Introduction to NotQuilts



This post is part of a series about sewing NotQuilts. If you’re unfamiliar with this method, The NotQuilt series begins here. The link below takes you to the Cat Notquilt project.

Before I developed the NotQuilt idea, I had been interested in quilts for decades. I made my first one when I was seventeen. I still have it. It’s hand-pieced from hundreds of 4-inch squares and then knotted through the thick batting. I didn’t know what I was doing and this shows both in the sewing and the fact that I doubled all the fabric squares. That is, each and every square is made of one 4-inch piece of fabric sewn on top of another.

I have no idea anymore why I did that.

Notquilt My first quilt.

My first quilt.

notquilt my first quiltWhat I like about the quilt is that I worked out a design so that each square repeats elsewhere in the face of the quilt. I made a series of interlocking squares, rectangles, and diamonds demarcated by their corners. The design covers the entire top and you cannot break it up into individual blocks. I don’t remember anymore how I managed that as I sewed the thing, I think, as I went along. Did I design it first on graph paper? It’s possible, but after forty years, who knows?

The other thing I still like about this quilt is that I sewed it from real scraps. There are pieces of fabric in that top that I recognize to this day as being from a particular garment that I made, my sister made, or that my mother made. Those clothes are long gone, but the quilt remembers them for me.

This quilt was a learning experience and one of the things I learned, over the years, is that quilts get worn out. You can see how much repairing this quilt needs, starting with the binding. I used a silky material that I loved and it fell apart fast. The squares of fabric shredded, demonstrating the value of selecting cloth more carefully. Patching the quilt will be problematic. Any pieces I sew onto it will stand out like sore thumbs, both in brightness of color and how they detract from the original design. I knotted this quilt and many of the knots came out, causing another problem.

I learned a lot from this quilt and decades later, my experiences with this one encouraged my desire to make washable, repairable projects.

I made a few other quilts and discovered that I liked the design and piecing aspects far more than the quilting. It’s damn difficult to hand-quilt without a frame. I quilted on my trusty Kenmore sewing machine, pinning the layers together with a bazillion pins, rolling it up like a sausage and somehow forcing the wad of fabric and batting through the sewing machine.

I can say with authority that this shouldn’t be tried on anything larger than a baby quilt. I did just this for a friend decades ago, when I made her a Storm at Sea quilt for her wedding and machine quilted it. It was an awful experience and I never had the stomach to go back for seconds. The quilt turned out okay and lasted longer than the marriage did.

I don't have a photo of it, but here's two examples of a Storm at Sea panel.

I don’t have a photo of it, but here’s two examples of a Storm at Sea panel.

I was never happy with machine quilting on a standard sewing machine. I didn’t like fussy hand quilting and I never had the space for a frame setup anyway. I don’t remember hand basting “Storm at Sea” or those other quilts prior to machine quilting them. That might have helped. Hand basting a quilt for machine quilting on a regular sewing machine is tantamount to hand quilting it. You have to baste a line every inch from side to side. When you’re done shoving the huge sausage through the machine, you get to pick out all the basting.

I also did not like the amount of time it took to cut a thousand little triangles and then sew them back together. I didn’t like that pieced quilts don’t like washing machines. Appliqué quilts don’t care for washing machines either.

So I quit making quilts. Traditional pieced quilts are beautiful, and they represent the triumphant union of necessity, ingenuity, thrift, and beauty. But the method didn’t work for me.

Quitting quilt-making didn’t stop me from reading quilting books. I still went to quilting shows to admire the gorgeous workmanship on display. I moved on to making clothing, draperies, pillows, and other household furnishing.

Then I discovered the NotQuilt, purely by accident. As far as I know, I sort of invented them. They let me turn my scraps into something beautiful that was doable on my standard issue sewing machine. I have made ten of them in the last 20 years! Each one of them is a twin size or larger.

I’m really proud of that.

I like how each one turns out unique and different. I like that they use up scraps from other projects, ensuring a unique design. I like that they fulfill the spirit of traditional quilting: making something functional and beautiful from nothing.

My NotQuilts show my design aesthetic. Only I can make them exactly as I do, as only I have that particular collection of scraps and those preferences for certain color choices.

As I got better at it, my NotQuilts became big, showy, knock-your-eyes-out production numbers. I like this. Why be boring? I also like using them, even though the ravages of time will fade all those glorious colors to dull pastels. What is the point of having quilts that you cannot use?

Quilts you can’t use are not quilts. They are beautiful works of art, but they don’t keep you warm at night, nor are they washable.

Next week, I’ll talk about the inspiration for NotQuilts and how it can unleash your creativity.