I made these nine Ohio Star blocks almost 20 years ago for a swap, but I didn’t send them. I can’t recall now whether I dropped out or remade new blocks to send, but I clearly remember thinking that I could never inflict these monsters on some poor innocent quilter. The points were either floating or chopped off, the blocks were all between ¼” and ½” too small, most of them weren’t square… Definitely not swap material.
I set them aside, but couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. Every now and then I’d come across them, lay them out, wonder what to do with them, realize all over again how horrible they were, and put them away. About 10 years ago, I finally decided I had to either fix them or toss them, and I figured I would learn more by trying to fix them. Boy, was I right.
I found some of the blue background fabric I’d used for the stars and started by framing them up and trimming them down to be the same size.
Lesson 1: Don’t frame blocks with very narrow strips of fabric. If I had enlarged the blocks by 1” all around, it would have been much easier to set them into the quilt top and they probably would have looked better; I could have used a different fabric, too, and made it look intentional. Instead, I chose to trim them down to the size they were originally supposed to be, which resulted in tiny slivers of fabric on some of them.
At any rate, I had nine blocks of almost the same size, so I picked out sashing and setting fabrics and got to work. I didn’t love it, but I got the quilt top put together. I set it aside as other more exciting projects came along. About 8 months ago, I unfolded it and again thought, it’s time to toss this or move it along, and I’ll learn more from moving it along.
I bought a package of fusible batting because I wanted to try it out and I figured this quilt would be perfect for that; I didn’t really care about it, so if I messed up with the batting or didn’t like it, it was no big deal. I cut a piece of batting, grabbed some fabric from my stash to piece the backing, and made a quilt sandwich. Fusing the backing, batting, and top together actually worked great: I’ve never had a quilt sandwich that was so smooth. But my next five lessons were just around the corner.
Lesson 2: You still have to use a few pins, even with fusible batting. I figured that this quilt was small enough that it would be okay without pins, so I started stabilizing it by stitching in the ditch along both sides of the sashing. This was fine until I turned the quilt 90 degrees to do the sashing in the other direction, when I found that I was trapping folds and bubbles in the quilt in between the lines I’d already quilted. These are visible on the quilt top as tiny folds and puffy areas, and the edges of the quilt were already wavy by the time I finished the stabilizing. Ugh. And speaking of stitching in the ditch…
Lesson 3: Use a walking foot for stitching in the ditch, and then swap it out for the hopping foot or quilting foot for the free-motion part. I was too lazy (too lazy to switch feet? Really? It’s a wonder I bother to breathe, some days). Or I suppose I could practice a lot more with the quilting foot until my control is better. I swear I was not quilting while under the influence, but you’d never know it to look at those lines. More reasons to hate this quilt.
While dealing with my tendency to wander unevenly along the seam line, I hit another snag… one that I’d laid the groundwork for years earlier.
Lesson 4: If the sashing and setting squares don’t line up and you’re stitching in the ditch, you’ll either have a mistake on the front of the quilt, or a dogleg on the back. You either have to quilt an angled line to move from one seam to the next, or you have to dogleg along the seams that don’t match (not visible on the front, but will show on the back).
I opted to live with the mistake on the front, because of another poor choice I’d made…
Lesson 5: Make your quilting thread color choices carefully. I still don’t know what I was thinking when I picked black thread for the bobbin. It caused all kinds of problems, from showing up on the front (let’s talk tension, shall we?) to revealing my poor quilting in stark contrast on the tan parts of the back. I think I originally intended to switch between black and tan thread based on which panel of the back I was quilting over, but once I started I couldn’t be bothered because of how fatalistic I was feeling about this whole project. Oh, except for one single star that apparently I did quilt with tan bobbin thread. No idea why. Over the black part of the backing, naturally.
On top of all the errors and visible mistakes, I just didn’t enjoy the quilt anymore. It didn’t grab me. That’s when I grasped the next lesson.
Lesson 6: Your fabric and quilt style preferences will change over time. When I started these blocks, I was very interested in traditional quilt blocks and fabrics. By the time I got around to quilting it, my tastes had shifted and now I prefer a more modern look. So not only was I absolutely not excited to be working on this old quilt at all, it was also full of mistakes, and I didn’t care for the fabrics (what is with that backing, anyway? Could it be more boring?). All this made me careless about things like thread color and marking.
And yet I pressed on, finishing the quilting along the sashing and moving on to the free-motion part, and running headlong into the next few lessons.
Lesson 7: Use a ruler to quilt long straight lines across a quilt block, if it matters that they look straight. Naturally, I didn’t. In my defense, I didn’t have a ruler foot that worked with the machine I was using when I started quilting this thing. But perhaps I should have changed my quilting design in light of that fact. After I did the first star, I almost gave up.
Partly this was because I hated the way all the lines came together in the center of the star, and partly it was because of my uneven lines. I decided I could at least fix the first problem, and I kept going because I wanted to see if my fix worked. I redesigned the quilting path to get a very similar design without crossing the center so many times. Lesson learned.
Lesson 8: Plan your quilting design carefully, and maybe practice it on a scrap sandwich to see if you like it before you commit it to your quilt. The second version came out much better than the first, though I still should have used a ruler or at least made some marks to help guide my quilting lines.
Did you catch that earlier when I said I didn’t have a ruler foot for the machine I was using when I started working on this quilt? I got a new machine partway through quilting it! Yay! And ran smack into the next lesson.
Lesson 9: If you get a new machine, you almost have to learn to quilt all over again. The speed, the tension, the foot pedal, everything is just a little different. The balance between how fast the machine goes and how fast you move your hands has to be re-learned. There are definitely points in this quilt where the machine and I were not in sync and it shows in the quilting, especially in some of the wishbones, which are quilted using a high-contrast thread.
Let’s revisit the question of thread color choices for a moment. I made several thread-related mistakes on this quilt. I’ve already mentioned the black bobbin thread problem, but I learned something about the top thread color, too.
Lesson 10: If you match the top thread color too closely to the fabric color, you won’t be able to see what you are quilting. Or at least, I couldn’t. Maybe better lighting or younger eyes would have helped. (At least I can do something about one of those.) The blue thread that I chose for quilting swirls in the star backgrounds was perfect for one of the fabrics — it blended, but I could still see what I was doing. On the other fabric, it was totally invisible even while I was quilting it, which kept taking me out of the flow to check whether I was missing any areas or crossing my own lines of quilting. On the other hand…
Lesson 11: Maybe don’t pick a high-contrast thread for a quilting pattern you’re new at. Wishbones, I thought, how hard are wishbones? I’ve quilted a few in my day. Not a lot, but some. And they’re so pretty in a row of sashing! So I chose a lovely gold thread that would blend in with my setting squares and stand out on the sashing. Which indeed it does, mistakes and all. Gloriously so. I think my hatred for this quilt hit an all-time high while I was quilting those wishbones.
Lesson 12: Trace out the pattern with your finger before you hit the foot pedal. I got a little confused starting up a new row of wishbones after quilting across a setting square. ‘Nuff said.
Whatever else I may be, I am incredibly stubborn and I wasn’t about to give up after all this effort, no matter how much I hated the quilt. I finally got the quilting finished and was ready to trim and bind it and be done. I tossed it onto my sewing table next to my machine, found some more of the fabric I’d used for the setting squares, and made the binding. That was toward the end of the day, so I threw the binding in a pile on the quilt and left it there. When I came back to it yesterday morning, something magical and unexpected happened.
I saw the quilt piled up there in the sunlight, bobbin thread dots, messy stars, wonky wishbones and all, and suddenly I loved it. I even started to notice its good qualities. Some of the wishbone curves are beautiful. Some of the swirls frame the stars perfectly. And I realized that I actually wanted to finish this album of quilt fail, and snuggle under it with a book or a cup of tea, and remember the lessons it taught me always.
I’d been thinking of it as “the stars throw” or “that awful quilt,” but its real name came to me at that moment. Thinking about how the difficulties started almost two decades ago with sloppy piecing on those Ohio Stars, I named it Calamitous Portents. And I love it in all its flawed glory.
So I sat down to sew the binding on. At this point, I thought, I’ve made just about every mistake except sewing the quilt to itself — and I realized there was still time for that — but I’ve learned a ton on this journey. I was feeling pretty good about the quilt as I happily sewed on the binding. It was the perfect time for the quilt’s next and final lesson.
Lesson 13: Make the label before you make the binding. I like to use triangle labels and sew them to a corner with the binding, but it’s a new thing for me. I used to make rectangle-shaped labels and attach them to the back after binding. At any rate, I realized I’d forgotten to make the label so I stopped sewing the binding, rushed to my computer, and rapidly typed the following text into a document:
Calamitous Portents (That Awful Quilt)
by Rachel Smith
I printed it out, got out my light box, and quickly traced the whole thing onto a triangle of fabric with permanent pen. It was the work of a few minutes. Beautiful! I lifted the pen from the fabric and suddenly saw what you probably already noticed: the year is wrong. It would have been an easy fix — toss out this label and make a new one, maybe a five-minute task — but I felt that the error is true to the spirit of the quilt. So I just crossed out the “8” and wrote a “9” next to it. Perfect. Back to the binding, this time with the label pinned in place.
I finished the quilt yesterday, turning the binding by hand while watching a couple of movies and reflecting on the journey and what it’s taught me.
When all is said and done, the only part of the quilt I didn’t mess up in some way is the binding*, thanks to this video that taught me once and for all how to finish the ends so the binding is the exact length needed every time.
So here is Calamitous Portents, my first finish of 2019, now a loved member of my personal quilt collection. Tea, anyone?
*Okay, I did mess it up a little because I forgot to make sure that no binding seam fell on a quilt corner, but I always forget that and usually have to work around it in any quilt I make, so that doesn’t count.