About ten years ago, I was living at home having finished the first of several stints in higher education. I was doing some teaching in the local university, and mitigating the influence of the ivory tower by pulling pints in the pub at night.* Despite the two jobs, I had quite a bit of free time and a yen to do something crafty. Not being a knitter at the time, I decided to start a patchwork quilt.
Now, don’t think for a minute that I had any long-established skill in quilting, any sound idea of the techniques involved, or indeed any coherent plan. No, no, no. I had a small bag of fabric scraps, a tiny plastic template of an irregular hexagon, and my parents’ old Radio Times with which to make paper pieces. Bring on the patchwork: this was going to be great! It would be fun, creative, relaxing… Who needed a plan? A design? A basic level of skill? Not me!**
I hadn’t read many books on quilting at the time, but if I had, I might have noticed that there are an awful lot of patterns based on squares, rectangles, long strips and suchlike. I might have wondered why this was. If I was being particularly sensible, I might have noticed that such shapes really lend themself to machine piecing, in a way that irregular hexagons do not. I really, really, wish I had read those books. I’m not giving up on quilting: as a matter of fact, I have plans for a couple of further quilts to start after this one is done. I have, however, learned my lesson. Never, ever again, will I hand-piece nearly 500 little hexagon patches: it’s right angles and machine stitching all the way for me.
I didn’t finish the quilt top that year. I didn’t finish it the next year either. I massively underestimated the amount of work that it would take, given the technique I had unthinkingly adopted. Bursts of enthusiasm alternated with episodes of serious patch-fatigue as I kept working at it, sporadically, for the last decade. Now, however, it is finally inching towards completion. It has taken longer than my PhD. It is older than my marriage, and much older than Eoin. I doubt anyone else would be proud of it: it’s certainly pretty shabby compared to Kaffe Fassett’s gorgeous textiles or the quilts in last year’s V&A exhibition. It’s a bit of a mess but it’s finally going to be done.
It has taught me a lot, too: other than the fiddly nature of the construction, which I have resolved to avoid by pledging eternal devotion to the square, I have realised the importance of having a Plan. As you can see from the pictures, I started from the middle of the quilt (the single blue patch) and worked outwards, buying new fabric as I went. This might have worked reasonably well if I had made blocks of patches and then pieced them together. However, I just kept going round and round, making one giant, uncoordinated quilt block. Not only has this made it hard to get any sort of coherence to the design, it also means that the later rounds are unbelievably long. This, folks, is a sure way to make the quilting feel like a chore rather than a pleasure. Don’t do it this way! An endless, tedious slog is not what you want.
Then there was the fabric itself. Remember how I said I bought more as I went along? What do you reckon were the odds that the same colourways and styles were still in stock each time I went back to John Lewis? Not high, let me tell you. In fact, John Lewis itself managed to move site during that time. Twice. Learn from my mistakes: make sure you have enough fabric to make the quilt before you actually start sewing the thing.
The final piece of advice I have may sound obvious, but, believe me, it’s a more common mistake than you’d imagine, at least in my experience. Whatever you do, don’t sew yourself to the quilt top. I have done it, and it’s easier than you think. You’re working with the fabric on your lap, you’re wearing a skirt… the next thing you know, the needle has slipped that little bit too far, and you have become one with half a pound of printed cotton. This involves a lot of painstaking effort with the seam ripper, and generally goes a long way to undo the “calm, poised, creative type” persona you have been carefully cultivating. Mind you, it’s not as bad as the time I sewed my school blazer to one of my GCSE Textiles projects with a heavyweight Janome. These things are so much harder to live down when 30 of your classmates are in attendance.
The quilt still has a little way to go, but at least I’ve actually managed to read some books on the subject, and I have a general idea of how to put the thing together once I have finished the top. Keep reading to see which happens first: the final stitch, or Eoin’s 18th birthday…
*Seriously, I pull a mean pint. It’s one of my little-known skills. I have to have a sparkler, though: beer without a head is just wrong.
**You may have noticed that this “Ah, feck it: it’ll be fine” attitude is very much the same as my approach to cooking. I’ll leave you to judge whether or not this applies in the rest of my life