This is a very special family quilt that I set all my quilting plans and schedules aside for so that I could finish it up in time for my husband's great-aunt's 90th birthday. It was finished May 9th and had to go straight into air UPS to arrive on time. I didn't get to do a nice photo op for it since we were rushed to get it delivered. But it clearly fit in very beautifully with the other decor at the party her son threw for her:
Lucy Haney was my husband's great-great-grandmother. She loved quilting. Helen Brittin (Scott's great-aunt, the owner of the top who just turned 90) was her granddaughter, and she remembers Lucy making this top in the 1930s. I apologize for the length of this post, but it is sharing specific strategies in working with old quilt tops, quilting design meant to remedy structural problems, and adding a ruffle to a vintage quilt, as well as journaling an important family heirloom.
Lucy is the older woman in the bottom left photo. Her husband, Charlie, worked at a sugar mill during the 1930s, and she was able to use their large sugar sacks as quilt backings during the Depression era.
The Bo Peep top was in remarkable condition when Helen pulled it out of her cedar chest for a show-and-tell on Valentine's Day.
I could see it was dear to her, and that she wished she could use it on her bed. When I asked her if she would like for me to quilt it for her 90th birthday, she was visibly overwhelmed with joy, and we discussed styles of quilting and the addition of an eyelet ruffle to augment its bed coverage and coordinate with her eyelet ruffle bed skirt.
The cream backgrounds are all flour sacks. I don't know if any of the prints were also flour sacks, but they sure are fun:
(While I've labeled this as Helen remembers it, being made in the late 1930s, if you have expertise knowledge you can share about these fabrics, I'd love that.)
The whole 6-hour drive home, my brain turned over ideas of how to work with such an old quilt top and how to attach that ruffle in a way that would prevent undue stress on the old top when the ruffle got pulled on during use.
INSPECTING & LAYERING THE TOP
The first thing I did was inspect the top. It was in a remarkable condition, considering its age! It did have some yellowing from age and felt like it had a good bit of dust in it even though it had been stored for decades and decades in a cotton pillowcase. There were a few spots here and there on the flour sack backgrounds. I decided not to wash it before it was quilted up, to give the old fabric added support and to prevent raveling those old seams before it underwent the stress of even hand washing.
The Bo Peeps were appliqued by hand onto the flour sacks with a blanket stitch. I like to trim away the background from the applique, because doing so greatly improves the quilt's "hand" after quilting (it's not as stiff). However, I was concerned that trimming might weaken this old top, so I did not do this with Lucy's work.
There were several areas of "interesting" fixes Lucy had made when piecing the blocks. (Clearly, she had not trimmed them all to the same size before assembly.)
Also, there were two places where the flour sack fabric was worn and would need mending before quilting began. All the other fabrics looked terrific.
As it turned out, both of those spots were in positions that worked with the new quilting scheme, where I could fuse a flower shape on the back behind them, locking all those fibers down, and then quilt a flower shape around it with a darning-style free-motion treatment for the center of the flower. (I really thought I had a photo of the final effect from the front, darn it! - You gotta love puns!)
Lucy hadn't removed a fair bit of her basting stitches on the Bo Peeps, but Helen and I had both loved those stiches during the show-and-tell. They make you feel closer to Lucy, somehow. So we both decided those would stay in the quilted top for sentimentality's sake.
I found that there were some serious issues with the squareness of the quilt - sides were flat on the surface, but wiggled outward here and there, the bottom 8 inches belled out a good three inches wider than the top, and the top right side had a surface wave because one edge block was taller than the others in its row. You can see that the sashing lines are nowhere near straight through the center of the quilt. With all the quilts that Lucy finished - working right up into the 1950s - I would guess that she wasn't super happy with the issues in the top's construction, and maybe that's why this earlier work was never finished.
For the backing, I bought a super soft high-quality light cream muslim to match both the style and period of the top and Helen's bedroom decor. Considerations of the fabric's delicate age and the ruffle attachment strongly influenced my choice of batting. Instead of going with the shimless all-cotton Hobbs batting I would have otherwise chosen in an effort to mimic the top's period, I bought Quilter's Dream 70/30 cotton/poly batting with a shim to provide a little more stability to the quilt. [At the final inspection of the finished, washed quilt, this proved to be a perfect choice for the project.]
I layer large quilts on the floor, taping the backing down on the carpet (you want to pull it ONLY enough to remove waves, but never enough to stretch the warp or weft) and floating first the batting (patting and pushing gently to smooth it out, then the top (again, patting and pushing, and lifting to reset areas as I move around). I use the bent quilter's safety pins to baste, and I meticulously pinned this project more densely than usual in a way that would lessen the stress on the fabric, while allowing me to nudging the various edges as much as I dared to ease a little better alignment into the quilt.
I was able to resolve quite a bit of the lateral waving on the very edges, but the belling out at the bottom remained, and the top-right area's issue would need a tuck stitched into the top of the too-tall block. I hand sewed that tuck in after the quilt was basted, letting the "grippiness" of the batting help me get it settled perfectly, and using a careful invisible stitch with 100-wt silk thread. I did not trim that seam, although it hit an inch tripled over at the edge, so that I could preserve the full strength of the old fabrics.
The bad sashing intersections were impossible to remedy without deconstructing and resewing the top, which I did not want to do for the sake of too much stress on old fabric. So they were there to stay. You can see the mis-match here:
These problems made it necessary to re-plan the quilting, as the original intentions I had discussed with Helen involved outlining each block, using fairly dense pretty fills around the Bo Peeps, and putting in medium-sized feathers on the sashing.
QUILTING LUCY'S BO PEEP
Now for the fun part of the work: The quilting!
First of all, I basted the edges down with my walking foot on the longest stitch length. I ran two lines around the whole quilt to provide extra stability so that the full force of any correctional pull at the wavy top layer during the basting process wouldn't fall on one stitching width. You can see what I'm talking about in this later photo:
My quilting strategy needed to calm the last bit of the side waves and de-accentuate the crooked sashing intersections. The pink horizontal rows waved outward, while the Bo Peep rows pulled in a wee bit still. And the bottom eight inches still belled out the most.
I decided to completely ignore the frames and work in large rows across the whole width of the quilt as if the Bo Peeps were on a whole-cloth background. I came up with putting rows of sheep on the pink areas with long lines of hill silhouettes as the fill there. That horizontally-based stitching would help to physically pull the width inward a bit. I would outline the Bo Peeps and do minimal detail work on their dresses and hats to stabilize them without adding density. For their background, I chose to do larger-scale feathers that would add beauty without pulling the width in densely (and without placing undo tension on the old fabric like micro- work would have done). That left the belling bottom - - - what to do there? I decided to try a little denser fieldwork of flowers and leaves, hoping it would transition prettily to the feather work between the Bo Peeps above it.
It's easiest to see that overall design on the back:
And you know what? That plan succeeded on all counts!! I really love the look of the sheep which augment the theme of Bo Peep, the prettiness of the feathers (wow, flour-sack fabric quilts up gorgeously!), and the way the increased density of the bottom field of flowers pulled that belling in so that the finished bottom was only 1" wider than the top. I was very happy with the results!
This was all done as free-motion work with my spring-action open-toe foot. First I quilted the Bo Peeps, using black 50-wt Aurifil. That was simple outline work, following carefully just along the inner side of the blanket stitch outlines and kissing the edge of the embroidery for the hook staffs to secure her stitches so they wouldn't get pulled on. I used different colors of thread as I could best coordinate from my collection to put the lines in the skirts and bonnets. Very simple for the ladies, just enough to define and keep their fabrics from getting pulled around if they were left too loose. No fancy fillers on them.
After I got all the Bo Peeps quilted, I put in the sheep along the three horizontal pink rows. I used a 12-wt light cream that showed up nicely on the pink fabric.
I drew several different sheep shapes out on scrap paper, then stapled those on stacks of 10 sheets of Golden Thread paper and used an unthreaded old needle to punch out all the sheep patterns I needed for the field rows.
Those get pinned onto the quilt and you stitch right through the paper. It's really not hard to nudge the paper stragglers out with a dull needle while you're watching a movie. :)
All the remaining background quilting was done in a darker 50-wt cream Aurifil. First I put in the hillside lines with the sheep.
Then I put in the feathers between the Bo Peeps. Here you can kind of see how I put one or two larger-scale flowers and leaves at the bottom of each feather-fill area between the Bo Peeps of the higher rows to kind of echo the idea of the very-bottom field of flowers and transition between the sheep on hills and the feather fill. Part of that design startegy was to base the feather scrolls all on the lower edge, coming up out of the flower area. We're going to have to visit Helen again so I can get some better photos of the quilting on the front! :)
I did NOT trim the edges of the batting and backing off at this point. I needed them for the finishing steps of adding the ruffle without stressing the old top.
WASHING THE FINISHED VINTAGE QUILT
The next task was to gently wash the quilt and block it very carefully to dry. I used the Orvus specialty quilt soap in lukewarm water in my garden size tub.
I laid the quilt in the soap-water-filled tub (about 5" deep) in a sort of accordionned fashion. I didn't let it sit long, in case any of the bold colors might decide to bleed. I gave it two gentle hand-wash cycles, sort-of kneading it down the length, very carefully squish-pushing the cleaning water through the quilt folds without wringing or pulling hard at it. Then I rinsed it with three fresh lukewarm cycles until I saw that the rinse water ran off clear. Many of the spots came out of the flour sacks, or at least faded to mere ghosts. I did not add the stress to the fabric of trying to spot clean any that remained, but decided to let those be Personality Marks. :)
I did NOT wring the top out, nor use my machine to spin it. I simply pulled the accordion folds toward me and squashed them against the side of the tub, starting at the head end and working my way down to the drain end about a hand's span at a time. I lifted each section a wee bit as I squeezed the water out so that it would run down toward the drain instead of just soaking back into the folds. In that manner, I was able to get a pretty good amount of the water out. Even so, it was still quite heavy.
Therefor, I had my daughter help me slip a white sheet under the top so we could lift it out by holding the sheet instead of the quilt. That kept the quilt's wet weight from damaging anything. We took it down to the basement where I can make space to lay a large quilt on the floor for an extended period in a cat-free zone. We carefully laid it out, blocking as we went to maximize the last bits of squareness that we could achieve. I oh-so-gently nudged at the edges and pinned it liberally into the carpeting. You can imagine that there was only so much tension I was willing to put onto the fabric, but the quilting strategy had worked wonders, and this quilt is pretty darn stinkin' square in outline, considering where it started. I hadn't trimmed any of the edges before I quilted it, and I left the layers untrimmed after the quilt dried.
ADDING THE EYELET RUFFLE & BINDING
My last task was to finish the quilt with an eyelet ruffle in a manner that wouldn't let the stress of a tugged ruffle rip the old top fabric. To accomplish this, I decided I would sew the ruffle only onto the batting and backing, so that the attachment seam never even touched the old top.
So I stitched a double basting line into the eyelet and spend a lot of time arranging and pinning the ruffles to the quilt with the raw edges abutting each other rather than layering the eyelet right-sides-together.
You can see that this approach creates two issues: First, the abbutted edges remain exposed. Second, a non-traditional approach to the binding is required.
My solutions would be to use a highly flexible woven tapestry ribbon to hide the abbutment, and to cut an extremely wide binding that could wrap around far enough to cover all the seam lines.
I had to layer the binding under the ruffle before it was sewn on. You can see how that's done at the top end here. The raw edges of the binding match the raw edges of the ruffle, so they all butt up to the edge of the quilt top. It is a standard bias-cut double biding, folded in half. For this quilt and the intended ribbon-finished abutting seam width, I cut that binding super-wide at 4-5/8 inches! So this folded bias layer is just over 2-1/4" wide:
After sewing the eyelet on, I could see that the ruffle seam poofed up in a way that would be unattractive under the ribbon.
So I zig-zagged that down.
Once the front was ready for the finishing ribbon, I turned my attention to completing the binding on the back so that it covered all the ruffle attachment seams. It was finally time to trim off all the batting/backing overage. This was done SO CAREFULLY by pulling both the ruffle and the binding out of the way with each ruler shift and cutting precisely the width my math had figured out when I calculated how wide each seam and the binding edge needed to be to accomodate the width of the ribbon. Luckily that was all correctly figured! No tears this time. ;D
After the trimming, it was time for the movie marathon to begin at the sofa for all the handworked needle 'n thread time.
My handy little binding clips just didn't work in this situation - they kept letting the extra wide binding slip away from the sewing point. So I had to go with the old-fashioned pins and try not to stab myself too often.
Last, it was time to sew on the ribbon - all 9 yards of it!
I normally stitch in very tiny intervals in my hand work, but I worked this task in a little longer than usual spacing to provide a final stress buffer if the ruffle got pulled on while the quilt was in use. That ribbon is nicely flexible within its weave for such a need. I had to work all around this quilt by hand THREE times to do the finish work! First, all 11 yards for the binding, and then 9 yards to set the ribbon on one side, and then the other.
There wasn't time to do a proper photo shoot with this quilt, but I did just barely get a label printed out and stitched into the back of a lower Bo Peep skirt:
Linking up at:
Muv's Free Motion Mavericks
Sarah's Whoop, Whoop Linkup
TGIFF, hosted by Sarah this week
WIPs Be Gone!