Do you ever look back …

Do you ever look back at something you did and ask yourself “What the hell was I thinking?”

That’s how I feel about the last six months.

In September 2019 I suddenly had a whim to start making doll’s clothes again. They were among the first things I ever sewed, way back when I was small, but I hadn’t made anything for about thirty years. It’s also something I wanted to practise so that by the time I move to Tasmania with my cousins we could have an occasional handcrafts stall with doll clothes as one of the items (along with the usual decorated towels, napkins, aprons, tea cosies etc etc).

The dolls I had made clothes for all those years ago were the ones I had had since childhood: Sandra and Julie.

Little Beauty doll - Sandra
Little Beauty doll – Sandra

Sandra is a Little Beauty doll that my parents gave to me for Christmas when I was seven. I always thought she was 45 cm (18″) but she’s actually 42 cm (16½”) and very slim, with a slightly shaped waist. She has a hard vinyl body and legs, and slightly softer head and arms. Her hair is rooted and, as you can see, is in a typical 1960s style. No matter how many other dolls I acquire, she will always be my favourite. And yes, she does need a bit of a clean-up but she’s in very good condition for her age.

Julie - unknown brand
Julie – unknown brand

A few years later my grandmother gave me Julie, a 22″ doll, which she had obtained from a neighbour of hers whose daughter had grown up. Julie came with a set of homemade knitted clothes that were probably done by the neighbour. I don’t know what brand she is — I’ve seen similar dolls from time to time but never found one exactly the same, and I doubt she’s a bona fide collectible. Superficially she looks like a German porcelain or bisque doll, but she was made in England and feels more like Bakelite (a precursor to plastic, used extensively for telephones, appliances and toys in the early to mid-20th century). She used to say “mama” when she lay down but the voice box stopped working a long time ago and may have broken off as there is definitely something loose inside her body. Her hair is wigged rather than rooted, and is quite sparse and very coarse. When I got her, around 1973, she came with a feather cut which I didn’t like so I cut it shorter (if you don’t know what a feather cut is, it’s like a mullet for girls only more layered). She used to have teeth, but they’ve gone, too, and she has a crack in one hip. One of these days I’m going to take her up to the Doll Hospital in Sydney and see if they can restore her a little bit.

Given that today’s “standard” doll is 18″ / 45 cm, I knew that neither of them would do as a model, so I looked at several 18″ dolls on the market today. At first I was very sensible: I bought one each of the dolls that are available in local shops: Positively Perfect, My Sweet Friend, Design-A-Friend, Our Generation and Soy Tu. Of these, only the Soy Tu by Paola Reina was more than $40 — she was $125 (and, as it turns out, she’s only 42 cm in height so instead of being a clothes-for-sale model she’ll stay home as a sister for Sandra). I decided not to buy an Australian Girl or Florrie doll as they were $150 each plus shipping and I thought that was far too much to spend on a doll.

I had heard of American Girl dolls, of course, but I knew they were also expensive and not sold in Australia so at first I didn’t even think about buying one new. After watching some YouTube videos on washing doll hair and bodies, I found that there was a thriving second-hand market on ebay and, after a couple of weeks’ browsing to get a feel for the conditions and prices, I found a Truly Me #22 in reasonable condition with an opening bid of USD 16.

While waiting for the auction to end (six days; I eventually won her at USD 22.50), I kept on browsing and discovered Marie-Grace. Although she wasn’t new she was in pretty good condition, with her braids intact and dressed in her meet outfit and accessories, so I bought her for USD 85 (with postage and import duty it came to AUD202).

Then I saw a #25 and thought, “She will make a wonderful contrast to the #22 — like Snow White and Rose Red”. So I bought her as well. And then there was a Samantha …

This is where the madness starts. I have no way to explain it other than “I went into a shopping frenzy”. I found more dolls available on ebay and Amazon so I bought more dolls … lots more dolls. I’ve always been an archivist / completist, so it was easy to justify getting one each of all the available 18″ dolls (Journey Girls, Kindred Hearts, Sophia’s, etc etc). Within the American Girl range that compulsion extended to one of each mould, and then one of each skintone in each mould, then all the historical dolls. Over the next four months I bought 63 more American Girl dolls and 18 more non-AG dolls, including the previously too-expensive Australian Girl and Florrie. I spent about $6000. I didn’t bankrupt myself or go into credit card debt (thank goodness) but I definitely spent far more on shipping and import duties than I want to think about.

I have 90 dolls now.

Ninety dolls.

Seriously, what the hell was I thinking?

I don’t need ninety dolls. Of course I don’t.

Over the next year or two I’ll work on reselling some of the dolls and the outifts that came with them. Some dolls need hair washing and skin cleaning; some clothing needs repair. Given the current quarantine I’ll wait until much later in the year to start putting them up for sale (not that anyone will have much money for buying by then). A few may go to Christmas charity drives if non-new items are acceptable, though I suspect not. I’m not going to try to make a profit, far from it, but recouping even a quarter of the outlay would be great.

Retrospective: 1998 Four Ts in a Maze

Welcome to the fifth in my more-or-less monthly series of quilt retrospectives.

1998 Four Ts in a Maze
1998 Four Ts in a Maze

Size: 160 x 220 cm (63″ x 87″)
Design: Traditional blocks in an arrangement by Mary Ellen Hopkins
Fabric: all cotton
Batting: Hobbs Heirloom 100% Cotton
Backing: plain muslin
Pieced: 1998 by machine (Janome MemoryCraft 8000)
Quilted: 1998 by machine in monofilament

In 1998 I did a workshop at Truly Lois (a quilt shop in Canberra, now defunct) on quick-piecing techniques by Mary Ellen Hopkins, one of which was the “Four Ts in a Maze” pattern. The instructions said to bring two sets of three coordinating fabrics, so I made my choices in burgundy and green.

The block itself is a very simple rail fence with three fabrics per unit — the T pattern arises from the way the units are arranged. The blocks were cut and stitched together in only a few hours.

Once I had finished the maze section I had to work out how to finish the top — the maze is only 36″ x 60″ so borders were required. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on a detailed pieced border and my original plan was to use the dark burgundy print, of which I had about a metre and a half left. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite enough to bring the top up to the size I wanted, so I bought an unrelated print that didn’t clash too badly and used it for a 3″ inner border and binding, and the burgundy as a 9″ outer border. It was machine-quilted by me using invisible thread — in-the-ditch for the centre section and parallel lines in the borders. It was bound in yet another multicoloured fabric.

When I had finished, I found that I really didn’t like it (I still don’t). In the maze section some of the fabrics blend too well, others are jarring. The border is far too plain in comparison with the central section and that one extra fabric sticks out like a sore thumb. Until I got my cats it was only ever used under something else, and most of the time it sat in the linen cupboard. Since the cats arrived, though, it sits on top of a box beside a window and has become one of Verya’s favourite spots.

Lessons learned:
1. I don’t have a problem with colour, I have a problem with contrast (I ought to try a colourwash quilt one day, I think I’d do well).
2. Don’t let your desire to finish quickly lead you into bad border choices.
3. Cats love ugly quilts.

2019 Finish-A-Long Q2 Finish: En Bourgogne

finishalong logo 125px

Here is my second FAL finish for the year. As usual I’m linking through Sandra of Sew Of Course in Ireland.

En Bourgogne top
En Bourgogne top

My nomination for this quarter was “En Bourgogne”, my version of Bonnie Hunter’s En Provence, done in caramel, brown, green and burgundy. I pieced and assembled the blocks in late 2017 but never got any further.

The main stumbling block between then and now was the difficulty in choosing fabrics for borders. I was a little concerned that creams and caramels would blend too much with the outer edges of the blocks, but I didn’t want to go much darker as it would be too heavy. Bonnie had added a border of neutral four-patches, so eventually I decided to stick with a light inner border but to use a fabric that hadn’t been in the blocks. I chose to cut up an old cream-on-cream pillow case which had been part of a Sheridan 100% cotton set I had given to my parents in the early 2000s. After they died and we were cleaning out the house, I couldn’t find the sheets but I did find the pillow cases. One portion of the fabric is slightly stained from hair oils and sweat but to me that’s a bonus, since it means a little part of my parents will be in the quilt forever — the fabric is perfectly clean and sound, and the stain gives the border an subtle ombre effect.

I auditioned about 25 brown and green fabrics for the second border:

En Bourgogne border tryouts
En Bourgogne border tryouts

I chose the medium green eucalyptus leaves fabric as it picked up on the greens in the quarter square triangles and was neither too bland nor too overwhelming. I think it came out well.

En Bourgogne borders
En Bourgogne borders

My big mistake for this quilt was misplacing two of the B blocks, which had centre and edge variations — I still don’t know how I managed to miss it but I put a centre block on the edge and an edge block in the centre. What’s more, I even photographed one of the errant blocks after doing the borders and still I didn’t pick it up. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the quilting that I noticed it, and by that time it would have been far too much work to fix it, so there it stays.

I had run out of Matilda’s Own cotton batting when the time came to baste this and my usual shop was out of stock so I opted for SewEasy 100% cotton instead. Unfortunately this is a much denser batting than Matilda’s Own and made the quilt a lot heavier than I had anticipated. It’s a sturdy batting and it certainly held up well to being pushed through the machine but the sheer weight of it means I probably won’t buy it again. It also has a polyester scrim, which I discovered when I came to iron out the creases on basting day — if I’d realised that beforehand I’d have thrown it in my tumble dryer with a couple of wet flannels. Ah well, I’ll know better next time.

Given the complexity of the pattern, I knew that there was no point in trying anything fancy for the quilting. The additional weight meant that it was going to be difficult to manoeuvre, even given the Janome 9400’s large harp space and my sewing table, so whatever I chose to do had to be simple and could not require frequent turning. With that in mind, I opted for a diagonal grid down the four-patches and the cream squares with additional FMQ.

For the tall triangle stars in block A I drew a 6.5″ circle and went around it with the feed dogs down (which is why the circles are a bit wobbly). I would much have preferred to do this with the walking foot, but the quilt is much too heavy for all that shifting.

As I wrote a few weeks ago I tried some ruler work on the B blocks but it was an abject failure. Instead I did FMQ diagonal lines through the corner units and a vague oval / leaf shape in the hourglass units for blocks B and C. I’m a firm believer in the adage “every piece needs a quilting line”, especially for quilts that will be used all the time.

Borders were quilted with the walking foot. I did my customary serpentine stitch in the first border and diamonds in the outer border.

Delhi by Jinny Beyer
Delhi by Jinny Beyer

Since the border was green, I chose brown for the binding. After auditioning several fabrics, I chose a Jinny Beyer fabric I’ve had for a couple of years — it’s mainly a pinky brown but there are subtle patches of yellow-green that pick up the border colours beautifully. I stitched it down using the HP2 walking foot, which produces a great edge.

Running out of thread
Running out of thread

Of course, things couldn’t go smoothly even for that very last step — I ran out of thread with a side and half to go. I had the same thread in a bobbin, but you can’t use a bobbin as a spool because the thread comes out backwards and is much more likely to shred. Instead, I wound the thread onto a second bobbin so that it was right way around and then finished the binding.

Bobbin re-winding
Bobbin re-winding

So, the quilt is finished. Well, actually, I still need to bury a few thread ends and sew the label on, but it’s quilted, bound and photographed. I don’t have room to lay it out and it’s too big for the curtain rail but I’ll try and get an outdoor photo sometime in the next few days, weather permitting.

En Bourgogne finished
En Bourgogne finished

Size: 230 x 230 cm (about 90″) square
Design: “En Provence” by Bonnie K Hunter
Fabric: scraps from the stash, all cotton
Batting: Sew Easy 100% cotton
Pieced: by machine (Janome HMC 9400 QCP) October -November 2017 (blocks); April 2019 (borders)
Quilted: by machine (Janome HMC 9400 QCP), April-July 2019
Bound: July 2019

Lessons learned:
1. Pressing to one side may make it easier to create quarter-square triangles, but it produces very bulky seam allowances.
2. It would be a good idea to take a photo of a layout before you stitch it together so you can pick up silly mistakes like swapping edge and middle blocks.
3. SewEasy cotton batting is denser than Matilda’s Own

The perils of writing one’s own pattern

I had a little spare time this afternoon after finishing an Aussie Heroes quilt and I had black thread in the machine from the quilt’s binding, so I decided to make one of the Oriental Stained Glass blocks I had cut out. In the process, I discovered that I had somehow managed to add twice the seam allowance to the black sashing strips — they were supposed to be 1″ finished / 1.5″ cut, and that’s what it says on the spreadsheet and at the top of my notes page. However, further down, when I wrote the cutting instructions, I had somehow forgotten that and wrote that the strips were to be cut at 2″, finishing at 1.5″. Yikes.

83 two-inch strips of black fabric
83 @ 2-inch strips

See all those 83 strips? Every single one of them is half an inch too wide. I wasted more than a whole metre of fabric because I didn’t check my own work. So stupid. Still, the lengths are all correct and all of the oriental fabrics are cut the right size, so it’s not a complete disaster, just intensely frustrating.

There’s nothing for it but to trim all the sashes if I want to make this quilt — I decided to do it block by block as I sew them together rather than trying to do a lot at once.

Trimmings from Oriental Stained Glass Block A1
Trimmings

In spite of the mistake, I’m very pleased with how well the first block turned out:

Oriental Stained Glass Block A1
Oriental Stained Glass Block A1

My design inspiration was the Stained Glass Quilt designed by Bob (which luckily survived the Craftsy/Bluprint purge) but I changed the proportions and designed an alternate block to increase the variety:

Oriental Stained Glass Block A design
Oriental Stained Glass Block A design
Oriental Stained Glass Block B design
Oriental Stained Glass Block B design

Even with the additional trimming (and a couple of unsewing sessions when I sewed the sashing to the wrong edge) it didn’t take long to make a block so I’ll try and do one a week until the top’s done, and then it may feature in a future Finish-A-Long post.

Retrospective: 1988-1990 Autumn Mood

Welcome to the second in my series of posts showing quilts I completed in years gone by.

Quilt in dark green and brown, 80 by 80 inches

Size: 203 x 203 cm (80″ x 80″)
Design: traditional Duck and Ducklings and Shoo-Fly blocks in my own arrangement
Fabric: cotton
Batting: polyester high loft (from a roll, unknown brand)
Backing: cotton
Pieced: by machine (Janome Combi) May 1988
Quilted: by hand 1989/90
Bound: September 1990

This was the second top I pieced, and the first quilt I finished (for a rather odd definition of finished).

In 1988 I decided to have a second attempt at machine piecing. I chose the Duck and Duckling pattern, made cardboard templates and cut out all the pieces with scissors. I made 13 brown blocks, sewing them together using the presser foot of my sewing machine as a guide. The green blocks were supposed to be Duck and Duckling as well, but I didn’t like cutting out and sewing all those small triangles so used the simpler Shoo-Fly block instead.

Unfortunately, I still hadn’t worked out that the presser foot on my Janome Combi was approximately 5/16″ from the needle (and the needle position was not adjustable on that machine). Consequently, when it came to setting all the blocks together with sashing, it was extremely difficult, since the block edges were short by quite a lot in the corners. Not wanting to trim the blocks and lose my triangle points, I adjusted the seam allowance instead, from 1/4″ at the centre of each edge down to around 1/16″ at the corners (I reinforced them with nail polish). Despite this problem, I finished the top and it doesn’t look too bad, though some of the triangle points still aren’t where they are supposed to be.

I was living in southern Victoria at the time, in an old and poorly heated building, so of course I wanted the quilt to be warm. I bought the thickest off-the-roll polyester batting I could find, not realising that batting this thick is supposed to be tied, not quilted. I basted the three layers together and started to hand-quilt, in a bastard cross between in-the-ditch and outline. The thickness of the batting meant that I got only three stitches to the inch. By the time I had finished quilting the blocks I was exhausted and had no energy to contemplate quilting the borders. I bound the edges, put safety pins in the border and used it like that for the next twenty-five years (obviously it was never washed during that period).

Some of the seams are starting to give way, and some of the hand quilting is coming undone. I’ll get around to repairing it one day.

Lessons learned:
1. Know your equipment!!
2. Know what techniques are suited to each type of batting.
3. Quilts are very resilient even when shoddily made.

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.