Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Zen of Machine Piecing

How do you complete your quilt tops so fast?  It's a question that I am often asked.  It's not a secret.  I'm not special.  It has nothing to do with the number of years I have been quilting.  It has to do with organizing your space for economy of motion and repeating the same step in your sewing process as often as possible, otherwise described as chain piecing.  

Currently I am working on a quilt designed by Bonnie Hunter called "Jared Takes A Wife".  The block is not complex, the components are broken down into easily achievable pieces.  It is definitely suitable for chain piecing, trimming and are most quilts that have a repeated block design. 

Getting organized:

I like to set up my machine in front of me with about 5 inches of space in front of the machine and the edge of the table, in that 5 inches I have the following:  A magnetic pin cushion sits to the right, directly in front and slightly to the right out of my sewing line... I place a small pair of scissors, a seam ripper and tweezers. (the tweezers do double time, I thread my needle with ease and they act as a stiletto when needed.)  To the left of my machine I have a rotating cutting mat, small rotary cutter, any rulers for the project and a inexpensive high intensity light that I purchased from IKEA several years ago.  This gives me a bright work light which I can adjust to light the area I need. (it was fun to hear Bonnie Hunter talk about her IKEA light on her quilt cam)  My chair is a desk chair on wheels and when I turn to the left of my machine I have my ironing board right there with my iron.  Economy of motion, no jumping up and down to run to the iron and press, no jumping up and down to run to the cutting mat...everything is within arms reach.

Fabric Selection:

First things first, get all your fabrics selected for your project.  I am shopping from my stash for this quilt, some of these will end up in the quilt, some will not.  I like to just pull everything in the color range that I want and then start paring down from there.  If you are at the fabric shop, do the same thing.  Pull all the bolts that you think you like and then pare down from there.  Shopping online? Save a copy of the fabric photo to a folder on your desktop, then pare down to exactly what you want for your project.

Neutrals don't have to be plain, they just need to read that way from across the room.  Neutrals can be any color, they are the area of the quilt that serves to gives your eye a rest.   I love fabric printed with script and have a variety in my stash.  They will work fine for this quilt.


Get your pattern out, read through it carefully. (just like baking a cake, make sure you have a clear understanding of where you are going and what you need)  Get your fabric cut according to the pattern instructions.  I like to use zip lock bags in a variety of sizes to store my pieces.  This way, I'm not scrambling through a pile on my table to find what I am working on.


Okay, here we go! Most quilt patterns will break your block down into components.  For simplicity we will use this block below as an example. You can see that there is a four patch in each corner...that means I need 4 four patch components to make this block.  Then, each four patch has been sashed, I need to do that four times for this block, then there are 8 pieces that make up the points of the star and finally a center block.  Whew, I'm exhausted just thinking about it.  Well, if you break this down and repeat the same component until you have enough for all your blocks, it goes really fast.  Your mind is not flip flopping about what is next, you are in the Zen of the moment, repeating the same movement over and over.  It can be incredibly relaxing and you can solve some of the great world problems while your machine is humming away! Really!  And if you toss something in the crock pot before you start, you will have dinner sorted as well!


My quilt top looks scrappy, how did I do that?  First I cut strips of my fabric selections.  Stitch a random strip of neutral to a random strip of red, then cut them into the required 2 inch pieces.  Toss them in a basket and pull out a piece that doesn't match the one you have in your hand...pretty simple.  I needed 120 four patch blocks.  This diagram is from Bonnie Hunter's and perfectly illustrates this method.

Now you could cut 480 - 2" squares and then sew them all together to make your four patch blocks, but you might be at the machine a while and who wants to cut out tiny 2" squares by the gazillions?  

When you are making multiple blocks that are the same in design you can repeat sub components to speed up your piecing time.  

According to the pattern, I now had to sash all 120 of those four patch blocks.  I short cut this sewing a wide strip of the sashing fabric to a strip of the corner stone fabric, I could then cut strips that were already pieced for that one side of the block.  Just like in tutorial for the drop shadow quilt block...

Same technique gives you the cornerstone already stitched in place.  To sew this part of the component quickly.  I took a strip of fabric and just stitched my four patch blocks right to it, cut them apart and then stitch on the piece with the cornerstone already attached.

Mark all of your diagonal stitching lines at the same time...yeah, it's a lot of marking.  Put a quilt show on your Ipad and let it play while you are marking them all.  We don't want to have to stop while we are sewing to mark the next piece.  I use a fine tip permanent marker, it gets trimmed off so I don't care.  You can use whatever you want, just make sure it doesn't bleed into your fabric.

Chain piecing is what speeds things not cut your thread, just put the next piece right up there and keep stitching.

This accomplishes several things.  #1. you are not wasting thread  #2.  you will not have to load your bobbin as often  #3.  you will not have to expend brain power to contemplate your next move.
You are in that Zen moment of nothingness!  Just sewing the next piece, then the next piece, then the next piece...all the same.  Pretty soon you will end up with a pile out the back of your machine that looks like this...

Don't freak out!  They are all stitched together, nothing will get lost and now you can practice the Zen of clipping all those bits apart.

Isn't this awesome!  Snip, Snip, Snip and you have an amazing pile!  Yes, YOU DID ALL THAT!  And it was quick wasn't it?

Okay Grasshopper, now we trim.  All of them, all at once, the same motion, repeated over and over.

Save those can use those in another project, or you can toss them...These are tiny, I probably wouldn't stitch them, but I will use a glue stick and paste them onto card stock for some pretty Quilty looking note cards!  (do you like my Antique ruler?  How long ago do you think they stopped using Garfield 1-1112?)

Yes, you know what is next Grasshopper...the Zen of ironing...

Repeating the same motion over and over gives you the speed.  Do all the same process, all at the same time.  What a lovely stack of finished components!

Again, we are finishing up this component, matching the two sides and chain piecing them just like we did above.

Now it's like a deck of cards, just deal out the components for the block from your prepared stacks.  

Add the sashed four patch blocks and a solid center.  Done!

And that Grasshopper, is how the Elephant was eaten.

No comments:

Post a Comment