My first quilt – a patchwork Alison Glass observatory throw quilt

Well, I never! If you’d told me 10 years ago I’d be making a quilt in 2020, I’d have split my sides on the floor laughing. Not because I’m a horrible person, but I would never have imagined myself to have the patience, interest and wherewithall to actually make such a thing. Even after I started making clothes, I regarded quilt-making as anOTHER craft. We don’t have a big quilt-making tradition in Scotland and so I saw it mostly as a charming, but quaint, American custom. I could see the appeal in theory but in practice found a lot of the quilts I saw pretty chintzy and not to my taste. Slowly, however, I became aware of modern quilting and started to see wonderful fresh (to my eyes) designs on Instagram here and there. I knew some of my favourite fabric designers, such as Carolyn Friedlander, Cotton + Steel and Ruby Star Society really dealt primarily with quilt fabrics and when I saw what quilters were producing with their fabric I started to be drawn in.

What really led me to actually making one, though, was that I planned to make a quilt to commemorate my parent’s golden wedding anniversary. I picked out a pattern and fabrics – and then realised I neither had a clue where to start, nor the necessary skills to sew such an important gift to a half-decent standard. Covid-19 arrived and during the US Presidential election week, I found myself casting around for something interesting, but not too technical, that I could do sitting in the living room, watching the news, rather than behind the sewing machine. So I came to the idea of a bright, colourful and very simple quilt. I could learn some skills and cheer myself up with the rainbow hues of Alison Glass’ Observatory Collection prints at the same time. Bingo!

I bought a kit directly from Alison Glass’ website which seemed the sensible thing to do. I cut out two 8.5″ squares from each piece of the fabric in the kit and they also included a half yard for the binding. This was fairly easy using my cutting mat and rotary cutter and took little time. I then spent quite some time arranging the squares in different patterns to try to figure out how to get a pleasing arrangement. I should say here that there’s no “right” arrangement. It’s entirely up to the individual how they prefer to work with colour and placement. In my case, I really was drawn to the beautiful ombre effect of the Alison Glass quilts I saw, so wanted to try and work with the colours in a similar manner.

In my first attempt, I separated them all out into colours and started off with the blues in the bottom left corner, working my way up and through to the whites/greens in the opposite corner. I tried to keep the identical pairs fairly close, and work through some sort of colour wheel range, but the resulting combo looked uneven. I couldn’t put my finger on what was up, so I read up some info on colour theory for quilters, such as these posts from Sewing Machine Plus and Seasoned Homemaker and started to learn a little about colour value and saturation as relates to a quilt design. That is, trying to figure out how strong and deep, or dark and light your fabrics are and how to contrast them for effect.

I took a black and white picture of my layout on my phone and that helped with the issue. You can see it’s sort of a hodge-podge of colour, with a strong area of dark values on the bottom left and then a bit of a mish-mash elsewhere.

I tried some more layouts – this time I tried to work across and up the quilt a bit more, so I still started with the darker colours and ended with the lighter, but kept the mid-range hues of the reds, oranges and pinks all through the middle. I also tried to spread the deeper, darker squares out a bit, so it wasn’t too concentrated in one area. This looked a lot better to me, but I wasn’t totally happy with the middle part, which got a bit muddy again. Still, this was definitely on the right track.

I went back and had a good look at some of the sample Alison Glass quilts and noticed her final patterns often have a very strong diagonal colour line running through them. I had definitely gravitated towards that in my later layouts and probably could have achieved it by changing out a few squares, but I decided to rearrange in something very similar to her sample layout and really liked the evenness of it. The difference is that some of the colour groups are clustered at each end end (greens and blues) and then the strong reds and pinks run the length of the diagonal to separate them. I went with this one!

Here’s the final quilt in black and white so you can see the difference in values and saturation. It looks a lot more even to me than my first attempt. It was a really interesting exercise, and I think it will be one of my favourite parts of quilt-making, going forward.

Next, the sewing! I sewed and quilted the whole thing on my faithful wee Brother CS6000i. I wasn’t sure whether this was foolhardy or not, but a cursory glance at the internet showed that other people had used the same machine successfully, so I ploughed on. My Brother came with a walking foot, which is fairly invaluable for the quilting stage, but for the quilt top I used my regular settings and foot, with regular Gutermann thread as well. The first thing I did was sew the rows, so I arranged all my pieces into the stacks as they were laid out across the quilt. Then I sewed them all at 1/4″. Apparently, it’s best to press the seams in alternate directions after each row, so that’s what I did, as you can see above. This helps them line up smoothly when you sew the rows all together,

I was surprised how fast this was. Even taking my time to be careful to press and line everything up, the entire quilt top only took a couple of hours. I managed to get pretty neat joins at almost all the intersections, so that made me happy. Next, I needed to arrange the backing. I had this lovely Cotton and Steel quilting cotton in my stash from ages ago and thought the blue and white tile effect would contrast nicely with the bright front. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was also a good choice because it hides all the little mistakes I made really nicely! If I’d chosen a solid backing, those little tucks and puckers would have stood out like a sore thumb.

As you can see, I also decided to make a dividing line down the middle with some of the pieces I had left over from the quilt top. This ties the front and back together, but it’s also apparently a good idea not to have a seam down the centre back. As this is where the quilt gets folded most often, it can wear more quickly if there’s a seam there. Makes sense!

Time for the real work to begin! Basting! I read numerous articles about this, watched videos and asked for advice on Instagram to the ever-helpful sewing community. There are two main methods for attaching the three layers (quilt top, batting and quilt backing) together: pin-basting and spray basting with glue. I might have tried glue basting in the summer, but the weather outside wasn’t good and I didn’t have a good spot to do it without getting glue everywhere, so I went with pin basting. I bought some curved basting pins (they look like regular safety pins but with a curved bottom) from JoAnn and followed this tutorial from We All Sew, which was very through and informative.

It basically involves pinning your backing to a carpet so it’s taut and fixed. Then you lay the batting and quilt top on top of the backing and pin those layers every 3 inches or so to the backing, trying not to catch the carpet this time. I read somewhere that if you spread your hand out at any point on your quilt and can’t feel at least two pins, you haven’t used enough pins!

Unfortunately when I turned it over, one side of the back looked like this (below). Booo. I briefly considered sewing it anyway, but knew that I wouldn’t be at all happy, so looked at my options. It had taken quite a while to do it this way and this was my only carpet in the house. It’s a really thickly-piled carpet and I think too thick for this operation as it was really tough getting the pins out at the end and I think we shuffled it around trying to do so (I say “we” because my husband really needed to help me for this method). There had to be another way…

Back to Instagram and more knowledgeable sewing friends! I got lots of good suggestions. Many people suggested using painter’s tape on a wooden floor and this was something I had the space for. It seemed that the consensus was a deep-pile carpet was the source of my issue. I don’t have the best back in the world and some of the suggestions for a solution off the floor made me prick up my ears. One friend uses binder clips on a table, but I didn’t have a suitable table for that. Another uses cutting mats on top of a cutting table and tapes it all up, but my quilt was a little too big for that solution. Sounding like Goldilocks and the Three Bears yet? One last sewing friend talked about using gravity to keep it flat off the edge of a workstation. My husband had suggested that and I had replied that I wasn’t sure it would keep flat when you moved the quilt up and over, but now there was evidence it might…

So in the end I went for a hybrid solution of taping the backing firmly onto my wide kitchen counter (it’s where I do my cutting) and then letting gravity help me as I pinned the two layers on top, before moving it over and repositioning. It saved my back from aches and actually worked well! Score!

Next – the bit I was most dubious about – the quilting! I spent quite a bit of time figuring out the best way to attempt quilting on my little Brother. There’s only a 5 inch space to push the quilt through on the right hand side, so I was a little apprehensive. I’ve made bags and bulkier items on this machine before and I know it takes a little manhandling. Would I be able to quilt a 64 x 48″ quilt through it? Well, the answer is… mostly. I’m not going to pretend it’s perfect, but the important thing is I’m perfectly happy with it. I might have to experiment a bit more to see if I can get a better finish for any quilt I’m giving as a gift, but for this first attempt it was good!

I basically used the method shown in this YouTube video from Wendi Gratz, which involves keeping the area you’re working on flat and gently pushing the rest through as you go. She advises not rolling the excess up as it will pull on the working area and I could see that that would have been the case for me as I was working on it. I used cotton Gutermann quilting thread, my walking foot and a slightly larger stitch length to make 1-inch straight lines all across the width of the quilt.

One thing I would definitely advise is to use some sort of quilting guide. I had one that came with my Brother but couldn’t find it anywhere (I hadn’t needed it for 5 years) and so started my marking the line with a ruler. Believe me, this got old FAST and so I ordered a new quilting gauge from Amazon.

It just slots into a little hole on your walking foot and it sped up my quilting rate by probably 4 times. As I say, invaluable!

The last job to do was the binding. I didn’t take any photos of that unfortunately, but I decided to just cut straight strips for the binding rather than bias as 1) there weren’t any curves to bend round and 2) there was only enough fabric to do so in the kit, so I guess that was what was intended!

I cut the strips 2.5″ wide and then did the mitred corners in a simple way as shown in this very handy tutorial from the Missouri Star Quilt Company. I am not really a hand-sewer, but decided to finish it by hand as I could do it sitting in front of the tv with my family and it’s nice to hang out with them (sometimes). Ha. It gave me a very nice finish actually and it doesn’t take too long once you get into the swing of it. I used a green thread to match the binding colour and it’s virtually invisible.

So, the million dollar question – would I sew another quilt? Absolutely I would. In fact, I may or may not have ended up going down a bit of a quilting rabbithole over the Black Friday weekend and may or may not have purchased a few bundles of quilting cotton supplies. I also may or may not have joined a little quilting project group here in Seattle where we’re going to sew a block a month through 2021. As I mentioned at the top, I also have a quilt I want to sew for my parents. It’s not so much more complicated than this one and now I feel I have a grasp of the different components and techniques I feel ready to take it on. I may get that one quilted professionally, but let’s see how I feel at the time.

Ultimately I’m sure I will still make garments more than anything, but it’s lovely to have another little side path to wander down now and then when I need to use ALL the colours and patterns and want to sew some straight lines for a while. And not worry about fitting! Lol. Are you a quilter? If you have any favourite hints and tips after reading this, do let me know in the comments. I love to hear about people’s experiences and there are so many wonderful quilters out there on the internet with a mountain of knowledge. Until next time, have a very Merry Christmas if you’re celebrating and I will be back soon.

14 thoughts on “My first quilt – a patchwork Alison Glass observatory throw quilt

      1. It is a bit overwhelming when choosing a design. I have a layer cake of batik fabric and a neutral. A couple ideas bouncing around my head. Once I actually sit down and start planning, I hope it comes together.

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  1. Your quilt is lovely- much nicer than my first quilt was.
    I just finished quilting one with my domestic machine, which does have a somewhat wider area than yours. It was still tedious, since I was not using straight lines and needed to turn the quilt a lot.
    If budget allows, there is no shame in paying a long arm quilter, especially if your next one is bed sized. Then no pin basting, either!
    I always enjoy your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s really good to know and something I wasn’t sure about to start – if it was kind of “cheating” to not do the whole thing yourself. But I’ve read that it’s perfectly acceptable and I feel like I might do that for my parents’ quilt. I really like the thought of free motion quilting and would definitely like to try it sometime, but I think that might be a step too far on my current machine. We’ll see!

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  2. You should get an award for your post. It is an accurate & very informative description of what most quilter’s go through when they first start quilting! And your patience & hard work paid off. Your quilt is AWESOME! I’ll bet your parent’s loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, how nice of you. Thank you! I always like reading these posts on other people’s blogs, so hopefully my experience can aid someone else. Or at least provide them a link that might be helpful. I really enjoyed making this quilt and am currently trying to get my head around how to pick colours for some blocks in this group I’ve signed up to. The other sewists all seem very helpful, so I will probably be asking for advice at some point (soon). πŸ˜€

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  3. Your quilt is beautiful! I love how colorful it is. You might like to google how to baste a quilt using boards. It can be done on a tabletop and save your back a little. I have only done it once so far, as I am a beginner quilter, but it worked great. Thank you for sharing your first quilt journey. Very interesting.

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