The Lily Pad: The Journal of White Lotus Quilting

Adventures in the Hyperbolic Plane

Posted in Quilting tips and techniques by whitelotusquilting on November 8, 2010
Tags: ,

Borders are one of those things that vexes quilters, because they are difficult to get to lay flat.  Plus most quilt instructions cast casual directions toward the reader, assuming they already have the skills to make the borders lay flat.  Well, here’s a secret: sometimes it’s just not possible to make the border lay completely flat.  The results depend not only on your sewing skills but also on your sewing machine and fabric, and then at the last stage, also on the quilting.

And what’s this got to do with a hyperbolic plane, anyway?  Plenty.  Most borders when they don’t lay flat are bigger at the outside edge than the inside — in short, they ruffle.  (and yes, ruffles are a shortened explanation of the hyperbolic plane, more on this in a moment, but if you click on the link, there’s a super cool example).  Here’s a quilty example:

hyperbolic plane border

This is the kind of border that makes a longarm quilter very nervous, because we’re unsure we can come up with a pattern for quilting that will make this sort of ruffle unnoticeable.  And while most of my clients think I can work miracles with anything — and that all sorts of unflatness can be ‘quilted out’ — sometimes we can’t make it work and have to take pleats and tucks in the top (hopefully along piecing lines) to make the top lay flat.  We have to use a pattern that doesn’t cross itself and pile up the extra fabric in unflattering ways.  In a bit I’ll show you how this one quilted out.

In any case, this can happen to any border, even if you’re careful, and even if you’re a skilled sewer (which the piecer is in this sample — she makes terrific quilts).  That’s because there are variables beyond your control that contribute to the distortion of a border.  The first is that usually borders are cut on the cross-grain; that is, they’re cut perpendicular to the selvedge, across the width of fabric (WOF).  It turns out that there is a fair amount of give and stretch to the cross-grain that is absent in the selvedge grain.  So the fabric can stretch as you sew, sometimes substantially.  To counter this, you can cut your borders on the lengthwise or selvedge grain, parallel to the selvedge.  But that means you need at least 2-3 yards of fabric to accomplish the border, so if you don’t have that much, you pretty much need to cut it on the cross-grain.  So you can starch it before cutting and sewing to minimize the stretch; that may help.  But it might not.

Another factor is how powerful the feed dogs are on your sewing machine, and whether you have some top feed or not.  If the feed dogs are aggressive and there is no top feed, then the feed dogs act like a micro-gatherer, and slightly gather the fabric you place next to them.  Typically borders are sewn on by placing the border over the larger quilt top, so the quilt top edge gathers slightly while the border piece stretches slightly.

Notice I keep saying ‘slightly?’  That’s because these effects ARE slight when you’re working on 4-8 inch seams.  By the time you get to bed quilt-size seams — like on borders — they’re at least ten times that length and the things that you didn’t notice at the smaller length become visible on the longer seams.

So what can you do if this keeps happening to your borders?  Besides cutting on the lengthwise grain and using some Best Press starch (gotta love this stuff, it doesn’t flake), you can adjust your feed dog pressure to minimal (just enough to pass the fabric under the feet if you have this adjustment) and you can try placing your border underneath the quilt top (next to the feed dogs) to sew it.

Bonnie Hunter’s advice for borders is also great.  She uses the center of the quilt top to measure her border (with the actual border fabric, not with the intermediary of a tape measure) and pins it to the quilt top before sewing, distributing any fullness across the entire border.  This is to prevent the distortion of either level.

Here’s what the border looked like after quilting:

hooked style feathers

There are a few slight wrinkles visible, but overall I think the ruffles quilted out successfully.  Feathers to the rescue again!

It’s actually pretty rare that a quilt lays completely flat.  Usually there are some small areas of bowl or cup shapes (like where eight seams come together in pinwheels or kaleidoscopes) as well as ruffles.  Ruffles turn out to be an interesting phenomenon and have some interesting mathematical properties that you might want to glance over at some point, especially at the crocheted models of hyperbolic planes.  Crochet turns out to be a great medium for modeling this useful but challenging concept.  There’s also an entire book dedicated to the art of the crocheted hyperbolic plane, written by a mathematician at Cornell University.  How cool is that!  After all, the point of science and engineering to make better art, isn’t it???

Borders may be one of those things you’ll have to gain experience with before you gain some mastery, so don’t be afraid to try your own techniques.  And be sure you have a fresh seam ripper :), so you can stay ‘sew’ happy!


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