Dalek Quilt Tutorial – Who’s the Bad Guy?

Bad Guy

So who’s your favorite Doctor? I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Tom Baker’s incarnation… he was the jelly-baby eating Doctor Who of my childhood in England. He was a big enough deal that I actually knitted a Tom Baker scarf for my son’s dad when we were courting!

Tom Baker

When the series got its reboot, I was tickled to see that the Daleks were still part of the story, despite their limitations as villains (stairs anyone?) The frantic, metallic “Exterminate!” was probably one of the first geek quotes I learned, soon to be followed with a whole host of inappropriate Monty Python!

Anyway… I started playing around with the idea that there could be a Dalek quilt. After I ran several drawings by my closest geeky pals (thank you Steve and Alyssa!) this is what came out: Who’s the Bad Guy?

The quilt is 50” x 80” and is perfectly sized for snuggling. And what follows here is a step by step tutorial with photos and extra tips from start to finish. As with my other pattern based tutorials, you’ll still need to buy the pattern to get the cutting info. But I trust you’re cool with that because I trust that you support artists getting paid for their talent. Go here for your buying options, or support your local quilt store by asking them to get it in for you (it’s carried by several distributors).

So let’s get started! Give the pattern and this tutorial a quick once over before you start so that you have an idea of what’s coming. Pay good attention to the drawing at the bottom of page 1 as it names all the parts/steps. Make sure you are well stocked in your favorite snacks, beverages and videos too.

First of all – make sure you have version 2 of the pattern. Look on the back cover at the bottom left for the version number. If you have v1, then I have a couple of changes for you – they are small, and don’t need more fabric than you already bought. The changes are listed here on the Errata page. BTW… it’s always a good idea to check a pattern designer’s Errata page before you start any new pattern, just in case. We can fix the things we have in-house or in our downloads, but once a pattern has left the studio for a store, the only way we have to get in touch with you is through that page!

The pattern calls out Radiance, the silk/cotton blend by Robert Kaufman for all the Dalek’s shiny metal parts. Radiance works best when paired with a lightweight stabilizer –  I used Pellon Fusible Sheerweight 906F all the way through. If all that isn’t your cup of tea, then substitute cotton and skip the stabilizer.

If you’re buying Kona cottons instead of shiny stuff, I recommend 1069 Champagne for the Gold, 159 Spice for the Copper, 139 Lagoon for the Peacock, and 1005 Aqua for the lightest blue.

NOTE: if your fabric is wider than 42”, you might need less strips in a few places, so feel free to cut out the pieces as you go to save fabric.

Just for reference, I made this top (no quilting) in three sessions totaling about 15 hours, which is why you can see different weather and light day out of the window behind my cutting table! During that time I was also photographing and writing out the tutorial steps, and watching a little too much Netflix here and there, so your mileage may vary. I had all my materials on hand before I started. Including chocolate :-)


Cut all of the parts listed under SKIRT in step 1.

If you are using Radiance or something equally silky and shiny, you’ll need the stabilizer. At this step, I cut enough fabric and stabilizer for two pieces together. The skirt is made in three pairs, so this works out well. Cut both the fabric and the stabilizer an inch bigger than you need so that you get a cleanly cut piece at the end.


NOTE: Most stabilizers are 20” wide, so save those extra bits from the side – you can use them for smaller pieces later in the pattern. Save the leftovers of the fabric for the same reason too.

Make sure to put the sticky side of the stabilizer to the back of the Radiance. When ironing, follow the instructions that came with the stabilizer, and avoid touching your iron to anything sticky!


Once you have the Skirt Body sections cut, it’s time to cut the diagonals on the bottom. I recommend cutting these one at a time, and putting them onto a design surface as you go so that you cut the wedges in the right direction – half go to the left and the other half to the right.

I align the piece up on the mat, and cut using the mat grid to find the dimension on the side of the wedge.


Now to make the accents for the bottom of the skirt. Use black Skirt Trim fabric for this step. Cut the wedges in the same way you cut the skirt.


And finally, cut the background pieces, and wedge them like the copper Skirt pieces. Put them all in the right order on your design surface, and then sew them together.


When sewing together anything with diagonals, don’t forget to align the seams so that you have dog-ears at either end of your 1/4” so that your sides come out straight. 


Press well, away from the skirt so that you don’t fight the stabilizer.


Don’t sew these together yet! We’re going to get the Dots onto each piece first, and stitch them down before it becomes unwieldy.

DOTS (or Hemispheres!)

Using the templates, draw the Rings onto fusible web (I still have a bolt of Steam-a-Seam 2 in the studio so that’s what I used). If you want to do hand appliqué and pass on the fusing, you’re on your sweet own with that! Just remember to add seam allowance to all the pieces for any kind of turned appliqué.


I have tried to cut the circles and rings using quarter-circle type rulers with the fabric folded in 4, and they just don’t cut well for this (mind you, I’ve had great success with the rulers in other applications) – there are 4 layers of fabric PLUS 4 layers of fusible to get through, and I found that I got some jagged edges that made me grumpy. So I highly recommend doing them single layer. You can also then save some materials by nesting the 4” rings inside the 6” rings.

If drafting out the circles from the templates seems tedious, I recommend drawing the circles with an old-school compass (I’ve had that set in the picture since I was a teenager – yikes!) One of my tester-peeps also tried the cutter that is both rotary blade and compass together, and said she had some decent success with it, but that you have to press down firmly.

While you’re drafting the Rings for the Dots, go ahead and draft the circles too.

Fuse the Rings onto the back of the Black fabric, and fuse the Dots onto the back of the Gold Radiance. Watch that you don’t get a sticky iron! (I forgot to take a picture here, but just imagine a huge swath of fused fabric with circles drawn all over the paper!)

Make a pot of your fave tea, load up some guilty pleasure watching on your TV and cut out all the fused Rings and Dots. Chocolate might help too. Save your larger fused scraps as they might be helpful for the Whisk, Plunger and Eye Stalk later.


Using a non-stick pressing sheet, peel the Dots and center them over the Rings – yes there should be some overlap. Fuse this pair together. If you don’t have a pressing sheet, do the following step with just the Rings, and then add the Dots second.


Place pins down the side of the Skirt sections to mark the centers for the Rings or Dots+Rings. Center the Rings at the marks, and make sure they are centered down the Skirt strip too. When you’re happy, fuse them in place. Add the Dots if you haven’t already done so – center them on the rings and fuse them down. (Egad! I forgot to take a picture of this too! Was so excited to get fusing! Just use the drawing in the pattern.)

Take each strip, and do a small, close zigzag stitch around the outer edge of the Ring, and the outer edge of the Dot. Match the threads to keep them from showing too much – I used a gold rayon from Robison Anton and black cotton 50wt from Aurifil (I do all my piecing in Aurifil too).

I chose not to do a dense satin stitch here because I didn’t want that to show as part of the design. Besides, if you don’t have really tight skills when navigating a curve with satin stitch it can easily look like a hot mess, so another reason to relax a bit with a less visible stitch. Remember – quilting is supposed to be fun!


FYI – you could skip this step, and stitch these down as part of the quilting. However, if you plan to sew around the circles with a zigzag while quilting, it means you’ll have to turn the entire quilt 360 degrees for each of the 24 circles, TWICE. So keep that in mind when you make your choice about when to sew these down!


NOW you can sew the Skirt strips together! Finally!


Next: Make the Belt. Look through your stabilizer scraps to find some pieces that will do for this, and fuse them to a strip of Gold Radiance (remember to start with a piece that’s a touch bigger so that you get a clean fuse and cut). Cut the black fabric for the belt and put it together.


Again, press away from the stabilized fabric. Sew this Belt to the top of the Skirt.



Stabilize and cut the Copper shoulder section.

Cut the corner wedges off, using your mat for reference, just like cutting the angles on the skirt.


Cut the Background corner wedges according to the drawing in the pattern. Pay attention to moving in a 1/4” from each corner – this sets you up to have dog ears when you align them to the shoulders. Sew them on, and press away from the shoulders. DON’T sew it to the skirt just yet!


Back to the fusible… make the black and gold circles for the Whisk and Plunger. Check your scraps to see if you have anything that will work before cutting out new fabric and fusible. Draft them and cut them out (probably no need for a movie this time, but sure, let’s have chocolate!)

Place pins to mark the centers for both the Whisk and Plunger circles. Center the circles vertically too, and fuse them down. 


You know what’s coming next, yes? Zigzag those circles down. Or leave them to do with the quilting.

Sew the Shoulder to the top of the Belt + Skirt section.



Cut the three background pieces. Join them end to end on the shortest dimension… you can either do this with a straight seam as the pattern instructs, or you can do it with a diagonal one which I will show here. Either works fine, but the diagonal is often less visible once the piece is in place.

Layer two strips, right sides together, at right angles to each other. Draw a line at 45 degree across the corner. Stitch on the line and trim away the excess triangles leaving a 1/4” seam. You can trim then stitch or stitch then trim. If you tend to stretch bias seams, stitch first and trim second! Add the third strip to this the same way. (That is actually blue pen in the picture, not blue thread!)


Press these seams open so they lay flatter, which also helps with lowering their visibility.

Cut the long strip into the 2 side strips and sew them to the sides of the Shoulder + Skirt section. You have now completed the bottom two thirds of the quilt top! YAY!


Trace the letters onto fusible web. Don’t forget that you need three Es and two Ts. Yes, they are supposed to be backwards so that they come out the right way.


Fuse the web to the Peacock Blue Radiance. Cut them out – you might need some sharp pointy scissors to get into the center of the R and A. Probably a TV episode’s worth of watching, and definitely more chocolate. And maybe something stronger than tea.

Cut the black background for the letters. Peel and arrange the letters onto the background, making sure to leave at least 1/2” all around (you need a 1/4” for the seam allowance and the rest for breathing space). They fit quite snugly so move them close while you are laying them out.


Double check that seam allowance one more time and fuse them down.

Yep – zigzag them too (or skip until you quilt).


Cut out the Neck Ring parts. Check your scraps before cutting new fabric.

Following the drawings on Page 5, snowball the background corners onto the black Neck Ring sections. Snowballs are an easy way to make triangles without having to cut things with persnickety measurements.


Once the corners are on, sew together the right and left sides for the Neck Ring. Press away from the stabilized sections. Then sew the Gold center between these sections. In this case, press towards the center. (Oops… forgot this picture too. So I snipped it out of another one!)

Neck Rings

Sew the Neck Rings to the Word Band (like the pattern says), or wait and sew them together at the final step (which is what I did this time).


Last section!

Cut out the Dome parts listed in the pattern – don’t forget to check your scraps first. On this step I really recommend labeling the parts you cut out.

The Dome is made in two halves that are mirror image to each other, so keep that in mind as you build your way through this section.


If you have pre-read the instructions, you’re probably already reaching for the chocolate, but fret not! I designed it this way because I wanted it to be all straight line sewing. No curves to set in or oddly angled y-seams, because frankly, I’m not keen on them either! So just breathe and take it a step at a time and it will come together beautifully.

First, assemble the Dome Lights – these are symmetrical so no need to keep them separate.


Next, add the sides to the Dome Lights – and these are asymmetrical so make sure to follow the drawings. The longer side of piece G goes next to the light. They should be mirror image to each other when you’re done.


Trim the copper Dome halves – again, pay attention to the asymmetry! I find the best way to do this is to use two rulers, and measure each of the two dimensions on one ruler. You can do it from the mat, but then you might need to mark lines across the Radiance, and I’m not sure how easy it will be to get them off.



Add J and K to each Dome half, making sure to align the pieces for the overhang shown in the pattern.


Following the drawings at the bottom of page 7, mark or place pins at the junctions of J and K and the Dome.


Right sides together, pin the Light section to the Dome (the biggest side piece goes towards the center), centering it between the marks.


Stitch across this but DON’T trim out the seam allowance until after the next step. Press.

Mark each Dome section with the measurements at the top of page 8. Make sure that the Light is well within the frame – if it’s not, unpick and reposition the last seam. Once you’ve checked that, trim the sections back. And then trim off the excess seam allowance.


Sew the two Dome sections together.


We have one more little fuse-a-palooza to do, so you can assemble the top section of the quilt now, or after the next step.

Back on page 6 are instructions for cutting out the fused circles and rings that will become the Eye Stalk. If you haven’t already done those, now’s the time!

Center the Eye Stalk rings in the middle of the dome, over the center seam and fuse down. Zigzag the edges (or not).


Finish assembling the top section, and then sew it to the bottom.

Annnndddd… the TOP IS DONE!


Obviously, how you quilt it is up to you, but if you want some suggestions, here goes! I’ve taken a few pix of the quilting I did and I’ll explain my choices. First of all, I’m a relatively simple quilter – I don’t do much of the intense and dense quilting we are currently seeing a lot of. I use Warm and Natural batting – I like how it feels when it’s washed, and it can be quilted up to 9” apart. I don’t choose to quilt that far apart, but it’s good to know that if I need to leave some space for design reasons, the batting isn’t going to fall apart on me.

I do a lot of straight line quilting, and often echo the lines that are already there. I chose most of the line work on the Dome, Lights and Shoulders so that it would work with the idea that the Dalek is rounded.


I did free motion outlining around the Dots (in the black ring), Whisk, Plunger, Eye Stalk and the letters. I thought about doing a spiral inside the Dots, but my free motion control isn’t as perfect as it would need to be to pull that off! Not to mention that if I needed to unpick something, the holes would still show because of the fusing. This is one of those places where the batting will save the day.


On the Skirt, I echoed the vertical seam lines on either side with straight lines to keep the linear feel.


The background is quilted in lines that radiate from a point in the center. I did this by pinning the layered quilt to my design wall, and marking it out with a yardstick ruler pivoting around the center point.


And to finish, I did a simple black binding on the bias, machined to the front and hand finished on the back, which is my favorite way to finish a quilt.

Don’t forget to label yours!

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments so that everyone can read the answers!

If you make one, please tag me @huntersds in Instagram, and use the #whosthebadguy hashtag.


DIY Plaid Scarf

I recently finished this project for the lovely folks at Janome and they published it today!

DSC_0684 m

It’s an easy-to-make plaid scarf. One side is a commercial plaid flannel, the other side is made using any of the pretty stitches your machine can do. You can put one together in a few hours. Janome made the suggestion on their site that you could even make a green one for St. Patrick’s Day!

(And being English born, this girl’s St. Pat’s accessories will be ORANGE!)

Get the instructions here. And stay warm!

Countdown! Advent Calendar Tutorial

Before I launch into showing you how to make a sweet and quick advent calendar, I need to you let you in on something… I’m moving! I’m currently in So Cal, but by the end of the year I will be in beautiful Portland OR. I figure I’ve got weird pretty well figured out, so I think it’ll be a good fit! And to my dear and darling So Cal friends – please don’t be sad… I have SouthWest frequent flier miles. Just saying!

Countdown - COVER - 72dpiRGB

Moving means packing, and packing means I’m looking at everything in my studio and trying to find a way to have a little less of it to box up. One of the things I have to (hopefully) move from my studio to yours are some kits for Countdown, the advent calendar pattern I designed last year. It has roomy pleated pockets instead of doors or ornaments, and goes together really quickly. Like most of my patterns, it’s easier than it looks – all the sewing is straight lines. It’s 12” x 44”, so stylishly skinny enough to fit on that one small scrap of wall that isn’t yet decorated to within an inch of its life.

You have OVER TWO WEEKS before the first of December… so you can totally fit this into your holiday madness. Totally! You can make it in a couple of afternoons, and perhaps one evening in front of the telly to do the binding and sleeve, especially if you do fusible applique on the numbers. If you choose to do some version of psychotic heirloom hand applique you’ll be at this for a while, and you’re on your own with that!


So first up – those kits are on sale. Really good sale. And they include the pattern. Also, I’ve put the Countdown pattern itself on sale… dropped the price a couple bucks and made the shipping free. If you don’t want to wait for shipping, I’ve dropped the price for a download on Craftsy too. I’ll keep the prices down through the first week of December :-) And I’ll run to the post office as soon as you order so you get your kit or pattern pronto.

There are two versions of the kit… one that is kiddo friendly with cute snowmen on the panel, and the other that features one of the Alexander Henry Holiday Hunks for a more grownup vibe. And you can replace the picture panel of either version of the kit with something you like better (perhaps something from the Grinch line, or even a holiday Ghastlie).


I also have just the hunks as single panels on sale for a mere dollar (yes… I really, really don’t want to pack more than I have to!)

What’s in the kit? Enough fabric for every part of the calendar… front, back, binding, sleeve, plus a printed pattern in a bag. You will need to buy a little fusible web for appliqueing the letters, and a rod for the sleeve. You probably have a scrap or two of batting that will fit the bill already.


So go shopping… and then come back here for a visual run though of the pattern. Yes, I will illustrate the pattern steps in photos. But no, I’m not giving the farm away here… you’ll still need to buy a pattern to get the cutting info. But I trust you’re cool with that because I trust that you support artists getting paid for their talent.

Let’s begin!

I’m using a Hunks kit, and I’ll be giving this to a girlfriend who has had one of those years. I’m hoping to fill it with sewing notions and chocolate and other things that make her feel special. I felt like the fella should have a name… so I consulted my friend and fave quilt humorist The Bitchy Stitcher and she came up with Harry Hardpack. So say helloooo to Harry!

First, cut the binding strips from the fabric for the inner border/numbers/binding fabric. Set these aside.


While you’re there, cut the inner border strips too, and subcut them per the pattern.

DSC_0608Sew them onto your feature panel/Harry – first sew the right and left sides, then press, then the top and bottom, and press again. These are skinny strips, so keep an eye on a good quarter inch seam here.

DSC_0610Next, cut out the background/sashing fabric. If you have a directional print, and maintaining the direction matters to you, then follow the directions more closely before you cut (you’ll be doing some lengthwise cutting, not selvedge to selvedge). This red fabric has some direction to it, but I decided to ignore it… and it honestly seems to not have mattered.

Subcut the first couple of steps from the pattern and sew them around the feature panel. At this point, I decided that labeling this pile of strips was going to keep me sane, so out came the sticky notes:

DSC_0611Now you’re going to make the strata that get cut into the pockets. Easy stuff. You already cut up the background, so now cut the pocket fabric:

DSC_0612This stunning picture shows the leftovers of cutting the pocket fabric… OOPS. I forgot to take one while I was cutting and sewed all the way to here before I figured it out:

DSC_0613You’ll make two chunks of strata – one is the full width of fabric, the other is about 14”. When sewing the strata, sew the strips into pairs first (and press) and then sew the pairs into bigger pairs (and press) and so on (sew on? ha!). Be really careful not to stretch when you sew or you will have a strata that bends like a donkey’s hind leg.

Press it REALLY well, and press the sashing towards the pockets (this is going to matter when you pleat the pockets later).

DSC_0614Cut the strata into the eight chunks that will become pockets, and take them to the ironing board. First make sure that you have the sashing pressed towards the pockets, then fold in half, wrong sides together, and press again.


On the background section below Harry, and the seven remaining background sections, draw in some marks per the pattern. You’ll be using these to line up the sashing on the pockets. No need to draw all the way across the background, just a couple of lines at the bottom edge is fine:


With the raw edges down, fit the pocket onto the background. Pin down the outer edges, then both of the sashes. Yes, the pockets should be puffy!

DSC_0621Next, pleat the pockets and pin them down. The pleat is going to fold back right at the pressed seam allowance underneath (see, told you that was going to be important!)


Rinse and repeat for the remaining seven pocket sections.


Run a basting stitch along the bottom at a scant quarter inch to hold these in place.


Sew the top of one pocket section to the bottom of the pocket under the panel. Do it six more times to get the full calendar together and press it well, and press the pleats into the pockets. Yes, I forgot to take a photo of this too.

The pockets are going to be flopping around, but don’t worry about it. They will get sewn down as the piece is quilted. I recommend pinning the sides of the pockets in place first before you baste, but don’t worry about the centers.


Lay down the back and batting, and baste it all in place. I use spray baste… yes, I know it’s an airborne adhesive, and it’s consumable, and my box of basting pins is still shiny after 25 years, and I could use the money for more fabric, and I DON’T CARE. Spray baste is addictive… one hit and you’ll be hoarding cans of it and panicking when you run low.

Set your machine up for quilting. I use the walking foot and on this one I chose a red thread that blended with the background.

DSC_0630Starting at the bottom, quilt a line all the way up the sides of the pockets, straightening them as you go. Try to get in the ditch of the pocket, but don’t catch the pleated part. Sew all the way to the top pocket and lock your stitches there. Do this five more times and the main body is quilted. Sweet, eh?

If you want to finish the quilting now, go ahead. I recommend stitching around the panel border, and maybe a little stippling in the negative space of your panel. And anywhere else for accent and emphasis ;-)

Now to the numbers… there are two different fonts in the pattern. I chose the more angular one as I thought the retro style would suit my friend. It also is probably the more fussy of the two to cut out (more holes in centers to cut). Draw the numbers onto the fusible web and iron them to the WRONG side of the fabric.


Go make a cup of tea, load up some trashy TV and cut them out. Use some nice pointy scissors to get into the centers. You might also need some chocolate at this point too. Or perhaps something stronger than tea.


Peel them and center them onto the pockets. You can go in numerical order or scatter them randomly – which I didn’t do because I’m just a teensy weensy bit uptight about organization. Check them twice just like Santa’s list, and then iron them down.

If you haven’t finished the quilting yet, get that done, and then trim the excess edges from the quilt:


Go find the binding strips from the first step, and sew them together using the diagonal seam method: Place the strips right sides together at 90 degrees from each other, then sew across a 45 degree diagonal. You can chalk the diagonal first, or not:

DSC_0641Trim off the triangle leaving a quarter inch seam allowance.

DSC_0642Press those diagonal seams open, then fold the whole strip in half, WRONG sides together along the length and press to make binding. And then sew the binding around the calendar:


Before you stitch down the back of the binding, make the sleeve. Press the short ends over twice and topstitch them down:

DSC_0645Then press in half, WRONG sides together:

DSC_0646Align the raw edges of the sleeve to the top of the calendar, and baste the sleeve a scant quarter inch from the edge, INSIDE the seam allowance of the binding. Make sure not to catch the binding in this seam, especially at the corners:

DSC_0648Red on red… hard to see! Look at the drawing in the pattern… it’s much better than this photo!

Finish the binding and sew down the bottom edge of the sleeve. No picture of that because I’m still working on it!

I used a 12 inch cafe rod in the sleeve of my pattern samples – they run about $5 in the rods and blinds section of your local hardware store. Knot a piece of ribbon into one end, then run it though the sleeve and tie into the other end.


DSC_0652And you’re DONE!


If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments so that I can answer them for all to read.

And if you have any sweet ideas for little somethings that I can put in the pockets for my friend, leave them in the comments too!

Slicing, dicing… and oiling!


No, it’s not a cooking/recipe post! Heavens no… it’s a post about rotary cutters!

Did you know that oiling them can help them roll more smoothly? Yep. Just like oiling your sewing machine. And you can even use the same oil!

You’ve probably noticed that your rotary cutter can get a build up of gunk under the blade. Left alone, it can cause the blade to roll less smoothly. Why does that matter? I have one word for you… SAFETY. Anything that makes you lean harder into the blade increases your chances of an accident. So let’s look at how to oil your cutter…

First, take the cutter apart. I always do it on a flat surface, and I put the parts down in a line in the order I take them off:


Next up, clean the mess off the blade cover (the grey haze on the black below), and VERY CAREFULLY off the underside of the blade:


Add a single drop of machine oil on the blade cover (terrible picture… I was trying to take it one handed and not pour a quart of oil over everything… but you get the idea, right?)


Then put it back together! If you’re tired of keeping track of the spring washer and nut when you take the cutter apart, consider getting one of Olfa’s new cutters with a quick release on the blade:


Just pull back on the yellow tab and it releases the pin that holds the blade in. This is a nice update to the cutter… the handle shape fits well in the hand and the whole thing is lighter than the original. (Disclosure… Olfa gave me one to review!)


FYI – the pull-down for the blade guard is higher on the handle than in the traditional cutter – it has taken a bit of getting used to. The bottom line is this… you must get the cutter that you will CLOSE. If you can’t easily push the guard up, then get one that springs back. You are NOT ALLOWED TO LEAVE THE THING OPEN on the table!

OK – back to the blades… When do you change out a blade? As soon as the sound of cutting doesn’t “swish” anymore… the sound gets harsher, louder, more grind-y as it dulls. As soon as you notice that you are leaning harder into the cut. And well before you notice that you had to go back and saw on a cut because of the dull spot from when you ran over something. The harder you lean into a cut, the more likely you are to have an accident. If you are really, really leaning in, and you jump the blade off the edge of the ruler, guess where it’s going to go? Right across your ruler hand. YEOWCH.

Yes they are expensive, but less so if you get the 5 or 10 pack on sale at the chain store with the coupon (and there is always a coupon… if not in the mail then in the chain store’s free smart phone app). And if you’re being a total peach, you’ll suck up the coupon difference and buy them at your local quilt store (you DO want the local quilt store to still be there when you want great fabric, right?).

Your hand is worth it. TRULY. If you slice up your tendons you are going to want a hand specialist to put them back together, because you need this hand to made more quilts without hurting for years to come.

How do you get rid of a dead blade? I collect them in a spare blade case, which gets tossed when it’s full:


And when I don’t have a case available, I tape them to a piece of mat board (these are my dead 60mm blades, and this piece of board hangs in my studio):


OK – now go clean your cutter and make something!

Get needled

Back when I started sewing, rocks were soft, dinosaurs roamed the earth… and my sewing machine had “a needle” in it. Just a needle… any old needle. I know there must have been spares somewhere because my mom was pretty exasperated when she had to find them because I broke one.

When I took my first quilt class, I showed up with a 10 year old Kenmore that probably had a 10 year old needle in it. Like a lot of people, I thought that you only changed the thing when it broke, and that the 5 pack you got when you bought the machine would last you a lifetime, assuming you weren’t an oaf. I didn’t know that there were different needles for different uses.

Things have changed, as things always do, and the information and technology around machine needles is no different. Now you actually have to choose a type of needle to sew with, which can be a confusing thing… as was pointed out to me by the friend that asked for this post. So here we go, Arlene – this one is for you!

First up – all this stuff is my opinion, so take it as gospel under your own risk. As they say – your mileage may vary. And nobody gave me free stuff so this is pretty much what I think without censorship.

What kind of needles do I buy? All Schmetz. I have some Superior needles that were given to me, and they are supposed to last longer (they ought to , given the increased price), but I can’t find any actual data on what “longer” is.

Schmetz has some great needle info here, and Superior has some here. Both are worth a perusal.


Schmetz also makes this handy little guide – you can often find them in stores. Schmetz provides them free to retailers so don’t let anyone charge you for it!


The book covers needle anatomy…


… and information specific to each type of needle.

All of this info is also on their site at the link above, so don’t fret if you can’t find the little blue book… they have it here as a PDF download.

If you’d rather not own the paper and would like to keep the information in your pocket, well guess what… there’s an app for that! All of the needle info and more is in a FREE iPhone/iPad app, and according to Schmetz the Android app will follow soon.

The needle choice is part the thread you are using, and part the fabric it’s going through. As for what I use:

For piecing – the 80/12 Denim needle. It’s one of the sharpest in the bunch, and it has a strong shank with a reinforced blade. This means that it’s less likely to break in a thick-seam situation. The strong shank also means it flexes less, making for a better stitch.

For decorative stitching – the 80/12 Topstitch needle. This needle is designed to not shred delicate threads as they rub up and down through the fabric during sewing – longer eye and more space in the scarf and groove (go read up on the anatomy and that will make sense). They are finer needles, so they break more often. I might go up to a 90/14 if I still get shredding trouble – these are larger in shank and eye so the thread gets more room to run.

For quilting – depends on the thread. If I’m using delicate thread, then the topstitch needle. One exception here – for Superior threads I use the 90/14 topstitch needle. The folks at Superior have kindly put their needle recommendation on the spool label, and I have found that when I follow it the stitching all looks great. Note to other thread manufacturers… DO THIS. We will blame your thread for misbehaving long before we figure out we have the wrong needle in the machine.

What about Universal needles? I don’t use them… the are a decent needle for most uses, but not really the best needle for any use. They are slightly ball-pointed (so that you can universally use them on stretchy stuff as well as wovens), which isn’t ideal for anything I make. I like to get the best needle for the job and dispense with the one-size-fits-most universals.

How often do I change the needle? After approximately 8 hours of sewing time, or after one project (a whole quilt top… not just a placemat). If in doubt, I change it. If I forget, the machine will let me know… the sound changes. There’s a popping or thumping noise with each stitch (I get the popping more with batiks as they are a tighter weave). It’s subtle, but when you sew a lot you’ll hear it. You’ll notice the machine sounds louder and less smooth. Also, one of my machines is a bit of a drama queen and will skip stitches as soon as the needle gets the slightest bit old. You will also see a degradation of stitch quality… the stitch line just isn’t quite as straight.

Every project? Yep. A needle costs a buck. Skip one expensive frothy coffee and have needles for FIVE projects. It’s like keeping the oil changed in your car (you DO change the oil in your car, yes?) – it helps the machine last longer by not asking it to expend additional force to punch a dull needle through the fabric.

How to keep track of needles that are used but not dead? How about this nifty widget from Grabbit Sewing Tools:Needle 6

It’s like a mouse pad that you can plant your needles into. And as an aside, the folks at Grabbit were lovely, friendly people at Quilt Market and had baskets of handmade caramels that they shared with me several times. Several times. Every time I went by they gave me more caramels. Damn fine caramels they were too. Nice people. Very nice people.

Another option is to get one of those old fashioned tomato pincushions, and write the needle types/sizes into the segments. Plant the needle into the right segment when not in use. I have one of these somewhere in the studio, but I forget to use it and usually just toss the needles. Saving the dollar isn’t as high on my list as saving the machine.

So there you go, Arlene! I hope it helps!

Tutorial – Mini Charm Pillow



I designed this groovy pillow for the good folks at Janome using the new 8900QCP, and they published it to their site this morning!

It uses mini-charms, those juicy little chubs of fabrics that are getting popular in the stores. I used Comma and Barcelona fabrics, both by Brigitte Heitland of Zen Chic (Moda) and Kona solids (Kaufman) as the supporting players. The pillow is 20” x 20”.

A confident beginner can make this one – it’s all straight seams – however, you will need good 1/4” accuracy as there are a few skinny pieces in there.

Go here for a full step-by-step with pix tutorial… it’s free!




Quarter inch, SCHMuarter inch!


Ah, the quarter inch seam allowance. The holy grail of quilting. Love or hate it, embrace it or ignore it – it can be friend or foe. For those of you who do most projects with a healthy dose of improv, this puppy might not be high on your list of things to master. But if you make things that need to fit together, getting a grip on it is a good thing. Master it well and you’ll never have to worry about it again.

Any time you add mastery to your craft, you get more room in your creative practice to play rather than fight with your skills or tools. No matter how much improvisational piecing you do, it will never hurt you to have a reliably accurate 1/4” seam in your arsenal.

Like most of us, I got my first intro the the quarter inch seam via a piece of carefully placed masking tape in my first quilting class. Which, once I had removed it to reload the bobbin, never got back to exactly the same place again. Harrumph.

I struggled with this on my old Kenmore until I bought my first Janome machine, which came with an exciting little widget called a Quarter Inch Foot. It has a flange down the side of the foot (see below). I was prepared to never miss the corners of a block ever again, expecting the heavens to open and harps to thrum, but alas… it didn’t make a perfect seam no matter which needle position I used – I was always a thread under or over. Bah.


So I grumbled about this to my quilt teacher, the fabulous Marilyn George. Marilyn was a wonderful teacher for newbies – utterly unflappable and full of humor – and full of all sorts of solutions as only a seasoned quilter would be. (Marilyn… all of this is *still* your fault!).

So Marilyn tut-tutted, and pulled a funny little foot out of my box of bits. “Behold the Adjustable Blind Hem Foot,” she said. I had ignored this foot because I thought it was for hemming pants, and I knew now that once I started quilting, such mending was supposed to be beneath me.

It’s an odd looking foot… it has a rolly wheel on one side (the adjustable bit) and a pretty healthy bumper that helps hold the edge of the fabric straight. After a few seams of fussing it into EXACTLY the right place and a dab of superglue on the wheel to stop it from moving, I had the perfect quarter inch foot – and I’ve been using it for some 20 years across three different Janomes!


And that big bumper extends further forward of the needle than the flange of the other foot, so I get my fabric aligned straighter and earlier as it approaches the needle. Having the bumper also means I don’t have to keep an eagle eye on my fabric wandering past the edge of the type of foot that doesn’t have a flange. This makes not only for accuracy, but for some serious speed too (helloooo efficiency!). Yes, I know… we’ve talked about this… it’s not all about how fast you can go. But if you can go faster with more accuracy, you get to make more stuff. And I really like making more stuff.

So here are some hints on how to set this foot up:

1. First find the Adjustable Blind Hem foot for your machine style. They tend to come standard with the higher end Janomes, and aren’t too expensive at all for the lower ones ($18 on Amazon at the moment). I imagine that all brands have one – or might have a foot that will clip to the Janome version. There should be a rolling wheel and a bumper.

2. Move your needle position to the LEFT, and roll the bumper about a 1/4” to the RIGHT of the needle. Now take a look at the set up, and make sure that your feed dogs are somewhat centered between the two. If they aren’t close to center, they could pull the fabric sideways – but we’ll be testing this so get close to centered for now. Use a ruler, and set up the space between the needle and bumper for a hair less than a 1/4” (that hair is taken up in the bend of the fabric at the seam when you press it open, so always start just under).

3. Accurately cut some swatches of fabric that are 1 1/2” wide, and 2 1/2” long. Make at least a dozen as we’ll be playing with some tiny adjustments here, and we don’t need to play with the seam ripper at the same time – ripping them apart can make them distort, so let’s use fresh swatches for this exercise.

4. Sew 2 of these swatches together along the 2 1/2” side. Press closed to set the stitches, and then press open.


5. Place the ruler over these two pieces, and make sure that the result is a piece that is EXACTLY 2 1/2” wide.


6. If it isn’t EXACT, adjust the bumper and sew two fresh swatches until you get it. While you are doing this, make sure that the fabric is tracking straight through the feed dogs. If it isn’t, then move the needle position and bumper together and re-test.

Don’t be discouraged if this takes a few goes. It’s worth it. Cut more swatches if you have to.

7. Now that you have it… one final test: sew 4 swatches together. This shows the accuracy better… one thread off on one seam might not show up but across three will be quite visible. Again, adjust and re-test until you are happy.


8. Put a drop of superglue on the wheel, and make note of the needle position. If you have a label maker, this is a good time to write that needle position on a label and stick it to your machine.

9. Go make a nice cup of tea (or your fave beverage). Sit back and admire your handiwork. You won’t have to re-do this until you buy your next machine!

All Printers Are Not Equal

My trusty testers and I have been trying out some new pattern ideas that include paper piecing. I like to use paper piecing when I need accuracy in small places, although I can find it a bit long-winded at times. The best cure for long-winded sewing that I know of is sewing with friends… somehow a project that, if done solo, might make you want to run screaming for the hills is a pleasant afternoon’s sojourn when done in the company of people you like hanging with. Add some chocolate and laughter and the afternoon turns into satisfying play.

We were playing with some words, and I missed printing one of the letters that morning before heading to my friend’s home. I at least had the PDFs with me… no problem, says friend, running to her office with the jump drive. Two minutes later we were looking at the pattern for the missing letter. Which was almost a full quarter inch shorter than the ones made by my printer at home. Hmm.

We solved the problem by tracing an existing pattern onto scrap paper – we are, after all, a resourceful bunch. But good to find out that all printers are not created equal during a test drive and not at a higher stakes moment. And duly noted for the tips in the pattern.

Tutorial – Pieced Backs

Often times at the quilt store, we have a customer agonizing over having purchased a few inches too much fabric (can there be such a thing?!) and fretting about having to keep it around when it doesn’t match the next idea in the queue. Often times this same customer is one who frets equally over the back of the quilt, having heard a rule somewhere along the line about solid one-fabric-only backs that have to match the fronts.

To which all I can say is horse feathers! Rules about backs? None exist… (regardless of what the crotchety biddies at your guild might say) short of the fact that there must be one.

I usually suggest that the customer makes a pieced back, starting with all the leftovers from the front, and this often gets me a horrified expression or blank stare. I get it… it seems like a lot of work, especially when you can probably buy some yardage and pop just one seam into it. But if you are minding your pennies (to buy new fabrics) and have some stash that could use being moved out (to make room for more new fabrics!), a pieced back is a good way to go. I also think it can be a fun surprise to turn a quilt over and find something interesting lurking back there.

So where do you start? Well… here’s the latest one I made, along with some running commentary about my decision process along the way:

Here’s the quilt top – a smaller version of Dingbats (coming soon!) made from Kona solids and an Alexander Henry “Matchstick” print (wonderfully colorful and whacky – just love it!) I have the top up on my ever handy design wall – I find that I can see so much better when it’s all vertical.

And here’s a pile of what was left over from making the top:

So – first course of action is to fuss that pile into some type of large block or rectangle. I chose to set the strips alternating back and forth, and then ended with the larger pieces at the top and bottom – I do this to frame the leftover section and to make attaching it to other pieces easier. And so this is where I ended up:

Only two little bits left over – not bad! These will go into my “Megan” bag, so named for a friend who likes to work with little scraps. She gets anything that I deem not worth keeping (which is anything under a 2.5″ strip, and odds and ends like these). Yes, I could have fussed these into one more strip somehow, but while I’m willing to burn some time on a pieced back, I’m not willing to burn the whole day at it. Thus, a judicious decision about how far to go with the scraps. Besides, it’s fun to see my fabric reappear in Megan’s projects :-)

Next, I start covering the quilt top with the leftovers, pinning them right on top. I aim to overshoot the quilt top by 2 to 4 inches on all sides – go for at least 4 if you plan to send it out.

The top piece is a full chunk of the Alexander Henry print (minus the binding, already made and put aside) and the bottom is the bits and pieces. Not a bad start, but a good ways to go. And so off to the stash drawers, specifically those with purple or red fabrics.

The purple drawer proved quite fruitful – lots of older but decent purple prints that I no longer love enough to hoard. Several colorways of a spotty design (I must have been on a roll there) and a lucky find of a purple with a wavy red stripe in it. The piece had never been cut so it was obviously waiting for this moment! So take a look at the lower right (above). I need another piece in here, but it could end up skinny, which isn’t an issue unless it puts me at risk for having a seam close to edge (which could interfere with how the binding settles in). So I moved the skinny strip towards the inside, and moved a wider piece to the outer edge. While I was at it, I moved the leftovers to the right too, to make the whole composition look more balanced to my eye.

The last addition is the chunk under the leftovers, a confetti-like print that looks like it belongs on a Miami Vice set. Old and un-hip, to be sure, but funky enough to play well here. And certainly a conversation piece when someone sees the back. “Yes, crazy fabric isn’t it, and to think I thought it was the coolest thing when I bought it back when rocks were soft!”

Next, I assembled the top half and bottom half and re-checked that I have enough space going around the edges (I will be quilting this one myself, so a little bit tight is okay).

If I needed a little more length (which I don’t), I can still add it in the middle. Remember, don’t add little bits at the edges in case the seams get close to the edge.

And here it is – done! It probably took me a little over an hour to make including running back and forth to the camera and trying to be aware of documenting my process for you.  Certainly not as fast two lengths and one seam – but now I have room for a little new fabric shopping!