Sewing, Mending and Altering Your Clothing After the Ball Drops, Part 2, by Belle

Last summer I wrote an article on dealing with trash at your retreat and recently I wrote Part 1 of this article about sewing.  So I’m going to forego the usual introduction and description of my living style and just jump right into the topic.

I began to think about writing this article while watching the television show Jericho.  First of all, let’s just get this out of the way. I know that “Jericho” is a television show. I know that it is fiction.  I know that the conditions depicted are in no way realistic, etc.  It is a television show.  Okay, now that’s out of the way, I found myself considering events in the television show and how I would expect things in my community to go.  Would we share our food? Would we all get together at the pub for information? Who would come forward as a leader in our community since we have no local government?  I also thought about how my specific talents could be used community wide.  In the television show, the first winter was depicted as brutal. They give the idea that people were not prepared for the harsh winter without central heat in their homes.  Some people were shown as frozen to death in their homes, under single comforters and basic blankets.  Being a beginning quilter, I thought to myself, “Where were the quilting bees?  Where were the circles of women knitting and crocheting?”  Too provincial?   Too old-fashioned?   I imagine some people would say yes, but actually, these crafts remain very popular.  You have only to look online for patterns for quilting, knitting and crochet to see how popular these crafts are today.  The internet is overflowing with ideas, blogs and videos for today’s crafter.

So, in a TEOTWAWKI situation, what can you produce to keep yourself and maybe some neighbors warm if necessary?  Let’s start with quilting.  In our small community, I help a friend keep a small quilt shop open.   I quilt for her and sometimes watch the shop when she is gone.  The shop is full of quilts, not really fabric to quilt, but quilts made and sold on consignment.  I am by no means an expert quilter.  I still have much to learn, but I do know this.  You can make a quilt out of just about anything. 

A basic quilt is very easy to construct. You need a top, middle, and a bottom often called a lining.  Today, pieced quilt tops are works of art. New patterns are often copyrighted and the old patterns are still popular as well.  These pieced tops are an important part of our heritage, but they are not necessarily the only way to make a quilt. The top can be as easy as a sheet. Actually, this would be considered a whole cloth quilt and that type of quilt is older than the pieced quilt.  You can make quilt tops out of jeans, cotton, polyester, or double knit. I’d suggest something washable and sturdy if you are thinking of saving fabrics for this future project.  Just a quick note about double knit; it is absolute gold in some quilting circles (not the artsy ones) because it is indestructible, washable and warm, warm, warm.  It is really difficult to wear out double knit, so those awful leisure suits from the 70’s are still good for something. 

Next, consider the size that you will need.  King size quilts are hard to make just because of their size, but they are doable on a home machine. However, I’d aim for smaller quilts.  I will quote a standard range of sizes for bedding, but if you know what bed you are quilting for, measure it.  Some things to consider are overhang on the sides and at the foot of the mattress and if you tuck your pillows into the quilt or leave them on top.  If you tuck pillows as you would with a regular bedspread, then you’ll want to add length.  Is tucking pillows really that important in the TEOTWAWKI situation?  Absolutely not, but you might as well get some proper instruction while we have the chance.  Twin bed quilt sizes range from 76 to 82 inches wide by 105 to 110 inches in length.  Double bed quilts can range in size from 90 to 96 inches wide by 105 to 110 inches in length.  Queen sizes range from 100 to 110 inches wide by 100 to 110 inches in length.  King size quilts come in two different sizes, the standard and the Super King (or “California King”) size.  Standard size quilts are for those mattresses that are thinner and the Super Kings are for the thicker pillow top mattresses.  Standard Kings range from 105 to 110 inches in width and 110 inches in length while super kings ought to be about 120 by 120.

Size can also be determined by your immediate need or by the materials that you have on hand.  First, you need to decide what you are going to use for a top.  If you use a sheet or another piece of whole cloth, then measure it and you are ready for the next step.  If you decide to piece it, you have several decisions to make.  Whether you are trying for a pattern or not, you’ll need some sort of idea about how you want to sew your pieces together.   You can sew them randomly and then get to a certain size, for example a 12” square, and trim it.  You can cut squares, rectangles, triangles or any variation of those pieces and sew them together in a pattern.  You can find thousands of patterns online, in books and in magazines.  I would suggest that you start with squares or rectangles.  You can cut squares any size between 3” and 12”.  It would be best to have all of your squares the same size.  Then you sew them into rows and the rows onto the other rows and you keep adding until you’ve reached the desired size.    You can cut up the legs of blue jeans and use these rectangles for strips.  Sew them randomly until you reach the desired quilt size.   When piecing like this, you want to keep your seams a consistent 1/4 inch.

Now, if you were making this quilt today, I would spend the next paragraph talking about ironing seams a certain way, matching seams so that they line up, and so on. Matching seams makes a nice quilt.  It is not absolutely necessary if you are making quilts in some kind of emergency situation.  It is always important to do the best job that you can do, but I also want to impress upon you that the purpose is to stay warm and covered.  In the end, and in an emergency, it doesn’t matter if the seams match.  This description of piecing a quilt top also does not cover the enormous range of things that you can do with a few hundred squares of fabric.  I’m not going to go into inner borders or outer borders or patterned borders or pieced borders.  Quilting is a huge topic.  If this article inspires some interest, then you really need to do some research on basic quilting.  One of the reasons why quilting remains so popular today is because it is an incredibly challenging form of art.  That’s not our focus.  Our focus is quilting in an “end times” scenario where you cannot run to the fabric store and design a piece of art for display. 

Your next step in quilting is to find fabric for the lining.  This is the back of the quilt and today is often sewn from one fabric.  The linings usually come from the same fabric.  Most fabric is 42” or 44” wide.  Some can be as wide as 108”.  On larger quilts, the fabric is often matched for pattern and then sewn to make the lining large enough.  They can be pieced just like the top of the quilt, but the seams are not very comfortable to sleep under.  But, if your bed is layered, then it isn’t a big deal.  Again, the beauty of the quilt is a current times concern, not one we’ll worry about once the ball (whatever ball) drops.  Your lining needs to be at least 2 inches larger all the way around than the pieced top.  This is important because as you quilt, the top tends to creep toward the edge.  That is why you start quilting in the middle.  We’ll get to that when we talk about the actual quilting. 

Next, you need to find the middle batting.  Some of us may have quilt batting stored, but even my friend, who owns the shop and quilts everyday all day, has only 10 bags of batting in the shop at a time.  So, most of us are not going to have a thick roll of batting lying around.  What else can you use?  A lot, actually.  You can use an old ragged blanket, you can use strips of fabric, you can use wool suits from your professional wardrobe (that quilt won’t be washable), you can use cut up t-shirts, old cotton socks (cut those in half so that they are one layer), you can use bath towels or a fleece, you can use old table cloths or curtains.  Sometimes pillows are actually layered batting, so they could be deconstructed.   Some of the things that might not work well are batting used for stuffing animals, nylon, leather, and paper.  Your batting needs to be 2” larger than your pieced top all of the way around. 

Just a quick word about wool.  I have an antique quilt made from wool suiting.  It is a tied quilt with cotton batting and a cotton lining.  You can’t wash these quilts. They either need to be shaken out and aired in the sun, or dry cleaned.  That doesn’t mean that they are not wonderful quilts.  The one that I have is very warm and the kids fight over it in the winter because we only have localized heat sources, not central heat.  As long as no one spills hot chocolate on it, I can keep that quilt nice with a few good shakes and hanging it on the line.

So, we’ve got a pieced top, batting and lining.  Now what?  You need to lay these three layers out on the flattest surface that you can find.  It is very important that all three layers are pulled and clamped as tautly as possible.  You will need to either pin the quilt with safety pins or baste the quilt with thread.  It is important to keep the layers taut so that the lining and batting don’t bunch up.  Your quilt will creep in the sewing process.  Pin the quilt in every square, do not pin over the seams because that is where you’ll be sewing.  Do the same with basting.  I’ve never basted a quilt; that is often a process used for hand quilting.

There are two processes in quilting and the first one that I’ve just described is called piecing.  The second process is the actual quilting.  In the article on sewing, I closed with the suggestion that everyone consult the article on sewing machines written by Lockstich and published in February 2013.  I hope he doesn’t mind if I renew that suggestion here.  Get a machine that meets your needs post-TEOTWAWKI.  If you don’t have a machine or your machine breaks, there are other options and I’ll get to those.  Assuming you have a sewing machine, there are a few options that you need to know when picking a stitch for your quilt.  Many people will choose a straight stitch because it will look like hand quilting.  I urge you to consider other, stronger stitches.  Most quilting machines have what is called a basic quilting stitch.  It is a modified zig-zag stitch and it is a very strong stitch.  I use this stitch and sew directly over a pieced seam.  That stitch is going to hold more than 100 years unless the quilt is left to the weather.  Look for something similar on your machine.  You might look for a serpentine stitch.  It is a straight stitch, but it locks both sides of the seam.  If you don’t have anything else, use a lengthened zig-zag stitch.  Only use a straight stitch as a last resort.   

To quilt, set your machine up to quilt.  If you have an extension table that goes around the arm of the quilt, then so much the better.   Roll your quilt like a scroll from two sides to the middle.  Depending on what you used as batting, the side you start with may matter, but usually you just choose.  Set your stitch and then start stitching at the top of the middle row and work your way downward.  You will see right off that it is not always easy to stuff the rolled part of the quilt through the throat of your machine.  Sew slowly, it will fit, but this is not the place to rush.  You can go up and down the rows until you reach the edge.  I’ve been taught to sew the edge at this point, but that doesn’t work well for me.  You’ll turn the quilt 4 times if you’ve just made a simple square pieced quilt.  You’ll want to quilt the rows from top to bottom and from side to side.  At this point, I sew my edges.  I sew the two sides first, and then the top and bottom.  You’ll see what I mean about creeping.  If you have a large fold of fabric, then cut right by the sewed seam and lay the fabric over it.  All of this will be hidden by the binding.

The next step is binding.  To bind, cut strips 2.5” wide.  Turn your quilt so that the back side is facing up.  Fold the binding strips in half and place the raw cut side on the edge of the quilt.  Sew ¼” in from the edge of the quilt.  Start this process in the middle of a side, do not start your binding at a corner.   This is one of the few places where you use a straight stitch.  Turning the binding at the corners is not hard or complicated; it is just hard to explain. Sew up to the corner and stop about two stitches from the end.  Turn your quilt and fold the binding in a tight triangle, setting the raw edge against the new side.  Start stitching again about 2 stitches from the top.  This process is much easier learned by seeing than reading.  There are many, many articles and videos on YouTube detailing this process.  Go look at them.  Once you’ve sewn the binding to the back of the quilt, turn your quilt to the front.   Starting in the middle of a side, turn the binding, so that it just covers the stitch at the edge and sew the binding on the front using the same stitch that you used to quilt the quilt.  A quilt bound in this manner will last a very, very long time.  If that just seems like too much work, then once you’ve pinned your quilt, you can trim the batting and fold the lining up, turn under the raw edge and sew it onto the front as a binding. 

Hand quilting is a treasure and legacy from our history and the skill should not be lost.  Pioneers used every scrap of material and quilted for warmth and comfort.  They quilted not for art, but for necessity.  It could be that, once again, Americans find themselves in a place where hand piecing and hand quilting are a necessity.  That being said, machine quilts are stronger and they last longer.  You can prepare for both or either; you choose.  If you choose to hand quilt, then you are going to need sharp needles and a good strong, thick cotton thread.  Hand piecing is similar to machine piecing.  You’ll want to keep a ¼” seam.  You will want to make small stitches and the more stitches per inch, the better.   With hand piecing, neatness counts.  It is important that your stitches be straight.  As for hand quilting, if this is just for warmth and not for show, then it doesn’t really matter what kind of pattern you use to hand quilt.   In hand quilting, you use a straight sewing stitch, with as many small stitches as you can neatly make.  You need to concentrate on the seams so that they can be secure and you need to quilt in areas that do not have seams.  You do not want large spaces or areas of your quilt un-quilted.  Hand quilting is a skill, more so than machine quilting.  If this is where your interests lie, practice.

Another way to put a quilt together is to tie it.  This is another situation where, if you are interested, you be best served to look this up on YouTube.  But, just in case, you can’t get there, tying is very easy, just difficult to describe.  If you have a quilt made out of squares then you’ll want to tie every four square intersection.  You’ll need a heavy thread or a yarn for this procedure.  You’ll also need a sharp needle.  With your needle you sew down from the top of the quilt about 1/8” from the intersection.  When you tie an intersection, you will only sew in two of the squares.  Leave an inch tail.  Come up on the diagonal and then take your needle back down on the diagonal close to that tail.  Come up again near your other stitch, leave a tail of about an inch and cut.  You are tying the seam where the squares meet and you sew across the seam of two squares.  You have something that looks like a stitch with tails of both ends of the stitch.  Then, using the tails, you tie a knot.  Again, a video on YouTube might be more helpful than that description.  Check it out if you want to know more.

That is basic quilting.  A top, a lining and something for batting could mean the difference between you and some really brutal winters.  Maybe you’ll need several, but this is a very easy skill to acquire and one that may serve you well. 

As I said, while I was watching “Jericho”, I wondered what my skills could add to the needs I saw portrayed on screen.  In addition to quilting and other fiber hobbies, I have taught myself to crochet and plan to teach myself to knit.  I wondered if any of the people who froze to death in that fictional winter could have used another wool hat or some gloves to stay warm.

The materials needed for both skills are easy and fairly inexpensive.  Crochet uses hooks and knitting uses needles.  Basic crochet hooks come in five sizes starting with size G and on through K.  There are smaller hooks and they have their uses, and I would get them while they are available.  But, for the most part, the smaller hooks are for crocheting smaller projects like doilies.  While I’m a fan of the intricate string crochet that you find in doilies, I’m not sure that the time learning to crochet doilies is time well spent.  Once you’ve made trunks full of afghans and other wearable crochet items, then maybe you can move on to doilies.  These crochet hooks can be found everywhere and they are inexpensive.   A basic set can be found at Amazon for less than $7.  I’m not near a Wal-Mart, but they can’t be much more than Amazon.  The same can be said for knitting needles.  They are only slightly more expensive than crochet hooks.  I’ve heard that some knitters can be very particular about their needles.  I personally don’t care for the shiny aluminum sets; I like the wooden needles better.  Knitting needles come in pairs and are usually 10” to 16” in length.  Some are tethered together and are called circular knitting needles.  The metric sizes range from 2.0 mm to 25.0 mm.  Within that range, the US has size designations, the UK has size designations, and on the list that I referenced, the Japanese have size designations.  The same could probably be said for other nations as well, but these three are the most consistent that I’ve seen.  I cannot recommend anything here.  I haven’t learned yet.  I have a basic 5 pair US set that I’ve learned some basic stitches on.  A basic set of aluminum knitting needles at Amazon will cost around $10.  The wooden ones may cost twice that.  There are also cable needles and place markers in knitting.  A book, a class, some videos online can get you started with this process.  If you look into this now, you’ve got choices.  You also need some sort of pattern.  Patterns are also everywhere.  Patterns can be found at craft stores, fabric stores, discount stores, and online.  It is very easy to find patterns at all skill levels.

The final tool needed is yarn.  Currently you can buy many different types of yarn that run from plain cotton to wool to exotic yarns like llama and alpaca yarn.  It can be expensive or it can be inexpensive.  The acrylic wool blend that I like at the moment is just over $5 a skein. I find that expensive, so I really watch for sales. It is bulky, though, so storing it will be an issue.  If you have those old afghans of your grandmas, with a snip at some knots, you can pull a crocheted afghan apart and use the yarn for other projects that suit your needs.  You can unravel a knit sweater to reuse yarn also.  This was a common practice in the Depression, but we don’t do it often now.  Machine finished and serged knit garments are less desirable because they are often not one continuous stitched piece.  You might look for hand knit and hand crochet items at thrift stores and garage sales. 

Since yarn is a key issue, my husband and I plan to add some sort of fiber producing animal to our homestead shortly.  We haven’t decided what animal, but probably goats.  Living in the desert, we cannot have a wooly animal.  Once we’ve achieved that goal, I will buy a spinning wheel and learn to spin.  I may have to go out of state for classes, or I may be able to teach myself.  The ability to keep some sort of animal that provides fiber and the ability to spin that fiber into yarn and to turn that yarn into something wearable puts a level of comfort into your homestead preparations that will set you apart from other preppers.

There are two consistent issues that I’ve heard about crochet and knitting.  One is keeping the yarn tension loose and consistent.  Most people attribute this to stress.  I’m not a stressed person.  I’ve never had to rip anything out due to thread tension, but I do know that there are many articles and helpful hints out there to help you if you have this particular problem.  The second issue is reading the patterns.  This is a valid point.  US and British have slightly different definitions for crochet terms.  Double crochet in the US is different than a double crochet in British terms.  German and Japanese companies release beautiful patterns, but they are not in English.  There is a new system using diagrams that I’ve seen here and there.  I think it will transcend language issues once a standard gets established.  It is important to read the pattern before you begin.  Usually, if you read it, you’ll find that a significant portion of the project is repeated.  Once you get the repeat down, you can make your project.  I’ve run in to this several times as I’ve taught myself to crochet.  Usually, I just crochet and rip, crochet and rip until I am satisfied with what I’m doing.  Since I enjoy this as a hobby, I don’t consider this time wasted.  When I finally get around to teaching myself to knit, I imagine that the process will be similar.  At the end of the day, you treat this skill like any other skill.  You start small and easy and work your way to more advanced projects.  If you get stuck, ask for help or find a video tutorial or a class at the local community center.  Figure it out now while you have choices.

Sewing, quilting and other fiber pursuits can really make the difference in the comfort level of a homestead.  Any time you read a book, fiction or non-fiction, about pioneers and Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries, you find skills.  Their skills are many and varied.  The way that our forefathers and the pioneers of old lived was remarkable, but for them it was simply how they lived.  They had those skills because they needed them; they used them, sometimes every day.  The more skills they possessed, the more comfortable their lives were.  In America today, most of us live a very comfortable life.  I can buy all of the hats, scarves, and quilts that I want to buy.   I don’t feel the need to apologize for our basic comforts.  I do believe, though, that the loss of our skills to mass produced merchandise is ill advised.  The point is, as a prepper, you can go out and buy stores of quilts, comforters, blankets, hats, scarves, clothing, etc. and store them.  But as a prepper, you know that doing for yourself, making for yourself, honing the skills to make a comfortable life for yourself is more important that what money can buy.
In review:

  • Quilting is an easy skill to attain.  Classes now can help you acquire those skills, but basic construction is only a top, pieced or not, a lining, and batting for the middle.
  • You can use a variety of material for each of these components.  Cotton is the best, but you can also use double knit, silks, velvets, wools, and any other fabric used in clothing.  Some of these fabrics require special laundering.
  • Make sure that you pin or baste your quilt very well. It isn’t the end of the world to have a crease on the lining, but as long as you’re learning, you might as well learn correctly.
  • Go back to the article written by Lockstitch in February 2013 about choosing a sewing machine that will stand up to the demands post TEOTWAWKI.  Find a good machine if you don’t already have one.
  • Try to use a good quilting stitch when using your machine.  If nothing else use a lengthened zig-zag stitch.
  • Hand piecing, hand quilting and tying quilts are also options for putting a quilt together.  They are slower and it is more difficult to make a quilt that will stay together.  Hand quilting is by far a larger skill than machine quilting, but machine quilts are inherently stronger.
  • Other fiber arts or hobbies, such as crochet and knitting could be very important in a TEOTWAWKI situation.  Having the clothing to layer both body and bed could keep you alive.