Cindy, a friend of a friend, asked if I would finish a “Jacks on Six” quilt top her mother pieced years ago. She found the top while looking through some dresser drawers and thought it would be a wonderful gift for her soon expected granddaughter. I agreed to finish this family treasure for the next generation’s use and enjoyment.
As with most vintage quilt tops, this one did not lie flat when spread out on the floor. My usual solution is to use a high loft batting manufactured by Fairfield. But I wanted to give the quilt weight as well as pouf, so I used Hobbs 80% cotton/20% polyester AND Fairfield low loft polyester batting. The poly batting and simple meandering quilting in the quilt’s interior helped to ease in fullness. I used off-white thread because most quilts made in the 70s were quilted with white thread. A curling vine adds interest in the narrow white border.
Working with this quilt caused me to compare the “rules” we quiltmakers follow today with the quiltmaking conventions of the 70s.
Rule #1 – Thou shalt make quilts with 100% quilting cotton. Haven’t you heard this rule preached ad infinitum? The reason behind the rule is that using the same fibers throughout the quilt will ensure that it goes together without puckers resulting from uneven stretching and that the quilt will wear evenly over time. In contrast, besides quilt-weight cottons, Cindy’s quilt contains kettle cloth, seersucker, cotton/poly blends, and light weight canvas for home decorating.
Rule #2 – Thou shalt buy thy fabric at quilt shops for they shall surely offer quality merchandise. We love all the cotton manufactured especially for us quilters! And we patronize local quilt shops to purchase the solids, tone-on-tones, geometric prints, florals, stripes, and plaids. Contrast our current practice with the idea of making quilts with scraps left over from garment and home decorating projects. I don’t know about you, but I rarely make clothing; it’s less expensive nowadays to buy readymade clothing. And it’s generally less expensive to buy readymade curtains and pillows. But 40 years ago this was not the case. Many homemakers made clothing for themselves and their families as well as curtains and pillows for decorating. And thrifty ladies used the scraps to make quilts.
Rule #2a – Thou shalt surely not re-purpose bed sheets for thy quilt. Many bed sheets are woven with a higher thread count than quilting cotton, offering resistance to the needle which might translate into skipped stitches when machine quilting. Contrast this rule with a current trend among some quilters to use vintage sheets, softened with years of use, as quilt backings. You can appreciate the available source of white fabric found on the edges of a sheet too worn in the center for bed use. Cindy’s mother used white sheeting as a narrow border around the quilt.
Rule #3 – Thy scrap quilts shall look color coordinated. Nowadays fabric companies require designers to design 10-20 prints and tone-on-tones that would coordinate well in a “planned scrappy” quilt. Compare this marketing trend with the earlier practice of “everything goes” in a scrap quilt. Orange, red, and pink set side by side; large scale prints, ginghams, stripes; no matter the style, all can go in the same quilt.
Rule #4 – Thou shalt cut thy pieces accurately. Rotary cutters and rulers help us with this task. Consider the simple tools quiltmakers used prior to the invention of the rotary cutter: scissors, light weight cardboard for templates, and marking pencils for tracing around the templates. Most quiltmakers today aim for precision in cutting whereas many quilters in past generations, who did the best they could with what they had, counted on copious hand quilting to compensate for piecing anomalies.
Rule #5 – Thou shalt piece efficiently. Today’s quilt designers study quilt block designs, asking, “Could this block be made a simpler way?” Take a close look at this “Jacks on Six” block. Notice that the block is made entirely of half square triangles. I would have substituted squares for 3 of the HST units. However, using triangles allows for an interesting mitered effect when using stripes as you can see in the photo below.
Rule #6 – Thou shalt sew consistent scant ¼” seam allowances. This is the biggie, the most important rule most quilt instructors harp on! Upon inspecting the back of this quilt, I discovered that the seam allowances varied from 1/16” to 3/8” in width. This inconsistency caused the blocks and the quilt to bubble (not lie flat).
Rule #7 – Thou shalt use neutral thread. Most quiltmakers these days piece with off-white, tan, light gray or pale yellow, feeling these neutral colors will blend with most of the fabrics in their quilts. Contrast this with quiltmakers in the past who sewed with whatever thread was currently on the machine or on the bobbin, leftover from a home sewing project.
Rule #8 – Thou shalt measure and trim block units prior to constructing the blocks. It’s always a great idea to compare the actual measurement of the sewn block units with the measurement given in the instructions. If your units aren’t the correct size, either adjust the seam allowance by re-sewing or trim the units to the correct size. The “Jacks on Six” blocks would have gone together more accurately if all the HSTs had been trimmed to the same measurement prior to assembling the blocks.
Rule #9 – Thou shalt measure and trim thy blocks prior to sewing them into the rows of thy quilt. Despite our best efforts, quilt blocks don’t always turn out to be the correct size. Because fabrics are a bit stretchy and we aren’t robot seamstresses, we need to measure and trim all the blocks to the same size prior to assembling the quilt top. This is particularly important when making a sampler quilt. Following this rule is your quilt’s best chance of lying flat.
Rule #10 – Thou shalt measure thy quilt through the center to obtain the correct measurement for thy border strips. Following this rule avoids the wavy border syndrome.
Although Cindy’s mother did not follow all the current “rules” 21st century quilters espouse, her quilt has one benefit ours generally don’t. Memories.
Cindy said she took a trip down Memory Lane when she lifted the quilt top from the dresser drawer and unfolded it. The fabrics in the quilt recalled images of kitchen curtains, new school dresses, and her mother’s aprons. The memories prompted by fabric are certainly a benefit of an “everything goes” scrap quilt. These types of memories can’t be emulated by purchasing coordinated fabric from one line. No matter the broken rules for cutting and piecing, this is a quilt of enduring memories, truly a treasure for Cindy’s family.