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.