Posted by: jinniver | August 25, 2008

The birthday quilt

Remember how I’ve been hinting about some other project I’ve been working on that was super secret? (Even if you don’t, nod anyway.) Well, the veil of secrecy has been lifted…

Stella bday quilt (12)

I had been collecting 30’s reproduction fabrics for years, with the idea of making a quilt for my baby daughter…should I happen to have one.  And I did, my beautiful Lexie…but one of the first gifts she got was a wonderful quilt from her Grandma made with reproduction fabrics.  I could have made one anyway, but that seemed sort of silly since she already had a great one.  That’s when I got a sudden brainwave–I could make a quilt for my baby niece’s first birthday to represent the family.

One of the things I love the most about being a Navy family is that we get to move around a lot and live in all sorts of neat places.  One of the thing I dislike the most about being a Navy family is that we have to move around a lot and end up living far from my family.  Growing up, I always had lots of family around.  With the exception of two of my cousins (ironically, from a Navy family), I spent a lot of time with my cousins and am very close with them.  I hate to think that won’t be the case for my children with their cousins (currently just one cousin, but hopefully more eventually!), but not only do we move around quite a bit, so do my brothers.  None of us went too far from home for college (from Pennsylvania, I went to Maryland, the older twin (Joe) went to West Virginia, and the younger twin (CJ) went to New York state).  Joe hasn’t moved too much since graduation, but has settled in northern Indiana; CJ and I have moved almost the same amount–I think I have a slight edge–and while he currently lives in the same state as his twin, he’s in the southern tip.  And of course, we’re in Texas; my parents are still in Pennsylvania.

My sister-in-law’s family lives close to her, but both her father and her brother have passed away.  So Stella Rose, my niece, doesn’t have a lot of her parents’ immediate families around her.  I thought a quilt that involved her family would be a nice symbolic gesture, to show her that we’ll always be there for her, even if it’s not always in person.  The question was how to involve the family.

My first thought was to just have everyone sign a block that I used in the quilt.  But that was less tangible than I wanted, especially for a very young child.  Then I hit on the idea of having handprints on the quilt.  I could use the reproduction fabrics for the handprints, and applique them on a white background.  I had lots of reproduction fat quarters, so I could use them for the handprints and other parts of the quilt (although I wasn’t planning that far ahead).

First thing first–getting everyone’s handprints.  Most of my family was pretty easy–I just told them what I wanted and why.  But I wanted this to be a surprise for my brother Joe and sister-in-law Meghan too.  So I told them I wanted to make a family quilt for Lexie’s first birthday, so I needed their handprints.  Meghan’s family was the toughest, but fortunately, she’d sent me an email that had also been sent to her mother, Cyndi, and I’d saved it.  I was able to covertly enlist Cyndi to get her handprint, as well as her husband’s and the family of one of Meghan’s cousins–I was doing just immediate family, but Meghan is very close to that cousin, and the cousin has a baby girl who’s almost the same age (she was born in the three months between Stella’s and Lexie’s births).  This did still leave me with a problem–the handprints for Meghan’s father and brother were two I obviously couldn’t get.  But I decided to use a modified version of handprints from two of the other guys, just to represent them–not having them on the quilt was most definitely not an option.

Stella bday quilt (1) Stella bday quilt (2)

The handprints were pretty easy to get–I just had everyone trace theirs on to a sheet of white paper, and then write the name Stella would call them on the paper.  That would allow me to also trace the names on to the quilt block in that person’s handwriting.  I could buy a fancy lightbox for this step…or I could just tape the papers to a window and tape the fusible web over it and do the tracing (the blinds were closed just for the purposes of taking the picture).  Once they were all traced I cut them out (leaving about a quarter inch all around), fused them to the various fat quarters, and cut out the hands.

Stella bday quilt (4)

I loved the children’s hands the most.  From left to right:  my daughter Lexie; Meghan’s cousin’s daughter Grace; my son, Jeffrey; Grace’s brother Treyce, and my niece Stella.  Aren’t those hands tiny?

Stella bday quilt (3)

Once I had the hands, I could determine the quilt block size I wanted–I had to make the blocks big enough for the largest hand.  That led me to decide on a 9″ finished block size.  I fused the hands to the blocks and then traced the names on to the blocks. I like to use a scrapbooking pen that’s acid-free–I’ve found they tend to fade a little less with washings than even the fabric pens. Note for anyone looking to have signed blocks for a quilt: I highly recommend having people sign their name to a piece of paper, and then tracing that on to fabric. That avoids any problems with inexperienced people trying to write on fabric, people using inappropriate writing implements on fabric (the corollary is that individuals who can’t use the appropriate pen can write with whatever they’re comfortable with; I had one quilt where two young children drew pictures with crayons that I traced over, and they were the cutest blocks in the quilt), and people writing outside of the seam allowance.

I also decided to add 3″ finished sashing strips and blocks cut from a variety of the reproduction fabrics for a scrappy look.  It meant more work than I usually do (I prefer quick cutting/piecing techniques) but I really wanted the colorful scrappy look for my niece.  Of course, that made the layout a little more difficult, since I was trying to spread out the colors.  That meant pulling out my old flannel board.

Stella bday quilt (5)

Much to my surprise, I nailed the layout on almost my first try. I did have to do a little bit of tweaking, but it was just the look I wanted. Then came the grunt work: sewing the blocks and stashing strips together. Fortunately, the quilt wasn’t that big (51″x63″ finished), and all the different blocks made it fun to watch as it went together. Next was basting (after I found a good reproduction fabric at a LQS for the backing) and quilting. After some thought, I decided to combine some quilting techniques (all of which were done by machine). I quilted in the ditch along both sides of the sashing strips for the initial stabilization, and then free motion quilted a meandering trail down each column of blocks. I took special care to outline the fused hands. The edges needed to be stitched down, since to that point they were only fused on and some edges were already lifting, so I decided to do it as part of the quilting so the outlines were visible on the back. My free motion quilting skills were decidedly rusty, I have to admit, but the end result was acceptable.

Stella bday quilt (9)

Stella’s block was the most special. I decided to write a poem to add to her block that explained the quilt’s significance and why I made it. The Quilters Knitting group on Ravelry helped me with a few changes to make it sound its best.

Stella bday quilt (8)

Here are all the hands
Some close, some far away,
Of the family of Stella Rose
On her first birthday.

‘Though some have gone before,
And some are yet to come,
This quilt will keep you warm
Wrapped in all our love.

Once it was all together and quilted, I just had to add the binding–and of course, the label on back. I learned early on in my quilting career about the importance of adding labels…not so much for the here and now, but for down the road. Some day, one of Stella’s descendants may wonder where this quilt came from and who made it.

Stella bday quilt (10)

It took some long hours in the days leading up to Stella’s birthday, but I got it done before we left for our visit. Then I had to wait on pins and needles to see if my brother and sister-in-law liked it!

When it came time to open presents, the gift bag with the quilt was one of that last opened. As CJ handed it to Meghan and told her who it was from, Meghan said, “Oh, I bet it’s something beautiful and hand-made.” Well, it was definitely one out of two–hopefully she thought it went two for two…

Stella's B-day quilt (3)

Meghan figured out what she was looking at pretty quickly. She seemed to be a little speechless at first, and I was praying it was because she loved it, and not because she was trying to think of something nice to say! Fortunately, it was the former option. In fact, I was thrilled that the quilt was a hit with pretty much everyone–for a project like that one, moving people to tears is actually a good thing, and apparently my quilt made a few of the women a little weepy.

In the final assessment, I was really happy with the result. I hope this is something my niece treasures down the road; I know I’ll treasure the memory of making the quilt and the family involvement. The final product may not have been as beautiful as my niece–that’s a pretty impossible standard to meet!–but it’s close enough to satisfy me.

Stella's B-day quilt (2)



  1. That’s gorgeous. Thank you for explaining everything that went into it.

  2. Absolutely gorgeous quilt and one that I know Stella will cherish when she’s older!!

  3. Thanks for the directions…I’m in the process of making a similar quilt for my niece and this will help!

  4. […] – bookmarked by 4 members originally found by technopolis on 2008-11-07 The birthday quilt – bookmarked by 1 […]


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