A Quilter with a Fresh, Sharp Blade


One of the things I find fun about cooking are the silly, high-falutin’ French terms that are used for basic concepts. “Sauté,” for example, translates literally to “jump.” So you’re making those onions jump in the frying pan. ( “Jump, my little diced onions, jump!”)

And vegetarian or no, “foie gras” is far more pleasant to say—and think about—than “fat liver.”

One cooking term that I appreciate, for more than its elegance of sound, is “mise en place.” It translates to “put in place.” The concept is simple: you lay out your ingredients and utensils in advance, so that when you begin to cook, everything is on hand, with no nasty surprises. Salt, pepper, spices measured out into little bowls and set within reach, knives sharpened and at the ready, all arranged in a tidy order around your work space.

This doesn’t get enough attention in the quilting side, I sometimes think. Before you begin a project, diving into your lovely fabrics and cutting—stop. Wait. Breathe, and center yourself. Honor the work you are about to do, the creativity you are about to engage in, by making sure your tools are in order.

Step 1. Read your pattern.

You’ve brushed this step aside, haven’t you? We all do, so don’t pretend; there’s no call for that here, among friends.

I’ve done it, too. And often have been surprised. Unpleasantly. Recently binge-watching “The Great British Baking Show,” I enjoyed how contestants, when given an unfamiliar recipe, would pull out the sheet and bend over it, elbows on the counter, frowning over the instructions with intense concentration. That’s exactly how I look reading over a fresh pattern.

Read through your pattern once. Does it make sense? Is there errata available online from those who have gone before? Are you familiar with the techniques? (“Let’s just Google ‘trapunto’ real quick…”) Will you be working with bias? How many seams come together at that intersection, and would pressing them open or in a certain direction help?

Then, with pencil or pen in hand, read through it again, making notes to yourself on the pattern. I always seem to run off picking my own colors, so most often I note color changes, throughout the entire pattern, as I’m doing for Dublin Town, I cross out every “medium green” reference and scrawl “coral.” Or I might indicate directional pressing.

Read through your pattern and make notes! Here I’m changing Dublin Town from something Gaelic, to something more prairie-like.

Read through your pattern and make notes! Here I’m changing Dublin Town from something Gaelic, to something more prairie-like.

Step 2. Prep Your Tools.

Once you’ve read your pattern through, from start to finish, gather all of your tools. Take the time to check in on them. “How are you doing, my sweet scissors?” you should say. “Do you need to be sharpened? What about you, my darling rotary cutter? Dear machine, let me give you a new needle.”

I have learned to change my rotary cutter blade with every project, at the very start. When you’re expecting a beautiful, smooth first cut, and end up have to saw back and forth—no. Just no.

I actually have a tradition of getting my scissors sharpened the first week of February, along with my kitchen knives. A lot of machine service centers will sharpen blades, so I’ll get everything sharp and crisp, and my machine serviced. It’s such a satisfying feeling, making me feel dangerously effective. (“She sews softly, and carries a sharp blade…”)

So, your machine, with a fresh needle. Scissors, sharpened. Rotary cutter with a fresh blade. Quality thread. (“Don’t do that five-for-a-dollar bin thread,” is the a friend gave me. “Shell out the extra few dollars for the good stuff.”) Nice glasshead pins. Cutting mat free of coffee rings. Your favorite long ruler. Spray bottle of starch, topped up. Iron full of water. Sharp pencil or other marking utensil (chalk pencil, Frixion pen) that you’ve checked against the fabric for visibility. Safety glove. Adequate lighting.

If you have templates, prep those. If you’re making your own from template plastic, trace the pieces using a thin, permanent marker and LABEL them (on the right side). Are there fold indicators or bias arrows? Mark those, too.

If you’re using store-bought templates (like me—I’m using the Chain Link Template Set), take them out and make sure all the pieces are there. Read through those instructions, too. If there is an online video, then watch it! Then I peel off the backing and prep the templates, especially when working with curves. Acrylic is slippery, which is often useful, but can be a disaster if the template slips while you’re cutting. Some quilters scuff the backs with sandpaper, or even attach sticky sandpaper dots. I’ve heard of people dotting the backside strategically with rubber cement, though I’ve never tried that. I’ve discovered Guidelines 4 Quilting’s Grip Strips during the 3000 series of Love of Quilting, and haven’t stopped geeking out about them.



And prep!

And prep!

In my case, because I’m using a curved template, I also use my little rotary cutter. It’s so much easier to get a nice, exact cut on a curve. Especially with a fresh, sharp blade.

Step 3. Ready Your Fabric.

If you’re a pre-washer, wash. (I don’t, though if there was a possibility that some of the fabrics were pre-washed—like they came from someone else’s stash or are vintage finds—wash all the fabrics you plan to use in that quilt.) Press the fabric. Arrange the fabric in order of use and cutting. Fall in love with the prints all over again.

Step 4. Make A Practice Block.

Come on. Do it. Figure out how the pieces go. Find out how your machine feels about sewing through that densely seamed center of an 8-point star. Get a feel for how that bias reacts when you piece that curve. And when you’re done, look at the block. Are the prints playing together like you thought? Now’s the time to know. I like to keep the block on hand while I piece, so I have a visual reference. (“Wait, does that—no. Flying Geese point outward. Right.”) I often go a step further, using my test block to practice the quilting, both assessing the machine’s tension, the stitch length, and the overall look of the quilting motif.

By preparing your tools, you are setting yourself right for the task ahead. You are able to enter into the space of creativity, and allow it to happen, without bad or inadequate tools holding you back when you hit a wonderful groove. You love this, and by honoring your tools, you are honoring what you love to do.

So “mise” your tools “en place,” and happy quilting!


Comments (2)

  • Chrys A

    I can’t tell you what a great reminder this blog was for me. I’ve been in a little bit of a quilting funk in that I haven’t had any “me time” without precious young (age 4 and under) grandkids wanting to “help Grammy” or other commitments. I have 4 quilts I not only need to make, I want to make them. I’m a vocalist/soloist and singing and quilting are my creative outlets. Reading this blog made me realize that I can be actively engaged in my quilting by reading and making notes on the fabulous patterns I plan to use. I know I will have more me time soon (starting next week for 2 weeks) as our kids and their families will be away on vacation. While I await those blocks of time, I can get prepared and feel actively involved. Thanks again! Happy quilting and blogging! Chrys A.

    February 9, 2018 at 4:53 pm
  • Nancy M

    Thank you for the reminder. For a newbie such as I, it was simple, clear and well written. How I appreciate it!

    February 9, 2018 at 8:32 pm

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