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Quilting The Old Fashioned Way

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By D.J. Glawson | Jul 25, 2017

I see all these articles on different quilting sites about machine quilting with your regular sewing machine versus quilting with a long arm machine. Frankly, they both scare me half to death! I have tried to do some machine quilting with my standard Bernina sewing machine, but it is hard! How does one keep their stitches going where they want them? Mine never follow the lines I am trying to follow. Everybody makes it sound so easy!

To further confuse the situation, I was not taught to quilt with a machine. According to my mother, using your sewing machine to quilt the top once it was together was sacrilege! She was born in 1906 so you had to do that part by hand. That was the only way to do things, right? She had relented and sewed most of her pieces on the machine, unless she was doing a Lone Star or something with circles. They are always easier to adjust your fabric and stitch when sewing them by hand.

As I started making quilts, I remember her talking about all these women quilting their quilts on a machine You would have thought they were out having an affair or something. She was adamant that no decent quilter worth their salt would ever machine quilt a quilt!

I remember coming home from school and the living room would be taken up by a quilt. I would chop and carry in the firewood, eat dinner, do my homework (when I got old enough to bring it home), and then I would sit at the quilting frame with mama and grandma. Our quilting frames consisted of four pieces of 1 inch by 2 inch pine with “C” clamps on each corner to hold them together. These corners would be held up on the backs of kitchen chairs and the sofa. She always used denim for the fabric strips on the wood as it was a much sturdier fabric, and they were fastened to the boards with tacks. No fancy upholstery tacks, either. Just plain old black tacks!

We did everything that was quilted in a style very similar to what is now called “stitching in the ditch.” Of course we had not heard of that back then. When we were finished with the blocks of the quilt, the fancy stitching was drawn onto the quilt top using a very high-tech apparatus called a string and a pencil! Grandma had a long piece of string with a pencil tied to it on one end. Approximately every 2 or 3 inches there was a knot all the way to the other end of the string. She always started closest to the edge of the fabric and she would hold the knot closest to the pencil with one hand while drawing an arc on the fabric with the pencil with her other hand. They never drew over the edge of the stitching they had already completed, either. This was the design for the outer fabric — like around the large star in the Lone Star quilts. They would do a few arcs and then move farther down the side of the quilt and repeat this process being careful to not go over the lines they had already drawn or the stitching they had already completed. They would continue like this until the entire outer perimeter was done. And then they would quilt on those lines.

Below are a couple of pictures of a baby quilt I completed a couple of years ago. It is a combination of freeform quilting to outline the design in the main body of the quilt — this being Corduroy Bear — and the way I was taught to do the quilting. From what I have seen and read online about “stitching in the ditch,” it is done by stitching very close to the seam on one side. As you can see, we always did both sides of the seam. Mama said that put less stress on the seams and the quilts would last longer. My mother had a lot of things she believed about her way of quilting and those are things that have stuck with me over the years. I guess that is why it is so difficult for me to learn to quilt using a sewing machine.

A couple of other things my mother never did are:

— Never, ever, use a blanket for batting in your quilt. You use real batting or it wasn’t a real quilt!

— Never use cotton for the backing if you planned on using the quilt on your bed. One always used flannel. The reasoning behind this was twofold. The flannel is warmer and it doesn’t slide off the bed as easily.

I was given a couple of quilts a few years ago by one of my aunts who thought my mother and grandmother had made them, but I can look at them and tell that they didn’t make these quilts. How? The last two rules I just gave you. They have blankets in them instead of batting and they do not have flannel as the backing.

Fast forward to today. I do understand her feelings. After all, she was raised in a time period when they did almost everything by hand. Now I hear about all these fancy feet for your machines and all the different kinds of quilting frames and machines that are available and it literally makes my head spin. I have come to enjoy my time hand quilting my quilts and I can look at something that I know has been made the way they used to be made. I know there are a lot of you out there who feel the same about some of the things you do, too.

My last thoughts on all this … keep up the good work! It is so worth it!

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