Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Best of 2009: Challenge (or: Sewing a Quilt in Heidelberg)

I've been meaning to post about this project for a while. At first I didn't because it was for a reader and I wanted to keep it secret - then after it wasn't a secret anymore, I was neglecting the blog a little. Finally, I will share the project I spent many, many hours on during the summer!

Best Challenge: Going from not knowing how to operate a sewing machine to making a quilt
Runner-up: Passing the thesis defense

I bought a sewing machine while I was still living in Boston. At first I just wanted to make some cool cards with stitching on them. I never even got around to that - before I knew it, we were planning an international move and I wasn't thinking about doing awesome crafts anymore. When we moved, we got a flat rate on a crate to be shipped to Germany, up to a certain weight. After putting in the stuff we knew had to be shipped, it turned out there was still room to add in the sewing machine. So, we threw it in and it came to Germany. Then it sat in the closet for 2.5 years, except for when my mom came to visit and used it to hem us some curtains. Here I should note that my mom is an obscenely talented seamstress so it's all the more tragic that I had this sewing machine just sitting around and never bothered to learn to sew from the master!! It's just that working with fabric has always intimidated me. It's all floppy, not easy to work with like paper. I have the same problem with paintbrushes vs. pencils. Paintbrushes drive me mad. Still, as I have no practical hobbies (or interests in the entire world...) sewing beyond fixing buttons and hems always seemed like something I really ought to figure out.

So, when I found out a very old friend was pregnant, I wanted to do something really cool and homemade for her new baby. Embroidery sounded cool. But, the above-mentioned practicality issue was bugging me. I wanted to make something that could actually be useful, if they wanted to use it. So, I decided it was time to learn to sew, with a little embroidery added in so I could have fun too if the sewing turned out to be torture.

First - getting the fabric. I asked my mom what kind of fabric would be good for the embroidery and also work in a baby quilt. She told me to buy muslin. In German it's called Musselin and only exists in fairy tales. Every store told me to try somewhere else and then when I got there they told me to try yet somewhere else. In the US, muslin is absurdly cheap and available everywhere. So, my mom decided to just send me some. While looking for muslin, I also checked out the other fabrics for some ideas for the quilt. This is how I discovered that probably nobody under 70 ever sews in Heidelberg. The selection of fabrics is even worse than your average Jo-Ann in the US, and let's just say I was never impressed by Jo-Ann. I think out of all the fabrics I saw, there were approximately 3 I found cute or interesting, and none of them were appropriate for a baby quilt. Thank god for Etsy. I found a set of fabric that would work nicely for either gender (they didn't find out in advance) and just ordered it online. And the internet is the opposite of Heidelberg fabric stores. There's more cute fabric there than anyone could look at in a lifetime. I only wish the local places stocked things like that so I could see it in person first!

Embroidery floss I found at Kaufhof, of all places. They have Anchor floss and not the biggest selection ever, but it was good enough for this project. They also have a selection of 2 or 3 hoops (not types, actual number of available hoops) at any given time. I already had lots of needles.

The fabric arrived and first I fretted about whether or not to wash it. I wanted the quilt to be usable, so I decided I had better wash the fabric as hardcore as you would wash a quilt that a baby barfed on. The fabric was already cut into fat quarters (quarters of a yard if the yard is cut once each direction - I think) when I bought it and washing it hardcore like that really warped it and frayed the edges. Yikes! I lost some inches there and had to modify my plans a little bit. Then I fretted about cutting the warped pieces because they wouldn't be cut with the grain. I tried to cut them on the grain as much as I could. This was pointless and I'm not sure how I ever got that idea in my head. Later I had to trim them all because they weren't exactly the same. Sameness is more important than the grain. If they aren't the same it would be really hard to make up for that with the sewing machine, since you use the edge of the fabric to judge where to sew.

I sewed all my squares into little blocks of four squares. (By the way, I bought cotton thread in Munich! I hadn't checked everywhere yet, but mostly I'd only seen polyester thread here.) One giant mistake was made, but I ignored it because it was so small on the scale of mistakes I was expecting to make. I have no cabinet for my sewing machine, so I had to set it up on our dining table. Without a cabinet, the fabric always seemed to be pulling away from the needle, so I set up elaborate book piles all around to make a more even surface. I also fretted about the thread tension a lot. And it took me a long time to figure out just winding the bobbin. Really, really clueless.

Once I was sewing mostly straight lines, though, the top came together pretty quickly! I was glad I got the nice thread because it never broke. After the top was done, the search for batting could begin. This was actually not hard, because it doesn't matter what it looks like, so whatever the Pfaff quilting shop on Ploeck had was totally fine. I got cotton batting because it feels nicer than polyester - when it's inside the quilt, that is. That stuff is horrible to touch by itself! I don't know why, but I wanted to handle it about as much as I'd want to handle sandpaper. No one had touched it for a while, apparently. When the woman at the shop rolled it out to cut some off for me, a spider came running out. I also got fabric for the back at the quilting shop - it was plain and they had something acceptable - and for the binding. I read online about how you can buy binding all pre-cut and folded and stuff. I guess they didn't have that here because she just looked at me funny and cut me off some regular fabric so I could make it myself.

Putting the back and batting on was easy. I just tied the quilt with embroidery thread because there was no time to hand-quilt it and I don't have any idea how to quilt with a regular sewing machine! Plus, I actually like the sort of simple look of tying a quilt. I don't know if it was a bad idea or not, because I've never seen it done before and there may be a reason for that, but I made an x on the front of each spot where I tied it - in the back it looked like a stitch next to a knot. For the binding, I thought I was going to lose my mind folding and ironing and hand-stitching that thing on! In the end all I lost was a few skin cells that the iron hit, and I gained hella satisfaction from getting a finished product that actually looked like a quilt!! I couldn't believe it!! I actually made something useful! After the last stitch I had to run out the door to meet some friends for drinks and I took it with me because I was so amazed that I'd actually managed to pull it off. I finished it the same day the baby was born (a girl).

It doesn't look like much but just let me emphasize again that I couldn't wind a frigging bobbin when I started. I also tried new embroidery stitches that I never did before (and the process of learning is obvious from the difference in quality between the owls).


My second place challenge of the year was my thesis defense. It doesn't get first place because school crap is something we all do for years and years, so it didn't feel entirely new like the sewing did - and because it was, overall, a couple of years in the making. I never had an oral exam before so I was glad to survive and pass, though I think I could have done much better if I'd had some previous experience with the format. I got a little too conversational and not specific enough, and I should have clarified more when I was finished with my answer, or what exactly they were looking for (which was often not entirely clear, then they would accept my answer when it was only partially done and assume I didn't know the rest when I did). Still, I managed to pass and put the whole damn thing behind me. No more days spending all that time standing around Mainz Hbf waiting for another delayed train home after 10 hours of classes. I'll never go to school again.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. CN,

    First, what's a bobbin?

    Second, from a distance, the quilt looks quite traditional. But when you get up close, the patterns are a bit trippy.


    A question perhaps I asked before, but can't recall. Did you do your thesis and defense in German? If so, I salute you!

  3. Wow, I find it so amazing that you were able to start from ground zero and create something so amazing (and useful!). Congrats!

    I have a good friend from grad school who just recently decided to start sewing clothing for herself based on vintage patterns -- even though she's never sewed anything before in her life! She's even started a blog about it -- seems like you guys might have something in common. :)

  4. way to go on the quilt! I'm super impressed being in a similar boat of just learning to sew in Germany. Quilts scare me w/all the exactness required, and managing such a large piece at once, too!

    Yeah, and finding fabric in this country....argh! The only place rather than online is the Holland Stoffmarkt - which I'm pretty sure comes to your neck of the woods at least once a year!

  5. I love how your quilt is your #1 accomplishment and your thesis defense came in second. : D Congratulations on both!

    LOVE that quilt! Nice job! I didn't realize before that the owls in the middle are embroidered.

    Also, for any future sewing endeavors, check out as they have a huge selection and I believe will ship internationally.

  6. Oh it DOES look like much! It's adorable. Well done - my mother does a lot of quilting so I know how much hard work goes into it.

    I also get frustrated at the lack of nice fabric in regular stores. I was way better when I moved here - Kaufhof, Karstadt and even Woolworth had pretty good fabric departments and it's down to almost nothing now. But yeah, check out the Stoffmarkt Holland website for dates if you're interested in making anything else.

  7. As a person who sews in Heidelberg, I must comment on the way of getting fabric! My feeling is that fabric in Germany is expensive (compare to Canada). But you can find amazing stuff. You can find the beautiful fabrics which are used to make high-end clothes! But it is very expansive. Even basic fabric is expenxive. In Heidelberg, the best fabric stor is Stoffe Lott (it's on Rorhbachstrasse). There are more options in Manheim. I have two favorites there. First there is Senci (I think it's part of some chain), which is similar to Stoffe Lott, but much bigger. Second, there is a discount fabric store, near the market place, towards the river. This last one has very good prices, but the selection varies. Of course, I have no idea how all these places are for quilting fabric! So it might not be relevant at all!

  8. Marty: On top of the sewing machine you have a spool of thread, but you need two thread sources to operate it. So under the needle, hidden inside the machine, is a bobbin which provides the second thread. You have to wind thread onto it using the machine. I had trouble getting it to wind evenly - it was more cone-like than cylinder-like. The manual went on about how this means my machine needs maintenance, which was a horrifying thought. The internet came to the rescue though - apparently it's not cheating if you sort of guide it into a cylindrical shape with your finger.
    Also, no need for a salute, my master's program was almost entirely in English. :)

    Mandi: Thanks for the link! That project looks amazing!

    Juliette: The Holland Stoffmarkt looks would be nice if it planted permanently here!

    Michelle: I'm afraid that what it really means is that I've picked the wrong field!! :/ The world tells you that if you get well-educated you should be able to derive some of the biggest satisfaction in your life from work/professional accomplishments ...that's not me, alas!

    Christina: Our Kaufhof and Woolworth still have fabric but the selections are really small (especially at Woolworth - not sure why they even still bother).

    Emilie: I was just at Stoffe Lott a few weeks ago to get some dressmaker's carbon for embroidery. It did seem to have more than the other shops but not really anything that was useful to me at the time. There is some really weird stuff there that I can't imagine a use for!! I should check out Mannheim's stuff sometime.

    Honeypiehorse: Thanks!

  9. The bobbin (and winding thereof): bane of my 7th grade Home Ec existance. That's why I never got my stuff done by the end of 5th hour, and the horribly coffee-breathed teacher had to let me stay after school to catch up. Yuck.yuck.yuck.

    I had hoped to never hear that word again, but apparently they are can be fairly complex electric motor parts in automotive applications.

  10. My wife leads sewing classes and workshops in our creative studio space on Bergheimerstr. (The overall project is called Action House, and we do creative training in many different forms, sewing being one of them.)

    You should check our her blog at or her magazine at

    As far as fabrics go, she does go to Stoffe Lott in Heidelberg, but more often she goes to a place around the corner from Marktplatz in Mannheim, and just yesterday, she bought a few pieces of leather at a store in Wieblingen (sorry, I forget the names...)

    Good luck with your future sewing pursuits!


  11. I loved reading this post. It was too funny considering my own battles with my quilting project. I am amazed with your finished project - it's amazing!

    And if you ever want to do another quilting project, you're welcome to mkae a trip to the craft shop on post with me. I pretty much go there once every 1-2 weeks.


I love commenters!