The August giveaway features homespun fabrics, and some of my readers are not familiar with them. I have enjoyed sewing with them, but being The Curious Quilter, I wanted to know more than the tips and tricks used to work with homespuns. After all, what fun is fabric if we have no sense of how it came into existence? I find it intriguing to consider the people who went before us, helping to make our fabrics available today. I hope you enjoy the journey through history, and find the tips at the end helpful.
The cotton homespun fabrics we find in fabric stores today are an homage to homemade fabrics of the past. Now they are staples in the primitive and country styles of quilting, and well used in clothing. They are a superb choice for rag quilts, as their edges fray so nicely. The colors are often earthy and a bit muted, and they have a soft feel after washing. It is in the nature of the fabric that occasional slubs occur, and even today dye lot variations can be quite noticeable.
True homespun fabric has a long history, and can be made from many fibers. Flax and wool yarns being spun for cloth dates back over 20,000 years. The first spinning tools were hands and stones—people rolled the fibers into tubes, tied that to a string, and dangled the stone to spin the threads. Simple spindles were developed shortly after that, basically sticks that had a hook or eye at one end. Fiber was held on a distaff, and the user drew the fiber down, spinning the spindle to twist the yarn. This method allowed for longer strands than the orignal. Around 9500 BC Stone Age spinners added stone weights to the ends of the yarn, permitting them to stretch further and thinner, and stronger! Nearly any animal fur or plant fiber could be used or combined to make these threads.
Weaving traditions date back just as far, and were developed in cultures all over the world. In the US and Canada we often associate homespun fabric with pioneer life. When the British colonized areas, they encouraged development of local products, and restricted the importing of wool. Settlers had the same spinning and weaving equipment available to them, but had to grow or scavenge their own materials. Creating clothing and household fabrics was a major undertaking, and most families made their own. After the US Revolutionary War, many items were available for importing in the original colonial areas, but as settlers spread west towards the great plains of the US and Canada, they relied on what they found or grew to create cloth. Wool remained very common, and wonderful examples of these early fabrics are shown in museums all around us.
The Industrial Revolution brought about the first manufacture of mass quantities of cloth. In 1733 British weaver John Kay invented the flying shuttle, making it possible to ‘send’ the shuttle across the loom instead of hand-weave it through. This made “broadcloth” possible. By the late 1700’s several patents for weaving machines had been registered, and the fabric industry as we now know it was born. The Cotton We Love: Turning Fiber Into Fabric included some discussion of these early mills and their workers. Fabrics created on these looms could be woven more tightly than homemade fabric, with fewer inconsistencies.
The cotton homespun fabrics sold in stores should be called “homespun-style”, as they are woven in mills. They are yarn dyed, which makes for lovely stripes, plaids, ikats, and more. As with all yarn dyed cloth, the design shows on both sides. To mimic the feel of homespun, the weaving in intentionally left looser than with brocades, poplins, muslins or other cottons. The yarns and threads used may have an occasional slub which adds to the homemade effect. This looseness, coupled with the yarn dying, are what creates the unique quality in completed items, and adds to the rag edge effect with homespun. While flannel is often used in rag quilting, most flannels are screen printed, so the color only shows brightly on one side. When they fray, the fibers from the white underside show through, whereas the threads in homespun are fully dyed.
Let me share a few things I have learned (sometimes the hard way) while sewing with homespuns:
When planning your first quilt using homespun fabrics, I recommend not mixing them with other fabrics until you are familiar with their uniqueness. The looser weave creates more give, especially on the bias.
Most homespun fabrics off the bolt are pre-shrunk today, but not all. Some are labeled as such, for others you may have to check the manufacturer’s website for that information. But even if they are pre-shrunk, some shrinking will still occur.
If you decide to prewash your homespuns, you may want to do a quick basting stay-stitch with your machine about 1/8 inch in from the edge, to stop some fraying. I never bother to do this with yardage, but fat quarters, where I want to eek every bit out that I can, well I hate to lose 1/2 inch or more to fraying!
Due to the intensity of the colors used in dyeing the yard, occasionally they will discharge a bit on first washing.
After prewashing, take care that your stripes or plaids are STRAIGHT as you press! Perfection is probably not needed, but the larger the pattern, the more noticeable ‘wobbling’ will be if you do not press it straight.
Starch can be a great helper, and I do not mean a light skimming, but a pretty stiff dose. It helps with piecing as well as in applique.
A wonderful effect can be created by NOT pre-washing, using cotton batting, and THEN washing, allowing some shrinkage to pucker the quilt, as with some flannel quilts.
When making a rag-edged item, stop the dryer (and washer if you can) occasionally and clean the lint trap.
You can do needle-turned applique quite nicely (again, starch helps). I find it helpful to increase my under-turn allowance a bit on sharp turns. But needle-turned applique is NOT my strength! Play with scraps, see what works for you. The look takes well to buttonhole stitch with floss. You can also do raw edge applique if it fits in your design. For this you may want to allow some extra to fray later, if you want a frayed edge on your applique. Personally I did not like using a fusible with my homespuns, but one can always experiment with scraps!
I have a strong preference for batting with a high cotton content on my homespun items. Probably just me, but I love the feel.
I encourage others to share their tips, so people new to homespun fabrics can start out with more confidence! Click here for references.
©2010, The Curious Quilter, thecuriousquilter.net, maryeoriginals.com.