In Search of the Perfect Pincushion

Pins are an essential part of any sewer’s toolkit, but the paper wheel they are sold in, or the plastic boxes, are rarely suitable long term use – hence the development of the pincushion. Some I have seen are wonderful three-dimensional creations in fabric, giving delight to the user. I have seen many lovely examples, such as fruit, circus elephant with a ball, cupcakes, hedgehogs, cacti, etc. Take the pins out and some would be delightful toys for a small child. I will confess to being boringly practical however, since I want to be able to get pins in and out of it quickly and safely, and put it in a drawer when not in use – and I also have a small child!

Pincushions in order of age

Pincushions in order of age


The first, the lovely little mouse with a wooden base and Liberty fabric, was given to me with my first sewing kit many years ago. I loved it, but it was never big enough for a full pack of pins. I still use it for small sewing needles, as the firm base stops them from slipping down too far and getting lost. (4” long, fabric area 2” x 1¼”)

The second I made when I first started sewing ‘properly’ as an adult with my own sewing machine. The fabric was left over from a pair of trousers and is quite hard-wearing, the stuffing was made from off-cuts from quilt batting. I put a strip of velcro on the bottom with the idea I could keep the cushion in place if I wanted to, although in practice this didn’t happen. Small and light, it fitted in a drawer well but the stuffing was inadequate and pins slipped through – I had to be careful to angle them towards the middle, or they would stick out the other side of the cushion. I use it now for very large needles such as those for making dolls or soft toys, that are too big for the mouse cushion. It is, however a little small even for these so may be retired before long. (Fabric size 4” x 5”)

The third I made this winter from quilt offcuts. It is some of my best piecing and I was really pleased with the way the corners matched – no one can see them because of the buttons sewed over the top… The buttons were quite tricky to attach even with a long needle. It was successful in that the cushion sits flat and doesn’t move, and the toy stuffing seemed to work okay for pins, but blue and white pins were almost invisible while black and purple didn’t fair much better. It was also fundamentally too big to fit in the drawer. It has been donated to M as a doll cushion. (Fabric size 6” x 5½” x 1¾”)

So onto mark four, made from an offcut from some curtains when I shortened them. The fabric was double-layer and fell apart on cutting into squares, so I double stitched each seam, but otherwise I used the same construction method as for mark three. The size is great, it sits on the bench next to my machine or in the drawer really well, and it is the right height to stop pins coming through. Putting the pins in rainbow order, originally to entertain M, looked surprisingly good with the dark background and stopped me loosing the darker colour pins. It is probably near perfect for my needs as a working pincushion, just maybe a little dull – so it might not be my last! (Fabric size 4” x 4” x 1½”)

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Tree Quilt Triptych – Part 3

Autumn Quilt

Autumn Quilt

I finally finished the third quilt of my tree-inspired series and got it hung on the wall this week. It was the autumn leaves last year that inspired the idea, and since the leaves have been changing rapidly I thought I had better get on with it!

The pattern block is called ‘Maple Leaf’, although I mostly did not quilt this in blocks. I started that way at the top, but then had to explore other ways of working… I have made more mistakes and unpicked more seams in this quilt than I have ever done in my life. Even at the layering and safety-pinning stage (no I don’t have time, space or patience to hand baste!) I saw a row of three units I had managed to sew upside down and had to redo them. Hopefully I can use what I have learned from this quilt for future projects.

To quilt it I used a spiral design I made up after many scribbles on paper, which seemed to flow really well. The angular patchwork seemed to call for some softening curves, and it echoes the idea of leaves blowing around in the wind – as well as energies spiralling down into the Earth at this time of year. My free-motion quilting still leaves a lot of room for improvement, but at least each one is better than the one before.

It is a very fiery quilt as it hangs on the wall. I am glad to have it there to liven things up and add warmth as we head towards Winter, but am also glad I made the decision to rotate the quilts with the seasons. It would need a much bigger space, and a different wall colour, if it was to hang there permanently.

This was intended to be the last quilt in the series, but I have been persuaded that it would be good to do a Spring quilt. So much like Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ trilogy, this may be a triptych with more than three parts…

Tree Quilt Triptych – Part 2

Summer quilt

My ‘Summer’ tree quilt (left) finally got finished last weekend and has been hanging in our hallway for a week now. It is intended to represent the dappled shade under deciduous woodland, both in colour and design.

From my experience doing ‘Winter’ (March 21st) I decided to use fabrics that were either fairly plain, or else had bold patterns since some of the subtleties got lost once cut small and quilted over. I also wanted to keep more contrast between fabrics in the way I pieced them together, but without loosing a sense of being lighter at the top of the quilt so that there was some kind of flow. I was pleased with the end results in this respect.

As I mentioned on an earlier post (Going Barefoot, May 2nd), I had a few problems along the way! Annoyingly one fabric looked more like a brown once put with the other greens; I might have changed this if I had realised in time, but I decided it was fairly tree-coloured and by quilting enough green thread over the top of it, I hoped that unlike in ‘Winter’ where I lost detail, this time it would work in my favour to help harmonise the colours and give an overall green tint. I think it has done that. However, a much bigger problem was that the quilt grew slightly, my sewing lacking the accuracy needed when it comes to seam allowances, so the border sections were all too short – even with the extra I had allowed when cutting. (Lesson there!) To solve this I added extra triangles in the border; the original design had five, I made this up to eleven.

I thought quite hard about what pattern to quilt this, and drew out several experimental designs in pencil. If I can’t draw it, there’s no way I can sew it! Ideally I would have liked to do more of a ‘leaf’ pattern, such as a large scale version of my tarot bag design (May 17th). However I found this quite hard to do and realised that with M clutching at my leg, fabric, machine, attention, it was simply not possible at this time. Instead I did another random wiggle shape, but more oak-leaf inspired than the roots and spirals of ‘Winter’ so it gives a different impression close up. I have a way to go before my stitching is properly neat and even, but there are sections now where it is as it should be…

One nice surprise I have had now the quilt is hanging is the effect of approaching it on the diagonal as you come down the stairs. It is almost like having two quilts, the one you see when in the hallway, and the one at 45 degrees. Not something I had anticipated, or ever seen in any other work of art displayed on a stairwell, but something I shall enjoy using deliberately in future for example if I ever find myself doing a stained glass window for a similar position.

One last thought – I have discovered M is much happier once my sewing machine reaches a certain pitch, around humming level… It keeps me on my toes at that speed!

Free Motion Quilting

Leaf pattern tarot bag

Leaf pattern tarot bag

It is said that the only way to improve any skill is to practice it, so with that in mind I wanted to do a few small projects using free motion quilting before I completed my second tree quilt. (See earlier post.) Rather than simply use up fabric with random stitching, I decided to make something that would actually be useful. So here is the bag I made for my favourite deck of tarot cards, the Sacred Circle Tarot. Until a few days ago it was simply wrapped in a silk cloth, which I sometimes want to borrow for other purposes.

I chose this particular design for two reasons. First, I was exploring leaf ideas for the tree quilt, and wanted to see how well they worked once stitched. Second, because I felt the design needed to fit with the pictures and energies of the cards in some way, so that when I look at my collection, however small, I know instantly which cards I am picking up.

Using my tailor’s chalk, I drew around a candle holder that was the right size in order to create the circle, then marked it into fifths and drew in the pentacle in the centre. I stitched the pentacle first, twice over, then the circle once, and on the second pass I added the branches and leaves. Possibly I could have added a third pass for the pentagram, but the branches all had two lines so I stayed with two. I was fairly appalled by my wobbles and inconsistencies as I sewed, clearly I am not capable of visualising a simple leaf and repeating it on alternate sides of a stem, nor stitching free-hand exactly along a straight line, but somehow I kept going to the end to see how it turned out. And was then amazed at how effective it was when you look at the whole and not the details. And if nothing else, I have finally learned to control my stitch length!

I am now hard at work doing the actual quilt; don’t expect any close-ups of my stitching but each bit I do I improve on the last one.

Tree Quilt Triptych – Part 1

Winter quiltLast autumn I was inspired by the colours of the leaves beneath some maple and cherry trees to design a seasonal wallhanging, bringing their vibrant energies into my home. The project quickly grew, as creative ideas can, before settling back to something manageable… I hope!

I spent some time exploring traditional quilt patterns and coming up with a plan for three quilts that will be displayed in rotation, but that could potentially hang side by side. (Unlikely in this house!) Autumn would be the leaf colours I had seen, done in an irregular Maple Leaf pattern. Winter would be the colours of bark and dead leaves, silver birch and catkins using a very square design, while Summer would be the dappled greens of grass under oak or other deciduous trees.

By the time I had completed my designs the seasons had moved on, and to be honest Autumn looked so challenging that I wasn’t sure how to put it together. So I started last December with Winter (shown above), an irregular Pandora’s Box design that I hoped I could manage with a crawling or cruising M tugging at whatever part of me or my sewing machine she could reach. As it happened the only time she had to be banished from the room was when I lay all the pieces on the floor, there being no other space large enough for them, but apart from that I discovered various new ways of working and concentrating to be able to stay in the now, focussing on the fabric but also stopping whenever she needed me. She was present for all except about half an hour… and mostly seemed to enjoy watching it come together. Machine sewing is great that way!

I particularly enjoyed my first ever free motion quilting, doing a very organic design and just being guided by intuition as to where to go as the design grew. I haven’t yet seen another quilt with the same shapes as this one, roots and spirals combined. Little hands pressing foot pedals or pulling at fabric added the odd bit of character! However, while I am happy with the overall effect and like the way the pattern helps bring harmony, I was sorry to loose a bit of the detail in the fabric by quilting over the top. As a result I may quilt the others differently.

It has also achieved my second aim, to shift the energies in a positive direction in our hallway, the centre of our home, most of which for various complicated reasons (including the plaster falling off one wall) remains the cold turquoise blue that was there when we moved in. I love seeing the quilt when the sun falls on it at lunchtime and brings out the gold colours, showing how much beauty there is in browns.

This week I have bought the supplies for Summer. Given that Winter took a month to cut and piece, and another month to quilt, bind and hang, I might just get it done in time for the change of seasons. (Or I might not if the leaves all continue to come early…) Part 2 will follow in a few months time.