Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lessons from Early Quilts...

This month, I thought I would just show a few of my very early quilts -- quilts from 20 to 50 years ago! We sometimes forget that those early quilts, while not necessarily stunning, taught us much that we can carry into today's quiltmaking.

Lesson One: Use your scraps. This quilt was made over 50 years ago; it is a utility quilt made entirely from scraps sewn to squares of muslin. Try making these blocks in color sets (e.g., red/green, blue/peach, or purple/yellow scraps) - or make them totally scrappy. Before you know it, you'll have enough squares for a full-sized bed quilt.

Lesson Two: Don't expect to make a perfect quilt the first time you make one... or every time. When I do lectures for quilt guilds, I always bring along one of my earliest quilts. The point I make with it is that we all have to start somewhere. And that first quilt is not always going to be a blue ribbon prize-winning quilt. Don't be too hard on yourself; learn as you go - and remember that experience is the best teacher of all, so keep on sewing. One of my earliest (remaining in my possession) quilts was inspired by a 1972 Family Circle magazine -- when I saw the cover photo, I wanted to make that quilt!

Of course, little did I know that the "instructions included" were limited to one page of thumbnail-sized drawings - and a lot of imagination. Quilt books were in short supply in 1972... along with instructions.

I had to use the teachings of my grandmother, plus what my Mom had taught me about hemming skirts, to make and design my quilt. You can get pretty ingenious with that kind of experience. But the resulting twin-sized quilt was not so bad.

Lesson Three: Don't forget to use solid-colored fabrics. I continued quilt-making -- including some classic patterns such as the Amish bars quilt. Today, many quilt shops are just beginning to return to carrying solid-colored bolts; I nearly always try and use at least one solid fabric in my quilts -- they can add zip to a quilt that otherwise is "busy" with prints.

Lesson Four: Scrappy quilts delight the eye -- and block exchanges are delightful ways to make scrappy quilts. The quilt below was done as a scrappy block exchange between Cynthia England and me back in the early 90s. We were neighbors and decided to make a bunch of 8" blocks of red and white/off-white fabrics and then swap sets with each other. Using a ton of different fabrics makes your eye dance across the face of a quilt. And to get variety in the scraps, it's easier if you find one or more friends to exchange blocks with. Just make sure that everyone agrees on the rules of the exchange so that nobody's expectations are dashed.

Lesson Five: Establish resource files. I have a bookshelf full of books that I peruse when looking for patterns - as well as plenty of patterns, photos, etc. I can skim through these and find endless sources of inspiration. Go to your local bookstore and look through the Dover Press art books -- they have lots of lots of drawings and pictures that can be converted into quilt designs - and many of them are copyright free. This cartouche book (below) served as the inspiration for...

this quilt (below) -- I enlarged a cartouche, refined it as a quilt design, and then inserted drawings I found from other sources. Had I not maintained files full of inspiration pictures and drawings and patterns, I would never have made this 1992 quilt, celebrating Columbus' journey across the Atlantic.

Lesson Six: If you don't try, you won't learn. In the early 90s, I decided to try my hand at hand-quilting. I started with a full-sized quilt. Two months later, I had fully hand-quilted this quilt - which was made in a mystery class.

Here's a close-up that shows the quilting. I learned a lot... just by practicing, stitch by stitch. After a while, what is a struggle in the beginning becomes therapeutic, mindless, and relaxing!

Now... here's a lesson within a lesson. Each one of those stars had a feathered rosette in the middle of it that took 45 minutes to quilt. Guess what? You can't see all that work. Put your time into what really counts.

Before closing, I thought I would share a little bit of humor. My grand daughter, when she was around 2-1/2, was being potty-trained. She came running into my sewing room saying she needed to use the bathroom. I pointed to the bathroom door and said, "Hurry! Go!" She ran to the door... and came to a screeching halt. She had glanced in and seen a bath tub that was being temporarily used to hold three large bolts of batting for my longarm machine.

She stared at them and gingerly turned, saying, "Grandma -- you sure do have BIG toilet paper!"

Next month, I hope to show you some of the projects that I've been working on since the beginning of the year. In particular, you will see a new block-of-the-month and several new Baltimore album blocks. Family matters have kept me tied down for a while, but work has continued.

Until we meet again, happy sewing!

(c)2010 Susan H. Garman
Photos and text are not to be used without permission


  1. Very well said and illustrated Sue - what good advice. I love the story about the rolls of wadding. Regards from very wet tropical Australia.

  2. Good to hear from you again.

  3. I have long admired your designs so I appreciate this post that says 'everyone has to start somewhere.' And the toilet paper comment from the grandchild is priceless!

  4. I get frustrated easily when my amateur attempts at quilting leave much to be desired, but I'm encouraged by your post. If I don't at least try something, I'll never improve. So I'll keep plugging away. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. I just found your blog today and I love it: all the advice to new quilters is right on the money, great quilt photos, funny story!

    Is it okay if I use the 2 log cabin photos for my new website: I'll include your name/blog.

    Normally I'd ask this in an email, but I don't see an email address.


  6. Glad to see your post. What great lessons. Can hardly wait to see the new things.
    Vickie S.