A Crazy Quilting Process Described

Sharon Boggon © 2007

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I am often asked what my crazy quilting process is; I hope this article maps it out for you. I would like to stress that there are no hard and fast rules in crazy quilting, so anything I say is simply in the category of tips.

The first question is often how do you piece a block? For a foundation fabric, I use what Australians call Calico and what Americans call Muslin. However, at various times I have used old sheets, and the like. You can use any fabric that doesn’t have a tight weave or high thread count, as you want to be able to embroider the block; you will need to hand stitch through all the layers.

I usually use the sew and flip method of piecing. There are number of good articles on how to piece a block already online. One of them is in this very magazine! How to Piece a 6 x 6 Crazy Quilt Block by Kimber Pekora has illustrated step by step instructions using the sew and flip method.

I trim all selvages as I make up the block to keep the weight of fabric at the seam line down. When hand stitching seams, you are embroidering the fabric, the seam underneath and the foundation fabric, so I try to keep this as light a weight as possible. I find that if my seams are too thick I have to push the needle through the fabric with force. The process starts to become a battle with the block rather than a pleasurable experience of fabric, needle and thread. I find I do better hand stitching and enjoy it when I keep the weight of the seam in mind.

The weight of the fabric actually used in the block is also important to me. If I have a particularly heavy fabric I usually place this first on the block and add lighter weight fabrics around it, using the sew and flip method. My next trick is to embellish on the light weight side of the seam. That way I use some of the great heavy weight fabrics that are available without having to resort to really forcing my needle through them.

Too many patterned fabrics on a block can hide the stitches. Older crazy quilts seem to have many plain coloured fabrics, and I am inclined to reach for these as they show off the stitches well. I do, however, make use of textured fabrics as they seem to add a level of visual complexity to a block which I enjoy.

At one stage in my CQ education someone told me that the way you work out what material you need for various blocks is that for an eight inch block you need a selection of eight pieces of fabric. For a ten inch block you need a selection of ten pieces of fabric and for a twelve inch block you need a selection of twelve pieces of fabric and so on. I don’t do this. I always use a greater number of fabric pieces. I usually use two pieces more than the formula. So for an eight inch block, I use a selection of ten pieces of fabric; for a ten inch block I use a selection of twelve pieces of fabric, and for a twelve inch block I use a selection of fourteen to sixteen pieces of fabric.

When I piece I think about composition. I do things like place plain fabric next to a patterned fabric but I also start the balancing act from there. If there is a bright colour in one corner that I know will draw the eye, I use some of this fabric (or a similar bright colour) on the other side of the block so that I now have two points of interest and not a battle with a single bright colour.

Another way I add texture to a block is the liberal use of lace and braids. Lace sets up a contrast of texture, yet is light and interesting to stitch. Further embellishment on top of lace such as stitching or beading areas adds other forms of contrast to the block.

At the piecing stage you can include old hankies, lace doilies, ties, prairie points, cigarette silks and reproduction prints. I also add lace ribbon, ric-rac and braids at this stage. This means the ends of braid, ric-rac and lace are tucked into the seams.

Seam embellishment:

Although some may call my style an ‘encrusted’ look, I call it visual texture. Creating a deep visual texture on a block simply means that the viewer is always noticing something new of interest. Simply put, the name of the game is to catch their eye and keep them going over and around the block.

Attract the viewer’s eye with a key area of interest such as a clump of buttons, beads, or a well placed charm, then guide their eye to move along the line to the next area of interest, then to next and so on around the block. The idea is to guide the eye to weave around the block and reward people for looking. This is where seam embellishments that are more than a simple line of stitches really come into their own.

Stitching the seams themselves is not all that difficult if you know the basic stitches. The key stitches I use are Buttonhole, Feather stitch, Herringbone, Chevron, Cretan, Chain stitch, Straight stitch and Fly stitch. These form my foundation stitches which can be further embellished with either other stitches or beads. Couching is also an invaluable technique to learn as you can incorporate heavy weight threads on to your block using this stitch.

There are dozens of other stitches that can be used. However, you do not need to know hundreds of stitches to work a piece of crazy quilting. If you know the few basic stitches I have listed above, it is possible to build up stitch combinations by layering your stitches in hundreds of different combinations.

I stack and mix stitches constantly, add floral motifs to them and bead them. The key is to think about stitch combinations as a series of interesting visual experiences for your viewer. When building your stitch combinations experiment with changing both the angle and the size of the stitch. Also think about what thread you choose. When selecting thread I also aim for a contrast of texture and colour rather than a simple contrast of colour.

I suggest that people look at expanding their range of threads to include more than DMC Cottons. Crazy quilting opens the doors to the wonderful contemporary needlework threads that are available. Metallics, silks, cottons, and ribbons can all be used in crazy quilting.

When using a variety of threads you will need to think about the needle you use. After you have chosen the thread, choose the right needle. Choosing the correct needle means that the thread can go through the eye of the needle with a reasonable amount of ease; but not so large an eye that the thread rubs and frays as you stitch. Check to see if the needle slides through the fabric easily, as a fabric with a tight weave will need a different needle than a fabric which has a loose weave.

For some stitches such as French knots and bullion knots, you will need a needle with an eye that is the same size as the shaft of the needle, so choose a milliner's needle. These stitches are easier to work if you stretch the fabric in a hoop and use the right needle.

Seam treatments are not the only form of embroidery used on crazy quilting. Often people embroider a motif on an area to act as a point of emphasis on a block.

This means you have to transfer a design to fabric. I most often use dressmaker's carbon to transfer a design to my block. Dressmaker's carbon works just as carbon paper and it comes in various colours. You can even buy it in white or yellow, which is great for transferring an outline to a dark fabric.

This is good if the fabric is smooth, but if it has a slub in it or any texture like velvet I use tissue paper. With the tissue paper method you first draw the design on the paper then place it on the fabric and tack the outline of the design. The tacking creates the outline as you remove the tissue and stitch.

I have also used the finest tear away interfacing available. I use the non iron, non woven type used for machine embroidery. I trace the design onto the interfacing, tack the interfacing to the block, embroider the motif and when done tear away the interfacing.

After embroidering all the seams, motifs, lace and braids on a crazy block, it's time to add what I call the ‘hard’ embellishments. By hard I don’t mean they are hard to do, just that as elements they are physically hard. Things like charms buttons and beads. So for me embellishment is last phase of a block.

The size and colour of beads, charms, buttons, and lace motifs not only add interest but because of their nature they will influence the composition of a block. So for me size is important as one very large button in a corner will draw the eye to it. A cluster of large buttons will do this even more. Vary the size of buttons and charms to change the dominance in a particular area or balance it with another area on the block. I usually add buttons and embellishments in odd numbers. For instance, I will select three or five buttons, not four.

For instance, you might have buttons in the top right hand corner of a crazy quilt block. When a person first sees the block their eye will land on that area; now you want them to look at it but give them somewhere else to go. To do this put something interesting on the left hand side, towards the bottom of the block. This second area does not need to have the same visual dominance or weight as the first but it does need to be strong enough to drag the eye in that direction.

Well, that’s the process I use to create a block. I hope you find this description useful and interesting. One of the pleasures of this form of quilting is that you can incorporate various forms of embroidery techniques on a block. Skill level can also vary. Silk ribbon embroidery, Brazilian embroidery, and beading are just a few techniques that you will find used in contemporary crazy quilting. Beading, buttons and charms are fun to collect and add. Crazy quilting can have a Victorian flavour or move right away from this tradition to be taken in any direction. There are no rules. It’s a case of something for everyone.

Visit Sharon B at her new blog address: http://sharonb.wordpress.com/

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