My Top Ten Tips for Sewing on the Road

I’m a member of the Portland Modern Quilt Guild, and they have a fabulous arrangement for members to sew together once a month at Fabric Depot, a huge store with a huge classroom. I love sewing with friends… the creative energy and the exchange of help and ideas is so great to be a part of.

Packing for mobile sewing can be daunting (especially when we do it at the last minute), so I’ve assembled another group of tips for you, but this time with an eye to being on the road:

1. Dedicated Crate or Tote


If you use the same container to travel, you’ll get used to how you pack it, and will be able to see quickly if something is missing from the puzzle. I like to use a crate for my basic supplies because it fits solidly on a hand cart, and then I use totes (and zippy bags) for the projects.

2. List


Keep a list of your basic mobile items with your container. I once arrived a retreat without the box of feet for my machine, and had to give up a chunk of my shopping budget to buy another walking foot and piecing foot. Refer to the list while you pack or it won’t really work!

3. Name that Ruler


Put your name on everything. With most of us using similar tools, and frequently borrowing from each other, having your name on things means you’re less likely to go home without them. On rulers, I prefer a quick scrawl of Sharpie to a label, because I can still read the ruler marks through the scrawl.

4. Ribbons


Not keen on having all your stuff labeled like you are still in grade school? Use ribbons to tie through anything that has a hole or loop. Mine, of course, are ORANGE.

5. Old Mats


When your studio mat starts getting worn, put it aside for mobile use when you buy a new one. That way you’ll fret less if the old mat gets bent or warped from being transported. You can also cut old mats down to a more packable size.

6. Trash Container


Let’s face it, to sew is to create trash of threads and shreds. Be kind to your host by capturing as much of it as you can. This one was a gift from a friend, and collapses for easy packing.

7. Machine Cleaning Kit


Take your machine oil and Q-Tips with you in case your machine needs to get de-fuzzed while you’re out. There is nothing more frustrating than setting up for a sewing day (or weekend) and then having your machine act up. Having oil and cleaning supplies on hand is the first step for a fussy machine.

8. Needles and Blades


The second step for a fussy machine is a new needle. Bring a packet with you. And if you’re gone for more than a day, or your rotary cutter blade is on the old side, pack a spare blade too. Blades are easy to dent, and when you’re cutting in unfamiliar spaces you’re more likely to drop your tools.

9. Extension Cords


I usually travel with these two – the big one for getting the wall power to my setup, and the little one to share the power locally. I also carry a “ground cheater” plug in case I’m in an older building that doesn’t have grounded outlets.

10. Let There Be Light!


The Fabric Depot classroom is well lit, but I’ve sewed in many a hotel conference space that wasn’t. I keep this portable light in my mobile kit just in case. There’s never enough light once you head north of 40!

11. Magnetic Pincushion + Lid


I prefer magnetic pin cushions to the traditional variety, and this one, made by Clover, has a lid that also clips onto the base when you’re using it. The lid keeps the pins covered while they’re in the kit, so that they don’t stab me when I’m least expecting it.

12. Band-Aids


Because you never know when you (or a friend) will need one!

Please share your tips in the comments!

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Olfa’s Rotary Cutter is Having a Birthday!

(and psst… they’ve given me a present to give to you, so read on…)

I made my first quilt without a rotary cutter, and was pretty unimpressed with how it turned out. There wasn’t a single seam that matched, and it took me three years to consider making another. When I decided to take a class to make my second, I was introduced to the classic yellow Olfa cutter, and while my seams still needed help, the cutting part went well enough that I made my next quilt almost immediately.


Although I no longer have my original cutter (I wore it out) I’ve stayed with Olfa over the years (despite handling many other cutters as a teacher) because I like how it feels in my hand. I have good blade closing habits, too!

The rotary cutter is having it’s 35th birthday this year, and Olfa reached out to a bunch of bloggy people to join the party. They sent me this, and asked for a block in exchange:

IMG_5384The block rules were 6” finished, and use “Olfa yellow” in it somewhere. Easy!

I have a great paper-pieced font at my disposal, so I thought I’d use it :-) First I fussed a design together on the computer:


I chose the turquoise to match the Splash cutter released last year. I always precut my fabric for paper-piecing as I find it speeds things up:


I keep a separate cutter for trimming the paper-piecing so that I don’t dull my freshest blades – and the rotating mat makes trimming these blocks so much easier:


A few quick seams later and the block was done!


Thank you to Olfa for including me in the party!

Olfa is giving away a birthday present to one of my readers, too, so please comment below for a chance to win! UPDATE: I’ll chose a winner on Thursday morning (August 31).

BTW – Did you join my mailing list yet? Do it here. I’m dreaming up groovy exclusive stuff for you!



My Top Ten Sewing Studio Hacks

Do you have tips, techniques, tools or hacks that make life in your sewing space easier or more efficient for you? Here are some of my favorites… please share yours in the comments!

1. Table Extensions


Whether you sink your machine into some kind of sewing furniture (I use both the Janome Table and the Sew-Ezi table), or spring for the portable extension for your machine, having the bed of your machine extended across a table will allow you sew with more accuracy. The table gives you space to line up and straighten out your fabric before it reaches the needle.

2. Velcro on the Foot Pedal


I sew on carpet, so my foot pedal is fond of going walkabout. A chunk of the hook side of sticky-back Velcro allows it to get a grip on the carpet. Your space isn’t carpeted? Try a decent sized square of the rubber mat sold for lining cupboards (I carry one in my portable kit so that if I sew somewhere else I’m ready for either).

3. Noodle on the Knee Lift


The bigger machines of today all have knee lifts, and as the machine throats (or Harp Space, if we’re getting technical) get bigger, the knee lift gets further out to the right. Reaching it can be a bizarre form of inner thigh stretch. Buy a pool noodle that has a big hole through the middle, saw off a chunk (a bread knife is perfect for this) and slide/tug/push it on. It will bring the knee lift edge closer to you, and you won’t have mismatched thighs! Bonus: One pool noodle will get you three or four pieces so share with a friend!

4. Different Rotary Cutters for Different Uses


I keep a selection of cutters around so that I can make it easily through different techniques. The 60mm one is for batting, fusible fleece, and when I’m cutting through more than 4 layers of fabric. I have an extra 45mm one specifically for cutting paper, or trimming paper pieced blocks (this gets my older blades). The 28mm is for smaller pieces and curved templates.

5. Cone Stand Hack


Don’t have a cone stand? Do this instead… Grab a big coffee mug or a big canning jar. The base of the cup or jar needs to be bigger than the spool’s base or it will wedge. If using the jar, go wide-mouth so you can get your hand in if needed. Pop the thread into it and set it up next to your machine. Tape a safety pin (closed, sharp point down) to the edge of your machine such that you can go from the jar into your thread path in as straight a line as possible. Thread through the end hole in the safety pin and into the thread path.

6. Slider on the Machine


Cover the path to the needle of your machine with a chunk of Supreme Slider (I had a damaged one that I cut in half for this). It will help stop seams from flipping the wrong way underneath as you come into the needle. For paper-piecing, it helps the paper slide across the machine bed, and stops the dreaded flip of the underneath piece. Tip: rinse the slider off at the beginning of every sewing session to keep it sticking on the bed.

7. Needle Threader



If you can see to thread a needle easily, huzzah! File this away for the day after your 40th birthday for when, suddenly, your arms need to be longer to read anything. This little goody is the Desk Needle Threader made by Clover. Put the needle in eye down, lay thread across the path, push the lever, pull out the threaded needle. It also has a cutter across the top so you don’t have to risk your scissors to the capriciously enforced rules of the TSA.

8. Sticky Notes


Do you go back to same machine settings over and over? Keep them close by on sticky-notes. I also use them to mark cuts of fabric when I need to keep it all straight.

9. Zippy Bags


I use these relentlessly to corral projects and their parts. Being as I paper-piece a lot of words (and always precut for them), I bag the parts for each word as I’m cutting. I play a lot less 52-pick-up when I move things around in bags.

10. Tweezers


I keep two sets on hand – one has teeth in the tip, the other has flat ends. I use the first mostly for pulling paper out of paper-pieced seams, and the flat ones for pulling up threads at the machine.

11. Non-sticky Hand Lotion


Fabric will steal the moisture from your hands, so I use these little tins of hand lotion bars. Lavishea and LoLo Bar make my two faves, and I like the citrusy smells. Dump the bar into your hands, give it a quick rub, pop it back into the tin, and massage the lotion into your hands. Neither of these products leave a sticky residue! Bonus: when your hands have some moisture, you’ll be able to grip the fabric better, and pick up single pieces from stacks.

12. Scrap Pillow Case


No matter how many scraps you keep, there’s still a point at which you’ll toss out the smallest bits of fabric. Put together a simple pillow case from that “what was I thinking?” fabric you bought a while back, and throw your scraps into it. When it’s full, run a sturdy seam down the edge, and drop it by your local animal shelter next time you’re out running errands.

Ooops – that was twelve! No matter!

Please share your fave tips in the comments.

BTW – Did you join my mailing list yet? Do it here. I’m dreaming up groovy exclusive stuff for you!


Paper-piecing hack – slip sliding away!

I was paper-piecing in the studio last week, and ran into that pesky problem of getting one of the bottom pieces folded back on itself ONE TOO MANY TIMES. Harrumph. Nothing like holding the seam ripper endlessly to make you reach for the chocolate. Mind you… like I need an excuse to reach for the chocolate :-)

So as I munched on said chocolate (the wonderful 70% Super Smooth Belgian Mini Bars from Trader Joe’s) I pondered a way to end the “under-folding.” Not that I like having problems to solve, but I find solving these kind of puzzles fun.

I thought that a slicker surface might help – slick enough that nothing at all could drag the fabric and pull it out of place. And lo and behold, I just happened to have a Supreme Slider*  in the studio.


They are designed to give you a more slippery surface when doing free-motion quilting, but lo and behold, they do the same for paper-piecing.


I put the edge right up in front of the feed dogs and yep… worked like a charm. I might even buy a second one and cut out the feed dog hole to fit. The only downside I’ve found thus far is that I can’t see the bobbin run out (it’s a top loader) – but even when I can see it I forget about it until I’ve sewn a mile or two on empty, so that hardly registers as a complaint.


And while we’re looking at my machine, did you notice anything different? Yep, that’s not my beloved Janome 6500 – it’s her new sister, a Janome 8900 QCP. I got a chance to be in partnership with Janome, and signed up in a heartbeat borrow this girl. We’re having fun getting acquainted, and I’m looking forward to doing some machine quilting with all eleven inches of harp space. I’ll be designing some new stuff for Janome, so watch this space.

OK… back to the studio! What are your favorite paper-piecing tricks?


*I’m not a rep for the Supreme Slider – just a fan!

Tool crush – Moleskines… in COLOR!


Like a lot of folks in the arts (fine arts, writing arts, or otherwise) at one point in my career I discovered Moleskine notebooks. They are discrete little black numbers, made in several sizes, and once I knew about them I swear I saw them everywhere. In contrast to the pretty journals I found next to the checkout of every bookstore, these slender black books seemed to telegraph a certain dedication for the pursuit of creativity, not to mention an air of mystery.

Considering myself appropriately dedicated to my art career, I bought one and soon became a devotee. It was the first sketchbook I owned that felt good to carry. There were several features that wowed me, starting with the lack of spiral wire to get caught up in everything. It had an elastic band to keep it closed, and a lovely little pocket in the back for ephemera and various scraps of paper bearing treasured scribbles. Best of all, when opened, it laid flat at the center seam. Heaven. I chose the Large size – 5.4 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches (they are available both bigger and smaller). It fit perfectly in my handbag at the time, and I’ve bought or designed every other bag I’ve owned since based on whether or not the Moleskine fit. It is no longer a curiosity or affectation – it is a necessary tool in my everyday creative practice.


My paper of choice is Plain – no lines, no grids. I am very much a Word Girl – my drawings are built of words rather then traditional lines. And despite my passion for words, I find lined paper very confining when I want to capture ideas… their very linear-ness makes me feel like they will corral my non-linear thoughts and turn them into dull monotony. I want to write large and small, straight and slanted – and when I do actually draw, I don’t want my ideas straightened out by lines.

(And a huge shout out to my beloved MFA mentor Mark Rooker for assuring me that it was fine that I write rather than draw during grad school, as long as I had a way that worked for me to capture my ideas. Some of the other profs gave me a heck of time about not liking to express myself in drawing. And all I can say to that is we don’t all make art the same way, folks!)

As I’ve moved from one tattered journal into a crispy new counterpart, I have imagined that this stack of little black books might one day become part of my “papers” – a cache of my ideas deemed worthy of collection, or perhaps even study. I like to think that some paper might survive the digital age! So there they sit on the shelf, lined up like Rockettes, with only their dated spines to tell them apart in their dark beauty.

But the line-up might get a new member soon. Black, for once, might fall out of fashion, at least in my studio. There are some new dancers in town, and one of them is wearing ORANGE.


Oh my. I do love ORANGE. It’s not the deeper ORANGE of my Tangerine Tango dreams, but it’s cheerful and sunny. And that might be a nice vibe to telegraph when I’m out drawing my words, while still keeping my secrets.

Right now I have a relatively new black one on the go, and yet another in its plastic as backup. I would hate to waste it, but hmm… it could be given as a gift… so that I could make a date with the ORANGE one sooner. We’ll have to see if I continue my tradition, or accept the invitation of a new dance partner.

How do you capture your ideas, and which color might be yours?