Quilters Lead Pieceful Lives.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

ShweShwe Diamonds

About a year ago, when Emily first visited us from South Africa, she brought with her some authentic brown ShweShwe fabrics.  There was about a half meter of each fabric; not nearly enough to make a decent sized quilt. So we agreed we'd wait until she came home (last December) to decide what to do.

Once she was settled back in good ol' Deerfield, we set to work looking for a good design. We didn't necessarily want something that said "Africa", but we did want to take advantage of the fabrics.  We looked and looked and finally found a design on Pinterest that we liked.  Because the design was made up of little squares, I set about to find a way to make it work. I discovered that not only was it possible, but this type of thing even had a name -- "postage-stamp quilt".   This is a quilt whose design is made up of hundreds or thousands of tiny squares, usually cut to 2" (so they are 1.5" finished).  I had never made one of these (though I did make a watercolor quilt with 2" finished squares).  So it seemed like a good challenge and we began working on the design. We went through many possibilities and versions and setled on one with colored diamonds on a brown background. To get the effect we wanted, but still keep it lap quilt size, we determined the squares had to be a meager 1" finished!

Great! So we had the brown background fabrics...but where to get the other fabrics?  Most of the time, people make postage stamp quilts to use the piles of fabric pieces they have accumulated in their stash. But, even though our design was not specifically "African", we did want all of our fabrics to be authentic ShweShwe cloth. So the stash option was not going to work.

Side note: What is ShweShwe? The name of the quilt refers to the Indigo Dyed Discharge Printed Fabric. It has a long history, and was originally produced only a couple of times per year, mostly for traditional ceremonial uses in rural African areas.  The process was done traditionally whereby 100% cotton fabric was fed through copper rollers which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing a weak acid solution to be fed into the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive white designs. This created a beautiful pattern. To learn more, click here

A trip to the factory in South Africa was out of the question! So we turned to the internet.  There are a number of sources for this fabric in the US, South Africa, and Australia (apparently it is very popular all over the world!), but the one that had the best option for us was The African Fabric Shop in Meltham, Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom! We ordered a pack that had 25 assorted fat quarters; it arrived 6 days later! So we began to cut them into the two-thousand and thirty five squares we needed for the top.

As we were researching possible patterns, we came across an amazing technique to make the actual sewing process way less tedious and almost fool-proof. It is on Elizabeth Hartman's fabulous "Oh, Fransson!" quilt blog. She uses fusible interfacing (I went with Shape Flex; get the thinnest you can find), fuses the squares onto it, and then sews in the seam allowances! Sounds crazy, I know, but it works great and gives you perfect corner points 99% of the time. Click for step-by-step instructions.

The quilt top is 37 x 55 finished, so we divided it up into 9 sections (so that each section would fit on one width of interfacing. Remember, although it is 37 x 55 when finished, the cut squares measure about 55 x 83 prior to fusing and sewing). The pieces from each section were fused on and then sewn across and down. Then the 9 sections were joined together.

Here is a photo of the first section of 216 pieces after they have been arranged and fused to the interfacing...

...and here is the same section (upper left), after all of the seams have been sewn in, next to the adjoining sections (on my design wall, prior to fusing and sewing):

And here (FINALLY) is the front of the finished quilt:
Then we had to decide what to do for the back!  We did not have enough of any one fabric for a one-piece back, so it was "back" to the drawing board. Emily came up with a design that sort of mimicked the diamond shapes on the front, and used almost all of the fabrics. And the best part was that the original four brown fabrics are highlighted in the middle and the border (the border was included to ensure that none of the triangle / diamond points would be lost after the quilting and trimming were done).  So we began to fit the leftover scraps of fabric to the design shapes, and....OH NO!  There were not enough pinks and reds to make it work! What to do?  The store in England did not have the colors we needed. Hello internet!  This time we found just the right fabs at French Connections in Pittsboro, NC! At last, all the pieces were in place:

For the quilting, I used clear monofilament on top and a variegated brown on the bottom. The pattern is a straight-line spiral in each of the diamonds on the front (though it might be easier to see in the picture of the back).

Thanks to the thought and effort we put into the design, it truly ends up being a quilt with two "front" sides!