Monday, April 15, 2013

How to Pin an American Quilt

Some of you folks out there who are not practiced in the fiber arts may have said to yourself, of a sleepless nights, "I wonder how the three layers of a quilt get put together."  It's not likely, of course, but it's theoretically possible.  While those of you who know the craft may have some curiosity, or a polite simulacrum thereof, about how I, Michael5000, handle that part of the quilt-makin' process.  Well, I'll tell you.

The first thing you do is put the back side of the quilt face down on the bedroom floor.  Why the bedroom?  Because it's the only room in the house with carpeting.  If it's an adult-sized blanket, as in our example, the bed needs to be partially disassembled to make this happen, which is as good a reason as any to continue sleeping in the ancient futon of my college days.

The back, in this case, is two lengths of fabric sewn together (or, looked at another way, a length of fabric cut in half lengthwise and sewn back together widthwise).  Sometimes backs are just a single piece of fabric, and sometimes they are more complicated.  It doesn't really affect this process.

After spending a minute or two making sure that the back is as squared-up as possible, we're going to stretch it taut on the floor.  We'll hold it in place with these hefty T-pins, which we'll drive right into the carpet.  You were wondering about why the carpet was important, weren't you.  Now you know.

After we've gone all around the perimeter, the back should be relatively taut against the floor.  The next step is to lay out the middle part of the quilt sandwich, the batting.  "Batting" is the stuff in the middle that you can't see, but which keeps you warm on a long winter night.  Often I use old blankets, crappy old commercial quilts, or other salvage material for my batting, but since the current project is relatively high end (a present for my mom) I'm using a commercial batting.

This particular batting is a 50/50 cotton/bamboo blend, which is kind of cool (cotton, the fiber that I so love, is something of an environmentalist's nightmare in its modern production, whereas a lot of bamboos just shoot out of the ground unprompted with frightening speed and vigor).  I took it out of its bag to "breathe" about an hour before the picture was taken, and I'll spend the next few minutes smoothing out the wrinkles.

Then it's time for the top, or face, to make its appearance.

Am I going to pull the batting and the top taut, like I did with the back?  No, and for two reasons.  First of all, the batting is kind of like felt in its makeup, and if you tried to pull it taut it would just rip apart.  Secondly, when we unpin the back at the end of this process, it's going to contract a little bit.  Since they'll be attached by then, it will cinch the face in with it, making the display surface slightly rumply.  We actually want that.  Having the face be slightly slack relative to the back will give the display side of the quilt more visible texture after we've sewed this whole sandwich together.

On the other hand, you don't want to be sloppy or you will suffer the heartbreak of "pucker" -- folds of fabric caught unattractively within stitches -- when you are sewing.  To avoid that, we'll spend quite a bit of time at this point basically petting the face outward from the center, making sure that the two free layers are evenly spread, free of wrinkles, and squared up relative to each other and to the back underneath them.

Then comes the pinning.  This whole process is I'm talking about is called pinning, in fact.  We've got the three layers centered on each other just the way we want them, so we're going to put in about a zillion pins to make sure they stay that way until we get them quilted -- quilting being, of course, sewing lines of stitches that penetrate all three layers and thus hold the piece together more or less permanently.

I'm using safety pins here.  One of the great humiliations of my career in the needle arts is that for YEARS and YEARS safety pins did not occur to me, and I used regular straight pins while pinning.  This made the process go a little faster, but had two appreciable disadvantages: (1) they fell out by the dozen, and (2) for the rest of the quilting process, your hands were progressively torn to ribbons by the hundreds of sharp sharp pins.

The first pin goes in the exact center.  Then you make a line of pins lengthwise down the quilt, and a second line of pins widthwise across the quilt, quartering it, always working outward from the center.  After that, you pin out each quarter in turn, still always working from the center outwards.  Why do it this way?  Because it's how my mom told me to do it, damn it.  But I think the idea and the reality is, this is the best way to keep the quilt squared up (really rectangled up, usually) while you're doing the pinning.

This process takes a long time, plus you'll need to take breaks to rest your knees, so it's good to have some sort of recorded or filmed entertainment at hand.  The more seriously you're taking the quilt, too, the greater the density of pins you are going to use, and more pins means more time.    I watched The Seven Samurai while pinning out an especially large quilt, to give you an idea.

Working on a quilt consists of endless repetitive tasks punctuated by a small handful of lovely "ta da!" moments, of which taking a quilt up after its pinning is one of the best.  The back and batting should both have been somewhat larger than the face to avoid unpleasant mishaps, but now that your three layers are together for the long haul you can trim the back and batting away at roughly an inch from the edge of the face.  Me, I cut the quilt out right on the floor, before I take out the T-pins.  This is a satisfying moment because where you walked into the room with a boring back, a very boring piece of batting, and a fragile and unfinished-looking face, you now basically have a quilt.  True, it's not actually quilted yet, but it is starting to look like what it will become and can even be given a little modest use as a proto-blanket, if you're careful.

Since the three layers are now giving each other mutual support, it's already a much sturdier item than any of the three parts were when you started.  As you get ready for the next step you can just wad that sucker up and throw it on your sewing table.  The pins will take care of business until you get the actual quilting in.

And that's how blankets are put together.  Or at least, that's how I do it.  Other quilters, and industrial blanket manufacturers, probably have their own tricks.

1 comment:

gl. said...

i like learning about the process: it sounds exacting. i'm glad you have the temperament for it!