Quilty pleasures

Someone needs to iron before he photographs …

What seems like a billion years ago, I decided out of thin air that I was going to make a quilt. The quilt above, to be exact.

Well, not really out of thin air; I saw one like it in a catalog — Pottery Barn, probably? — and thought that the price they were asking seemed insane.

I’m still puzzled by what made me think I was the person for such a project. For starters, I’m not a fan of craft-y homemade things (unless they’re food products). Even more of an obstacle: My sewing “experience” was limited to replacing the occasional button, which always left the undersides of the plackets looking like brambles of thread, not tidy rows or layers of stitches.

The “easy” part: I measured the dimensions of a flat sheet, then calculated how wide and long the “falling” parallelogram blocks needed to be so the quilt would end on all sides with entire pieces instead of fragments: 12 rows, 19 blocks long. To be safe, I gridded out the pattern using cut-up sheets from a yellow legal pad and laid out all the pieces on my living room floor.

“You know you have to leave a seam allowance, right?” my friend CJ said while I was bragging about my calculation abilities. “It’s a basic rule of sewing: You don’t sew pieces literally end to end, you have to leave a small amount of fabric on each piece so the thread has something to hold on to. That’s the seam allowance.”


“No, it’s easy,” she said, seeing my crestfallen face. “You’ve already figured out the size the finished pieces should be, so just add an extra X amount on each side, and then when you’re piecing them together, make sure you keep the seam at that distance away from the edge of the fabric.”

What else didn’t I know? I decided to take my case to the professionals — the ladies of The Quilter’s Ranch, a store that occupied the space next door to our office in Tempe.

It was an odd juxtaposition of workplaces, for sure: Our coterie of culture-obsessed 20- and 30-year-olds putting out a weekly entertainment magazine, one door away from a shop that attracted women of a certain age, who flocked to the fabric and peered at the patterns. “What are they doing in there all day long?” we wondered aloud, and I have no doubt that they debated the same thing about us.

So I wandered in to the store one afternoon clutching my inspiration photo, my paper templates and a whole lot of nothing else. That’s where and when I learned that I should wash and dry the fabric a few times before it was cut (to make sure that shrinkage wouldn’t mess up the size of the pieces down the road), and that it would be better if all the materials used were of the same type (like cotton) to prevent different rates of growth/stretch/shrink down the road.

And just when I thought I knew everything I’d need to get started, the friendly associate tossed in a reminder to “make sure you cut the pieces along the same grain.”  (I’ll let Janet Wickell of About.com explain in more detail WTF that means, but suffice to say that cutting in different directions affect a fabric’s stretchability and sturdiness.)

Fabrics were washed, dried, ironed and finally ready to be cut into pieces. I traced my (resized) yellow legal-pad sheets onto sandpaper, then snipped out pieces to be used as master patterns when cutting fabric — the grit helped the sandpaper hold to the fabric, so my Man Hands didn’t need to bother and fail with pins. Oh, one more thing: I don’t own a sewing machine.

Here’s how dumb I still was: I didn’t think it would be a big deal to join together 228 pieces of fabric using just a needle and thread. “Each strip is only like 4 inches across!” I said. “How long could it take?”

Pardon my language, but fucking forever is how long it could take.

For weeks, every night after work I’d sit on the couch and stitch together the pieces that would become the “tumbling” rows. Those quilting grannies must have superhero thumbs, because no thimble on earth protected mine from the grief and soreness and blood blisters incurred by shoving a needle through two layers of fabric over and over and over and over again. I persevered until one day I was finally the proud creator of a dozen rows of blocks, 19 units long.

That’s when I realized that everything I had done so far constituted only about 1/3 of the required work . Yes, I had sewed together the (shorter) edges of the tumbling blocks, but now every (longer) edge needed to be connected to the diamonds of ticking-stripe material that would be positioned between the rows. Then the finished top would be attached on three sides to the material that would constitute the quilt’s bottom side, then the batting (the puffy stuff inside) could be added and tacked down, and then the fourth side could finally be stitched shut.

I was so mad and frustrated that I threw the pieces in my hall closet and left them there. For two years.

Any time I needed to grab a jacket, the vacuum, cleaning supplies or anything from the “junk box,” I’d have to confront the fabric scraps languishing and gathering dust in their crate, giving me the Unfinished Evil Eye. I tried to ignore them, burying them under tear sheets, but I always knew they were there. I wouldn’t use the front door of the office, in case the Quilter’s Ranch lady saw me and asked how it was going.

Eventually, forces conspired to get me to pick up where I left off: I had a week of vacation to use within the month or it would be forfeited … but I didn’t have money for any trips, so I’d be spending it at home. I’d also broken up with Trainer Brian by then, which meant I was living at Garden Place full time and seeing my possessions more often — including the ones that nagged me about unfinished business.

I begged CJ to show me how to use her sewing machine, and she agreed to let me borrow it for a week. My living room felt like a sweatshop, the amount of time I spent hunched over the humming machine. By the time I fastened together the final two pieces of the pattern, I was over this experience.

Here’s what conscientious quilters would do to finish their masterpiece: sew the top and bottom together on three sides while the pieces faced each other, then turn the quilt right-side out, add the batting, tack it down in regularly spaced intervals, then do some amazing inside-facing “blind stitchon the only remaining open side, so a minimal amount of thread is visible.

Here’s what I did: stacked the three layers together sandwich-style and blew through them in a single pass on the outside, because I really, really needed to finish it before I decided that it would be better to just set it on fire, with myself wrapped inside. (Also, I wasn’t going to enter it in a quilt perfection contest.)

Then I folded it up and put it away because I was afraid I’d spill something on it, which would require me to wash it, and I was freaked out about that. I still am, in fact, because while I’d like to think it would hold up through a wash cycle with minimal fraying, I can’t forget the amateur hands and stitches that assembled it, and I really, really don’t want to have to go back and do more work on it ever again.

A funny thing: The pattern is a variation of a fairly common one called “Tumbling Blocks” but because I have always, always looked at mine from a strictly vertical perspective — maybe since I sewed it that way? — all that’s ever been visible to me has been falling rows of colored diamonds, such as what you see in the photo right above here.

So when I’d search “tumbling blocks” and the patterns seemed to show 3D-style stepping stones of squares like the design at right (click on thumbnail to see bigger), I’d think, “That doesn’t look anything like mine.”

Tonight when I loaded the top photo into this post, I suddenly saw the squares … and that if I had reversed the orange and red squares, the light/shadow effect would have been evenly applied across the board. Aaargh — so close!

But I’m not going to kick myself about it, because whenever I look at the actual quilt, only the diamonds are readily visible to me. The only way I can see the squares is to turn my head 90 degrees and slightly unfocus my eyes. Maybe it’s my brain’s way of keeping me happy with the work I did.

So, that Pottery Barn quilt? I don’t believe it was pieced and assembled by hand, but if it was, totally worth every cent. And I developed newfound respect for the people who created pieces like the hexagonal-patterned one entirely by hand — the electric sewing machine wasn’t introduced until 1889. Two incredibly sore thumbs-up to you, pioneers.

WHAT SAM WORE: 1-24-12
The shirt: “South Austin Cock Fight” T-shirt, a gift from my friend (and Austin resident) Sharyn,
over a ¾-sleeve waffle-weave T-shirt, on clearance at Uniqlo, New York.
The pants: Jeans by William Rast for Target.
The shoes: “Top Winner” sneakers by Puma, from the Puma store in New York.

4 responses to “Quilty pleasures

  1. OMG, I have bags of yarns, paper strips, laces, felting tools, knitting needles, needlepoint hiding in every corner of my 900 sf apartment! Hoorah to you Sam for finishing that. I don’t think it’s enough to inspire me though.

  2. You totally could have asked me for sewing assistance at any time. If you decide to make another one, well, you know where I am….

  3. That is a thing of beauty. I have an unfinished quilt that my mother worked on and she has been gone for twenty years. This didnt make me want to finish it tho-Im giving it to Goodwill so someone else can work on it or keep it in their closet for decades.

    • Sam Mittelsteadt

      You really do have to WANT to work on something like this, or it just feels like so much fresh hell every day. I remember watching an episode of “Project Runway” where Jack took off his pants to disassemble them and make his own pair for a challenge, and I thought: “Jeez, I could totally do that” … and then the memory of what it took to finish the quilt came flooding back and I thought, “Um, maybe not right now.”

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