The truth about group sewing projects

One of the best sewing decisions I ever made was to join the Possum Magic round robin group (another was to join my local sewing group, but that is a story for another day). I have met wonderful sewers – Jo and Serena – in person and other equally wonderful sewers – Jane, Rebecca, Wendy, Sharon and of Alice – from afar. We have a collegial and supportive group, and I feel very lucky. I have had a great deal of fun and been challenged to try things out of my comfort zone, like sewing with purple.

There is, however, occasionally a tricky side to group projects: the wonky factor. With so many hands involved, things can shift out of alignment. I think anyone who has ever been part of a quilt bee can testify to this: blocks arrive too big or too small, seam allowances vary from one- to three-eighths of an inch, and points fail to line up.

Often, a little wonkiness does not matter so much. A seam can be touched up or a little extra fabric can be eased in. However, borders added to a central medallion can be more difficult. If one border is significantly out, it can affect later borders or alter the way the centre sits. It can make calculations and measurements for later borders a nightmare.

With Rebecca’s Possum Magic quilt, concern was growing. At an earlier handover, Jo had mentioned that it was tricky to make the quilt top sit flat. Serena was also concerned while she worked on it, and, when it came time for Serena to hand it over to me, she shared her concerns. It was impossible to smooth out flat and was obviously bulging in the middle – and the bulge had far more fabric in it than could be ‘quilted out’. It had a distortion, not unlike a bra-cup shape (only an A or a B cup, not a double G), in the middle, even though this fault was carefully concealed in Serena’s photos.

Serena and I looked at it closely, had a long discussion and decided that we could fix it. Moreover, because Rebecca has been such an amazing contributor to the group and is an all-round amazing woman, we felt we should try to fix it. We wanted her to receive a quilt top she would treasure, not one that she would be disappointed with or that would be impossible to quilt without puckers. She has done nothing less than amazing work on everyone’s quilt tops; she deserved nothing less than amazing work in return.

So, we measured and we checked and we planned. I drew scale diagrams and made a spreadsheet (because that is how I roll). Then, we met up at Serena’s house and, after a fortifying George Clooney coffee and cupcakes, we started to unpick. We could not identify the exact source of the problem, so we started in the middle and worked our way out. The plan was to measure each border, unpick, square up and reassemble, while keeping the look of everyone’s borders the same as best we could.

Stitch rippers

You can never have too many stitch rippers.

The two things that saved us in this quilt were the white borders and teamwork. We found by substituting fresh white for the white we unpicked, the look stayed the same but we had some flexibility with repairs. If the background had been entirely patterned or made up of complex piecing, it might have been a trickier exercise. Also, I do not think either of us would have been brave enough to unpick so many borders without the supervision and moral support of the other. By working together, neither Serena nor I felt overburdened by the responsibility of it all. What if we screwed it up? What if we made it worse? Jo joined us on the second day and reassured us; she could see that we had made it much flatter and squarer.

It took us two sewing days of unpicking and resewing to repair several borders – not an insignificant exercise – but I think we learned something very important from those two days: never be afraid to fix a problem. Having to unpick a friend’s work is awful, but so is handing over a quilt top that needs major repairs. We have ended up with a quilt top that looks almost the same as when we started, but it no longer bags out in the middle like the knees of tracksuit pants. Also, all of the seams now have a respectable quarter-inch seam allowance as we resewed any that were one-eighth of an inch or less and just hanging on by a thread. Not only was the top bulging, but it had some weak points that would have come apart in the quilt’s first wash.

Medallion quilt for Rebecca of One Wee Bird by Possum Magic

See! It still looks the same!

The only significant change we made to the look of the quilt was to add a narrow strip of fabric around Rebecca’s centre block to bring it back up to size. I wanted to add a bright colour, such as red, as a frame, but Serena talked me out of it, quite rightly, pointing out that we needed to stick with the look of what was there before. We were repairing, not reinventing.

Now, I can carry on and add my border before sending it to Jane to work her magic on the final border. The quilt top still has its original character, but it is square and flat, and Rebecca will easily be able to quilt out any minor wobbles.

This is not the first time I have had to unpick and resew part of a group project. Personally, I think the best thing to do if you see a problem is to catch it early and work with the person whose contribution is crooked to straighten it out. No one deliberately sews a wonky border; we all do our best. Often, we just need a hand or an extra head to help with the calculations.

I should also point out that many group projects have no problems at all. This is only the second Possum Magic quilt that I have had to repair before starting my border, and my local round robin quilt came back to me without a point out of place – and it has a lot of pointy flying geese – after eight other pairs of hands had worked on it.

In spite of the occasional need to pause and repair, I would still never let wonkiness put me off joining in on group projects. They are such fun and totally worth doing.

Have you been part of a sewing group and faced a dilemma like this? Have you had to unpick and repair another’s work in a group project? Has anyone ever unpicked your work? Have you been offended or thankful that they managed to repair something that was bothering you?

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25 thoughts on “The truth about group sewing projects

  1. I have yes. I’ve had bee blocks sent that are way too small and barely any seam allowance, so cannot be fixed. Oh well. We all do our best and most of the time, it works ; )

  2. I’ve never had such bad wonkiness that it needed re-stitching, but my Feather quilt is full of blocks of varying sizes! It gave me the opportunity to piece it together in a more creative way! Good for you for getting this sorted before it was too late!

  3. Not yet… but if I were sent a single bee block that was too small or large, I really wouldn’t hesitate to fix it; it’s part of a whole, after all, and needs to work with the rest. I’d talk to the sender if it couldn’t be saved ‘as is’, and discuss options for adapting it. I think I might be intimidated by having to go back as far as you did, though, so well done for taking the plunge!

  4. If I ever do a bee again, I want to do one of those blocks you cut up and put back together (like a disappearing 9 patch, bento block etc). I think those would be easier to mix and match and cover up any flubs.

    My first bee, I chose a scrappy trip along for my block and I got a whole bunch of random sizes back (from under 12″ to over 12.5″ for a 12.5″ unfinished block). I just whacked them altogether anyway and i have a lot of zig zagging over the seams on the quilts to help keep it down. It was a Christmas quilt so i don’t see it often and think of the zig zags as ‘rustic charm’ but having been my first bee and one of my first quilts it was kind of annoying to deal with, not knowing any better on what I should do!

  5. Ah! You managed to photograph the impossible to photograph border! Ok, what’s your secret?! I’m feeling much better about this quilt already … it was a great learning experience for me. Can’t wait to see your border now 🙂

  6. And what a lovely top it is now! SQUARED and FLAT! Two magic words. And if we can also manage a size that makes sense for the next border, even better. OH my goodness, I have fixed so much work from other people. I enjoy round robins and other group projects for the creativity and different viewpoints brought, but they can be quite frustrating if the others’ skills don’t match up. I’ve sworn off them for a while, since I can find plenty of things to repair in my own work!

    Thanks for this post. You’ve described the problems well and with compassion.

  7. Thank you for the excellent write up. My personal belief is that the difference between a sew-sew sewer and a great fiber artist is the courage to pick out the unforgiveable and the creativity to know what can be quilted out. Seam rippers are our friends.

    Yes, I have had to redo borders that waved out of control, adjusted group block projects that looked like a few were sewn or at least ironed blind, realized I can’t watch a movie with subtitles when I am doing precise piecing, and have gone through countless seam rippers, both sterling and plastic.

    I wish I was your neighbor! I’d love to have a cup of George Clooney coffee and a cupcake with you!

  8. I’ve not participated in a round robin sort of bee before and hadn’t thought of the challenges that it presents. It’s so great that you and Serena could come together and work out how to get Rebecca’s quilt back into shape. I know we all try our best when doing these projects and sometimes we just need to help each other out.

  9. I have never participated in a round robin or a bee so I haven’t had the experience. The thought of my work being the round that throws everything off is what has scared me off!

  10. Wow, Carla, I am so glad you and Serena were able to get together to work on fixing this quilt top’s issues. You addressed the whole thing so nicely. I am participating in my first bee ever this year, and I am queen in June, and I am thinking I will request a block that is easy to up or down size. But we’ll see. 🙂

  11. You’re a saint Carla! I know exactly what you’re talking about, and I know that Rebecca will really appreciate the time you’ve spent fixing this quilt. I know that you wouldn’t be comfortable passing the problem onto someone else, so you did the right thing and fixed it. Rebecca will laugh at the bra cup analogy – that will be right up her street. I can’t wait to see what you do next on this one.

  12. Your Possum Magic group is very fortunate to have you, Serena, and Jo and your dedication to excellence to unpick this quilt and remake it. I’ve been following the Possum Magic progress, and all of the quilts are stunning. You all are so talented and creative!
    Yes, I’ve had bee blocks come back with seam allowances and overall sizes varying so much that I’ve had to pick apart and remake some of them. For my next bee go-round, I came up with a solution which I blogged about here: http://thecolorfulfabriholic.blogspot.com/2015/03/my-leaders-enders-project.html

  13. Holy Balls Carla and Serena!!! I actually am at a loss for words….very rare?! You guys are the sweetest ( as are all the Possums! ) I am very humbled and flattered by your kind words and that you’ve taken such care and consideration with my quilt. It quite honestly has become the sideline to the great fun, banter and friendship I have found within the PM group but now I will cherish the care that has been lavished on it even more. I know I bang on about it all the time but quilty people really are the best and have held my hand and lifted me up more times than anyone of you can know and often without realising it. THANKYOU! xxxx

  14. I love reading of your adventures in round robins and thank you for showing me how to best handle a situation that could have the potential for unpleasantness. . .and really I must just take the initiative and get something started, I will revisit some of the names I had flagged as potential round robinettes 😉

  15. Yes, I have fixed, resewed, or repaired round robins as well. In our family round robin a couple of years back I requested three round blocks from each person. I promised them it would be easy if they would sew an exact 1/4″. I even asked them to measure their seam allowance to check it. Well, one family member either didn’t or did not understand how because her circle simply did not fit the hole. She said she picked it three times and I believe her. What she did not understand is that the seam allowance on the wedges was way too wide. That is why it did not fit. Instead of picking the wedges three times and narrowing the seams, she picked the circle insert which did no good. I ended up repairing two ladies blocks (6 total) and starting completely over. I did it with love and the quilt turned out beautiful!

    We have done this round robin three times now and the quilts always work out beautiful!

    I think an “add a border” group would need some training on how to measure through the center of the quilt and create a border that fits that exact size. So many quilters just add a border and wack it off to length without measuring. Measuring makes all the difference! Education is key.

  16. You’re such a good team member to have taken the time and effort to fix this issue before the quilt made it back to its forever home. I’ve not done a group project quite like this one, but I have had some tricky situations arise from block exchanges. My first ever exchange, the blocks were a train wreck. I ended up throwing them away rather than attempting to fix them. Thankfully, things have gone better in recent exchanges!

  17. Making my own medallion quilt I had a problem with squareness that I was able to correct. And that was baby sized. Great teamwork and it looks brilliant – worth all the effort!

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