My Top Ten Tips for Sewing on the Road

I’m a member of the Portland Modern Quilt Guild, and they have a fabulous arrangement for members to sew together once a month at Fabric Depot, a huge store with a huge classroom. I love sewing with friends… the creative energy and the exchange of help and ideas is so great to be a part of.

Packing for mobile sewing can be daunting (especially when we do it at the last minute), so I’ve assembled another group of tips for you, but this time with an eye to being on the road:

1. Dedicated Crate or Tote

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If you use the same container to travel, you’ll get used to how you pack it, and will be able to see quickly if something is missing from the puzzle. I like to use a crate for my basic supplies because it fits solidly on a hand cart, and then I use totes (and zippy bags) for the projects.

2. List

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Keep a list of your basic mobile items with your container. I once arrived a retreat without the box of feet for my machine, and had to give up a chunk of my shopping budget to buy another walking foot and piecing foot. Refer to the list while you pack or it won’t really work!

3. Name that Ruler

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Put your name on everything. With most of us using similar tools, and frequently borrowing from each other, having your name on things means you’re less likely to go home without them. On rulers, I prefer a quick scrawl of Sharpie to a label, because I can still read the ruler marks through the scrawl.

4. Ribbons

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Not keen on having all your stuff labeled like you are still in grade school? Use ribbons to tie through anything that has a hole or loop. Mine, of course, are ORANGE.

5. Old Mats

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When your studio mat starts getting worn, put it aside for mobile use when you buy a new one. That way you’ll fret less if the old mat gets bent or warped from being transported. You can also cut old mats down to a more packable size.

6. Trash Container

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Let’s face it, to sew is to create trash of threads and shreds. Be kind to your host by capturing as much of it as you can. This one was a gift from a friend, and collapses for easy packing.

7. Machine Cleaning Kit

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Take your machine oil and Q-Tips with you in case your machine needs to get de-fuzzed while you’re out. There is nothing more frustrating than setting up for a sewing day (or weekend) and then having your machine act up. Having oil and cleaning supplies on hand is the first step for a fussy machine.

8. Needles and Blades

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The second step for a fussy machine is a new needle. Bring a packet with you. And if you’re gone for more than a day, or your rotary cutter blade is on the old side, pack a spare blade too. Blades are easy to dent, and when you’re cutting in unfamiliar spaces you’re more likely to drop your tools.

9. Extension Cords

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I usually travel with these two – the big one for getting the wall power to my setup, and the little one to share the power locally. I also carry a “ground cheater” plug in case I’m in an older building that doesn’t have grounded outlets.

10. Let There Be Light!

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The Fabric Depot classroom is well lit, but I’ve sewed in many a hotel conference space that wasn’t. I keep this portable light in my mobile kit just in case. There’s never enough light once you head north of 40!

11. Magnetic Pincushion + Lid

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I prefer magnetic pin cushions to the traditional variety, and this one, made by Clover, has a lid that also clips onto the base when you’re using it. The lid keeps the pins covered while they’re in the kit, so that they don’t stab me when I’m least expecting it.

12. Band-Aids

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Because you never know when you (or a friend) will need one!

Please share your tips in the comments!

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My Top Ten Sewing Studio Hacks

Do you have tips, techniques, tools or hacks that make life in your sewing space easier or more efficient for you? Here are some of my favorites… please share yours in the comments!

1. Table Extensions

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Whether you sink your machine into some kind of sewing furniture (I use both the Janome Table and the Sew-Ezi table), or spring for the portable extension for your machine, having the bed of your machine extended across a table will allow you sew with more accuracy. The table gives you space to line up and straighten out your fabric before it reaches the needle.

2. Velcro on the Foot Pedal

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I sew on carpet, so my foot pedal is fond of going walkabout. A chunk of the hook side of sticky-back Velcro allows it to get a grip on the carpet. Your space isn’t carpeted? Try a decent sized square of the rubber mat sold for lining cupboards (I carry one in my portable kit so that if I sew somewhere else I’m ready for either).

3. Noodle on the Knee Lift

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The bigger machines of today all have knee lifts, and as the machine throats (or Harp Space, if we’re getting technical) get bigger, the knee lift gets further out to the right. Reaching it can be a bizarre form of inner thigh stretch. Buy a pool noodle that has a big hole through the middle, saw off a chunk (a bread knife is perfect for this) and slide/tug/push it on. It will bring the knee lift edge closer to you, and you won’t have mismatched thighs! Bonus: One pool noodle will get you three or four pieces so share with a friend!

4. Different Rotary Cutters for Different Uses

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I keep a selection of cutters around so that I can make it easily through different techniques. The 60mm one is for batting, fusible fleece, and when I’m cutting through more than 4 layers of fabric. I have an extra 45mm one specifically for cutting paper, or trimming paper pieced blocks (this gets my older blades). The 28mm is for smaller pieces and curved templates.

5. Cone Stand Hack

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Don’t have a cone stand? Do this instead… Grab a big coffee mug or a big canning jar. The base of the cup or jar needs to be bigger than the spool’s base or it will wedge. If using the jar, go wide-mouth so you can get your hand in if needed. Pop the thread into it and set it up next to your machine. Tape a safety pin (closed, sharp point down) to the edge of your machine such that you can go from the jar into your thread path in as straight a line as possible. Thread through the end hole in the safety pin and into the thread path.

6. Slider on the Machine

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Cover the path to the needle of your machine with a chunk of Supreme Slider (I had a damaged one that I cut in half for this). It will help stop seams from flipping the wrong way underneath as you come into the needle. For paper-piecing, it helps the paper slide across the machine bed, and stops the dreaded flip of the underneath piece. Tip: rinse the slider off at the beginning of every sewing session to keep it sticking on the bed.

7. Needle Threader

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If you can see to thread a needle easily, huzzah! File this away for the day after your 40th birthday for when, suddenly, your arms need to be longer to read anything. This little goody is the Desk Needle Threader made by Clover. Put the needle in eye down, lay thread across the path, push the lever, pull out the threaded needle. It also has a cutter across the top so you don’t have to risk your scissors to the capriciously enforced rules of the TSA.

8. Sticky Notes

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Do you go back to same machine settings over and over? Keep them close by on sticky-notes. I also use them to mark cuts of fabric when I need to keep it all straight.

9. Zippy Bags

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I use these relentlessly to corral projects and their parts. Being as I paper-piece a lot of words (and always precut for them), I bag the parts for each word as I’m cutting. I play a lot less 52-pick-up when I move things around in bags.

10. Tweezers

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I keep two sets on hand – one has teeth in the tip, the other has flat ends. I use the first mostly for pulling paper out of paper-pieced seams, and the flat ones for pulling up threads at the machine.

11. Non-sticky Hand Lotion

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Fabric will steal the moisture from your hands, so I use these little tins of hand lotion bars. Lavishea and LoLo Bar make my two faves, and I like the citrusy smells. Dump the bar into your hands, give it a quick rub, pop it back into the tin, and massage the lotion into your hands. Neither of these products leave a sticky residue! Bonus: when your hands have some moisture, you’ll be able to grip the fabric better, and pick up single pieces from stacks.

12. Scrap Pillow Case

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No matter how many scraps you keep, there’s still a point at which you’ll toss out the smallest bits of fabric. Put together a simple pillow case from that “what was I thinking?” fabric you bought a while back, and throw your scraps into it. When it’s full, run a sturdy seam down the edge, and drop it by your local animal shelter next time you’re out running errands.

Ooops – that was twelve! No matter!

Please share your fave tips in the comments.

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Finishing Birch Bark

The games continued yesterday, and as promised, here are more detailed shots and more process information as I finished the Birch Bark quilt for Hoffman Fabrics. As always – if you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll answer as best I can!

The first job of the day was to make the backing. I had yardage for this, so no pieced backing needed. One seam did the trick. BTW, if you don’t have the Creative Grids yardstick ruler, you NEED one. I can’t believe how much I use it.

IMG_4967It’s still important to take off the selvedges on the seams for a back. You’ll notice that they are often tighter than the rest of the fabric, so if still in the seam they can lead to puckers on the back. Also, and again especially with batiks with their denser weave, the thicker edge can make you break a needle. I used a 1/4 inch seam and pressed it to one side. Had I been sending it to a long arm artist, I would have used a 1/2 inch seam for extra insurance, and pressed it open to reduce density (or asked for the artist’s preferences).

I use spray baste, specifically 505. I think it is the least smelly of the bunch, and holds well for a long time (seriously, I’ve had stuff spray basted in the bottom of the closet for a couple of years and didn’t need to re-do it when the time came to quilt it). When I started using spray, I didn’t get shown how by the people that “knew” so I daresay my method could be considered wrong. But it works well for me with the studio tools I have available so let me see if I can explain it well in pix (one of these days I swear I will attempt video).

First I clip the back down to my table. It’s one of those old, heavy, particle board affairs and it’s perfect for the job. Just like when you pin baste, it’s important to have a smooth tension on it, but don’t stretch the back or you WILL get wrinkles. I work from top to bottom on the quilt, not from the center. The TOP is on the left for reference.

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Then I lay the batting and top onto it. BTW – see the fan in the background – you need to have some type of fan pulling the air out of your space when you do this… I also cover all the important stuff with old sheets because it will all get sticky otherwise!

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I fold them both back, and spray the backing fabric (imagine video of me spraying here)

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Then I smooth the batting down, and spray the batting. I start at the center and move towards the edges. But don’t stretch!

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Then smooth the top down the same way.

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At this point, it’s glued from the top to the edge of the table. I unclip everything, move it towards the top so that all but about 4 inches of the the glued stuff is hanging off the top edge of the table.

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Then I re-clip the top edge (that’s glued) on the outside of the sandwich, and re-clip the backing only at the bottom edge.

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Now, we’re doing the same thing, but working from the other side of the table. Spray the backing and smooth down the batting.

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Then spray the batting, and smooth down the top. And move it again. Once you get to the bottom of the quilt, only move it as much as needed to get the bottom of the quilt onto the table. This stops you from overspraying batting and backing that might go back into your stash.

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Once all the spraying is done, unclip everything and give it a trim. I trim about an inch away.

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And done. A quick flip to the back to see if there are any wrinkles that need attending to…

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Looks good. And now onto quilting! I put this one back on the design wall to contemplate it. My first thought was to do a spiral, but that involves a lot of turning on the quilt, and remember, this one needed to get finished quickly. So I decided to go with a straight line pattern – fast and easy to do with a walking foot. This design was inspired by something my friend Flaun did recently on a commission. I set the lines on diagonal so as not to run into issues keeping them parallel to the seams in the top.

Another reason for choosing this design is that every line starts and stops OFF the edges. This also reduces the time spent pulling up threads or burying them later.

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I needed to find the right starting point for the center, and the “rule of thirds” worked well here… things that are off center in such a way that they align with thirds are usually pleasing to the eye. Here’s the third in both directions marked with a square of batting so you can see it:

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I chalked out the initial X of the design while it was on the wall so that I could see the angles.

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BTW – I used a Chaco Liner in white for this. I find the white comes off dark fabric easily, although sometimes it can be faint. I wanted a fine line to follow, and this does fine lines beautifully. I will also say that I use their other colors with reservation… sometimes they don’t come out too well. In their defense, Clover states in a blog post I dug up that they were designed for marking dress seams and darts that would be hidden, so it coming out quilts wasn’t part of the product design.

I chalked out one quadrant – one of the smaller ones to start with.

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And now to thread choices! I have a lot of Robison Anton rayon threads in my studio. I bought them before I discovered the likes of Aurifil (my #1 piecing thread) and Isacord (which I like to quilt with too), so I still use them. No sense in waste! I have quilting friends that don’t like to use rayon for “utility” quilts – those that will get used and washed a lot – as they might be too delicate and break under wear and tension. Most of my quilts are designed for photographing on pattern covers, and then carted around for trunk shows. So while I would never use nasty cheap thread, the RA is fine for how I use my quilts. I do have some utility quilts that have RA quilting that is holding up just fine – so as always – your mileage may vary!

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I ended up choosing an ORANGE. Surprise! I also want to show you these – they are Steady Betty Bands. They wrap around the palm of your hand to give you traction while quilting. I quilt with my palms, not my finger tips, so most of the gloves don’t work well for me. I also like that I can re-thread the machine or handle scissors with them on. They could be a prettier color though!

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And on to quilting! I marked one quadrant and quilted it before marking the next so as not to rub off all my chalk lines. For reference, it took 2 bobbins worth of thread to complete. The quilting unfortunately doesn’t show up well on this picture – often times the quilting on batiks gets lost in the fabric patterns.

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And onto the binding. Again, I put the quilt back on the wall while I worked out the binding choices. I had two ORANGE fabrics to work with, and liked the darker one better.

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I like to make bias binding when I can. I don’t find it any harder to cut and sew, and I like how it settles in on the edge.

How to calculate? Perimeter +20 (for goof-ups) times 2 1/2′ (width of binding), then divided by 40 (the width of the fabric), then rounded up to the next whole number, plus one (for goof-ups). In this case that was 18” x WOF. And I had about 30” left over so pretty dang perfect!

I lay it out on the mat, and make the first 45 degree cut at one corner.

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Then cut the rest of the fabric in 2 1/2” strips.

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And finally, take that first triangle that was left behind and cut it too. I leave behind the last corner triangles – usually anything under 8” (that’s why the +20 and round-up in my calculations)

Sew them end to end. Mind your right sides and wrong sides with batiks!

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Press those seams open, and the press the whole thing wrong sides together.

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And here’s the last edge getting sewn down. I join my edges with a bias seam, but that’s a game for a different post!

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Last step – I press the binding out so that when I do the hand work it folds over better.

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And DONE. This step, from making the back to ironing the binding was about 5 hours, sewing at the Speed of Sam!

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I sew the back of the binding down by hand because I like how it looks. This one took me the length of the Avengers movie on Netflix and a healthy dose of chocolate!

Total time for the entire project is right around 12 hours – but I was seriously hustling. If I was bidding it as a custom job for someone I would estimate 15 hours for safety, and surprise them with a little discount if I finished faster.

Questions? Do ask! I’m happy to help you make more quilts!

BTW – Did you join my mailing list yet? Do it here. I’m dreaming up groovy exclusive stuff for you!

 

 

Tool crush – Moleskines… in COLOR!

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Like a lot of folks in the arts (fine arts, writing arts, or otherwise) at one point in my career I discovered Moleskine notebooks. They are discrete little black numbers, made in several sizes, and once I knew about them I swear I saw them everywhere. In contrast to the pretty journals I found next to the checkout of every bookstore, these slender black books seemed to telegraph a certain dedication for the pursuit of creativity, not to mention an air of mystery.

Considering myself appropriately dedicated to my art career, I bought one and soon became a devotee. It was the first sketchbook I owned that felt good to carry. There were several features that wowed me, starting with the lack of spiral wire to get caught up in everything. It had an elastic band to keep it closed, and a lovely little pocket in the back for ephemera and various scraps of paper bearing treasured scribbles. Best of all, when opened, it laid flat at the center seam. Heaven. I chose the Large size – 5.4 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches (they are available both bigger and smaller). It fit perfectly in my handbag at the time, and I’ve bought or designed every other bag I’ve owned since based on whether or not the Moleskine fit. It is no longer a curiosity or affectation – it is a necessary tool in my everyday creative practice.

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My paper of choice is Plain – no lines, no grids. I am very much a Word Girl – my drawings are built of words rather then traditional lines. And despite my passion for words, I find lined paper very confining when I want to capture ideas… their very linear-ness makes me feel like they will corral my non-linear thoughts and turn them into dull monotony. I want to write large and small, straight and slanted – and when I do actually draw, I don’t want my ideas straightened out by lines.

(And a huge shout out to my beloved MFA mentor Mark Rooker for assuring me that it was fine that I write rather than draw during grad school, as long as I had a way that worked for me to capture my ideas. Some of the other profs gave me a heck of time about not liking to express myself in drawing. And all I can say to that is we don’t all make art the same way, folks!)

As I’ve moved from one tattered journal into a crispy new counterpart, I have imagined that this stack of little black books might one day become part of my “papers” – a cache of my ideas deemed worthy of collection, or perhaps even study. I like to think that some paper might survive the digital age! So there they sit on the shelf, lined up like Rockettes, with only their dated spines to tell them apart in their dark beauty.

But the line-up might get a new member soon. Black, for once, might fall out of fashion, at least in my studio. There are some new dancers in town, and one of them is wearing ORANGE.

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Oh my. I do love ORANGE. It’s not the deeper ORANGE of my Tangerine Tango dreams, but it’s cheerful and sunny. And that might be a nice vibe to telegraph when I’m out drawing my words, while still keeping my secrets.

Right now I have a relatively new black one on the go, and yet another in its plastic as backup. I would hate to waste it, but hmm… it could be given as a gift… so that I could make a date with the ORANGE one sooner. We’ll have to see if I continue my tradition, or accept the invitation of a new dance partner.

How do you capture your ideas, and which color might be yours?

Process – tools!

If you recall, one of the things I pointed out in my original post about process was my desire for efficiency. I like to feel that I waste as little time/fabric/money/regret as possible so as to allow room for more. “More what?” you may ask. More of everything… more time, more groovy things made or designed, more play, more freedom, more future… a little existentialist perhaps, but there you have it! MORE.

In concrete terms, efficiency becomes a big deal in how I choose my tools. So here’s what I use, and why I chose them (and I have no affiliations so this is not an infomercial!). And I would love to hear about your faves in the comments – you might be turning me onto my next big tool crush!

Before I get going – a quick word about labels… if you ever take your sewing kit on the road, be sure to mark your name on EVERYTHING. It makes for saner retreats and workshops, and less misunderstandings about whose ruler is getting passed around. I use Sharpie pens on most things (especially the rulers so that there is no label obscuring the one section of the ruler I’m bound to be looking at). And when I’m not using Sharpie I use ribbons (which will make sense once you see the pix). Mostly ORANGE ribbons. Like you needed to be told that!

So let’s start at the cutting table..

Like many quilters, I grew up with the dark green Olfa mat, but a couple of years ago I was introduced to a mat made by Fiskars that is pale green on one side and pale yellow on the other – easy to reverse depending on the color of fabric you are working with! A bonus with this mat is it lasts twice as long because once you’ve grooved the heck out of one side you just flip it over.

Also – note the dots in the squares on the yellow surface above. This is some additional alignment help that I’ve come to appreciate.

For rulers, I use Omnigrid and its newer sister Omnigrip, which has scrubby/grippy bits on the underside to help mitigate the slipperies. I prefer the grippy texture and green color of the Omingrip (I seldom use that color of green fabric so it shows up well) but I’ve had my Omingrids a long time with few issues (and I’m too frugal to replace them without good cause). And if you take a look, you’ll see that the Omnigrips also have those extra alignment dots I like. The sizes I use most are 6″ x 24″, 6″ x 12″, 3″ x 18″ and 4″ x 14″. Yes, I know that Creative Grids have the same grippy texture on the back, but most of their rulers are something-and-a-half inches, and I’m not used to that dang HALF (having used whole number sized rulers for twenty odd years). I invariably cut wrong with them because I’m not catching that I aligned the wrong side – which makes for a reduction of efficiency and increase in waste, not to mention a rather grumpy Sam.

However – there is a caveat to just about everything. Behold, above, the Creative Grids yardstick. It’s 2.5″ x 36.5″ and I’m utterly in love with it. Definitely a tool crush. I cut mostly 2.5″ bias binding and this is my go-to ruler for that and any fabric that is 60″ wide. Get one. You can thank me later.

And onto the rotary cutters. Again, I grew up with the original Olfa 45mm cutter and haven’t found a reason to abandon it (and I got to test a bunch of them for the team that is now GenQ Mag so I’m not just being an old-school luddite). I do keep a 60mm version too, and use it for cutting batting, fusible fleece, canvas, and any other thick or weird stuff. I also keep a spare cutter designated for paper. Note that it has different identifying ribbons so that when I grab the handle out of the pot I know which 45mm I’m getting.

One thing I will say, nay SHOUT, about rotary cutters is this: if you are not willing to close the blade yourself when you put it down (or you have hand issues that make it difficult to slide the guard closed), you MUST buy one that will close for you. YOU MUST. You may NOT have blades out in the open. Because getting a bad cut is REALLY inefficient. Not to mention terribly inconvenient. And somewhat embarrassing.

This lovely little goody is another tool crush – a magnetic pincushion by Clover that has a lid. No more putting the pincushion into a Tupperware to take it out of the house. And the lid clips to the bottom when you need it open. Swoon! My only complaint is that it doesn’t come in ORANGE. What were they thinking?

Clover also makes the best seam ripper in town – this one consistently wins magazine test drives for its nice fine point and a good sharp blade. I keep a spare new one on hand at all times and toss the one next to the machine as soon as it starts snagging (and then buy another new one to keep spare). I think I had my first seam ripper for a decade, never realizing that they need to be replaced periodically!

Last tool for this post – a small pair of scissors. These are by Fiskars, but I know that they are being made by several companies now. I use them at the machine to trim threads from the surface of a quilt when I am quilting. That little bend keeps me from snicking a cut into the fabric.

Hmmm…. I spy a purple ribbon. Heresy! Must change that!