On Sunday, I attended a class organized by my local quilt guild. A lovely teacher travelled to visit us and teach us the wonders of machine quilting on domestic machines. For the uninitiated, this is the part of making a quilt where you "quilt" it. (Yes, I know - confusing terminology - noun, verb, expletive - the word quilt wears many hats.)
Okay so, in a nutshell - a quilt. Noun, for something warm and lovely to cuddle under. You make the "top" of the quilt, usually by sewing a lot of small pieces of fabric together to create a design in the size you would like. This is called "piecing". Then you make a backing - a piece of fabric the same size as the top, for the back. Yup. You can use one big piece of fabric, or you can "piece" that together from smaller pieces, like the top. Then you make a sandwich, with the top (on the top) the backing (on the back) and something called "batting" in the middle - like a sheet of stuffing. Batting can be thick or thin, made of wool, cotton, bamboo, polyester, or recycled water bottles. (That last one is true.) Usually you pin the sandwich together with funny crooked safety pins, or you use sticky glue spray, or you can do a basting stitch too. There are also some special guns that you can use to shoot the sandwich to hold it together. (Honestly.)
Then you take your sandwich and you do what is called quilting - putting stitches all over the sandwich, to hold the three layers together. Sometimes they are super decorative stitches, like pictures in thread, of leaves and flowers and hearts and bunny rabbits. Other times (especially if you're modern) they are straight lines all over the place. You can do this with a regular ("domestic") sewing machine, or with a Big Fancy Enormous Expensive Machine (aka BFEEM, or "long arm"), or even by hand, while you watch Netflix. Which is how Martha Washington did it. Minus the Netflix. Or, you can get your checkbook out and pay someone who has the BFEEM ("longarmer") to do that part for you. Once the quilting is done, you sew a binding around the edges (to close up that sandwich). And then you have a quilt. You quilted a quilt. Time for some wine.
That was a really big nutshell. But, you know, I'm sure many of my readers are grateful for the technical backstory.
So, this class. When you want to quilt on a regular ole "domestic" machine, you have two choices - driving the quilt back and forth and making straight lines is a great choice, and one that I have used and endorsed exclusively until now. Or, you can venture into the wild with what we like to call Free Motion Quilting. Or FMQ if you're hip. With FMQ, you drop the feed dogs on your machine, and you glide the fabric around under the needle to create fancy patterns. Or plain patterns. Your choice.
The thing about FMQ is that, as you are basically putting your machine on "manual override", it's up to you do all the work. Not only making sure that you move the fabric around in the right directions to create the pretty patterns your heart desires, but also that you move that fabric at exactly the right speed to keep the stitch length even. It is much, much harder than it looks. I tried it a couple of times, so I know what I'm talkin' 'bout here, okay?
So right...this class. I was psyched to have the great mysteries of FMQ revealed to me. No doubt there was some special fairy dust involved, or some special angle of attack. Perhaps a little poem that I could recite before beginning. Notions! There were going to be special sewing notions, fabulous accoutrements, the names of which were whispered only in the dark inner circles of FMQ-dom. All would be revealed. I would emerge from my FMQ cocoon, and fly across the fabric like a beautiful butterfly. Drawing beautiful butterflies in thread, on fabric. I was so ready. Steady. Go.
We watched as the lovely teacher demonstrated. She swirled her fabric under the needle and effortlessly formed perfect circles, swirling snail's trails, delectable candy ribbons, spirally spirals. She danced like Cinderella on a machine. And we dashed back to our machines to follow her example.
And do you know what this princess learned? I learned that there were no secrets. There was no fairy dust. No fabulous accoutrements. Nary a poem was recited. There may have been a lot not-so-silent cussing going on though. My cussing actually ended up on the fabric, where, in frustration, my swirls actually spelled out fuck this. Ladies and gentleman, your protagonist was not the star of the class. As it turns out, I don't have a sleeping natural talent for FMQ that was lying dormant. I suck at FMQ. I mean, I really really suck at it.
The lovely instructor (and she was lovely) did not have any special secrets for me. It turns out (you will be, I am sure, as shocked as I was to learn) that It Takes Practice. Apparently, you do not get good at this in a six hour class. (Though I have to say some of my classmates were looking a lot more like magical princesses of FMQ than I was.) Apparently, you have to do this, over and over and over again, until you get better at it. Apparently, it takes AGES. (The lovely teacher did not have the heart to tell me this, but my learned friend did.)
I estimate that I will go through 1000 square yards of practice quilt sandwiches before I improve sufficiently to risk this FMQ malarky on an actual quilt top that I have spent a zillion hours piecing together. That would be kind of like shredding your doctoral thesis to test your new paper shredder. It would be folly.
But you know, I'm not going to give up. Today, I got back on the horse called FMQ and I rode. I rode round and round making lopsided little ivy vines. And you know what? It looked terrible. But terrible is slightly less awful than the thread catastrophe I produced on Sunday.
I may never be good at FMQ. I may one day be the FMQ Queen Of The World (ok, not a real thing.) But...you know, that's okay. I'm not really sure that I love all those pretty, swirly designs. I'm pretty happy with my straight lines. But I'm not giving up yet, dear readers! I'm going make a stack of little quilt sandwiches, and I'm going to FMQ the heck out of those damn things. Just you watch me.