Quilting, Because Sewing isn’t OCD Enough


After a couple years of random and smallish sewing projects, I wanted to tackle something bigger. Okay, to be honest, my best friend did. She talked me into signing up for a quilting class with her. Sam is a competitive girl, so I should have know that she wan’t just looking for moral support. She was looking for a whipping boy. Some guys never learn.

It seemed like a good deal. Five Sundays in a row, from 2-4:30. For those scant hours a week, you leave with a heirloom quilt of your own design. I was reading the class listing already imaging laying ontop a bright, cotton quilt during a cool spring morning, reading books and sipping tea. I could practically feel the cuddle of the comforting fabric against me and my little dog as we snuggle into an evening of video game violence. In my mind, I was five weeks from now with all the work behind me. It seemed all so straight forward.

Week 1: False Confidence

After signing over checks and our next 5 Sundays to the Sewing Arts Center, we were ushered to the classroom to meet our instructor, Susan. Her soothing Danish accent and confident smile made everything sound so plausible. She handed out instruction sheets and explained the pattern and fabrics that we should choose. It was when she pulled out a finished sample that I started to understand what I signed up for.

Sam and I headed to the LA Fashion District to buy fabrics. I pride myself on being able to get a bunch of odd/loud patterns that somehow just work. I had my armfuls done in 30 minutes and was ready to go. Sam spent an hour more hemming and hawing. My load was full of owls and bees. I was feeling very on trend. Sam’s selections were more “classic.” She likes to pretend that she is going to make something boring. It is part of her sewing scam job as you’ll see later.

I had awesome fabrics. I had a simple pattern. I had a great instructor. I was ready to quilt!

Week 2: Homework

This was the first class with real work. Susan lead us through cutting, ironing, and then more cutting and ironing. It looked like this whole thing was just a quilt-load of cutting big things into little things and then ironing them flat.

By the end of class, Susan performed some occult magic where a bunch of cut-up strips of fabric were sewn into a tic-tac-toe called a 9 patch. It was like watching an origami master pull a crane out of a square of paper. “It’s simple” she promised.

Sam produced her first 9 patch in 15 minutes. “Fantastic corners” Susan enthused as she held up Sam’s 9 patch to show the rest of the class. After about an hour of polite swearing I managed my own. The class was wrapping up and Susan drops, “Ok, so you are finished with your first 9 patch. For your homework, you need to have 36 finished by next week.”

Thirty six!?! At one hour per patch, I was seeing my evenings vanishing before my eyes. Sam was smiling away at her stack of 5 completed patches.

Week 3: Maim and Betrayal

The first thing that Russel, the owner and main pusher, explained in my very first class was that if you are going to use a rotary cutter, you should get a ruler with a guard. A guard cost a few dollars, he reasoned, and were huge bargain compared to the cost of stitches. While swearing my way somewhere between my 28th and “Eff This” 9 patch, I managed to grab my non-guarded ruler.

Completely over it, and completely over confident, I actually remember thinking some snide nanny comment as I sliced right through my fingernail and my thumb.  My first thought was to not stain the fabric with blood. I may be a fool, but I am not wasting this fabric!

In the coming weeks, the gash in my fingernail kept catching everything, so I kept a serious bandage one it. Bandage plus 30-40 hours of fabric pulling a week resulted in a huge blister on the pad of my thumb which eventually popped. (Don’t stain the fabric!).

It is in this week that you cut out twenty five 8.5 inch squares of fabric which are to become the central pattern you see in the picture. I had two fabrics that I thought I could work into twenty five unique squares. Everyone else had simple patterns and were aiming for their squares to all be the same or very similar. I spent a whole day struggling how to get twenty five unique cuts from a set of patterns that had no intention of conforming to my 8.5 inch squares. I cut some on the bias as I was running out of possible selections.

Then I spent a day arranging and re-arraigning the twenty five squares. I didn’t want two similar ones right next to each, or on top, diagonal, etc. The bias ones needed to be in the corners, with the angle perpendicular to the corner they were in. It was like trying to do a seating chart for a wedding. Aunt Gertie can’t sit by Moisha. Mary has terrible BO and needs to be put in a corner. Finally I got my dysfunctional fabric family laid out ready for assembly.

In class, Sam announced that she didn’t like her “classic” fabric. She went on some sort of underground rail road to the promised land of Asian Discount Fabric Warehouses with her mom where Mamma-Sam found some amazing owl (*AHEM*) fabric. This particular fabric was made for quilters, with designs conveniently arranged in the standard 8.5 inch squares. Sam was way ahead of me in work, and now also way on trend…my trend!

Week 4: Staying in the Lines

Quilting is essentially taking a few large pieces of fabric, and obsessively cutting them into smaller and smaller pieces like a little kid who just keeps tearing a sheet of paper in half over and over again. Then, unlike that kid, you put all the little pieces together to make a single even larger piece of fabric. Susan ensures us all that this is an easy and enjoyable process. Her nordic charms and patient instructions makes the 2.5 hours each Sunday seem easy and enjoyable. The other people in the class are taking each step in some zen-like stride.

At home it is a different story. Basically I am to take eleven squares and sew them together in a strip. I will in turn make 11 of these strips. Then, because I measured so carefully and sewed so evenly, when these strips are sewn together everything will line up into a clean grid. I was sewing with just one good thumb I remind myself as my grid looks more like a drunken hopscotch game. My borders were off like China meets Tibet.

Think of my book reading and tea, I pleaded with myself. I ripped each crooked seam out and restitched them one by one. By an act of will that would have made my pioneer women quilting fore-mothers proud, I made those squares fit! Mostly!

At class, Sam didn’t just show up with her strips done. She had the whole freakin’ quilt top done! When I said she is a competitive person, she is not really a person. She is some sort of Perfecto-Bot assembled in a military grade clean room facility in the Far East. Her handwriting can replace most laser jets, she can sew seams within a micron, she can thread a needle using just her mind!

She is the kind of friend I desperately need. I have a fear of needing emergency medical attention while on a plane or some other place where a doctor couldn’t get to me. Just look at my thumb, I am a walking HMO nightmare. She is the kind of girl who could get on the pilot’s radio and be talked through surgery. She could save my life and give me stitches that would probably shame most doctors.

I look at my puckered strips and then over our table at her Home and Garden’s photo shoot waiting to happen. The other people in the class come by to bask in the glory of her quilt. It does look amazing. Back off jennie-come-lately,  I found her first! As she smiles and explains her simple tips, I scan her neck, suspicious that there is some small, hidden button that when switched will either cause her titanium skull to open and reveal some sort of super-computer or launch all of Earth’s nuclear missiles, causing Judgment Day and the eradication of all humanity at the hands of a race of smiling, quilting, Terminators. Awesome!

Week 5: Feel the Burn

For the first time in weeks, I am sewing without bandage or blister. My thin-skinned thumb is a little sensitive, but I chalk that up top the fact that it is seeing sunshine for the first time in weeks. It feels good. We are in the home stretch and all that is left is for me is to put the border on. Sam, of course, finished her quilt already and just came to class for support, and to make super-cute pin cushions to the rest of her new friends.

I am stretching out the long strips of fabric that I a going to “miter” together and make the border for the quilt. This will involve a final act of Susan’s occult fabric origami, which I striving to understand. Thinking about this flippy, foldy, fabricy thing she does, I stretch out a strip of fabric and manage to place the pad of THE thumb right on the iron behind me. I would have been angry if I didn’t feel so stupid.

“Excuse me,” I yelped as I ran out the door. Stay calm I thought, as I watched what remaining skin I had swell and separate from the thumb. Next block over is a Trader Joe’s, closest probable place for ice. I run in, surviving the lunatics in the parking lot. “Do you have ice?” I urgently ask some calm looking employee.

I want to slap him for looking so happy with his job. I am clinching my finger and my teeth. He considers the question for a bit and finally manages, “I don’t think so.” Of course not! It’s Los Angeles. Where would Trader Joe’s be able to get locally sourced, organic ice from here? If only I was in the Anchorage store. I run into aisle three and throw my hand into the frozen food case. Instant joy! It felt so good, I could tell because people were looking at my face. “Who’s that pervert pawing at the sherbet?”

I groped around, looking for the frozen treat that will keep cold the best. I settle on some peas. On sale, bonus! I manage to get through the checkout without having to take my thumb off the package and walk back to class feeling all kinds of McGyver. Once back, the worried looks remind me that I am a mess. I am desperate for that emergency surgery from Sam, but she is engaged in making the last two pin cushions so everyone in the class can get one. No Sam love, and probably a good thing. I am sure that she would have amputated.

I wrap the package of peas onto my hand and start using my free elbow to feed the heavy quilt through my machine. I am going to finish this thing and figure out Susan’s final secret of the border. I am gritting my teeth, slimey pea juice is leaking down my arm, and I feel like Rambo with a sewing machine.

With just minutes to go, I fail. I ran out of time. I have all but the last 12 inches and then the magic origami. I feel defeated, but relieved, because I just want to put my hand in a bucket of ice and go to bed. Susan comes over to me, she had made a mini quilt with the super-secret border fold open for me to see. She gives it to me to take with me so I can finish my quilt at home and use it to see how it is done.

 Thanks Susan! Next weekend, with a good thumb, Sam came over and helped me finish my quilt.

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