Organizing a Group Quilt

Whether you're planning a quilt for a wedding, a bar or bat mitzvah, or other special occasion, you may want to ask friends and family members to contribute signatures, or their own artwork. You will then assemble their work  into a quilt. There are several ways to go about it.


One option for a group quilt project is to give or send out pieces of fabric well in advance of the event, for friends and family members to sign and/or decorate. This kind of project requires considerable planning and lead time. Not to mention nudging and the kvetching, which, in Yiddish syntax,  must always precede kvelling.
    You will need to have some kind of quilt design in mind. The most obvious choice---sending everyone some kind of square or rectangular, which you will then piece into a quilt---is not always the best choice. Because if you are counting on contructing your quilt from 30 of those blocks, set in rows of five,  made by 30 contributors,  you must  think about what you'll do if three of the planned contributors don't come through. At the last minute. After she promised repeatedly that she would . Sending people SHAPES that you will later applique onto the quilt is a more forgiving plan. (Shapes like leaves, which you can sew onto a tree background; or   clouds, hot air balloons, cats, dog bones, fish,   use your imagination!)  That way, you can construct and finish the rest of the quilt, and attach the appliques as they come in. And it won't be a disaster if some contributions don't show up, or they show up a year later.
 The number one thing you can do to insure a successful project is to create a procrastination-proof, crafts-phobic-proof kit to send all the participants.  At the minimum, the kit should include:
 * A letter with clear directions and a DEFINITE DEADLINE IN REALLY BIG BOLD LETTERS. FOLLOWED BY LOTS OF EXCLAMATION POINTS !!!!!!!!   Ideally, the deadline should be close to their   receipt of your package (so they don't hide it under a pile of papers)---like maybe two weeks---and  at least six months  in advance of the quilt presentation, depending on how fast you can assemble a quilt.   There are going to be laggards no matter what, so you can expect to be on the phone  and or email, reminding people  one week before they're due, and I am sorry to say, long after they're due.  Many people are art-phobic. Explain to them that it's okay if they just sign the block and send it  right back---they don't have to be  Marc Chagall.  
*  Fabric cut to the proper shape and size and ironed onto freezer paper 
 * A permanent ink pen,
*  A return envelope, addressed to you, with proper postage.
These are explained below:

Details and Procedure:
    Go to the fabric store and buy enough yards of a good-quality, 100% cotton, plain, light-colored fabric for every participant to have a piece. 
  And while you're at the quilt store,  buy a roll of Reynolds freezer paper (if not, try the supermarket).  You will use this to back the fabric you're sending out.
  At home, wash and dry your fabric (washing machine and dryer okay), and iron it. Then,  cut it into pieces of the desired shape and size.     
   Iron the fabric pieces to a slightly bigger piece of freezer paper, with the waxed side against the back of the fabric.  The freezer paper makes the fabric much easier to draw on.. Tell people that if the fabric comes loose from the freezer paper, they should  re-iron it down.  Be sure to emphasize to them that they need to sign the FABRIC side, not the paper side!! You might want to draw an x through the paper side, just to make sure. You'd be surprised how many people can't tell the difference between fabric and paper.
   If the shape you are sending will have a seam allowance, use a  light pencil or wash-out pen (from the fabric store)  to  mark scant 1/4" seam allowance lines around all the edges of the fabric piece.   Non-quilters have a hard time comprehending that their decoration or signature must stay inside the seam allowance. Make it obvious.
   Enclose a fine point permanent pen. Some are quite expensive. Others leak and spread ink all over the fabric, so you have to test first. Thick tipped laundry pens look really bad.  My current favorite for signature quilts are Sharpie (r) Ultra Fine Point permanent black pens, sold by the dozen at reasonable prices in stationary stores.   Or you can send out fancier, and more expensive fine-point fabric pens. You can leave it up to the recipient whether they want to just sign the block with the given pen, or use their own supplies and talent to embellish the block.  Just make it clear that their decoration should be washable (unless you are certain this quilt will never be washed).
   Important note: If you are the bride, and considering undertaking this project yourself, for use as a huppa---Don't! Please! With this project, most of the action tends to happen at the last minute. You'll have so many things  to be worrying about the month before your wedding ---you don't want to add this to the list. Delegate this job to a crafty, enthusiastic, responsible and diplomatic friend and/or relative, or a professional quilter. (If you use a professional, keep in mind that a custom project like this can take 100 hours or more. How much money do you like to make per hour?)


If there's a party, as for  a wedding or bar or bat mitzvah, another approach to a group quilt is to give people the opportunity to sign the quilt at the event.(A signed quilt on top of the bed  sure beats one of those flashy cardboard autograph signs that   winds up collecting dust under the bed). 
    You would have to set aside a table for the quilt, and also set out  permanent fabric marking pens. This approach has advantages, and risks. The main advantage: Not nearly as much advance lead time required as in Option One, above. The risks:
* Less creative contributions from friends, since everything is done more hastily, with limited supplies. 
* If young children are attending the event, and the quilt is not closely supervised, these children  are likely to pick up those nice  permanent pens and start drawing EVERYWHERE---over other people's signatures, their party clothes, the Torah, etc.  This can quickly move from adorable to catastrophic.  (I am speaking from  experience here.) You may want to set out  a low table nearby with some coloring books and  crayons  as a decoy. (This wouldn't fool my preschooler, but it might work on someone else's!) 
* Well-meaning exuberant adult friends, perhaps under the influence of Maneschewitz, may decide to embellish parts of the quilt that you would prefer to leave unembellished, or compose regrettable messages.
    My quilting partner Sue Feinberg and I have used two different approaches to get around the problems for Bar and Bat Mitzvah quilts we've made.

1. Design a quilt with large expanses of white border. For one Bar Mitzvah quilt, (Figure 1)  I put a busy design in a colorful center (including the child's own artwork), and created a wide white border all the way around it. I stamped a few Judaic images in the border,  plus some relevant photo transfers in the lower left and upper right, but  it was still obvious that the white borders needed signing, and the middle didn't.

  (Left) Bar Mitzvah quilt with central blue area that clearly doesn't need signing, and wide, sparsely decorated,  white borders which do need signing. The borders were signed by guests at the party).
2. Signed appliques. Sue Feinberg made her daughter  a Bat Mitzvah quilt which featured a gorgeous Tree of Life  with branches that were---intentionally--- bare.  Before the party, she prepared cut-out leaves, ironed them to  freezer paper, and put them in a nice basket on a table, along with permanent fabric pens. The quilt was hung on the wall, as a backdrop.   Guests signed the leaves at the party, and Sue sewed them on later.


If your project is a for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, think about ways you can involve the child. I interview the youngster extensively, persistently, and nosily about  their interest and tastes.   A project like this can be a precious opportunity to get to  know the youngster and the family better, and sometimes even work as a   team.. For the quilt in Figure 1, the drawings were done by the Bar Mitzvah boy. I transferred them to fabric. It was an extraordinary privilege  to  work with him on this project. He lives far away from me---his mom has been a best friend since we were in high school together. I also learned more than I ever wanted to know about weird Japanese computer animated adventure games.  Not to mention TinTin. For children who are not artists, quilts can also incorporate other kinds of contributions---writing, poetry, and photographs can also be transferred onto fabric. 


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