Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Fleecy foundation means "no batting!"

"Waste not, want not," was one of the things Ma Ingalls used to say in the "Little House on the Prairie" books (and I do mean the Laura Ingalls Wilder books I loved as a kid, not the treacly TV series.) One of my fellow quilt guild members must believe in that aphorism, too. She uses even the narrowest, uneven-est strips of leftover fabric and makes some dandy little blocks that worked perfectly in our guild's community service project.

Yes, we put most of our efforts into designs based on the nine-patch block...but we also wanted to find a way to use other blocks we'd already generated. Mrs. F. had quite a collection of 6-1/2-inch, foundation-pieced blocks in a joyful array of scrappy fabrics. I was intrigued by her technique, and asked her to explain.

She started by cutting 6-inch squares of fleece interfacing. (Note that it really is a 6-inch square, not 6-1/2.) She foundation-pieced random strips and wedges of fabric diagonally across the fleece, with a little excess around the edges. She trimmed each block back to 6-1/2 inches, carefully centering the fleece and creating a non-fleecy quarter-inch clearance for a non-bulky seam.

We quickly decided the blocks would make terrific baby blankets for some of the little ones at the agency's emergency group home. And indeed they did. Mrs. F. had enough blocks to make several of them...and the fleece interfacing eliminated the need for batting. The quilts were lightweight, wrappable and still cozy....all thanks to scraps that would have otherwise ended up being tossed away.

Besides being cute as a button, Mrs. F. also has the finest collection of Janome sewing machines I've ever seen!

Monday, February 27, 2006

The hardest-working block of all

If you're pulling together a group quilting project for a worthy cause and don't know where to start, look no further than the humble nine-patch block.

For one thing, it's the easiest block pattern imaginable. Even inexperienced quilters, so long as they can sew a quarter-inch seam, can churn out nine-patches by the dozen. In fact, it's so very simple that it's often dismissed when compared to its more elaborately pieced cousins.

But the nine-patch always looks great. Whether surrounded by simple setting squares or more sophisticated piecework, it's a great way to make a totally unique scrap quilt come together. So it was the perfect centerpiece block for the guild's service project for group homes.

You can see one example in yesterday's post. This evening, here's another way to use nine-patches for a great-looking quilt. I had fun doing this one. I took a very scrappy assortment of 6-1/2-inch nine-patch blocks generated by probably six or seven different guild members. I put sashing around a dozen of them with two-inch cut strips. I set a dozen more on point, using tan 5-1/2-inch squares cut diagonally to form the new corners. It was something of an experiment and I trimmed a bit to get them all the same size, but I was really happy with how they looked all stitched together.

For this one, I put a narrow blue border around it, then added a second strip-pieced border out of more 2-1/2-wide scraps. One of my fellow guild members took it from there.

Marti Michell has a great book, 101 Nine-Patch Quilts - a super way to get more inspirations. And don't be afraid to try your own ideas, too. Even if you don't know what final design you're going to use, go ahead and get started on your nine-patches - whichever way you use them, they'll turn out just great!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Scrap-a-palooza for group homes

A whole lot of fabric scraps turned into something really neat around here during the past few months, and it was exciting to see it all come together on Friday night. My quilt guild's community service project this year was to make quilts for a well-respected local youth services agency that operates 10 groups homes. Some of the homes are for little kids, but most are for teenagers who, for any number of reasons, can't live in their own homes. Our goal was to make a couch-sized quilt for the common areas of five of the homes...giving the kids something to snuggle under while watching TV and adding a comforting visual touch over the backs of otherwise plain couches.

We started the project back in October. Guild members began making 6-1/2-inch nine-patch blocks -- stacks and stacks of them. We concentrated on warm, "homey" colors like maroons, hunter greens, tans, etc. We got together for a few Saturday sessions where we sorted the blocks into color families, then built them out into larger blocks using flying geese, setting squares, etc. We put those larger blocks into kits, and then doled the kits out to members to join and border.

This particular quilt is based on the "Comforts of Home" block from www.scrapquilts.com. We made the nine-patches smaller and flipped the positions of the flying geese around, and it turned out great!

Besides mass-producing nine-patches, we found some great ways to use assorted oddball blocks that lots of us had sitting around, too. Most were totally scrappy - and it's amazing how such a jumble of colors and patterns can come together to look so great!

Each quilt changed hands several times as different members did the layering, basting, quilting and binding. By Friday night's meeting, we had not five, but but 10 completed quilts to present to the agency development director. And five more are in the final stages of production.

We felt great about the results, and when the development director shared stories with the group about some of the challenges the group home kids face, you can bet we'll all be remembering them during their fundraising campaigns, too. So, it was a great learning experience for us all.

So many ideas for community service quilts (I can't stand the term "charity quilts") presented themselves over the course of this project that I'll be jotting them down here over the days to come. I hope the techniques will be useful to you in your own community service projects.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Gray slippers nearly done

The gray slipper-socks for The Ships Project are nearly done. I really like the sheen of the Caron Simply Soft. It has a much better texture than lots of other inexpensive acrylics. Soft and cushy...not that awful, scratchy, synthetic feel.

Ellen asks that contributors only mail items to her during the first seven days of the month. This allows her a concentrated period of time to go through all her mail and re-sort the piles, consolidating them into boxes bound for military stations all over the world. Then she can take a breather for a little bit until the whole cycle starts again the next month. So with the mailing dates more than a week away, I've got a little time to make a nice stocking cap with the rest of the yarn.

I can't help but wonder what soldier will end up pulling on these slippers a month or two from now. And I'm extremely grateful that one soldier, in particular, will not be. My brother's son David returned home a few months ago from a year as a medic in Iraq, and is happily back with his wife and their twin sons, who turned two years old last week. Another baby's on the way.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ellen runs a tight ship

A work project has me spending much of the weekend at a printing plant outside Boston. So while waiting for pages of text to proofread, I'm knitting. It's been awhile since I've sent anything to Ellen Harpin for The Ships Project, but I'm glad for the chance to be knitting today.

Ellen is an indefatigable woman in Florida who has galvanized knitters all over the country to make slippers, hats and other useful items for men and women serving in the military. She has points of contact not only with troops serving on shipboard, but with ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past four years, Ellen has sent nearly 200,000 volunteer-made items to soldiers -- not just knitted items, but wonderful "cool ties" filled with expandable polymer beads that, when soaked in water, create a tiny personal cooling system that works surprisingly well.

Ellen is extremely well-organized and has specific instructions for her volunteers. For example, she stresses that hats and slippers should be knit in "guy" colors - no pinks and lavenders, even though some women will end up with her shipments. She discourages hats crocheted with two strands -- too thick to fit comfortably under a helmet -- although thinner crocheted styles are OK. And she's specific about hat sizes. Seems lots of folks forget and send items that couldn't possibly fit an adult. In a recent note to her Yahoo mailing list, she said she had received a hat that was about 10 inches in circumference and 12 inches tall...could fit a one-liter water bottle, but not a real person!

I appreciate Ellen's specificity because it indicates she's serious about what she's doing. Some groups just aren't that way, and it's too bad. Vague invitations to contribute "whatever you want" might be well-meant, but unfortunately may end up with people generating a lot of junk in inappropriate colors and useless styles. Ellen will have none of that. So when she gets things that won't be useful, she's quick to remind people to think before they knit. And she gets fabulous results.

Another thing I really like about Ellen's operation is that it is amazingly free of politics. Her volunteers represent a wide variety of people and opinions, but the one thing that unites them is a desire to express support to the individuals who are putting themselves in harm's way because that's what our country has asked them to do. Views on military policy, either way, just don't matter here. But the people do.

Sometime I'll figure out how to imbed links nicely in this text, but for today I'll just type it in and encourage you to learn more about The Ships Project at http://www.theshipsproject.com.

Because slippers for this project need to have cuffs (safety issue, apparently), I decided to slightly modify Joan Hamer's famous Wool-Ease Socks pattern for men. I'm using two strands of Caron Simply Soft in gray, and it's knitting up nicely on size 8 double-pointed bamboo needles. I'm just making the slipper-socks ribbing only a couple of inches deep, instead of the 8 inches of ribbing you'd knit if you were making sock-socks. The pattern is just so easy to follow, and the heel flap is knit in a beautiful Shaker stitch that is so thick and cushy. I'll post some pictures once I'm done - didn't bring my camera with me on this trip.

Oh, and if you've never seen the sock pattern, here it is... http://knitting.about.com/library/mensocks.htm. It's a great way to become acquainted with sock-knitting and techniques like short rows.

Now, back to knitting...oh, and waiting for those pages to proofread.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bagging it

Tonight was the February meeting of a volunteer sewing group at one of our local hospitals. A group of us have gotten together monthly since last September. We plug in our sewing machines around a conference table and have ourselves some fun for a couple of hours.

When we started this group, we agreed we'd work very closely with the hospital's volunteer director to make sure we were only making things that the hospital really needed. They are usually pretty well-stocked with volunteer-donated baby blankets, for example - and they can always use more. But we asked the volunteer director to seek out some needs in other departments, too. The geriatric nurses, in particular, were grateful to be asked! So we worked on one of their simple requests this evening.

We made more than a dozen simple drawstring bags, 18 inches square, that the nurses will use to cover patients' catheter bags. Nothing sweet like a baby blanket, and nothing particularly pretty...but I have to admit, if I were in the unfortunate situation of having to have a plastic bag of pee hanging on a pole next to me, I'd want something to cover it up, too!

We used cotton fabric we had on hand, including a few pastel bed sheets that someone had donated to the volunteer office. Just cut a strip about 18 1/2 inches by 38 inches (approximate)...fold right sides together, stitch 1/4-inch seams up the sides. Press under about a 1/4 inch around the top, then again to form a casing about an inch deep. Stitch the casing, leave a small opening, and run a strip of twill tape or cotton cording through...and you're done.

Only two main things to remember about a hospital project like this.

First: Don't just guess about what they might need. Ask. Get specifics. Make a prototype and get feedback before making more. In our case, 18-inch-square bags seemed awfully large, but the nurses said they worked perfectly for them...and the drawstring tops were easy to cinch closed. So when we made our bigger batch of bags tonight, we were confident they they'd be truly useful.

The other thing to remember? For this project, anyway....avoid yellow fabric. 'Nuff said.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Well, this was easy

Like most of the rest of the world, I've been fascinated by the whole blogging thing and its potential for sharing thoughts, getting input, and connecting with people in a whole new way. And after spending several weeks thinking about setting up my own, it took all of a couple of minutes to actually do it. So, here I am.

In my spare time, I spend many hours at my sewing machine churning out things to give away. Quilts, baby blankets, caps for chemotherapy patients....stuff like that. Now, let me say right away, that this is just a hobby. I love to sew, to quilt, to knit. The process itself is soothing, creative, inspiring, relaxing, satisfying. And fun. But how many quilts or knitted slippers can you really make for yourself? How many can you inflict on friends or family members who may or may not share your love of handmade things?

So a few years ago, I caught on to the fact that a whole lot of folks out there enjoy knitting and sewing and then donating their finished projects to various worthy causes. Hmmmm, I thought....what a neat thing to do! You get to enjoy a wonderful hobby and have all the benefits of spending many hours with pieces of fabric or balls of yarn, and create something useful and comforting. Then, you give it to someone who could really use a little of that comfort. Win-win!

And again, I emphasize....this is just a hobby. I say this because I've observed any number of folks who take themselves waaaaaay too seriously in this endeavor. Let's be realistic. A donated quilt is not going to change the world. It may, for a moment, bring a sense of comfort to a woman seeking refuge at a shelter...but it's not going to feed her or educate her so she can rebuild her life. Some hand-knit mittens may help keep a child on an Indian reservation a bit warmer for the winter, but they're not going to make a substantial difference in the way that child deals with the struggles that lie ahead of him.

So a weekend spent at the sewing machine cannot, and should not, replace the real service work that every community needs. The way we vote, the way we support agencies in our communities, and the way we apply our own leadership skills are the real ways to make a difference.

But we can do all that....and still sew.

I invite you to come along with me as I explore more opportunities and projects that can, in a small way, be useful to some of our fellow citizens on this planet.