I can't give you a hard-and-fast rule for these situations.  If one leg of the curve is more gentle than the other, press that one toward the "inside" so it will become the "outside" when the going gets tough.  If all else fails, flip the direction of the seam where the curve changes direction.  Use your best judgment, and plenty of moisture and elbow grease at the ironing board.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- freehand and curved seams 2

If you have chosen to cut your quilt pieces freehand instead of using a ruler, or if you are deliberately using curved seams, you face a construction issue: how to make the finished seams lie perfectly flat.  If the curves are gentle -- think the profile of a watermelon -- and if they curve in the same direction, you can usually just sew one to the other and they will be fine.

This approach works as a new construction method if you layer two pieces of fabric on top of one another, then cut a gentle curve through both layers.  Swap the pieces and stitch them together.

The piece above was made with three cuts, not one, and of course it yielded a mirror image piece with the same curves but the opposite color arrangement.  Note that the middle seam ended up wonky, with the black quite a bit longer than the orange, even though they were presumably the same length to start with.  This is not a failure of sewing skill; it's an unavoidable and unpredictable result of the process of sewing two bias edges together.

When this happens to you, and it will, don't feel guilty, don't try to rip the seam and redo it, just trim off the edge.

The just-sew-it approach also works with random pieces that you may find in your stash and want to sew together.  As long as the curves have approximately the same radius, and point in the same direction, you'll probably be fine.  But if they point in opposite directions, or are too radically different in profile, you'll end up with bulges or clots.  Plan ahead, and don't do that.

These pieces will most likely go together beautifully.  

These pieces won't.

With gentle curves the actual sewing will be very much like holding straight edges together -- no big deal.  But when you sew more pronounced curves -- as the watermelon profile becomes more like a cantaloupe or a grapefruit -- it's harder to maintain the proper seam allowance because the two edges are so different in profile: one a distinct hill and the other a valley.  It will be easier if you hold the "valley" curve on top and the "hill" on the bottom, even though that makes a lousy mnemonic.

Establish the seam allowance at one end of the seam and put your needle down through both layers.  If possible, set your machine so it automatically stops with the needle down, to make sure the pieces don't slip out of alignment when you stop to reposition the fabrics.  Carefully align the edges of the two layers and stitch for maybe a half inch.  Stop needle down, and reposition the fabric.

Make sure you can see the edge of the under layer, because it curves away from the needle and if you're not careful you can sew right off its edge.  If you stitch with a hint of pink peeking out from under the yellow, you'll be fine.  Yes, this is slow going, but this is how you get a perfect seam.

The top layer will form ruffles behind the needle as you stitch around the curve.  Don't pull tight on the top layer as you hold it in position; if anything, ease just a bit of extra fabric into the curve as you sew.

After you get to the end of the seam, flip it over and check whether you have inadvertently sewed any pleats into the bottom layer of fabric that you couldn't see.  If you have, get your seam ripper and open the seam for a quarter inch on each side of the pleat.  This time sew with the "hill" side up so you can watch carefully as you ease the fabric under the needle and get it smooth this time.  It's important to fix any glitches before you press, while the fabric is at its most flexible.

Sometimes you'll sew curved edges together, press the seam, and it looks as though everything is perfect.  But when you flip back to the right side, you'll notice that the two edges didn't match perfectly. When you turn that curved seam over, run your fingernail along it from the downhill side to find any hidden pleats.

If you find one, don't worry -- it's very easily fixed.  Turn it back to the wrong side and notice that the iron has creased the fabric at exactly the right place to give you your perfect seamline.  Restitch the seam along the crease mark and the curve will look exactly as it did before, except the new stitching will have closed the pleat.

Looks great from the front, but....

....there's a huge gap at the end of the seam between black and  yellow.

Go back and stitch exactly on the crease line. 

You will note that all the curves in this post go in one direction only -- no S-curves or multiple-winding roads.  If you want to sew these more complex curves, you'll need a more precise method to make them lie perfectly flat; stay tuned for the next tutorial.

And then there will be more about pressing curved seams in a further installment of Quiltmaking 101.  Wait and read that before you take your seam to the ironing board.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- freehand and curved seams 1

The rotary cutter is a blessing for anybody wanting to make straight edges, a huge improvement over tracing around a template with a pencil and then cutting along the line with a scissors.  Rotary cutters, paired with rulers, make perfectly straight edges with very little work.

Although traditional quiltmakers have always worked with ruler-straight edges and seams in most block construction and when sewing blocks together, contemporary artists often prefer the looser look of freehand cutting.  You still use the rotary cutter and mat, but instead of lining your blade up against a ruler you cut without a guide.  Even when an edge/seam looks almost straight, you can see the artist's hand in a freehand line where you don't get that vibe from a ruler-cut line.

On the left, freehand straight lines; on the right, ruler-cut:

Can you see the difference?  It's subtle, especially if you're only looking at one block, but gives a different character to the finished quilt.

The problem with freehand cutting is friction.  In an ideal world, your fabric wouldn't be the least bit slippery and your rotary cutter would be so sharp and roll so smoothly that it would cut a clean edge without pulling at all on the fabric.  You would finish your cut with the two pieces of fabric exactly in their original places, so perfectly aligned that you would barely be able to see that they were cut at all.  In the real world, the blade catches just a bit and pushes or drags the fabric along with it a hair as it rolls along; you'll often see a bubble of fabric moving ahead of the blade as it cuts.  This is especially true if you are cutting two layers of fabric at the same time.

To prevent this, and to make sure that the cut goes exactly where you want it to, it's helpful to hold the fabric in place as you cut.  For short cuts, you just hold it down with your fingers (being careful, of course, not to cut yourself).  For longer cuts, anything over a foot, I like to hold the fabric in place with the plastic ruler, but keep the cutting line at least a quarter-inch away from the edge of the ruler.  That way you get the best of both worlds: the freedom of the freehand cut, where you can wobble or curve your line if you want, plus the ease of cutting fabric that stays where it's supposed to.

When you're joining almost-straight strips and blocks, you can pretty much just put them together and sew a straight seam; the fabric will have enough give to press flat. But as the seams get longer, or as you're joining long rows of blocks, or if your freehand cut had a bit of curve to it, you have to be a little more careful.  If you're not, you can end up with a hill or a valley or both, and even the most diligent pressing won't make them disappear.

Stay tuned for tips on how to sew not-straight pieces of fabric together and still have them come out perfectly flat.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Quiltmaking 101 -- batting cleanup

Several years ago I started a series of blog posts that I call Quiltmaking 101 -- tutorials on all the basics of machine-pieced quilts.  Early installments deal with how to use the rotary cutter, how to stitch seams and how to press.  Moving along through the production process, you can learn how to efficiently sew block-to-block quilts together, how to put the quilt sandwich together, and how to quilt it.  Finally, you can learn how to finish the quilt, with bindings or facings, and how to put a sleeve on for hanging.

I think that somebody who never saw a quilt before could probably learn 99 percent of what she needed to make one by following this series of tutorials.  If you want to read them, they're all right here.

But I realized recently, as I went back to check out one of the posts, that I had left some gaps in the instruction.  Most embarrassing, I realize that I never explicitly discussed freehand cutting -- the heart of improvisational quilting -- and how to sew together a quilt with curvy pieces.  So I am putting together a series of posts on piecing curves.  By that I mean both gently curved seams like these:

and more severe curves like these:

I'll be posting these new tutorials in the next couple of weeks.  Meanwhile, I invite you to look at the Quiltmaking 101 link above and tell me if there are other basic skills that you'd like to see additional tutorials on.