Retrospective: 1988-1998 The Rail Fence Quilt

Welcome to the first in a more-or-less monthly series covering quilts I’ve made in previous years. I’ll include a photo or two, the story of how the quilt came to be made, the misadventures on the way, and the lessons learned. This entry is about my very first attempt at quiltmaking.

Rail fence quilt in cream, purple and green.

Length: 210 cm / 83″
Width: 165 cm / 65″
Design: traditional rail fence
Pieced: by machine (Janome Combi)
Batting: polyester, I think
Backing: cotton sheet
Quilted: longarm pantograph by Dianne Neumann, ACT

After a long background in embroidery and dressmaking I decided to make a quilt. I saw a magazine with an illustration of a rail fence quilt and decided that it was a good beginner project.  I bought four coordinating fabrics in purple and cream and began the quilt top.  I didn’t anticipate any difficulty, as I had been making my own clothes for many years.

In 1988, strip piecing was in its infancy and rotary cutters were not yet a standard part of every quilter’s equipment.  The directions in the magazine said to cut the fabric using the template provided, so that is what I did.  I made a cardboard template, cut out 240 rectangles with my scissors and sewed them together on my trusty sewing machine.  I also followed their instructions to use the presser foot as a guide for the seam allowance — unfortunately, I didn’t realise that the distance from the needle to the edge of the presser foot on my machine was not a quarter inch, as everyone said it would be, but closer to 5/16 of an inch.  Consequently each unit of four rectangles did not make a 6 1/2″ square but a rectangle roughly 6 1/4″ x 6 1/2″, and when I put them together to make the rail fence pattern I ended up with a horribly uneven and lumpy mess.

Yes, I could have taken everything apart and re-sewn it, but there was a complicating factor: instead of a straight stitch I had used an overlocking stitch (dressmaker, remember?).  It would have taken an enormous amount of time and effort to undo everything, and I couldn’t face it.  Instead I hid the top in a box and it remained there for ten years (through five removals). I wish now that I had taken a picture of it because it was so awful, but I was too ashamed (and didn’t want to waste valuable film frames — no digital cameras in those days!).

During the next few years I did more workshops and classes, and discovered strip piecing and Seminole patterns.  I used the remaining purple and cream fabrics to sew strip sets but never got around to cutting them up into squares.

In 1998 I finally pulled out the lumpy mess from the back of the cupboard and painstakingly took it apart so that I had 60 supposed-to-be-square units.  Then — using the rotary cutter and square rulers I had bought in the intervening decade — I trimmed the units so that they were 6″ square and set them back together using a 1/4″ seam allowance.  You can see that the two outer rectangles in each unit are slightly narrower than the inner two, but the difference isn’t enough to be jarring.  This time the top was beautifully flat, though at 33″ x 55″ it was very small.

I considered using the strip sets to make additional rail fence units, but they had been sewn with a proper quarter-inch allowance, so cutting them down to the same size would have produced very narrow outer rectangles.  Instead I made a Seminole border.  I still had some fabric left over in two of the colours so I made a checked border as well.  I bought a dark green fabric to use as sashing around all the borders and to give the eyes a rest from all that purple.  I set everything together and was happy with the resulting top.

Because the top was so busy I didn’t want to spend the time to hand-quilt it, and I wasn’t very confident in my machine quilting, so I had it quilted on a long-arm pantograph machine by Dianne Neumann of Truly Lois in Hall, ACT.  From memory it cost around $180 (more than the usual pantograph cost at the time because the borders were done separately).  It’s by no means a masterpiece, but I think it came out quite well considering how it started.

Lessons learned:
1.  Know your equipment.
2.  Use the best technique available on the day.
3.  Even a horrible mess can be salvaged with a bit of effort.

Happy Australia Day!

To those in Australia: stay cool, drink lots of water, use sunscreen. To those in the northern hemisphere: stay warm, drink soup, wear socks.

My Australia Day will be very quiet, sitting in my flat with the cats and doing a little hand piecing. I finished my current Aussie Heroes quilt last weekend and sent it off on Monday, and since then I’ve been finishing the quilting on some ex-demo pieces that will eventually go to a homeless shelter. I want to cut some fabric for my own projects, but I need to do some cleaning up in the sewing room first, as the cutting table is piled high with stuff.

I’m about to start a more-or-less monthly retrospective on all the quilts I’ve done to date (which isn’t very many, actually). I’ll try to do them in order of commencement, but I’m the queen of UFOs so the finishing dates will vary a lot.

2019 Finish-A-Long

finishalong logo Im in

I’m joining the 2019 Finish-A-Long, but I’m barely dipping my toe in the waters, so to speak.  I hate setting goals I have no reasonable hope of achieving, so for the first quarter I’m going to nominate one small project that I’m certain I can get done. As I’m in Australia, I’m linking through Sandra of Sew Of Course in Ireland.

tumbling blocks top

This top is one of my oldest UFOs.  It was made in a workshop with Sara Nephew in 1994, when she attended the Australasian Quilt Convention in Canberra.  I loved her workshops but, as you can see, my fabric choices weren’t great.  The pink, mint green and floral green fabrics were bought for a sampler class in 1988 (the results of that were so horrendous they’ve never seen the light of day in thirty years).  I think most of the others came from curated long quarters packs.

The top is roughly a metre square so it shouldn’t take long to baste, quilt and bind.  Even though I don’t like it, I’m sure the cats won’t be as fussy.

2018 in review

It may be odd to have a “year in review” as my first real entry but it probably counts as mayhem, so I won’t apologise.

As I state in my “About Dendaria” page, most of my quilting is for Aussie Hero Quilts.  I made five quilts and twenty-two laundry bags in 2018, which is about average for me, but since all the quilts and laundry bags are shown on that blog I won’t duplicate them here.  I am currently working on a quilt for a recipient, plus I’m doing a scrap Idaho Square Dance which may get a specific recipient or may go to the Wounded Warrior stash.

I haven’t actually completed a quilting project for myself in a few years.  My current WIPs include the following:

I finished one quilt top in May, called Pentastic — it’s a Penrose P3 aperiodic tiling design and was done as an EPP project, commencing in December 2015.  I love the top but the EPP was very tough on my wrists.  It’s absolutely enormous (about 112″ x 106″) and basting wasn’t completed until the end of August, at which time the weather promptly warmed up and it became too hot to sit under a quilt for hours on end.  I’ll start the quilting next April when it’s cooler, and with a little luck I’ll have it done by September 2020.  NB that is not me in the photo, I’m off to the side and out of the frame.

Within a week of finishing the Pentastic top I started another Penrose P3 design.  This one is entitled Flame Rose and is being done as “ordinary” hand piecing.  I’m using acrylic templates from the large set for “La Passacaglia” with 2″ sides.  It’s coming together very well and will get its own post soon.

Flame rose patchwork

I did 18 of 20 Hawaiian appliqué blocks (from the book by Elizabeth Root).  I have two more blocks to do and then the quilt will need a border — my intent is to do a meandering vine with small versions of the appliqué motifs.

I worked on some Esther Aliu applique designs – Lily Rose and Diamond Hill.  I don’t want to do the given setting for DH (far too much fiddly work, though I admit it looks fantastic) so I’ll combine it with the Lily Rose block in the centre and then work on a suitable appliqué border.  Since it will be a wall hanging rather than a quilt I may do some beadwork embellishment. I don’t have any photos of these blocks yet as I’m still working on the embroidery.

My last current project is an autumnal-theme quilt – it’s my own arrangement and quite complex so that will also get its own post in due course.

Like everyone else, I have multiple UFOs, some dating back to the late 1980s, including several tops that need quilting, tops that still need borders, and some block sets that need to be assembled.

For 2019 I will try to stick to the “One Monthly Goal” that has been more or less successful for me over the last few years.  I allocate one AHQ and one personal goal per month, so the personal goal tends to be small (“finish two blocks” rather than “finish the whole top”).  My overall aims for the year ahead are:

  • Quilt and bind one top
  • Complete one top (not the same one!)
  • Make dust cover for my 9400
  • Make an igloo for the cats

I have been thinking about participating in the 2019 Finish-A-Long since I can opt for as little as one goal a quarter.  I have a few days to make my decision but I’ll probably join in (as long as no one laughs at me for my puny goals)