Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tips for a flatter straighter hanging quilt

Well, having seen my Dragon 1 hanging at Malvern I am not sure why anyone would ask me to write about this, but I am happy to share what I know and the suggestions I can offer. Personally I like to see a whole range of quilts in a show. Yes juried shows have their place, but I like working quilts, loved quilts, fast quilts and quilts of good intentions. They aren't always perfectly pieced, quilted and bound but they will still keep you warm, comfort you when you are ill and remind you of missing relatives. Quite often you can see that in the quilts when they are in a show and I enjoy that a lot. Also even the most humble quilt can inspire others, be it design wise or colour wise. That being said there are times when you really want to get your quilt as close as possible to perfect.

For pieced quilts perfection starts with the cutting and piecing. Planning the grain lines of the pieces within your quilt so they run in the same direction does help. Do I always do it? Nope, providing you are not cutting pieces on the bias if you can possibly avoid it. Try to work out how to get an accurate finished 1/4" seam (I guess that will be the subject for another post), and stick to it. One of the most common issues I see in quilt tops is variable seam widths. It may just mean you lose the points on things like stars, but at the extreme end of the problems the top will not like flat at all. I've seen seams that vary between not being sewn and over an inch, those I have to open up to get flat. If you are aiming for a show winning quilt this really won't work.

The next big pitfall is applying sashing and borders. If you've kept your seams consistent your blocks will all the the same, expected size. In the real world there will be small variations but you can compensate for this when you add sashings. If you cut your sashings to the correct length and fit them to the block the small variations in the blocks can be disguised. You do need to make sure that the ends of the sashing perfectly meets the corners of the block when you do this. I assemble all the blocks into rows before I add the horizontal sashings. I like to check the length of every row against the expected length before I even cut horizontal strips. Hopefully they will all be the same length and the length you were expecting. If they are all the same length as each other that's fine too. If you do find significant variations, it must be in the sashing seams, as the blocks were checked before we started, so start by checking your pressing. Is there a tuck next to any of the seams? If that isn't the issue look at the seams. You will be surprised how often you can spot one that is a tiny bit bigger or smaller than the rest just by looking at them Correcting those will get your rows the same length.

Once you have rows of the same (or very close) length you can cut your sashing that will go between the rows. Pin each into place making sure to match the ends and vertical sashings accurately. Press well once the quilt is together, it's not easy to do but it is very important to the finished quilt.  You can now start measuring for your borders.  The ideal is to measure the quilt in three places for each set of borders. Through the middle of the quilt and each edge that the first pair of borders will go in. You then add all 3 together and divide by 3 giving you the average. Personally I've found I can get away with measuring through the middle of the quilt. The edges are often a bit longer than they should be and if I make the border right for the middle of the quilt it will lie flat when I layer the quilt. For straight corners you can then cut the borders to this exact length. Please don't then add a bit just in case. I hear this so often and it makes the measuring pointless. The idea here is to keep things flat and that needs exact measurements. Just 1/4" on a small quilt can be a problem. If you are mitering the corners cut the border overlength by at least 2 widths of the border, and mark the exact length on it. Pin and sew this it exactly fit. When the first 2 opposite borders are on, press them in place and then measure up for the others two borders.

Hopefully you now have a flat quilt top. To keep it this way you want to keep the quilting balanced over the whole quilt. This isn't the same as keeping the quilting the same density all over. I like to have some texture in my quilting and I often leave some areas unquilted. If you are doing this the unquilted areas need to be spaced equally around the quilt. Equally if you want some very dense quilting bear in mind it will draw in the quilt. If you do this in just one place it is pretty certain you won't get the quilt flat again, but if you have a few carefully spaced dense areas, you should be able to get away with it.

However careful you are, I doubt the quilt will be perfectly square straight after quilting. The simplest option it to start out with oversize borders. When you have finished the quilting you can the trim the quilt to a perfectly regular shape (be it square or rectangular). This may or may not hang perfectly. If you really want to the quilt to hang absolutely flat you need to block the quilt. This is much the same process as blocking knitwear. You get the object damp and pin it into the shape it should be. My preferred method is to block the quilt before trimming it, and to pin it out while damp. Some people like to trim first then pin it to be square and then get it damp, but I feel I can manipulate it more when the quilt is wet. The problem comes in finding a large enough space to pin out a bed quilt especially in the UK. Our houses aren't generally built for the job, but there are a lot of large spaces you might be able to borrow or rent. Maybe you work in an office with a meeting room that isn't used over the weekend? maybe your local quilt shop would rent you their workshop, church halls and hotels may also be able to help you out. You will probably need your own surface to pin onto for any of these options. I've found the cheapest lightest option it polystyrene insulation board. I buy mine from Wicks and I think an 8'x2'x3" board is about 6 pounds. I now have 6 of these so I can pin out huge quilts but most of the time 2 or 3 is more than enough.While you are in a DIY shop you might want to have a look for either a two way laser level of a builders set square, either will help with squaring up the quilt when we get to that stage.

Once you have your space lay out your boards and place the damp quilt on them. If you can't get it wet before laying out (for example at the office) consider buying a water spray bottle which you can pressurise. They are sold for spraying weedkiller but they are great for spraying water and are easier on your hands that the normal plant mister. Start pinning at the centre of one side, putting in pins over about a third of the length of the side. Then do the same on the opposite side of the quilt pulling the quilt flat as you do so. Repeat on the other two sides. I then carry on working my way out from the centre of each side then the one opposite it. If you can get a friend to help you it is a lot easier. Another handy tip it is to push the pins in with the points angled slightly in towards the quilt, they will be less likely to be pulled out by the tension on the quilt as it dries.

Hopefully as you put the pins in you will see the quilt pulled flat and smooth. Once I have pins all the way around about 3" apart I then start checking how straight the sides are. This also gives me a chance to tighten up the pins as needed. This is easier to do with large square and straight rulers or the laser level with right angle lasers. If I can get two adjacent sides straight and at right angles to each other, I can then use them to give me something to line up the other sides. When I think I have it right I will usually go around and check again. If the quilt top cannot be trimmed up it is also worth measuring the diagonals of the quilt. They should both measure the same if you really have all the straight, the correct length and at 90 degrees to each other. If the quilt wasn't damp when you started now is the time to spray it with water and get is damp all over. You will probably see it tighten up and flatten more when you do this. I think it is a magical moment, but then I am a sad geek too :) Now the easy bit, walk away and let your quilt dry, it will take between 12 hours and 48 hours depending on the weather/heating/ventilation.

Unpin your quilt and either trim it, or if needed mark for trimming in the the same way as you pinned the quilt square for blocking. Once blocked and trimmed I try very hard to avoid folding the quilt. I roll the quilt onto a tube from the top down and right sides out. It will roll better before you bind it, so if there is a while before the show you might like to consider storing it without the binding and only adding that at the last moment. Try to roll the quilt tightly onto the roll and tie if firmly enough to be secure but not so tight as to crush the quilt. It's tricky to get this just right and I suspect I had it too loose when I rolled the dragon quilt to post. The best thing I have found for tying the quilt to the roll is selvedge or just a strip of fabric.

I hope that will help those of you who want flatter straighter quilts, and if you measure your borders and sashings you will make longarm quilter very much happier. Oversize borders are a complete nightmare for us when we have to try and make them look great. If you have questions, or think I've missed buts please do leave a comment and I will try and help if I can.


Rafael's Mum said...

Thanks so much for this extensive explanation Ferret! I did some of this, but some of it is totally new! (I do measure but don't block e.g.) and seeing it all explained is really helpful! Thanks for taking the time to do it.

Ferret said...

To be honest most of us don't have room to block quilts. While they look better if you can there is no point beating yourself up about it. If you get the rest right you will be fine.

When you do something odd though, like my very heavily quilted pieces you may have to block them. For example Greek Fossils has never been blocked and is fine, but Prometheus it's big brother really had to be.

Susan Briscoe said...

Very good post. I've never had the space to block quilts indoors, so I do it outdoors on a sheet over a tarpaulin - on the drive in Brymbo, will have to use the patio here (although I might be able to get just enough indoor space in the dining room for pieces under 5ft). On the drive I can't pin of course, but just being able to dampen the quilt and square it up gently helps. IMHO, densely machine quilted pieces need blocking more than handquilted quilts (especially if those have poly waddings).

Anonymous said...

Great instructions, Ferret.

I block my quilts on my office floor, using foam tiles to protect the floor. They're more comfortable to kneel on, too. I don't know if they're available in Britain, though.

And Susan, my quilts are hand quilted and seem to need the blocking just as much. I admit my last machine quilted project needed the blocking much more, though.