Thursday, January 17, 2013

Quilters Were Recycling Before It Was Cool

I'm the (volunteer) Documentation Chair for the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts & Fiber Arts.  We see a lot of quilts like this one, made from wool scraps sewn to a foundation, and tied to a backing.  Technically, these are "comforters" not quilts, since there's no quilting.  Most of them were made from the 1880s to the 1920s, although I have one in my personal collection dated 1956.  My great-grandmother, Bess Mueller Risley, made several of this kind of quilt, but usually in a crazy quilt style.
These old quilts, especially ones we saw at a Documentation Day last summer in La Crosse, inspired me to make my own.  I started by cleaning out my closet.
Cleaning Out the Closet
 I love natural fabrics, and I wore a lot of wool in the winter when I was working.  Many of my old things were out of style or had somehow gotten smaller just hanging there (how does that happen?  Maybe it has something to do with cookies?)  I found pants, skirts, and jackets to recycle.
I also bought a few items at flea markets last summer.  The purple comes from a jacket that looked like it had never been worn.  The black and white hounds tooth fabric came from a wool jumper.  In my fabric bins, I had scraps that go all the way back to the 1980s when I made wool jumpers and skirts for my oldest daughter.  There were some yardage scraps from flea markets and yard sales, too.  I pulled out everything I had, and decided to leave the brown tones for another quilt.
Most of these items were 100% wool, but a few were blends or unknown content.  I chose to use them anyway.  This is a judgement call.
Next I cut apart the clothes into large pieces.  Skirts were the best, especially longer skirts, and pants were easy.  Jackets were kind of a pain, but there were large pieces from the backs and sleeves, and smaller pieces from the fronts.  I cut around the pockets and lapels.  If there was fusible interfacing on the pieces, I either pulled it off (if I could) or just left it on.  It made the pieces slightly thicker, but it didn't really matter with this kind of quilt. This took a couple of evenings.
Washing the Wool
Now that I had the "yardage", I decided to wash it.  I can hear the gasps now.  Don't freak out, you can wash wool.  (Remember, sheep get wet and don't shrink.)  The biggest problem is felting, caused by hot water and agitation.  Most commercial wool fabrics will not felt.  I wanted a washable quilt (not that I'm going to wash it that often) and I was more worried about colors running than anything.  I washed the wool in the washing machine on the "handwash" setting, in cold water, with my homemade laundry soap.  I could also have used Orvis or some other mild soap.  I wouldn't use detergents, since they're harsher and could cause problems. 
When the load was done, I put it in the dryer on a gentle setting.  Everything came out okay, although some pieces were very wrinkled.  I pressed them with the iron on the wool setting.
Finally, to the cutting.  I cut all the pieces into 2.5 in. strips, and then cut those into 10.5 in. lengths.  Any shorter pieces I had left, I cut into 2.5 in. x 4.5 in. bricks, to use in another quilt.  Odd shaped pieces were set aside to use in a crazy wool quilt.
How Firm A Foundation
This style of quilt is referred to as foundation piecing in documentation-speak.  The foundation is the layer of fabric that the pieces are sewn to.  I chose to use flannel, but regular cottons would be fine.  In the past, women often used old clothes or white feed sacks.  I cut up an old flannel sheet, an old nightgown, and a flannel backing from an old quilt I took apart.  I cut these flannel pieces into 10.5 in. squares.
Sewing At Last
Finally, time to sew!  I sewed these sew-and-flip style.  I worked from edge to edge, but you could work from the center out.  I used 5 strips for each square.  The real challenge was mixing up the fabrics enough.  My treadle handled the thickness well.  I did have some trouble with the rather limp used flannel.  I had to press with an iron after each seam.  Finger pressing just didn't cut it for wool.
When I was done, I found that the squares had drawn up a little, like what happens when you quilt.  I needed to square them up, and it turned out my best measurement for that was 9.5 in.  So I lost about half an inch on each side.  This made the outside strips narrower than the other strips.  I decided not worry about that.
I made 72 blocks, and set them 8 across and 9 down.  You can see from the picture that they alternate how they're oriented, either strips going across or up and down, just like a classic rail fence quilt.  I sewed the finished blocks together through all layers, wool and flannel foundation.  I didn't add a border, because it would have needed to be done on a foundation as well, to maintain the same thickness.  I could have made a piano keys border, though, or even a crazy-pieced border.  Well, more ideas for another quilt.
Tying It All Together
I had a big piece of plaid flannel in my stash for the backing.  I pieced it together to be big enough.  Then I laid it out on the kitchen table, and tied the backing to the quilt top through all layers, with black wool yarn.  I put the ties at the intersection of the blocks.  If you added batting, you would have to put the ties closer together.  There is NO batting in this quilt.  This is typical of the old wool quilts.  None is really needed.  This is the warmest, heaviest quilt I own.
Once it was tied, I finished the edge with a black cotton binding.  I sewed it on the back first, then flipped it to the front and sewed it down by machine.
The pictures are taken on my bed.  We are gladly using this quilt through the cold and snowy Wisconsin winter.   It's fun to see pieces from my old clothes turned into something useful.


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