detail shot of free-motion quilting stitches
(C) Beth Ann Williams

Free-Motion quilting is one of my favorite  - and occasionally dreaded – parts of quiltmaking. Favorite, because it allows me to play with color, line and texture; occasionally dreaded, because I sometimes (fortunately not nearly as often I used to) start to over-think everything and become stressed out.

But one of the good things about having 20+ years of experience with machine quilting is that I’ve survived all the most common mistakes (and some relatively uncommon ones, too!) and have learned lots of tricks and helpful techniques for both getting into a more productive headspace and then executing my ideas.

But let’s back up a minute…

Baby Lock Walking Foot

Baby Lock Walking Foot

A complete quilt top is just that – a top; it won’t become a finished quilt until it is layered with some kind of filling (usually batting) and a backing (usually fabric).  This “sandwich” is held together by the quilting stitches. These stitches may be made by hand (hand quilting) or by machine. Machine quilting with straight lines or gentle curves is usually done with a walking foot or even-feed foot, which helps move all three layers through the machine at the same time, preventing tucks or ripples from shifting fabric and ensuring even stitches. This type of quilting is also referred to as machine-guided quilting, because the feed dogs in the machine work with the feed dogs in the presser foot to move the fabric.

Baby Lock Free-Motion Open Toe Quilting Foot

Baby Lock Free-Motion Open Toe Quilting Foot

Free-motion quilting is also referred to as hand-guided machine quilting, because it is the quiltmaker’s hands, not the sewing machine, that control the stitch length and direction.  The sewing machine needle goes up and down, but the machine can’t move the fabric (the feed dogs, which normally move the fabric through the machine, must be lowered in order to free-motion quilt). The presser foot (usually a free-motion or spring embroidery foot of some kind) lowers to hold the fabric against the needle plate when the needle enters the fabric, but rises up off the fabric when the needle comes back up and out of the fabric.  This is wonderful because it gives us complete freedom – but it can also be scary, because it means it’s up to the operator – not the machine – to keep the fabric moving at just the right speed to control stitch length and in the right directions to create the desired design.

This may be the scariest part when you are starting out, but it’s also the most exciting once you get the hang of things. It’s kind of like drawing with an electric needle!

But you don’t need to be an artist to free-motion quilt; if you can doodle, you can do this! It does take plenty of practice, though; I caution my students not to judge the quality of their work until they’ve put in at least 10-20 hours (cumulative) of practice time. I find it’s best to keep initial practice sessions fairly short – 5, 10 or 15 minutes at a time.  It’s counter productive to exhaust yourself or suffer painfully sore muscles the next day. (Ask me how I know this…)

Running the machine at a high speed tends to make it easier to achieve very fluid, flowing lines. However, it is NOT helpful to run the machine so fast that it becomes stressful, you don’t have time to think, or the stitches get very, very small.  Moving the fabric too quickly results in long, often jagged stitches.  The “sweet spot” is a balance between the speed of the machine and how quickly you move the fabric with your hands.

detail shot of free-motion quilting (C) Beth Ann Williams

detail shot of free-motion quilting
(C) Beth Ann Williams

Most people think of stippling – the squiggly stitching that looks kind of like interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces – when they think of free-motion quilting, but the reality is much broader than that. (You can see some stippling on the aqua fabric in the background of the photo of the Baby Lock Free-Motion Open Toe Quilting Foot, above.)

There are many different ways to stitch a continuous line of machine quilting and innumerable patterns that can be created. This is important to remember, especially when you are starting out, because I’ve found that not everyone finds it easy to stipple right off the bat.  However, when introduced to some of the many other options, everyone eventually finds at least a couple basic patterns that are easier for them.

As you are learning, it will be much easier to get the hang of maintaining a consistent speed and rhythm while handling the bulk of the quilt if you stick with stitch patterning that seems to come more naturally to you – whether that be stippling, a straight-line geometric fill, loops, spirals, crescents, or anything else that might strike your fancy.

Once you have the basics down, it will be much easier to go back and pick up patterning that was initially more challenging for you to execute.

detail shot of free-motion quilting (C) Beth Ann Williams

detail shot of free-motion quilting
(C) Beth Ann Williams

detail shot of free-motion quilting  (C) Beth Ann Williams

detail shot of free-motion quilting
(C) Beth Ann Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most people find that it’s best to “work small” in the beginning – practice on smaller items such as pillow tops, placemats, table runners, etc. before moving on to larger projects.

I also recommend “warming up” on some scrap fabric before starting a new project. This serves a dual purpose – it will give you a chance to check the thread tension and it will help trigger the muscle memory that will help you create your chosen design.

Note: you may be interested in checking out my previous post Machine Quilting FAQ & Top Tips for more machine quilting info.

some of my free-motion stitch sample cards

some of my free-motion stitch sample cards

I keep stitch samples to help me visualize an idea, record a pattern I’ve seen, or generate ideas when I’m thinking about how I wish to free-motion quilt a new piece.

Ideas are everyone! Keep some paper handy for doodling – who knows what you might come up with while watching TV, looking at photographs, taking a walk, or riding along.

Although I’ve been machine quilting for a long time, I like to keep current. Here are a few recent machine quilting/free-motion quilting books that I particularly recommend:

One last note – the photos shown here are all of free-motion quilting that is rather small in scale.  That is partly because they are detail shots of wall hangings, and partly because I really enjoy free-motion quilting and tend to quilt much more densely than is necessary from a functional point of view.  For soft, nicely draping bed quilts, I actually prefer to work much larger in scale.

Happy Quilting!


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Snowing… and Sewing!

Feb 18, 2014 - A welcome bit of sunshine after all that snow, and more snow, and more snow...

Feb 18, 2014 – A welcome bit of sunshine after all that snow, and more snow, and more snow…

What a crazy winter!  Since I was in Africa in 1978-1979 and missed the record-breaking snow and cold of that winter, I have never experienced anything like this before. Wow! We are grateful that we haven’t had to deal with the power outages other areas have been affected by, and that the water main break at the end our street was fixed in a very timely manner. Truly, we have nothing to complain about. But…  we’ve all had enough snow to last us a LOOOOOONG time and winter isn’t even over yet.

Fortunately, I have more than enough to do to keep myself happily occupied. (Actually, I have a sufficient backlog of potential projects to keep me occupied for the next century or two – but that’s another topic.)

At any rate, some determined experimentation in my sewing room lead to the exciting discovery that while sitting down and using my sewing machine leads to imminent mutiny on the part of my neck and spine, raising the machine up to counter height and standing worked wonders.  I also found that short bursts of sewing spread throughout the day was just what I needed to start turning out new samples again. Hurrah!

The next challenge was that my much-loved sewing machine finally gave up the ghost. I knew the day was coming, so I’ve been setting money aside for a while; but I was pretty  sure I didn’t  have enough for the machine I had my eye on.  So I narrowed it down to three models and gave my friend (and employer) Brian a call at Lakeshore Sewing.

Baby Lock Symphony Advanced Sewing and Quilting Machine

Baby Lock Symphony Advanced Sewing and Quilting Machine

Yippeeee! I am the ecstatic new owner of a Baby Lock Symphony! It’s a big step up from any other machine I’ve ever owned, and I am just thrilled to start exploring all the new-to-me features.

I’m especially excited about how much easier this machine will be to use. I will happily sew on even a basic machine, but will thoroughly enjoy the great lighting, extra space to the right of the needle, generous extension table, 450+ decorative stitches, stitch-editing capabilities, fabric sensor system, advanced pivoting features, automatic threading & thread cutting, speed control and the stop/start button that will allow me to sew without using a foot pedal.

I’m also delighted that I’ll be able to continue to use my collection of specialty presser feet (in addition to all of the presser feet that come with the Symphony automatically).

Who cares that the snow banks are well over my head – I’m off to sew!

 

 

 


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Baby Lock sewing machine - not the model I own (mine's too old now!) but comparable.

Baby Lock sewing machine – not the model I own (mine’s too old now!) but comparable.

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is “What sewing machine (or brand of sewing machine) do you recommend?

I always feel a little awkward about answering this; while my current Baby Lock machine is my favorite machine I’ve ever owned, I’ve also happily sewn or quilted on just about every other major brand out there. Ultimately it comes down to this:

  • What kind or sewing or quilting do you want to do?
  • What kind of features are most important to you?
  • What dealers are in your area and what is their reputation for customer service and education?

That said, here is a list of features I suggest looking for when shopping for a new sewing machine:

  • a nice straight stitch (check the stitching on some scrap fabric – some machines do not produce a very “straight” straight stitch)
  • a straight-stitch throat plate (optional but can be extremely helpful when piecing)
  • an adjustable zig-sag stitch (the zig-zag throat plate is usually standard in most machines)
  • a throat plate and bobbin case that is easy to remove and replace for cleaning  (Note: Quilters should take these out and clean them at least every 6-8 hours of continuous sewing. Dust, lint, bits of thread, etc. can build up in these areas and throw off your tension settings. You should also replace your needle this often. Don’t wait for it to break!)
  • an upper thread tension that you can easily change (some machines now have an automatic upper thread tension that is not easily overridden – you might need to do this when using monofilament or other specialty thread, or certain specialty techniques)
  • feed dogs that can be dropped (try not to get the kind that have to be covered with a plate–the free motion/darning foot can get  hung up on the plate and may not function properly)
  • a drop-in, top-loading bobbin that will be easy to monitor and refill before you run out of thread in the middle of a line of stitching
  • a needle-down feature (so you can set the machine to stop sewing with the needle down or stop with the needle up, depending on what you are doing)
  • adjustable speed control (optional; but I think it helps a LOT, especially with free-motion quilting)
  • an add-on table that gives you a nice level (and larger!) working surface

Depending on the size of your projects, I would also look at getting a mid-arm machine, or at least one that has as much space between the needle and the right side of the machine as you can find in the price range you are considering. (My machine actually doesn’t have a very generous space; but that is OK for me because I no longer have the physical strength to handle big quilts anyway.)

My MOST FAVORITE feature of my current machine – I can sew without a foot pedal! I have a stop/start button and speed control slider, so I can use my machine even when I can’t really feel what is going on with my feet. (It came with a foot pedal – I just never use it.)

Recommended presser feet for quiltmaking – the basics:

  • walking foot (also called even-feed foot)
  • darning foot (also called free-motion foot)
  • open-toe appliqué foot (similar to a zig-zag foot, but there is more open space at the front, so you have much better visibility)
  • quarter-inch foot (this is optional, but many people feel that it makes their quarter-inch seams much more consistent and accurate)

I’m also a HUGE fan of decorative stitches – the more the merrier! – but that may not mean as much to you.

Last but not least, if at all possible, I recommend buying a machine from a local dealer rather than a chain store. You may pay a bit more (or maybe not!), but what you’ll get tends to be higher quality and you’ll usually get better warranties and follow-up care and support.

Happy Sewing!


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This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the magazine CraftSanity, Issue 2, published by Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood. © Beth Ann Williams, 2011.

CraftSanity. Making stuff. Crafting Sanity.May 2010 Storytelling in Fabric 085

Sometimes it’s about having something do to with my hands while my heart and mind are in turmoil. Sometimes it’s distraction from pain. Sometimes it’s about expressing friendship, love or commitment to a person or a cause. Sometimes it’s a way to reframe hardship or powerlessness. Sometimes it’s an affirmation of identity. And sometimes it’s for the pure joy of exploring “what if?” But mostly it’s a compulsion.

I have had to accommodate significant fluctuations in available resources and in physical abilities, but I have also learned there is ALWAYS a way to continue to create. It’s right up there on the level of breathing in importance to my sanity and well-being…

Which brings me back to CraftSanity.

 

Here are a few of my favorite tips and tricks for living a creative life:

 

1. Remind yourself that it’s not neurosurgery.

No one will be harmed if your project doesn’t turn out.

 

2. Don’t be afraid to use the “good stuff.”

You deserve it. Have faith that if you use it up, you will find something else to work with. Operating from a mindset of scarcity is not good for the work and it is not good for you.

That said, you don’t have to have all the latest tools and techniques to create something wonderful. I’ve had just as much joy and satisfaction in rugs I crocheted from strips of old clothing as I’ve had playing with the latest and greatest in gel mediums.

 

3. Don’t judge prematurely.

Any project may go through one or more awful, messy, or chaotic “what was I thinking?” stages before it comes together as a unified whole. Understanding this can give you the courage to keep going even when things aren’t looking promising.
I also find that it is not unusual for an artist or creative person to suffer an alarming collapse of self confidence
when they look at a finished piece – even if they have been perfectly happy with the results as they were creating
it. I had to learn to understand that this stage is just a part of my creative process; and that as time passes, I will
either fall in love with the piece again or I will gradually be able to identify what’s not working for me, and either
fix it or move on with new information.

 

4. Honor the work.

Honor the abilities you had, the effort you made, and the resources that were available when you made it.

 

5. Do your own work.

You have a voice. Use it. Some people will “get it” and some won’t. Over time, you’ll learn who to trust for honest appreciation and helpful, constructive input. You’ll also learn that you probably shouldn’t share everything you do
with everyone you know unless you are prepared to forgive those who don’t understand, may be intimidated,
or just aren’t interested in that part of your life. Outside approval or disapproval won’t make you or your work
any more or less valid or important.

 

6. Don’t confuse monetary recompense with value or validity.

 

7. Don’t “should” all over yourself.

 

8. Nurture your creative spirit.

Don’t neglect responsibilities, but remember that you also have a responsibility to your creative self. Chores don’t
always need to come first. Cherish the joy of creating – whether you are preparing a meal or painting
a future masterpiece – and craft some sanity in your life!


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Finished is more important than perfect. Anyone who has participated in one of my classes or Demo Days has probably heard me say this – it’s one of my favorite mantras when teaching.

The second part goes like this: The more you finish, the closer to perfect you’ll get.

It’s generally true, especially when applied to learning a new skill or “perfecting” established skills. Time after time, I’ve observed that the creative souls who forge ahead and joyfully finish their project (whether it is a learning exercise or a finished work) tend to advance much faster than those who stop, judge, rip out, undo, redo, and eventually abandon the work because it doesn’t measure up to their expectations.

When it comes to artmaking, I think that being a “perfectionist” has the potential to be as much of a weakness as a strength.

I believe in always doing one’s best work; but I also believe in the importance of play, of “what if” – things we are much less likely to explore if we are attached to a narrow vision of what is acceptable or desirable.

That’s one side of the coin.

The other side of the coin for me is that loss in vision, strength, stamina and fine motor control means that coming from a natural tendency toward anxiety-ridden perfectionism myself, I have had to learn to practice what I preach in ways I had not originally anticipated.

But if I wait until my hands are steady, my eyes are clear, my strength is good and I am free to create work that meets the technical level I see in my head, I will never create again. And that is unacceptable!

(Although to be perfectly honest, I was quite capable of psyching myself out of finishing a given quilt or art project for fear of ruining it well before my health deteriorated so dramatically.)

I’ve been at it many years, but I’m still learning how to hold expectations lightly, to let go of fears of not being good enough or skilled enough, and to FINISH those projects that are reasonably within my power to finish.

And yes, there are some UFOs (unfinished objects, for the uninitiated) that DO NOT need to be finished; usually because they’ve served their purpose in some way already and I’ve learned whatever I needed to learn. (Sometimes the lesson is that I really don’t want to work with those materials anymore!)

I’m also still learning to honor the finished work for what it is, to avoid going down rabbit trails of “shoulds” and perceived flaws, and to enjoy the satisfaction that comes with accomplishment.

Zentangle-inspired doodle or "tangle" by Beth Ann Williams, 2013

Zentangle-inspired doodle or “tangle” by Beth Ann Williams, 2013

Finally, I’d like to share with you a drawing/tangle/doodle I’ve been stuck on for a while.  I kind of liked what I had so far, but wasn’t able to make up my mind about what to do with the remaining white spaces.  (Since I’m working with a Sharpie marker, there are no second chances – no erasing or covering up anything once it’s on the page.)

Over the course of writing this post, I was struck with urgency to FINISH IT. So I did! It took all of 5 minutes (and weeks of waffling over something that isn’t supposed to be over-thought or over-planned in the first place…)

Oh well, it’s done.

And it feels pretty good!

 


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Here’s another post dealing with FAQ – this time specifically related to using a sewing machine for quilting.  For the time being, I’m avoiding the topic of which threads I recommend; we’ll save that for another day!

 

Detail of "Evening Star" quilt designed and made by Beth Ann Williams. This close-up shows "invisible" machine applique, straight line machine quilting with a walking foot, and free motion machine quilting with a darning foot.

Detail of “Evening Star” quilt designed and made by Beth Ann Williams. This close-up shows “invisible” machine applique, straight line machine quilting with a walking foot, and free motion machine quilting with a darning foot.

Do you work by hand or by machine?

The short answer is both. I almost always use a sewing machine to piece and/or appliqué my quilt tops, both for speed and for durability.

When adding the quilting, (the stitching that holds the quilt top, batting, and backing layers of a quilt together), I most often use a technique that might be compared to “hand quilting with an electric needle.” I drop the feed dogs, decrease the pressure on the presser foot, and set the stitch length and width to 0. This means that all the sewing machine does is make the needle go up and down. Stitch length and direction are controlled entirely by the way that I physically move the quilt with my hands. I rarely mark my quilting patterns, they are developed “free-hand,” or made up as I go along.

I usually machine sew the binding to the front of the quilt and then wrap it around and hand sew it to the back.

 

 

Do you have any tips for quilting by machine?

Sure do!  I’ve been teaching machine quilting classes since the 1990s. Of course, I try to always remind people that there is no one way that is best; if something other than what I recommend works better for you, then by all means ignore me!

That said, here are some tips and techniques that work well for me:

 

Beth Ann’s Favorite Tips for Machine Quilting

Detail shot of another quilt showing all-over free-motion quilting.  I never mark this kind of patterning ahead of time; it's much more fun to make it up as I go!

Detail shot of another quilt showing all-over free-motion quilting. I never mark this kind of patterning ahead of time; it’s much more fun to make it up as I go!

1.  Use low-loft cotton or cotton-blend batting. The low-loft has less bulk, and the cotton in the batting sticks to the cotton in the quilt top and backing, making it less likely to shift than a polyester batting.

2.  Baste, baste, baste! But NOT with thread. Thread basting generally doesn’t hold the layers securely enough to avoid tucks or slipping of the layers. When using safety pins to hold the layers together, tape or clamp the backing down on all edges (so that it is slightly taut, with no wrinkles or fold lines) and then smooth the batting and top in place. Place pins no more than 2-3″ apart.  I also really like the Hobbs fusible Heirloom 80/20 cotton batting — no pins needed at all!

3.  Try not to have any more than ½ of the quilt under the machine at any given time. In other words, if you are quilting straight lines across the quilt (such as stitching in the ditch along block or sashing seams), don’t start at one end and simply work your way across the quilt. Instead, work from one direction for half of the quilt, then rotate it and work from the other direction for the remaining lines of stitching.

4.  In order to isolate an area of the quilt for stitching, fold the edges in loosely and secure the fold with 3-4 safety pins. (For me, rolling the quilt tends to create a very stiff, awkward tube, and I find that bicycle clips and other tools meant to secure the roll tend to get hung up on each other or hung up on the needle bar as I try to move the quilt through the machine.)

5.  With a walking foot, quilt along long straight lines that go either all the way through the quilt or almost all the way through FIRST (between blocks, across major piecing lines, along sashing or borders, etc.). This stabilizes the quilt sandwich, and makes it easier to do any additional “fancy” quilting without causing the layers to shift. Exception: I rarely quilt stabilizing lines on a quilt that will be free-motion quilted in an all-over pattern.

6.  Particularly on a bed-size quilt, any designs (whether fancy motifs or stitching in the ditch around complicated pieced blocks such as stars) that involve multiple changes in direction are usually better done with a darning (or free-motion) foot. Any time you are rotating a large quilt while it is in your machine you are risking layers sliding or bunching, especially right around the needle.

7.  Work with your machine either in a cabinet or with an add-on table around it so that you have a flat working surface with plenty of room to support the quilt on either side of the machine. It is important that the weight of the quilt doesn’t create drag (or stretch the quilt top) as it feeds through the machine toward the needle or past the needle.

8.  I swear by my cotton quilting gloves; they allow me to use the whole of my hand to control the fabric (instead of just fingers) and also keep my hands from slipping or skidding on the fabric when I am trying to move it. I find that they greatly reduce the amount of strength it takes to control the quilt, which in turn reduces strain and fatigue. The gloves also allow me to apply a gentle tension on the quilt, making it easier to flatten out any excess fullness in the area as I am quilting. Some kinds of garden gloves, bell ringer gloves, etc., are good alternatives. Some quilters favor rubber office fingers (especially if their hands get too hot in the gloves), but I have a hard time keeping them from flying off…

9.  Clean your machine out and replace your needle at least at the beginning of each new project. I change my needle and clean out under the throat plate, around the bobbin, the bobbin case, etc. every 6-8 hours of continuous sewing, or at least every other time I change my bobbin.

10.  Speaking of needles: I think Schmetz Quilting needles, size 75 are one of the best general choices for machine quilting. They have a reinforced shaft and a very fine, tapered point that allows them to pierce cleanly without snagging, pulling or having the needle “punch” through the quilt sandwich. Schmetz Microtex Sharps, Embroidery, or Topstitch needles may also be helpful when working with various types of thread. Generally speaking, you should use the smallest size needle that will do the job.

Possible signs your needle may be too dull include a change in the sound of the motor, puckered fabric, skipped stitches, canted stitches, thread breakage, and/or a wisp of batting coming out the front or back of the quilt

11.  If your bobbin thread is visible on the top side of your work, then your upper thread tension is too high and should usually be turned to a lower number. If your top thread is visible on the backside of your work, and/or the bobbin thread feels very loose, then the upper thread tension is too low and should usually be turned to a higher number. However, if you adjust your upper thread tension and your stitch does not improve, the issue is more likely that the machine should be unthreaded and rethreaded, and/or cleaned thoroughly (See #9). Winding your bobbin too quickly or at an uneven speed can also contribute to problems with thread tension.

12.  Whatever style of quilting you do, remember to distribute the quilting evenly across the quilt; if one area is heavily quilted and another is not, it is unlikely that your finished quilt will lie flat.

13.  Unless you are starting at the outermost edge of the quilt, it’s usually a good idea to bring up the bobbin thread through ALL the layers at the beginning of each line of stitching. (This will help prevent a messy “bird’s nest” of thread on the back side of your quilt.) Hold tightly to both the top and bobbin threads until after the stitching has been secured by using a locking stitch or by 1/4″ or so of very tiny stitches. (Secure the stitches at the end of a line of stitching in the same manner.)

14.  When trimming the threads at the end of a line of stitching, first clip the top thread as close as you can to the surface of the quilt; then turn the quilt over and tug on the bobbing thread to pull the whisker of top thread into the batting. Hold the bobbin thread taut and clip it as close to the back of the quilt as possible. When the thread relaxes, it too will be drawn back into the batting.

15.  As you stitch, remember to look ahead to where you are going next, not at the needle. (This may take some practice to build confidence in your hand-eye coordination, but consider how far you’d get driving a car if you spent the whole time staring at your hood ornament!)

Finally, BREATHE!

And take LOTS of breaks — your arms, neck & shoulders can get VERY sore, and the going gets really tough when you’re in pain…

Remember, this is supposed to be FUN!


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I no longer have a dedicated FAQ page, so I’m thinking it might be helpful to address frequently asked questions (FAQ) in a series of blog posts.  I’ll start with questions related to Celtic-style quiltmaking and my first book, Celtic Quilts: A New Look for Ancient Designs.

  1. Are there any rules about what colors or fabrics you should use for Celtic knotwork?
  2. What is the symbolism behind Celtic knotwork? / Do certain designs have specific meanings?
  3. Are there any knotwork designs uniquely associated with specific Celtic countries?

 

Are there any rules about what colors or fabrics you should use for Celtic knotwork?

Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels, photo from Wikipedia, identified as public domain

Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels, photo from Wikipedia, identified as public domain

If you look at ancient Celtic manuscripts, you see quite a wide variety of colors being used. In some cases, a given knotwork design is colored in uniformly with the same pigment; in other cases, several colors may be used within the same design. Sometimes the color changes serve to highlight a particular repeating portion of a knotwork design or interlacing border, while other times the color changes seem to have been made at the whim of the scribe. So, there really are no set rules about what colors you can use in a Celtic quilt.

Pick what you like best, or pick a combination that is meaningful to you. Feel free to make choices that please yourself!

I would make sure, however, that there is enough contrast between the color(s) you use for the knotwork and the color you use for the background to allow the knotwork to show up clearly. (HINT: Try overlapping your fabrics and then looking at them from the other side of the room: do the fabrics “moosh” together, or can you still clearly see which is which?)

I would also recommend sticking to 100% cotton fabrics, at least when you are starting out. (You can always get crazy with other fabrics once you are comfortable with the basic techniques.)  Quilting-weight cottons tend to be easy to handle and hold a nice crease when pressed. Wash them before using them–but don’t use fabric softener if you plan on using any kind of glue or fusible adhesive to hold the bias tubes in place before sewing them down. The chemicals in some fabric finishes or fabric softeners may impede bonding.

Back to the top

 

What is the symbolism behind Celtic knotwork? / Do certain designs have specific meanings?

In general terms, Celtic art and design is used to celebrate ethnic identity, sometimes coinciding with national political aspirations. It is also often used for the glorification and worship of God, continuing the tradition of the magnificent gospel manuscripts, standing crosses, reliquaries, and liturgical vessels of over a thousand years ago, or to connect with pre-Christian traditions of spirituality.

Irton Cross, Irton, Cumbria, photo from Wikimedia Commons

Irton Cross, Irton, Cumbria, photo from Wikimedia Commons

In specific terms, Celtic knotwork designs are often assumed to have symbolic significance, a sort of code, as it were, that could be understood if only one had the key. This somewhat romantic viewpoint does not seem to be borne out in reality. However, there is still a great deal of controversy surrounding this question.

Modern suggestions/speculations include the following:

  • The intricately intertwining unbroken lines in Celtic knotwork symbolize both the pagan cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and Christian concepts such as the unending qualities of God’s love and mercy towards us and the eternal nature of the soul. The “endless knot” symbolically ties our souls to the world, or paradoxically, to God.
  • Certain types of crosses, whether overt or hidden within knotwork designs, have pagan antecedents in the world-axis and solar (whether circular or spiral) symbolism prevalent in pre-Christian Europe. Others developed from the later Latin cross, or the earlier Chi-Rho symbol, a monogram for the name of Christ consisting of the first two letters of the name of Christ in Greek, overlaid onto each other to resemble a wheeled cross.
  • A sense of motion, or the turning of the cosmic wheel, is a characteristic of much of Celtic art.
  • Numbers are thought to have possible significance in the context of specific Celtic knotwork designs. For example:
    • three – the most sacred number. Powerful goddesses often came in three guises (such as maiden, mother, crone); so does the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Past, Present, Future and Faith, Hope, Love can also be associated with the number three.
    • four – the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), four elements (earth, air, fire, water), four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), or four arms of the cross
    • five – a symbol of totality, with the center representing a fifth direction of space; may also refer to the number of Christ’s wounds
    • seven – cosmic and spiritual order, or completion of a natural cycle; in Biblical terms, it is regarded as the number of perfection

In summary, a few knots do seem to have specific names and/or meanings attached to them (at least in the present time), but generally speaking, most of them do not. And even those that are generally recognized today by a given name (such as the True Lovers Knot) seem to vary in appearance and usage over time.

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Are there any knotwork designs uniquely associated with specific Celtic countries?

No, I am not aware of any Celtic knotwork or interlace design being associated more with one Celtic people group than with any other. I’ll try to spare everyone a long history lesson, but here is a short version:

If you go back far enough, Celtic peoples actually stretched all the way from Spain and Portugal to Asia Minor. Over the millennia, invasions & migrations eventually forced them into what is now known as the “Celtic Fringe” countries of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall in England, Brittany in France, and Galicia in Spain.

Knotwork and interlace do not appear in the earliest known art/culture of peoples identified as “Celtic.” What is now recognized as Celtic-style knotwork and interlace arose centuries later through a combination of early Celtic design, Germanic animal interlace, and Mediterranean influences brought by Christianity. From about the 5th or 6th century C.E. onward (peaking between 700 and 900 C.E.); we begin to find fabulous examples of Celtic design (including knotwork and interlace) ornamenting gospel manuscripts, carved into stone slabs or crosses, and in ornate metalwork such as jewelry, book covers, and reliquaries.

Through both trading ventures and missionary activity, many of these artifacts (and associated design vocabulary) found their way not only throughout Celtic territories, and but also throughout much of the known world. By the 8th century, knotwork and interlace had become a defining characteristic of Celtic art, and continues to be to this day.

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In both my original Celtic-style designs as well as in my interpretations of historical patterns, I’ve remained true to three characteristics of “classic” Celtic knotwork and interlace.

  • All lines are continuous, having neither beginning nor end.
  • All lines cross each other in an alternating under-over-under pattern.
  • No more than two lines cross at any given point.
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