Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hand piecing and Barbara Johannah

In 1982/3 when I started again doing Patchwork (as we called it in South Africa) the rotary cutter and rulers were not available yet. In my 5 magazines I have read an article about Seminole patchwork and immediately saw how I could apply it to other patterns like the lone star. I immediately started to cut strips, using a cardboard ruler of 6,4 cm, drawing lines with a pencil and cutting 4 layers of fabric with my pair of scissors.

Although I could only hand quilt it after my trip to the USA I could complete the top before I left. I experiment a lot with Seminole strips and till today use strip piecing whenever I can. (Remember- I am a Stripper).

I planned a trip to Europe and the USA, to travel with my backpack, staying in youth Hostels and see the wonderful sights in Europe, then going on a quilt tour in the USA. I knew that all the shows were listed in the quilt magazines- remember I had 5! After three weeks in Israel, Greece and Italy, I realized my money will be finished before I reached the USA. So I changed my plans, flew to London and arrange to leave for New York 5 days later, after exploring London a bit and visit the Victoria and Albert museum to see some quilts.

When I arrived at New York Airport I got on the shuttle-as per my 10$ a day book and ask if it was going to New York. They want to know where I want to get off- at Manhattan? Did I not read my book properly? I was unsure and realized how ignorant I was- here I want to go to New York and I did not even know it has 5 Burroughs.

I walked the streets of Manhattan- going into every bookstore in search for a quilting magazine. Can you believe it, not one of the bookstores had a quilting magazine! I found the offices of Lady Circle (I think I got the address in a phone book) but lo and behold- they did not have a magazine in the office- it was just the subscription office. I was devastated! Will I now have to go back home without seeing a quilt in the LAND of QUILTS ?

My last change was the library but neither did they have any quilting magazines. When I walked out of the library not knowing what to do, there was a News and Magazine stand just outside. I searched the stand and - I wasn't heading home anymore!

I found myself a postbox- yes I had a Manhattan address once and wrote letters to the organizers of Quilt events. With a map of the whole country and the available shows I planned a possible route. In the youth Hostel where I stayed, I learned that for (I think) $50 foreigner youths with a student card (which I had) could purchase a pass to travel for 5 days on the Greyhound buses.

I also saw that the next week there was a Quilt Festival at Northfield Vermont. (In one of my 5 magazines I have read about the Shelburne Museum) So I use one of my passes to travel to Burlington. I went to visit the Shelburne museum and saw the wonderful quilts- and learned something about the history of "America". I immediately felt more at home. I could see all the similarities to our own history.

I use the same bus pass to go to Northfield  two days before the classes and exhibition began and helped to hang the show. What a privileged to held in my hands some antique quilts. I was in Seventh Heaven. There were still openings in classes and I took a class from Nancy Halpern, Jinny Beyer (who's book "The Quilter's Album of Blocks and Borders was then already my quilting bible) and Carla Hassle. I also took a class on machine applique on the Bernina- a class that convinced me to trade in my Elna for a Bernina when I reached home.

In Carla's class I learned that for handwork the template do not have the seam allowance added as in machine work, you draw around the template with a pencil- on the wrong side of the fabrics. You pin the two patches together and while sewing on the pencil line, you flip the work to the back to make sure that you are still on the drawn line of the patch at the back. (I have since learned Jinny Beyer's method as well where you only have dots in the corner -from her handwork book- I will blog about that at another time.) We made a block where we also pieced a quarter circle and a triangle. We learned that in handwork you never sew a seam allowance down. You flip it out of the way so that you can accurately get right to the exact point where the patch end. Here you make a double stitch before you pass the needle to the other side and again start with a back stitch to make sure the two patches meet accurately at the corner.

I also learned to take 3-4 running stitches on my needle before I pull the thread through. I then start with a back stitch and again load 3-4 stitches on my needle. I start with a knot and double stitch and end with a double stitch but also work 2 more stitches backwards. I work with a between needle- so hand piecing is good practice for hand quilting. I try to make small stitches to ensure a stronger seam.

(I will later tell you more about my Quilt trip in the Eastern parts of the USA- now I want to get back to the hand piece story.) I bought some Liberty of London prints in Greece and was making this Middelpos wall hanging for Stephanus. I pieced the word Middelpos with my new found knowledge, in this maroon Liberty of London fabrics.

At the Quilt Festival in Northfield I received a Goodie bag- the first of many to follow at all the events. In this bag was a piece of Iron- on Vilene with this grid printed on it.
So I asked the quilters what this was meant for- and learned about the quick piecing method Barbara Johannah  has described in her books. They explained that the soft iron on Vilene was a "quick" version- otherwise one need to draw the lines on the fabric. (This is the method that many books described- some only use a variation with  squares and others has it in this bigger format. One also get some printed papers or suggestions on how to print your own papers from the computer.You cut a piece of the two fabrics, draw the lines on it or use a pre-drawn paper or vilene. You sew on either side of the diagonal lines and cut on all the green and diagonal lines to create a number of squares consisting out of two triangles )

I was pondering this method and have seen the wonderful tool- a rotary cutter that were shown at some of the shows. At that stage I was stacking layers 4 high, drawing lines with my set of perspex rulers (or sometimes cardboard rulers) and cutting the 4 layers with my scissors. I could just see how the rotary cutter will eliminate the pencil line and how much more accurate it will be- the scissor lift the fabric while the rotary cutter press it accurately down while cutting. I could not understand why people would want to do all that drawing and then only cut two layers if they can cut 4 or 8. (I can still not understand that people are still doing it- but this will also be a later subject.)

I suddenly realize that this is actually a wonderful method for hand piecing. This method will eliminate drawing all the lines around the template for all the pieces, then checking all the time while you sew that you are still sewing on the bottom line as well. With Barbara Johannah's method adapted for hand piecing I set out. I grabbed a piece of dark red fabric. I have cut some pieces from it so it was just a scrap piece. I made a template of a triangle less than 1 inch on the straight sides and start marking triangles on the fabric. I then lay it on top of a piece of calico (unbleached muslin) and start hand piecing the diagonal side. This job I did on the airplane when I returned home three months later.

The triangles was the start of the Feathered star of this quilt. I hand pieced the whole top using variations on this quick hand piecing method. I have refined this method over the years. I have used this method to hand piece a quilt a year. This was done in times waiting in the doctor's office, waiting for the children at sport events and in the evening when I kept my husband company.

Any time saving method usually only save time with the initial joining of the patches. With this method you do not only save piecing time, but also cutting time and marking time. The other advantages are that one is not working with a number of small units that can get lost when one take this project everywhere with you. When sewing triangles with the machine the bias diagonal side do not stretch if you handle it with care. When sewing by hand this diagonal seam do get stretched over your fingers and it is almost impossible not to stretch it and get a wonky piece that do not want to lay flat. With this method the diagonal seam is only cut after the piecing is done- so  stretching is eliminated.

I am busy with a new project and will explain my quick hand piecing method while giving the details- so if you would like to try  hand piecing - why don't you join me? (In South Africa hand piecing is associated with hexagons and Cathedral Windows. When quilters see me hand piece they ask why I do not do it with the machine. Well I do most of my work by machine so my hand project is for when I am not at home or not at my machine-when I have company etc. Now that I am determined to master applique- I also do some hand applique in these times.)

The quilt I am hand piecing is a variation on Delectable Mountains called Delectable Star and it appeared in the QNM of Jan/Feb 2000 made by Marilyn (I have searched everywhere for the magazine now. As soon as I find it I will give the proper credit here) This pattern has big patches where one can show of the fabrics- so it will be an ideal quilt to make with a variety of modern fabrics. This is my EQ version:

Here is a line drawing to colour- I do not know how to make a pdf file available- will supply if I figure it out.

So instructions for hand piecing this quilt will be in several blog posts-will you join me?


  1. So interesting! I love reading your story! I mostly machine piece, but I have been working on a Cathedral Windows for awhile now, and, of course, I hand embroider.


  2. Fate? Just coincidence? I am looking for a hand project, and I am so not a hand sewer. You and I are close to the same age. Both of my parents are alive, living with my brother, and demented. I need something to do with my hands while I muster all my patience. So yes, I will join you. Bit I'm warning you I am very very slow...


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