A TECHNIQUE DRIVEN Blog dedicated to mastery of surface design techniques. First we dye, overdye, paint, stitch, resist, tie, fold, silk screen, stamp, thermofax, batik, bejewel, stretch, shrink, sprinkle, Smooch, fuse, slice, dice, AND then we set it on fire using a variety of heat tools.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Piecing very fine lines

Thank you for inviting me to be your guest artist this month.  Please let me introduce myself -- I'm Kathy Loomis and mostly I make pieced quilts.

Just reading the subtitle of your blog made me wonder at first exactly what I’m doing here.  Although I have tried dyeing, overdyeing, painting, resisting, silkscreening, stamping, fusing, and heat tools at one time or another, none of them have earned a permanent place in my repertoire.  But then I found “slice” and “stitch” in your list, and felt more confident.  Those two techniques pretty much make up my current body of work.  I slice fabric apart, piece in a very thin line of contrast fabric, and stitch it back together again.

But will they work for you?  Maybe better than we think at first glance, and here’s why.

During my surface design years I found myself in possession of yards and yards of fabric that looked absolutely wonderful, but I had a hard time figuring out what to do with them.  Didn’t want to cut them up into little pieces because I would lose the lovely designs.  But simply quilting them whole-cloth, or suspending them to flutter in the breeze didn’t seem to be enough to transform them from yardage into works of art.  Perhaps you have the same ambivalent and confused feelings toward the lovely fabrics you are making.

In thinking about how I might provide you with inspiration, I realize that maybe my slice and stitch techniques would be a good solution to that beautiful-cloth problem.  Perhaps by insetting a network of lines you can add a new dimension to something you already have produced. 

The technique of piecing in very fine lines is embarrassingly simple.  I’ll give you a fast sewing tutorial, then some suggestions of how you might want to arrange the lines.

Any fabric works as the background for this technique, but you should be picky about what you choose for the skinny lines.  Don’t choose too beefy a fabric (like Kona cotton) or too firm a fabric (like pimatex).  You actually want something on the limp and flimsy side so it will lie flat in submission and not pile up too high where several layers of fabric accumulate around intersections.

I don’t know whether your main fabric is light or thin enough to see through, but just to be safe, make your skinny-line fabric lighter than the main fabric.  You don’t want your beautiful piecing marred by show-through.  (Ask me how I know this.)

Cut your skinny strips on the cross-grain, from selvage to selvage.  This makes them a little stretchier and more forgiving when it’s time to press everything flat. Cut them a half-inch wide to start, although you may want to go a bit narrower after you have become comfortable with the sewing method.

Before you start to slice your fabric, mark it so you get things back together the right way.  I like to mark two adjacent sides, one with one line (of stitching, pencil or pen) and the other with two lines.  And if I’m marking with a line of stitching, I’ll put a different color in the bobbin so I can tell the right side from the wrong side.

Now slice!  Start with straight lines (curves are possible but don’t try them at first).  Arrange the two pieces near your sewing machine right next to one another, right sides up, in the same orientation as before you sliced.  You will always proceed in this order:  sew the skinny strip to the right-hand piece of fabric, then sew the skinny strip to the left-hand piece of fabric.

For the first seam, stitch the skinny strip with a very narrow seam allowance, just a hair over an eighth-inch.  Don’t press yet.  Now open up the strip and get it in position to sew the slice back together again.  Check your markings to make sure you have the two halves aligned properly and the right sides are together.   

Usually in machine sewing we guide fabric through the machine by gauging a certain distance from the cut edge.  But for the second seam on the skinny strip I want you to gauge a certain distance from the previous seam, no matter how far it is from the edge of the fabric.  That way you can make your pieced-in line the same width, or vary it if you want, and see exactly what you’re going to get.

From the back of the work, gently press both seam allowances in the same direction.  Then flip your work and press again from the front side of the work, more enthusiastically this time.  Make sure there are no pleats in the work where the seam didn’t open all the way; if necessary, relax the seam with a spritz of water and press again till it’s perfectly flat and open all the way.

The fabric is now back in one piece and you can slice again and piece in a second skinny strip.

From now on you’ll find yourself having to sew over big piles of seam allowances when you cross a previously sewed line.  You’ll find that sometimes the seam allowances want to stand up and get in the way of the needle but just grab an implement (I like to use needle-nose tweezers) and hold them down as you sew by.

Sometimes your presser foot seems like it’s sliding off the piles to the right (actually the presser foot stays in place but the pile of fabric is squeezed out to the left).  The seam bulges off to the right and your line won’t be uniform.  

But not to worry.  Just go back and stitch that place again at the proper width, holding the fabric more firmly in place with your implement.  You don’t even have to rip out the bad stitches.

Whenever you go to press a completed strip, check which direction its neighbors are pointing in and press the new strip in the same direction.  As your work becomes more densely pieced it’s much easier to have all the seams pointing the same way so you can run your iron in one direction and not flip any seams.

You’ll notice as you make more and more lines that it’s difficult if not impossible to make the preexisting strips line up exactly across a new seam.  Embrace that!  In fact, what I love the most about this method of piecing is the little slippages and offsets that occur.  Sometimes I help it along, by placing the two halves of the slice a bit off to begin with.

Similarly, it’s difficult if not impossible to make the two ends of the seam line up exactly.  Partly that’s because once you’ve pieced in the skinny strip, one side of your slice may not be exactly the same length as the other.  But the fabric also stretches a bit as  you work with it.  Do not obsess over this, just accept it, and recognize that you will lose some of your fabric at the end when you trim off the jagged edges. 

Here's a quilt in progress.  You can see how if gets out of shape after many lines have been pieced in from different directions.  I'll lose quite a bit around the edges after I trim it to square.   (I suggest you stick with straight lines -- curved are way too difficult to learn at your first attempt.)

Here's my quilt Fault Lines 1 -- starting with 42-inch fabric, this piece ended up only 34 inches finished width

Now that I’ve taught you how to “draw lines” with piecing, it’s up to you where to draw them.  Here are some suggestions:
  • All your lines don’t have to go all the way across the piece.  While you have a sliced line open, you can slice and restitch just half of the piece, then go  back and complete the original line.  Or you can make two parallel slices and sew intermediate lines in between the two cuts before you sew them back together. 

  • You can combine different fabrics to make your original expanse of fabric.  You can join them with a plain seam, or piece in a skinny line at the join.

  • While you have a slice open, before sewing the two halves back together you can insert a wider strip of contrast fabric.   It’s probably better to do this early in the process, so the join between the two colors can be offset by subsequent crossings.

  • You’ll get a different character if your slices are all at right angles to the sides of the fabric, creating a gridlike pattern, or if they go on diagonals.

  • Areas that are densely covered with lines have a different character than those sparsely lined.  For interesting contrast, have some areas of your composition densely sliced and others less dense.

Here's a piece on the design wall last year.  The screenprint was by ShelleyBrenner Baird.  I auditioned several hand-dyes to find one that complemented the strong character and color of the screenprint.  

Here's the finished quilt, Fault Lines 5. Most of the screenprinted images are left relatively intact so you can appreciate the design. 

So find a piece of fabric that you did an exotic surface design on, and slice it up!  Maybe you'll want to start with one that you don't like much, and see whether it improves with a line pattern over the top.  And if it works, maybe you'll want to try it with a piece you love.  Let me know how it works for you!


  1. Thank you Kathleen for this tutorial and insight into how you work. I love it and will definitely give it a go.

  2. This is a good solution to the "what do I do with it" quandary I sometimes have with my art cloth. While I don't really object to cutting it up, I want to show it off to its best advantage.

    I can see purchasing some "flimsy" fabric and dyeing it especially for the art cloth.

    This takes what we did with Rayna to the next step.

  3. So what type of fabric do you use for the thin lines?

  4. Kathy, great tutorial (but I knew it would be). I can't wait to get home and give this a whirl. Thanks for sharing your technique and some of your beautiful work with us.

  5. Lisa -- that's a good question but I don't have a good answer. I buy Kona solids exclusively for my backgrounds but I acquire lighter-weight cottons here and there for my fine lines. I have a large stash of P&B solids bought some time ago that are great for fine lines. Sometimes I use printed quilt-weight fabrics and occasionally I dye a lighter-weight muslin. I have also used a really cheap, flimsy cotton solid that I buy at Hobby Lobby but I don't know the brand name.

  6. That is really cool, I loved checking out your gallery of quilts!

  7. Thank you for great inspiration, I recognise your issue, what to do with your best surface design cloth. Can't wait, will give it a try tomorrow!

  8. Kathy,
    Thanks for being the guest artist and for this great tutorial! And you are correct--we do need techniques to use with our fabulous, one-of-a-kind fabrics that will take them to the next level.

  9. A great tutorial, I just had to try ik this week and I am having such fun Kathy


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