Back to Basics

Home sewing, it would seem, is enjoying a revival lately. I’m not sure if it’s because of the economy or simply because of a desire to have more control over clothing and home decor selection, but I am happy to see people coming to the hobby. For too many years, it was stagnant and didn’t experience growth. Nor did it attract the younger crowd, but my personal experience says that’s changing rapidly.

Of course, along with the influx of new people to the hobby comes questions – lots and lots of questions.

Should I take a sewing class?

What sort of needle should I use for … ?

What is the difference among available fabrics?

Are there any good reference books available?

I am by no means an expert – I just have several years of sewing experience under my belt, and several more years growing up with an accomplished seamstress. My mother made nearly all our clothing, save undergarments and jeans, and even though I didn’t care much for “homemade” clothing back then, I would give anything to have that sort of wardrobe now. Unique, one of a kind garments – even though they were made with mass-produced patterns. *sigh* Oh the luxury of it all!

I never really got into fashion sewing, although I can do it, and do it fairly well. I am much more a quilter … a fabric artist, not a fashion designer (there is a difference). But I have a very good foundation in the basics, and I thought that information may be helpful to others who are learning. I can’t relay everything I know in one post, but I can spread it out over the coming weeks and share things that I think others may find beneficial. Let’s start with sewing machine selection.

Sewing machine selection (Which machine should I buy?) is a common question I see and am asked by others who know I sew. The truth is, that question can only be answered by the person who will be using the machine, but I am a fan of the idea that less is more when it comes to those who are just starting out. Despite what folks believe, Brother makes a very good low end sewing machine, and they are fine for the beginning or intermediate sewer who is looking for basically three things – a straight stitch, a zig zag stitch and a button hole. Honestly, in the wide world of sewing, these are the things people use the most often. That’s why so many quilters favor the old Singer Featherweights – quilts are comprised almost exclusively of straight stitches, and a Featherweight does that very well. For a fashion sewer, the zig zag and button hole are musts. Anything beyond that – any other stitches – are just gravy. They’re mostly “decorative” stitches, though I rarely see them used on garments. It’s really nice to have a blind hem and elastic stitch, but they are not a must in most cases. And unless you’re going to buy a Featherweight, most low end machines these days include both of those stitches.

So where does that leave the new sewer, eager to purchase their first machine? There are a wide range of low end machines out there (I consider “low end” to be below $500) – and the only machine I would avoid is, sadly, a Singer. Unfortunately, it seems that Singer’s quality has deteriorated in the last several years, and they really are not the machines they once were. Skip them and go for a Brother or White – good entry level machines that are readily avialable at WalMart, Target and Sears. Kenmore is also a very good beginning machine. If you have more money to spend (up to $1,000), you may consider a Brother, Baby Lock, Viking or any number of machines that are available in that price range. But unless you know for a fact that you’ll be using the machine a lot, I recommend the WalMart/Target/Sears variety for beginners. If, a couple years after your first purchase, you realize that you want or need a more robust machine, it’s relatively easy to upgrade, but if you buy a new machine and it sits in the box, that’s just money wasted. Make sure you’re going to use it before investing several hundreds (or thousands) in a machine!

As for the machine I use, it is a very wonderful Brother PC 8500. It is an older machine – I think I’ve had it for years now – I’m guessing maybe eight? WONDERFUL machine! I love it, obviously. It is a sewing/embroidery combination that I bought used. Of course, I purchased it through a reputable dealer who had taken it in on a trade, and I would buy another used machine in a heartbeat. It’s a great way to get a good machine at a decent price.

Next time, we’ll talk about reference materials. 🙂

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Playing with Quilt Designs

One of my favorite things about quilting is that two people can take the same pattern and come up with completely different looks, either through choice of fabric or by the way they set, or lay out, the blocks. It’s the interpretation of a particular pattern, or block, that makes it unique. It’s what gives the quilt character, and what reflects the personality of the person who made it. Unfortunately, it’s also the one place that so many people seem to fail at quilting.

I cannot count the number of times that someone has said to me, “I had this great idea, or at least, I thought it was a great idea, but when I actually tried it … well, it didn’t come out the way I thought it would.” Boy, do I know that feeling! Almost every quilter has experienced it, or will experience it, at some point. It’s inevitable, when one starts to depart somewhat from using patterns and begins to venture off into that brave and wonderful world of design. There’s usually a process that takes place as a quilter begins to venture into the wide world of design …

The first phase is the ‘easy’ quilt – the one that’s just a few block sewn together, or maybe a pieced block that doesn’t need a fancy setting. This is simple, and most quilters can do this without a lot of trouble and almost no assistance.

The second phase happens when the quilter realizes that the design she has in mind is slightly more complicated. Out come the graph paper and colored pencils, and a slightly more complicated, but still fairly simple idea is turned into reality. A quilter might find herself surrounded by crumpled sheets of graph paper, but in the end, she figures out her design and finds success in this method.

The third phase – or as I like to call it, The Beginning of the End – occurs when the design is far too complex to easily render on graph paper, or when it has so many lay out options that the colored pencil method is no longer practical. Enter Electric Quilt.

Electric Quilt is this great program that’s been in production for probably 15 years or so – it’s long been used by people around the world who want the flexibility of changing things in their design without having to worry about causing eraser holes in their graph paper. But the truth is, the learning curve is not insignificant, at least, not up through version 5.0. That’s the version I have, and I won’t lie – I have had it for about five years, but I’ve used it little, until recently.

Confession: I love computers, software, gadgets – anything that can be considered electronics. So when I heard that there was a new version of Electric Quilt, I decided immediately I wanted it. I can’t really tell you why, except that it seemed really cool and I wanted it. Then reality set in and I thought, It’s crazy to spend that much money on a program that I don’t even know how to use and have put little effort into learning. Not one to be deterred by such minor facts, I pulled out my copy of EQ, installed it on my new computer (after making sure it was gone from the old one), and set about learning to use it. You see, I won’t be beaten by something as minor as not knowing the software.

Over the last several days I’ve had the opportunity to play with it, extensively, and I keep asking myself one question …

WHY DIDN’T I DECIDE TO FIGURE THIS OUT BEFORE NOW?!?

It’s still quite daunting, learning to use this program, but all in all, I am loving it. I designed a quilt block in the colors I wanted to use, then “set” the block in the predetermined layout that EQ offered. I could turn the blocks however I wanted them turned, I could add or remove borders, I could change colors throughout the quilt in a single click … I am, in short, addicted to EQ.

But I’m still not ready to upgrade just yet. Instead, I fully intend to attempt to purchase as many of the “stash” collections as possible, which will allow me to choose actual fabrics from a wide variety of designers. Fortunately, it will work with either 5.0 or 6.0, so when I upgrade EQ I won’t lose the stash. Two stash collections are produced twice a year – once in the spring and once in the fall, at a suggested price of just $25 each. Yeah, I think I can swing that!

My first trial was a log cabin block in black and tan … I have set the blocks in a large, king sized quilt in a variety of ways, giving me and my husband the chance to look at them all and consider many different looks. It’s much easier than trying to visualize or verbally convey an idea before even having the fabric in hand.

One thing I haven’t figured out yet is how to export my designs to a picture form. When I do, however, I will be sure to post the different variations for folks to see … I’d like to hear what people think about the choices we have!

Irritated with myself

I’ve written here about my inability to get organized, so it’s no secret that I have problems with that. Fortunately for me, however, most of the time I am able to lay my hands on whatever it is that I might need when I decide I need it. In that respect, I am happy to say that my lack of organization does not usually affect me in a detrimental manner.

Usually, anyway.

Bored with the same old tired quilt patterns, and with an idea in mind of something I want to do, I decided to install my copy of Electric Quilt 5 on my new computer. I had uninstalled it off the old laptop before giving it to my daughter, but never got around to putting it on my new computer. I figured I would play around with it a little bit and try to decide what I wanted to do with the charms I bought a couple of weeks ago. I knew exactly where the software was, so I figured this would be a five or ten minute install then I could get on with designing my new quilt.

I inserted the CD into my machine and waited eagerly, but after just one minute the Registration screen popped up. It requested the usual things – my name, my address, the serial number.

Uhhhhhh … the serial number? I thought about this for a couple of minutes and quickly turned to the trusty internet for information on where I could find it. Their website told me that I could find the serial number on the Getting Started book. Great, I thought, I saw that book recently. This shouldn’t be too difficult.

That was around noon yesterday and the book is STILL missing. I have practically torn my house apart and it is nowhere to be found. Have you ever seen a 40 year old woman throw a fit and act like a child who’s been denied her favorite treat in the candy store? I made that look innocent. Furious with myself for losing the book, I stormed about the house muttering to myself about the unfairness of it all and how much I suck for not being more organized. I believe there may have been a few naughty words and some very unkind thoughts involved as well.

To be fair, I moved into my house two and a half years ago, and there are still a few boxes hanging around. I went through what I think was all of them but I still may have missed the book. And I don’t know many people who would take a hundred dollar bill and run it through a shredder or set it on fire and watch it burn, which is essentially what I have done by not being able to find that serial number. This would be the second piece of sewing software that would be useless to me without the serial number.

Fortunately for me, the folks at Electric Quilt are extremely nice and helpful. They were able to look up my serial number for me, despite not remembering what name it was registered under (I often use my first name for stuff like this, or my first initial and middle name or just my initials), or even what address I lived at when I bought the software. I was, however, able to narrow down the city and they found it within just a few seconds. Tonight I’ll go home and install it on my new computer and play around with it.

In fact, my birthday is coming up in August, and I’m toying with the idea of asking for the Electric Quilt 6 upgrade … I just wish I knew where that Getting Started book was hiding for EQ5! It might help with remembering how this thing works …

My Momma Told Me …

You better shop around!

Yesterday, my mother and I went shopping together. No boring, crowded malls or shopping centers for us – our shopping trips are almost always exclusively centered around quilting. I consider myself really lucky to have a mom who quilts – and no, she didn’t get me into quilting. In fact, it was quite the other way around. It was because I enjoyed quilting so much that she became involved in it. Fortunate for me, because now I have a shopping buddy who understands color, pattern and fabric.

Anyway, we always browse everything in a shop, from fabrics to books to thread to sewing machines, if they carry them. Yesterday was no different. My mom had come to my side of town to check out our new quilt shop QuiltWorks. I’ve already been in there several times, but each time they have added more fabric. I already had a quilt in mind to make and I had the instruction book in the car so I could refer to it if needed.

We were checking out the books when we found a new Turning Twenty book, which features sashed blocks. It was absolutely beautiful – the front cover looked like stained glass. I turned it over to check out the price and was appalled to find that it was $24.95. You see, these are very small books – no more than 25 to 30 pages each. For $24.95, I would expect something more … substantial. I looked at my mom, a look of doubt in my eyes. “It doesn’t seem worth that much money,” she said.

I thought about it for a minute and decided to go check the price of the book I had in the car. I had bought it a couple of years ago at The Painted Pony. Knowing me, I reasoned, I wouldn’t have spent that much money on a book that small. So I went out and looked and sure enough, I had paid $10.95 for that book. I went back and told my mother, and we decided that neither of us would be willing to pay $25 for the book. We left the store without buying anything, hungry and ready to check out the next store.

When we got back in the car, I made a decision to call The Painted Pony and just ask if they had the book, how much it cost. They had it and it was $14.95. A difference of $10 between the two stores! And trust me, it would be worth it to drive across town for the difference, even with today’s gas prices – I would go to The Painted Pony even if there wasn’t a book involved! We didn’t go there, but my mother will be stopping by there to pick up two copies of the book – one for each of us.

So my mother was right … it really does pay to shop around.

Later, I will post about what we DID buy and what I plan to do with it. Until then, happy quilting!