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by Kelsey Reams
I took up quilting with the naïve confidence of a child who watches an Olympic gymnast work the pommel horse for awhile, then declares, "That looks easy. I think I'll try." I failed to appreciate the skill and artistry involved in making the geometric patterns crackle and the colors flow. Seventeen years and many lumpy quilts later, I have a far greater respect for the craft.
The first hard lesson I learned about quilting is that cutting and sewing errors are cumulative. An eighth of an inch doesn't look like much, but if I sew 24 squares together into a row, and each square is an eighth of an inch wider than it should be, the row is going to be three inches too long. Sew that together with a row that's three inches too short, and the result will be as straight and flat as a slice of fried bacon.
I learned that I could side-step the difficulties of accurate cutting and sewing by making a crazy quilt. This quilt was the ultimate recycling project, because it was composed entirely of scraps from other projects. I sewed bits of Halloween costumes, first-day-of-school dresses and pajamas of Christmas past every which way, with no regard for matching corners or edges. The finished quilt was something like Grandma's attic, full of memories, but unbearably cluttered.
My desire for order lured me back to the world of regular shapes and parallel lines. When the urge to quilt came over me again, I chose a log cabin design. Each block starts with a square and builds in a spiral, as longer and longer strips are added to the sides of the square. Seven colors of fabric are required for the log cabin: three different shades of two complementary colors, plus one color for the center square.
Colors can live in grudging proximity to one another, or they can leap up and dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Assembling a chorus line of dancing colors seemed beyond my ability, so I visited Juanita, who is the proprietor of my favorite fabric shop.
I must confess that I am a little afraid of Juanita, because I find her unsmiling competence intimidating. It's impossible for me to imagine her ripping out a line of stitches or fudging a seam, let alone sewing over her own finger or accidentally trimming her hair with a rotary cutter. Still, no one is better at choosing color than she.
My eye fell on a bolt of calico whose color reminded me of red violet crayons. Coaxing it out from between its less appealing relatives, I extended the bolt to Juanita and made my request. Like a skilled casting director, she quickly gathered an ensemble of pinks and purples, with a surprising spark of yellow for the center square. Before I knew it, I was sitting at the bus stop with a bag of fabric and 45 minutes to kill.
As I waited, I turned my mind to the problem of precision cutting. If only I could use my CCTV for the task, I could see exactly what I was doing. Unfortunately, the camera and TV are fixed above the sliding book tray, which is too small to hold a cutting mat. Even if I removed the tray, the frame that supports the CCTV would be in the way. Suddenly, in a blinding moment of insight, I knew what to do. I couldn't wait to get home.
I tore into the kitchen, emptied the silverware drawer and dropped the CCTV into it. With the foot of the frame tucked into the drawer, the camera and TV were suspended above an unbroken expanse of countertop. I could slide the fabric and cutting mat under the camera, and line up the ruler for a perfect cut.
This innovation set me on a precision jag. Not only did my cuts have to be accurate, but my seams did, too. I still used my fingertip to gauge the width of the seam as the machine needle jogged the length of the fabric, but when I was done, I measured the seam under my CCTV. If it wasn't perfect, I did it again. My seam ripper got quite a workout, but I was amazed how much easier the quilt went together when all the pieces were the right size.
Now that I've broken the precision barrier, I feel like anything is possible. Maybe I will go wild and try something with triangles next time! Whatever I do, I will take my greatest satisfaction from the struggle to improve.
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