Birch Bark at the “Speed of Sam”

If you follow a lot of the quilting industry people, you’ll see one of two things this week… either frantic posts about the last minute finishes we all seem to be pulling off for next week’s Spring Quilt Market in Pittsburgh – or utter silence, because of said frantic finishing! As the saying goes, if it wasn’t for the last minute, nothing would get done! And stitching binding on the plane to Market is almost a given.

I’ve sewn last minute stuff for three Markets now. I’m honored to be on call for Hoffman Fabrics… I design patterns that work well with their batiks, and so they often reach out for a booth quilt made of their newest lines. They got their new fabric in last week (no joke) and mine arrived Monday night.

Birch Bark - COVER

They asked for Birch Bark – one of my quick strip quilt patterns – so yesterday, I decided to photo and time myself through the top construction. I was posting on Instagram (@huntersds) and FB, but if you missed it, here are some of those shots and more, along with some of the thought process in my head. It has been a couple of years since I made one, so I estimated 5 hours for the top construction.

Hoffman sent me this new Bali Pop, which I believe will be called Sparrow. It’s all beautiful warm browns with some deep cranberry thrown in. They also sent me a couple of different ORANGE selections for the accent – they know me well! I chose the spotty one, and might use the solid for the binding (we’ll see when I get there).

Some of the new patterns in the batiks (known as “tjaps” and pronounced “chops”) are trending towards more modern and geometric patterning – and they are lovely! This group has those as well as the more organic, nature-driven patterns we’ve come to expect.


The first step is always to take off the selvedges. Even though batiks are printed to the edge, that quarter inch of selvedge is made of thicker stuff (the warp threads are doubled at the edges). It can break your needles and distort your seams, so best be off with them!


Next – chop up the strips and cut the accent pieces:


To the machine! It needed a little TLC before I started. Out with the lint, in with a new needle. New needles can matter greatly with batiks as their weave is tighter. I use a Jeans/Denim 80/12 for all my piecing, and that sharp jeans tip is great for batiks.


I chain-pieced the accents onto the strip sections…


… and then chain-pieced those end to end to make a really, really long strip. Birch Bark is based on the Jelly Roll Race in terms of construction, so there are about 1600 inches of strip to wrangle.


To the iron! I iron all the seams in the same direction for ease and speed.


The strip gets turned into strata. I don’t press this until it’s all done.


Now it can be pressed:


The strata is cut into chunks, and the chunks go up on the design wall:


There were a few areas where colors or accent bars came together in a way that I didn’t like.


So I took out a seam in those blocks, and just moved one section to the other side of the piece I took it from. Even though the construction on this is partly about giving in to the randomness of how it comes together, you still get to manicure the parts that don’t make you happy!


And seven seams later – top is DONE:


It took 3 1/2 hours (4 from start to finish with a half hour break for lunch). Yes, I sew quite fast – my friend Melissa Z coined the phrase “Sewing at the Speed of Sam” after sitting next to me at a retreat! But I also have fast machines – both a Janome 6500 and 8900, which have delightfully fast top speeds. Still, you could still make this top in a day sewing sanely with plenty of breaks.

So today, I will be basting and quilting it. I will photograph/Instagram.FB my way through for that too, and will post it tomorrow. If you have any questions about why I do what I do the way I do it, ask on FB and I’ll try to answer those questions either as I work, or in tomorrow’s post.

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Filling the well – more process

Last week I experimented with a different way of working… instead of just working one thing to the end of a logical step, I tried giving several important things a spot of focus in the same day. When I work one thing at a time it feels like other things may begin to rot from lack of attention. I start to get unfocused on what I’m doing because I’m worrying that the neglected children on my to-do list are getting up to something naughty – and such lack of focus usually makes for some type of mess (an over-looked commitment, sewing through my finger…)

So I attempted to inch the major tasks forward all at the same time, and the result was that I was even more scattered. A great experiment in process, but in the end, not one that fit me well. Remember what I say about process – it’s the one that works for you that counts!

After a couple of days of feeling like a juggling clown, I was ready to take to the couch with an attack of the vapors, and possibly a box of chocolates (I would have gone to See’s, and had them hand-pack my favorite dark morsels – hellooooo Dark Chocolate Butterchew!). But instead, I decided to fill my mind instead of my tummy – and I headed for the Getty Center.

It would be easy to list the downsides* to living in Los Angeles, but being close to several world-class museums is not one of them. As they change their special exhibitions often, you can bet that on any given day there is more new art to look at than you can handle. This particular day was bright and sunny, the perfect day for refilling the well.

Refilling the well. Sharpening the saw. Feeding your head. When you live a life of creative output, there must be a balancing input. Yin and yang, circle of life, field and fallow. If we don’t occasionally feast, we will hit creative famine. Finding inspiration is a necessary part of artistic endeavor, and it is critical to your creative well-being to make this just as important as any other task in the studio.

Image courtesy of the Getty - Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter

Image courtesy of the Getty – Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter

My reason for choosing the Getty was the young lady above, visiting our fair city for six very short weeks. She is Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. I was fortunate to be among sparse crowds as I absorbed the painting’s mysteries, and spent about 20 minutes just looking deeply at the work.

She is lovely. While I’m picky about the realistic painting I like, every Vermeer I’ve had the privilege of getting my nose up to has taken my breath away. It’s not just that the painting technique is sublime, it’s the immediacy of moment that he captures. They feel as un-posed as Cartier-Bresson’s street photography, and they are so very enigmatic. Who is she? What’s in that letter? Is it good news or bad? I love getting lost in the questions a work asks me. (The Getty asked their blog followers to write the opening line of the letter).

And then there are the technical marvels. The tiny flecks of light added to the studs on the chairs to give them dimension. The myriad shades of blue – and not just in her jacket. They are deep, dark, bright, shiny, sunny, airy… how many ways can you use a blue? They are in the chairs, the finial, the walls, the cloth, even reflected into the envelope on the table. There is tension in her hands, and a slight parting of her lips. Is it a gasp of surprise? An exhalation on the cusp of despair? Vermeer allows us the room to craft our own story for her.

After my time with the lady, I re-visited a few favorite pieces, and then ate my lunch in the gardens while getting some sunshine on my skin. Head filled with ideas. Tummy filled with healthier fare than those chocolates. Heart filled with beauty. Art always makes things right in my world.

*And then I hit the traffic filled freeways to get home :-)

PS – Vermeer’s legendary Girl with the Pearl Earring is at the De Young Museum in San Francisco until June 2nd (first time out of Holland in 30 years). I’ll be making my way there soon!

And MORE process: Scraps

Taking care of a fabric stash is easy, but what do you do with your scraps? How small do you go? And how can they be stored?

I used to keep boxes of them, but eventually just quit doing that because I just don’t seem to use them in the way that I work. They would pile up in tubs and bags, which bothers the side of me that hates messy space. But then I would feel bad about tossing them – surely someone could take this fabric so that I don’t have to put it in a landfill!

This year it all fell into place for me… I finally have a process for scraps that seems to flow well for me. And that’s the most important part about YOUR process…. it has to flow well for YOU.

First up – off come the selvages (man, that word looks weird… being a Brit, I prefer selvedge, but for clarity we’ll go with the American spelling :-). They go into the Adva Bag. Adva is a friend who makes lovely things out of them, like this sweet little birdie:


Every time I see one of her selvage projects I think, waitaminute! I should be keeping them! I should make these cute things! But then I realize that I won’t actually do it – it really is not my way of working. So off to Adva they go, and besides… sometimes I get something cute back, like my birdie! Check out that ORANGE tail. It truly is mine!

Next, I have a staging area… I put all my scraps into a bin until it overflows (or I need to fiddle with something while I’m procrastinating something else).


These are chunks that are big enough for me to want to fuss with. When I get around to cutting them, I will cut them into 2.5″ strips of any length, and file them in the strip drawer:

IMG_2924The strips are sorted into Solids, Batiks, and Everything Else. Being as I often design with strips, these make for excellent raw testing material for working out ideas, and as I culled them from scraps, I have few reservations about chopping into them to figure something out.

The bits that are too small for strips go into my Megan Bag. Megan is a friend who does quilted portraits (you can commission one on Etsy) and things like this:

crumbrunner2That then get turned into things like this:

Picking up the pieces

Megan made this by using tiny pieces as her “sew-on” and “sew-off” scraps on her machine. Every time she sews something, she pieces scraps together until she has blocks, and then pieces the blocks, and so on.

I’m in awe…. I tend to be serially monogamous to my projects and just can’t wrap my head around sewing bits for this while making blocks for that. So it’s great that Megan loves this kind of fussy because now my scraps have somewhere to go.

And then there is the stuff that is just too scrappy for Megan. That goes into the Barbara Bucket.


This is a re-purposed red licorice tub, ready for the shreds, threads, and bits of batting that I trim when squaring up fabric and quilts. Barbara uses them to stuff pillows for a local homeless shelter.

I see all three ladies at least once a month at a minigroup meeting, and happily distribute the bags of things I no longer keep. It makes me so happy to know that, even though my process doesn’t make use of such scraps, they go somewhere useful!

The “You Made Me Clean My Studio” Sale!

There’s nothing like outing the mess in your studio to make you clean it up – it’s right up there with inviting people over to dinner so that you’ll clean house! As I was looking through the photos to add to the previous posts, I got the urge to sort out some of the stuff that was really beginning to bother me. Looks like I’m not the only one that happens to!

The things that were weighing on me the most were the tallest piles. The boxes on top of my book case were beginning to feel like they were looming over me, like Snoopy doing his vulture impression. And the rack was just out of control… piled high and beginning to shift and wobble… you know how it is – touch one thing and the whole mess tries to jump into your lap.

So – I gave myself an afternoon to improve the space… I waited until I had the right amount of ruthless coursing through my veins, put on dusty clothes and some righteous Motown tunes and got busy! I tossed a couple of bags of trash, donated a couple bags of things I was no longer using to my sewing pals, and relocated 4 boxes to the garage. Now I feel like I can actually breathe! This is what I have now:

Just taking down all the big dark items from the top of the bookshelf allowed more light into the room.

I sorted the chaos on top of the drawers, and put some things in tubs to stop them from getting sloppy or toppling.

And on the rack… several boxes got moved out to the garage, and a couple of others got reworked into different space. I also started working through my “need to quilt these” pile which lives on this rack. WHEW!

There are only two boxes left that need to leave (those two on the bottom left of the rack), and they are currently filled with kits for my shop. So let’s have a SALE! All the kits in my shop are now discounted by 25-30%! And they all include the pattern for free (which is a $10 savings by itself!). So head to the shop and treat yourself to a deal! My studio and I will thank you!

Process – how’s your space?

I’ve been musing a lot about PROCESS of late. How I work, how I navigate my space, how I navigate my time.

While I was in graduate school (MFA in Fiber) I was “encouraged” to work in processes that were unfamiliar or uncomfortable… in essence my favorite toys and tricks were forbidden so that I would get out of my comfort zone. It was at times painful and frustrating, but the game afoot was to make me try this other stuff out so that I could either adapt some of it into my process, or return to my process without any of it and at least understand why I do things the way I do them. I’m sure my professors would be happy to hear I kept a few things in the improved toolbox!

Thus, I’m going to describe some bits and pieces of my process (over the course of various posts) to offer some insight into why I work the way I work, and perhaps there will be a gem or two amongst the scraps that could end up in your toolbox too…

One of the things I look at a lot is how efficiently I’m working. Efficiency is important to me, but not in the “I need to finish first” kind of way. It’s important because I have so, so many things I want to work on, so if I can increase my efficiency, I might actually get to more of them! And so, along this vein, this post is about how I have my workspace set up.

I am lucky to have a studio. Now, before you imagine one of those light dappled spaces in the glossy studio magazines, mine isn’t like that! It is a narrow space that was once a storage room in a friend’s studio, and I’ve puzzled it out into something that is working well (and just so you know, I used a similar set up when I kept most of this in the dining room). Here are two panoramic shots (how I love the Pano app on my phone!), one taken from each end of the space. It’s 18′ long by 8.5′ wide, or as a friend remarked, somewhat of a glorified hallway!

There are two principles afoot in this space… on one side is the stuff that doesn’t move – shelves, drawers, racks (the rack does have wheels but there is nowhere to roll it!); and on the other side stuff that can be moved and collapsed to accommodate what I’m doing – the design walls, the tables, my sewing table (I use a Sew-Ezi and love it). The non-moving side has been built to go UP – everything is shelved, modular, stackable, etc. And any surface on top of those is flat for more storage area.

My cutting table is a chunk of particle board across two shipping crates that my friend needed to leave in the space, and in that wonderful happy accident way, they are the perfect height for me for cutting. I made the board on top bigger than my mat so that I had room around it to store tools (I will get into my tool choices in another post), and I taped off the edges of the board to avoid snagging fabrics. The plastic drawer box fit between the crates perfectly, and I keep all my marking tools, pens and pencils in the top drawer.

For tool storage, I have a hybrid mix of things designed for sewists, and things appropriated from the Tupperware cabinet and office supply aisles. Full disclosure here… organizing widgets draw me in like a magpie to shiny. I love me some little boxes! But I would also rather save my pennies than have a full matchy-matchy array of plastic, so I scrounge and re-purpose. My rulers are stacked in a little metal filing thingy; weights in half a plastic box from the dollar store. Cutters, pens and scissors in metal pots from the craft store. The rule at this table is that everything I need to cut is right where I can grab it without having to dig or fuss. Also… I’m right handed, so notice that cutters are on the right and rulers to the left, which is how I actually use them. It might seem a little OCD, but it’s not… it’s just efficient… grab the cutter in one motion (notice the handles are up and ready just like a relay baton) and the ruler in another and I’m cutting.

And in the last shot for this post…. my bookshelf. What would we do without Ikea? This guy holds stacks of things that don’t fit easily into drawers, or that need to be visible (thread) or grabbable (more scissors, pens, note pads, snacks!). I keep most of my thread organized by type, then color, but I keep it in boxes so that it doesn’t get dusty. Only cones of my piecing threads are out, mostly because I use them so much. Next to the book shelf are box/drawers of fabric… more about those in another post!