Whether it's to add humour or to create a background, stitched writing is the Signature mark of a Dorothy Stapleton quilt.
I must make time (2002) 45 x 60in Made for the
Husqvarna Viking Voyage of
Self Discovery competition
The intricacies of a quilt, I always feel,
should never be revealed all at once. After
the initial impact, you should be allowed
to get closer and slowly discover the
subtle textures and effects.
I first discovered the dimension that writing
can bring to a quilt with Im only a mum. I wrote
Mummy Mother Ma Mum with an unbroken line
of black thread on a green background, which
created the effect of a continuous quilting
pattern. In What Shall We Call It? I used yellow
thread on a green background, and with Baby
Talk the effect was more subtle still: I quilted
babytalk in yellow thread on a yellow background.
The hours of hard work hardly show up at all,
but the words are there if you look! This stitched
writing has all the individuality of my ordinary
handwriting its the signature, if you like, that
distinguishes one of my quilts.
So How Is It Done?
Well, theres no magic formula for machine
writing, and you dont need a fancy machine
with all sorts of whiz-bangs to do it for you. You
must simply think of the machine needle as your
pencil and the fabric as your paper, and learn to
work freehand. The first thing is to ensure that
youre sitting comfortably at your machine: an
office chair is ideal for this as you can adjust the
height and backrest. You should sit directly
opposite the machine, too. I know that this may
sound obvious, but having your chair slightly to
one side of the machine can lead to all sorts of
aches and pains thatll hinder your attempts to
achieve the loose, free movement and flowing
lines that are the essence of machine-quilting.
Next, you need to check that the feed dogs
the little teeth that pull the fabric along
are down. Your machine will either have a
way of lowering them, or a plate with which
to cover them. Without the feed dogs pulling
the fabric along, youll be able to control the
speed at which the fabrics fed under the darning foot, and hence the length of the stitch.
Before you start, bring the bobbin thread up to the
top so that you can see where it is; otherwise you
might be happily writing away and getting in a nasty
tangle underneath. To make life easier, use the same
coloured thread on the top and on the bobbin for an
easier life. That way, if your tension is slightly out it
Finally, if your machine has a half-speed facility,
turn it on. This will allow you to simply put your
foot down and forget about controlling the machines speed, letting you concentrate on moving and turning
the fabric as slowly as possible to get neat, even stitches.
Im only a mum (1997) 45 x 57in
When you begin, relax your wrists and practice
gliding the fabric around your fingertips without
stopping and starting. Some quilters use special
gloves for this with rubber-tipped fingers that
cling onto the fabric and apparently help to avoid
repetitive-strain injuries caused by having to
continually press the fabric while you guide it. But
gloves or not, I promise you that its something that
will get easier with practice until machine-writing
eventually becomes second nature!
Joined Up Writing
Once youre used to moving the fabric smoothly
under the darning foot, you need to practice your
calligraphy. When I was at school we had all the
flourishes and loops drummed out of our handwriting,
which had to follow the simplified style of Marion
Richardson, the art educationalist from the early
1900s. Nowadays, very few people have any trace
of the old-fashioned looping lettering in their
writing, which is a pity as its ideally suited to the
continuous flowing line of stitching that were
aiming to achieve. You can machine-write in the
modern, discontinuous style, of course (see diagrams),
but itll mean repeatedly going backwards and
forwards more times.
One of the disadvantages of working freehand
is trying to cast-off, to accurately gauge the
space needed for each word. As a result, youll see
that on my quilts which feature writing there are
sometimes little doodles of flowers in among the
words. These are filling in the spaces where the words fell short: There are no mistakes, my
philosophy runs, only design opportunities!
If you dont feel confident enough to write freehand,
try marking the spaces for the words, or even drawing
the lettering and quilting over the top. When I need
to draw guidelines for lettering or quilting, I use
markers made from little slivers of left-over soap.
Dried until theyre hard, and then shaved to a nice
point, you can use them like a pale crayon on dark
fabric: they glide over the fabric, make your hands
smell nice, and theyre free!
Its well worth persevering, however, and learning
how to write freehand with your machine because
its a technique that can add some of those subtle
textures and effects to your quilts even if the
efforts not appreciated by everyone. Once, at a quilt
show, I was sitting beside What Shall We Call It?,
which has a complete background of names written
with freehand stitching. As people came past, I was
interested to hear their comments, until one visitor
said, She doesnt do any of that writing herself,
you know. She has a programmable machine!