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My Challenge Process by Debby Spence

05/02/2017 3:00 PM | Cisa Kubley

ASDP member Debby Spence was the ‘Best Overall’ winner of 2016 Threads/ASDP Quilted Garment Challenge


You know how you have fabric in your stash that is just too precious to use? Well, a number of years ago, I had bought two coordinating fabrics from Susan McCauley of Mekong River Textiles, one of which was a gorgeous Shibori-dyed silk dupioni; the other a solid that matched it. I had also acquired some silk charmeuse in a couple of colors that coordinated with the dyed piece, not really knowing exactly how I would use them. I could never quite put my finger on what this fabric should become, so when I heard what this challenge was, I knew this would be the perfect project for it. I had often pictured it as some sort of jacket, but it had not occurred to me to make a quilted one until this challenge came along.

I sketched a couple of ideas and finally settled on one I liked. I feel that garments that are not too boxy and are nipped in at the waist are most flattering for me, and I have a purchased jacket that has the lines that I really liked, so I used that as a basis for my jacket design. I had to scale it down a bit to fit my limited amount of fabric, but the scaled-down version ended up looking better too. Of course, you have to ‘fussy cut’ the pieces before you quilt, so it was a bit nerve-racking trying to figure out if I would have enough fabric to do what I wanted to. Because I wanted the jacket to have a lot of drape to it, I decided to line the garment with silk charmeuse and use a drapey polyester knit I had in my stash as the ‘batting’. I tailor-basted all three layers together so they would not slip around while I was doing the quilting.


You would think someone living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and being a sewer/designer who had made and sold patchwork clothing for 10 years would have done some quilting in her life, but the only quilting I ever did was just straight stitching to hold layers together on some of the patchwork garments. I had never hand quilted anything or done free motion quilting, so this was going to be a learning experience for sure. It helped that in April the Baltimore Chapter sponsored a workshop on Sashiko stitching. Sashiko is done only through one layer, though, so is not the same as quilting, but it is a similar technique to big stitch quilting. I looked at Youtube videos of people doing big stitch quilting and free motion quilting to get inspired. However, some of them were so amazing that I was almost too intimidated to even try! I also bought a book by one well-known free motion quilter that had lots of patterns and graphs, etc. included to help you plan your work. I researched thread and talked with some quilter friends about thread recommendations and decided on using Aurifil cotton thread in a couple of sizes and some silk thread for the free motion quilting. I chose colors that were close to the colors of my fabric because I didn’t want the quilting thread to obscure the dyed pattern of the silk.


After coming up with some quilting patterns that I liked, I drew the designs onto some tracing paper so I could lay it over a photo of the cut garment pieces to see how I liked it. Then I drew some of the major lines on the fabric with chalk and basted along those lines with a long running stitch so I would have a guideline for doing the big stitch quilting. I found the big stitch quilting that is done by hand to be very relaxing, sort of like knitting or crocheting is. I had originally thought I would do a lot of free motion quilting in between the rows of big stitch, but I really liked how drapey the pieces were with just the big stitch, so I decided to do just a bit of the machine sewing. (Plus, it took a lot less time!) In the shoulder area of the jacket, however, I did the free motion quilting a lot more densely to give it more support in that area.

From the videos I watched, I saw that there were some things I would need in order to do a respectable job of free motion quilting. There are special gloves you can buy that help you grip the fabric as you are sewing, but a quilter friend told me that gardening gloves (which are less expensive) can work just as well. Another piece of advice was to make a slippery work surface, so I found some kind of plastic that I think is used for stencils or something and cut a hole in the middle of it for the needle and put scotch tape donuts under it to make it stick to my machine. These things all seemed to work pretty well for me. The thing with free motion quilting is that you just have to practice and practice and practice. My sewing machine does not have a stitch regulator foot, so I knew it wouldn’t be perfect. It was really a lot of fun doing it, though, and unless you get up really close, you don’t notice the imperfections. With something like this, it’s the overall effect that matters. I ended up doing 4 different types of quilting stitches – the big stitch quilting, free motion, traditional hand quilting and regular machine sewing (with the presser foot down and feed dogs engaged.)


I considered a couple of ways of finishing off the inside of the jacket and decided to do a Hong Kong finish on the facing edges and the pressed-open shoulder seams and sleeve seams. I lined the side inset pieces so that they would have a bit more bulk and to hide the seams. Several years ago, I had also purchased a piece of hand-dyed silk kimono that coordinated nicely with my jacket fabric, so I used it for the binding around the edges. At one point, I had toyed with the idea of turning all the raw edges around the jacket in between the layers and then sewing those edges together, like on Kantha quilts. But this didn’t seem really feasible or all that easy to do. I really like the colors in the binding and how it all looked when it was finished.


I used the coordinating solid dupioni to make a pair of pants. I thought a slim-leg pant would look best with the jacket silhouette, and to visually tie the design together, I did some quilting on the contour waistband, the pocket edges and the hem. It’s pretty subtle since I used matching thread for the quilting, but I didn’t want it to stand out.

The design of the charmeuse top I made was inspired by a Style Arc pattern that I drafted using my sloper. I wanted to do some quilting on it too, but was worried about doing the free motion sewing on charmeuse as it had a tendency to pucker easily from not using the presser foot or feed dogs. I ended up taking a piece of medical exam paper and using it as a tear-away stabilizer which worked really great on the double layer of charmeuse.

I went into this challenge thinking that if nothing else, I would finally have an outfit from this fabric, so even if I didn’t win anything, I would be happy. Quilting this fabric was probably the best thing I could have done with it, and honestly, I probably would not have gone to all that trouble and work, or even had the idea, if it had not been for this challenge.


This is what the judges had to say about my entry –

Absolutely gorgeous on every level. Use of different versions of quilting on each piece was especially appreciated. The choice and handling of textiles is truly expert. Use of drapey knit as “batting” was a brilliant choice. Exceptional construction paired with masterful design—it’s so well-made that the jacket could almost be worn reversed. There is much happening in this ensemble, and yet it is perfectly harmonious—that’s a real accomplishment. We loved the artistry and skill displayed here. 

[Added: This looked fantastic on the runway. What a flattering ensemble. Hope you get to wear it often.]

Artist statement: Excellent description and photography


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