Saturday, December 27, 2008

101 Fabulous Fat-Quarter Bags: A book review

I have been eyeing this book, 101 Fabulous Fat-Quarter Bags with M'Liss Rae Hawley: 10 Projects for Totes & Purses, ever since the author, M'Liss Rae Hawley, came to our local Joann store and promoted it. At the time, it was still a few weeks away from publication/release. It is now available. When she introduced the book, she also had some of the bags that appear in the book. It looks like it will be worth getting. The bags were gorgeous! I'll have to let you know what I think of it when I get my copy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I won a blog award!

My friend over at named me for an award for my blog! As part of the honor, I am supposed to nominate seven others. So, here goes! Can you nominate your children? My ten-year-old daughter’s blog is really interesting, and pretty funny at times. She discusses her adventures in sewing. Even though she’s mine, I am impressed at the idea of a ten-year-old possessing her level of maturity and ability to maintain this, as well as to do the projects which are mentioned on the blog. I am always so motivated when I read her blog. She does incredible work with lots of young people, and maintains a life with her husband and children, and is writing a dissertation at the same time. Can you say Superwoman! My friend is absolutely amazing. She and her husband gave birth to four, and adopted 11 more! The two oldest have started families of their own, so she has 4 grandchildren as well, who are around the same age as her youngest children. Another Superwoman! Another incredible friend, with a number of children (biological and adopted). When I read her blog, it makes me tired :), and it really makes me feel inadequate. I’m gonna have to change my friends before I develop a complex! She has a GREAT blog about the history of quilting. My blog has a number of posts which discuss quilting history, but hers is dedicated almost solely to the topic. While she certainly needs no promo from me, I still have to mention her site here, because it is beautiful, and pix of her sewing studio have been an inspiration to me! Her site has, more than many others, shown me the power of someone who has many interests, and is able to display them through beautiful photos. Her blog says to me that I can do it, too.

Well, I have to stop at 7, so that’s the end of the list. I should do something like this again, because there are many more blogs that are worth mentioning here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The myth of quilt codes and the Underground Railroad

I have put off this post for far too long.

In 1999, a book was published which rocked the quilting world. In it, a very startling claim was made: Quilts had been used on the Underground Railroad to transmit hidden messages. A quilt hung on a clothesline in a particular way or with certain quilt block patterns and colors could signify a "safehouse," or a place where a runaway slave could be assured of safety on her flight to freedom. The story was told to a researcher as she traveled throughout the South; the person making the claim was an older woman, trying to sell her quilts.

Unfortunately, much as we'd like to believe it, there is no truth in this story.

When evaluating whether or not a particular claim has truth, it has to meet certain parameters, such as, more than one primary or original source must make the claim. Namely, if this story had any truth at all, then at least one or two sources from pre-Civil war times would have made the same claim. The problem is, there are none. There is not one journal kept during this time, or one slave that lived during this time, that affirms the story of quilt codes. There was an extensive project performed during the 1930s known as the Federal Writers' Project in which the last living former slaves were interviewed, and they talked about their lives during slavery. If there was such a thing as a quilt code, then at least one of the 2,300 interviews would have made mention of it. Not one person even hinted at this. Even Harriet Tubman's biography, which made mention of the Underground Railroad, never mentioned these quilts.

The researcher at least had the presence of mind to question the quilt vendor about the total absence of evidence of a quilt code. The quilt vendor stated that, the quilt code was so secret, that conductors on the Underground Railroad, as well as the slaves who used it, were sworn to secrecy, and thus never mentioned it. Of course, since slavery ended with the Civil War, it makes sense that at least someone would have said something from 1865 until the 1990s, but again, there was never a mention of any quilt codes.

Another issue which shoots even more holes in the quilt code story is the fact that many of the quilt blocks that were allegedly a part of the quilt code were not even invented, or at least named, until after the Civil War. For example, a noted quilt historian has found no evidence that the Log Cabin quilt block existed, and existed by this name, before the Civil War. Another problematic block is the Wedding Ring. Again, this pattern was not in existence before the 20th century. Other quilt block patterns are similarly problematic.

The worst part of all is the fact that several books have been written based on this fabricated tale. All of these books point to this erroneous source and perhaps one other earlier source, equally erroneous. There has never been any indication that the quilt code is anything more than wishful thinking. It is a comforting thought, to take the ugliness of slavery and wrap it in a fanciful tale of quilts being used to guide slaves on their way to freedom. However, there is simply not one shred of evidence to support this notion.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Quilter's Apprentice, Elm Creek Quilts: A book review

There are times when I find myself wanting to take a break from the normal routine of life--the duties and responsibilities, even the recreational activities, like quilting. (Horrors.) At these times, I am on the hunt for good reading material--substantive, yet not too heavy. I stumbled across a series of books quite by chance, with stories written loosely around quilting, but focusing more on relationships and the common occurrences of everyday life. The books I found were the Elm Creek Quilts series.

The first book in the series, The Quilter's Apprentice: An Elm Creek Quilts Novel (Elm Creek Quilts), introduces the reader to what will most likely be a recurring cast of characters. There is Sarah, the young woman who moves with her husband to a small town where he has been offered full-time, permanent employment. As she is unable to find a job, she begins to work in the home of the crotchety old woman for whom Sarah's husband Matt is performing landscaping services. While the relationship begins somewhat awkwardly, Sarah and the older woman, Mrs. Compson, eventually become friends.

Without giving the plot away entirely, I will merely state that the characters, while a bit trite at times, serve to remind us of our own human frailties and challenges--broken relationships, disappointments, guilt, aging, death, failure, hope, strength, joy, and reconciliation, just to name a few. Portions of the story are told in flashbacks and reminiscences, with characters reflecting dreamily or bitterly on earlier days and past occurrences. We see a detailed character development with Sarah, Matt, and Mrs. Compson; other characters are not quite as developed, but will probably be in later books in the series.

A word of caution: The author makes mention of a quilt which was used during slavery to signify a "safe" house on the Underground Railroad. There is no historical evidence that such quilts and quilt codes existed. Unfortunately, not long before this book was published, another book was published which made the unsubstantiated claim that quilts were used to transmit messages on the Underground Railroad. An entire movement was spawned, based on this ONE book with its incredibly faulty research. Essentially, a woman trying to sell her wares in a market relayed this quilt code story to an author, but then refused to repeat it later. Nothing else--not even firsthand accounts of slaves--has ever made this outrageous claim, in all of history.


Quilters will find themselves enjoying the quilting process detailed in the book, as we journey with Sarah through her beginning quilting lessons and trials. I laughed at the ever present hand-pieced vs. machine-pieced, hand-quilted vs. machine-quilted debate waged cheerfully in the pages of the Quilter's Apprentice. Also to be appreciated are the stories that are told with every quilt, and how they, or the fabrics of which they are comprised, are significant to their owners or recipients. I'll bet you, like I, recognized the description of the Lone Star pattern in the very beginning of the book long before the pattern was mentioned by name.

If you are looking for high quality or serious reading material, this series is probably not for you. But if you are looking for a lighthearted, heartwarming, enjoyable read, with quilting as a central, recurring theme, then this series is for you. I think you will laugh and cry right along with the characters in the book.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Long arm quilting machine rental

I had an opportunity recently to quilt on a long arm quilting machine. For the uninitiated, a long arm quilting machine is an oversized sewing machine of sorts that is made for the express purpose of quilting quilts. It takes a process that can easily takes months by hand, or even several days on a regular sewing machine, and reduces the time to perhaps even as little as one hour. It has REVOLUTIONIZED quilting!

Frequently, you will find an individual or a business (such as a local quilt shop) which offers long arm quilting services. You take or send your finished quilt top to the person, along with your backing fabric, and after a period of time, your finished quilt is returned to you. The exact details differ from service to service, and according to what you would like to have done, but generally, you will then finish and bind the edges yourself.

This method has a couple of drawbacks. First of all, it is not inexpensive. If you have already invested quite a bit of resources in the fabric, thread, batting, pattern, tools, etc., then it is not easy to give a long arm quilter another large sum of money. It could cost as much to have the quilt quilted as it did to purchase all of the materials. Or perhaps more. The second drawback is that it takes a long time. My LQS has a wait time of four months! Most have a six-week turnaround time. Another drawback, if it could be called such, is that part of your quilt will not be completed by you.

Another option, although it is much harder to find, is that of renting time on a long arm quilting machine. All rental services are different, of course, but generally speaking, you are introduced to the machine, and then you use it to quilt your quilts for a designated period of time. The only drawback in my opinion is that you are not an expert, so you quilts may not turn out perfectly. But the advantages far outweigh this, in my opinion. For a two-hour rental, I completed two quilt tops, and it cost me less than it would have to send one quilt top to a long arm quilter to have it done for me. And I completed it in less than three weeks!

Personally, I am quite pleased; I will be doing this again.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Charity quilts: December 2008

To update the most recent blog entry, I have completed six charity quilts (as can be seen in the picture) since my last count, which was two to three weeks ago. I had hoped to complete more, but I don’t think that six quilts in two to three weeks is too shabby…

The two quilts on top of the stack–the pink-striped one and the purple one–were made from fabric that I purchased at clearance sales. The first one, the pink and brown one, is two coordinating pieces of fleece that I simply stitched together with a 1.5 inch seam and a decorative stitch around the perimeter of the quilt. Because fleece does not ravel, I did not have to worry about concealing or finishing the raw edges. I took one stitch in the middle to secure them. The photo above shows two different corners of the quilt–the front or the quilt top, which is pink striped, and the backing, which is brown.

The second quilt, the purple one, was made from pre-quilted fabric. I made the multi-colored binding that is used on the edge of the quilt. This is not a difficult process; there are several good tutorials on the Internet as to how to make your own binding. To summarize it here, I cut 2.5 inch strips of fabric, and stitched them together into one long strip. I took this strip and pressed it in half lengthwise, so it became a strip that was now doubled and 1.25 inches in width. I opened it up and pressed the raw edges in toward the center fold, so it was a strip of fabric four layers thick that was roughly .6 inches in width, with no raw edges exposed. I then stitched this binding to the quilt. Pretty, n’est-ce pas?

The other four quilts were made of donated fabric. This one was two cuts of fabric; one was a cotton blend blue and purple print, and the other was a pre-quilted grey fabric of a nylon, rip-stop nature. Since the side opposite the gray was unfinished, I sewed the patterned fabric to it. For this quilt, I used the pillowcase method. In essence, I sewed the fabrics right sides together, and left an opening. I then turned the quilt right side out through the opening, and stitched the opening closed.

This quilt was made of pre-quilted fabric. It only needed a binding. So I took donated satin blanket binding and used the process mentioned above to achieve the four-layer binding. I stitched this on.

These four quilts were made from single lengths of fabric. They are therefore known as whole cloth quilts, for fairly obvious reasons. The last two quilts on the bottom of the stack are made from pieces of donated hotel-quality bedspreads, so they are pieced or patchwork quilts.

I think they turned out great!
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